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Alice Martineau Interview in You Magazine
13 October 2002
Battling cystic fibrosis and facing an anxious wait for a heart, lung and liver transplant might be enough to wear down most 28-year-olds.
But not singer Alice Martineau. She's philosophical, feisty and about to release her debut album
Report Jane Gordon
Photographs Kate Martin
There are certain words it would be unwise to say to Alice Martineau. A mere mention of the word 'brave', for example, can make the 28-year-old singer-songwriter whose first album is released next month - apoplectic. 'I hate that sympathy thing. People who dwell on negative things...well, I almost feel like hitting them. And I hate that word brave. It's a hideous word because I am not brave; you just deal with what you are given in life, don't you? That's not brave.'
It isn't until you realise what Alice has been given in life - apart from a talent for music that is being compared to that of Bjork, Beth Orton and Dido - that you can understand why she detests pity so much. Alice was born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic condition that has caused so much damage to her slender body that she now needs a heart, lung and liver transplant. Along with the lip balm and mobile phone that Alice takes with her everywhere, she must also carry a bleeper that will sound when, and if, a donor is found.
Sometimes she longs to hear her bleeper go off - she has carried it for 18 months - but at other times she dreads it sounding because it will mean she has just two hours to get to hospital for a 15- to 24-hour operation that has only been performed five times in the UK and been successful just once. 'I am,' she says, 'as ready as you can be.'
Alice is eager to be perceived as an artist rather than as a 'person who is ill', but she is aware that the illness and the music are irrevocably intertwined. Her songs are, on the surface, sweet and melodic (her influences are Coldplay, U2 and the beatles) but the lyrics draw heavily on her life experiences and - as in her forthcoming single 'If I Fall' - have a depth that is unusual in the current UK pop market. Alice began writing songs four years ago when she started to acknowledge the physical limitations her illness entailed.
One in four Britons carries the CF gene, many unknowingly, and when two carriers have a baby, the child has a one in four chance of inheriting the condition. When Alice was born her parents (who already had one healthy son, Luke, now 30) were told that she had a life expectancy of just ten years, although medical advances have now pushed that figure, for an average sufferer, to the mid-30s. CF is a progressive illness involving chemical changes in the body that result in a build-up of sticky mucus that blocks the airways and leads to infections that cause irreparable damage to the lungs and the digestive system. But, Alice says, it wasn't until she reached her late teens that she had any real notion of the seriousness of her illness.
'I never really saw myself as ill. I was a wild child. I went clubbing at the age of about 14 without my mother knowing. I had so much energy back then, I could stay out until four in the morning,' she says nostalgically, confiding - a little later - that the first thing she wants to do after her transplant is completed is go clubbing, 'Even if I am the only 30-year-old with a bunch of 13-year-olds'.
It wasn't until Alice arrived at the University of Warwick to read English in 1993 that she began to lose her energy. She started covering up for the fact that she couldn't walk as far, or as fast, as her fellow undergraduates by leaving for lectures long before they were due to start.
Two weeks into her first term she developed a major lung infection that forced her to leave and return to her parents' home in London. A term later she decided to switch to nearby King's College, where she received a first-class honours degree in English.
On graduating, she decided to try modelling, developing yet more 'tricks' to cover the signs of exhaustion brought on by her illness - leaning nonchalantly against a wall reading an A-Z, for example, or sitting on a wall pretending to talk on her mobile. Alice made the move from modelling to music when she discovered four years ago that, despite her damaged lungs, she had an extraordinary singing voice.
'I think my voice is powerful because I spend so much time coughing that my diaphragm muscles have become very strong, which means I can really belt a note out, although I can't sustain it for very long. I love singing, it's my escapism in a way. Although I can't perform any more, the buxx I used to get on stage was just unbelievable. The first time I sang in public was a Sunday night three years ago at Chinawhite [the London celebrity nightclub] and the audience was full of people I knew, who were more nervous than me, convinced that I was going to cough and mess up, but I didn't,' she says with a triumphant smile.
But she couldn't get a record deal. She did a little backing singing with Blue and impressed Robbie Williams's agent (Robbie turned up at one of her gigs), but the only label that was interested pull out when they discovered that she had CF
Ironically, it wasn't until earlier this year that she finally got her break when she agreed to 'come out' about her illness by writing a graphic acount of her experiences for the CF Foundation. The resultant publicity - an appearance on GMTV and Radio 2 - prompted Epic to offer her a £250,000 recording deal.
