Gardener's Question Time: Monday in the park with Duffy
"I just write these happy songs and then I throw in the word 'DEATH'. I write the tune in longhand on the bars and then I throw a dart and think, 'I'll put a DEATH there.'"
| West London, May 1998. The sky was thunderous, the tourists abrasive... even the normally radiant celebrities we often see down High Street Kensington (Sue Perkins, Brian Sewell, Jeremy Paxman, Romana D'Annunzio, Michael Winner) all looked abnormally depressed. The only thing we could think of to lift the mood was arrange a meeting with STEPHEN DUFFY, the best man we could think of who finds glamour and romance in grey skies and work things. Readers will probably be most familiar with Stephen's Lilac Time angelicism and recent power pop shenanigans but luckily he had a brand new album out to discuss with us, too.|
'Where do you want to do this interview?' Mr Duffy asked on his mobile phone while sitting on a bus, snaking its way through West London traffic towards your Kensington-bound hosts. 'How about Iverna Gardens?' we ventured, figuring foreign readers would be swept up by the romance of it all. The trouble is, Iverna Gardens, sweetly named as it may be, is basically just a little foliage-strewn square with nary a bench, let alone any grassy knolls on which to sit comfortably and interrogate pop stars. Thus, upon Stephen's arrival, we strode through Kensington (foreign readers please note: Princess Di country, just so you can get completely carried away) to Holland Park (coincidentally Hearsay's local green space), with many a bench. It normally houses shouty peacocks, too, but they were absent for the duration of the following. Squirrels, however, make a jolly appearance.
NEIL: Your work has always contained a fair degree of autobiography but I Love My Friends seems even more explicitly personal than before. Do you agree? How would you account for it?
STEPHEN DUFFY: I've learned how to communicate in a simpler way in songs. The songs before may have felt autobiographical but it really didn't add up to much. On this album maybe the songs resolve, you get the sense that you get all these stories rather than little snapshots as the other records were. The other records were little poetic bits thrown together in an effort to be seductive, this is more warts and all... I found out it's actually easier to do that than to do it the other way.
EWEN: And the arrangements are simple and direct—does this reflect the new-found honesty in the songs?
SD: I think you always try and make it as simple as possible but something always gets in the way. You suddenly realise you've got an orchestra, five million producers and six thousand session musicians when really it was just supposed to be this simple little song. You start off with these simple little songs and then they turn into overblown productions. You write the song, you're inspired, you think it's great, you play it to your friends on an acoustic guitar and it never sounds better than that. But by the time you go into the studio you're probably bored of it so you start plastering more and more things on it; you think each sounds more interesting just because it's new. Suddenly, you find yourself playing the slide guitar with a bottle and you think, 'this is fantastic: why haven't I done this before?' and it just becomes an incredible mess. Instead of it being simple, it's become terrible. That's the studio and producers thinking they've got to do something. So the next record obviously will be completely simple, 'cause I'm now aware of this!
NEIL: The first Duffy album was a major stylistic change: although it was lazily lumped in with the Britpop scene, to me it had more in common with US power-pop; Matthew Sweet, Aimee Mann et al., and obviously Mitch Easter and Velvet Crush were involved. Do you feel any empathy with American music? Most of the influences you cite are very English...
SD: Well, apart from Matthew I never really listened to any of it. Matthew selling a lot of records made me think, 'well, if he can then it can't be impossible.' After Music in Colors I didn't really see how I could carry on because that record disappeared so quickly and so quietly. So I ran as far as I could, to Alaska. And on the way to Alaska I went to North Carolina where Mitch was doing the Velvet Crush record Teenage Symphonies to God. I spent a happy six or seven weeks there watching them do that and I did She-Freak there which ended up on Duffy. Then I went to Alaska and waited for Parlophone to drop me. Which they eventually did. Then I made the Duffy record with all American musicians, with Mitch on guitar... It came out and it was a 'Britpop' record! But it's more of a country record, really. If it had come out a year or 18 months later, people would have been saying it was in the tradition of the Blur album or the Pavement album, 'cause Pavement then went to Mitch's studio. Eighteen months later it would have been seen as an American lo-fi artrock record. And if I'd released Music in Colors now, it would be seen in the tradition of OK Computer and serious concept rock. Music in Colors was sort of my Floydy moment. I should've called it 'My Floydy Moment'.
