Andrew Rogers ran an excellent web site about Kirsty called ‘50 thousand lire for my thoughts’. It’s no longer on the web, but here’s a Q&A interview which James Bennett conducted with Kirsty, and which originally appeared there. Many thanks to Andrew and James for donating the piece to freeworld for posterity.
You are perhaps noted for being Miss Multitrack – lots of voices. How many Kirsties do we hear at most?
“It varies. I don’t multitrack everything I do. I do much less probably on the new album than I have on older stuff. I think people associate that with the work I’ve done on other people’s records mostly – more so than my own. Which is why they get me – because they want that multitrack sound. And I do it quickly!“
I’ve never heard anyone do it in quite the same way.
“I think it’s a sort of spin off from my enjoyment of the Beach Boys’ early stuff. But because it’s one voice doing all the parts instead of several it’s got a certain distinctive sound to it, I suppose.“
How many tracks?
“There’s never more than twenty [laughs]. I like to keep a limit on these things, you know.“
‘They don’t know’ is a really strong song. Why did you give it to Tracy Ullman?
“Once a song has been recorded, it’s no longer down to the writer to decide who does it anyway. So anyone can record any song they’ve heard that’s been published. It was actually suggested by a friend of mine who worked at Stiff Records. I was on Polydor at the time and having a really bad time with them and I was sort of thinking about selling up everything I had and moving to Spain and being a hippie. My mate suggested that because had had this big hit with her first single, which I think was Breakaway. She’d had a much bigger hit than they had expected and they didn’t have anything else to follow it up so they were looking for material. And basically they thought, I’m there writing the sort of songs that she wants to do and it seemed like a good partnership. “
Are you grateful to her?
“I’m grateful for paying the rent. Yeah. It was fun; it was good.“
Some people don’t know you wrote it.
“A lot of people do know my version which was a big airplay hit in 1979. It was number two in the airply charts between Wings and Abba so I think quite a few people heard it. But it didn’t really bother me. I don’t mind a bit of reflected glory!“
What about ‘Chip Shop. I’d have thought it was your ‘Laughing Gnome’ but you still do that live
“Yeah. But I think it’s much better than the ‘Laughing Gnome’. It’s actually a song that gets a lot of covers in America. It’s been covered by a New York punk band and by a country band in Seattle. It’s got a broad range of people that pick up on it. I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s a good song. I think people miss the point if they think it’s about Elvis look-a-likes. It’s about a certain macho state of mind. I think a lot of men are part-Elvis, or at least would like to be.“
Were there any circumstances that made you write it?
“No. It’s just about someone who’s just a sort of liar. Who’s presenting themselves as one thing when they’re actually not that thing at all.“
Let’s go onto the macho thing, because there’s ‘Don’t Come the Cowboy’ and on the new LP ‘Big Boy on a Saturday Night’. Same theme. An important theme? Do you have a problem? Do they have a problem?
“Yeah. I think men harder find it harder to express their insecurities and to be open about them than a lot of women. A lot of men do, not all men. I think that’s why they go the other way and present this image of thoughtless thuggery. ‘Because it’s manly innit’. And it’s not really. I think it’s just a cover up for their inadequacies.“
Is it something you’ve come up against?
“Everyone comes up against it, don’t they. The world is organised by men in suits, isn’t it? Generally. And if you don’t fit in with they way they’ve been brought up to think things are, then you spend the rest of your life head-butting it all the time.“
I just wondered if there’s a reason why you’ve taken it on as a theme?
“Well, I don’t think it’s something that’s going to go away all of a sudden!“
You’re certainly good at putting them down!
“Yeah, but they’re quite kindly put-downs. I’m not exactly butchering them.“
‘A New England’ is the other song people probably know. And they probably think you did write that. And you didn’t of course. Are you still looking for a new England? The first words of the new album are “I want to make my mark”
“If you look outside in London on a wintry day, there’s something terribly depressing about it, isn’t there? When I was writing it, it was that sort of weather – it was just grey. And it’s never really light. I think you get that sort of oppression that builds up throughout the winter from the end of October onwards. I just wanted to kick all that shit away and get on with something more positive. But you can actually achieve something by making a positive move, although it’s very difficult. Because it’s a very apathetic climate.“
Have you done that?
“I have done a few things towards it. I don’t think I’ve stayed in one place and become totally static. I’ve been performing a lot in the last couple of years, which is something I haven’t really taken to much before. Live work. That’s a bit of a metamorphosis for me.“
Did you enjoy recording with Morrissey?
“I’m a big fan of Morrisey’s lyrics and I’m a big fan of Johnny’s playing and the stuff they’ve written together I’m really a huge fan of. It was great to be asked to go and sing with them.“
There has been some of the press coverage about the racist slant to Morrissey’s lyrics. Do you want to express any opinion on that?
“I think it’s up to him to address it really. I don’t really think he is, otherwise I wouldn’t have been quite such a fan, I suppose. You can interpret things in different ways. I think he feels so isolated by so many things that that just wouldn’t occur to him, do you know what I mean?“
‘Fairytale of New York’. Did you enjoy singing those words, “you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot“?
“Yeah, well, the thing about that song is it’s a brilliant combination of being really romantic and really warts-and-all as well. It just does sound like two people who’re really having this huge row. It’s very human. It’s much more romantic than most of the so-called romantic songs which you hear on the radio – the sort of songs that Whitney Houston sings – which I don’t find any romance in at all. They might as well be about Barbie and Ken. What’s all that about? Who are these people?“
Are you proud of that song? I think it’s the best Christmas record there is.
“Yeah, I think it’s the best Christmas record there is. I feel I can say that very modestly not having written it. It’s a brilliant record and I’m very wary and nervous of that terrible over-sentimentality that you get at Christmas, and a lot of the music is really cloying, you know. And this is like the antidote.“
How did it come about? Did Shane ask you?
“They hadn’t really decided who they were going to get to sing it. I think they might have approached somebody else and not got an answer … “
Do you know who?
“I’m not really sure. It’s only hearsay and I don’t really know. I think because my ex-manager was managing the Pogues by that point, he suggested me and Steve [Lillywhite] would have suggested me. Shane knew my stuff anyway and said, yeah, let’s give it a go. I was a bit worried because I thought it was probably too folky for me to sing because I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t think I sing folk music. I thought, I’ll give it a go, and if they don’t like it they can get someone else.“
It’s interesting about folk music. Because you could almost be on the fringe of a whole generation of Jonie Mitchell (sic) guitar singer songwriters?
“I write songs that are generally stories to a certain extent, but I don’t think it’s particularly folky the way they’re presented. I think it’s more electric than that.“
But everyone else does!
“Some people do.“
That’s presumably why you did ‘Walking Down Madison’?
