Heather Small used to tell herself: if she could just have one song that everyone knew and expected her to sing over and over again, she would be happy. That she has many is a real delight. She remembers a group of refuse collectors in their van who spotted her on the street and shouted over to her. “They all started singing Moving on Up,” she says. “I felt like I’d arrived. It was brilliant. It was just so warm, and if the dustmen want to sing my songs I feel honoured.”

That song and others – such as One Night in Heaven and Search for the Hero from her days in the band M People, and her solo hit Proud – are on her new album, largely of greatest hits, rerecorded with the London Metropolitan Orchestra. Proud, especially, has taken on a life of its own since its release in 2000, soundtracking TV montages, being used for the 2012 Olympic bid and appearing in the sitcom Miranda; even Oprah Winfrey used it on her show. Does Small ever get tired of it? “Absolutely not. Hearing the reaction from a crowd to Proud brings out the joy because I see how much it means to people. This song means so much to me, and that I’ve been able to translate that feeling, and people have made it their own, is joyous. How could you not give it your best? For some people, it’s the first time they’ve heard me sing. Others have heard me sing it lots of times, but they’re still waiting for that feeling, that connection.” She smiles, lips painted pink. “I’m looking for that connection as well.” It’s why she sings, she says. “You want to feel that love; you want to feel that joy. If you release something, if you put it out there, you’re looking for some kind of approval; you’re looking for people to be your tribe.”

We meet in an office at her record label, and I can’t remember the last time I met anyone so lacking in cynicism, so quick to laugh, raucously, and often at herself. Her songs are warm, upbeat and energising, and Small is the personification of it. She doesn’t take herself seriously, but she always took her work seriously. In the 1990s M People had huge success commercially and critically, winning the 1994 Mercury prize for their second album, Elegant Slumming, up against giants such as Blur, Paul Weller, Take That, the Prodigy and Primal Scream. The 1990s pop scene “was fun”, says Small. “So many genres were allowed to coexist, very different but still bringing something very British to the table. I’m proud to be part of that because I own my Britishness now, in a way that I could not earlier in my life.”

How did she deal with the fame and success? “I think you’re cushioned from it because you work so hard,” she says. Small never drank or smoked or took drugs, she says (she has also been vegan most of her life), and only went to one or two parties while on tour. “Mostly I thought: ‘I’m not on holiday. People have paid hard-earned money,’ and this is always my ethos. When the band pick up their instruments, if they’re feeling a bit fuzzy-headed you can’t always tell, but you can tell when a voice is tired, and there’s no hiding.”

She felt it was her mission to impart the M People good vibes. Their fans, she says, “saw that we were having fun, and that we liked each other, and we were just going around the world with [our] friends. Singing, writing songs and trying to be as happy as you could be, because we all know unhappy doesn’t feel good.” Are they still friends? Do they still like one other? There is the slightest hint, amid all Small’s positivity, that they have moved on. “I don’t see them often. I would say my friend is Shovell [the band’s drummer]. He is my son’s godfather. We still keep in contact. The other two I don’t see so much or speak to. Sometimes you grow apart.”

In 2000 Small released her solo album, Proud. Its title single – not an immediate hit but an enduring one – is special to her because she co-wrote it (most of M People’s songs were written by their founder member, Haçienda DJ Mike Pickering). Did she feel pressure to follow it up with another hit? It’s not about that, she says. “People would ask me when I was younger, what do you want? I used to say: ‘To still be singing.’ There’s no guarantee, as you get older, that you keep your voice. There’s no guarantee that people want to hear your voice. That was always my goal. The thing that hit records do is keep you in the game for a little bit longer. You want something to do well because you just love what you do, but I’ve never felt the pressure for it to be a massive hit, because first and foremost it has to be a hit with me.”

From the start of her career, Small was very clear that she would only record songs she wanted to. As a child, and well into her 20s, she was shy, but it seemed to morph into a guardedness and a steely self-possession that, looking back, probably protected her as a young woman in the music industry. She loved singing and performing but she wasn’t desperate to be a pop star, so she wasn’t easily coerced, either by predatory men or simply into singing songs she didn’t want to. “I’ve never really done things for the money, so it’s quite hard for somebody, because of the character that I am, to sway me in any way,” she says.

As a child, growing up in London, though, Small’s shyness meant nobody knew she wanted to be a singer. She would sing in the playground at school, and once her uncle passed her bedroom and heard her singing and told her to keep it up. “That was something that fed me for a long time,” she says. When she told a school careers counsellor she wanted to be a singer, they laughed. “A lot of the white teachers laughed at the Black children quite often at school,” she says. “They belittled your ideas and tried to belittle your confidence.”

