Stephen Sackur speaks to singer and songwriter Chrissie Hynde in an interview from September 2014. After 30 years of making music, is she still in love with rock 'n' roll?
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Now on BBC News, it's Hardtalk.
Welcome to HARDtalk.
I'm Stephen Sackur.
My guest today has one of the most distinctive voices
in all of rock music, and a record of success
going back to the 1980s.
Chrissy Hynde's band, The Pretenders, first made it
big in the era of punk.
She is still making music some three decades on,
but is she still in love with rock and roll?
Chrissie Hynde, welcome to HARDtalk.
Is music as big a part of your life now as it's ever been?
No, not at all.
Well, because when I was a teenager listening to the radio,
it was really the only thing I was interested in, and now it's...
For many reasons, that's changed.
Maybe because there's not so many bands...
I would love bands, but now it has all changed a lot.
Technology has changed it too.
I can't access things so simply any more,
so I've got a bit out of touch, I think.
So that you as a consumer of music, but for you as a performer,
a songwriter, and a performer as well, is there is much of a buzz
about that as there ever was?
Yes, I think so.
That part of it, that's...
That's always a constant.
Only when you're doing it.
It's all the stuff around it that gets tiresome.
If you don't feature the celebrity thing,
or talking about yourself, or being seen in public in any way,
it's just that hour and a half on stage, that's all.
Anyone in a band will tell you that.
And the origin of the creativity?
The sitting down and writing songs?
Does that come as easily now?
Well, I don't know if it was ever easy.
It was maybe more compulsive when you have nothing to do
and you're alone in a room with a guitar, then eventually
you will write a song.
I never wrote them because I felt I had to or that I should.
I felt I wanted to write songs and present them to a band.
It was always about the band.
You've obviously gone in new directions, and you've
got a new album out, which you recorded in Sweden
with a guy, a well-known musician and producer whom I don't think
you'd worked with before, so obviously there's a lot
of new stuff going on right now, and I just wonder whether
you've taken your music in a different direction.
Does it feel very different?
No, I don't change very much.
I just kind of do what I...
I write some songs, put them together with the band, record it.
I wouldn't say I'm an experimental artist.
I just try to do my thing, and if anyone likes it, that's great.
But I'm not really...
I just like to stay in the middle, so if I just can
do enough to get by.
I mean, I shouldn't say that in front of my record
company or my management, because I'm supposed to be out
here hawking my fish, you know.
The truth is, I just want to do enough to get
by and do what I like to do, which is to go on the road
and play in a band.
It's very simple for me.
And what you also seem to have succeeded in doing this time around
is hooking in a great friend of yours, a guy who I know you've
always loved to listen to, Neil Young, to play on the album,
and that must have been quite special.
That was pretty surreal, but I really wouldn't have thought
of doing that if I hadn't been working with Bjorn Yttling,
and just trying to impress him, because I wouldn't have thought
of calling Neil Young myself.
But you've known Neil Young for years, haven't you?
You played with him.
Didn't you support him?
Yeah, but I don't ask someone like that, "Will
you play on my record?"
I wouldn't even think of it.
But we had one that sounded like a Neil Young song.
We kept referring to it as the Neil Young song,
and just to kind of wind him up, I'd say, of course, we can always
get Neil Young to play on this, but I never meant it.
After saying that for about six months, I thought, actually,
I could get Neil Young to play on this.
I called him up, and he said yes.
That explains Neil Young.
You've got to explain to me John McEnroe.
People watching this will know John McEnroe as a Wimbledon champion
and top tennis player, and here he is rocking up
on your album playing guitar.
Well, John has always played guitar, and he's always been really
interested in rock guitar.
He's John McEnroe, so he has this kind of adolescent, in my view,
no offence to him...
Ancient adolescent, I guess we'd say.
But he loves playing rock guitar, and so whenever I played
with The Pretenders in New York, I'd always invite him
on stage, and he's fearless.
He'll get on stage with anyone and play if he's called upon.
For years, I've tried to encourage him to stop doing
the other things he does, charity matches and things
like that, where he gets together
with some other tennis players, and play guitar.
I say, "Why don't you just actually get in a band?"
In all honesty, is he any good?
Yeah, he is good.
He's as good as me.
But it's a question of taste, I suppose.
If he was focused and he was playing in a band, he's got it.
To do the kind of thing he wants to do, which would be sort
of heavy-metal-come-punk a little bit, I guess I would describe.
Let me, if I may, go back to the beginning with you.
You're from Ohio, from the midwest of the United States.
It's not a place I associate with a big music scene.
I don't know if there was when you were growing up in Akron,
but you obviously made a conscious decision pretty early
on in your life that you didn't want to stay in Akron.
Is that because there was some fundamental
rebellious streak in you, and is that connected
to your music as well?
