Conner Reeves: Once More, With Feeling
Singer-songwriter, Conner Reeves first came to the world’s attention in 1997 with his gold-selling debut album, 'Earthbound' scoring five top 30 singles in the UK, culminating in a Brit nomination and international touring with Whitney Houston. After stepping out of the limelight for 22 years, the shy soul singer is back, and working on new music. Speaking to Headliner, the man whose voice will still give your goosebumps goosebumps reflects on his journey, where he’s been, and why he’s only interested in making music that makes people feel something.
“There’s a paper bag I’d be more comfortable wearing; I don’t even need the eye-holes!” jokes Conner Reeves as Headliner sets up the camera for one of the first interviews the soul singer has done in a long while.
It’s been a wild ride for Reeves, whose debut, gold-certified album, Earthbound was released in 1997, leading to a string of top 30 hits, Top Of The Pops performances, international touring with Whitney Houston, and then – silence. Until this year, which saw Earthbound finally appear on streaming services, opening up Reeves’ music to a whole new audience, and igniting the singer’s desire to start working on new material.
Reluctant to have anything to do with the world of celebrity or the ‘look at me’ publicity machine, Reeves recently dipped his toe into the world of social media, posting a few updates showing himself in the studio. It turns out his fans had been patient, immediately encouraging him to release new music.
“I was really touched by it,” says Reeves. “My son and my family kept saying: ‘Have you seen this online?’ I don’t ever look at myself online, but there have been YouTube videos that people have put up. I wouldn’t even know how to put one up! There were loads of comments underneath, and people were saying: where is he now? There was a lot of interest in my coming back out there. It’s a huge change for me because I’ve been in a supporting role for years, and I deliberately stepped out of the spotlight because it was kind of a crazy, rollercoaster ride. Then I became a father, and I wanted to be a proper father, so I wanted to withdraw from things.”
Reeves is not interested in fame, and can’t stand to watch himself on film. He jokes around by asking us to shoot his good side, “well, my less bad side,” he clarifies. A warm host with no airs and graces, it’s hugs all round before Reeves busies himself making Headliner proper coffees, singing away to himself (the runs!) in his Moroccan den of a recording studio/writing room in London, where he uses a Focusrite audio interface, a Rode NT1 microphone and Logic Pro X to capture his recordings.
Dressed in a smart, pinstripe suit jacket, a band T-shirt and aviator style glasses, Reeves’ look wouldn’t be complete without his signature cap (rocking this long before the Shelbys hit our screens). With a soulful singing voice that inexplicably makes listeners want to cry with happiness, Reeves is a London boy through-and-through, dropping his ‘t’s’ when he speaks, and frequently apologising for “going on a bit”.
To his credit, he’s got a lot of gaps to fill in. As a teenager, Reeves was the only one in his family with an interest in music. “I wasn’t allowed to sing in my own house because I've naturally got kind of a deep voice. My favourite artists were Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, so I was really pushing my range. My voice would go because I was pushing it too high. It was a small house and I've got three brothers, and [singing] wasn’t encouraged, shall we say.
"My dad used to say that my bedroom sounded like a vasectomy clinic that had run out of anaesthetic,” he laughs. “There was no precedent in my entire family for music, so for me wanting to be a singer, I might as well have said I wanted to be an astronaut! In fact, I would have got more support.”
To practice, Reeves would venture out of the house, and could often be found singing in local parks at nighttime. “I had to go up the park with the dog late at night,” he nods. “The worse the weather was, the more I’d go, because no-one would be there. I adore my parents, but they just couldn’t understand it.”
Although clearly a talented young singer-songwriter, Reeves struggled to get signed:
“No one wanted to sign me! My then-management had to create a label. They took me to all the major labels with My Father’s Son and the other songs, but they didn’t know how to market me because I sounded black, but I’m white, and they didn’t know what to do: Is he a heartthrob? Is he a serious musician? Is it gospel, funk, pop? They just didn’t know what to do.”
After the eventual success of his album, to Reeves’ astonishment, he caught the eye of one Whitney Houston, resulting in him becoming her support act on her tour. However, the experience was not as Reeves pictured it to be, taking place when Houston was struggling with her inner demons.
“It was really weird,” he admits. “She is my number one favourite female singer, ever. So, you can imagine – this was a dream come true here. But it was a bit of a double-edged sword because she was not the Whitney that I had grown up listening to. She had started falling. The first concert we did was in Berlin, and I was so excited to watch the gig. I would have paid money to see it, and I was getting to watch it for free! When I watched her she just looked like something was going on – something not good.”
