Interview with Toyah Willcox
Punk, rebel, icon. This week we are absolutely bloody delighted to be able to bring you an interview with a true legend. We will not lie to you readers, we are starstruck. Fangirl-ing all over the shop. She is an era-defining songstress, star of stage and screen and – pardon my millennial-ness – #hairgoals extraordinaire. She is, of course, the incomparable Toyah Willcox, and we chatted to her (ever-so-coolly) this week about rebellion, creativity, and her most recent album In The Court of the Crimson Queen.
Your career began in acting but many know you better as a musician. If that’s not enough, you have also presented and produced – what’s it like to have so many ‘hats’ you can wear, and do you prefer one to the others?
I think my career is purely accidental. If I had superstar status, I would not be able to be diverse. My career is such that I am able to kickstart everything I do, and I think that’s what makes my career so unique. I do love being asked to do projects but most of the time I have to create my own.
So much of your work is based around – or an expression of – nonconformism, of rebelling. What do you think we should all be rebelling against nowadays, and what do you think the best form of rebellion is?
I am going to answer the latter first. The best form of rebellion is non commitment to what you don’t believe in and don’t want to support. The internet has proven that hatred is a too easy and convenient instrument to block all creativity. And, answering the first part of the question, the best rebellion we can have as exceptionally creative unique creatures is not to accept the mundane. For me the mundane is when you are encouraged to imitate others. None of us needs to imitate – we are all unique.
You have been in a couple of films which have truly come to define generations – specifically Jubilee but also Quadrophenia – what was the experience like, becoming the one of the figureheads of a movement in time like that? Particularly since you were working with the likes of Jordan and Adam Ant, other figureheads of the time?
It was an exceptional time. In 40 years of working as an actress and a singer I have never experienced a sense of community such as the era of punk and new romantic new wave. The experience was one of gratitude and also of forever learning new things. It was as if absolutely everything was possible.
Are there any styles of performance you never felt you got to explore – that you might have liked to?
I think there are many areas of performance I would still like to experience. A couple of years ago it was suggested to me that I should take part in a ballet with a very famous company. I was hugely excited by this and it has by no means gone away. I am not graceful, I am not a ballet dancer, but I am expressive. Another area I would like to explore is opera.
You have worked with some amazing people over the years – Derek Jarman, Wayne Sleep, Laurence Olivier – do you have any stand-out favourites and have any of them given you any brilliant (or terrible!) advice that you remember?
Katherine Hepburn was utterly remarkable. She didn’t say this to me directly, but I learnt this from her as a person and that is: never be forced to conform to something that you feel is unnatural for you. She would wear men’s clothing. She also insisted I had close-ups on the movie I did with her (The Corn is Green from 1979) and she continually broke the mould of what everyone expected a Hollywood superstar to be. To be honest I have never been given terrible advice.
Who were some of the artists who inspired you musically? And what was it about them which you found inspiring?
Definitely David Bowie, Roxy Music and Eno, Alice Cooper. I particularly love male performers who dress like Peacocks. For me it accentuates the music in all the right ways.
What is your process like when you sit down to write songs? Do you come up with ideas as you’re in the shower, do you keep a notebook of ideas, do you need total seclusion to just sit down and write?
It is yes to all of those. Every day I practice my piano playing. Presently I am studying music, music theory and keyboards. So that process alone allows me to explore chord progressions and melody and that is definitely something I can only do while I am alone. With In The Court Of The Crimson Queen, Simon Darlow and myself locked ourselves in a studio until we had written something. To put this into perspective; Simon can play every instrument in the room from keyboards to drums and I can sing top lines and we come up with songs within two minutes! The only time this process is every hindered is because we are both very emotional people and when we wrote Our Hearts Still Beat and Dance In The Hurricane we stood in front of the microphone for at least four days, not being able to stop crying. These are two songs that we both found virtually impossible to sing because of our history and the loss of our parents. That said it made the songs very, very real.
What young performers are out there now who impress you?
Ariana Grande – her latest album is fantastic. Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) – because the production on her albums is the best in the world.
Why did you decide to rework In the Court of the Crimson Queen and tour it again?
On May 18 last year, my 60th Birthday, my fans downloaded Telepathic Lover to number one. And I was in the unique position of being an unsigned artist on the top spot. This meant radio stations couldn’t play my songs because you need to be signed to a record label. Thankfully, Demon Music signed us, which gave Simon and I the opportunity to rework the songs with drums and remixing and to add five new songs. The tour will be a completely new take on anything we have done before in relation to this music.
What can people expect from your upcoming tour?
What people can expect from any of my shows – upbeat happiness!
1. What is your favourite role you’ve played? Kate in Taming of the Shrew
2. What is one issue which you’ll never stop fighting for? That we all deserve to be seen and heard for what we are
3. What is your favourite hairstyle you’ve ever had? It was for the cover of the Telegraph magazine in 1981 and it was bright orange and it was cut very short but I had a ‘Spock’ fringe
4. What is your favourite song from In the Court of the Crimson Queen? Dance In The Hurricane
5. Dream duet partner? David Bowie