Touch, February 1996
EVERYTHING STARTS WITH AN 'E'
The 'acceptable face' of black music, and the UK's biggest selling girl group since Bananarama. Are Eternal the future of pop? Darren Crosdale encounters three women on the verge of an international breakthrough
It was the insidious way in which Eternal vaulted themselves into the public's field of vision that so riled everyone. Like the victims of a minor accident involving a parked car, people were left asking "Now, where the hell did that come from?" No one seemed to know the who, what, where, why, when or how about Eternal.
As befits a small place like Britain, the music industry is itself small - incestuously so - and with most British artists, someone, somewhere usually knows something about them. Michelle Gayle was as familiar - if somewhat more alluring - as Pauline Fowler's cardigan. We had grown up with her on Grange Hill and Eastenders and we knew, from the release of 'Looking Up', that she was launching a pop career. Similarly with MN8, our other successful black pop act, the guys were regulars in South London, and their rise and rise had been followed closely by people with their ear to the music scene.
But Eternal seemed to come from nowhere to become the biggest selling girl-group since Bananarama. Except, of course, they didn't. As is often the case with successful pop acts, there was someone behind the scenes probably more responsible for the group's success than the group members themselves. Cruel but true. And behind Easther and Vernie Bennett, Kéllé Bryan and Louise Nurding is Denis Ingoldsby who, with his partner Oliver Smallman, runs First Avenue, a management company and record label, distributed by EMI. Ingoldsby's Eternal vision had formed before he even set eyes on the girls.
Perhaps it was simply a case of simply filling in the blanks. He met Louise first, in a West End club, the Milk Bar. He then came across the Bennett sisters and, to complete the En Vogue foursome which Ingoldsby hungered for, Louise introduced him to Kéllé, a fellow pupil from the Italia Conti stage school.
"He's the guy who had the vision." says Kéllé, beaming a smile which could illuminate the dark side of the moon. "Although we thought he was a pervert when we first met him." Indeed. Ingoldsby not only had to convince the girls of his management sincerity, he also had to deal with parents. That overcome, the Eternal boat was pushed out. And what a boat it was to become! Eternal sing better than Total (but the music's not as good) look better than Brownstone (but don't sing as good) and will last longer than Mokenstef (who are, after all, probably going to be one-hit wonders).
Eternal are about to start hair and make-up chores for the Touch photo-shoot. They do not need the heavy make-up the public is used to. In person and make-up free, they are attractive, lithe and incredibly slim (though Easther worries unnecessarily about her weight). They carry themselves with an almost 'round the way' air. But that thing called The Image, that all-devouring beast by which Madonna and Janet can constantly re-invent themselves, comes into play with Eternal also. The new image - created for the r'n'b influenced album 'Power of a Woman' - attempts to push them as suave 90s vamps. Their skirts are up to their armpits, their mouths puckered like Aunty Mabel asking for a kiss. But it's at odds with what we're used to from the girls. And don't TLC wear all the satin we can handle? The Image throws up a facade people have to work through in order to glimpse the real women beneath. Easther, Vernie and Kéllé are actually more intelligent, much funnier and more down to earth than you would ever have given them credit for. And they have mellifluous speaking voices.
It was their managers, Easther says huskily, who let them decide on their original dungaree Image. Musically though, it was all First Avenue. "When you start off in this business you don't know that much musically." The Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, Beverly Knight route from church to secular r'n'b is well recorded, but few people realise Eternal have followed a similar path. And while our best known other girl group, Truce, have kept closer to their gospel roots, Eternal have not. "First and foremost we wanted to be singers. The style of music did not matter."
Like Delia Smith preparing her dough before making bread, First Avenue prepared Eternal for fame. Their dancing and singing was fine-tuned, and EMI's promotion machine took a course of steroids before shooting into overdrive for the first single 'Stay'. That was to be only the first of Eternal's six Top 15 hits from their 'Always And Forever' album. They are the only group to have accomplished such a feat off their debut album. Ever.