Preferring to stay out of the spotlight, Reeves continued writing songs for other prominent artists, including Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and Joss Stone, then moving to rural France for a few years where he did manual labour for minimum wage.
“My life has been an amazing up and down. From being someone that was doing really well – financially and otherwise – and then I found myself by a turn of events living in France working as a labourer for minimum wage to pay the rent. There were some pretty lean times. At one point I was digging holes in a garden in 90 degree heat for about 8 euros an hour, and I didn’t think, ‘poor me,’ but I thought, ‘Well, isn’t this amazing how life goes up and down!’ [laughs]. But I don’t regret the experience; it’s almost like I got broken down to nothing and rebuilt again.”
After a hard day's work, Reeves always found solace in singing and writing music:
“I’d come back from doing this labouring – and it was, as they say, au milieu de nulle part – the middle of nowhere in France. I had to cycle there, cycle back, and it was ridiculously hot – all to make enough money to rent this shack of a house I was living in. But when I got home my relief was not watching the telly, it was writing songs. I wrote loads of songs while I was there, and I had an amazing time – I'm not complaining about it.
"I was in a covers band, and we got to play at these street parties during the summer months. I sang in front of 100,000 people in Party At The Park – fast forward and I'm singing in front of 100 people on the street. Simple, French farming people were dancing right in front of me, and the joy on their faces – in a way it meant more to me.”
The period of hardship enriched Reeves, which he credits with making him a better songwriter:
“Because I really know what it means to go without,” he stresses. “I’d be absolutely knackered, and I'm still trying to get that verse. Maybe more people can relate to the lyrics because of what I've been through. If you get people that are super successful and they stay there, they lose touch with their audience. Because who can relate those kind of lyrics? Being a billionaire, travelling first class: that’s a small club, that is. There’s only so many times you can say: Look how much I've got and you haven't.”
Reeves has never made any attempt at joining the celebrity world: “I did my Welcome To The Future EP more than 10 years ago, and it got lots of critical acclaim and I'm proud of it, but I haven’t had loads of failed attempts to put myself in some sort of I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! thing. I’ve been approached for a few things like that, and I just went: ‘Naaah, not for me, thanks’. I’m just not that creature.
"Music has always come first for me, not presence or celebrity. I’m just not interested in that – I never have been. My heroes didn’t play that game: Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Donny Hathaway – they were just artists, that’s what they did. They happened to be famous because they were so good. There’s a difference between famous and being an artist.”
Reeves is most passionate when talking about discovering new, authentic artists, singers that inspire him, and the importance of musicians continuing to create music with feeling. It’s all about the goosebump-factor:
“I’ve discovered some amazing artists on Spotify,” he enthuses. “These artists are real, and they’re raw and they can give you goosebumps, and there is no record company going: ‘No, I'm sorry, you don’t look right, you don’t sound right, you’re not writing about certain things that everyone else is writing about’. These artists don’t use autotune – they sing. That’s the goosebump-factor, where it touches you – that’s soul.
“I think there’s a danger of the emotion being stripped away,” he elaborates. “I mean, the human voice, man! It’s so important as an instrument: it’s organic, it’s biological, it resonates within the cavities in your body, and that’s why you get goosebumps because of the lyrics – because of the emotion. You strip that away and you might as well have robots writing songs, and having them sing it. I had forgotten what it means to listen to a song where you feel touched deeply, and that has never happened to me listening to the Spotify top 20.”
It’s important to Reeves that his new music connects with people, and is relatable. “I've certainly had lots of experience about the real world since I had that first album out,” he smiles. “Hopefully it enriches the songs I'm going to be releasing soon. I want to say something that makes people feel something. If five people listen to it, that’s fine, and if five million people listen to it, I won’t do anything different. What you’ll get is stuff that I really mean – I'm not doing it with an ulterior motive. You're passing something on from something you’ve got access to that other people haven’t, and you’re trying to say things that maybe people can’t say, but it says things for them.”
As well as working on new music, Reeves will dip into what he calls ‘the vault’ – where he metaphorically stores his unreleased music from the last 20 years.
“There’s going to be a lot of stuff coming out which will be very different, but hopefully the quality will be the standard,” he says modestly. “There won’t be any: ‘I love you baby, you drive me crazy,’ or ‘up in the club’. I think that’s been done enough! I like the songs I can really put my heart and soul into. That’s what makes it soul. It’s those kind of songs when I can stand up and say: ‘I mean every word of this,’ so hopefully people will get that.
"It just feels like I’m on the right path again after that massive detour. A 20 year break! I don’t know where it’s going to lead, I really don’t. But I’m on it, and I’m not getting off it again.”
Words Alice Gustafson