Heather Peace is one talented, and busy, lady. Most of you would be familiar with her role as steadfast detective, Sam Murray in the BBC lesbian drama Lip Service, or maybe even as Nicki Boston, the Head of English in the popular BBC One school drama series, Waterloo Rd. Just recently, Heather was voted the 20th hottest queer lady in all the land in the Autostraddle Hot 100, while DS Murray was voted the 9th most bad-ass fictional female crime-fighter, a list that was perhaps not as popular as the Hot 100 but important nonetheless.
Acting and hotness aside, Heather Peace is also a talented and accomplished musician. Her debut album, Fairytales, was released independently in May and has been burning up the UK charts. Produced by Oscar-nominated producer Nigel Wright (Madonna, Streisand, others), the album features twelve theatrical pop songs with delicate melodies, soaring vocals, and lyrics that offer an honest glimpse of Heather’s life, loves and associated lessons.
Heather is not an actor who suddenly decided to have a crack at music. A classically trained pianist who’s been songwriting since the age of fourteen, Heather paid her dues like most other musicians, starting out performing for friends at her local pub and undertaking a jazz residency at a bar in Manchester. Perhaps this is why she seems so genuinely appreciative of the reception her music receives, and of the fans and collaborators who have helped her get this far. (When discussing her music, Heather constantly refers to “we” – her band, her producer, her team. There’s no ‘I’ in Heather Peace.)
I spoke to Heather on one of her few days off, between finishing her sold-out tour and shipping off to Glasgow to film another season of Waterloo Rd. With no one around to enforce a time limit, plenty of ground was covered – from Fairytales and the darker side of relationships, to how it felt to accompany Sam on her spiral towards rock bottom during Lip Service Season Two.
[If you haven’t yet seen Lip Service Season Two, the second page of this interview contains spoilers]
So you just wrapped up a sold-out tour in the UK. How was it?
It was absolutely fantastic! It was a dream come true, honestly, which I know sounds corny but it just hit every expectation and more. On the final night I managed to persuade Alison Moyet to get up on stage and sing with me! She’s a big childhood hero of mine — her and other British female artists like Annie Lennox and Kate Bush — so I was absolutely beside myself when that happened.
Wow. Was this something that was planned, or did Alison just jump up on stage?
Well, we had gotten to know each other a bit on Twitter; she’s quite shy and so I suggested, “you might like to come along to the London gig”. Once she said yes, I very cheekily followed with, “and maybe you’d like to get up on stage during my encore and sing one of your covers?” We didn’t announce it ahead of time because I wanted her to feel comfortable enough that she could drop out at any time, which she didn’t.
We performed “Whispering Your Name” and the audience just went absolutely mental. I just couldn’t believe it. She is such a big hero of mine, I couldn’t believe it was happening.
I watched some fan videos of the tour and was super impressed at how many fans were able to sing along with the lyrics so soon after the album was released…
It’s kind of mad, isn’t it? I guess that’s what’s been crazy about it. You know, I’m in my thirties. I’ve written music all my life and I have gigged all my life, and suddenly this is all happening now. I can’t even get my head around it. Everyone was singing along and the whole time I was thinking, ‘wow, this is so awesome!’
Early last year you said that your shows tend to attract older lesbians who don’t want to go to nightclubs. Now that both Fairytales has been released and your profile has risen further, has your audience become more diverse?
It hasn’t completely changed, but the age range is definitely a lot wider now. You can’t come to my shows unless you’re sixteen or older because we’ve been playing at 400 – 450 capacity venues that have bars inside. But we definitely had sixteen-year-olds, right through to sixty and seventy-year-olds. A few straight guys were in there as well.
I’m on a television show over here called Waterloo Rd — it’s a more mainstream show that a lot of youngsters are into — and I think I’ve picked up a diverse audience through that. So there have been a few changes. We also play at more seated venues now because many people who come to my gigs are not regular gig-goers, so having a mosh pit where people stand and get knocked around isn’t really for them. [laughs]
You seem to be incredibly accessible to your fans, the way you talk to them on Twitter, chat to them after shows, and so on. Why is having that close connection important to you?
They’re the reason that I’ve been able to do what I’m doing. There’s been no record company involved, or anything like that. I’ve always had this thought as a musician and an actor as well, that fans are really the people that essentially employ you. If nobody watches or listens to you then you don’t have a job! Sometimes I think musicians and actors can get a little ahead of themselves, in that respect.
You’ve been involved with a major record company in the past. Did that experience influence your decision to release Fairytales independently?
I was signed [to BMG] briefly, in my early twenties. I think because I’m a television actress, and because of my age and a few other factors, that those things would have worked against me if I had gone after a recording contract this time.
