Q Magazine, January 1996
If you're teen-sheen sensations Eternal, that is - once a multi-ethnic foursome, now, as planned, a black trio and a white solo star. Puppetmaster Denis Ingoldsby tells Robert Yates, "You can't squash the dreams of 15-year-old girls..."
Just what does the top pop Svengali say when he's out-a-talent spotting? Does he - as tradition insists - seduce with promises of fame and glory, entrap with talk of boundless riches? Perhaps it's the time-honoured "Honey, I'm going to make you a star," as he guides the innocent one towards his gleaming Bentley. Not if you're Denis Ingoldsby,it's not. Denis Ingoldsby prefers the simple but sweet, "You look nice, can you sing?"
Among those who have heard the question, gently put, are the three members of Eternal, the most successful British girl group since Bananarama. The three used to be four, until Louise Nurding - now just Louise: for ease, and to avoid facetious "nurd"-ish headlines - left the fold in the summer because of musical differences... No, really. For once, nothing but sweetness seems destined to come from this separation, as each party is at pains to make clear. The Girls love Louise, and Louise loves the Girls. Denis Ingoldsby, meanwhile, loves everybody.
Ingoldsby is the key Eternal figure. With his partner, Oliver Smallman, he runs First Avenue, a management company with a record label spin-off, which counts Eternal - and now the solo Louise - among its charges. Indeed, the tag of management fails to describe in full Ingoldsby's wide brief, which ranges from guiding his acts' basic direction to overseeing production of their records. In short, Ingoldsby is currently the leading member of that colourful, if sometimes ill-loved, club - the Svengalis, whose very purpose, according to pop's rule book, is to take young talent and shape it to their whim.
It's a vivid stereotype - in fact and fiction. Take, for instance, that music industry bible, Rock Star, the Jackie Collins novel which features Mr Terry Terence, the quintessence of Svengalism, who tells his Boys that success lies in "all black outfits with white scarves". By contrast, for the fabulous Larry Parnes, real-life manager in the '50s and '60s, a name change was the thing. Hence, Marty Wilde and Billy Fury, monikers of modesty when compared to two other Parnes creations - Cuddly Duddley and Vince Eager.
"You don't want to get caught with just one artist. It's best to spread it around a bit."Denis Ingoldsby.
At first, judged against the outsize legacy, the 35-year-old Ingoldsby, who grew up in Ireland but now speaks in standard Estuary, does not quite seem to fit the bill. He is the Quiet One: "I don't normally speak to the press, I prefer to keep myself in the background." All the better to keep abreast of affairs, since being the Quiet One hardly clouds his eye for the main chance.
Ingoldsby might insist that everybody in his "family" loves everybody else but, well, when there's a business to run you can't rely soley on love. And so, he likes to manage a sizeable number of acts - Eternal and Louise apart, his roster includes Dina Carroll, Michelle Gayle and American newcomer, Dana Dawson"because you don't want to get caught with just one artist. When they get successufl, they might be tempted to fire you. It's best to spread it around a bit."
Eternal, however, are something of a first love. "We came into the business together, we've both been around just a few years," Ingoldsby explains. This is not quite the case - he had taken on the management of Dina Carroll a little earlier and marshalled the success of her debut album, So Close. What's more, Ingoldsby also has a fitful pre-history in the music biz, born of odd connections and chance meetings. He tried his hand at songwriting - he knew "the daughter of the guy who wrote hits for Tom Jones", a certain Les Reed.
At about the same time, in the mid-'80s, while busy filling his car with petrol, he saw a golden vision: "I found Bros in a garage in Camberley, Surrey. I went up to the twins and asked 'Can you sing?' and they said 'Yes', so off we went and made some tracks." However, soon afterwards, Ingoldsby went "away" for six months. He returned to discover that Bros were being "taken care of" by Tom Watkins. Ingoldsby says he felt no bitterness, but he was determined to stay in control the next time...
Perhaps Ingoldsby views hooking up with Eternal as his real start because they gave him an opportunity to shape a career from scratch. He knew what he wanted: "I was after an En Vogue, but with a difference. If I'd had four black girls, it would have been too similar. But I 'found' Louise first, so we had a twist straight away." This "twist"Louise being white - would later be the source of some confusion, and embarrassment, in America.
Ingoldsby "found" Louise in a London nightclub, and, taken by her "attitude", he posed his simple sweet question. "She told me she was only 15, and asked if she could bring her mum to the studio," he recalls. In the event, Louise, Mum and Dad came along ("That's fine; you have to gain the family's confidence.") A little later, Louise introduced Kéllé, a friend from the Italia Conti stage school, while Ingoldsby - again out in the clubs - came across sisters Easther and Vernie Bennett. He now had his foursome, all south London girls, all looking good. The singing could wait.
Next, Ingoldsby put the four girls through a year of all-round grooming - vocals, dance steps, the look. It paid off: in the autumn of 1993, Eternal's first single, Stay, and their debut album, Always & Forever, became immediate hits. Over the following year, bits of the album seemed to be always and forever around, as Eternal proceeded to break one of the more esoteric sales records. They are, it appears, the only British act to have drawn six Top 15 hits from a debut album. Since the words "milking" and "dry" come to mind, perhaps they are the only ones to have been cheeky enough to try.
