Toyah Willcox Interview Part 1
A Few Words With...Toyah Willcox - Part 1
To most Americans, Toyah Willcox is either an unknown quantity, or Mrs. Robert Fripp. To the rest of the world she is perhaps thought of as an 80s punk pop Princess that graduated into TV and films. Either perception sells her seriously short. Toyah is a creative dynamo equally adept on the screen, stage, studio, and in print. For the prog fan, her CDs feature such players as Phil Spalding, Simon Phillips, Trey Gunn, Tony Geballe, Adrian Lee, and the aforementioned Mr. Fripp. It is ProgSheet's distinct pleasure to give you part one of a conversation with Toyah Willcox...
PS: There has been quite a burst of Toyah CDs recently. As you listen to the later Safari albums like Warrior Rock & Love Is The Law, what strikes you most vividly about that time in your life?
TW: Love Is The Law is my favourite album at the moment. It is consistent in its writing and it strikes me hard that it is the only album Joel Bogen and myself demoed before recording. We spent months with another writer Simon Darlow formatting, discussing, re-writing and deciding by committee each step, that said we also had a lot of fun. This was 1983 one of the most perfect years of my life. I was starring in Trafford Tanzi and it was a monster smash, making Love Is The Law and completing a movie (The Ebony Tower) with Greta Scacchi and Laurence Olivier. 1983 was the perfect year in form of structure and achievement.
Warrior Rock was a different experience. I was, Joel as well, suffering second album syndrome. We had immense success with Anthem and the whole of the preceding year was about photo sessions and press when really in retrospect we should have disappeared and done a few small gigs and honed new material. But I found myself shying away from public life as the pressure of being a 'star ' became almost unbearable. It was as if I had to pretend to be someone else, someone more aloof and prima donna than I was, in order to please people.
Warrior Rock came after The Changeling. The Changeling was a brave and unexpected album, it was angry and confused and broke a lot of new ground as well as lost us our pre-teen audience. But the one thing that gave Joel and myself our self confidence back was that as a live band we were not only awesome but we were considered by the industry as awesome. We were joined on the road by Simon Phillips who really put the stamp of respectability on our names. There is only one regret about this period. Our promoter admitted some years later that he could have put us in Wembley Arena and he bottled out. If he had of done we would have sold it and had people queuing for more tickets. This politically would have changed our future quite radically, but instead we did the two nights at Hammersmith, which were still a success but not as successful as a full arena would have been. This was a period in English music when arenas where not being played, it was only a few years later when Bruce Springsteen appeared that arena shows began in England, so I could have been one of the first in the UK.
PS: You once told me that The Changeling was a reaction to Anthem. What aspect of Anthem and the recognition that followed was it a reaction to?
TW: I found the success of Anthem thrilling but at the same time I no longer was me, as far as the public was concerned they created an imagined person who I then had to live up to. I found this really disturbing, firstly because I didn't understand that this was what was going on until many years later, when I walked away from it all and for decades after people would say 'give us a song and where's the pink hair' that I realised no one ever knew who I really was. They only knew the me they allowed in to their psyche and that was totally fictitious. And the irony of this is I wanted the success but it burnt. The Changeling was an uncontrollable reaction of anger and shock tactic. My life had become one long publicity appearance with lawyers and accountants invading every conceivable space. The reaction was about fame and losing the space and anonymity that I think is utterly necessary to be creative.
PS: In 1988, you released Prostitute, the musical antithesis of Minx and far more stripped down and caustic than Desire. In the 3 years between Minx & Prostitute, what changed within you?
TW: I got married. I got married because I met the man who was to be my husband for the rest of my life, so far we have achieved twenty years and I am more than optimistic we will make it to our graves. But once I married I was completely dropped by the industry. In those years, my twenties and the 1980s it must have been important to people that I was a single commodity.
Partly the reaction of Prostitute was to all those in my immediate surroundings, my managers no longer conferred with me, it was always with Robert and the same goes for those who where my bank managers, accountants, record company bosses and lawyers. Everything I achieved was suddenly claimed as part of my husband's estate. They would call him and say 'what do you want Toyah to do this year?' and they'd call me and say 'your husband wants this, oh and by the way when are you starting a family?' Suddenly I was no longer the fiery individual I had been for 26 years, I was instead an immediate cliché.
That said time has healed and I now receive the respect of a queen from the industry also because our marriage has been incredibly strong and committed, in work and play.