“I did quite a lot of different things. If you look at all the singles, I don’t think ‘Days“ sounds particularly like ‘Chip Shop“. ‘Free World“ doesn’t sound like ’ ‘They Don’t Know’“. There is quite a diversity of styles which I’ve done and that’s mostly because I don’t see how you can only like one kind of music. If you’re listening to the radio, you like certain records; you don’t like them because they fit into a narrow category of things you will allow to take place in a record! ‘Oh, I like this one because it’s got a trumpet solo“ You just like it or you don’t. And as far as songs go, there are great songs in every genre probably – except heavy metal, of course.” [laughs]
I had to interview Jon Bon Jovi this week …
“Yeah, that sort of stuff leaves me fairly cold. But, you know, there are examples of good songs and they can be done in any style. It depends what you choose to do with them. With ‘Walking Down Madison’ – when we demo’d it, it was always a very urban song. It was about being in Manhattan and walking down the road and that juxtaposition between the haves and the have nots. It wouldn’t have sounded right if I’d done it as a country song. It would have sounded weird.“
Do you get upset that you don’t get the commercial success that you might have got. Like ‘Walking Down Madison’ did quite well. I thought it was really going to go high in the charts. ‘Angel’ didn’t chart really, did it?
“I don’t count that. It hardly got released really.“
If I were you I’d look at the crap in the charts and look at your own record …
“You can feel like that. But you have to rationalise it in your own head, by saying, does a chart position reflect quality? And in that case I’ll never be as good as Joe Dolce! It doesn’t mean anything really. You get lucky and you get unlucky, but basically, as long as I can be given the chance to continue to make records, then that’s my main thing in life – writing the songs and getting the chance to record them and then playing them to people. The bottom line is whether you get people turning up to the gigs. When you get a couple of thousand people all singing the words, that’s more important really.“
Tell me about the stage fright – which is now cured!
“I don’t know about cured. I still get nervous, but I can function now and know I can do well. But before, if I could stop hyperventilating after about three minutes I’d be all right. I did a tour before I was ready, years and year ago. Everything went wrong that could go wrong and it just put me off doing it again. I thought, ’this is not for me’. So I concentrated on studio stuff. “
How bad was it? Did you stand in the wings and throw up?
“You couldn’t control your breathing enough to be able to sing.“
Did it ever get to the point where you said, “I just can’t do it, I’m sorry.“
“No. I always battled on grimly until the end. But I just thought it had to
change. You have to re-assess things in life as you get older and you can’t keep the same phobias that you’ve had all your life or you don’t grow up. You’ve got to deal with them. You’ve got to say, ‘OK. That was then; this is now.’ “
What’s your accent?
What’s the fascination with angels? What is this angel doing drifting round your house. Doesn’t it get in the way?
“I don’t tend to relay the positive side of things when I’m writing a lot of the time. I just write things in the way that I see them in a realistic sort of sense. With that one it was at a point where I could either feel completely ‘jack it all in’ or something would go right. It was that feeling of ‘it’ll all be all right in the end’ – which I don’t feel very often.“
It sounds like there have been a few times when you’ve nearly jacked it all in?
“I’ve toyed with the idea, but I don’t think I’d ever do it because as much as I don’t enjoy the business side of the music business, I love the music too much. I can’t stop doing it. Even if I never had another record released I don’t think it would be the end of my songwriting.“
Can you tell me what happened with Virgin?
“It’s all boring … “
I remember music press stories a couple of years saying you were in the middle of a tour and they wouldn’t support it.
“We were doing a tour which they had asked us to do and then they pulled out the tour support at the last minute. But these things happen and it’s boring. I don’t want to go on about it. I want to feel positive about being on a new label as opposed to remember all the crap that’s gone before. “
‘Soho Square’ talks about being too old to cry. How old are you and when did you last cry?
“I’m 34. I cry quite regularly’ [laughs]. “When you’re a mixed-up fourteen year old you think you’ll somehow have this revelation when you’re older that’ll make you able to deal with things and things won’t bother you so much any more. But I don’t think that necessarily happens.”
‘My Affair’. Did you have one?
There’s quite a few songs like that. I know it’s always a mistake to take writers’ lyrics autobiographically and if we take yours that way, you’ve had one hell of a life. But there’s a lot about affairs.
“Those songs are like putting yourself in character. And for that one for me it was like being Carmen. It was very Carmen. The music was very Carmen and I had this image of this woman – could have been a Lorena Bobbit, couldn’t it. It’s just more about people laying their rules on you all the time – whether it’s your parents or whatever, you do things this way if you want to fit in with society. You don’t present yourself like that, you don’t do this, you don’t do that. Otherwise … Phwoa – nobody likes a naughty girl, you know.“
Is it your way of having an affair. Of doing things you’re not supposed to do? Writing about it?
“I suppose so. Everybody gets to certain points where they think, “My life’s in this situation, and there’s all these things going on in the world that I may never do,“ and it’s just a frustration with having other people’s restrictions imposed on you.“
Talking about Bobbit. On the new record you’re a mad woman and you’ve got a knife. People will certainly misinterpret that I think.
“Yeah. That was weird because I wrote it well over a year ago and I went out to do a six week tour of America before Christmas and people used to react really over the top to that song because the trial was being televised at the time. I think everyone thought it was about that. It was more like I had a vision of this woman cleaning up in an office after everyone else has gone home and she’s probably done another job all day and then she’s got to go home and clean her house and feed everybody, and she’s the sort of person that if she had access to automatic weapons she’d probably rush into McDonalds and shoot everybody.“
But people think it’s you. Are you aware of it when you write these songs?
“Well, everything’s part you, isn’t it? I think writing about it is safer than doing it.“
On Steve Lillywhite and ‘Titanic Days’ [at this time they were still together]:
“He didn’t produce this album but I was really relieved that he mixed it. He did ‘Angel’, but the rest of it was really a co-op between myself and Mark and our engineer Vic.“
He did ‘Kite’ and ‘Electric Landlady’. It could be said that you snubbed him!
“No. I was ready to start this album. I was raring to go, and he was working on other projects and I didn’t want to hang around and wait. I’ve written a lot of the songs with Mark and we had a very clear idea of the sort of sound that we wanted to get. I don’t feel that I have to have someone there all the time now. It’s not like I’ve just started out and need a bit of guidance. I’ve got some overall plan and it’s really a question of bringing that into being.“
Doing French & Saunders was a big break for your career, wasn’t it?
“I was really surprised because they invited me to go and do a number each week in that series. That was before I’d overcome my nerves about performing and I think I was just terribly, terribly nervous about it instead of enjoying it so much as I could have done. I was very nervous. But it was a great opportunity.“
Will you work again with them?
“No idea. No plans to. I haven’t really been working with anyone else. I haven’t done any backing vocals for anyone else for ages because since I’ve been performing I haven’t got as much time.“
And you worked with the Rolling Stones. I don’t remember that.
“I don’t even remember that. A bit of a blur really. It was on that ‘Dirty Work’ album. It wasn’t a major thing where I had a great input. It was just I was one of a load of people. One of the big chorus.“
Tell me about your father, Ewan MacColl.