Alice writes and talks about her illness in a way that is by turns funny, cynical and deeply moving. She makes a joke, for instance, about her new need for 24-hour oxygen (she cannot be without the transparent tube that fits under her nose for more than ten minutes), suggesting that, with beauty spas now giving oxygen treatments, she might be 'setting a trend'.
She passes over the fact that this latest indignity - she only used to require oxygen at night - finally ruled out the possibility of her being able to give any more public performances. And her incorrigible need to turn every negative into a positive even makes her jest about the advantages of having to spend a lot of time in a wheelchair.
'Why expend the energy going somewhere when you know you can relax and go there in a chair? I mean, anyone would like that, wouldn't they? And you've got someone to push you, so why not make use of it?' she says, a wicked grin lighting up on her lovely face.
The only thing that she is reluctant to talk about is her future, preferring instead to throw out the occasional upbeat statement about 'after my transplant'. She will, she says, probably write a book (either a novel or an autobiography) during the long recovery period because 'I will get so bored'. And since she hates being in hospital - 'I am a bit of a control freak, and you have to surrender control in hospital' - she says she would like to 'make positive use of that time'.
There is not a grain of self-pity in Alice. 'Well,' she snaps when I observe this fact, 'why should I pity myself?' Indeed, listening to her, the word that comes to mind is not so much brave as defiant, which, thankfully, meets with her approval. 'Yes, I suppose I am defiant. I have always believed I was given CF for a reason, to help make people aware that having an illness or a disability doesn't mean that you should be treated any differently to anyone else - and people to patronise you in a wheelchair. But I think being more in the public eye will hopefully change attitudes. I am sure I will get a load of people going "Poor girl", but hopefully other people will see beyond that.
'If people see you on oxygen or in the chair, far too many just focus on that and they don't actually see the real person. The music will make people look again. And I am so glad it happened now, rather than when I was hiding my CF, becuse this is who I really am. Although my mother does worry that I might do too much and that it might make me more ill.'
It is her family - father David is a lawyer and mother Liz, who helps out at the CF Foundation and 'works very hard but not at a job' - and her friends who have helped and encouraged her to achieve her ambition. She has beenwith her boyfriend Al, who 'works with computers', for nearly four years, and he pretty much lives with her in the basement flat of her parents' home. They have, she says, an 'exclusive' relationship, not in the usual accepted sense - 'Although I do hope so,' she says with a laugh - but because Alice is better in one-on-one situations and cannot cope very well with large groups of people or crowded smoky restaurants.
'I hate to admit it, but I do feel safer at home - it is an issue with me. My bedroom is my safe house, where I can cuddle up with my TV, my pills and potions and machines around me. But even there I can never really be left on my own. When Al isn't staying with me I have a baby alarm in my bedroom so my mother will know if I have one of my attacks, which can be horrific because I cough up all this blood - four pints the last time - and it sometimes seems like it will never stop.'
Alice is only too aware that if her single enters the charts she will not be able to embrace the celebrity lifestyle she has always craved. But she is excited, relishing the thought of success and is adamant that, however difficult her everyday existence might seem to other people, she absolutely loves life. She is passionate about Al, her mother, her cousin Livvy (who lives next door), her two cats Meggie and Charlie, and she is 'totally broody' since the arrival of her niece, Grace Alice Martineau, in June.
'Oh, I love everything about her. Luke's wife Bella isn't a CF carrier and it would have been so tricky if she was, as they would have had to decide whether to take the risk or not. But I would have said to them "Go for it", anyway. I would much rather be here than not. CF is a bonus in a way because it makes you appreciate life so much. 'Most people go through life without having a clue. This may sound corny and naff, but if I go to the countryside now I really appreciate the fresh air and the trees. It makes you think, "My God, I am so lucky to be alive." So, if this was all to end tomorrow I would not have any regrets. I have had a fantastic life. I have done more than most people do in a lifetime, haven't I?'
Alice's single, 'If I Fall', is out on 21 October. Her album, Daydreams, is released on 4 November