Creatively with Prostitute I also needed to regain some control. Desire was the album before it and there had been some creative clashes with my management and an A&R man. I wanted to put the production team together from The Blue Meaning, have Steve James back as producer and use quirky instruments and go for a much simpler band sound, something as stripped bare as PJ Harvey's Dry album, but no they went for the big money producer who only wanted me in the studio to sing and .....well......... for me music needs spontaneity, so Prostitute was my deeply needed moment to strip all away and say this is how I feel and not censor it.
PS: With the current digging through the Toyah vaults, will the Strange Girls sessions or any live Sunday All Over The World material ever surface?
TW: Strange Girls may not surface but hey! It's early days and there is a renewed interest in my music, I think thankfully a new generation has rediscovered it, which feels lovely because it will be out of context with me the person and the period. As my lyrics where always ambiguous and predictive I hope they have more power out of the context of that century.
I would love Sunday All Over The World to resurface. There is great writing there and great performances. Not too long ago Robert played me a live performance of a song that never made the album, it was in Madrid and the song was You Bring Out The Worst In Me. After many years of the British press telling me I am worthless and crap, which does start to rub off on you, I burst into tears when I heard this performance. It was fucking blinding. And I looked at Robert and thought why do we let people influence us so disruptively. As I get older I have no role models and take crap from no one, it's a lovely place to be. Sunday All Over The World deserves to be heard.
PS: Of late, with the exception of a few live gigs, your creative energies have focused more on writing, acting & presenting. Is creating new music less of an inner drive nowadays?
TW: I love performing, I love acting, singing, writing, being asked to do projects. I think what I do now is part of a natural career curve. And you have to take into account in the last two years I have had my greatest success ever. I have performed live to over a million people, and been on TV more than any other time in my career. So with all respect as I know America would have no sense of this, I have actually been more successful in this century than the last. Funnily enough in the last month I have written new material, but I feel such contempt for certain attitudes in this country I do tend to keep stuff to myself.
Obviously I have a lot of American friends and their positive, sunny, openness to new ideas feeds my soul and I become a drug addict to their energy. In England if you tell someone you have an idea they either steal it or ask you why are you bothering, that said I am British through and through and have no plans to leave this country, but part of me takes revenge by being invisible especially with new ideas. The last fifteen years have been a hard climb up the ladder of success because of management history and I have to break free of the memory of all of that and see the people in this world as friends first and foremost. In England now I am more established than ever before which I hope will lead to me being an actress first and foremost especially as I move into my 50th decade.
I love the present music trends with live bands and there is some fantastic stuff going on which inspires me to get out there, but I will never tour constantly, for someone who has a high profile I need a certain amount of solitude and privacy. Sometimes I cannot understand or comprehend how people tour constantly, I feel terribly vulnerable if the public have endless access to me.
Creating new music is no less of an inner drive, but I am a collaborator, I adore working in a team. My life and work isolate me from all that at the moment, and yes it would be true to say that the isolation of writing a book is sometimes more preferable to seeing the same one or two loonies in the audience who put you off ever singing in public again.
PS: Speaking of acting, what has acting taught you that you've been able to specifically apply to music?
TW: I cannot relate acting to music. Acting allows me escape from self and to wear a mask. If there were anything in common between the two for me it is the mask, which to some extent allows psychic protection especially when dealing with audiences. This may sound contradictory after I have earlier said that in 1981 people no longer saw a real person, but in 81 they didn't even see the mask. Acting is about technique as well as instinct and if there is anything which crosses over it would be technique, especially in getting an emotion or a message across. Acting is about stillness and what you choose not to say, sometimes that could be applied with great effect to music, especially stillness, which is something I haven't mastered yet with singing. I think acting and singing require two personalities.
PS: Your latest book Diary Of A Facelift is a great example of how open & honest you have always been. Has your honesty ever gotten you into trouble?
TW: My honesty would only get me into trouble with the type of people I don't care to know, the artistic snobs. In most cases I am known for my honesty and people expect and respect it. I did consider the possibility of the book closing all the doors of the music industry to me, but the head of Sony UK came up to me the other night and said 'you came up in a meeting today, would you consider making an album for us, you look fantastic.' Of course I said yes, and I await the phone call. I have screen tested for more films and TV dramas this first six months of 2005 than I have in the whole of the last twenty years. I think partly because out of all my contemporaries, (and there is a market to be exploited among my age group), I have kept in good shape and image is always going to be as important as ability, skill and talent.
Also I think it is hypocritical to lie to another human being on any level, and if we don't have the strength of character to say ' yes I have a great surgeon' we should all rethink who and what we are. especially in the world of entertainment.
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