This long player was a classic pop album which has sold over 2 million copies. The love songs possessed the faintest of sexual lilts, but not enough to errr.... arouse the notice of parents whose children bought the music. Remember it is the people who pop into Woolworths and Our Price who chart music.
Louise Nurding and Kéllé Bryan were probably best prepared for it all, having met at the Italia Conti stage school. Kéllé's parents couldn't afford the fees but she was given a grant. "My mum was supportive. My dad was like, 'When are you going to get a proper job?'" Her candidness surprises. Kéllé started off the interview with a slight American twang which got the alarm bells ringing: Oh oh. This is the one who's going to recite the press release. Wrong. "Even when I got into the group my dad was very blase. One day he saw us at a showcase, it was then he said he was proud of me. He's now my biggest fan. He's got the mug, the pen, the cap, the poster."
The Bennett sisters story is different. Daughters of a pastor, Matilda, they grew up in south London singing in the church with their seven brothers and sisters. Mr. Bennett died when the girls were young, and Easther says simply: "Mother was the backbone. It's fun going to church." (Note the present tense.) "You learn a lot about music and singing," she glances at her partners and Kéllé pipes up: "We learned by ear. Sometimes that's better than those who were trained." Ahh, good old-fashioned rivalry and pride. "Yeah, at least we can harmonize!"
But before Easther could dream of harmonizing outside of church, they needed to convince mother. As daughters of the pastor, they had examples to set: "Sometimes I'd see one of my mom's friends on the street and by the time I got home she'd already told my mom (Easther drops into a Jamaican accent): 'Me see Easther 'pon de street yuh know, and she never even say 'ello'. In church you had to be good. Just sit there and behave yourself. We found it hard sometimes. No child is perfect. But by teenagers, you know all the tricks! Hah!" Easther guffaws, "By teenagers you should know. When you want to put the sweetie in your mouth you cough." Easther proceeds to cough and mimics how she would secretly pop something into her mouth. Easther adds: "I was in a clique of girls who all went to church so I didn't get that peer pressure, you know, none of us were going behind the bike-sheds. I didn't even know about parties until I was 18! My mum says, 'What you don't have, you don't miss.'"
When Vernie and Easther returned from a meeting with Ingoldsby and said they wanted to join a pop group their mother wasn't really into it. "She thinks the business is corrupt. But she's more supportive now." And just when everything seemed to be going alright, a member left.
The white girl. Louise Nurding. Her departure from the group was greeted with warranted skepticism. Comedienne Angie Lamarr had this racist joke: while Louise was with the group, their dance routines were tame - in order for the white girl to keep up. "Have you seen 'em now?" Angie asked. "It's all (singing) 'Poooweeer of a womaaan' they're strutting up and down and they look good!" Journalists opined throughout the summer that the white member left to ease the group's entry into a still racially segregated US market.
"It's not the white member that's left, it's Louise!" says Kéllé, not bothering to hide her exasperation. Her dark eyes are shooting daggers via the mirror in front of her. "It's ignorant to say the white person left. I hadn't even thought of it like that until you said it. It's not like that for us."
Opinions that the music buyers' prejudices were being played by the racial content of Eternal were not helped by Denis Ingoldsby's comments in a Q interview last year. He wanted an En Vogue, he said, but with a white member to create added interest. Now Louise has gone off to pursue Madonna's road to fame (muttering the definitive band break-up excuse, of 'musical differences'), and Eternal are free to chase soul. They're off to live in the States for six months "to break the market" they say cheerily, and we over here will be hearing the results.
But Ingoldsby had already outlined another possible scenario for Eternal. Vernie could be Anita Baker, Kéllé a Janet Jackson and Easther can be Whitney Houston, he said. So it seems as if Eternal were created with the intention of peeling off the members like onion layers - though hopefully without the eye-watering effects. Says Kéllé "We know bands don't stay together. We didn't start out as a group to split up. We started out to stay together."
Race reared its head constantly while Eternal were in the States promoting 'Stay'. "They would sit Louise nearer the interviewer so he would address all his questions to her," says Easther. And then there was the problem with the lighting. "Many television stations would be lit in red or blue, which meant we were too dark."
