Graeme Thomson

Not long ago, a Twitter thread appeared pondering whether Paul Heaton was the most under-appreciated artist of our times. It was mildly shocking to discover that the former Housemartins and Beautiful South singer, co-writer of Happy Hour, Build, I’ll Sail This Ship Alone, A Little Time, Perfect 10, Acid Country and dozens more bittersweet pop gems, has not a Brit, Mercury, Q, NME or Ivor Novello gong to his name.

“Upstairs in my oldest daughter Maisie’s room, I’ve got about 30 awards and they’re all for football,” says Heaton from his home in Salford, where he lives with his wife and three children. “I played every weekend until I was 41, and I was no Georgie Best! But there isn’t one for music.”

He was, he recalls, nominated for a Q Award in the distant past. “It was for best songwriter, and I was up against Paul McCartney,” he says. “So I didn’t win that one.” When the British Academy of Songwriters asked Heaton to present an Ivor Novello to his former band mate Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, Cook protested that they were giving it to the wrong Housemartin. The following year, Heaton was invited to sit on a panel judging another songwriting award. “I said, Look, just f*** off!” He’s laughing. “It doesn’t bother me, I find it mildly amusing but not surprising. I’m not rock 'n' roll, am I? I’ve never threatened to chuck myself off a bridge or been public about a drug problem, or worn a Jim Morrison T-shirt.”

Perish the thought. Heaton’s sweet soulful voice and sharp songs – full of wit, guile and humanity, southern sophistication vying with northern edge – have never been especially fashionable, nor has he has ever cultivated a mystique. Forget limos; he’d rather cycle. His preference as a writer for the kitchen sink rather than the penthouse is reflected in his sartorial choices, which have evolved from V-neck pullovers in the indie days to anoraks in middle age. For Heaton, it’s all about creating work that connects with people.

“I’ve just got on with it,” he says. “It’s all been about recording albums, singing the songs live, and then going back and doing another one. I don’t want to throw too many curveballs at my audience. What keeps them happy keeps me happy.”

Happy, of course, is how it all began. The Housemartins jaunty top three hit launched his career in 1986, but within two years and two albums it was over, and Heaton had launched the Beautiful South. The group stayed together for almost two decades, scoring 22 Top 40 hits and selling 15 million records.

Despite much residual affection for both bands, he’s not tempted to reform either of them. “It would be like changing into a wet shirt,” he says. “I don’t like nostalgia, I’ve always been happy with everything I do, so why would I go back? It’s like admitting defeat. We all talk to each other, if there were going to be a reunion of The Housemartins or Beautiful South it would just be getting together and having a laugh. We wouldn’t be playing; that was the stuff that ruined it! It was just about drinking and having fun with like-minded people.”

Even before the end of the Beautiful South in 2007 – the band split up over “musical similarities” – Heaton had started a solo career, eventually releasing three albums to rather muted response. Since 2013, he has been working again with the group’s former vocalist Jacqui Abbott, to greater acclaim.

“With Jacqui, it just sounds like we’ve sung together for a very long time,” he says. “Our voices are very similar in a way, and I find it easy writing for her. I like putting myself in women’s shoes – metaphorically. It’s an interesting exercise for my brain to try to get it right. On the new album there’s a song called If You Could See Your Faults, which Jacqui sings, where I was really walking a tightrope. It’s her arguing that it’s better to be married to somebody who doesn’t care about her than to be alone, which is a dicey argument coming from a man, but I think it works in her voice. I like the fine line.”

The song appears on their fourth record together. In the old days Manchester Calling would have been a double album (the reference to The Clash’s 1979 opus London Calling is knowing). Its 16 tracks include songs about corporate bloat, failed rock stars, compromised marriages, enduring love and ecological complacency, framed in styles ranging from pop, glam and country to ska and gospel.

They were written according to Heaton’s idiosyncratic working practices, which have traditionally centred around drinking. In the old days, before he gave up alcohol, he would write the words in bars in Hull and the music somewhere a little warmer. Since he and wife stopped drinking, however, the process has required some finessing.

“When I first packed in drinking I went away with my wife, and we sat in a bar to see If I could write without booze,” he says. “We sat for about six hours in this bar in Haarlem in Holland, and I couldn’t. She said, ‘Right, you’d better start boozing!’ Literally, as soon as I did the songs started pouring out. So it might be some sort of psychological trigger.”

Now, the couple visit Holland and northern Belgium and allow themselves a break from a life of abstinence. What happens in Hilversum stays in Hilversum. Between rounds, Heaton writes the words for his latest batch of songs.

“It might sound a bit dingy and dirty, but it’s actually just a really nice, fun holiday while I’m writing,” he explains. “We go out every day and look for somewhere, and then cycle there. A few pints, a few words. It’s actually quite an industrious process. I’ve tried writing at home and it takes me ages. I think because I don’t drink for the rest of the year at home, it just releases a valve. I’m not trawling bars like I used to in the old days. It used to be that I had to be by myself, and it took a long time, because you’d get too p***** and lose your way.”

He chooses the Low Countries partly to facilitate his love of cycling. In 2012, Heaton toured the UK on his bike, traversing 2,500 miles in 40 days, taking him from the Yorkshire Dales to the far north of Scotland. “It was the best tour I’ve ever done of my whole career, I absolutely loved it. I went to Tobermory and Ullapool, places I’d never usually go. It was brilliant. In Ullapool we had about 30 people, and they don’t use words like ‘amazing’ or ‘fantastic’ up there. One of them said, ‘That was really good.’ I was so chuffed!”

The cycling tour was fun, but there was a serious imperative. “I do all sorts of things to stop myself being a pain in the arse for the environment,” says Heaton. “I’ve stopped myself touring anywhere outside Western Europe. I got offered a gig at Sydney Opera House a year and a half ago, it would have been brilliant, I’ve never been to Australia, but I just couldn’t justify it. For me, in the music business, there’s quite a lot I can do: cutting down on touring, on waste, not having any meat in our catering. I do as much as I can.”

He warms to his theme. “Thom Yorke was having a public debate with himself about how guilty he feels about travelling to America. Why doesn’t Thom Yorke – brilliant artist – cycle round Britain and Ireland and play pubs? I actually tweeted him back: ‘There you go, there’s the list of pubs, do it!’” His voice drops to a conspiratorial murmur. “I think he’s got the arena bug, hasn’t he? He needs 20,000 people telling him how good he is.”

Heaton, on the other hand, doesn’t crave such validation. A bauble would still be nice, though. Just the one. “I’d love to get an award to go along with my football ones,” he says. “I know if I ever get one, I guarantee it will be the musical equivalent of Best Attendance or Most Improved Player – one of those consolation prizes – but, hey, I’ll proudly take it.”

Manchester Calling (Virgin EMI) is out on Friday; Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott play the SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, on April 16