Lonely life of an only fan

Not many people may remember singer Tanita Tikaram, but I have bought a ticket to watch her in London next year

"So, when is that new Tanita Tikaram album I ordered arriving?" I asked N., the owner of the vinyl record store in Burlington Square that I now frequent.

"Don't worry, it's on the way," he said, somewhat surprised. This was the second time I had asked.  I like my music, but I rarely chase him for the arrival of a new release.

I felt I had to explain my impatience.  I was looking forward to this one and had even booked tickets to watch the singer-songwriter in London in February next year.

N. looked at me like I was mad.  "I've heard of people flying to other countries to watch concerts," he said.  "But you're the first one I know to do that for a one-hit wonder!"

I bristled at his comment.

After all, Tanita Tikaram was a two-hit wonder. 


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

People forget that before she had a top 10 hit all over Europe with Twist In My Sobriety, there was the jaunty Good Tradition, which peaked at No. 10 in Britain.

I remember the day in 1988 that it came on, fiddles ablaze, during a BBC World Service radio show called Multitrack, which I faithfully listened to every week.  The programme counted down the top 20 singles on the British charts - music which I thought was far superior to the boring drivel that deejay Rick Dees was playing on the American Weekly Top 40.

I recorded it on cassette and played the song over and over until the album, Ancient Heart, was released a few months later.  

Only then came the brooding Twist In My Sobriety, which was not only an autumn European hit, but was also nominated for Best British Single at the 1989 Brit Awards.

For those who haven't heard it, the song is famous for the singer's startlingly low and expressive voice, a distinctive oboe solo and its kooky, mysterious lyrics.  What is one to make of the chorus: "Look my eyes are just holograms, look your love has drawn red from my hands.  From my hands you know you'll never be more than twist in my sobriety"?

Yet, somehow the words of a bookish, slightly bucktoothed 19-year-old that who aced her A-levels but rejected a place in Manchester University resonated with a bookish, slightly bucktoothed 16-year-old boy in Singapore growing up and meeting girls for the first time in Hwa Chong Junior College.

On Valentine's Day in 1989, I handmade a card with artfully torn fancy paper from Sagacity Art & Crafts in Bras Basah Complex and gave it to a Nanyang Girls classmate I had a crush on at the start of chemistry lab class.  

In it, I carefully stencilled these lines from another Tanita Tikaram song: "It's nothing to you, but it keeps me alive like a Valentine's Day. It's a Valentine's heart, anyway."

By then, I could sing by heart every line in Ancient Heart from start to finish.  It remains my all-time favourite album today.

Sadly, the world never shared my enthusiasm for the Basingstoke singer of Fijian-Malaysian descent. The next three albums flopped, each selling worse than the other and her record company, Warner Brothers, eventually dropped her.

Ironically, once she was free from the weight of big label expectations, her music improved even more.

Moving to San Francisco and Italy yielded the exquisite albums, Lovers In The City (1995) and Sentimental (2005), respectively. But it was too late, the world wasn't listening any more.  

In Singapore, the only fellow fan left that I knew was my younger sister who, funnily enough, looks a little like the singer with her wide cheekbones. But even she did not venture past the third album.

So, for the last 20 years or so, I have lived the lonely life of a Tanita Tikaram fan.  

Every few years, I read about a new release, go to the music shop and slowly spell out the singer's name to puzzled sales staff.

Then, I bring the album home and rejoice in its brilliance, silently in my heart. I am utterly alone in this. Absolutely no one understands and no one cares to understand.

It has become so bad that even though her new album Closer To The People was released in March this year, a fan like me only came to know about it months later - a fact that seems incredible in this digital age of instant updates and limitless geographical reach.  

The release was not flagged on Metacritic, Amazon or any of the usual online sites highlighting new releases. Not a single major music publication reviewed the album and her concert was not listed at all in the major London events listings. As an artiste, she has virtually disappeared to the outside world.

So, why fly to London and see her?

Other than to finally listen to her live in the flesh, it is partly to satisfy my curiosity as to who the other lonely Tanita Tikaram fans are. 

Who are these people who have stuck it out as long as I have? As a journalist, I'm attracted by the prospect of a union of crazies.

But I go also for myself, to make a different kind of point.  

For many of us probably cling on to a Tanita Tikaram in our lives - a passion for something that no one seems to share and seems all very pointless to the outside world. For isn't the fun of liking something partly about being able to discuss it and feeling the warm, fuzzy pride of belonging to a community of like-minded people?

While it is difficult to disagree with that, I think there is something to be said for the stubborn and vaguely childish notion of liking something because you like it and not because everyone else does.

It's part and parcel of feeling alive, as the record store owner, N., eventually put it.

It reminds you that you are still an individual human being and not part of a demographic or target audience group that will respond on cue to carefully engineered mass marketing stimulus.

Today, it still surprises and delights me to find out that someone I am meeting for the first time has a secret passion for keeping shrimp gobies or collecting vintage Care Bears and can quote every single famous line in every movie actor Keanu Reeves has ever made.

I look at them differently, for I realise there is a real person behind the letters on the name card and the corporate function that he or she performs.

So, at the risk of shouting into the wind to no one in particular, I am stating that Tanita Tikaram's ninth studio album, which I have sampled on Spotify in advance of the arrival of the vinyl record, is a jazzy, uplifting masterpiece that showcases the strength of her songs when played by a live road band.

It is also notable for containing Tanita Tikaram songs that I can finally dance to, like the brilliant The Way You Move.

So, come February next year when she plays that song, I am going to get up off my seat in Row K at hallowed arts venue The Barbican and bust a move.

She will be 48 and I will be 45. We are still slightly bucktoothed and it has been a long time coming.

But we are going to party - just the two of us - like it is 1989.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'Lonely life of an only fan'. Print Edition | Subscribe