The North East is a part of the very DNA of soul-pop duo Lighthouse Family. Tunde Baiyewu and Paul Tucker first met at a mutual friend’s flat on Waterloo Street in Newcastle back in early part of 1993, while they were both students. Paul had already written what would become one of their quintessential singles, Ocean Drive – reportedly named after the drive from Sunderland’s Roker Pier to Ocean Road in South Shields – and was on the lookout for a singer to lay down vocals. One of his friends recommended Tunde and the rest, as they say, is history.
‘We had some mutual friends who were studying Music Technology at uni – I’d sung on some of their coursework – so when Paul was looking for a singer for Ocean Drive they all said: “oh yeah, Tunde can do that”,’ explains Tunde. ‘We met and when Paul played the song to me, I remember listening and thinking: this is it. If I was ever going to be involved in music, this was exactly the sort of stuff that I knew I wanted to be recording. So it was special in that sense, right from the beginning.’
‘When I was in university, I used to spend all my money on expensive clothes – I was all fur coat and no knickers,’ Paul laughs. ‘My French friends used to call me “le clochard soigné”, which means “the well-dressed tramp!” I was walking down the steps in the Tyneside Cinema one day, and they’d taken off all of the film posters and there was a nail sticking out of the wall. It ripped this Armani cashmere jacket of mine, and so I made a complaint. I used the money that I got from that to pay for the demo of Ocean Drive. Because it was expensive – nowadays you’ve got laptops and things – but in the ‘90s you needed about £10,000 worth of equipment to record a demo. As soon as we got into the studio and Tunde started singing, the sound engineer just gave me this look. I realised actually, this song is really hitting me. So we started sending it out to different labels.’
The band’s debut album, also called Ocean Drive, was a slow-burning success: going six-times platinum and staying in the UK album charts for almost three years. Many (if not all) of us remember ‘Lifted’ as being one of the defining songs of the era; the pop-soul classic was inescapable on the radio, and fast became the soundtrack not only of high street Britain, but also of drive-time Britain and night-out Britain.
The 1997 follow-up album, Postcards From Heaven, featured three UK Top 10 singles – ‘Raincloud’, ‘High’ and ‘Lost in Space’ – and also went six-times platinum, charting across Europe, the Far East, Australia and New Zealand. Their third album in 2001, Whatever Gets You Through The Day, produced another Top 10 single in the shape of ‘(I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be) Free/One’, but by this point the band were at breaking point. Their friendship had already begun to burn out after years of living in one another’s pockets on the road when both were suddenly, simultaneously, struck by grief – as Paul’s father died, Tunde lost his mother. The duo badly needed a break.
That break lasted for 18 years. Having tried a couple of times in the intervening period to get back in the studio and record as a band again, Paul and Tunde have finally resurrected Lighthouse Family with their new album, Blue Sky In Your Head, released at the beginning of May.
‘It has been a bit nerve-racking,’ Paul admits. ‘You don’t realise so much while you’re recording, then you suddenly start thinking: hold on a minute, this is a whole new world – I’m not 25 anymore! The industry is all about streaming now, so there’s stuff happening 24/7. It wasn’t a walk in the park in the ‘90s, it was hard work, but now it’s a different landscape. We love the record that we’ve made, we’re proud of the record we’ve made, but even still, there’s a little bit of you that worries.’
We’re confident Lighthouse Family have little reason to be concerned. As well as an additional ‘Essentials’ disc containing 10 of their classic songs remastered for the first time – in celebration of the band’s 25-year recording history – Blue Sky In Your Head’s 13 new singles include a rippling, rolling title track, prevailing messages of hope, optimism and renewal, and uplifting, anthemic musicality that sees Tunde and Paul back to their magical best.
‘We wanted to make an album that does what it says on the tin: it’s a Lighthouse Family record,’ reasons Paul. ‘There’s something about Lighthouse Family songs that put that picture in your head of optimism, hope, a place that you want to get away to, a dream – something better. Even if it’s just that they help you change the way you look at the same things, and things then change because of it. They create this blue sky in your head, and I loved the way that idea kept morphing the more I thought about it. It’s that sense of finding optimism after darkness.’
‘If you’re able to hit that sweet spot when you’re writing music, what you’re doing is you’re allowing people to experience what I call “soul travel” when they hear it,’ Tunde explains. ‘In other words, you’re helping them see a place, go somewhere even, through the agency of the song. We all crave that. Music can be the only place where you’re genuinely free of all the craziness in life. You listen to a song and, for those three minutes, you’re able to escape – it’s like hopping on a flying carpet. Yeah, you’ve got to come back and start dealing with life again, but once the song does that to you, you find you’ve got more inner fortitude and strength. It doesn’t mean life gets easier, but you find you have more spiritual stamina.’
The duo will be going on tour later in the year in support of the new release – and they’ll be sure not to leave Newcastle out of the party.
‘There’s no question about it, Newcastle is an integral part of the DNA of what we do,’ says Paul. ‘We deliberately came back to record this album. The guys that built Abbey Road and Olympic, all the big rooms in London, we got them to build us a studio here, because we’ve just got so many memories. The clutter of everything else falls away. Of course we’ll be coming here on tour. Newcastle just feels hot right now – it’s like something’s caught fire.’
‘Different places have power points,’ reasons Tunde. ‘There are places like that dotted around – you probably have a favourite room in your house, for example. Newcastle is the seat of power for Lighthouse Family. Coupled with the fact that, in some other places, not necessarily the buildings, but even just the people and the thoughts create a barrier. But in Newcastle it’s like that saying: on a clear day you can see forever.’
Lighthouse Family will be performing at Newcastle’s City Hall on 14th November. For more information, visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk
The band’s new album, Blue Sky In Your Head, is out now
To read our full interview with Tunde and Paul, visit www.livingnorth.com