Chrissie Hynde has returned with her first solo album. It’s classic – in depth interview
Chrissie Hynde walks into the room full of attitude.
It’s that old school rock ‘n’ roll swagger from the still stick thin 63 year old who oozes the innate cool of the generation when rock n roll really mattered.
She is just about to release her first ever solo album, Stockholm, on June 9 after years of service fronting the still functioning Pretenders and it’s a record that is stuffed full of pop hooks and the crystalline stomp of Motown and the perfumed swoon of classic girl group ramalama updated to a 21st century context.
Recorded at Ingrid Studios in Stockholm with co-writer, guitarist and producer Bjorn Yttling (Peter, Bjorn and John), the album features cameos from Neil Young and tennis legend John McEnroe. The album, 11 tracks in total includes the first single ‘Dark Sunglasses’, which will be released on April 21. Summing up her aims with the album, Chrissie said; “I wanted to make a power pop album you could dance to – Abba meets John Lennon”.
Perhaps temporally freed from the Pretenders she feels she can indulge in that pure pop of her youth, the radio pop from back in the days when radio played great music- those mini symphonies that we dream of hearing instead of the market researched, spoon fed accountants wet dream of ‘music for the kids’. Of course the songs are sung perfectly. Chrissie has one of the great voices that remains full of sex, swagger and vulnerability – the classic combination.
In rock ‘n’ roll terms she is a veteran but she doesn’t care-embracing the future whilst detailing the past that reads like the one of the great rock biogs – the runaway rock chick who came to London to hang out with the NME and is always remembered as being loud and loveably dangerous, dated Nick Kent and was part of the early punk scene- she ‘married ‘Sid Vicious to stay in the country and gave him his famous bike chain to hang round his neck, she wrote songs with a pre Clash Mick Jones and hung out at the Sex shop and if her music was a bit more trad than her contemporaries it certainly didn’t matter because she had that punk attitude and her songs were perfectly observed slices of classic guitar rock n roll that made the Pretenders huge.
Rooted in the sixties she still believed in the power of rock n roll and when the barricades are erected she is there fighting for animal rights with a genuine passion and an articulate fuck you attitude. She comes from a time when people believed and retains that to this day.
She has never lost it and talks directly and with a bluntness that makes her feel like a northerner even though she has lived in London four decades.
It’s you first solo album but in many ways the Pretenders have felt like a solo band for a long time, where they just a flag of convenience?
‘I always said the Pretenders is a band. I was getting fucked off with having to defend the name of the band over the years. I was never a solo artist and never wanted to be a solo artist. I like being in a band. That’s what I do. What’s in a name? interestingly this solo album has been more of a collaboration than my last Pretenders stuff- it’s lot more of a collaboration.’
So in a way the Pretenders is this flag of convenience?
‘So was told by some other for thirty years. Every time I had to promote a new Pretenders album the journalists said ’It’s just you- it’s the Pretenders…’ and for 30 years I’ve had to say it’s a band and I have got fucked off with having to defend the name of it. I’m not a solo artist and I never wanted to be. I always said I didn’t want to go solo but what happened with this is that I was working on the record with these guys in Sweden and they all had other projects. I was saying ‘c’mon lets go on tour. We’re a band. We’re called the Russian Icons or something. Let’s go! and they were like, ‘no!” and I was like ‘c’mon you guys!’ and they were saying we can’t, we have got other projects we are working on so I was stuck there on my own in the end and it became a solo album.’
Why do you like the band thing? is it the running with the gang?
‘I just like playing in a band…’
Which part? the dynamic of it? the creative side?
‘Oooh all of it. That’s what I always wanted and that’s what I always liked. I never wanted to adventure outside of it and I never had any ambition outside of it apart from doing my own little thing in the band. I like the way it works in a band. I like to set the guitar player up- get the sound right, that’s what turns me on being in a band .
