Brix Smith Start is wearing her turquoise kaftan. It’s her composing dress and the musician, writer and fashion guru has already written an entire song in it this morning, so it’s working. “Turquoise is the colour of communication,” she tells me, “and is linked to the throat chakra.”
“That’s handy, because I’m wearing turquoise too,” I tell her.
“Yes, that’s why we’re having such an easy conversation,” says the former guitarist with The Fall. Start has a way of drawing you in, making you want to be part of her relaxed, open, sunny world. A world where even the bleakest of bad times, and she’s had plenty, is recounted, forgiven and laid to rest by her soothing Californian tones.
It was this same turquoise kaftan she wore to write her book, The Rise, The Fall and the Rise, the rock’n’roll revelations therein making it one of the music books of the year, up there with Viv Albertine’s 2014 Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.
It charts her time with post-punk band The Fall from 1983, when she met their notorious leader Mark E Smith at one of their gigs, joined the band, and married him. She left both on her divorce in 1989, but returned to play with the band in the 1990s. Also covered is her comfortable, if dysfunctional childhood in LA, the histrionics of her troubled child-psychiatrist father, her bulimia, rape, marriage to Smith, then no less difficult relationship with musical genius Nigel Kennedy, depression, breakdowns, stalking, and that’s just for starters…
Nowadays, she is happily married to retail guru Philip Start who she met in the lift at Harvey Nichols and with whom she lives in Shoreditch where her husband runs Mr Start’s menswear brand. They shared a love of fashion (“I was wearing a forest green bodycon Azzedine Alaia and black Dr Martens, no tights, and I’m pretty sure I was wearing knickers”) and they founded a fashion brand together. Brix went on to become a fashion guru and TV presenter on Gok’s Fashion Fix, with other presenting gigs including Shopaholics Showdown and Ultimate Shopper.
“The book is a little bit about The Fall, but it’s really about a woman’s reinvention,” she says. “It’s a little bit about love and vulnerabilities, about getting through very difficult periods in life with positivity, about hope, all set to a background of music. Even if people aren’t fans and don’t know who The Fall are, it seems to resonate with them.”
Start is fizzy and funny, warm and splendidly, shockingly honest. She talks twenty to the dozen and interviewing her is a dream. A single question unleashes a rich flow of confession and celebrity anecdotes that stifles further queries for fear of interrupting the stream. There are no skeletons in the Start closet, they’re all out there, dressed head to toe in Dior, BodyMap or 10p jumble sale pyschedelia, saying, ‘this is us, if you don’t like it, that says more about you than it does about us’. After a lifetime of therapy, at 53, Start is at completely ease.
“I’m comfortable in my skin. There comes a point where you make peace with who you are, and your insecurities seem to fade. I never care what people say any more. I don’t give a flying f***. I used to. I used to care and it made me feel bad if they were judgmental. But everyone is entitled to their opinion and I can’t control what they say. The only thing I can control is my own feelings.
“A lot of the time when people criticise they’re talking about themselves. They’re jealous or angry or unhappy and looking for an easy target. It’s all about them. So let it go.”
Writing the book released a lot of what Start calls blockages. For example it’s the first time she has talked about the rape, for fear it might have defined her as a victim – and after 15 years when she didn’t pick up a guitar and a spell when her right arm literally refused to play, she has rediscovered music. Hooking up again with some of her former colleagues from The Fall, obviously not Mark E Smith, with whom she has no contact (she knocked on his door not so long ago to say, ‘hello, are you OK’, but he didn’t open it) – they reformed as Brix & The Extricated.
“That’s Stephen Hanley and Paul Hanley, Steve Trafford, Jason Brown and me. We found each other after 18 years and started playing together. It’s a great band. It’s amazing to play with them again, with new material, but also taking back some of The Fall songs, classics like LA, The Lay of the Land, Totally Wired, Feeling Numb, Spine Trap. Those are songs The Fall won’t play any more anyway. They were amazing songs that people haven’t been getting the chance to hear. We wrote that stuff.”