To be honest, Fairytales happened quite organically. I was playing small shows that were selling out, so then we decided to do a major tour and pump those earnings into creating the record. It was through my experience at BMG that I knew (producer) Nigel Wright. I couldn’t afford to pay him and so he did it for nothing, we just paid for his studio and his engineers. Without BMG I wouldn’t have met Nigel, and without Nigel, Fairytales wouldn’t have the sound that it has. So nothing was really planned, everything just kind of fell into place.
Fairytales seems like an interesting choice for the album title, given that not many of the songs are about happy endings. What is the significance of that title?
Personally I’ve always liked title tracks that are placed at the beginning or the end of an album. Because the song “Fairytales” is so stripped back, it felt like a full stop. Lyrically that song seems to summarise everything that is on the album, which is to say that what fairytales taught us about love is not necessarily true – it’s actually hard work, but we’ll never stop believing in our make-believe and trying to make love work. It was also the last song I wrote for this album.
The original title was “Sabotage” [another track from the album] and if the album had been released last year then I would have gone with that. But my life has moved on, things have changed and I wasn’t in that place where I had written “Sabotage” anymore. I understand myself a little more now, and “Fairytales” is about how I gained that understanding of my situation.
Every track on the album seems to come from an incredibly personal place. Some in particular, such as “Sabotage” and “Make Me Feel,” are about the darker side of past relationships and also of yourself. Was it challenging to put those experiences and feelings out there?
It was really nerve-wracking. But you know, I’m not twenty-three, I’m not singing about hearts and flowers. I think it’s one of those things where you hit your thirties and you really look at yourself. You look at the way you’ve been in relationships, or the way you’ve gotten drunk to forget things, and you know, I can’t do anything other than be honest with lyrics. If you’re not honest with lyrics then things can become really quite bland.
It’s nerve-wracking to think that people are now going to look at me in this way, but at the same time I think some of those things will have resonated with them. Essentially these tracks are saying, ‘I know this about myself and I’m trying to sort it out’.
Now that you’re in a good place, and in a loving relationship — will that be reflected in future material?
I’ve already started writing new material and there are still some experiences from the past that I can call on. Also I think when you get older it becomes easier to look outside of yourself. There’s a track that I’m writing at the moment which is about — weirdly, now that I’m in a good place — friends of mine who have recently broken up with people who they’ve been with for fifteen years. So I’ve observed experiences that will resonate with people, experiences that I can draw from.
So I’m not really worried. I’ve already got my thinking cap on and it’s going to be fine. I don’t think I’m going to start writing songs that go, [starts singing] “I’m really happpyyyy”.
Next, Heather talks about her past and future in acting and music, and also Lip Service!
How long have you been writing music for?
The piano riff from the beginning of “Better Than You” is something I’ve had since I was fourteen, although the lyrics back then were obviously really naive. I’ve still got my lyric book from the ‘80s and most of the lyrics are about falling out with friends, it’s really cute.
[My mobile drops out. I call back and we chat about Sydney for a while, which is one of Heather’s favorite cities to visit, fyi.]
Would you ever consider performing any of those old songs, if only for a laugh?
[laughs] Absolutely not! That would be horrible. No way. They’re the most naively written songs ever. Terrible.
Are music and acting both equally important to you, or is one a greater passion?
I get grumpy if I don’t make music, even if it’s just writing music in my lounge and not actually performing it. So music has to be in my life. Being a stage actor has helped me emotionally when performing my music, and to be honest, this year I couldn’t have done the music without the acting. If it wasn’t for my role on Waterloo Rd then I wouldn’t have been able to pay my mortgage!
I’m going back Glasgow soon to film Waterloo Rd for another six months, so I’ll try to fit in a few little shows and also put together a bigger tour for next February. We obviously want to go to America and also Australia. I think come Christmas, I’ll have to make a decision and pick one, and it will very likely be the music. But things need to be set up at a level where we can make a living from it, which we can’t do at the moment.
So you could quite happily put acting to the side and become a full-time musician?
Yeah, at least for a while. I can always go back to it. I love theatre and it’s quite easy to go off and do a theatre job for three months. I just feel like I have to give music a real go. It’s been my life, all my life, and now is the time to do it.
Long term, when I don’t want to gig anymore, I’d like to start up my own record label and take on new talent. That would be fantastic, I could even write songs for artists and not necessarily be on the road. So there are plans to focus more on music. [laughs] Really, really loosely based plans.
Is there any new talent out there that’s exciting you at the moment?