The release of Eternal's second album, Power Of A Woman, marks the beginning of Stage Two in Ingoldsby's masterplan, with America very much in mind. The album, half of which was recorded in Los Angeles, is designed to push all the right buttons in the vast American market for well-manufactured, "mature" R&B. So determined is Ingoldsby to tame the country that, from July of next year, Eternal will settle in the States for six months, "working" the album.
With stage two barely begun, Ingoldsby already has stages three, four and five flicking through his mind. Stability might have been considered a likely Eternal watchword after the departure of Louise. Instead, Ingoldsby contemplates how each of the remaining three may, one day, peel off in turn.
"You see, we've already got our Madonna in Louise," he suggests. "Vernie can be Anita Baker, Kéllé can be Janet Jackson, Easther can be Whitney." Given the units shifted"Eternal used to be one successful act, now they have produced two" (both the first Louise-free Eternal single, Power Of A Woman, and Louise's own debut, Light Of My Life went Top 10 in October) - it's no wonder Ingoldsby contemplates further splits with equanimity. Divide and conquer might be the governing motto.
Ingoldsby and his team invite comparisons with PWL and Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Ingoldsby demurs: "Their records all sounded the same." He thinks it makes musical (and marketing) sense for the acts to sound distinct. But, like SAW, he is keen for his own team to do as much as possible. He is now building up the production and writing side of his stable, so if acts need songs they can be furnished "in-house". He also encourages them to work on their own writing: as a result, Eternal wrote half of their new album themselves.
Good move. They get more money that way.
"They don't think about that," Ingoldsby gently scolds. "If you're an artist, you don't want to lose your creativity with what is accountants' business."
Ingoldsby doesn't like too much money talk. He and the artists are "above" all that, he says. Then again, they can afford to be, with partner Smallman surveying financial matters. Ingoldsby's sole concern, he says, is the music - but by this he understands a very broad arena, from planning Eternal's assault on America to fiddling with the tiniest production detail.
Producers are hired to keep things running. When Q arrives in one of the five or so studios Ingoldsby has requisitioned for the autumn - "at this moment we've got people making music all over London"Simon Climie (once of '80s duo Climie Fisher) is twiddling the knobs on the Eternal Christmas single, I Am Blessed. But Climie has learned to expect, as have other producers, the arrival of Ingoldsby in the middle of the night - ready, in Ingoldsby's Troggs-reminiscent words, to "sprinkle some fairy dust". He does so much himself, he explains, because "I have my dreams, and it's not always easy for other people to understand them."
And what of the acts? Does all this management attention mean that they end up dancing to somebody else's tune? Well, if Eternal are puppets, they do a good job of hiding their strings. They are not always the world's greatest conversationalists - Kéllé, 19: "We don't have a problem with making pop music because pop means popularity, which is fabulous." And, at times, they strain when talking "serious"Vernie, 23, on the relevance of the album title: "Women are in great positions these days. You don't see them out burning their bras. Women are definitely in the matriarchal position."
However, they do impress as mobile phone-toting young businesswomen, who have a very clear idea of what their money is doing, and what they want to do with it. (Vernie, who dropped out of a law degree for the music, is particularly alert.) Of course, they agree, they listen carefully to what Ingoldsby says - but so they should. After all, quips Kéllé, "He had the sense to recognise our talent." It's a good line, nice and laconic.
Ingoldsby, though, is laying it on thick. "These kids have so much integrity," he hymns. "Their grounding is so good." The three members of Eternal all have a church background: "They won't sing about sex, but only about what they believe in." But what need Ingoldsby worry? He's now got the racier angle covered...
"In the black American radio stations, they would talk to Kéllé, Easther and Vernie, but not to me."Louise Nurding.
"Ah yes, Louise. Well, she couldn't care if she went too church or not." Since her departure, Louise has, it's true, upped the ante on the raunch front. In recent promotional photographs, she is stripped down to her underwear. Ask her to define her new image and she replies "hot". Charmingly, about this transition, there remains something of the girl-next-door going naughty for a dare.
Louise explains that she struck out alone because she was reluctant to go too far down the R&B path which the others were set on. The change in musical emphasis made her feel "uncomfortable". This difference is plausible, but Louise makes no secret of a long-held amibition to be a big fizzy, solo star. There was also the little problem of America. She knew of the US phase of the masterplan and didn't fancy a repeat of past trips. When the Eternal tour last visited America, they were made aware of divisions not felt before in Britain. Louise recalls "In the black stations, they would talk to Kéllé, Easther and Vernie, but not to me." At the poppier stations, the situation would be reversed.
So while Ingoldsby maintains that it was all Louise's decision, he agrees that breaking America - for both Eternal and Louise - is made more straightforward with the colour "problem" removed. Louise, he reiterates, could be "just like Madonna". Immediately, he remembers his role as moral guardian. "I mean Madonna in size, not all of the sexual business."
In the meantime, Denis Ingoldsby ponders what he is going to do with the legion of girls who, clued up to the success of the team's acts, come calling on First Avenue. On occassion, so many wannabees visit, he says, that there are queues outside the office in Hammersmith. It must get a bit much. So why does he not turn them away and explain that he is more than happy with the hand he already holds?
"Don't you understand?" he insists. "You can't squash the dreams of 15-year-old girls."
A few lucky aspirants will join one big happy family. "What I most enjoy..."Ingoldsby's voice fair purrs at the thought"are those days when all the acts are hanging out in the office, all getting on, all complementing each other."
Ingoldsby pauses, reaching for an analogy. His choice is hardly fortuitous:
"We have so many laughs you know. It's just like a toy factory."