EWEN: Your career spans all sorts of styles and monikers—do you mentally compartmentalise the periods and styles or do they all feel like a progression of the same thing?
SD: Maybe before I would've seen it all as a progression of the same thing but I think now it's getting so unwieldy and huge—it's an amazing amount of records and it's just too big for one man to carry! I certainly think that the last album, Duffy, was a very mean-spirited little prod, but then you always do disdain the thing you've done most recently. I'm beginning to see it as all a bit of a mish-mash, I can't see any themes and I don't understand it at all. And now I'm going to confuse everything by making another Lilac Time record! Without any autobiographical songs on it at all. We're going to make it on the same tape we made Astronauts, in my brother's garage. And then we're going to play the Barbican, as part of a singer-songwriters' week. And then it'll be the Millennium so we'll just have to pack it all in. Maybe the end of pop music will come before that
NEIL: With all the stylistic changes, do any of them now seem particularly inspired or ill-advised career moves?
SD: Well, I suppose the Lilac Time was a disastrous career move in that it was completely against the tide. They were looking for Rick Astley and Virgin were trying to get me to start some disco thing with me writing and someone else singing it. But obviously that was the record I'm proudest of, the most liberating. What would be seen as a good career move by the industry is always what you least want to do, while the most exciting for you personally is always seen by the industry as a complete disaster. But, you know, Kiss Me was really big and that's what I was supposed to be doing, but it was really horrible.
NEIL: Do you fit in anywhere now? If not, does it bother you?
SD: I'm doing that unfortunate thing of being the old guy with the acoustic guitar. The person you'd run a million miles from, would start wearing women's clothing or doing anything to avoid becoming and having to get up there and drone. If I do it, I'm going to read poetry as well, just so I can be everybody's nightmare performance. I'll intersperse it with my poetry: 'Here's one I wrote when I was 16; it's an epic poem...'
EWEN: For someone who's had trouble getting record labels to keep them on, you've made a surprising number of records compared with your peers. Your career runs parallel with Aimee's, say, yet you've managed to make twice the number of albums she has in the timespan...
SD: I think people who stay with the same label tend to get slowed down by it all. If you keep on changing labels, there's always a honeymoon period when they still love you, before they realise you've completely ripped them off. I've made money by going in and selling them records which, six months later, they find they don't particularly want. I'll go in and say 'I'm making this very American record with Mitch Easter' and they'll say, 'Britpop's coming—it's going to be great' and I say, 'yes, it's a Britpop record—disregard the pedal steel – it’s all about Camden!' They'll go, 'here's £30,000!' and six months later they realise they've bought something they don't want.
I think I do just want to get on with it and do it. I've never worked with a nurturing record company—that's a myth now, it doesn't exist. I make really uncommercial records—I haven't written anything particularly simple until this record in ages. If you think about the Lilac Time: they released Black Velvet as a single. Now, what on earth was that about? It obviously wasn't going to do anything! The Girl Who Waves At Trains was a single but had too many words in the title. If 17 had come out just after [Me Me Me's] Hanging Around it might have been in with a chance, but it doesn't sound like a single particularly now.
But it's just a matter of getting on with it and doing it because you've got something to say. It's just frustrating you can't release more than one album a year. Just changing labels every album, it took two years to get the deal together... but at least with Cooking Vinyl we are releasing the Lilac Time album in January. If I finish it time. It's down to me, if I can actually make a record in two months and I don't see why I can't...
NEIL: Is that partly why you manage yourself, so the pace at which things move is slightly more under your control?
SD: No, it's because I don't want to give anyone 20 per cent.
EWEN: Moving on to a different area...
SD: Is this The Sesame Street Question?
EWEN: No, but we can ask you that if you like.
SD: No, no, it's okay! My brother reads everything that comes to the PO Box and warned me. He said, 'be prepared for the Sesame Street question...' (p35, # 15)
EWEN: I was going to ask who would play you in the film of the Lilac Time story.
SD: Which Sesame Street character would play me?
EWEN: No, a real actor.