Yeah, there’s a girl who supported me on tour called Amity. Her name is Amy Forrester, and she’s like a young KT Tunstall. She’s a one woman band; she’s got a guitar and a bass drum and a beat box and a ukulele. She writes great music and also gigs and gigs and gigs and works so hard, unlike some people on bloody X-Factor. Honestly, who is interested in whether someone can sing? It’s not interesting. What’s interesting is people who write their own music and give us performances that are honest. I think Christina Aguilera could come on X-Factor as a new talent and I wouldn’t be bothered. It’s just not interesting, at least not to me.
Can we talk about Lip Service?
Were you as surprised as we all were when you discovered that Cat was going to die?
Yes! I hadn’t really kept in touch with Laura [Fraser] because she had moved to New York with her family, and also when you’re doing contract negotiations you don’t really talk to each other about it. So I was really shocked.
It was quite flattering as well. The reason they had to kill her was because, although we liked the idea of a story that would allow Cat to return to the show, the writers basically said that if we lose Cat then we also lose Sam. I wasn’t part of that main group of friends; if Cat suddenly decided that she didn’t want Sam or Frankie and that she was going to go and get a job in London, Sam wouldn’t just start hanging out with that crowd. Her story would come to an end. So it was quite flattering that they said, “we have to kill Cat in order to keep you.” The only way the group could unite with Sam was through that grief over Cat’s death.
I heard you say once, when reflecting on the audition process, that you could play the role of Sam ‘standing on your head’, which was kinda funny. In the second series when everything got real, did the role become a lot more challenging?
Yeah. I said that about Sam because I had first auditioned for the role of Frankie, and I was rubbish at it! I couldn’t find anything that was loveable about her. Of course, Ruta [Gedmintas] played that role with this amazing vulnerability and really made it work, but when it was just all words on a page I thought the character was awful, I couldn’t find any redeeming qualities. So going back to that comment, I said it because the moment I read for Sam, I immediately knew who that character was.
So the second series was a lot more challenging because Sam was so solid and so steadfast, but then had to experience that major breakdown. That was really tough. I’ve never thought of myself as a method actor, someone who takes their work home, but I just couldn’t switch off after filming. I got really down, actually. It was such a dark place to go to. I would come home at the end of each day on the set and you know, my girlfriend was in Brighton and I was in Glasgow, so I would just lock myself inside the flat. I’m usually quite sociable with the cast during filming, I’m always up for going out for a drink. But this time I just didn’t feel like being around anyone.
That’s understandable. As a viewer there were quite a few scenes that were incredibly difficult to watch, like that time when Sam did lines of coke…
… off that photo of Cat! [groans] Oh my God.
Yeah, it was hard taking that character to a place where she hadn’t been before. It’s as dark as it gets for Sam, it took away from her job and it really just doesn’t get any more out of character than that.
Assuming a third series goes ahead, what do you think is on the horizon for DS Murray?
I definitely don’t think it’s going to be a smooth ride for Sam and Lexy. Sam’s not over Cat and she’s not ready to be committed relationship with someone else. She probably needs a bit of rescuing, I think.
So I don’t really know where they will take things next. But I do hope there’s a little more laughter! The filming process for the second series was awful because normally I’d be filming with everybody and it’s a real laugh, but this time there were whole days where I was on my own. You know, it was just: Sam cries alone in bed, then Sam breaks down, then Sam… [laughs] oh god, it was just horrible. I would really like for the third series to start up six months later when Sam has had some time to heal, but I don’t think it’s going happen.
In addition to acting and music gigs, you’re also a patron of Manchester Pride and the Diversity Role Models organisation. Did you ever anticipate that you’d become such a visible member of the GLBT community?
I didn’t realise at the beginning, no. It felt like I was walking down the street and someone stuck a rainbow flag on my back and I just carried on walking, not knowing that it was there. And the pressures of that, of being a role model, are absolutely terrifying, there was that concern that I might screw up. At first it was like, ‘oh no, please don’t put that pressure on me’, because I’m very good at messing things up.
But that was eighteen months ago and I’m kind of running with it now, I’m all right. It’s a responsibility that I want to undertake because I think it’s important. The messages that I’ve received from young girls who have come out mean a lot to me, they’ve really helped me to accept the role and go, ‘okay, I’m doing all right, as long as I can maintain this, which I think I can’. It’s just a worry because I don’t want to let people down, and so I’m very aware now. If I go out then I’ll just have a couple of beers, I’ll make sure I’m not seen staggering around or bouncing off the walls. [laughs] That’s not cool. So I do take it very seriously.
One final question. Did you know that you ranked as #20 on the Autostraddle Hot 100 this year?
You placed well ahead of Angelina Jolie, so that’s something.
[laughs] I’d disagree, but that’s brilliant! I’m absolutely thrilled about that. Fantastic.
Fairytales is out now through the iTunes, Amazon.com, Play.com, HMV and probably also your local record store.