I just dig the vibe. What I like about it is just bringing out the best in them you know. When you are playing well you can get to see what they are good at and what they can lend to a song. I’m more of a ring leader in that way. I know I bring out great performances in the guys and they and I think they are glad to be given some direction. Everyone in the band wants to play. They want to give their best performance. In the Pretenders I got James Wolburn on guitar and he’s like a guitar hero – he’s one of the last great ones. So I just kind of wind him up and turn him loose and that’s fantastic and that’s what I enjoy in that band and then in solo thing I don’t know yet, I’m not sure how this will travel. I’m not sure how it’s going to pan out because we are doing 11 brand new songs and I’m not sure who wants them!’
How does this solo dynamic pan out?
‘Well I’m not calling it a solo thing. The rest of the world has said it’s solo so I have said, well ok fuck it – you have it your way but it’s exactly the same thing except it’s more of a collaboration than my last few albums.’
What kind of boss are you to have in band? do you shout at the band a lot!
‘My job is to say when something sounds good or I say can we have the backing vocals again. I’m just careful I suppose. I might say to the bass payer, ‘can you pull it back a little bit?’. It depends on how they are playing. I have to listen to it and see how it feels because everyone is in there doing their thing. I step out of it a little bit I can say we don’t need a fill there or just keep that straight. That’s what I’m good at. I listened to a lot of radio when I grew up- that was my musical education. I have no qualifications. Nobody does. You don’t learn this. You don’t go to a rock school for singing lessons! you can’t learn how to sing rock but that’s different now with people going to these schools, maybe they want to be on musicals but it’s certainly not rock n roll.’
In some ways you are like a conductor?
‘I suppose, yes, especially if I have written the songs then I have a pretty good idea of how I want them to be. Just simple things- I can tell when I’m singing if the tempo is a little but out ‘cos you can tell by the rhythm and feel with your voice. Singing is not rocket science. It’s kind of the dumbest thing in the world being in a rock band. It’s not a high art is it and there’s no rule but there’s also rules! but c’mon! get real-if you listen to Mozart or listen to anything you care to mention then rock n roll is pretty basic stuff that we’re talking about here – but basic is good. Music has become lot more autistic for the masses- ‘dung, dung, dung!’ it doesnt need to change very much as long as it’s on. It’s a conductor to let you out of whatever it is- I mean when I used to listen to the radio back when I was a kid and I was working I would get home from work and stick my head in a speaker and just get away. It’s a way of kicking out the jams, venting frustration and stuff. With what I do I look into the audience and it’s a case of ‘you think your fucked up check this out! I know no-one out there more fucked up than I am or have been and they trust me, you know.’
What is rock n roll?
‘There is a lot of mythology which includes the whole rock n roll lifestyle which is bullshit.
C’mon! I mean the sex and drug parts of that are just drug addiction and that’s ok for the first 25 years but it takes another, you know, 20 to start getting over that. I think you can get away with murder for 25 years but not everyone can – my first guitar player died when he was just 25 so he didn’t have a good run, my bass player at the same time. I’m not even advocating or suggesting anything I’m just saying that’s the way it is- it’s a more observing thing but everyone arrives at the same conclusion eventually. Everyone does. Even Lemmy!
The first time I met Lemmy I was in a shop on Kings Road. He didn’t say anything- I was just standing there and this guy just walked up to me with this tube on a chain round his neck and with this little packet which he snorted and offered me some and then he just walked out and I was up for three days. When I toured with the Stones they referred to ‘Keef’s health drink’ that was set up really carefully on his amps and I was like ‘what’s a health drink?’ because he’s famous for his jack n coke and apparently his health drink was vodka and orange.
But in the end for whatever reason everyone arrives at the same conclusion- and you can’t live the rock n roll lifestyle for ever. The truth is that no one can sustain doing this and being fucked up- you just can’t do it. I’ve seen a lot of guys who have been real fucked up and still got out to play- look at the jazz players smacked out out of heads- they can still deliver but not for very long. Look at Billie Holiday- her voice was gone early and she had a beautiful voice.’