SD: It's a shame that Emma Thompson's dad, Eric, who narrated the Magic Roundabout, is dead 'cause he could have narrated The Lilac Time Story as an episode of the Magic Roundabout. But who would play me... Madonna? She'd do a good job. But she's a bit old for my younger self. Madonna as me now and Harvey Keitel as me as a young man. Jarvis Cocker would be good but he's not an actor. Damon Albarn. With David Bowie as the science-fiction, post-millennium years.
EWEN: The sense of escape is strong in your songs—escape from political systems, work, drudgery--escape into music, love, sex, ecstasy... where does this image come from?
SD: I think that pop is like a lottery: You make a record, it's like winning the lottery, you're in Pop Heaven on Top of the Pops and you never quite come back. Instead of going back to your dreary two-bedroom flat in Queen's Park you transcend that to this glorious Pop Kingdom. You live in a fantasy world where you think you're going to make Abbey Road. 'We may go in as the Lilac Time but we're coming out as the Beatles.' Or: 'we're going to make this record and I don't have to think about anything until it's made and then the single will be a big hit and we'll all be rich and famous.' The whole thing is geared to an escapist life anyway but when that doesn't happen you counteract that—you run off with a strange girl who stops you thinking about the artistic problem and instead you create romantic problems which you can answer by writing songs about them so you make other records. Your life goes on like that until someone kicks down the door, throws you on the floor and kicks you unconscious. When you finally come round you start writing autobiographical songs which are very simple and you call it I Love My Friends.
But it's also the adolescent dream—some people manage to stay adolescents all their lives, living in a dream and not being in touch with reality. You can live incredibly false lives.
NEIL: But you've often taken a hyper-real, romanticised look at the world, finding romance in places like Stepney and Paradise Circus. Do you write about people and places as you find them or as you wish they were?
SD: Yes, I think it's all probably over-romantic and not very truthful.
EWEN: I was going to ask you about the concept of happiness...
SD: Is this the Ken Dodd question?
EWEN: No, it's 'are you an optimist?' The new album seems to be about the casualties in life but you always manage to find a way to keep going.
SD: Maybe I write happy songs to cheer myself up. I don't think I'm particularly optimistic. Especially if you go through a decadent phase and you think, 'I'm just going to keep on going till it all falls apart and my body stops working.' Maybe if you had children you'd be more optimistic but then maybe you'd be even more pessimistic because it all looks so dreadful. I don't know, does this album have any happy songs? Something Good maybe. Actually, One Day One Of These Fucks Will Change Your Life is quite optimistic—'one trip across and opening night...'
EWEN: It deludes you into thinking it's optimistic because it's sad lyrics set to happy tunes. Is that a winning combination for you?
SD: I just write these happy songs and then I throw in the word 'DEATH'. I write the tune in longhand on the bars and then I throw a dart and think, 'I'll put a DEATH there.' That's how it's done. 'ABORTION.' 'OVERDOSE.' I've got these fridge magnets...
NEIL: The Madonna approach to songwriting.
[N explains to bemused E the furore over the alleged construction of Madonna's Ray of Light lyrics]
EWEN: The only poetry fridge magnets I've ever seen came free with Marmite and all involved that word.
SD: But 'Marmite' is code for 'Death'. The next album is going to be called 'Death by Marmite.' 'In a Floydy Mood.' 'My Many Marmite Moments.'
EWEN: Songs about death and abortion are not necessarily depressing. You seem able to write about people dying and about terrible things happening and yet still find the ability to keep going. 'People die, but...'
SD: Well, I don't have that whole Oasis-like approach.
NEIL: Live Forever?
SD: Yeah, in fact I wrote an answer song to that which goes 'We're Not Gonna Live Forever' but I didn't use it on this album. But I'm glad that it comes across as not being as completely depressing to listen to as it was to live it. At the moment, I have the musical talent of Graham Nash if he was the lead singer of Wings but performing the lyrics of Joy Division... Wings and Graham Nash are kind of winning out. It just sounds like the music should be happy.
NEIL: There's a question we asked Mark Eitzel which may equally apply to you which was...
SD: 'Why are you such a boring old sod?' 'Why do you write the same song over and over again, you talentless ... ?'
NEIL: Actually it was: do the people you write about recognise themselves in your songs and how do they react to your characterisation?
SD: I gave an ex-girlfriend the record and she went home on the Tube and she phoned up and said, 'Have you told so-and-so about this? Have they heard it?' She was so freaked out by reading the lyrics that she couldn't listen to the record! So, yes they do and they get very... well, luckily they're all dead: they choked on their Marmite. But I was having lunch with the girl who lives in Iverna Gardens; most of Astronauts was written about her and she doesn't really believe it, she just thinks it's something I said in an effort to be seductive, that I'd written a whole album in an effort to sleep with her. But then you do that thing where you take different bits. In One Day One Of These Fucks the line 'she's snogging the industry' is about one girl and then by the third verse—you can light up the room just by being you'—that's someone completely different. You throw them off the trail so they think 'is that me?'; or else they think 'God, I hope that's not me, that's awful.' Or maybe they know better than to go to that place, to go to the record shop and listen to it. What did Mark Eitzel say?
NEIL: He said he's lost friends over songs he's written and that some of them hate him.
SD: Oh, they're just using it as an excuse. 'Thank God he's written a song about me--now I don't have to take his calls.'
EWEN: Was trying to sleep with women a reason for writing songs in the first place?
SD: I don't think it was in the first place. I wrote songs in the first place because I couldn't work out how to play anybody else's songs. People who can actually work out how to play Blackbird then throw down their guitar and go off and do more constructive things. But if you can only play the first couple of notes and it all goes horribly wrong you just think, well, I'll write a song using E-minor and D. I was very young when I started writing - I was 12. And I was a virgin till I was 36. No I wasn't. I don't think. There are complete strangers who come up to me and go, 'you've written all these songs about me'; girls convinced you have a deep insight into their sixth-form diaries, which obviously says a lot for my talent that I can delude people who are barking mad and full of all the wrong hormones.
NEIL:'I sang my songs of Birmingham/ How did you relate to them?' How do you account for your obsessive fanbase in, say, Japan and the US, when your writing is so inveterately English in a way you might think wouldn't translate?
SD: The Japanese go on tours of Birmingham. They come over and go to the house I was born in and see all the sights. And when I was living in Malvern, the Japanese fan club magazine came through the door and there was a map of Malvern with my house, not marked but right in the centre. 'How?! How have they found me?' And they all came over and stayed in the Cowley Park Guest House that was just at the end of my road—I could see them from my window! They'd based it all on the in-depth analysis of my lyrics! For them it becomes a passion which I don't quite understand. All these people have to come all the way over from Japan and then visit Birmingham: home of the tampon factory. I'm so sorry. I should have said, 'I was born in Iverna Gardens' or 'I was born in Paris.'
[the groundsmen in Holland Park set up their noisy power tools and commence edging the park lawn behind us.)
I usually like to do a bit of trimming at this point in an interview. I hope it doesn't disturb you: 'At this point he got his strimmer out and seemed intent on doing the sides of the lawn which were annoying him intensely.' Edging is a big inspiration for me. Look—here come a couple of Japanese. They've found out we're doing the interview here. They were drawn by the sound of strimming, they knew it meant I had to be doing an interview.
EWEN: Any thoughts on the current political climate?
SD: It's quite obviously the end of politics just as it's the end of pop music. Nothing means anything anymore. Or maybe that's the great lesson we've learned: that nothing really makes any sense. As a kid, you're lying in your back garden reading Jack Kerouac trying get yourself into a state where you don't think anything means anything, because you know that he didn't and he was completely insane, when really you do believe that everything makes sense, that people can make a difference. But now it's all just the image, isn't it? So it is a little disturbing. I was talking to a geezer in the Diplomatic Corps and he said, 'I like Tony Blair—I'm not too convinced he's a socialist.' So even right-wing maniacs are beginning to discover this! It was an amazing con-trick, really. Don't use any of that, it's completely boring, I'll get back to my strimming. Just ask me questions about gardening, for God's sake!!
EWEN: Do you have a favourite flower?
SD: I don't really care about flowers. It's grass and the edge of grass I'm interested in, and its neatness.