Record deals have been secured for the band and her solo album, and a tour brings them to Scotland next month. Back on the road Start has been clocking up the festivals both music and literary. This year she’s been to Port Eliot in Cornwall, where she performed with singer songwriter The Lilac Time’s Stephen Duffy, Latitude, Hay on Wye, Stoke Literary Festival, Blackpool Rebellion Festival and Edinburgh International Book Festival, where her appearance was punctuated by the sound of exploding fireworks from the Tattoo. “That’s Mark E Smith coming to get me. Or my dad,” she quipped.
Start met Mark E Smith in 1983 when she went to see The Fall in Chicago. Realising he was her “soul mate”, she moved to Manchester, joined the band and married Smith three months later, making albums and touring. Start is credited with giving the band a more mainstream sound, with her strong vocals and guitar style. The Fall were one of John Peel’s favourite bands and without them, says Start, “there would have been no Nirvana”. Kurt Cobain was also a huge fan. As well as The Fall, Start had a parallel outlet in Adult Net, a band she started in 1985.
Smith’s erratic behaviour and leadership style was a challenge but the end came when he got up one morning and said he was leaving her. Leaving the group and divorcing him in 1989, Start went back to LA and studied acting. She later rejoined the band to record and promote albums Cerebral Caustic in 1995 and The Light User Syndrome in 1996.
Brix was born Laura Salenger in LA in 1962, the daughter of a CBS TV executive and the aforementioned troubled child psychiatrist.
“My father was a dysfunctional, eccentric, who dressed like an off-duty Don Draper, had five wives, dated nurses, wore a cowboy hat and boots, walked with a cane made from a bull’s penis and used a tobacco pouch fashioned from a woman’s breast that he said he’d stolen from a cadaver at medical school,” she says. You get the picture, but there is plenty more in the book, ranging from the castration of her Shetland pony to details of physical attacks and his eventual decision to disown his daughter. It was at this point she ditched “broken, sad, damaged” Laura and became Brix, after her favourite Clash song The Guns of Brixton.
As a child Start spent a lot of time with her Beverly Hills grandparents who had connections in the film world and open tickets to Disneyland, a place that for Start symbolised happiness and security. So persuasive is she on the merits of Disneyland, that she managed the unlikely feat of getting rollercoaster refusenik and miserable Mancunian Mark E Smith on the Matterhorn ride, even if his conviction that “this ride is evil” was vindicated when the turn immediately after theirs resulted in a death that inspired The Fall song Disney’s Dream Debased. Start’s love of Disneyland remains undimmed and so loyal is she to her childhood memories that she almost manages to get you along for the ride.
When her parents divorced, Laura and her mother moved to Chicago and she went on to the liberal arts college Bennington, where classmates included Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. Start’s creativity was poured into her first band and a love of punk, which saw her leave college for Manchester after falling for The Fall frontman. Her description of arriving at his flat, something of a pampered West Coast princess, is hilarious as she details her horror at his laundry arrangements (washing clothes in the bath) and bafflement over where the milk was stored (“out the window”). Yet Start is always game, up for it, in many cases far too up for it, as she’d be the first to admit. Although she still considers herself to be borderline bulimic, there have been a lot of therapy and spiritual retreats along the way, a lot of unblocking, and now Start radiates bonhomie, acceptance and forgiveness.
Even if you’ve never heard of The Fall, Giles Deacon or Gok Wan, or have been lucky enough to live somewhere in the world where Disney disnae, her book resonates on a simple human level. Stripped of the glam or gritty post-punk backdrop, it’s the story of survival and rediscovery, of someone making it through the tough times and Start’s ability to recreate all the details of a scene make it vivid. The celebrity roll call adds a sprinkle of glam and glitter and Start adds the laughs.