“He split with my mom very early on. A lot of people assume that if your father was a musician that you sat around every night playing acoustic guitars and singing songs together. I didn’t live in the same house as him, so it wasn’t like that.“
He died a few years ago …
“When I was recording ‘Electric Landlady’.“
Were you ever close to him?
“Yeah. At various times. Not as close as I would have been if I’d seen more of him, I suppose. Or maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t have been any different.“
Does it occupy your mind?
“Yes. Sometimes. You have to get on with life, don’t you.“
Was he a great songwriter?
“Yes, he was a great songwriter and he had a great voice“
Was he proud of you?
“When I started I was doing pop music – He always had a very low opinion of pop music. It had to be politically sound otherwise it was worthless. It was partly a generational thing and partly because he was so committed to his own political drive that he couldn’t see the worth in anything else. Anything else was just throwaway. But when I did ‘Kite’, he was really into it. He was very complimentary about it. I think he was proud of me then.“
Where was ‘Titanic Days’ recorded?
“Most of it at home. I didn’t have a record deal when I was recording it so I couldn’t have done it if we hadn’t had a studio at home. So, we go in to a big studio for a couple of days with the band and put all the backing tracks down because I like to record people live, because you get people bouncing off ideas live. I’m not interested in doing it all with computers. I suppose I could have done it all at home with computers, but I’m not interested in working like that. I need human people around about. It’s more fun. You need musicians there to tell the jokes.“
I’d love to see the process of it happening.
“ … then we’d take those tapes home and go and work on them and do all the overdubs and vocals and stuff.“
Who would you like to collaborate with? Which is probably another way of saying which musicians do you admire?
“There are people that I admire a great deal. I look first at the songwriting and people like Neil Young – ‘Harvest’ was so important to me when it came out. It was such a ‘wow this is it! This is what I want to do.’ That album for me – that was when I wanted to learn guitar and write songs. That was it really. I’ve bought that album about three times in the last fifteen years, and it just doesn’t date. There’s something about it. And that’s partly because it’s not done on computers and it’s not fashionable. It wasn’t following a trend when it came out. It wasn’t about the haircut.“
Do you disapprove of CD like Neil Young does?
“No. I don’t disapprove of it. I don’t think it’s necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. I don’t think it’s indestructible for a start which is something that was one of its main selling points when it first came out – how it didn’t deteriorate and that’s not true. But I quite like the squareness of it. I don’t like cassettes – they’re just so disposable. They’re all right for cars. I like getting a booklet with it. That was something you always got on vinyl that was missing on a lot of other formats – getting lots of information and features and lyrics and notes and stuff.“
‘Pretty Girls’ – are you jealous of girl singers with 24“ waists and perfect …
“Not really. I’ve been one of them. You’re looking at an ex-teenage nymphet you know. You see people sometimes who are so beautiful that when they walk into a room nobody can function and it must be very weird for them to live their life like that because they don’t ever have to try that hard in certain respects. Or you imagine that they don’t. It may not be true. It’s that thing of what it must be like to have coasted through life because you have that effect on people and then to get to a point where you’re older and what’s left now, because you haven’t got that so much any more.“
You’d rather have the talent to write songs than model looks.
“Your brain can last a lot longer than your body, usually. I think people spend an awful lot of time working on their bodies, but a lot of people don’t seem to give any thought to their minds. They’re quite happy to go to a gym five times a week, but reading a book is out of the question. I think you need both. I don’t think you can survive.“
‘Fifteen Minutes’ coming when it did at 89 was the ultimate comment on yuppyism, I thought. Does that still apply?
“I think it’s quite valid still.“
The other song I always loved from ‘Kite’ was ‘End of a Perfect Day’. It’s one of the cruellest songs.
“I suppose it’s to the person who never wants to leave the party, you know. ‘Come on, it’s been a good day, but you’ve got to go home now. I’ve got to start doing the washing up.’ It wasn’t really about a male-female relationship, it was more about someone that learned to know when to leave things alone.“
Have you ever had a hand on your buttocks in a Spanish bar?
“No, but I expect to this year. You don’t have to go as Spain to find a Spanish bar.“
Are you disturbed by the way chart and pop music is going – dance, explosions, techno, techno – no real songs.
“The only new thing that seems to have come out of music in the last few years is dance music really. Everything else seems to be plodding along the same. There hasn’t been a new wave of anything else except dance music. I do actually quite enjoy some of it, but I just think that if you have to do your record out of all recycled bits of other people’s records – which is what it is really – if you’re nicking a sample – they might be fantastic samples, but if was somebody else that had the idea to record them in the first place and got the sound. And you’re just lifting the sound wholesale and recycling it to make your own song and shoving a rap over the top. That’s lacking in imagination really.“
Are you just bitter because you haven’t been sampled? Or have you?
“I don’t know. It’s quite possible I might have been. I’m not anti-sample, but I think it’s more interesting to create the sample out of something a little bit more unique than just lifting it whole sale off someone else’s record or song. Although, having said that, there’s a few songs that were much better when they were turned into dance hits, I thought. That Suzanne Vega one. And Utah Saints. “
Generally I find it quite depressing.
“It goes along with that whole thing of video games. That’s what kids are really into now. That monotonous manipulation for hours on end. I remember when we first got a video game at home. You would sit there for hours doing this thing and afterwards you go to sleep dreaming it. And you’d think, ‘Fucking hell, I’ve just wasted sixteen hours. I could have been doing anything!’ I think that sort of music goes along with that kind of mentality of monotony. [To the tune of No Limits:] ’there’s no lyrics.’ You don’t have to learn anything. You just keep doing it and it’s all very mechanical and it’s got this machine quality to it, the same as a video game has where it doesn’t actually lead you anywhere or take you anywhere, it’s just a kind of bodily function. I find it quite boring, a lot of it. But having said that, there are one or two that stick out and are great. It’s like anything. If you get people with no ideas and they want to make a record, they’re going to use loads of samples of other people’s records, they’re not going to make a very good record anyway. But if you get someone who’s got a bit more going on creativity-wise they can use the same song and make something interesting out of it.“
And they don’t sell
Paul Sexton wrote for The Times on 25 February 1994 that the next time somebody uses the phrase ‘female singer-songwriter‘ to describe Kirsty MacColl, he – and it will be a he – had better take cover. “People always talk about ‘female singer-songwriters’, they never talk about ‘male singer-songwriters’. So ‘singer-songwriter’ means a man, does it? You have to qualify a woman by pointing out that she’s female, so it’s like not being in the same league as men. It’s so ingrained, people don’t even know they’re being sexist.”