"We used to say we should bring our own lights!" adds Kéllé.
"Louise would be lit better," continues Easther. "They brought lights for white people. They need to understand how to light black people. Our manager would have to tell them it was wrong. If a white person is having to say that to another white person, then something needs to be done."
Why not say something yourselves?
"If you do, they may take it the wrong way," replies Easther.
Which is a perfect summation of Eternal. They do not do anything wrong. It is all too easy for people who consider themselves to be seriously interested in music to make derisory statements about black pop acts. Pop is short for popular, and since when did it become a swear-word? Probably in the 80s when Stock, Aitken and Waterman created a conveyor belt of disposable 'songs' by the likes of (ugh) Kylie, (yuck) Jason and (ugh, yuck, help!) Sonia. Eternal at least, have tangible talents.
And they're smooth. How do you sell millions of records world-wide? Be as smooth as a plum and just as tasty. Biggie Smalls is rough. Yes, he can sell two million albums, but that is due to the segregated nature of the US market. If even a small percentage of the black population buy his material, it will chart in both the r'n'b and national charts. Eternal, meanwhile, sell in the UK, the US, Italy, Germany, France, Japan.....
And Eternal's transfer to the r'n'b train could not be more timely. Bandwagonist maybe, but smooth, definitely. British pop is leaning more towards soul and r'n'b everyday, and with some luck the new sound will reign as long as house has. The next albums from Michelle Gayle and MN8 will be more soulful than you would have given them credit for. There will always be guitar-ridden ejaculations by boys' bands like Blur, Oasis, Menswear (this is a band nation after all) but increasingly the B-lines will get heavier, the lyrics more sexual. Pop will neither eat itself or alter itself to r'n'b styles though, rather, the other way around. R'n'b songs will become verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge, improvised chorus to fade. And if you doubt this, Eternal's latest album, 'Power of a Woman' is proof.
But Choice FM, London and Birmingham's r'n'b station are having none of it. Vernie spoke to Jiggs who, she says, replied that it is not the origin of the artist that decides the playlist, just the music. Vernie is fixing her eye make-up. Her reflection is that of a woman sure of her abilities. "The 'Power of a Woman' they didn't want to play when it was number four over here is the same 'Power of a Woman' they will play when we come back from the US. I'm confident we will do well over there."
But 'Power of a Woman', the album, is more pop than soul. There are soul sounding tunes like 'Stay' and 'Hurry Up' but they are soulful pop as opposed to popular soul. Ronnie Wilson and Dennis Charles of First Avenue are talented producers, but not talented soul producers. On the other hand, Dallas Austin, who also makes an appearance on this album is the opposite. The success of his Rowdy Records - with Monica, Madonna and Michael Jackson and oops! TLC amongst its production credits speaks for itself. The opening to the Austin produced 'Don't Make Me Wait' sounds suspiciously like Biggie Small's 'The Warning' and it's as funky as Eternal get. But that's not enough to raise Eternal above pop levels to the soul stratosphere. But maybe that was the plan. After all you do not want to disillusion your original fans when changing music styles. It's like weaning a baby off milk and onto solids. It has to be done carefully and sympathetically.
Interview over and Eternal switch off with an almost audible click. Easther still has kitchen-towel-sized rollers in her hair, a splash of golden eye-shadow under her (thankfully) blue contact lens-free eyes. They talk with the ease of colleagues, saying to one another "He's feisty yuh know!" Wendy from First Avenue tells them the dates for the Brits (they've been nominated for Best Dance Act) and tries to sort out some outfits. "You could wear the outfits you wore in the 'I Am Blessed' video."
"But I have to have something around my waist." retorts Easther.
"Cos my bum's too big." Realising that I'm still listening, Easther turns on me and I hope she's joking when she says "Go downstairs! No one's talking to you!"
But they already have done. Give it a few more years and just maybe Eternal will prove to be the powerful women they profess to be.