thu 18/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Singer Dee C Lee | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Singer Dee C Lee

theartsdesk Q&A: Singer Dee C Lee

The vocalist chats through music, life, love, heartbreak and glorious Eighties times with The Style Council and WHAM!

Been there, seen it, done it, and back again with soul© Ben Meadows

Dee C Lee was born Diane Sealy in London in 1961. She is best known for her 1985 hit “See the Day”, later covered by Girls Aloud, and for being in two of the Eighties' most notable pop acts, The Style Council and WHAM!. But she was also prolifically involved in multiple other musical projects, and now has a new album appearing, Just Something, her first in over 25 years.

Lee’s first break came through talking her way into working with the British soul outfit Central Line, who had a couple of US club hits in 1981. From here, EMI picked her up as a session singer and, alongside Shirlie Holliman (later Kemp), she became half of the backing duo for WHAM! during the golden run of hits from their debut album Fantastic. She then jumped ship and joined The Style Council, appearing on most of their best work, including the albums Café Bleu and Our Favourite Shop, and marrying head honcho Paul Weller in 1987.

dee sleeveShe also recorded and toured in the early-Nineties with Gang Starr MC-producer Guru’s jazz-meets-hip hop project, Jazzmataazz, enjoying a Top 30 hit with “No Time to Play” (featuring Ronny Jordan). Other projects have included working on Jamiroquai’s Return of the Space Cowboy album, singing with flash-in-the-pan Eighties jazz-pop outfit Animal Nightlife, and being part of Slam Slam, a house music unit with Dr Robert of The Blow Monkeys. Lee’s career tailed off in the late-Nineties. Her marriage to Weller ended in 1998 and she focused on her children and family. But now she's back.

We meet at lunchtime in a quiet pub by the Thames near where she lives, in the incongruously village-like area between Chiswick and Gunnersbury. I'd always imagined, from her public persona, that she would be a super-chilled, laidback presence. Far from it. Clad in smart sweats, with a headband and photochromatic sunglasses, she is a youthful-looking, five-foot-four-inch ball of energy, her words arriving in an enthused scattershot flow.

THOMAS H GREEN: So I’m presuming your family call you Diane?

DEE C LEE: No, everybody calls me Dee. I was originally going to be called Deanne but, you see, my mum got the spelling wrong on the birth certificate so now I'm Diane. We like that name, too. I'm Dee, I’m Diane, I'm all sorts in the family. As long as it's begins with a D, I tend to answer to it.

Below: Watch Central Line miming to "Walking Into Sunshine" on unknown TV show (Dee C Lee not present but can be heard in the claps and backing vocals)

When did you start going by Dee C Lee?

My first professional status as a vocalist was with Central Line. My very first time going into the recording studio was to do some backing vocals or do some clapping on [1981 single] "Walking Into Sunshine". A friend of theirs called Roy Carter, who also used to work with [hit-making UK disco stars] Heatwave and [mega-successful disco-pop songwriter] Rod Temperton, he said to me, “You're going to do really well with that voice of yours.” Now I'm kind of private, low key, and he said, “You should have a pseudonym.” We just kept messing around with it and Dee C Lee stuck. It looked good.

I was looking at the video for your song “Selina Wow Wow” – it’s about as Eighties as its possible to be!

That was my very first single, the first thing I put out after leaving WHAM! Yes, it's very Eighties, the video is painted and pop art. Great fun. I wrote it too. I went to CBS – now Sony – with four songs, “Selina Wow Wow”, “See the Day”, and two others. I wanted to show them the different types of songs I could write, showing them my range. Straightaway they saw “Selina Wow Wow”. I was proud of the song but it was the worst thing that could have happened. As soon as we put that out, they wanted to label me as a black version of Bananarama. Now Bananarama are great and mates of mine, but I didn't want to just do pop. I was very young and green. I thought having an album deal meant I could write songs and be taken more seriously. Boy, did I get that wrong?

Below: Watch the video for "Selina Wow Wow" by Dee C Lee

How so?

I wanted to be an artist in my own right. The record company support started off brilliantly then very rapidly went downhill round about the time I talked about putting out "See the Day". This became the biggest hit of my solo career and was only kept off the Number One spot by Whitney Houston. Yet they still couldn't recognise its potential [It was, indeed, the biggest hit of Lee’s solo career, but actually reached No.3 in the UK charts, with her old band WHAM! at No.1 with “I’m Your Man” and Whitney Houston at No.2 with “Saving All My Love For You”].

