If you were listening to music during the 1980s and 1990s then chances are you saw and heard Tessa Niles performing with some of your favourite artists. Sting, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Annie Lennox, Tina Turner, Grace Jones – she’s worked with them all as a backing singer. In this extract from her new book, Backtrack, she spills the beans about what it was like teaming up with some of the biggest names in pop and the challenges of balancing family life.
‘CAN you get to the John Henry rehearsal rooms by 4 o’clock this afternoon?” barked an unfamiliar voice down the phone. “It’s an audition for a US tour with a well-known band. The tour starts in five days. Can’t tell you who it is yet, sorry.” “Oh okay . . . yes, I can make it, what’s the address?’
Changing into my best ripped jeans and stripy shirt (my look of choice for 1983) I jumped into a black cab to the London rehearsal venue. With enormous trepidation I heaved open the giant steel door of the studio. Inside, Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland were in full musical flight, powering their way through Can’t Stand Losing You, a magnificent sound barely contained by the normally adequate soundproofing.
At the end of the song, with my heart pounding and the final chord still ringing in my ears, I walked across the room and introduced myself to the three members of The Police.
After the Synchronicity tour I went on to record and tour consistently throughout the ’80s and 90’s.
In 2000, now mum to twin girls, I was booked to work on a track called Rock D.J with pop sensation Robbie Williams. Much taller than I’d imagined, Robbie was breathtakingly handsome with green eyes and an engaging grin. Then and there I knew I was done for. Now officially under the RW spell to which countless other females had fallen victim.
After several TV appearances with him, Robbie asked if I’d join his touring band. I hesitated as my twins, Mikaela and Fallon, were 18 months old and touring was not really what I had in mind. The practicalities of being away from the family for six weeks at a time would not be easy.
Financially, however, touring was tempting. My partner and I eventually decided that if we hired a really good nanny and were not apart for more than three weeks at a stretch, we could make it work. And so it came about: I was hitting the road again!
Working with Robbie was hugely satisfying but touring began taking its toll on family life. The twins needed me more and more and the time spent apart from my partner, who was also travelling, was becoming a serious problem. I needed to make some serious changes.
During a performance with Robbie at Live 8 in Hyde Park I realised what had to be done. As always, Robbie was incredible. During his best-loved ballad, Angels, the crowd sang along. With the formidable sound of this 200 000-strong choir and the lights of London across the park, I was overcome by the power and emotion of the moment.
Robbie held the audience in the palm of his hand. I knew from the heaviness I felt in my chest that this would be the last time I’d perform at such an event. The decision to leave all I’d ever known weighed heavily on me at that moment. I left a piece of me behind forever on stage that night as I sang through my tears.
In 2005 I hung up my trusty stilettos’ for good and retired from the music industry. The last 10 years have been spent living with the family in Johannesburg, South Africa. The transition to becoming the support act to the main headliners…namely my husband and kids, was undoubtedly a challenge. But, in so many ways, I was ready for it. After a wonderfully fulfilling career, at 44 I was ready for a new chapter in my life. Johannesburg living was seldom dull and always busy especially when I found myself running a Skills Development Project for underprivileged women in the nearby township. Without really knowing it I had re-invented myself. I’d swapped my heels for trainers and my stage make-up was drying up in the blistering heat… but life was all good.
*Tessa Niles is an English singer, best known as a backing singer for a wide variety of contemporary artists. She began her professional singing career in 1979, and is now the author of Backtrack, which is now available on amazon.