Well, I like cities, and the city of Akron pretty much
had collapsed by the time I was a teenager, you know with
the mall culture, the car culture.
American cities, from coast to coast, really,
except for the obvious big ones that everyone knows about here - Chicago,
New York, even Philadelphia - most of the cities lost
their downtown and lost their urban feel and became more
like what you could call a metroplex, a very suburban sprawl,
where everyone would have to spend most of the day in a car,
really, to get anywhere.
That's what I was leaving.
And how did you get into music?
Just listening to radio.
I grew up when all the best stuff happened as far as rock and roll.
You still feel that today?
You've lived through various eras of rock and roll.
Are you kidding?
The first album I had was the first Beatles album.
I was right there.
I had the first Jimi Hendrix album, Led Zeppelin, all the greats.
You could name 25 amazing bands, Moby Grape, Buffalo Springfield,
all those bands out on the west coast.
There was tonnes.
All these amazing English bands.
Every day was Christmas if you were a rock and roll fan
and you liked bands, because everywhere you looked
there were amazing bands.
I think it over, to be honest.
There's still bands and they are still out there touring, and,
especially in America, they love guitar-based
rock and roll, so...
I toured with ZZ Top and the Stray Cats a few years ago,
and that was my audience.
I love that, because it was all these sort of bikers and waitress
types, who loved guitar-based rock.
It's sort of pared down, pretty simple rock and roll.
It couldn't be more simple than what I like.
That's about as simple as you go in this game.
Two guitars, bass and drums, maybe some keyboards, and some songs.
Your sense that that America, the America of I guess
the early to mid 70s, was going in the wrong direction.
Was that a big part of your decision to head to the UK?
I don't know if I was that aware of what was going on.
I knew I wanted to see the world, and I liked English music,
and I wanted to get out of cars.
I could see the way the car culture was going.
That I could see.
You were sort of out of love with your own country, really?
You were out of love with your own country.
Yeah, but I was in love with England.
I was always in love with England, even as a child, because I thought
everyone rode horses here.
I grew up thinking England must be the greatest place,
and then all those English bands came along, and I was absolutely
in love with England, and always have been.
And you've pretty much stayed based here ever since?
Because you ended up forming a band.
Again, it's fascinating to think about what it must have been like.
You formed a band with three guys who actually were from a very
rural part of England.
Hereford, which, for those who don't know it, is a pretty small,
rural, isolated town.
And here were you, rocking up from the United States with a very
particular love of rock and roll music.
How did you all gel together and come to be The Pretenders?
This is really a long story.
Give me the shortest version you can.
I'll give you the short version.
I went to Lemmy and I said, "Look, man, I'm getting
this band together."
I'd been in England for about five, seven years.
I'd travelled around a lot once I wanted to get my band together.
I lived through the punk thing.
I knew everybody.
But I still didn't have my band together, so I went to Lemmy,
and I said, you know...
When you say Lemmy, you mean Lemmy from motorhead?
I was kind of feeling sorry for myself, and he said, "Well,
no one said it was going to be easy."
And he wasn't really as sympathetic as I thought he might be,
but he said, "There's one drummer kid in town that
you might want to check out.
I found this guy in street.
I saw him one day, and I said, "Hey, is your name gas?"
And he went, "Yeah."
So I said, "Be in a band with me."
And he was from Hereford, so he didn't really last,
but through him I met Pete Farndon.
Through Pete Farndon, another long story, we found
James Honeyman-Scott, who I think is one of the last
great guitar heroes.
I'm sorry that he went so early, and at the time when he died,
I didn't publicly make much of it, as people would these days, maybe,
but I don't think that's right.
He really never got his due for the contribution he made
as a rock guitar player.
That I regret.
That's one of the reasons I still do this, actually, because I want them
to have their place in history, because that's what
was important to them.
That is very interesting.
It's actually very poignant, because within years
of having your big success with The Pretenders,
when everything really took off in 1980, 81,
82, within a couple of years of that, two of the original
band members had died.
That must have been, for you personally,
Well, yeah, of course it was, but I'm not trying to make it seem
like it was less of a bummer than it was, but everyone goes
through stuff in their lives, and I think to look at someone
and say, "Wow, she's had a hard..."
Frankly, who hasn't?
Everyone loses family and friends.
You go through this stuff in your life.
Yeah, I could have...
Without going into too much detail...
It was so traumatic, it probably didn't bother me
as much at the time, and I was pregnant for the first
time and I didn't know how I was going to deal with that.
I had to find some other guys to play with and get back on stage
and keep my thing alive, because I didn't have anything else.
You know, it was that or I don't know what.
My aspirations weren't much higher than maybe I could be a waitress.
I didn't have a lot to fall back on.