Such an entirely justified broadside may come as a surprise from an artist who has specialised in light, airy, elegantly crafted and uplifting pop songs. But MacColl’s dark side is more in evidence than ever on ‘Titanic Days’, only the fourth album of her 15-year career, and she admits that her natural state is, to put it mildly, peevish. “I’m quite an angry person a lot of the time. I don’t bear grudges, it doesn’t last, but when it’s there it’s furious and terrible to behold. It doesn’t happen when I’m working much. It tends to happen with parking more than working. Other drivers, the Government, stupid people on television … ”
Although the album has its more carefree and upbeat moments, such as ‘Big Boy On A Saturday Night’ and ‘Angel’ , the track released as a single towards the end of last year, ‘Titanic Days’ is a gloriously harmonious melange of frustration and melancholy, seemingly far removed from MacColl’s earlier, sunnier compositions such as ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’, her hit from 1981, and ‘They Don’t Know’, an international success for Tracey Ullman two years later.
It would be wrong to assume that MacColl has become some embittered misanthrope with a brimming inkwell of vitriol. But the circumstances under which she made the album, having been dropped by Virgin Records and in some uncertainty about her future, explain the emotional outpouring of songs such as ‘You Know It’s You’, which opens the album with the words: “I want to shake up this world and not feel so useless”.
“I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to,” she says. “Especially in England, when you get really gloomy, you can just let the apathy set in, and it’s like, ‘Oh, this bloody Government’, but I do want to change everything, and I don’t think that goes away. Some people chill out as they get older, I still seem to be pissed off all the time. There is so much injustice people just switch off, but I would change it if I could.”
“I suppose I was quite melancholy when I did the album, it just seemed like time to assess my life, and there was all this other stuff going on in the world which was much more important than my life. Everything seemed so huge and overwhelming. I always thought I’d make another record, but I didn’t know if anybody would get to hear it, because you never do. Every time you make a record it could be the last one. It’s harder than ever to survive in the music business, and I don’t fit the mould as far as pop stars go.“
MacColl’s stop-start career began as a teenager on the Stiff label in 1979 and she has flitted in and out of view since then, appearing to build up a good head of steam on two excellent albums for Virgin, 1989’s ‘Kite’ and ‘Electric Landlady’ in 1991. Then, with her standing apparently better than ever, and after weeks of rehearsal for a major tour, she was informed that she was now a former Virgin artist the night before her first warm-up date.
MacColl has learnt to be philosophical about such practices. “If it wasn’t them, it would have been someone else. I’m fed up with thinking about that stuff. You’ve got to move on, otherwise you’d just get too annoyed to function. You have to let go another day, another company.”
Her attention to harmony on her records has sometimes typecast MacColl as some kind of Pet Sounds obsessive, but her influences and interests run the gamut “I don’t live in a vacuum, I don’t sit around listening to stuff that’s 30 years old. We’ve had the bass pumping at the back of the bus, I can tell you” and she has been a voracious music consumer since she was a toddler.
The daughter of folk legend Ewan MacColl, she made a remarkably early discovery of the wonders of vinyl. “Do you remember when singles were 7/6d? I think I was about five, and I got a record token for 15 shillings for Christmas and I remember being really excited, and my brother went to the record shop for me because I was ill, and I got ‘Keep On Running’ by the Spencer Davis Group and ‘Day Tripper’ by the Beatles.”
When she heard a classic Neil Young album released in 1972, MacColl discovered what she wanted to do when she grew up. “‘Harvest’ was what really turned me on to songwriting and made me learn to play the guitar. There are certain records that just sound timeless. We do use quite a bit of technology, but I like using real instruments and real musicians as opposed to synth versions because they don’t date as quickly.”
Now removed from the mindless machinations of chart music at large, MacColl has no illusions about her position in the industry. “People are too scared of signing people up and spending money on long-term careers, they’d much rather get some people with pecs who can dance and make a lot of money over a period of, say, two years while their fans are growing up. Then they get another lot. You can see countless examples of that over the past ten years. So I’m quite lucky that I still get to make records, I suppose.”
‘Titanic Days’ is released by ZTT Records on Monday
Gilbert Blecken is a German writer and photographer who interviewed Kirsty in 1994 in her garden as part of a series on musicians, including Propaganda and Billy MacKenzie. An abridged version of this interview first appeared in Record Collector magazine in 2005. This full version appears by kind permission of the author.
When you started your career, Tracy Ullman had a few hits with some of your songs, although her versions were not very different from your versions. Did you thought that this was a bit unfair, especially since Tracy once admitted she was never that much into music.
“It was a question of convenience, really. With ‘They Don’t Know’ I had a lot of airplay success, but not a lot of sales. But at least it got me known as a writer. At the time, I was certainly very much influenced by girl groups like the Shangri-Las and the Phil Spector sound. So when they were looking for songs for Tracy, I just passed on some of my songs. It was basically a good way to make a living. She was very high-profile and media-conscious whereas I wasn’t. I was always a bit shy about being on tv and didn’t really enjoy it. Tracy made sure that people got to hear some of my stuff, even if it wasn’t sung by me. So I wasn’t disappointed, I felt more like being part of Tracy’s successful team behind the scenes.“
Do you still have contact with her?
“As far as I know, she still lives in California. I paid her a visit about 4 years ago. But in general, we never really had much contact even when she was still in London. We became friends through work, but we didn’t see each other socially very much, ‘cause we never had a lot in common. I am a music-head and she is a film-head.“
In the mid 80s, you recorded a version of Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’. Can you tell me why you chose this song?
“I once went to see him live before he was very well-known. It was very simple and direct. When he sang that song, I knew it was a fantastic song, but his version was just the skeleton of the song, so I wanted to dress it up. What attracted me to the song was its Beatles quality. Even when I heard his version, I could already hear all the harmonies of my version. I just knew it was going to be a hit.“
Apart from that, you took a break from music during these years. Was that mainly because of your children or because of your frustration with record companies?
“I didn’t really stop singing, I just didn’t do a lot of my own stuff. When I was pregnant, I found it very hard to write. Mentally, I felt quite strange during that period, I think when the hormones take over, you become another person. It was very hard to maintain any kind of work that I had to initiate. But if somebody like The Smiths phoned up and asked me to do vocals, I would do it immediately. So being pregnant didn’t interfere with singing, it interferes with the thought process that goes into writing.“
The credits of The Rolling Stones album ‘Dirty Work’ mention you on backing vocals. Do you remember which songs you did with them?
I think it was just ‘One Hit (To The Body)’. The recording process was very loose, and when I visited Steve (Lillywhite, Kirsty’s husband and producer of the album), it was like a big party with lots of people in the studio. So when they needed backing vocals, they just said: ‘Everyone who could sing, come in here’.“
Has the duet you did with The Pogues changed your way of looking at music?
“I think it did, ‘cause to a certain extend I had a terrible fear of folk music, because my father was a folk singer. I associated it with my childhood which I always hated. Anything that had to do with my childhood was just very miserable, so I couldn’t listen to folk music without the feeling like I had to tear my hair out and run out the room. Doing that kind of music with the Pogues gave me a different slance on it. It’s such a brilliant song, so it was great to be a part of it. I actually wish I had written that song myself. Even people who normally just like heavy metal like that song. That’s the mark of a great song, everybody understands it. And then going on tour with The Pogues also made me wanting to go on tour myself.“
What are the songs you most enjoy doing live?