So how did it become a single, then?

John and Paul Weller, and in fact, everybody around me, when I played them the song, they were like, you know, you should do something with it [John Weller, who died in 2009, was Paul’s father and manager]. Paul said, “It’s a great song, you should do it in the Style Council’s set.” Our set was about two hours long so there was enough time to have interludes. [Keyboard-player] Mick [Talbot] would do some stuff, everybody would be very happy to listen to Steve White drumming away. And I would do my song and a couple of others. From that, I went back after the tour, and said to the record company, “Look, I really want to put this record out, everybody loves it.” They were like, “Nope, doesn't sound like a hit.” So it all got a bit stalemate-y. I got into a big fight with them, and stormed off, back to John Weller and Paul in tears, saying, “I really want to put this out.” So, John Weller paid for that, we got the strings, we did everything.

Below: Watch Dee C Lee perform "See the Day" on Top of the Pops in 1985

By the time it came out you were a member of The Style Council. Were you not happy working with them?

I was so happy working with them, but it brought home to me that I'd got stuff that I wanted to do. It was totally frustrating.

The song "Don't Forget About Love" from your new album reminds me of "With Everything to Lose" by The Style Council, that same kind of flutey, little bit easy, little bit jazz...

It's like a pop jazz thing, those influences…

"With Everything to Lose" was a hit when repurposed as “Have You Ever Had it Blue” for the 1986 film Absolute Beginners, but I prefer the original. Those opening lyrics: “From the playground to the wasteground, hope ends at 17, sweeping floors and filling shelves, forced into government schemes”…

That was always the thing with The Style Council. You often listen to songs and they may be fantastic, but the lyrics are kind of nonsensical. Most of the time, why not let them be nonsensical! It's good to have that. But it's difficult to write about political things without making it boring or tedious or a bit right-on. But the way Paul did that, I've got to say there was a particular speciality to the way he writes.

He made it sound light.

It sounds light but it's not light at all. I think those are the best kind of songs really.

Below: Listen to "Don't Forget About Love" by Dee C Lee

Let’s rewind the clock a bit: what's your earliest memory?

My very, very first memory, I was lying on my back on a bed. Obviously, I must have been a baby because I couldn't move. I could watch my mum dancing around and singing to The Beatles and trying on a dress. I was just watching and she kept going out my vision. It seemed to me that just hearing her voice was my everything.

Do you remember which Beatles song?

I think it was "She Loves You". She kept coming in and bending down and kissing me, then going off again.

[I then ask about her parents but things become stilted and it swiftly becomes clear she doesn’t want to talk about that: “My family is very complicated” is as far as we go and she adds that she might one day write a memoir about it]

dee1The first song on your album, “Back in Time”, it's quite nostalgic about the Eighties. Do you like to look back?

It's funny, because if you'd been interviewing me ten years ago or more, I wouldn't have. But these days, definitely. If you stop and breathe, you look back and see all the things you've actually achieved. I’ve done quite a lot of good stuff, been through a lot and I'm still standing. I look back, I sort of go, "Wow! I can't believe I did that and survived it."

Yeah, the song “Mountains” from the new album is clearly about hurting times, about a break-up, I'm presuming from Paul…

Yeah. I mean, I call “Mountains” the rantings of a heartbroken woman. That was therapeutic. I will find it hard to perform, but I had to get it out. Another one that comes from those places is “Trojan”. We were talking just now about how Paul can write these strong, dark lyrics but keep it quite light. I took a stab at attempting that on “Trojan”. It’s about betrayal by a friend. I had to really step back. I wanted to talk about killing people and stuff. So I had to really calm that down, get it into perspective. It’s a story, a hurtful story for me, but after going through all the pain, thanks, I got a nice song out of it!

Sometimes, what people don't gauge is that you can be hurt as much by a friend’s betrayal as by a lover's. I can think of male friends who’ve hurt me as much as, you know, certain women I’ve been involved with.