EWEN: What does the phrase 'Lilac Time' signify to you?
SD: It's interesting as a concept; because the record actually called 'The Lilac Time' has been deleted. So the concept behind the new record could be 'make a record which sounds like the Lilac Time should sound'; read the song titles, the website, the fanzines and then construct a sound that matches these deeply deluded people... who were in the band come to think of it. But we're going to make it completely on a harmonium; we like the thought of having to carry it around and my brother frantically pedals away with me and Michael just sitting there. I'm so completely a legend in my own homepage and I'm so wrapped up in the mythology of it all, the self-obsession is taken to musical extremes. It is going to be an amazing thing: we're going to do what we said we'd do the first time—go into a garage in the middle of a field to make this record. It'll be art imitating the lies I told about art fifteen years ago.
NEIL: Is it fair to say the Lilac Time albums are rural and the solo work urban, or is the distinction more complicated than that?
SD: I can't think about it like that because the first Lilac Time album was made in a suburb of Birmingham... 'Yes, we went off to a barn in the middle of nowhere.' I think it's just that if you get a banjo in, suddenly it doesn't sound very urban, does it?
EWEN: How interchangeable are art and politics in contemporary Britain--do you live in Cool Britannia?
SD: Do you think it's that when you're young and idealistic you have all these ideas but it's gradually beaten out of you and then the people who carry on longer and don't go into computer jobs or accountancy are the ones where the punches haven't quite connected? You're madly waving your flag for Bohemia and Idealism but nobody's really interested...
[a lustrous babe wanders by clad in wildly flared combat trousers... ]
Now what kind of a war are these going to be useful in? I will fight—I'm joining up! I take it all back—all those peaceful things I said in the Lilac Time. In fact you could get all of the Lilac Time in her trousers. With her in them. She can be our tour manager, we won't need a van: 'excuse me, madam, we're just going to move into your trousers.' We can put the harmonium in her side pocket.
EWEN: Any plans to tour the recent album?
SD: Pressure is being brought upon me! They want me to play in Switzerland.
EWEN: Are you big in Switzerland?
SD: No, but they think I could be if I go and play there! But there's no point getting a band together to rehearse all these songs on the album that's just come out and then re-rehearse all the Lilac Time songs. And I don't want to be that guy with the acoustic guitar—I've seen him too many times. It'd be so much better to get the Lilac Time back together and do that thing at the Barbican. At least everybody will be able to sit down---it would be exhausting to see Nick pedalling away, people's legs will start to go.
EWEN: I was just reading about Nico on tour and the problems with how her harmonium could be miked up...
SD: Well, I'm going to mike up the foot pedals so you just get an enormous rattling. The
roadie will come running on with a spare pair of bellows—otherwise it'll sound like tap dancing.
EWEN: You won't need a drummer.
SD: Well we never really had a drummer, we had Michael. He was so incredible—we’d rehearse and rehearse and rehearse and he'd then start playing in 7/8 time—a ridiculous, progressive-rock, jazz-rock drummer. The band hasn't made a record since 1991 and I just happened to move in round the corner from him and said, 'shall we make a record?' and it was as if we'd released Astronauts last week. He was there and ready as if he hadn't noticed we hadn't done anything for years. In the time apart he'd been working on this solo material and he's done a couple of songs... it's easy to come up with these ideas but you think, this will take years. 'Michael, if we do all these backing vocals we'll still be here...' It's taken him eight years to do two songs. It's right—his ideas are good—but I was right also, his ideas would have taken us eight years. We had so many analytical discussions about the cymbal on the middle eight of Grey Skies and Work Things. It was then I realised we'd never finish the album and would have to split up.
NEIL: There aren't so many references to literary giants in your writing these days: do they still influence and move you?
SD: I don't think it's an influence—it's that thing of not being very old and not being very clever but finding other people's clever stuff and putting a rhyme to go with it. It's that thing I was saying before about trying to seduce people by putting these seductive confections in: 'oh, he likes Dorothy Parker, he knows about clothes...' I put things in so people would think I was clever but really a lot of it was bollocks. I don't do that now because I feel I'm at least an equal to Dorothy Parker now, or Hemingway, all the greats... I've read my press! What are you saying?! You think I'm going to rip people off these days? I'm last week's genius.