“‘Free world’ works well live, and ‘Tread Lightly’ is also a particular favourite.“
I think ‘Free world’ was such a great comeback single in 1989. Did you immediately agreed with the record company that this should be the first release of ‘Kite’?
“I was very proud of that song and really glad that it became the first single. At first the record company wanted ‘Days’ to be the first single, but I was quite adament that it shouldn’t be the first release, ‘cause it was the only song on the album that I hadn’t written. I think the ‘Kite’ album marks a great departure, it was like climbing a latter after the stuff I did before that, ‘cause the level of my writing had gotten a lot more mature than my early songs.“
You don’t seem to have a general approach of how you are doing cover versions. ‘He Thinks I Still Care, for example, is very far away from the George Jones original while ‘Days’ seem to be pretty close to The Kinks’ original.
“Yeah, it varies. You want to do whatever suits the song best. There are lots of songs that you love and that you might want to do, but you have to choose a song that you can make slightly your own. I think my version of ‘Days’ is a bit slower, I wanted to give it the Abba treatment. I wanted people to think that it’s a Kirsty MacColl song when they hear it.“
Is it true that you have a strong passion for country music?
“People tend to write that, because I have a knack for writing country songs. I find it incredible easy to write something in country style. I don’t know why that is, though, because I never listened to country music very much. The only country singer I have ever been into was Hank Williams and he died before I was born.“
Would you agree that songs like ‘Free world’ or ‘15 Minutes’ are quite social-critical?
“Yeah, I think they are to a certain extent, because I wanted to get away from writing teen ballads. I guess these songs just showed that I was getting a brighter picture. I got older and became a parent and so also some of my values changed. When you are young and alone, you only got yourself to worry about. You can be flippant and superficial. But you can’t be that selfish when you got the responsibilities of a parent, when reality is making its way into your life. You suddenly begin to see everything that’s wrong around you.“
Another remarkable song on ‘Kite’ is ‘What Do Pretty Girls Do’ which is a song about a party girl and her problems of getting older. The general tone of the song doesn’t sound very understanding and sympathetic, though.
“I think women have it in their power now not to be doormats for men. They have the choice to a certain extend. They never gonna have as much choice as a man does as long as they have babies. But that’s just a physical thing that slows you down. Women have the choice of either not to have babies or when to have them. I just think everybody should take responsibility for themselves, wheather that’s men or women. You can’t say on the one hand “I want equality” and on the other “but he hasn’t let me do it”.
Who was the woman you sang about in that song?
“I’m not sure if I should say that, really.“
“Well, I was thinking about Anita Pallenberg or somebody like that.“
Your 1991 album ‘Electric Landlady’ had some very nice arrangements, but I think that some of the songs couldn’t really live up to that.
“I think it’s hard to say. There were probably a couple of songs on it that weren’t too good, but I think that the rest of them were at least as good as anything I had done before, especially songs like ‘My Affair’ and ‘He Never Mentioned Love’. I think the problem that came for the listener was that there was so much diversity of musical style. Most people want to hear 5 tracks that sound similar to the single. But I don’t do that, and I never have, really.“
Do you think it is important as a musician to be at least aware of trends?
“ I certainly don’t live in a vacuum and I listen to what’s going on around me. I don’t want to make the same record over and over again for the rest of my life. So I did a couple of things that were dancy and quite enjoyed them. For me, lyrics are really important and I don’t think they are for most people, which is why I am not more successful. If most people would listen to the lyrics they certainly wouldn’t buy the records they buy. But I certainly wouldn’t simplify everything with my songs to become more successful. I am not that desperate, you know.“
I think that most of the love songs you wrote, from ‘See That Girl’ to ‘Soho Square’, have quite a negative feel.
“I suppose that is because I was brought up in a negative atmosphere. For me, it’s sometimes more interesting to write a ballad in that way. When I was a kid and listened to the radio, you usually had a female singer singing a song written by a man which always presented the woman as the victim. The woman was the one that couldn’t live without him. ‘I can’t live without you, baby. Don’t leave me’, that was the constant message. I was so sick of it and thought: ‘Who are these fucking women? Why are they so pathetic?’ So I realized they are singing men’s words. And the man hasn’t written it from a woman’s point of view, he has written it from how he would like to think a woman thinks.“
“A lot of my female friends are very strong, independent people who manage to look after their children, have a job, just do everything with or without a man around. I mean, it’s great if there is a man around who can take responsiblity, so they can share it. But if there isn’t, they have to do it alone. And it’s very rarely the other way round. I really think there should be more songs by men singing ‘Oh baby, I can’t live without you’, because they are the ones that really can’t.“
Do you think there are some female singers around at the moment who still feel comfortable in the victim role?
“It’s a different kind of victim, the Tori Amos victim. It’s dressed up in modern clothes, but it’s still a victim. Maybe it helps some people to hear someone singing about it, but I don’t see the point. I mean, everybody suffered.“
Are there any female singers at the moment that really impress you?
“I like what I’ve heard of Aimee Mann. Also I really like Neneh Cherry and Voice Of The Beehive. I also have a lot of respect for someone like Kate Bush, but I am more into popmusic and jangly guitars. I think that area is still dominated by men, so I feel that I relate more to Blur than to most female songwriters.“
I think your new album ‘Titanic Days’ is a very quiet, almost private album. Would you agree with that?
“I suppose it’s a bit subdued in a sense. It’s not exuberant like ‘My Affair’ for example, it’s more personal and serious to a certain extend. Although there are still a couple of songs that are in character, but they are mixed up. I suppose I am a bit schizophrenic on most of the songs, really. I recorded most of them in the studio in our house, but it was nevertheless the hardest album I have ever done. I hope the next one is a lot easier and I hope I am not as depressed as I was when I did this album.“
Some of your co-writers also seem to have a big impact on the style of your songs. ‘Last Day Of Summer’ for example, which was co-written by Mark Nevin, sounds a bit like his former band Fairground Attraction.
“ Whenever I write with somebody, it’s nearly always a guitarist. They usually send me a cassette with some chords, just a little demo. And if I get an idea straight away, then I’ll work on it. And if I don’t get an idea within 3 times playing it, then I’ll never do it. I think it’s just Mark’s way of guitar playing that makes you think of Fairground Attraction. The songs he writes alone are very sweet lyrically and the songs that I write are lyrically very sour. ‘Last Day Of Summer ’ is lyrically quite dark, but musically it’s very bright. I’ve tried to do that with a lot of songs I wrote. I think that’s how you get people to listen to something, if it sounds really poppy and shiny. And then you can hit them with the dirty stuff, when they are not expecting it.“
Another co-writer of your songs is Johnny Marr. I must admit I thought the songs you wrote with him were never the highlights of your albums. Will you keep writing songs with him?
