Mel C in conversation with Shura: Spice Girls, gender fluidity and their new pop star girl gang

What happens when two legends get together for a natter?

On her banger-filled, self-titled new album, Mel C turned to a number of young female artists to collaborate on writing and delivering a vibrant record full of messages of strength and self-acceptance. Among them was alt-pop star Shura, who teamed up with the Spice Girl on the club-ready anthem (and one of the record’s standout moments) ‘Good Enough’. Ahead of the release of Mel’s self-titled album on October 2, the pair reunited on Zoom for the first time since their writing session to talk the impact of the Spice Girls, gender fluidity and their new pop star girl gang. 

Mel C: “Should we dive straight in and talk about how we met? I was introduced to Shura as a person and an artist through my wonderful A&R Frank Tope. We had quite a surreal meeting cos we were in a studio environment working with producers Future Cut and I think it was my very first session with them, so it was a slightly awkward first day. But it was really lovely getting to know you cos we have some similarities, growing up in the North and loving a bit of footy. One of the shitty bits – as there are many – of Covid is that we never got the opportunity to do more stuff before the record was finished. But I like to think this is the start of a beautiful relationship, what do you think?”

Shura: “I am in full agreement. It was pretty much almost a year ago and I was where you are in your album campaign now in that my album was about to come out. Frank asked me if I wanted to go in and write with Mel and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me, on what planet would the answer be no?’”

Mel C: “I’m really pleased that we created something really brilliant. We had such limited time, but it’s made the record and I’m so happy it was on there and I’m really excited about what we can do in the future now we’ve had our little introduction. But growing up, you were kind of into the Spice Girls. They were on your radar, right?”

Shura: “I’d heard of them.” 

Mel C: [laughs] “I don’t hold it against you that you used to play football for Man City cos it would have been worse if it was Man Utd. But have I had any influence on you?”

Shura: “Like everyone my age, I was a big fan of the Spice Girls, obviously, and I was a massive tomboy growing up and I did play football. For me at that age, to have a person like you in a band was really exciting and validating. You certainly had an influence on my style as a kid. I remember going into school for own clothes day and I would go in with my Adidas popper tracksuit and my trainers that I’d saved up for with my pocket money. People would definitely take the piss out of me but I just felt really proud to be a tomboy and to be sporty. It came at the perfect time for me, growing up and coming to terms with my identity and personality. I’m sure that’s not the first time you’ve had people say that.”

Mel C: “I’m not gonna give too much away about the subject matter of our song but, at the time, I was losing my mind because it was when things were leading up to the Spice Girls shows [in 2019] so there was a lot going on behind the scenes. After our session, things progressed, we got on the road and did the Spice shows and it was incredible. The biggest thing that I took away from that was the realisation of this impact we’d had on a generation of people. Just the enormity of how important individuality was – it gave everybody somewhere to belong and it made it acceptable to be an individual. Then I went from the Spice tour to tour with Sink The Pink who are an LGBTQ+ creative collective and it just cemented that realisation. Also weirdly, hearing you talk about your experiences of being a fan of the Spice Girls almost makes me feel more self-acceptance and it’s something that’s become a theme with the album. Our session was quite early in my session for the album and even though I hadn’t realised thematically what the album was going to be, we were on that page.”

Shura: “Part of that process, probably, I imagine for you is coming to terms with what the Spice Girls have meant for so many people. As you grow and as your career continues, self-acceptance is such a big part of being an artist. It’s interesting when that has to happen in public.”

Mel C: “I think it’s amazing. You’re quite a lot younger than me and it took me quite a long time to have that realisation. You can get frustrated with things but it can be a bit of wasted energy because you can’t control these things. I remember when I did my first solo record and everything I’d done with the girls was incredible, but I was ready to branch out on my own. I was also frustrated because I felt like people couldn’t see me other than anything than Sporty. I spent years not trying to shun but be like, ‘Look, look! I can do this as well! There’s more to me!’ And I really lost my way. My daughter’s 11 and you can’t make a generalisation but I feel that there are a lot of young people who are much savvier and have a much better handle on life and just this internal strength. It’s a really wonderful thing to see and it really impresses me. It makes me feel excited about the future cos I think the generations coming up after myself are pretty headstrong and I’m excited to see where creativity goes, where art goes, where politics is gonna go.”

Shura: “I was really struck already by the generation underneath me and I can already see how I’m going to be a grandma in some of the ways that I think. I meet kids who are 13 and are at school and their friend’s bi or non-binary. Maybe it’s a London thing but it’s really exciting to see how this new generation is just so much more open-minded and less tribal. I remember when I was 13 you dressed in the way of the music you listened to. You were a mosher or a scally and that would dictate all your other interests.”