She once asked the music teacher if she could join the choir, and he dismissively asked if she could sing. “Nobody else auditioned,” she says. “I thought: ‘I’ll show you’, but you shouldn’t have to be tough and resilient at school.” She would push back at any sense she wasn’t being treated equally. Then, she says, “you get in trouble. You’re seen as a troublemaker.” It was the same later in the music industry, when she could be labelled “difficult” or hard work. “Being a Black female, people think to themselves: ‘You’re standoffish’ or ‘You’re a diva’. No, just shy! There are some Black women who are shy, but you don’t get attributed those kinds of …” She pauses. “People are quick to believe a negative.”

Small’s parents had come to the UK in the early 1960s from Barbados. Her father worked as a bus conductor and was “very domineering”, she says. “He wasn’t a very nice man.” But her mother, who worked for a supermarket, was more loving. Both contributed to her resilience, she says: “Him because of the negative, and my mother because of the total positivity. She made my sister and I feel like we walked on clouds.” It was her mother – who lives with Small in west London now – who counteracted the racism Small experienced at school. “It’s like a flower: you face the light and that’s where you grow. My light was my mother and my sister at home.” Small realised, she says, “You have to find a way to empower yourself. And being shy wasn’t empowering so I had to get over it.”

It wasn’t immediate. In her early 20s, she managed to put herself forward for an audition after seeing an advert in the music paper Melody Maker, and became the singer in the soul band Hot House. They didn’t have much chart success, but did support Barry White at the Royal Albert Hall. Small was terrified. “I didn’t move, and I closed my eyes for the entire thing.” She has battled stage fright throughout her career.

The band were dropped by their record company three years later and she was devastated. “I thought, I’ve missed the boat. You don’t think you’re going to get a second chance,” she says. “That was the lowest I got and that’s what made me realise that I love singing, but I thought I’d have to do it on the side.” Instead, she was asked to provide vocals for M People. The idea was that the Manchester dance-pop band would be an ever-changing collective, with different vocalists, but Small fit perfectly and she joined the band permanently (around this time, legend has it she provided vocals for the re-recorded version of Black Box’s Ride on Time, though it has become something of a running joke that she refuses to confirm).

In the 1990s it wasn’t easy to be a working mother in the music industry. Her son was born in 1997, and a few months later she was on tour with a baby. As a solo artist, she also became aware that space for Black female artists was limited. “Back in the day, I’d never be on the bill with another Black female performer. To this day it’s like, you don’t see more than one on the bill. You just think: why is that? Because everyone, especially my contemporaries, we all sound different, we sing different types of songs, and you just think that can’t be an accident. People used to say to me: ‘We got you instead of such and such.’ They tried to foster an air of competition, and I’d be like: ‘We’re friends.’ That stumps everybody: ‘You mean, you talk to each other?’ I’m like: ‘Not only do we talk to each other, we like each other.’”

Small released a second solo album in 2006, and for the next few years she concentrated on raising her son, whose father is Shaun Edwards, the former rugby league player (their son, James Small-Edwards, is a Labour and Co-operative councillor, who was elected for London’s Bayswater ward in May, helping Labour gain control over Westminster city council for the first time). Small and Edwards broke up when their son was a baby; another long-term relationship came to an end fairly recently. There is one single on her new album, Love Me Or Not, that is in her typically empowering style. “I used to shy away from out-and-out love songs,” she says. “When I used to sing any love song, I’d channel the love I have for my son; it would not be romantic love. Romantic love, that can come and go. Sometimes it’s here, sometimes it’s there, sometimes you’re looking all around for it.” She smiles. “Romantic love is not, for me, as present and consistent as family love. It paid off, singing the love songs to my family and son because they still love me; they’re still in my life.” She laughs, full-bodied and unselfconscious. “Oh dear, I’m making myself laugh.”

At the parade for the Queen’s platinum jubilee last month, Small appeared on one of the “national treasures” buses. Even now, at the age of 57, she wondered if she should do it: “I grew up thinking: ‘Do I belong?’” She endures constant reminders that the racism she experienced as a child hasn’t disappeared, but she is also adamant that you “don’t apologise for the space you take up”. When her son was born, it was the first time that she actively embraced her Britishness, she says. “I thought, I don’t want my son to grow up thinking: ‘Where do I belong?’ like I did. My son has got ties with Barbados. He goes there; he sees his family there. But he feels British, and he has the right to embrace these streets and be embraced, and if he’s not embraced he wants to know why.”

So she took her place on the bus because, she says, she thought to herself: “If you don’t, when do you accept that you’re British?” She smiles. “There are so many things that I am, and I’ve learned over the years to embrace it all and I think that’s where my confidence has come from. Because I know what I am, and I’m proud of it.”

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By akagami