Gomez, Ms Dynamite and M People: how we spent our Mercury prize winnings

Unlike the Brits, a Mercury prize win comes with a fat cheque attached. So who lost theirs, who gave it to charity, and who spent it all on beer

Talvin Singh

Winning album: OK (1999)

"I bought my dad a car and I also paid a lot of tax with it; I donated it to the Inland Revenue. It wasn't a great time for me personally. Professionally, yes. It was one of the big markers of success and it was very special, although shortly after winning I lost my point-person at the record company and all the doors were starting to shut in front of me. It was the first time I felt struggle.

"Anyway, I got my dad a nice Mercedes. Indian people love Mercedes. But to be honest, I thought me winning was going to make the music scene a lot wider and more colourful, and that elements of eastern music would be integrated with dub and rock just like Jamaican music. What actually happened was a sort of ghettoisation and the establishment off things like the Asian Network, which I think corners people on the basis of their race. As for the Merc, it got written off."

Ms Dynamite

Winning album: A Little Deeper (2002)

"It was £20,000 the year I won. Was that the biggest amount I'd seen up to that point? Yeah, definitely. I donated it to charity. No one involved in the music – including me – got any of the money. According to my mum, I actually donated five grand of my own as well, because I didn't have enough to split it equally among the charities I wanted it to go to. I gave eight grand to the NSPCC, eight to Sickle Cell, and eight to the Caribbean studies department of the Metropolitan University where my mum did her degree, which was facing closure. And I donated a grand to Highgate Newtown, my local community centre, to their gymnastics class, because I did gymnastics when I was younger and they needed new equipment.

"No one tried to stop me but secretly a few people were probably annoyed. But I'm happy with my decision. I can totally get how people might think: 'What a raving lunatic.' How did my 10 brothers and sisters feel about it? Do you know what? We're all right. The people that benefitted from that money needed it more.

"It took me so long to get my head round the fact that I'd won. I'd been living in the same street for years and suddenly I couldn't go anywhere without the most random of people, from old pensioners to little kids, coming up to me. My life changed overnight. But St Dynamite? Do me a favour! No, there are a lot of stories about me I could tell you that are the complete opposite of holier than thou, believe me."

Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons

Winning album: I Am a Bird Now (2005)

"I used it to compensate my band for all the underpaid work they had done for me for years prior."

Gus Unger-Hamilton of Alt-J

Winning album: An Awesome Wave (2012)

"It went in our bank account and we probably bought a bus with it. Anyway, once you've paid your manager 20% and paid the tax on it, it becomes a smaller and smaller amount which is quite depressing. We were always quite business-minded. Not that we wanted to make money, but we wanted to keep on top of things. That's Alt-J: quite sensible. So on the night, we didn't put a grand behind the bar or anything like that. I think our label put some behind the bar at the after-party. But it was never like, 'Let's spunk it on drugs and booze!'

"Was it the biggest cheque I'd seen up to that point? It was the largest amount of money although it wasn't physically that big. It was standard cheque size. But it did have a lot of noughts at the end. Have I seen larger amounts since? I wouldn't want to comment. It's been a good year.

"For some musicians it would be a life-changing amount. We were lucky to be signed to an indie label who put money behind us. It was a little bonus. I'm not even sure why there is money attached to it. We won an Ivor Novello too and there wasn't any money for that and you don't win cash for a Brit, but for some reason the Mercury has a cheque attached. It's an arbitrary amount. It could be £200,000 or £200. The Turner and Booker awards have cash prizes as well, but artists and writers are more likely to need the money. On our shortlist, for a lot of the groups it wouldn't have made much difference. But the money wasn't a part of our excitement about being nominated or winning."