Do you look after your voice – it’s one of the great voices in rock n roll…
‘No I haven’t but I have quit smoking now because that fucks your voice up. I don’t care what anyone says but that really fucks your voice up. I smoked roll ups with Emmy Lou Harris and the best of them but you know you have to temper that shit but if you are compulsive person and drug addiction is compulsive you have to be careful. I could smoke a few roll ups and chuff them all day and then you go out on a bender one night and you over smoke and it all adds up. These are all the rock n roll subjects and the mythology of rock n roll all bullshit. The music is rock n roll not the mythology. Even Iggy Pop. If he had not been off his nut who knows what he would have done. He would have been a professor or something. He’s an intellectual. He would come up to you and say stuff like, ‘Napoleon loved his men. He loved his women too but he love his men… imagine a pinhole- a little dot of light…’ and you’re sitting there thinking what are you talking about! He’s off on one. He’s like a college professor really when he’s not the world’s forgotten boy.’
You have to be a professor to write lyrics as good as ‘No Fun’.
Definitely. Iggy writes great lyrics. Look at Five Foot One’ which, for me, is the definitive rock roll song. It gets straight straight to the point and the subject matter is great. It’s about a guy who works in a music park who’s short- that’s rock n roll! This man, he’s walking around saying he won’t grow any more and that to me is the essence and it’s about the essence. And in terms of the rock n roll lifestyle, even Iggy has had to pull back! The last time I saw him he wasn’t wrecked, he’s not taking acid and stuff like that and that’s a big deal because no one has gone out on a limb like he has!’
Your songs seem more personal than Iggy’s especially on the new album…
‘Iggy is too cool to get personal. He doesnt do personal. I think he’s just a very proud person. He wouldn’t crap out. I can’t speak for Iggy Pop obviously but listening to him over the years he knows when to draw the line- you just can’t go there but most people will fall in love and write a bunch of songs about it or they break up or have a baby and write songs about that and Iggy knows there is a line you just don’t cross.’
Your songs seem more personal on the new album.
I’m sure my line is not as firmly established as his is…
And the songs on your new album?
It’s a collaboration. The guys I was writing with would bring something up as a trigger- like a title and set me off…
Like the song Dark Sunglasses- one of the highlights from the album and the single.
‘I mean Dark Sunglasses- what a title- at first I thought, god these Swedish guys have no fucking idea! what kind of title is that. But they made me rise to it and it was a trigger and I then thought, ‘fuck it, yeah! it’s a great title!’ c’mon, it’s fucking awesome I wouldn’t have thought about a title like that because I would have that that’s too tired and infact I was wrong and he was right. It was the same with the title, In The Movies- again I was like c’mon, what do you you mean but it’s a great title.
You took the title Dark Sunglasses and turned it into a song about the English class system.
They didn’t exactly expect that! These guys are very, well- who knows – Swedish! And who knows what the Swedes are thinking. They are very stoic. They don’t give much away. I managed to get him, when, in the end, I introduced him to John McEnroe when I realised Bjorn liked tennis. He got even more emotional in the studio when I brought Neil Young to play on one track. I did anything to get a rise out of him and that worked. The other guy I worked with on the album, Joakim Åhlund – he’s in a band called the Caesars, is bit more of a rock animal- all tattooed up. When I met Bjorn it took 3 or 4 visits before before I made a cooenction. I thought maybe he doesn’t like me and I’m sure he didn’t. I was c’mon lets do some more and he was like I’m not a producer and he, like, push me onto Joakim and he loved the music and we worked together on some other songs.
It seems a curious way of working…
‘I don’t know. I never asked. I went into a meeting with my new manager and took me into meet my publishers and I’m very hands off with business- I have nothing to do with it ever. It’s not a matter of left and right hand side of th brain of me- it’s more like the no side of the brain for me. I said I’m never going talk about money and business from the start of my career. I have always had some option in place to do that. I would never be self managed- not even for one hour. Some people love it. Some people sit down and look over everything but I don’t. The typical senario with me when I reset up a deal is to get my manager to sort it out and they will say the laywer has really been on this for a couple of months and is really happy with all the stuff that’s been negotiated and I will say I’m ok and I go into the lawyer sitting there with the papers on the table and we are all sitting around and he is waiting for me to start reading through it and I go in and I say does he know I’m not going to read this and I can see his crestfallen as I just go to the last page and read it. People say you’re going to get ripped off but you get ripped off already. It just don’t bother me.
