INTERVIEW: Wendy James – “If I’m going to write good songs, then I want them for myself.”

Wendy James

WENDY JAMES returns with her new album QUEEN HIGH STRAIGHT. Released on 1st May 2020, it is her 5th solo album. English singer-songwriter Wendy, who was born in London, exploded onto the British music scene in 1988 as the fearless frontwoman of chart-topping alt-rockers Transvision Vamp. Mark Millar caught up with Wendy to talk about the new album, Transvison Vamp, Ukrainian lorry drivers and how she is coping in lockdown.

Queen High Straight
Credit: David Leigh Dodd

Hi Wendy, how have you been spending lockdown where are you staying and what have you been doing?

WJ: I have been having a perfect time. (Laughs) Because I like the mandatory environment of not having to see anyone. I have spoken to a lot of my musician friends, and we live in isolation anyway. You know when you are writing an album or working eighteen-hour days or anyone artistic like a writer, novelist or painter know these are solitary pursuits nevertheless. They are very social as well obviously in the studio and on the road, but at the genesis of coming up with the idea and the amount of time, it takes you to have tons of alone time to keep focus.

The manufacturing of Queen High Straight was done at a plant in Poland in the pandemic. As you know from my online store all my products are pre-signed with my signature, so the way we set it up was the album was manufactured in Poland. Then they shipped me thousands of covers of the standard CD, deluxe CD and the vinyl. There were crate loads of covers sent in the pandemic from Poland to France (which is where I currently am) with a poor little guy from the Ukraine who was sleeping in the cab of his lorry. He only had boxes of cereal to eat, so we gave him something to eat.

The person I live with and I had to help him unload the crates into the house with a forklift truck with masks and gloves on. Then I had to sign the covers while the Ukrainian guy slept in his cab parked up in the layby of where I live. Once I had signed all the thousands of covers we had to re-box them and put them all back into the crates. Then he had to drive them back through the pandemic across borders back to Poland for everything to be packaged and shrink wrapped to be sent to America and the UK. I managed to do all that in lockdown and the album came out on May 1st. I have been swamped since the record came out. The more successful an album is, the more demands are made on my time. It’s just been the same as usual, really, but a bit busier. (Laughs)

We last spoke when you released The Price Of The Ticket, which charted in the UK at No. 14 – were you pleased?

WJ: I was very surprised! That was back in the Pledge days, wasn’t it? There had been a lot of pre-order action on that album through the Pledge campaign, and I think the way it worked was that all the pre-orders counted toward a chart position. Yeah it was very pleasing it was a pleasant surprise, and I think it set me off on the right foot for this album because The Price Of The Ticket gave me quite a lot of momentum with a new bunch of fans. Every little stage of my solo career has been slow but incrementally growing.

Your new record Queen High Straight is very ambitious with 20 tracks. You also wrote, produced and mixed the album – You have been very busy.

WJ: Yeah, it took me more than three years until the actual final day we had our masters done, and it took me a year and two months to write the twenty songs. The album was always going to have twenty songs – that was the aim, that was the goal and what I had to do for myself. If you follow the trajectory of my solo work you will see that Racine Number One was a download and a CD, Racine 2 made it on to vinyl, and I Came Here To Blow Minds was on vinyl, CD and download, and The Price of the Ticket was on all of those formats plus a picture disc. Each stage of my solo career had become a little bit more successful and expansive, and my fans really enjoy the different formats as I do as a fan.

I come from an age where you would have all sorts of wonderful things that the record companies in different countries would generate – real collector items. I always loved picture discs, I had Debbie Harry, and Brigitte Bardot picture discs and The Price of the Ticket picture disc was very successful for me. I wondered what on earth I could do to top that so I thought back to my musical fan history. I remembered as a kid I had Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy by The Who on gatefold double vinyl – I loved being able to open it up because if you do a gatefold, you have got much more real estate to do artwork on and give the fans some exciting information.

Of course, Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones is to my mind the royale of all gatefold double vinyl. So I decided to go record a double vinyl album myself. I knew that if you go above 20-22 minutes on a cut of vinyl, you are going to start losing audio quality so in my mind very simplistically I figured I would do five cuts a side which will be twenty songs. I never purposely alter the order in which the songs are written. So it just, of course, worked out serendipitously for me as five songs just about grace the twenty-two-minute mark – it worked out perfectly.

Did you go into the recording with any preconceived ideas how it should sound and the kind of songs you wanted to write?

