Sunday, 31 January 2010

Grace Jones

This 'interview' was conducted for Venue magazine, and appeared in January 2009. Unfortunately, despite many attempts on my part to secure some face-to-face time with Grace, or at least some time on the phone with her, all of the quotes from her came via email from her PR company. I still do not know for sure if the words originated from Grace or some PR flunky. Ahh well, such is life.

I’m no stalker, but my quest to track down the chanteuse, occasional actress, sometime model and renowned TV host attacker Grace Jones made me feel that I was in danger of joining some police-arbitrated list of recidivist prowlers. 

If I’d have been based in London it wouldn’t have been a problem, but the smoke’s PR companies frown upon us poor, provincial hacks: we’re of little use when it comes to selling tickets, even if Colton Hall’s press office insist otherwise. I have stacks of unanswered emails, promises of interviews (broken, rescheduled and broken again), and a sore ear from the amount of time spent on the ‘phone trying to garner a few short minutes with the woman more famous for slapping the late Russell Harty (an event which topped a BBC poll of the most shocking British TV chat show moments in 2006) than for her musical output.

If I’d have been any less of a man I’d have given up. But I’m not. It took more than two months, and even then was conducted by email rather than in person, but you don’t get the chance to interview Grace Jones very often.

Grace Jones is an enigma. Born in Jamaica, her family relocated to the US in the mid-60s where she studied theatre in Philadelphia and New York before her striking, almost alien looks brought her fame as a model. Hanging around on the fringes of the arts scene in the Big Apple and in Paris, mixing with the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring (the graphic designer who went on to paint her body for the I’m Not Perfect video and who succumbed to AIDS in 1990) and Jean-Paul Goude – the French artist who became her partner, fathered her son and defined her image - she became one of the faces at legendary New York disco Studio 54, started to branch out into movies (her debut was in the 1973 flick Gordon’s War) and, in 1977, released her first album, Portfolio.

Signed to Island Records, her sultry, smoky vocals and androgynous facade were put to good use on a string of classic albums, although she failed to make much headway in the UK charts until 1980’s Warm Leatherette which featured her first top 20 single, a cover of the Pretenders’ Private Life. Suddenly Grace Jones was everywhere: the early 80s saw five hit albums (including the top five compilation Island Life), hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic, acting roles in A View to a Kill and Conan the Destroyer and, of course, that infamous incident on a certain early evening BBC chat show which consolidated her scary persona. Then nothing: one album, the poorly-received Bulletproof Heart in 1989, and barely a whisper save from an alleged bout of ‘train-rage’ on Eurostar and an appearance on the Graham Norton Show, for two decades. Until now. “Some people thought I was dead,” she laughs. “It might make the Guinness Book of Records for the longest gap between albums.

“I never worry about people wondering if I'm dead or not because I think it makes it more intriguing, the fact that eventually there's something new. Where's that come from? She's actually popping her head up again. And it's about the quality of the music. If the new thing you do has quality the time it might have taken is irrelevant."

Grace’s new CD, Hurricane, was heralded by a stunning performance at the Massive Attack-curated Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. It’s a surprisingly strident return to form from a woman who recently qualified for her bus pass. Anyone expecting a change of direction will be disappointed: long-time fans will be rapt. “I don't try to keep up; I think that's what it is. If you don’t try and keep up you just sound like yourself, which should sound like the moment.”

The album, called Hurricane because, as she says: “It’s heavy and it’s powerful and it’s right in your face,” has had a long gestation – at least one track was originally attempted back in the mid-80s - and features contributions from (among others) Tricky, Brian Eno, long-time co-conspirators Sly and Robbie, her son Paul and percussionist Tony Allan (Fela Kuti/Good, the Band and the Queen). Originally slated for 2007, thirty years since Portfolio, it finally saw the light of day in November 2008. “I like the 8,” she says. “It’s two complete circles, which I love.”

It would be easy to throw her into the same carton that contains those other post-60 gay-friendly divas - Ross, Streisand, Minnelli – but she owes more to Yoko Ono than to Cher; she’s plodding her own, unique musical path. Several tracks, especially Well Well Well, would not sound out of place on 1981’s Nightclubbing, although the woman is adamant that she’s not harking back to the past. “I've always been out of the loop,” she adds, “So it's impossible to put me in a box when I've always been out of a box. It doesn't matter in a way that it's taken 10, 15, 20 years. It sounds like now, whenever now is.”

The centrepiece of the album is Williams Blood, which began life when Grace was working with Trevor Horn, the former Buggles/Yes frontman who went on to co-found ZTT and produce, amongst others, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Art of Noise and Grace’s Slave to the Rhythm. She describes this autobiographical tale as being: “About sibling rivalry, about being split between two sides of a feuding family, between God and the devil. My mum was born a Williams, and that’s the wild side, very talented. Her step-grandfather was a musician: always touring, womanising, drinking; he really did go on the road with Nat King Cole. And my mother always said if you carry on like this you’ll end up dying young like her step-grandfather. You’re living too fast. You need to marry a bishop, become a missionary. Maybe the fact I kept being told I was going to die young meant that in the end I didn’t.” It’s brilliant and bonkers, and ends with her duetting on Amazing Grace with her mother, Marjorie. “She has an amazing voice and it’s one of her favourite songs,” she says. “She used to sing background vocals for me but I could never credit her because as a Bishop’s wife she wasn’t supposed to be singing the devil’s music.”

She believes (or does she? Are her well-manicured fingers typing these answers or have they come courtesy of the office intern?) that being torn between wanting to perform and trying to please her minister father has shaped her character, but insists: “I'm not scary. The people that really know me know that. I was brought up in a very strict way, and maybe that's why my personality has this scariness. That comes from the dark, edgy part of my childhood. But I've embraced it and I understand it, and when I turn it around and I put it out there to the public or on the stage or whatever they're just as scared as I was when I was little.”

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