It's the same for me. It's a terrible thing to say, but I almost expect to get hurt sometimes. That "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus" thing, all that business. There’s nothing worse than the betrayal of a friend… it’s just kind of unforgivable. Especially when people don't even end up together. Because, you know what, sometimes you can split up with somebody, heartbreak is just the way of the world, you can't force somebody to love you. But to mess with people, to play with them, that's something a little bit more.

Below: Listen to "Mountains" by Dee C Lee

Some people have a sliver of flint in their hearts.

Yeah, yeah, [quoting from “Trojan”] “Goodbye, you Trojan horse as friend, hope I never see you again.” But at the same time, I like the way it’s really smooth, nice, flowing, but then you listen to the lyrics and, “Damn, she's going to town on this person!”

Flipping the coin of the subject, you use a different voice on the song “Anything”, a much deeper voice than your usual.

Well, I don’t have a massive range, but I have a very expressive voice. I think my voice is a little stylized as well; you can recognise it. With this album I've had a real opportunity to show the different aspects. For example, “Anything”, it's almost a talking voice. It’s a really happy song. When I got that backing track, I straightaway just saw beaches, cocktails, music playing, people milling around being really relaxed. I came up with those lyrics straightaway. But also, it's an imagined lyric of love, because I'm such a romantic. It doesn't matter what age you are, love can always pull you in. I wanted it to feel inspirational and cheeky and funny, a little sprinkling of happiness.

What was the first band you saw live?

It was Earth, Wind and Fire. I was stood in the stadium after the gig. Nobody was there. My friends had left, the band had left, the crew had left. I just stood there with my mouth open. I just could not believe what I'd seen. And it's stayed with me for life, the showmanship, the musicianship, just everything about the whole mess.

dee2Do you like a big show?

Everybody does it now; Beyoncé does it, Madonna does it, Michael Jackson, he was always doing it too. I can imagine what it's like for young people who go to some of these big shows. To be honest, sometimes they look like they're more about the show than much else. But, actually, most of the time, nothing beats that smaller thing where you hit the little places. I spend most of my time hanging out with friends and we'll go to anybody who we consider to be great, to the Jazz Café, Pizza Express…

You do like your jazz…

I like jazz with the funk. As a vocalist, I can't be that snooty but my preference is jazz-funk.

We don't hear you on any metal records…

No. Not yet, anyway. I do like folky stuff. I used to love Kate Bush, love Steely Dan, love Santana. I like early-Seventies American rock – [the band] America, who are not even American! “Horse With No Name” is a fantastic track, but they've got some other really good songs. I've started to reintroduce myself to their music again, recently. I can't listen to new pop music.

You don’t like that 21st century compressed pop production?

I really don't, no, it’s just too clean.

It’s electronic.

Yeah, I really try not to get involved with things that you can't recreate live. I went through this stage where, back in the day, just before my little one was born, I had this [house music] project out with Dr Robert [of The Blow Monkeys], Paul was involved; Slam Slam. We got some good tracks out of that, but I've never really been able to recreate any of those live.

Below: Listen to "Move!" by Slam Slam featuring Dee C Lee

House was a music revolution in this country. The Style Council made that unreleased house album [1989’s Modernism, refused by the band’s label, Polydor, eventually released in 1998 as part of a boxset]. Were you lot out raving?

Oh my God, yeah, yeah. We were hanging with all the Acid Jazz people, getting really, really, really into it. So obviously, that started to creep into the music. Paul was doing exactly what he wanted to do. He was never going to be told by a record label what to do.

You take great pride in your work with The Style Council.

I like everything I've ever done with them, I really do. My very first one, which we don't hear that often, was “Money Go Round”. That was the very first track I cut with those guys. I walked in the studio. Mick and Paul sitting there, we had a cup of tea, put the track on, I was straight in, love it, love it, love it, I knew exactly what they needed.

Below: Watch The Style Council perform "Money Go Round" on Channel 4 show Switch in 1983

That is a great song. I was completely into The Style Council. They only lost me with The Cost of Loving album [in 1987]. That glossy R&B thing really wasn’t my bag.

The Cost of Loving was one of my favourites. I like everything I did with The Style Council, but The Cost of Loving was particularly up my street. A controversial choice right there! It was a little bit more soulful jazz smooth, too much for the original fans. But for people like me – yeah! Paul gets it. Not doing it to deliberately piss people off. He just went off on a different tip because he's always listening to other stuff. There is no set formula.

