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Sheena Easton: Looking back at her musical history
MARKET DAYS
by Marc 'Moose' Moder
2012-08-08

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Unless you're living under a rock with no WiFi, you've got to know by now that this year's Northalsted Market Days music line-up hit it out of the park this year with a huge triple headline: Olivia Newtown-John, the Pointer Sisters and the Scottish songbird Sheena Easton. We had the privilege of chatting with new (now American) singer on the juiciest parts of her 30-year-plus career, her biggest hits ("Morning Train," "For Your Eyes Only," "Strut," "Sugar Walls"), her time with Prince and her start on a precursor to the modern reality show.

Easton first came into public consciousness in the late '70s on the British documentary The Big Time as a young singer trying to make it in the industry as cameras followed her path; this led her to audition for singer Lulu and a team at EMI, to mixed results. "Lulu thought I was quite cute, sweet and nice," Easton said. "Lulu's manager thought I sucked, though. She said I was quite lovely, but she just didn't see 'it—which is kinda cruel. I would hate to be that person who has to say if someone's going to make it or not on these new reality shows. What if you say that and that person's the next Justin Beiber? You're going to look like an ass!"

Well, Easton certainly showed Lulu's manager she was wrong, with 15 top-40 singles over the next decade, peaking and taking her from cutsie to hottie with her collabotions with Prince. When asked about working with the Purple One, she brought up a favorite track: "101" from The Lover In Me. She said, "You know what's interesting is I never do '101' live. No one ever asks about it, but of all my songs I've ever done, that's my favorite. And I'm not just saying that because you said you loved it. I love that track. It was one of those great in the studio moments of my life.

"When you work with Prince, he's one of those kind of guys that likes to keep you off guard. You'd get the phone call saying 'Hey, come down to the studio. There's something I'd want you to hear.' Then you'd get down there, like with '101,' and he'd play it and I'd be like, 'I don't know' and he'd say, 'Well, just go and sit and listen to it a little bit.' I'd go and he'd come right in and say, 'Let's go.' 'But I don't know it completely,' [I'd say]. 'Well just sing what you know, then,' [he'd say]."

"There's this part in there where I kinda go off-melody and I just start taking higher and higher and he says, 'Well, that's not the right melody but we're keeping that and we're gonna work with that.' And so it's one of those things that's really organic—just a great moment in the studio. Plus I like the production. I love the subway doors opening and closing. He wanted it to be very haunting, and to just be about the desperation in the voice—[and] about the concept of you being away from this person for forever, it seems, and you just can't bear it for one more night.

When asked what made their professional relationship so fruitful when so many of the ladies he worked with saw just one hit at best, she said, "You know, I didn't know him as well as people would make it out to be. People thought, 'Sheena Easton and Prince—they must be having an affair.' But I did know him well enough to know he loved to write and produce. He's very prolific. God forbid, when that man passes and they go in there. He's got quite a vault.

"When he'd write a song, he'd just go down to the studio and record it. A lot of writers would record stuff on a little two-track and then put it away, and if they were going to use it then they would pull it out and fully record it. He owned his own studio, so he just go down there and write and doodle on a 48-track. He'd sit around and noodle on full studio equipment. So we had stuff there that was great stuff. And he'd play it and I'd go, 'That's great'—and he wouldn't use it.

"I think he knew it wasn't for him, so he would send to the artist he believed would do it best. Like when I first did 'Sugar Walls,' I came into the studio. David Leonard, who was also his engineer, and we were working in separate studios. He said, 'Prince sent over a track for you. We saw you on The Tonight Show the night before and Prince said 'Ya, I gotta write something for that girl.' And so he sent over 'Sugar Walls,' and it was one of those things where it was like, 'Here it is. If you want to do it, here's my number. Then when we worked in the studio, we got along really well. We cracked each other up, we made each other laugh.

"[After that], he really liked my voice and thought we should do more stuff. Then occasionally he'd ask if I wanted to come in and listen to stuff. That's how we did 'U Got The Look.' 'U Got the Look' was a track he'd basically finished for himself. It was just a Prince track. He said, 'Do you want to just come in and sing some backup vocals on the choruses?' So I went into the studio, and because I didn't know I was singing against him (sings parts!), I was all over the place—and he said he kind of liked that, so he expanded it into a duet.

"He was a very flexible person, very open to the creative process. He's one of the people that encouraged me to write songs, too. I'd be that girl walking around with a little notepad writing down ideas and notes. He'd always grab it out of my hand and ruthlessly make fun of me and say, 'That's crap,' 'That's a good chorus,' or 'That verse sucked,' or 'You should finish that one.' We ended up writing a few things that way. I sent him the lyrics to 'The Arms of Orion.' He really liked it, put music to it and it ended up being on the Batman soundtrack. I'm totally into the stars. Right outside my bedroom window, right over my front guest house, you looked right into Orion. I loved the concept of two lovers apart, looking up at the same stars and wishing they could be together.

"'La La La, He He He He' (b-side to 'Sign O' the Times'), that was something I was writing, just a stupid little thing. See, I have six cats. It was about a cat up in a tree teasing a dog. I was actually being sarcastic. He said, 'Ya, that could be a song,' and I was like 'Oh ya, like what do you want me to sing? La La La, He He He—I love you, you love me? That's how talented I am?' He said, 'Actually, that'd be kind of cute! Go ahead and write it.' I don't really write any more as I'm out of the game now, but back then, that was my thing. Then, all my songs were little stories. I liked storytelling songs. He used to think they were amusing. I don't think other people did but he used to think they were.

Her last album, more than a decade ago, was the fan favorite Fabulous, a disco tribute album. "It was an album that was specifically done for the British and European dance market," Easton said. "It was done with British producers, and it was released there, but didn't do really well. It wasn't a commercial success. It was the kind of thing where I used to get a lot of correspondence from fans who really liked it and were surprised it didn't really do well, but there my fans so they're going to be a bit biased anyway. The general public just sort of went, 'Eh.' It was a fun, fun album to do. Singing those songs was a blast. Maybe I'll work one or two back into my set, but not now."

When asked about her upcoming Market Days gig, the mother of two said, "You said the keyword—'couple of weeks.' Not thought about it yet. I'm the mother of two teenagers. It's summer break so I'm worn out being the entertainment provide for my two!"

Easton also talked about another Market Days headliner: Olivia Newton-John. "Besides Michael McDonald, Olivia may be the nicest person I've ever met," Easton said. "When I started out, she invited me to her home in Malibu to a party and really took me in. I haven't seen her in years. I hope we connect."

Sheena Easton performs at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 12, at the Roscoe Stage as part of Northalsted Market Days.

Preview all the Market Days' acts at Downtown Bar, 440 N. State St., on Thursday, Aug. 9, when Moder spins his Market Days showcase at 5 p.m.


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