“Yeah, because the thing is, the rest of the public has proved you wrong. If sales are anything to go by, they’re always the ones that seem to do the best. But even apart from that, I don’t agree really, I think the songs I wrote with Johnny were amongst the highlights.“
What does your husband Steve Lillywhite think of the song ‘Bad’? I mean, it’s clearly a song about breaking free.
“It’s ironic, but obviously, to make something really funny, there has to be an element of truth. It says more about my parents than it does about my marriage, really. And I also had this image of a woman who was working in an office block when everyone else has gone home. She’s the cleaner who has been working all day and after she’s fed her kids, she goes to work in an office at night. And she’s singing this song very quietly, because she doesn’t want the security guards to hear her. She’s going crazy while she is pushing the vacuum cleaner. It’s about what would happen if she did all the things that pop into her head.“
You just mentioned your parents. What’s your relationship with them right now?
“My father is dead. My mother lives down the road but I’m becoming less burdened by it. As time goes by, I suppose.“
Are there any songs you wrote that tell much more about you than others?
“A lot of them are on ‘Titanic Days“. But there always have been personal songs and how many excuses you make about your songs being about other things. They always seem to be personal even if they’re trying to express a different point of view. And often, songs you write end up coming true for yourself or someone really close to you. I think a lot of my songs were subconsciously personal before I knew it.’“
Kirsty MacColl’s favourite albums:
- THE BEACH BOYS – Pet Sounds
- IGGY POP – Lust For Life
- THE SMITHS – Strangeways, Here We Come
- XTC – Black Sea
- STEELY DAN – Pretzel Logic
- THE COCTEAU TWINS – Heaven Or Las Vegas
- KID CREOLE AND THE COCONUTS – Tropical Gangsters
- BOB MARLEY – Live
- DAVID BOWIE – Station To Station
- FRANK BLACK – Teenager Of The Year
Kirsty MacColl talked to Karen O’Brien for her book ‘Hymn to her: Women musicians talk‘, as did Carla Bley, Roseanne Cash, Sheila Chandra, Neneh Cherry, Angelique Kidjo, Evelyn Glennie, Nanci Griffith, Janis Ian, Monie Love, Kirsty MacColl, Yoko Ono, Jane Siberry, Tanita Tikaram, Moe Tucker and Suzanne Vega. Karen went on to write Kirsty’s official biography.
“I was very keen on music from as far back as I can remember. It helped that I had a brother who was nine years older than me, so he was bringing things home that I’d get to hear. I remember hearing ‘Good Vibrations’ and playing it over and over again, thinking ‘this is fantastic, I want to learn all the parts!’ I must have been about five. I was also very keen on The Beatles, who were still putting out albums every year at that point. It was always the biggest interest in my life, I don’t remember being particularly interested in anything else. I was very ill a lot as a child, I always had really bad asthma and I never got to lead a really normal life. Music was a kind of release that you could just get lost in and it saved me from the outside world. I suppose I was quite unhappy in my own environment and it was the only thing that lifted my spirits and made me feel good.”
“When I was in my teens, I’d get home from school and go to my room and fiddle about on the guitar and try to learn loads of Neil Young songs. ‘Harvest’ was a really important album for me, it was one of the big milestones. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do, I want to write songs.’ It was a major breakthrough for me. I was never just listening to one style of music, I was always influenced by anything I could lay my hands on. I went through various obsessions. When I was fourteen, I was very keen on maths and I was really into Bach at the same time. I went through a spate of listening to twenty-year-old rockabilly records and the Shangri-las. Obviously I got into a lot of stuff that was current, things like Steely Dan and The Ramones.”
“I don’t ever remember my father living with us but I remember there was a very miserable atmosphere around so I think you inherit a bit of that.
He’d bring his records over and leave them. I think I was so traumatized by my family, really, that I found it very hard to listen to anything that I associated with my parents. I couldn’t really listen to folk music for many, many years. I didn’t start listening to folk music until I worked with The Pogues. Also, I was very aware of the fact that he disapproved completely of anything that he regarded as commercial. It was a sort of sin really and there was probably nothing that his children could have done more to upset him than to want to become pop singers. The way I see it is that you write a song and the song isn’t good or bad because of the arrangement, the song is either good or bad. The arrangement is just how you dress it up, it’s the clothes it puts on when it goes out.”
“I was in an uncomfortable position because my father was very well-known to an older generation and there was a certain presumption among some people that I would be singing folk songs and doing his songs, and I was very determined to do my own songs, the way I wanted to do them. We were from completely different generations. My dad was quite old when I was born. As much as I loved him, I thought his outlook on what was valid and what was not was rather narrow-minded. It just seemed to be dated, and slightly hypocritical. There are things about pop music that are good, you can have a message; ultimately, a good pop single transcends all that and that’s why it’s popular among millions of people. It’s not preaching. it’s uplifting.”
“I never thought we were competing in the same field because my dad was very politically active and would play to large folk audiences but a lot of those people would never go and see a pop gig. They’d never go and see David Bowie. Whereas I was coming from a different angle, I came out just as punk was happening and it was a completely different outlook, you didn’t have to have spent fifty years learning [music] to go and do it. I didn’t grow up with my father and I didn’t have the benefits (or not!) of seeing him on a daily basis but I’d get people coming backstage after gigs and talking very knowledgeably about him and it was very uncomfortable for me, because I didn’t think I knew him as well as they thought they knew him. It was very hurtful and quite hard to deal with for a long time. It’s funny really because as you get older, you realize that you’ve taken on more than you thought you had from your parents.”
“I was very naïve when I started. When I had my first single out in 1979 the record company wrote a press release without telling me. The first time I did an interview, somebody started asking me about my dad and I said, ‘How do you know who my father is?’ and they said, ‘It’s in your press release.’ The record company had obviously thought, ‘Let’s angle it as, it’s in the genes, it’s genetic music“’, which is just a real insult. I wrote a teen ballad, I was a teenager at the time so that’s what I did! What did that have to do with my parents? They’ve [music writers] got to have some angle; they can’t just say, ‘Here’s somebody doing their own thing, making the records they want to make.’ It’s never that straightforward, they’d rather see some Svengali in the background which is not necessarily true, but it’s what people want to imagine, especially where women are concerned. Independent women make people nervous.”
“I’ve been making records for fifteen years and I started off much more malleable and much more eager to please because I figured all of these people at the record companies were at least ten years older than me and they must know what they’re talking about. Then, after a while I thought, ‘If they know so much, why aren’t they making the records?’ I thought, ‘Maybe I do know what I’m talking about.’ Since I realised that, I’ve been more and more determined to do it on my own terms, and not to be pushed around. Certainly, artistically, I make all my own decisions and if people don’t like the records, then at least they don’t like the records I’ve chosen to make. They’re not listening to something that somebody else has created and I’ve just done the vocal on.”