Is he supportive of your career?

He is. Very. We do have a good friendship now.

I watched that documentary Paul Weller: Into Tomorrow a while back. There's a moving interview where you comment that he never had the chance to live the rock’n’roll lifestyle and that when he did, in the late Nineties, it kind of finished your marriage.

Yeah, that's true. Now he knows. When he should have been acting the rock star, he didn't do it. But, you know, it's gonna happen to anybody, which I didn't really realise. By the time kids turned up, we were both in our early 30s. It was something like, “Oh, I need to be free," just doing that men thing that men do. You know, Paul's always worked. He's always just been making music, being on the road, being really adored, but not really noticing it, not really thinking about it. By the time we got married, the kids and everything. I think it all got on top. He suddenly just thought, “Oh, where's my youth gone?”

style councilBecause it wasn't very debauched in The Jam or The Style Council. I interviewed Mick Talbot once and he said that backstage at a Style Council gig was about as rock’n’roll as your cousin’s 21st birthday party.

That’s so right. Innocent good fun. People around us were living that hedonistic life, quite crazy, but we were really, really boring. The most we would do was drinking and having curries, giving ourselves indigestion. I mean, I'm telling you, honestly, honestly, we were very boring.

Do you drink?

I do, but not excessively. I did when I was younger. I never used to drink until I joined those guys [The Style Council]. I don't think I really knew how to drink and then I learned to drink being on tour. Yes, I've done the drinking. I had a period of being around people where it was all going a little bit too crazy. But I was saved by the fact that, by then, I was having children. So, I stepped back. I was really very lucky. Paul had a wife at home, and a baby, and everybody else was partying and having fun. And he just started looking at them and looking at this and looking at them…

Below: Listen to "New Reality Vibe" by Dee C Lee

Well, you did a kind of trip-hoppy tune in 1994 called “New Reality Vibe” – that sounds pretty stoned.

Really? “New Reality Vibe”. I put that out on the Mo'Wax label. James Lavelle. He was so lovely. I’d been working with Guru's Jazzmataazz, and that was in the middle of the tour. I demo'ed it up, just me with a bunch of musicians, so what came of it is it was just a jam. I'd totally forgotten about that track. It's a very smoky jazz vibe. I'm going to have to dig that up and have a listen. I might have to revamp that because I haven't heard that in ages.

You were in WHAM!’s famous “Club Tropicana” video, shot at Tony Pike’s notorious hotel in Ibiza. That must have been fun…

It was fun. Even funnier, I was in the middle of a tour with Animal Nightlife when I got the call. [WHAM's management] were like, “It's going to be a single, we've got to make a video.” I went, “That's great guys, I can't be there. I'm in Manchester.” “Well, we're flying to Ibiza tomorrow and you need to be in this video.” I said, “I don't know what to say to you. I can't just run off in the middle of a tour. No disrespect, but I'm going to get sued.” So people were not happy. I had to be flown, privately, over there. It cost somebody a bit of extra money.

I’m sensing that it was tricky being part of WHAM! As half of the backing duo, you were recognisable but not fully involved.

I wasn't part of the band. I wasn't even on a retainer at that time. Me and the guys, we had no problems. It was the management. Things did become weird and difficult. George [Michael] didn't understand and it took them a little while to understand that I'm not trying to, you know, mess up their thing. But in between, when those guys were not working, I couldn't just sit there and wait for a call.

Below: Watch the video for "Club Tropicana" by WHAM!

And then you left to join Paul and The Style Council…

But George and I ended up making friends again, thank God. What really upset me was that WHAM! documentary. I went to that because I'm still very, very close with Andrew [Ridgley] and Shirley. I burst into tears because there was a bit where George was not wanting anybody to leave. I remembered that day because he was saying, “Do you really have to go?” And I did have to go, and he was a bit upset with me again. He wanted to tell us that he was gay. He wanted me to be there. It made me feel really bad. It really upsets me, actually [She tears up and is visibly dismayed].

But you're looking at it retrospectively. You didn’t know that was the case at the time.

Yeah, it was a funny old time. Luckily, we made up and, in fact, Paul was quite instrumental in making us become friends again.

