‘If the dustmen sing my songs, I feel honoured!’: Heather Small on 90s pop, racism and embracing her Britishness squib

The former M People singer overcame shyness to become a national treasure. As she releases a new album, she recalls the early struggles, her years at the top – and being branded a diva

Heather Small used to tell herself: if she could just have one song that everyone knew and expected her to sing over and over again, she would be happy. That she has many is a real delight. She remembers a group of refuse collectors in their van who spotted her on the street and shouted over to her. “They all started singing Moving on Up,” she says. “I felt like I’d arrived. It was brilliant. It was just so warm, and if the dustmen want to sing my songs I feel honoured.”

That song and others – such as One Night in Heaven and Search for the Hero from her days in the band M People, and her solo hit Proud – are on her new album, largely of greatest hits, rerecorded with the London Metropolitan Orchestra. Proud, especially, has taken on a life of its own since its release in 2000, soundtracking TV montages, being used for the 2012 Olympic bid and appearing in the sitcom Miranda; even Oprah Winfrey used it on her show. Does Small ever get tired of it? “Absolutely not. Hearing the reaction from a crowd to Proud brings out the joy because I see how much it means to people. This song means so much to me, and that I’ve been able to translate that feeling, and people have made it their own, is joyous. How could you not give it your best? For some people, it’s the first time they’ve heard me sing. Others have heard me sing it lots of times, but they’re still waiting for that feeling, that connection.” She smiles, lips painted pink. “I’m looking for that connection as well.” It’s why she sings, she says. “You want to feel that love; you want to feel that joy. If you release something, if you put it out there, you’re looking for some kind of approval; you’re looking for people to be your tribe.”

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