Blues & Soul, 25 February - 10 March 1997


Jon Andre Holley gets
intimate with our soaraway
homegrown superstars

Cast your mind back to the Autumn of 1993. A young all-girl quartet of Londoners graced the pages of Blues & Soul for the very first time. They had just enjoyed a hit with their debut release, a cover of the Glenn Jones track "Stay" and, obviously, spurred on by their initial success, they talked willingly about their desire for commercial acceptance but not at the expense of their music.

Well, they certainly got the first bit right. As I'm sure you are all aware, in the ensuing years Eternal have become household names who enjoy mass appeal right across the board. Whether it be as teen idols to the nations' spotty young wannabees, or, indeed, as protagonists of slushy thirty-something romanticism. I mean, let's look at the facts - two Smash Hits Awards, four BRIT nominations, a Silver Clef Award and a song featured on the Walt Disney movie " The Hunchback Of Notre Dame".

The record speaks for itself and so, it must be said, do their achievements. A quadruple platinum debut album in the shape of 1993's "Always And Forever", followed by a second album, "Power Of A Woman" which has almost achieved that mark (and still counting). Not to mention three sell-out tours and a whole slew of hit records including "Save Our Love" and the aforementioned "Someday". It all adds up to a lot of dosh and fame in abundance.

Not even the well-publicised departure of Louise Nurding can knock the girls off their stride as the newly trimmed trio - Kéllé and sisters Easther and Vernie - continue to go from strength to strength. In conversation with the girls in a quiet, very formal, hotel room somewhere in London I begin by asking them the secret of their success?

"I think our success has been a mixture of things," begins a thoughtful Vernie. "The main thing is we've had really good support from our fans. As a young teen band who'd just left school to record our first album we dreamed that our fans would grow up with us and our music. We've still got fans that we've met who have been with us from the start which is really, really nice."

"Also our record company have known our goals from day one and have stuck by us. They've had a fantastic outlook on our careers; they're always a year ahead and they always know what's coming and if something happens in our careers that we're not expecting or we have little hiccups along the way they're very supportive and, of course, the final factor is us... we work hard!"

The girls laugh in unison following this latest revelation. However, I am not fooled into thinking that such laughter is the result of any excess, nervous energy the girls might have. Certainly not. Some five years and many interviews down the line and these ladies are master professionals, experts in the art of public relations and mistresses of their own destiny - 'The Power Of A Woman' indeed.

"As people we've stayed the same but as professionals we've changed considerably. The business side of the industry and the high profile we have enjoyed makes you grow up fast," explains a confident and seemingly in-control Kéllé. "You take more of a strong hold of your business - your accountants your solicitors.

"You like to know where you're going, you take more of a role in your music and, the more experience you get, you tend to learn more about making music and studio production."

And so to the brand new Eternal album. The single "Don't You Love Me" will be released in March followed by the collection.

Entitled "Before the Rain" and released through EMI records with production chores split between Dennis Charles and Ronnie Wilson, Nigel Lowis - whose work includes Dina Carroll - and, interestingly, Harvey Mason Jnr. Vernie runs the rule over the characters behind the mixing consoles.

"Dennis and Charles are great producers. They've recently done some really good work on the Alexander O'Neal album and they were, as ever, really great to work with.

"Nigel, we knew, had done stuff with Dina Carroll and Harvey Mason jnr was introduced to us via our manager Denis (Ingoldsby). He played us his music and we really liked what he was doing so we went ahead and worked with him. We're delighted with the results."

Perhaps the most notable track on the album, particularly for Blues & Soul readers, is the storming duet between Easther and Be Be Winans. The song entitled "I Wanna Be The Only One" continues the group's association with the Winans, which began on the first album. Easther extols the virtues of the soulful singer with the rich tone.

"The duet with Be Be Winans was great. When we played him "I Wanna Be The Only One" he said he'd love to duet on it.

"In the studio he knows what he wants and he's certainly assertive, a real perfectionist and we're like that too so the song worked really well. We're very proud of it and it was an honour to record with such a wonderful singer and such a total professional."

"This album is probably more political than any previous Eternal album," adds Vernie, "I think it's comparable to the previous sets in that it's got great music, great lyrics and great ballads but this time there are songs like "Grace Under Pressure" and "Don't You Love Me" with a more socially conscious and worldly nature to them.

"These songs specifically talk about the problems in society, issues that people tend to close their eyes to: poverty, hunger that sort of thing. We've travelled a lot and we believe that we are privileged to be able to open people's eyes."