“I don’t know if I was particularly naïve or not, but I used to think that if you just kept as true to yourself as you could, it would be all right in the end. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. Because you can’t say ‘all the most sincere artists have the most success’. That’s certainly not true but on the other hand, for me it would be worthless if I had a Number One record on someone else’s terms. What’s the point? It’s not what I’m about. Also, because I feel that I’ve been swimming against the tide for so long now, the last thing I’m going to do is say, ‘OK, I give up! What do you want me to wear?’ I’ve really got nothing to lose now, and that’s quite an empowering position to be in. It’s not always easy but at least I feel braver, to a certain extent.”
“I think I did fairly well to carve my own niche because I don’t fit into the stereotypical ideas of what a female pop-singer should be like. I’m not glamorous, I don’t go in for dance routines (in public anyway!). All I want to do is sell enough records to enable me to make the next record, and that’s the bottom line. I really love doing it and I don’t want to have to stop. It becomes harder and harder, the more determined you are to do it your own way. I never thought, ‘I’d love to be on television, I must be a celebrity!’ What I really want to do is just keep making music. It’s uncharted territory because there aren’t that many 34-year-old pop-singers who aren’t glamour-pusses! I feel to a certain extent I’m on this personal crusade.”
“I think there are more women around now who don’t conform to the original stereotypes, and that can only be good. There are still not that many in rock music — but Chrissie Hynde is the first and last rock icon for women to a certain extent. I’m like most women that I know: yes, I would like to be thinner but on the other hand, would it make my records! job/life any better? And is it so important to me that I have to go off and spend two months starving myself just to suit some kind of pathetic image of what people think I’m about? I’m not earning the sort of money where I can stand up and say, ‘Look, I’m doing just as well as those super-models!’ But on the other hand I think it’s good that women know that there are other women out there who are doing their own thing, without resorting to this ridiculous stereotypical behaviour and image. Nobody should feel forced to take on a completely alien persona in order to get the chance to be themselves, whether they are gay or heterosexual, or female or male.”
“Quite a few times in my career, I’ve suffered from not having someone around who could put things into perspective. To a certain extent, it was in the record company’s interests that I wasn’t too well informed because it made it easier for them to tell me to do things, and for me not to say ‘no’. After a while I just kept finding myself doing these awful German television programmes, and thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I don’t enjoy this, I’m not even getting the slightest bit of satisfaction out of it and I don’t want to continue if it’s under these circumstances.’ So I retreated into my shell for a bit. I got pregnant with my first son, and recorded ‘A New England’ which was a hit, then I made a follow-up when he was a couple of months old. Then I got ill for a while and then I was pregnant again, so that meant about two years out. The reason I was working with other people was because I wasn’t writing my own stuff when I was pregnant and I felt like all my brain cells had turned to jelly, so if I got a call from someone who I respected as an artist saying, ‘we’re making this record we’d like you to come and sing on this track’, then I’d be glad to do it, because it felt like I was still alive!”
“It was fun because I did the best I could on one song or a couple of songs. They’d ask me because they’d want me to make up a vocal arrangement; they didn’t ask me because they’d already got the parts and they just wanted me to sing ‘doo-wop, doo-wop’! I got all the freedom that I have with my own stuff but I didn’t have to worry about promoting it or dealing with a record company. I was still writing but there’s a world of difference between writing stuff and recording it, and having it released. I did a whole album that wasn’t released, and when you’ve worked very hard on something for about eighteen months, you feel like you’ve had a baby and left it in a telephone-box. [The record company] didn’t actually come down while we were recording it. I think they just decided that it was going to take too much effort to promote and they’d treat me as that year’s tax loss! You get used to it. Every time things have got bad I think, ‘Oh, no, this is terrible’ and feel really dreadful for a few months but then afterwards, I just really want to kick arse, and get up and say, ‘I’m going to show them!’ And that’s usually when I come up with my best stuff.”
“In 1989 ‘Kite’ came about after my new-found confidence from touring with The Pogues. I’d gone from being pregnant twice and fairly housebound, and not doing so much, to being out on the road for a couple of months, living completely the opposite lifestyle and having all of this sudden freedom from domesticity. Because I hadn’t written anything for quite a while I had lots of things burning to get out. I was pleased with that album. I thought it was a landmark as far as my writing went.”
“‘Electric Landlady’ didn’t do as well as ‘Kite’ in the UK, it did better in America. It was the first record that I’d had released in the States, simultaneously with the UK. ‘Madison’ was the first thing I’d sung, not just written, that received some major air-play in the US. It’s a completely different thing, America. It’s a sort of animal on its own. Just to get something played on a regular basis on most of the relevant rock stations is a good thing. But it doesn’t transfer to sales necessarily.”
“Charisma, in the US, which I was signed to, wanted me to go out and capitalise on the ‘Madison’ air-play. So we got a band together and rehearsed for three weeks, then we were told that we weren’t getting the funding, the night before the first warm-up gig. There were a number of things that probably contributed to that, partly the fact that [Virgin] were being bought out by EMI, and then they got rid of half of the artists roster and half of the staff so I wasn’t alone in that. I was just really unlucky in that it cost me, personally, lots of money.”
“It made me very determined to go on tour so I got another band together, with the help of Mark Nevin, and we went off round the UK and Europe under our own steam. I’d toured when I was twenty-one or so, after ‘Chip Shop’ came out. I’d done this tour of Irish ballrooms that was absolutely disastrous, and I was so terrified every night that it was just absolutely overwhelming. I couldn’t cope with it at all, and that put me off for ten years. I didn’t do any live stuff until The Pogues many years later. It was gigging with The Pogues that made me realise that it could actually be enjoyable, you could enjoy being on-stage. I’d never experienced that before, and I could never work out why people did it. I realised that there was a lot of fun involved as well, and also it gives you a completely new approach to singing. I became a better singer after working live a lot.”
“‘Performing’ is a word that is over-used. My vocals tend to be fairly deadpan, I tend to be more expressive with words than I am with delivery. It’s that English [attitude]: ‘Don’t make a fuss, it’s embarrassing!’ I couldn’t do all that screaming and bleeding on the carpet, I’m too reserved and shy for that. Although I was quite reserved about displaying emotion when delivering a song, it’s a different thing to how I behaved in bars! I’m much too outspoken and mouthy to be a little English rose; I’m more Celtic in that sense. I’ve always felt more Celtic; my father was Scottish and my mother has Irish connections. All of the people I connect with best, artistically, have roots in the London or Manchester Irish scene.”
“When I did go out [on tour], it was because I’d said to myself, ‘I’m going to book this up and if I don’t enjoy it after two weeks, then I’ll just not do it again.’ I had to at least try it, I couldn’t let my whole experience of touring amount to just one naff tour I did when I was twenty. After the first few gigs I was getting better every show we did, and enjoying it more, and it got to a point where some of the shows would be fantastic. You progress every time, you become more selective about what you think is a good gig.”