Mel C: “Even going further back to when I was growing up, you had a tribe that you belonged to and – like you said – it was the way that you dressed and you weren’t allowed to like anything else. What’s been great in music over the last 20 years is how so many genres are crossed over and how collaborations happen so, so much now. They were a nice little rarity back in the day. I think it’s exciting when you see artists working together and making something completely unique and different. We need to do an artist collaboration!”

Shura: “Yeah, I’m up for it. I’d love that.”

Mel C: “I’ll send over a document for you to sign. I think maybe you told me about your background when we worked together, but I’d love to hear what you were listening to growing up. Did you start out listening to mum and dad’s music? What was going on in the house?”

Shura: “We had a baby grand piano in the house, which sounds like I grew up really loaded but I promise I wasn’t. I think what happened was there was a teapot in the window of a shop and it said it cost £500 but you get a free piano. My dad bought it because he thought it was such good marketing. It was a baby ground but brown wood but he painted it gloss white to look like Elton John’s piano. Instead of bedtime stories, my dad would play guitar and sing the songs he’d written for us as kid, which would be about a frog called Billy who kept jumping and one day his head got chopped off cos he jumped too high. As a kid I was reading Smash Hits and listening to Spice Girls and 911 and had that phase, but I think the first time I started to look outside of what was being played on radio was when I got a job in a record store at age 16. Morrissey came in once and the less said about him the better now, but if he walks in a shop and you’re a 16-year-old kid in Manchester who listens to The Smiths, it’s a big deal. He bought Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ so the first thing I did was listen to that record and started discovering Patti Smith, Pixies, lots of alternative records my dad would have never have heard of.”

Mel C: “This is why I always love working with younger artists and songwriters because, in some ways, we’ve had some similar music that’s influenced us, but it’s the mad mix that creates something very unique. Everything you’ve been exposed to has informed what you’ve become and all of that experience and how it evolves within you creates who you are as an artist. I grew up with Madonna as my number one influence. I remember I watched her at Live Aid in 1985 and I’d seen ‘Like A Virgin’ and seen her on Top Of The Pops but that was the first time I’d seen her on stage with a band, and it just struck me. Although I’d danced and done little performances and little local things, when I saw that, it gave me an image of what I wanted to do. So I followed Madonna’s career and in my head growing up, into my teens, I was like ‘I want to be a pop star, I want to be famous, I want everyone to know me, I want to not be able to walk down the street’. All of these things and they were kind of like my priorities. Then weirdly, bizarrely, it happened, which was amazing. But then there’s all these other things that come into play and now my priorities are expressing my emotions, connecting with people, affecting people in the way I’ve realised music and artists affected me growing up. It’s ended up being something so much more fulfilling and important. It has so much more weight than what I originally was going for.”

Shura: “I think it’s interesting to think of that being your journey. You saw Madonna and were like ‘Oh I want that’ and then I saw you and went ‘Oh my god, you can make music and be a pop star and you don’t have to look like Madonna. You can look like me and you can wear your trackies’. I’ve never – well, I did wear football shorts on one gig actually, that was quite funny. It was in Thailand and it was fucking hot. Then I saw the pictures and was like never again.”

Mel C: “They’re quite a hard look to pull off aren’t they? I love that. It’s really interesting because it’s been nearly 25 years since ‘Wannabe’ and we are constantly hearing so many young artists referencing Spice Girls, whether it’s Adele or Dua Lipa or Charli XCX and I love it. These are artists that inspire me. It’s this mad cycle of inspiring each other, which I do love. It probably would be good for us to talk about being women and working in music and our experiences of that. Mine started a long time ago in the ‘90s and we talked about girl power, but many, many times we did experience sexism. We were taken seriously because there was a buzz but there was a certain like ‘Yeah but you’re not a boyband’. You’re a commodity at the end of the day. So that was really good for us because we were so determined to succeed so that just made us be relentless. But as time’s gone on, I do tend to work with predominantly guys.”

Shura: “Yeah, same. It’s a weird situation for a lesbian to be in. I’m like why am I surrounded by men?”

Mel C: [laughs] “My family’s really complicated but I have halves and steps – I have five brothers and one sister. I’ve always been around boys and I’ve never really thought about it. So if I find myself on a tour bus with a load of dudes, I don’t really think about. When you do think about it, I’m like ‘Wow, all the songwriters I was working with to a certain point, producers, engineers, backline crew, are predominantly men’. I know we’re seeing more and more women coming through but it’s hard to change that. With touring as well, there are maybe quite a few women that wouldn’t be down with that lifestyle, cos it can be brutal, can’t it?”