Was there ever a time, in that period of great success
but real tragedy as well, where you fell close
to the edge yourself?
Because of drugs?
All sorts of things, you know.
Guys I was going out with, they were all wrong, and drugs...
Stuff that everyone does, everyone goes through.
I don't think my story...
The only thing unique about my story is I've
had this like amazing band - bands, now.
And that's what I'm good at, finding good bands and making sure
the guys sound great.
You smile about it now, and you've sort of left it behind in a way,
but is there any part of that Chrissie Hynde back then
that is still with you today?
Do you ever get bleak and black times today that remind you of some
of the times you had then?
I have maybe bleak and black times that remind me
of the times I'm having now, and, you know, I miss them.
I miss those guys.
There's a lot about it...
But what can I do about it?
I've tried to keep the music alive to keep their memory going.
I could have said, "Right, that's it, it's over,
and I'll do something else now, I won't play those songs again."
But that didn't seem right, because we'd put
a lot of work into that.
And they had a real, unique sound.
It wasn't my sound.
It was not the Chrissie Hynde sound.
The sound of The Pretenders really didn't have a sound.
It was more, I would say, equally with my songs and my voice,
but it was mainly inspired by the sound of James Honeyman-Scott,
and the other guys, Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers,
Let me ask you a little bit about the voice,
because a lot of people watching this will have such a clear sort
of sound in their head of a Chrissie Hynde voice,
because it is a very distinctive.
Do you recognise it?
Do you know there is something very special about your voice?
Well, I guess that's subjective.
If you think there is, then there is for you.
For me, I found it very difficult to listen back to for many years,
and if anyone was even in the control room and they...
You know, a lot of singers are like this.
If they soloed the voice, I would just die of embarrassment,
and I didn't want to be watched while I was singing.
I don't like people around when I'm trying...
I was like that painting too.
I don't want people around when I'm doing my thing.
Of course, you have to get on stage.
You've got to do the live gigs, and then there's no hiding place.
No, but that's different, because you're with the band.
You're up there with your little gang.
It's a weird one, because there's a lot about it that
doesn't feel very good.
It was probably after about 200 shows that I didn't hate
the idea of going onstage.
You seriously had stage fright?
Yeah, of course.
Don't think that this confidence thing, that there a few chosen few
people that are confident.
None of us are, especially people in bands.
We're the dropouts that didn't have much confidence and weren't
very good at anything, and are blagging it, and probably
weren't very good at things.
For you in particular, you always had such a strong image onstage.
Hey, I'm six feet above you.
I'm on the stage.
I can do what I want up there.
So what am I going to do?
Every day you have to make a decision about everything.
You make a good decision or a bad one.
I'm going to be onstage.
Do I want to look like I have no confidence and I'm afraid?
Because that's not what people want to see.
I'm there for them.
You see one guy in the audience that you kind of think,
"I'll play to him."
If there's a guy like that there.
If there is, that helps, or they'll be one kind of crazy
dancer in a balcony, and the whole band will fixate
on that, and that carries you through the whole show.
Any bit of madness can get you through it.
Let me ask you about being a successful woman in rock and roll.
I know you've always said, look, it really hasn't made a difference
to me being a man or a woman, it's rock and roll.
But it is a business that, to an outsider,
often looks very sexist.
Have you never felt that in your own career and what happened to you?
It took me a long time to...
I didn't want to pull out my guitar and play in front of guys
because I knew I wasn't very good and it was mainly guys,
and I was shy to do that in front of the guys.
You know, so...
That part of it, and I didn't think it was...
Did you never have people, like promoters, agents, managers,
telling you how to look?
That's a myth.
You know, I've never met any musicians where,
if a girl walked in the room, I don't care if it's Jeff Beck
or any of the greats, it could be Billy Gibbons,
anyone, any record company guy.
A girl walks in the room, picks up a guitar and plays great,
they're all going to go, I want to play with her.
You know, because they want to be around them.
Men want to be with women.
Sure, but isn't there some sleazebag who's going to say,
I want to play with her, but I want her to look like this.
I want her to wear that.
And I want the image to be just so.
If there is, I've never met him.
Here's something you wrote.
I think you had your tongue firmly in your cheek at the time,
but when you launched an album, I think it was Last
of the Independents.
You also published some notes, you said, for any prospective...
I did that...
This girlfriend of mine, Angela Harrington, she was starting
a magazine, and she kept on to me...
You know what I'm talking about?
Yes, something for her magazine.
Well, let me quote you one line, just see how you feel about it now.
I just did it to get her off my back.
There you go.
These were notes to any prospective rock chick.
You said, "Look, don't moan about being a chick.
Don't refer to feminism or complain about discrimination.
We've all been thrown down stairs and screwed around,
but no one wants to hear a whining female.
Just write a loosely-disguised song about it and clean up."