She is a brilliant storyteller and as well as an impressive evocation of LA in the 1970s, her book is full of celebrity anecdotes. There is Courtney Love turning her on to Rohypnol and laying out a Dior nightie on the guest bed, her assignation with Mickey Mouse in Disneyland (he turns out to be more mouse than man), and learning her work ethic from Sonny and Cher when her mother took her to work. Cher’s outfits also made a lasting impression on young Brix.
Start had always been into clothes, beginning when her granny took her every weekend to Saks and Neiman Marcus to buy her outfits, sometimes matching. Her appearances with The Fall were clothed by BodyMap, the influential club scene 1980s label, and later her second husband taught her everything he knew about the fashion business, leading to work as a fashion stylist, TV presenter and guru of garb. She’s just finished the pilot for a new fashion series.
“I have done lots of different things in the fashion industry: TV presenting, being a style expert to retailers, a buyer, designer, to someone whose style is copied. I absolutely love fashion and I think clothes are a powerful tool in your life. If you get the colours and the silhouettes right, it can completely change how people perceive you and you get respect and positivity reflected back. You can put something on and change your perspective. It brings you up when you’re feeling down. Fashion changes people’s lives.
“It is always something that has uplifted me throughout my life and when my musical career finished the first time, I turned to fashion.”
Start’s style was inspired by childhood memories; Cher rehearsing in her jeans then donning sequins, Shirley Jones on the Partridge Family in her cord bell bottoms, Californian bikinis and short shorts, and movie star glamour, with an overlay of punk, post-punk, and 20 years’ admiring designers like Giles Deacon and now the up and coming Marques’Almeida.
“I don’t look at magazines, I look at movie characters – when I was younger it was Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Edie Sedgwick. And at the moment I’m feeling very Gram Parsons – he had incredible style. With my hair I started having a Stevie Nicks moment a month or so ago. There are designers you look at, great artists, and ones you wear because they suit you.”
In her clothing archive Start has her BodyMap stage clothes from The Fall days (“I’m heavier now, I don’t want to stretch them. And there’s a cat suit that I’d get arrested for wearing”), some Gaultier, a Thierry Mugler suit, two iconic Anthony Price dresses and a collection of leather jackets.
“They’re so rock and roll and great to wear with everything. I have stiff leather, soft leather, metallics, silk, wool, suede and different shapes. Oh, and I have quite a few pairs of shoes too. Some are so beautiful I want to put them in Perspex boxes and never wear them.”
Start’s philosophy is that each day is a challenge, some go smoothly and some throw up ‘blockages’, and your dress should prepare you for this. Feeling good is key.
“Feel comfortable. No tight jeans, tops you have to pull down, or shoes that hurt. There should be a word for shoe anger.” Here Start obliges by inventing the neologism, “shanger”. Once you feel physically good, you can move on to colour and shape.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s designer or high street, vintage or charity shop. It’s how you put it together, how you express your personal style. Wacky, chic, or both, it doesn’t matter what people think, it’s about what you think. If people are judgmental, who cares?”
She favours a particular look for performing. “On stage I always wear something with a bit of sparkle, my guitar strap is sparkly sequins. If anyone has a tartan sparkly one I could use in Scotland, that would be brilliant,” she says.
If she could live her life over again, would Start do anything differently?
“No, I have zero regrets,” she says. “That’s what the book is about. I chose non-sequential paths to go down, and thought ‘I’ll have a go’. I encountered terrible violence, emotional breakdown and simply disastrous relationships, but life is about duality. You can’t feel great and have the highs in life if you haven’t experienced the lows. Although some of it is hard to get through, getting through is what made now possible. In the darkest part of your life is where the spark of creation is born, because that spark is what drives you out of the darkness. In the darkness you evolve and create and out of that comes the rocket of dreams.”
As she directs her rocket of dreams north it seems apposite to ask if Start has any Scottish connection to declare?
“No. Well, yes! After I joined The Fall my father became Scottish. He began to wear kilts and spoke in a Scottish brogue. He had a penchant for haggis and would visit Scotland and tour around castles, pretending he was the laird to the other people on the tour. So, yes, I love Scotland,” she says.
Welcome home Brix. n