WJ: Yeah, because when I’m writing a song it’s just me and the guitar and the song will suggest obviously from my lyrical content and then the chords that I find. The song itself suggests what direction I will be going in once I get to production. On a song like ‘Little Melvin’ even if you hear my demo (Which I might make available at some stage), it has got that Motown feel to it. On my lyric sheets and my chord sheets that I give out to the musicians, there are references at the bottom like The Shangri Las, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Street’ and ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ – just a ballpark idea of where we are going to be headed for the musicians.

The demo itself sets the mood. For instance, the song ‘Queen High Straight’ I’ve written notes that say Bacharach and David and Sergio Mendes & Brazil 66. That immediately tells my musicians where we will be going – that’s the only suggestion I give then the song has to become its own thing.

Some bands want to become authentic and use the same analogue gear and maybe find the same session guys that played on the old sessions. Some musicians want to pay homage and copy what’s gone before. I am not one of those – the song has to be modern but ‘Little Melvin’ and ‘Here Comes the Beautiful One’ sound like they have got that Motown beat. I was very persistent they had that James Jamerson bassline. A perfect example is on track 17 ‘ I’ll Be Here When The Morning Comes.’ I started writing this beautiful little ditty, and I couldn’t place it in a genre of music except to say it reminded me of the Bernadette Peters and Steve Martin song ‘Tonight You Belong to Me’ from the movie The Jerk. It’s a beautiful song and it’s so sweet. The song will tell me what it wants to do and then I’ll tell the musicians where I think we are going and then the songs will once again take the driving seat and become its own thing.

Were you listening to anything during your time writing that might have influenced the album?

WJ: Even if I listen to new stuff, it does tend to be similar to the old stuff. (Laughs) I listened to the Black Lips, and I listened to Fat White Family and Parquet Courts, but they are all pulling on the Velvet Underground at some point or other anyway. But conversely what doesn’t seep into my music is the fact that I will listen to the Wu-Tang Clan and Dr Dre – all hip hop and that’s from Public Enemy onwards back in the day when it happened. I’m a massive hip hop fan, but of course, there’s no point in me trying to osmosis hip hop because I’m a white and English girl. (Laughs) You can go the Grime route if you are a Londoner, I guess, but there’s no way I could try my hand at East Coast hip hop nor would I want to.

You recorded a lot of your last record in New York where did you record Queen High Straight?
Primarily London, the location depends on who is in the band really because you just have to do the simple maths on how much it’s going to cost to get everyone together. On The Price of the Ticket, it was James Williamson – he was in northern California, Lenny Kaye was around the corner in the East Village. Glen Matlock was thankfully coming over anyway and the same thing with James Sclavunos – he is American as I’m sure you know, but he lives in West London, and once again he’s one of those musicians who is always in New York, and I was in New York whereas on this album everyone was from London. We did the first session residentially up in Lincolnshire at a place called The Chapel and all the overdub sessions where done in different little studios around London.

One of my favourite songs on the album is ‘Perilous Beauty’ what can you tell me about that track?

WJ: My go-to references on that song where ‘Touch the Leather’ by Fat White Family and ‘Nightclubbing’ by Iggy Pop. I was listening to their filthy sounds. I was listening to the dirge, and I mean that in a good way. The dirge of Bowie and Iggy’s ‘Nightclubbing’ and the kind of underbelly filth of that and the same thing informed Fat White Family. It started with the lyrics, “Sometimes I sound like gravel, sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.” Then it immediately took me to that underbelly then I thought of Iggy and ‘Nightclubbing’ You know Berlin, filthy a bit wasted, sexy you know? All my comfort zones. (Laughs)

You were supposed to be on tour now, but because of the lockdown, the shows have been put back to September. Are you looking forward to eventually getting out on the road?

WJ: I hope that that’s possible and obviously the larger shows have all been put back until next year now, so I’m watching the rules and regulations. I’m going to take a very sensible approach. I don’t want to die, and I don’t want all my fans to die either. (Laughs) The bottom line is either we will be allowed to or we won’t.

You shot to fame in the eighties with Transvision Vamp after the band performed ‘I Want Your Love’ on TOTP. How did life change for you after that?

WJ: It’s a strange thing because its not like anything changes overnight even though relatively Transvision Vamp’s rise to fame was quicker than most bands. We did one tour and then by the end of that tour we were at number five in the charts, and we had hits, and therefore we were on Top of the Pops. It was very exciting, I guess, but your life doesn’t change; it’s not like you are rich immediately and all of a sudden you are in Hollywood – that takes another couple of years. (Laughs)

It’s strange I always wanted for this to happen in my life. Nowadays I want to have successful music around the planet, but in those days I was more keyed in to being famous and being a pop star – I was seventeen years old, after all. Most people want to be a footballer a boxer or a pop star, right? So when it started happening in my mind, it was quite normal that it should happen because this is what I was going to do.

