PJ and Duncan are a very last thing I expect to bond over with MERSEY WYLIE when I meet up for a chat with the up-and-coming soul singer.
Liverpool is a village, it’s so often said, and as if to prove it we quickly find out we both attended a concert by annoying Geordie duo Ant and Dec’s previous incarnation back in the 1990s, when Mersey was three years old and me, far too old to be there, attending for irony’s sake.
“Blondie was my first gig, though,” she says.
I have no saving grace or excuses at all, so we move swiftly on.
Mersey spent her early childhood in London, and her holidays here in Liverpool with her father, Pete Wylie of The Mighty Wah!, before enjoying her teenage years in Australia. She shifted from playing the flute at primary school to saxophone at secondary, and carried that through to university, meaning her early musical education was deeply mired in both classical and contemporary music. “I definitely think classical is part of my musical make-up. I had such a diverse musical background, obviously with more rock stuff from my dad. I was involved in loads of jazz music, and I obviously loved classical enough to take it through to university. And, of course, I love soul; it’s what my heart always comes back to.”
When Mersey returned to the UK six years ago, she stopped playing the saxophone (“it was a very clean break”) and sang full time, as a backing and session singer with the likes of Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Siouxie Sioux and Mick Jones. But, arriving in Liverpool again, at first she felt like, “a fish out of water. There’s such a great singer-songwriter acoustic scene, rock and indie bands, but I couldn’t see a lot of the soul scene.” But, more recently, citing MIC Lowry, Amique and Spink as her current local favourites, “the soul scene has exploded. It’s so cool, such an exciting thing to be a part of.”
Right now it seems to be her fondness for Motown, the Jackson 5 and music from childhood driving her as well. As we talk, she holds her hand up: “Ssshh… listen… it’s Lauren Hill,” as the former Fugees singer comes on over the café’s sound system. Mersey sways, and smiles. She loves this music, it’s clear to see. She also raves about disco, funk, all kinds of soul. “It’s always been what I’ve come back to. No matter how far I’ve strayed away from it, it won’t let go.”
Mersey describes herself as a “late starter” in both singing and songwriting. She did her first solo show just over two years ago at Threshold Festival, and since then has performed at festivals such as LIMF, Liverpool Loves, Flyover Summer Takeover and Threshold again last spring, plus supported The Christians at The Dome Grand Central Hall this summer. Mersey released her debut single, Don’t Give Up On Me, back in March. Funky and fun, with a slamming bass, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s a good-time party tune. But listen, really listen, and you hear something much deeper in the lyrics:
Sometimes the days just seems much darker, the world just seems much harder and I don’t know why… so why should I try?… I know that I’m not on my own… doesn’t stop me feeling so alone.
“It’s an upbeat, disco, driving kind of tune, but lyrically it’s about my struggles with mental health, so I just say it and write fun arrangements around it, to stop everything from being so doom and gloom,” she laughs.
“I resisted it [writing on the subject] for a long time, because there still is so much stigma attached to mental health and, as much as I was an advocate for that stigma to be broken down, I didn’t know if I wanted that label attached to me. Because it does come with baggage. My lyric writing is very honest, and if I wasn’t talking about that I don’t think it would have been anymore.”
“Bill Ryder-Jones gave me courage in speaking out more about that because he is just so… open about it. And it’s beautiful, the music he makes around it is gorgeous. It’s not apologetic, which I like.”
Mersey volunteers with The Choir With No Name, a project in Liverpool bringing together the homeless or those previously affected by homelessness. It’s another link to mental health. In 2015, 32% of single homeless people reported a mental health problem, and depression rates, for example, are over 10 times higher in the homeless population.
“Studies between singing, especially singing in a group, and mental health are incredible. [The choir] is such a great thing to do. It forges that sense of community too. I always go in either stressed, overwhelmed or worried about the other things going on in my life, and I walk into that room and it’s just a joyful experience.”
SoulFest takes place in Liverpool this month, headlined by Lemar, and Mersey will be performing with her band, debuting at least one new song. “I’ve been trying out a lot of new stuff and I’m excited for people to hear it,” she says. Mersey’s live band is an eight-piece “at the moment”. Take up herding cats for a living, I suggest, is far easier than organising a large band. Does she find a comfort in working as part of a sizeable ensemble?
“Yep! They’re also fabulous musicians, busy musicians, so it can be difficult to get everyone together. But we’ve been playing together [for] two years now. We know each other musically a lot better, [so] the coming together is more straightforward.”
She’s especially made up to play SoulFest because last year’s was special to her. It doesn’t happen very often, seeing a game-changing performance; you witness it once, if you’re lucky, but at SoulFest 2015, Mersey saw Mercury Prize nominee Eska headlining on the Saturday night. “She changed my life as an artist and I became a mega fan. She’s the most electric, commanding performer.” Mersey’s smile widens. “She’s… everywhere. The arrangements are just so cool and the blend of folk and soul is so unique, and so… clever. Beautiful storytelling, with that kind of passion and energy that you get from soul but these really lovely refined moments, and rocky, raw moments. The dichotomy between the two…”
Next year, not only will Mersey be on her father’s new record, Pete Sounds, but she aims to record a four-track EP of her own in the April, with a mental-health theme running through it. She has spent much of the last six months writing new material. Taking her time until she is absolutely ready seems important to her.
“One thing I’ve appreciated this year is allowing time for things. I was really glad that when I started performing my music I was proud of it. And I don’t think I would have been if I’d forced myself into it six months or a year earlier than I did. It’s the same when putting out an EP, something definitive and forever. I don’t think up until now I’ve found the complete sound that I would want recorded. I feel a lot closer to that now.”
Mersey Wylie appears at Liverpool SoulFest on 8th October at Arts Club. Don’t Give Up On Me is out now.