The hidden secrets of writing with Tessa Niles

 In All About Writing, Books, Creative Writing Courses, How to write a book, The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers, writers

Tessa Niles is the kind of person whom countless people must have urged to ‘write that memoir‘.

As one of Britain’s most respected session singers, she spent 30 years working alongside the greatest names in rock and pop.

If not handled skillfully, though, even an account that drops any number of famous names can be dull, and fail to engage us as readers. Happily, there’s nothing boring about Backtrack (Panoma Press).

Tessa completed our Creative Writing Course some years ago and produced a rip-roaring story of a life lived on the road, with all the anecdotes, humour and heartbreak that that entails. That’s why hers is the book I’ve chosen to showcase this time, in our blog series on the books produced by members of our community.

Here are a couple of extracts, the first on working with George Harrison and Eric Clapton, the second, with Robbie Williams:

George was sweet, generous and always funny. He’d arrive at rehearsals [at Bray Studios, 1991] with flowers and on one occasion ordered a cake from the company of his old friend, Jane Asher. The cake, a huge replica of the stage set, complete with detailed marzipan figures of each musician, was immediately given pride of place in front of the stage.

On closer inspection Andy, a blue-eyed Welshman, was found to have been made from black marzipan, resulting in his new nickname, BB Fairweather-Low.

Everyone wanted to please George. His charm and fun-loving nature was in stark contrast to Eric, who seemed introverted and withdrawn, still hurting from his son’s untimely death.

Friends and family, including Ringo Starr, Jimmy Nail and Phil Collins, came down to the studios for a private performance of the show shortly before we left for Japan. The set included music from The Beatles years and solo numbers from George and Eric.

George’s voice was in good shape and his confidence had grown over the course of the rehearsals. It was such a blast performing The Beatles tunes, If I Needed Someone, and my favourite, Taxman, sounded amazing. George added new lyrics to Taxman to update it. Instead of the original ‘Ah, ah, Mr Wilson’ background vocals we sang, ‘Ah, ah, Boris Yeltsin.’

Eric had for years had a love affair with Italian fashion designers and worn Gianni Versace outfits on stage. For the Rock Legends Tour of Japan he chose Giorgio Armani, and the band were ushered off to the Armani store in Bond Street to be kitted out.

Eric had suggested we all wear suits and the guys looked amazing in theirs. However, despite the exquisite tailoring, Kate and I looked frumpy in our pinstripe numbers, worn with striped shirts done up at the collar.

‘Is that what you’re wearing?’ said George with a smirk. ‘Well, it’s an interesting look, I suppose. You remind me of airline stewardesses.’

Not exactly the rock ‘n’ roll edge we were hoping for.


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.

Tessa writes as though she’s chatting to us, telling her stories in intimate conversation. Her voice is natural and strong. She breaks in and out of narrative scenes, recreating moments – with action and natural dialogue – that carry us through space and immerse us in a time and a place, so that we experience it with her.

Writing tips:

  • Voice is immensely important in memoir. Chat naturally and directly with your readers.
  • Wherever possible, don’t just “tell” your readers what it was like. Use anecdotes which give us a sense of a time, place and the people involved.
  • Write in scenes, with dialogue, detail and action.

If you would like to learn more about the skills of writing memoir that people would like to read, join the two Joannes: Jo-Anne Richards and Joanne Hichens, at the Karoo Art Hotel in Barrydale in April.

Tucked into the Tradouw Valley, at the foot of the Langeberg mountain range, the village offers dramatic landscapes in which to walk, write and dream. Join us for the weekend of 14 to 16 April for a workshop devoted to the art of memoir writing, followed by a week’s retreat during which you can write to your heart’s content, with one-on-one feedback each day.


Read our previous Hidden Secrets of Writing blogs

Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt