CHRISSIE Hynde doesn’t want to talk about the past. She’s been there too often – those countless occasions when she has been asked about the punk, the junk, the hits, the husbands and all the stuff that goes into making her a rock star.
And she’s the boss, so no talking about her past – unless, of course, she gets around to talking about it herself. “I am a blabbermouth,” she says. “I can talk till the cows come home.”
Hynde is as good as her word – once she hits her stride, the conversation is free-flowing, wide-ranging and entertaining. She was described by Morrissey in his recent autobiography as “by far the funniest person I have ever met”. And it’s true, she is compelling company as long as she can drive the discussion in directions which interest her. “What am I, a film critic?” she hoots as she heads off on a tangent about Joaquin Phoenix.
But, to begin with at least, even her present doesn’t seem to be of much conversational interest to her. Aged 62, Hynde is poised to release her first ever solo album. Except that Stockholm is not really a solo effort, but a collaborative album made with a group of Swedish musicians to which she has put her name – “to get it out the way” she says. It’s a point of contention. Over the years, she has been continually met with the assumption that her band The Pretenders is not actually a band, but simply Hynde and whoever she chooses to work with at the time (as if these two notions have to be mutually exclusive). So she doesn’t want to talk about that either. “Anyway, what’s in a name?” she says.
Hynde is more precise than prickly – assertive, as is to be expected, and candid. The album is done and dusted and she doesn’t want to pick over it, even though she knows she has some responsibility to sell it. Even when she was recording Stockholm, she would never take any music with her when she left the studio, so she’s not minded to analyse it after the fact. “How do you describe how you mix paint?” she says. “You just get on with it.”
The album was recorded in bursts in the city after which it is named. There are guest appearances from Neil Young and John McEnroe. You cannot be serious, I want to say. But I don’t. The former was approached almost as a dare – in 2006, he inducted The Pretenders into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so what’s a little guitar mangling between friends? As for the latter, Hynde actually taught McEnroe to play guitar and invited him to the studio to impress her producer, Björn Yttling, who has helmed albums by Franz Ferdinand and Primal Scream as well as pursuing his own pop career in Peter, Björn and John.
“At one point, Björn said, ‘Look, I’m not a producer’. We didn’t even go into this to make a record together. But I was really into this idea of not writing on my own. It’s boring making all the decisions by yourself.”
Other musicians joined the party and the freewheeling results exude a gauche, girlish and carefree spirit. “I like that expression ‘carefree’ – I’m totally having that,” she says. “Anyone with an ear can hear that I’m singing out of key on [new single] Dark Sunglasses. I wasn’t trying to sing flat, and I could have corrected all that of course, but it might not be as much fun. When you’re making a record you decide what are you looking for. Perfection has nothing to do with it. I come from a rock sensibility, so the vibe is paramount and the vibe was there.”
Ohio-born Hynde connected to rock’n’roll at a young age, hoovering up the electrified sounds of the British invasion bands beside homegrown mavericks The Velvet Underground and The Stooges, and occasionally escaping to the big smoke of Cleveland to go to gigs. “I love the personality of a band. It’s great when everyone’s locked in and there’s a good chemistry and surprises. What could be better?”
Hynde knew she wanted a slice of that, but it took her a while to realise her goal. She formed a band with Mark Mothersbaugh, later of Devo, while she was studying art at Kent State University (scene of the infamous shootings at a Vietnam protest on 4 May, 1970). But London was calling and Hynde quickly found herself at the heart of the city’s nascent punk scene. She wrote for NME and worked in Sex, the punk boutique run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. But the band was the thing. Hynde played in numerous short-term outfits with members of The Clash and The Damned, casting about for that special unit, before finally finding it with guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers.
The Pretenders clicked quickly. Having arrived seemingly fully formed, they hit the top of the charts with their third single, the hip and slinky Brass In Pocket. There is probably still no better introduction to the sultry ache of Hynde’s voice, and she made a killer showing on Top Of The Pops with the feather cut fringe in her eyes, the heavy kohl eyeliner, the guitar slung with intent and the shooting-from-the-hip presence. And if it ain’t broke… Hynde has stuck to the same lean rocker style for the past 40 years. And it still looks cool. Not that Hynde is having any of that iconic image stuff. She’s just being herself.
“I’m a rock artist and the difference between us and pop stars or actors is that we become more ourselves when we’re onstage than any other time,” she says. “When I made my first record we walked in off the street wearing what we were wearing and the guy took a picture and that was the album cover. These days even for a rocker they’ll bring in the stylists and the make-up artists. I can’t go in for all that.”
Who would presume to tell Hynde how to dress, I wonder. “But here’s the thing – every artist can do what they want. You hear people say ‘I was told to this and that’ – well, there’s always the two magic words ‘f*** off’!”
Hynde was – still is – in charge as much as she could be. But by 1983, both Honeyman-Scott and Farndon were dead, succumbing to drugs within a year of each other. “And how can you control that stuff?” she sighs. “The only thing I can think that I consciously try to do is not let it get too big, because look at what it’s done to the people that we love.”
She cites Elvis Presley as just one example from a long list of casualties. “Who would want to be that exposed? But they couldn’t help it because they were a phenomenon and everyone wanted some of it. There’s the possibility to make it very big if you really wanna play the game – stadium gigs and that sort of thing. That was never my cup of tea. Who needs that much money? Personally, I like to stay in the middle and do the least amount to get by. But I like touring. And then you have to temper that because it certainly does play havoc with domesticity, everyone knows that.”
Hynde has had her fair trail of high profile relationships. She has a daughter, Natalie, with Ray Davies – who has recently made headlines of her own, taking to the trees to protest against a bypass and supergluing herself to the gates of a fracking site. Her mother is a long-time supporter of animal rights and not averse to direct action herself. Hynde’s other daughter, Yasmin, from her marriage to Jim Kerr, is an actress. Hynde and Kerr split in 1990. Hynde later married Colombian artist Lucho Brieva but their relationship ended more than ten years ago. The Pretenders, however, have survived – not just the premature deaths of two original members but numerous line-up changes and the occasional hiatus.
“I have taken some time,” says Hynde. “I didn’t tour for eight years when my kids were in school. Because I ended up being a single parent, self-supporting and blah blah blah, I had to pay my bills and having to pay your bills, as most of the world knows, is a great incentive to keep you working. But once you stop being played on the radio, if you’re used to being played on the radio, that’s not a nice thing either.”
Hynde has been there, she says, “around 1990”. But a few years later, The Pretenders hit paydirt again when I’ll Stand By You became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. This emotive power ballad has proved to be one of their most enduring songs. In the past decade alone, it has been covered by Girls Aloud, Rod Stewart, Carrie Underwood and Shakira and has become a belting favourite of contestants on TV talent shows. Unsurprisingly, this is not a world Hynde – a woman in warpaint on her album cover – has any truck with.
“I love pop music – pop music being Phil Spector or Abba. Stuff you can dance to to me is pop music,” she says. “But now there’s this talent show stuff and schools where you learn how to do it. The idea of going to school to learn what I do, that would be like an oxymoron. You don’t learn this shit in school, you learn this shit out of school.
“But what everyone wants now is that elusive hit. To me, that’s the kiss of death, because hits and big sales leave you at the top of the pole and there’s only one way to go from there and then it’s ‘next, please’. I think it’s better to bubble under and not boil over. But you can’t really determine these things – it’s like timing. I’ve heard people say ‘there’s no point in being ahead of your time, you have to be on time’. If anyone really knew how to get a record on the radio and have it loved by many people then everyone would do it. But nobody knows and that’s the one thing that remains beautiful about what I would call pop music.”
If there is one thing which ages Hynde, it is her ambivalent relationship with the internet and its effect on our listening habits. “That’s where I’ve kinda got lost,” she admits. “I grew up going to record stores and discovering stuff and you’d call someone up and say ‘You gotta come over and listen to this’ and it was a network of discovery. Now you open your computer and it tells you what you like.” She stops herself right there. “I didn’t want to talk about it because it’s such a cliché. I can hear myself in Great Bores of Today. But, y’know, I open my computer now, I know how to use it. I’ve got the phone and everything… but I still like book and record stores.”
There is one listening ritual this life-long rock’n’roller still swears by. “Ask the hairs on your arms – they never lie,” says Hynde. “When you have techniques that can make anyone sound like they can hit all the notes it can certainly take some personality out of it but it’s really the mistakes in music and art that are personal. Often the thing that an artist doesn’t like about themselves is probably the very thing that people respond to – that’s been my experience. You learn to live with it and just appreciate what you have as unique.”
We’re back to vibe versus virtuosity. Hynde chose her side a long time ago.
Stockholm is released on 2 June by Caroline International