Some seriously good music came out of early WHAM!; The “Special U.S. Re-Mix” of “WHAM! Rap” is up there with anything by Chic…

wham!That's where “Back in Time” came from, very much influenced by what I was doing with WHAM! Yeah, I worked in that uptempo disco thing. That's definitely lifted from hanging with those guys. The thing about this album, you can really feel the influences of the people I've been involved with, working-wise.

When you were with Jazzmatazz you worked with some big jazz names; Courtney Pine, Roy Ayres, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston Smith…

After that tour, I’d done everything in my career I've ever actually wanted to do. Stick a fork in me, I'm done now. Retire time. When I first started singing, I used to listen to Donald Byrd’s tracks like “Wind Parade”. If you listen to the way the female vocals are in that track, it's how I styled my vocals when I started working. All those years later I meet him.

Below: Watch the video for "No Time to Play" by Jazzmatazz featuring Ronny Jordon and Dee C Lee

Of all the adventures you’ve had, what was the time when you most thought, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m in a room with this person”?

When [the album] Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 came out, there was a party in London, a lot of superstars there. The one person I could not stay cool around was Chaka Khan. She is my absolute freakin’ favourite vocalist. Anyway, to have Chaka Khan come over and say, "Hey, you the little thing with the voice, girl, so good to meet you. I love your voice.” I had to take myself off to the bathroom, lock the door, make sure nobody's looking, bite into my hand and scream, do a little dance. Somebody probably thought I was doing a rock’n’roll thing in the cubicle. Then I compose myself, go back out there. “Hey, yeah, Chaka, how’s it going?” She’s like, “Let's go and get drinking!” And I thought, “Oh my God, now she's scaring me.” She just seems like such a party animal. She's so full of life, just this bundle of sunshine is what she is.

You are clearly passionate about making music but your life suggests you are also at peace with not making music?

Yeah, for long periods of time, I have to be. Periods where the making of music is just not enough. It's really important to just totally step back, get a grip on yourself. I went through a stage where I had to just take care of my mental health for a little while. I just found everything far too overwhelming.

dee nowWhen would you say that period was?

It's been on and off, but just before the Pandemic. I had just kind of pulled myself together and then the frickin’ Pandemic kicked in. A lot of people go through the same thing. I suppose about depression, you know, it's very common. I wasn't really sure what the point of me was. I didn't know what I wanted to do anymore and I got a little bit lost. So I just kind of hid behind the kids for a little bit, just pottering around at home doing things that don't really interest me.

You were feeling a bit existentially lost.

I was, yeah, and I definitely feel like I'm home again making music, that's for sure. But I don't know if that's all I want so I'm still kind of trying to find…

Well, you have that autobiography idea bubbling away…

Yeah, who knows, right…

I heard that what rekindled your musical spark was involvement in that Sky Arts documentary [2020’s Long Hot Summers: The Story of The Style Council]…

Yeah, we just decided get together, the four of us performing together, which we thought would be a nice thing for the fans, an unexpected thing. We didn't tell anybody. The song we did was “It's a Very Deep Sea" [from 1988’s Confessions of a Pop Group], a quieter, not-so-well-known track. Paul's still always, always working, but [the rest of us] are all like, yeah, we kind of miss making music together. I've got Steve with me, by the way, Steve White's working with me now. And Mick Talbot co-wrote [the newish single] “Walk Away”. My family have still got me!

Below: Watch The Style Council perform "It's a Very Deep Sea" in 2020 at Paul Weller's Black Barn Studios

Aside from Britain, the other place you were a genuine solo pop star was Australia, where “See the Day” was a hit…

I went there with The Style Council and was so blown away. They were at the airport. In the UK I was known as Dee from WHAM! or The Style Council. But I got out to Australia and there's all these kids with my album. I never forgot that. I had interviews away from The Style Council, stuff like that. I was getting ribbed mercilessly [by the band]; “Yes, your highness!” I'm glad you reminded me about that. I've never had the opportunity since, but if I ever get the opportunity I'd so go there. They were so good to me I just couldn't believe it. That was one of the greatest times of my career.

And “See the Day” was a Top 10 hit again when Girls Aloud covered it in 2009.

I was very grateful to them for doing that because they brought my name back to the forefront. And it didn’t hurt my bank account. No, I was actually flattered because I get overlooked so it’s nice when you sometimes get remembered.

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