As lead singer of Morcheeba, Skye’s rise to fame was stratospheric. But as a mother of four, who has just moved to the Surrey countryside, she could scarcely be more down to earth.
“I haven’t had a bath for four months as we have builders in and they have ripped the bathroom out,” she says on meeting, “but don’t worry, I have managed to shower.” Nowadays she says her crew are more diva-ish than she is, noting that staying in a marble and chandelier-encrusted palace on tour in Russia recently, a roadie complained the towels weren’t sufficiently soft. “He is no longer with us,” she says dryly.
Even at the height of her fame – Morcheeba’s album The Big Calm was one of THE albums of the 90s – she and husband Steve preferred driving to the MTV Awards in Edinburgh in a camper van. “People would ask where we were staying, and I would point vaguely and say ‘in the hotel over there’, but it was in the car park.”
For our lunchtime interview, Skye is still at home frantically making a dress for her show in Scotland that night. “I was in Shepherd’s Bush yesterday and saw this tartan in a window, and couldn’t resist…” She makes her own clothes after a concert in San Francisco when, in an attempt to impress a celebrated film director in the audience, she bought the most expensive gown of her life. “And there in the front row was a girl in an identical dress, so I learned my lesson. My mum taught me to sew and encouraged me to study fashion design, so it’s no big deal,” she shrugs.
Nothing seems to faze, even combining parenting and pop. So she is back on the rock road with her old Morcheeba collaborator Ross Godfrey to form the double act Skye Ross. And this despite her fourth child being only 14 months.
“I’ve always taken my children to work,” she chirps, as if work were the local typing pool. “They come on the tour bus until the age of four. All parenting is about juggling, whatever you do. When we played Glastonbury my daughter as a toddler was being held by our au pair in the crowd and pointed up on stage and said ‘there’s my other mummy’.” When Skye heard this, didn’t she feel undermined? “No, I thought it was hilarious!”
Similarly, when the family returned home after one tour, her then eight-year-old son started wailing, demanding he be taken “home” – “we got him to explain where he thought home was, and he meant some five-star hotel!”
This remark helped persuade Skye to ease back on the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
Ironically that son, Jaega, now 20, is drummer of Skye Ross. And the band has a distinctly family feel, with husband Steve (bass); Ross’ wife, Amanda (backing vocals); while Richard Milner (keyboards) is the only exception. “One of us just needs to adopt Richard,” Skye jokes, “then everybody in the band will be related!”
But talk of adoption leads to a revealing avenue in conversation. For Skye reveals she was brought up from three-years-old by a white couple in the East End. “They were much older, more like grandparents. It was a real old East End upbringing, fish and chips not rice and peas and cockles and eels for treats. We would watch Benny Hill and Morecambe and Wise.” Did she feel conflicted culturally? “I wasn’t confused, but the black kids were by me. I sounded pure East End, so they called me coconut.” Pause. “Now I’ve moved to Surrey, of course, my voice is rather posh…” she laughs against herself.
Her birth mother she has rarely seen and she does not know her birth father. “My grandmother came over in 2004 and told me how my mother had come to Britain on an £11 boat ticket from Jamaica as a teenager, and I wrote Jamaica Days about it. We went to visit my birth mother. She is very old now and I last visited her in a home. I know where she is. She suffers from schizophrenia and doesn’t recognise me or know who I am. I took lots of family photos with me…”
Her adoptive mother (“I wasn’t allowed to call her mum as a kid”) died recently, aged 83, and despite Skye’s breezy, warm cheerfulness this is clearly a massive loss, as Skye mentions her frequently. “I had a good mum and dad,” she says of her knitting-mad mother and butcher father. “I’m thinking of taking one of those injections that can tell your blood lines. I would be interested to find out where my biological father originated from.”
She pauses. “This is not a sob story, I know I was loved. I know my childhood shaped me.”
Skye is refreshingly honest, and funny. When I ask if it was her ambition to be a singer, she says: “I’m living the dream – Ross’ and Paul’s dream,” she laughs of the Godfrey brothers Paul and Ross who she met at a party and who invited her to join a band they wanted to form called Morcheeba. Similarly, she joined her first band as a backing singer “to make friends” when, having moved to Shoreditch, she didn’t know many people.