Shura: “It is super brutal but I think the first step is to be conscious of that lack of balance and then do as much as you can to change that. For instance, on my second record I was like OK I’m gonna ask two of my favourite women to mix and master this record because I really want there to be more women on it than just me and just my friends who have contributed because they like me and are singing. You can do it and I know from touring with Tegan And Sara that on the last tour they did, over half of their crew were women.”

Mel C: “We talk about women and fighting for equality in our industry and in every industry, and we’ve both tried to seek out more women to work with. But then there’s this whole thing of gender fluidity. It blows my mind.”

Shura: “I have a lot of friends who are non-binary and I think that just wasn’t part of the conversation when I was a kid. I remember people saying ‘Are you a man?’ Because I was gay and I liked football. I was like, ‘No’. But I’d have days when I didn’t really feel like a woman. I don’t wake up and go, ‘I’m a woman!’ I think if the discourse had been different then I might have been like, ‘I can relate to that’. In a world where there is still a lot of just bullshit around – and men suffer from it too – toxic masculinity, it makes the whole world shit to live in a binary way. That’s why I get really excited about generations to come because it is more nuanced and people are more open. A hundred years of that and then maybe actually it doesn’t suddenly feel really different to be in a session with a woman because we all connect with each other in a different way. Sexuality is a part of that. I keep saying we should assume that everyone is gay and the only people that have to come out are straight people. I think that would be really fun. Can you imagine everyone’s coming out as straight stories? I’d love it!”

Mel C: “You’ve just reminded me of something and I’m gonna take us totally off piece now. I have a gay friend and his coming out story is just my favourite and I have to share it with you. He was at a family party and they’d all had a few bevvies and they were doing the hokey cokey. As you went into the middle, you had to say something. On his turn, he went in and went, ‘I’m gay!’ For my coming out as a hetero, I’d be inspired by that one.”

Shura: “Just hundreds of lesbians crying in the corner.” 

Mel C: “I’ve had a lesbian fan and I think…”

Shura:A lesbian fan?!”

Mel C: [laughs] “I’ve had many lesbian fans and I’m very proud of that, but one particular lesbian fan came up to me at an album signing or something and whispered in my ear, ‘We know you’re gay’.”

Shura: “It’s funny cos I feel like there are lots of women that lesbians are desperate to claim. You’ve been one of them. KT Tunstall never should have worn the rainbow braces on the front cover of her album. Cate Blanchett, Taylor Swift even. We just want the good eggs. It comes from a good place.”

Mel C: “I’m super flattered! Shura, I’d like to know if you’ve discovered any new music or artists in lockdown.”

Shura: “There’s an artist who I’ve actually done a remix for called Becca Mancari and they put out a record called ‘The Greatest Part’. There’s a song called ‘Hunter’ which is about how they grew up in a cult and then escaped and got sent threatening letters. I’ve been listening to Arlo Parks, who’s great. I finally listened to the new Phoebe Bridgers record because I was scared to feel sad. I listened to it in a cab on the way to the airport after leaving my girlfriend in New York.”

Mel C: “I’ve got to write notes, I don’t know Phoebe Bridgers! I’m always looking for some inspo. I discovered Arlo Parks too and have been loving delving into her world. Another artist I discovered on the Mark Ronson album is Yebba. That voice! And I’ll tell you who I love – Rina Sawayama. I love her mad mix of genre. She’s just unafraid to do whatever.”

Shura: “She’s part of Pitchfork’s 7.7 gang, which is basically this theory that any women – especially women of colour – who make a great pop record will automatically get 7.7 and that basically means 10.”

Mel C: “Brilliant. Well we’re on the same page, aren’t we? One more person I want to talk to you about is Jessie Ware. That album’s beautiful. I can’t stop listening to it. I was lucky enough a few weeks ago to do [her podcast] Table Manners and I just fell in love with her. So I think you, I, Jessie and Rina – a girls’ night out is on the cards.”

Shura: “Oh god, I would love that!”

Mel C: “Let’s make it happen.”

[phone rings] 

Shura: “Oh that’s my mum. [answers phone] Mum, I’m just on a call with Sporty Spice… She was probably just calling to see how it went.”

Mel C: “Can you speak Russian, Shura?”

Shura: “A little bit, but not enough. That’s one of the things I actually want to do when I leave the house is to get Russian lessons.”

Mel C: “I was gonna learn Spanish in lockdown. And piano. Never mind, next time! Anyway, this was a nice little Friday afternoon chit-chat, wasn’t it? As soon as we’re allowed out in groups of six we’ll get our girl gang together.”

Shura: “Definitely! This was my favourite moment of quarantine. Bye!”

Mel C’s album ‘Melanie C’ is out on October 2.

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