Badly Drawn Boy

Winning album: The Hour of Bewilderbeast (2000)

"What I did was stupidly throw the cheque away. Was it a gesture against the idea of remunerating art or because I was drunk and didn't give a toss? All of the above. I was so overwhelmed. It was just to get a laugh, I suppose. My sense of humour isn't always understood; maybe because it's not funny. I was sat next to the Doves, who were nominated and were friends of mine, and I spent a lot of the next few hours with Chris Martin [Coldplay were nominated for Parachutes], who was really pleased for me. But when the Doves jumped up and applauded, I thought they'd won! So I jumped up and they were all hugging me because I didn't hear Jools Holland announce it properly. Then I walked up to the stage, got the cheque, threw it away saying, 'I don't need this,' and did all my backstage interviews with Jo Whiley and whoever and forgot about the cheque till later that night. It eventually appeared in the Sun and that was the first time I really saw it; a cheque made out to me for £20,000. The story I've heard since is that the journalist who found it was Karl Pilkington. It rings true because he was apparently working at the Sun at the time. The cheque was returned to me so I can only be grateful to Karl for that.

"When I finally got the cheque back, I had to tour America and the label pulled the money for it; it cost me £22,000. So in essence the prize money helped me tour America. And pay for a good few months' worth of nappies [his daughter Edie was born shortly afterwards].

"The prize itself, the crystal ball that's sat on the big chunk of metal, fell off on the train back to Manchester. I Superglued it back on just recently. The bookend to my story is that two weeks ago I gave my Mercury prize to Frank Sidebottom's family; his statue was unveiled in Timperley so I took it down with my first ever guitar and handed it to his family for making me laugh. I wanted the prize to be there with his statue. His son Stirling said he's going to create a shrine with it, a mini-museum for Frank, and my prize and guitar will take pride of place."

Heather Small of M People

Winning album: Elegant Slumming (1994)

"We gave ours to a multiple sclerosis charity because someone we knew was suffering from the disease. It was a unanimous decision; there was no dissent. We just thought it was the right thing to do. Winning was quite enough, and we were in a position where we could afford to do it; we'd already had a little bit of success. So our winning touched somebody else's life. The money was the cherry on top but we didn't need the cherry, because we had the cake.

"I was just stunned that we won because the prize was in its infancy and people assumed it was an indie award [Primal Scream and Suede had won previously]. Some people took offence at us winning. But 20 years down the line we're still performing those songs to very appreciative audiences. The judges said they chose the album that moved them most, and they went with their gut feeling, and I feel their belief was justified. No one can tell me how sincere I am or how much integrity I've got. I'm from a working-class immigrant background living on a council estate, so to sing songs of hope and happiness, I'll take it. I wanted to say there was a way forward.

"Did we go to a bar? There's always a bash. I don't drink or smoke and I can't remember the night! We were up against Blur, Pulp, the Prodigy, the guy from the Style Council – all very worthy people. But it's human nature: you want to win. I was shocked but happy because there was so much snobbery and the backlash from the press was unbelievable. But good music is good music and how dare you judge us so harshly? How dare you rubbish my hard work? That's what made it sweeter that we won."

Tom Gray of Gomez

Winning album: Bring It On (1998)

"We were on a four-year touring cycle and money was coming in and out left, right and centre. There was a brief period between 1998-2001 when we made an extraordinary amount of money. It was the late 90s and there was still loads swimming about. The music industry was at fever pitch and indie bands were getting signed for enormous sums. What happened to Ultrasound? What happened to Gay Dad? Madonna was going to charter us a plane to fly us out [to sign to her label Maverick]. That was when we realised we were just taking the piss, having a laugh at people's expense.

"Bring It On, off the back of the Mercury, sold well over a million copies worldwide. And we were touring all around the world, and if you do that you start making loads of money – and losing loads. The turnover is so fast, so the Mercury money almost certainly just disappeared down a black hole along with the rest. My recollection is, two days later we were playing a gig in Germany and we probably spunked it all on beer."

So how will James Blake spend his £20,000?

"Erm … [long pause] I really have no idea. That's quite a lot of money. I really thought Disclosure would win it. Could I spend it on a round for everyone else at the Mercury awards? I think that would just be pissing it right up the wall."


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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