Anyway, in this case, he said I have re-negotiated your publishing deal and they said do you want to go and meet these Swedes and maybe work with them and I have a new manager so it was a new scenario and I said yes ok because I’m trying to be a team player and everything. I walked in and and they said do you want to do some writing with someone like and old fashioned kind of way -this how it was originally done in the 50s- and I just said, ‘yeah’.
In the punk days before the Pretenders you were doing the same sort of thing when you were writing with Mick jones
We tried but never finished…It was not a Malcolm Maclaren thing, I was not invited in. He just got me into this basement rehearsal space and we did some stuff there. Mick already had Bernie Rhodes involved but I didn’t like him. I just did my thing with Mick until he brought down this pretty boy one day and I thought ‘oh here we go…I’m out!’ and I thought these guys have more in common than I do. I thought of myself as a real hard ass so I could feel myself phasing myself out and not wanting to be around any more.
There was no point in hanging around as he had brought Paul the pretty boy in- although Paul was very talented and infact I remember he had this album cover that he had just designed at art school for Alex Harvey and I thought that’s pretty cool. Anyway I got out of there and the next week they had Strummer in and some of the songs I was working on with Mick were changed and Strummer got an interesrting twist on everything. Mick would sing I’m so bored of you and Strummer would say I’m so bored of the USA and I really liked the direction he was taking it.
Anyway my mananger took me to meet these publishing guys they played me bunch of stuff and I said I like that and three months letter I was in Ohio visiting my mother and I was just leaving and they said the guys whose records I had liked are in town and they are playing the Grog Shop in town and I said I’m just leaving so I can’t go tonight. I didn’t even know what band he’s in! they said do you want to meet for a coffee so is said cool and we met in a hotel. I sat there and said hi! and these Swedes are like ‘allo’ – so stoic!
Joachim is the real rock guy- when we met it was lets go and eat and we were immediatly hanging out together. It was the same thing when I worked with Johnny Marr- it was like lets go and see a band- we didn’t know eachother but a few minutes later we were in a alley on Wardour Street and rolled a spliff- we were in a band minutes after we set eyes on each other. Johnny is fun but that didn’t work because he was in Manchester and too far away. Anyway I met this stoic Swedish guy so I went over and I convinced Bjorn and he was saying I’m not a producer and the interesting thing is that even the album is a solo album it ended up being more of a collaboration than the Pretenders..’
Is this solo album a deliberate move away from Pretenders?
‘Yeah you could say that the Pretenders is a tired brand or whatever but who gives a fuck. I like to tour but I have to figure out how to do this- like I said Bjorn said go in with my friend Joakim and I thought ‘yeah ok he’s trying to get rid of me! so I went with Joakim and wrote some songs and then Bjorn came down out of the blue as we were just finishing this song and he walked in and we said listen to this and he was mmmm that’s good- so then he wanted me back! so anyway Bjork finished the album because he could see that this album was the most rock n roll thing he’s ever done.
It sounds different to the Pretenders…
‘I guess Bjorn is part of this- he certianly has a commercial ear. I didn’t know he did the Homebase ad. I didn’t know who he was. I always work like that though, if I work with a producer I don’t know what they have done but if I meet them and I get the vibe that it is someone I can hang out with then I think lets try it. I mean how do you know until you do it – you might think someone is amazing but how do you know until you live with them? how do you know? you can’t tell if you are a great guitar player at first- we were auditioning guitar players and if you walked in I would be like woah woah woah but then it would be, why is this guy bringing his girlfriend down! get rid of him! or this guy is over weight no no no! wrong! that would be a deal breaker! there would be certain things that just don’t work…
What about Ron Asheton- still sounded great in the reformed Stooges even if he looked like he was ona fishing trip!
