Lighthouse Family: how we made Lifted

‘The label boss threw our cassette on the table and said: “If you wanna make an album for your mates, you don’t need me”’

Paul Tucker, songwriter/keyboards

I’d graduated from Newcastle University and was working in a house music club called Walker’s when my girlfriend told me that I was going to be a dad. It was the wake-up call I needed.

I had one song, Ocean Drive, which I’d written four years earlier after splitting up with someone else. I didn’t even have anything to play the song on – I’d sold my equipment to pay to finish my education. I’d go into music shops and play it on their gear, and when I sang the song to myself it made me feel better.

I thought it was time I did something with it, so I put up notices saying I was looking for a singer, and a DJ friend, Wayne McDonald, told me about Tunde. When he sang Ocean Drive in front of us, there was an exchange of glances. It was magical.

I rang record companies that put out bands I liked – Soul II Soul, Stereo MCs and such – and sent the song to them on cassettes in Jiffy bags. I almost fell over when Island Records called, but then others followed. We signed to Polydor – and we only really had one song.

We spent our advance on equipment and the record company kept asking for more material. We brought in Martin Brammer, from the Kane Gang, and Tim Kellett, who’d been in Simply Red. We did six more tunes but the label boss, Lucian Grainge, threw the cassette on the table and said: “It’s shit.” I thought he was joking. I told him everyone loved the songs. He said: “If you wanna make an album for your mates, you don’t need me.” We trudged back up to Newcastle.

Lifted was written about that situation. Our backs were against the wall. We needed something to “lift us out of the shadows”. The second verse describes a heaven-type place. I wanted to channel the spirit of the religiously tinged records I’d heard in Walker’s – songs such as Joe Smooth’s Promised Land. We sent a tape of Lifted and other new songs to Lucian. He phoned me up and told me how much he loved them. I told him he’d been pretty hard on us. He said: “Yeah, I thought a rocket up your arse might work.”

Tunde Baiyewu, singer/songwriter

I was studying accountancy at the same time Paul was doing French and German. When I was growing up in London, I had all these fairytale ideas about what I was going to do, like be a pilot. But an uncle was an accountant, so somehow I ended up studying that. I wanted to get as far away from home as possible for my own independence, and Newcastle was the furthest I could go.

Before I met Paul, one of my flatmates heard me singing in the shower. There’s a nice echo in there, and he said: “You’ve got a good voice. You should do something with it.” I brushed it off, but some friends on the music technology course found out I could sing, and something I did with them got played on pirate radio.

I think that’s how word started to get around. Paul sang Ocean Drive to me a cappella, and then I sang it back to him. I fell in love with the song’s soulful, spiritual vibe. When I was a kid, my mum had forced me to join the church choir, but I enjoyed singing the hymns. Newcastle’s a coastal city and we’d go up to St Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay. The name Lighthouse Family seemed to be the last piece of the jigsaw.

Everyone was doing rock or house. We were a black music soul band with spiritual imagery. Neither of us had any experience of the industry. We were feeling our way in the dark, but I found that I had a knack of coming up with melodies, then Paul would write words to fit them.

When we were writing Lifted, we were worried that the record company was going to drop us, and had these deep, intense discussions – “What is life anyway? What is love?” – which fed into the lyrics. For me, it’s about being in the darkness, looking for that spiritual thing to lift you out of something. People seemed to connect with it emotionally, mentally, even politically. I went from studying accountancy to Top of the Pops.

• Lighthouse Family’s UK tour starts on Birmingham on 11 November.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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