Indeed, the 'new' Eternal are, it seems, at pains to be seen as very politically and morally correct. Eternal have never been about sleaze and scandal and much has been made about the girls' gospel background (and rightly so). Last year they even performed in front of the Pope. "Yes, it's true we actually performed at the Pope's annual charity event at The Vatican," proclaims Easther proudly. "It came about when we actually released "I Am Blessed". We weren't sure how to promote it until our record company suggested for us to do the event. So we sent them our music and they scrutinised our lyrics. Then they checked our image until they finally said 'yes, we'll have you down to perform for us'.

"It was a lovely occasion. We got to meet the Gypsy Kings, John Denver and Gloria Gaynor and, also, of course, the Pope himself. He asked us if we were American. We corrected him on that and then he thanked us for performing and wished us a happy Christmas... it was nice and a great honour."

A great honour, undoubtedly and, moreover, a sign of the times. Eternal these days are as establishment as the three aforementioned acts which leaves us Blues & Soul-ites - who incidentally were the first people to get into "Stay"in somewhat of a quandry.

You see, we all know you Eternal girls can sing with the best of 'em and we admire the way you've gone about justifying the timeless implications of your group name. But when it comes to making really soulful, funky, contemporary African-American influenced music I'm tempted to utter 'Oi Eternal... No!' Or am I being too harsh. Kéllé takes me up on the matter.

"Musically, this album is more soulful in the message it conveys. We are making a statement and dealing with real issues. We always make sure, whatever we do, our music has substance and feeling to it.

"We have always said, from the very first day, that we are a commercial band in the way we are promoted and the way we are marketed. R. Kelly is a good example, he's a mainstream act with gospel roots who sells loads."

"A lot of people ask us if we are less commercial without Louise. They make assumptions that just because Louise has left we have instantly become more R'n'B. They all mean the same thing. Why would we be less commercial? It could only be the colour issue.

"I don't think we are less anything with or without Louise. We've had continued success without Louise and the reaction we've had to this project, and the single shows, that Eternal haven't gone anywhere and our public are still supporting us.

"Let me get one thing straight. If it wasn't an amicable split we wouldn't be friends but we still are. She's gone off to do her own thing which was her choice and we support her in that."

And on that subject, are there to be any more defections in the future?

"You'll see solo performances on tour. We always do solo performances on tour," offers Kéllé. "We've never been a band who've said we wanna be together forever. We've always maintained that groups move on; we are people and people make different choices and grow every day. We can't just say that in five years time we're gonna be together, you simply don't know.

"All we can say is we're happy now we're focused on what we're doing. We work hard and we know only as far as the album and as far as the tour but beyond that we don't know."

Casting the crystal ball further down the years, one can see a likely scenario whereby the various former members comeback in a splash of record company (and media) hype for a re-union album and a tour a la New Edition. It would certainly make good commercial sense... wouldn't it girls?

The suggestion meets with resounding approvals as Easther responds "That would make good sense. The significant thing was that New Edition timed it right. Everyone went away and did their own thing. There was always talk of a 'comeback' but they waited until they'd established themselves in their own right. The resulting album was bad."

Whilst on the subject of the group's own personal music tastes, the girls go off on a tangent and begin to extol the virtues of their favourite artists. Donning their 'fan hats' they take a break from stardom to reminisce about their own heroes and, more specifically two of the biggest names in black music history.

"We met Al Green on the Lulu television show. She had a Christmas special on which she'd invited Jamiroquai, Al Green and ourselves to perform. We did a version of "Let's Stay Together" and afterwards Al came up and complimented us on our rendition," recalls Vernie.

"Yeah, he has such an aura about him it's unbelievable and, in person, he's so electric just like his stage persona," adds an equally enthused Easther.

"Also, I'm a huge fan of George Clinton," interjects Kéllé. "I love that whole Parliament and P-Funk thing.

"On one occasion, he was in the studio when we recorded "Don't Make Me Wait" from "Power Of A Woman" and he sauntered up to us and said 'yeah that's on the one'.

"When I saw him Easther was saying to me 'Kéllé calm down, don't embarrass me today' but I couldn't help it.

"It's kind of funny because when people come up to us and say 'wow Eternal' I'm always surprised and I'm like 'yeah so' but when I meet a person who I idolise, I'm just a fan. Same as everyone else." Well almost.