‘He didn’t look part at the end but he certainly did at the beginning but that was Iggy’s problem not mine. If Jimmy Scott was still alive he would be a big fat pig too. I’m not saying Ron Asheton was fat but Jimmy would be way out of shape now if he was still alive, he would a wreck.
Who was it that said that famous quote ‘if I knew I was going to last this long I would have looked after myself better…’
I’m not trying to perpetuate some rock n roll myth but that’s just the way it is.
When you get with your band it is where you feel most like yourself. It’s not the same as if you are are an actor or a novelist or a painter but when you are in a band you can be who you are and it’s not a concsious thing but I can be up here being a total asshole and these people are buying it! The only time you can be like that is when you are on stage and the rest of the time you have to conform and not be as obnoxious as you want to be.
How obnoxious do you want to be??
You do have scary reputation!
‘mmm I dont know! do I?’
In a good way…
‘I don’t know. I don’t read any of this stuff.’
You start a fight in the Morrissey book
‘Actually I’m seeing him tonight..he uses me as his clown. He likes me to be his clown- he doesn’t like it if I don’t drink. If I say no thanks, he says ‘waiter another glass!’ (Moz impression). He wants to get me going because I’m the asshole he wishes he could be! because he is way too polite for that shit (laughs)
Would it be fair to say that the album is more classic pop and less rock n roll than the Pretenders…
Bjorn kind of freaked me out because he is very hit conscious. Obviously I have a lot to do with the record but I’m not queer enough to put co producer on the credits. I know what I want because why else would I be there! some dumb chicks have their name on everything and I think get over yourself! anyway Bjorn would say that doesn’t sound like a hit and I couldn’t believe this guy is saying that. If I had said that in front of any producer I could think of they would be horrified, it suggests that someone from the record company is coming in and they don’t like that, they don’t want to be told what to do, they don’t want to meet the record company. I always kept that away. I never had no-one in the studio ever- not even the manger or friends- nothing.’
Can you even tell what hit is?
‘No who knows do they? even Hot Chocolate with ‘Sexy Thing’ they were not saying ‘it’s a hit!’ but maybe they could tell, you just getting through it in the studio but Bjorn was thinking about it and I was thinking ‘god what a weirdo! he actually is thinking like that…’
He would was thinking radio and I love radio- it’s my favourite thing. I am thinking I’m not on the radio anyway as I am an heritage artist, I’m too old to be played- I don’t expect to get on the radio now and I’m ok with that. It is what it is and I will always be on the radio somewhere in America that is where my audience is, so fuck it. But he was more conscientious about that kind of thing which was refreshing. I like being on the radio but by 1990 when I wasn’t on the radio anymore. I kind of freaked out – the last Pretenders album was alike, hang on I have just made a whole album and no one is playing it any more- what the fuck happened to me. I never catered to be on the radio, it just happened to me and then when it stopped I missed it. When I wrote Stand By You, I was ashamed because it felt like it was totally sell out and I didn’t like it but when I met Noel Gallagher I said sorry about that song and he said ‘I wish I had fucking written it! (Noel impression).’
How do you write a song for the radio?
‘I don’t know- I guess if it makes you feel like you want to dance or turn the radio up then it works…’
Did Bjorn have the formulae?
‘I don’t know. I fucked around with stuff as much as him adding parts, changing bits like on Dark Sunglasses when I was in early one day and this guy walked in who looked pretty amazing and this guy was walking around so I went over and said ‘hello do you want to come downstairs for a minute…’ I had no idea what he sounded like but I knew what he looked like and you could just tell from what he looked like that he really had something and he started singing and I was like woagh! I was like that’s awesome , lets keep going and I was articulating the words and it was fantastic and a total accident.’
A record of happy accidents?
‘In some ways- one song sounded like it would suit Neil Young and to freak the Swedes out I rang him up and he came down to the studio and recorded a part without even listening to the beforehand just to keep it fresh…’