I can’t remember being surprised, I just remember diving straight in and being in my element. People’s attitude towards me or tabloid coverage is not something you particularly notice because it’s insidious. It takes a little while until you realise that you’ve got accountants and lawyers, hairdressers and fucking this and that on the road with you and you’ve got loads of backline and people meeting and greeting you in every country that you go to. But again, it seemed quite normal. It’s so strange.

Are you still in touch with any of the band?

WJ: Yeah certainly, Nick Sayer the guitarist is a great aficionado of alternative medicine. Hence, if I’m coming down with the cold, I ask him what supplements I should take. Tex lives in Indonesia, but he had rented an apartment in Barcelona for a year. Still, I only found out just before he was leaving and I was going to go to Barcelona and see him at Christmas, but I didn’t – but we WhatsApp each other regularly. I think Dave Parsons lives near Bristol because when we played Bristol on the last tour, he hadn’t told me he was coming he just showed up in the dressing room, and I was like, “Dave!” just like it was yesterday. They are friendships that just go for a lifetime. Too much had been shared together for it ever to be forgotten.

It’s nice that you are all still friends after all these years.

WJ: We never got angry with each other. I think its good that Transvision Vamp did split up because the times they were changing, we were segueing into rave music, and hip hop was taking over. Transvision Vamp would have had to evolve for sure to carry on – If you are going to become fucking U2, you have to keep changing. We didn’t have particularly great guidance on these matters and the fundamental truth why Transvision Vamp split up was because we were exhausted. I’ve often said if we had a manager who said, “Listen, you guys are burnt out. Take a year off and don’t even think about music and then in a year we will see if there are the seeds of new music.”

If somebody had said that, perhaps we would have kept going, but I think in the story of my life I was outgrowing singing those songs. I needed more, and I know that Nick Sayer needed more because he was listening to Public Enemy non-stop. It was his great concept to mix Blondie with T Rex and come up with Transvision Vamp. In my life story, it’s perfect: from that, I jettisoned into working with Elvis Costello for better or worse. That was my bridge from Transvision Vamp into whatever the future was going to be.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the experience or the outcome of the Elvis Costello record as much as some people love it. That was when I had my lightbulb moment where I thought from now on I will be the master of my domain. I shall sing and write my own songs and that’s when I started taking this job seriously.

I read that Gwen Stefani and Nancy Sinatra asked you to write songs for them, but you turned them down. Do you regret that?

WJ: I have never actually sat down and tried to write a hit song for another person, but obviously, financially, that would have been a wise choice. (Laughs) At that time, I kind of indignantly said, “If I’m going to write good songs, then I want them for myself.” And so consequently I have `got some good songs and not much money. (Laughs)

'Queen High Straight'

TRACKLISTING

1. Queen High Straight
2. Perilous Beauty
3. Free Man Walk
4. Stomp Down, Snuck Up
5. Little Melvin
6. Marlene et Fleur
7. A Heart Breaking Liar’s Promise
8. Here Comes The Beautiful One
9. Chicken Street
10. Testimonial
11. Bar Room Brawl & Benzedrine Blues
12. Ratfucking
13. She Likes To Be (Underneath Somebody)
14. Bliss Hotel
15. Freak In
16. The Impression Of Normalcy
17. I’ll Be Here When The Morning Comes
18. Cancel It… I’ll See Him On Monday
19. Sugar Boy
20. Kill Some Time Blues

All songs written, produced and mixed by Wendy James.

TOUR DATES

3RD SEPT – BRISTOL FLEECE
4TH SEPT – SWANSEA CINEMA & CO
5TH SEPT – CARDIFF CLWB IFOR BACH
8TH SEPT – BRIGHTON CONCORDE 2
9TH SEPT – CAMBRIDGE JUNCTION
10TH SEPT – BIRMINGHAM INSTITUTE 3
11TH SEPT – STOKE SUGARMILL
12TH SEPT – PORTSMOUTH WEDGEWOOD ROOMS
15TH SEPT – NOTTINGHAM BODEGA
16TH SEPT – MANCHESTER DEAF INSTITUTE
17TH SEPT – LEEDS BRUDENELL
18TH SEPT – BLACKPOOL WATERLOO MUSIC BAR
19TH SEPT – NEWCASTLE CLUNY
21ST SEPT – GUILDFORD BOILEROOM
22ND SEPT – TUNBRIDGE WELLS FORUM
23RD SEPT – LONDON ISLINGTON 02
26TH SEPT – GLASGOW KING TUTS
27TH SEPT – EDINBURGH BANNERMANS
29TH SEPT – NORWICH ARTS CENTRE

Tickets available via: https://thewendyjames.com/live/

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