“I didn’t realise you could make money out of singing,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I had been in the choir at school, but suffered from shyness, in fact I still do, especially on small stages where it is more intimate.” In similarly self-deprecating mood, she laughs that Morcheeba’s laid back style was largely because “I couldn’t rap so Paul had to slow it down.”
Which seems to apply to her life in general now. “I do drink tequila now and then,” she insists. “I don’t want to sound boring! But 40 plus, you can’t go on stage with a hangover.”
Having broken up Morcheeba in 2003 at the height of its success, she agreed to re-form the band in 2009. But only on condition her bass player husband was allowed into the band. “We already had a bass player but I couldn’t imagine it any other way. It works for us, and we have been married 14 years.
He knows I’m the boss.” This time I’m not so sure she is joking. “Maybe that’s not quite true. We say to each other he is the head and I’m the neck, turning the head. We are not smoochy on stage, no-one would know he is my husband.”
Or indeed that the man with the thunder sticks is her son. Steve and Skye had bought him a drum kit when he was six but it had largely gathered dust in the garage until his friend next door tempted him to join a band, and he quickly became very good. “We needed a drummer and Steve said ‘how about Jaega. I said ‘are you mad?’
“I told my son ‘people will say it is favouritism so you have to be better than anyone else. You can’t make mistakes. But music is in his blood, he knows all the songs and his first gig was in Argentina in front of 10,000 people – he smashed it.”
Before I can ask the inevitable question, she says: “It can be difficult being the mother and the boss. Afterwards I said ‘are you sure you want to stay up on the tour bus drinking till 4am?’, but he did and the next day he smashed it again.”
Now with another baby, and to avoid yet another round of au pairs, they have converted their garage, so her brother-in-law and his wife can live with them and share some of the childcare. “My daughter is 18 now and she also helps, as well as my mother-in-law.” She makes it sound very easy.
Skye can be seen walking the Surrey lanes, pushing a pram. “I’ve just joined the gym and have become addicted to Game of Thrones, even though I don’t normally like period dramas.”
And as she looks back on what can be seen as a mini period drama of her own, did she ever imagine her life would be full of fame and success? “Not at all, fame was never the ambition. We never put our pictures on the cover. People have to drag out of me the name of the band I was in, and then they all say, ‘oh wow, Morcheeba’!”
But then she reflects. “I have always had one hand beckoning me forward, another saying ‘no’. We want to be successful and I love speaking to fans. It used to take me ages just to sign CDs for a queue of people. I have become friends with a few fans via Facebook, though I wait for them to contact me.” Yes, I can see it could seem a bit sad to stalk your own fans.
“Indeed,” she laughs. “And I don’t get why some people feel the need to share on social media what they had for breakfast. Nobody needs to know that stuff.”
But what Morcheeba fans would like her to share is whether the full band will ever get back together. “Never say never…”
Nevertheless, a bit of her must miss the super-stardom of Morcheeba’s heyday. “We were at the height of our success in 2003 and it was just awful, it was necessary to split. We played the first ever concert in Trafalgar Square with Craig David, having just been the first band to play China and we did the Hollywood Bowl.
“Afterwards, Ross went to live in America and Paul to France, probably just to get as far away from each other as they could. I thought ‘I’m never, ever going back’, but then my husband and manager said I should for the legacy of the band.” The bunce probably helped.
So in 2009 they had a brief revival. “Paul doesn’t like touring, or at least he can enjoy being on stage but he doesn’t like the tour bus. Its glamour can be greatly exaggerated.” She pauses as if pondering whether to let me in on a secret: “When Paul wasn’t happy, no one was happy.”
Later, Ross and her “reconnected on stage” and decided to embark on an earthier, live sound (“people are surprised how rocky we are, even psychedelic, with lots of guitar solos”) which was not going to work with Paul.
But far from engaging in recriminations, she points out what music has given her. “Before I got into music the furthest I had been was Rome and once to Calais, that was it. It is amazing what I have been able to do thanks to music.”