Most of those things I probably got out of books of quotations anyway—Kiss Me was The Song of Solomon. I am a deeply shallow and unattractive individual. It's only the drugs that give me the confidence to speak out loud, otherwise I'm just left with my garden tools in the asylum.
EWEN: Do you have a favourite film?
SD: I have a favourite director - I like Francois Truffaut But as soon as you start talking about your favourites you just sound like a knob. I did something for Pop magazine when I was on tour with Lloyd Cole. We had to name our favourite things and he said, 'oh God you didn't put down a poet did you, that's going to look awful.' I said, 'well, I had to put down a poet 'cause I put Scorsese down and I thought if I put "Stephen Spender" it might even it out.' Then I got into this whole 'S' thing so I put The Slits as well. It was a garden tour we were on—we had a lot of free time so we'd travel around doing people's gardens.
EWEN: An alternative title for I Love My Friends was A Comprehensive School Education and the track Something Good really sounds like a classic episode of Gripper Stebson-era Grange Hill. Were your school days very typical?
SD: Yes, it was absolutely unbearable. And it's only through decades of Jungian psychoanalysis that I've been able to express my horror that I went through all that. I always thought I had a happy childhood because I did like it but now I realise what a complete and profound waste of time it was; that it's all about--I don't know what it was all about—it seemed to be about learning to punch the French teacher and about the music teacher saying 'you're all going to end up packers in Southalls' and I didn't even know what Southalls was, I was trying to be an arty person. It was only when I went out with a girl whose mother was a packer at Southalls that I realised it was the tampon factory. Also, there were no men packers at Southalls! 'You're going to fail your music CSE, you're going to have a sex change and end up packing tampons.' It was so complicated for me to work out. I should have just gone to boarding school and been beaten. Instead we were sent off to this lesson where you had to go and take cars apart! We were given Morris Travellers to dismantle. By the time I left college, Thatcher was in and there was no industry. But I was able to go the careers' officer and tell them I was going to be a poet. The only reason I went to art college was because I said I was going to go to hairdressing college as a wind-up. They were so upset that this sensitive genius was going to go to hairdressing college that they said, 'well, you should go to art college.' But I felt very upset because it's just such a long period of your life and it was useless.
NEIL: Did you learn anything useful at art college which has stood you in good stead since?
SD: Yeah, I learned how to flounce out of burgeoning New Romantic bands which is the best lesson anyone could learn. As soon as they start copying your make-up techniques, you're outta there. 'Nick, it suits me, leave it. And put that Polaroid camera down! What are you doing? No, I do not want to listen to Life In Tokyo by Japan again, I feel I have a more folky thing going here.'
EWEN: Your song on Nigel Kennedy's Kafka album explores the concept of gender—what attracts you to women and what do you see as the differences between men and women?
NEIL: You're not allowed to mention 'Mars' or 'Venus'.
SD: Or 'Nigel Kennedy.' Men look like Nigel Kennedy and women... I don't know. This is my life's work really, isn't it? But unfortunately you start to sound like some terrible 70s slob if you say, 'well, I really luuurve women. Lay-deeze.'
NEIL: You sound like Leonard Cohen.
SD: The saddest thing I ever read was an interview where he said the only reason you stop trying to seduce women is when the pain of being rebuffed becomes too intense. I was hoping it would wear off and that I'd become increasingly monkish as I got older. For him to take away the one thing I was pinning my life on was completely disturbing. Maybe now they've got this anti-impotence pill they'll invent an impotence pill I can take. Of course, now I'll have to go and find a guru so I can go and cook for him. Whether he's going to be that interested in my takeaway menus collection... 'Not pizza again! Fish and chips?! It's miles down the mountain to the fish and chip shop—they're always cold when you bring them back...'
EWEN: What is home?
SD: I don't know. Does anyone who leaves their home town ever feel like they ever have a home again? I could say Birmingham. [with unquantifiable insincerity: ] Hey, it's the only place where I really feel at oneness with God. I stand on New Street and tears course down my cheeks and I know I'm home.
[suddenly distracted by the park's agitated wildlife ]
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