“Promoting ‘Titanic Days’, we were on tour in America for six weeks and I really enjoyed it. I had no idea what to expect. I knew we were playing smallish clubs but I didn’t know if I’d have enough fans there or enough people who knew my work to even fill the clubs. So when I’d get to these places that I’d never been to before, in the middle of nowhere, and there’d be loads of people there, with loads of singles they’d got on import, it was quite a relief!”
“I like to make jangly, luscious, melodic pop music but with lyrics that are a bit more biting and down to earth than the average stuff you hear on the radio. For people who listen to music, they often enjoy that but I don’t think the majority of people ever listen to the lyrics otherwise they wouldn’t buy the records they do.”
“What I like to do, and what I enjoy about the people I enjoy listening to, is that they invest their energy into more real situations than a lot of the stuff that tends to get into the charts, which, if there are any lyrics, they’re usually meaningless twaddle about ‘oooh, baby, I can’t live without you!’ There are just so few people I know who can’t live without somebody! It’s just not true, is it? Women, especially, would always be singing these songs, when I was a kid; you’d hear them on the radio, and the songs were obviously written by a man and he was actually putting his words into the woman’s mouth and he’s making her out to be how he wants to perceive women, and not how women are. So where are all of these pathetic women who can’t live without their man? I don’t know any! A lot of the women I know tend to be the stronger partner in the relationship; they tend to be the one who is more reliable and they have to be. I think it’s true to say that, generally, women can do ten jobs at once which is the main difference between them and men, because men tend to be able to do one thing at a time; they may do it well but they don’t have to apply themselves to anything else.”
“People just assume that a woman should give up her career when she has children. You’d think that in the ‘90s they’d have gotten over this, but they still don’t ever say, ‘Has your husband taken a lot of time off since you’ve had the baby?’ It’s as if a man’s career just carries on as normal and all these families come and go but he carries on. It’s a bizarre concept really, that it should be so one-sided.”
“There are two ways of looking at it: You can say that you work in spite of having kids because you’re incredibly selfish and maybe they’re losing out because you’re working but I tend to think that if I wasn’t working, I’d be so bitter and twisted that they wouldn’t want me around! They don’t need me twenty-four hours a day, they’re their own people now. They’re well looked after and they see plenty of us, even if we’re away for a few weeks of the year. They know they are loved. They’ve got their own lives, their own social lives, and school.”
“The reason that some people don’t like your music is the same reason that other people do. So it’s all so subjective. You can’t say, ‘If I change this, everybody will like it.’ I think people appreciate the fact that I’ve stuck to my guns. I have experimented musically, I’ve worked with lots of different people and that’s often gone against me in the music press because they think you’re getting above yourself — you’re working with foreigners! I just really enjoy the learning process and if I thought I didn’t have anything left to learn, I’d just stop doing it. I like working with new people and trying different styles and pursuing different ends because it makes the whole thing much more enriching.”
“As far as ‘Walking Down Madison’ goes, I wrote the lyrics walking around in New York and a couple of years later I had still not managed to come up with any music for it. I tried out various ideas on my own. Then out of the blue I got a tape from Johnny Marr, saying, ‘I came up with this idea, maybe you’d like to do something with it.’ I thought immediately, ‘I’ve already got the lyrics for this’, so it was just a question of writing a melody in order to finish it. I thought that the funk-type, hip-hop approach worked because of the nature of the song lyrically, because it was set in New York and because it was very urban, and the rap influence. There is something about rap music that conjures up American cities more than European ones, or pastoral scenes.”
“There are three people that I’ve written a lot of material with — Johnny Marr, Pete Glenister and Mark Nevin. Johnny and Pete are superb guitarists/composers and Mark is also a lyricist in his own right, but they all give me chord progressions. We never write together in the same room at the same time. They’ve all been extremely supportive of me in times of chronic confidence shortage, as has Morrissey, and I love them all dearly. We all need support when self-doubt threatens to overwhelm us.”
“With Johnny, I do a lot of it by post because he’s in Manchester and I’m in London. I’m quite lazy and it’s good to have a catalyst. If I get a cassette in the post from one of them, I’ll put it on and I’m away! There’s something ready to go, whereas if I’m left to my own devices, and I think, ‘I might start fiddling around on the guitar today’, I may or may not come up with something at the end of it. It’s quite a lonely business, song-writing, and the joy of writing with someone else is to have someone to bounce ideas off and to have input from another angle.”
“It’s certainly a talent and probably an art in itself, but I can’t identify with that Tin Pan Alley approach to song-writing where you go in at nine o’clock in the morning and write a song before lunch, then write another one in the afternoon. There are a lot of people who do that successfully, who can work that way; I’m not one of them.”
“I get regular writer’s blocks and the times when you are writing a lot are not always the times when it’s most convenient to write. Usually when there’s a lot going on, you don’t write about it when it is going on, you wait until that’s subsided and in the days that follow, that are more calm, you sometimes have more time to think about it and write about it. I find that once I get on a roll, I can’t stop writing. I try not to panic about the blocks now because I don’t think the panic helps the process, it just makes the block longer and more tedious and more traumatic. I just think, ‘OK, it’s not happening today’ and I do other things. I might be recording or working on some music and not coming up with any lyrics. I just wait till it starts happening again, really. I haven’t found the magic potion that turns it on.”
“Pop music is the natural habitat of the supremely superficial but ‘pop’ can cover a broad spectrum, and for every hundred disposable, inane songs there is one that strikes a chord with people, whether it is about pain and confusion, or nothing much at all! There’s a fine line that you have to tread — there tend to be an awful lot of songs written about the homeless, by people who only drive around in limos and probably don’t really see them unless they’re about to run them over as they leave a club! I’m not a spokeswoman by any means but I don’t think you can walk around any major city and not be aware of it; I don’t see how it can not cross your mind.”
“I feel lucky that I’m still able to make records whether or not I can make them here; or just in America, I can make records and that’s as much as I can hope for. In the face of all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that you have to look a certain way, and behave a certain way and promote things in a certain way — I still get a chance to be myself. You always feel that every record could be your last, because if you don’t sell enough, no one’s going to give you money to make the next one.”
“I see my career as a long-term thing and it’s been going fifteen years now, but I’ve had so many different record companies, it feels like I’ve got a new one every six months! They don’t all, obviously, see my career as long-term as I do. As long as I feel I really enjoy it and get a lot out of it, I’m going to continue doing it, whether they want me to or not. I feel it’s my duty to out-wit them at every opportunity!”
“If you really believe that what you’re doing is basically good stuff then you have to carry on with it. And if you’re not sure, then you should just give up. And most people do give up. That’s why there are not that many people still around who’ve been doing it for fifteen or twenty years. Some people might have a hit single or one hit album, and they’ll probably last about five years. It is hard to keep it going. That’s what separates the women from the girlies!”