Well, that's certainly good advice, isn't it?
Well, feminists listening and watching this might think, why
not introduce some feminist protest?
What about me?
I'm almost like the poster girl for feminism.
You know, everything about me says feminism.
So I don't think...
Isn't it better to walk it than talk it, given a choice?
I just wonder, again reflecting on your own life, I mean,
you've raised kids as well as having a career in rock and roll, but that,
I guess, is not easy.
Again, one more thought on this, and it's quite an amusing one,
in a way, because you, I think, once got a note from a band.
I don't think you knew them, but they liked your music.
But they then sent you a note saying, you know what,
your records used to be great before you got domesticated.
Something like that, yeah.
And that, I know it was meant to be amusing, but also...
No, it wasn't meant to be amusing.
They were serious, and it's true.
I mean, domesticity kills off this stuff, definitely.
So, what, you don't think it's really possible for a woman who's
just had kids to be in the music business, to make rock and roll?
No, I never said that.
I said domesticity, for any artist, you know,
if you're comfortable and you're getting on with domestic life,
it's not going to be cutting edge rock and roll.
You're just going to have to lay out for a few years.
Yeah, I didn't tour for eight years.
And my kids never saw me on stage until they were 14.
It was past their bedtime.
I was never photographed with them or talked about them either, so,
you know, I just kind of stayed out of it.
Elvis Costello is my age.
He's probably made four times more...
He's probably done 40 records to my ten records, probably.
Let me talk about politics in a different way,
and that is the way that you, throughout your life,
professional life, have always made a point of being a campaigner,
particularly for animal rights.
I guess it's fair to say that has been central
to your outlook on life.
Why animal rights?
Why did you get so passionately involved with them?
That's just something that you're born with.
Some people are and some people aren't.
It's not something you learn.
Probably like most of human behaviour.
Some people have one thing that you're good
at or you're interested in.
And with me I just don't like to see animals mistreated,
and I was one of those little girls that loved animals,
horses and things.
So as I got older, and, of course, the whole vegetarian thing goes
into the environmental picture, and it's all related.
I haven't campaigned that much.
I've been vocal about it.
Definitely, promoting vegetarianism is my thing.
I don't like meat eaters.
You know, I don't like it.
Why would you kill an animal if you didn't have to?
You say you don't like meat eaters.
Have you, in your life, basically made a point
of being close to and being friends with people who are either
vegetarian or vegans?
Yeah, I don't like them either.
Meat eaters, it's just wrong.
If you have to kill, do it.
You know, sometimes there is a time and a place for everything.
I'm not necessarily a pacifist.
I'm definitely a warrior.
I'll go out on the front line every time.
Hey, well, you did.
I'm ready to go at all times.
You pushed it pretty far.
A dozen years or so ago, in New York City, you were involved
in a very direct action.
Yeah, I didn't push it very far.
I've been in some protests with Peta and gone to jail.
But pushing it far...
It's pretty far.
When you go into a store, like the Gap store in New York, and...
Not as far as someone who goes in undercover working
in a slaughterhouse.
That's going far.
When you really get in there, and you dig in, and you're watching
animals who are not being stunned and are getting skinned.
We're talking about the consumers, and to change the mind of a consumer
who thinks it's all right to kill animals, I can't do it.
I mean, Morrisey did it with his song.
A lot of people became vegetarian after hearing Meat Is Murder
because it made them...
You know, I suppose, it's like a switch.
I'm 3% of the population in the west.
Even India's now becoming meat eaters.
And China as well.
Yeah, so it is what it is.
We're not going to win this thing.
People kill animals because they think it's
all right to kill them.
We're here to stop that if we can.
We don't think it's right, and we're here to stop you, even if we're
in a very small minority.
I'm not even trying to make you change your mind,
because you have all the information, and there's nothing
I can tell you that you can't find out on the Internet now.
All you have to do is pop in "meat-eating clip", go,
and it will tell you all you need to know about it.
So I can't tell you any more.
If you think that's all right to do, as far as I'm concerned,
I'm here to stop you.
That doesn't put me on...
I'm a minority.
I'm just trying to hold my ground here.
I have to sleep at night too, so I have to do things that make me
feel at least I've tried to do the right thing that day.
Chrissie Hynde, we have to end there, but thank you very much
for being on HARDtalk.
Thanks a lot.
There is wind and rain in the forecast for the British
Isles over the next few days but nothing like the wet and windy
weather that is being brought in the Caribbean by Hurricane Irma.
Stephen Sackur speaks to singer and songwriter Chrissie Hynde in an interview from September 2014. Hynde has one of the most distinctive voices in rock music and a record of success going back to the late 1970s. Her band, The Pretenders, found global success during the punk era. She is still making music, but is she still in love with rock 'n' roll?