02 July, 2013

TOYAH:
SMALL GIRL,
BIG IDEAS

By Dougie Gordon

The door opens. A short, 145 cm tall figure stands in front of me. She's wearing a blue and grey tunic which has gold embroidery on it. The fiery red hair looks a like a burning bush against the backdrop of the outfit. 

The figure moves forwards like a Samurai warrior poised for an attack but you can see a smile on her face which you can not resist. She's Toyah Willcox, England's Jeanne d'Arc of latter times. 
Her moves are a part of a carefully calculated image. She's has consciously made herself into a mystery which invites the audience to explore her world further. But you can't fit all of the pieces together – it's not easy to find the real person behind this made-up facade. 



Her aggression can turn into warmth in a second – and the other way round. Her mindset changes from a hearty laugh into the deepest despair. Her sentences are deep and meaningful half of the time, the other half you're left wondering what on earth is she on about? Toyah is like dynamite made out of flesh, the slightest emotional spark will set her off. 

She also has a soft sweeter side which the audience rarely gets to see. The aggression she hides behind when dealing with the mass media is of course there on purpose. The media in turn treats her with contempt and suspicion. For this reason she feels misunderstood and defends herself in a way even Lou Reed would be proud of. 

At the start of the interview she tried to control the whole situation but slowly started to open up. She comes across as a very mature person although she's only 23. 

At first she insisted on knowing details about my life and attitude. She seemed amazed that my main job is a town planner and asked me some really deep questions about social problems stemming from what we design. Slowly the roles changed and she was ready to become the interviewee. 




She talks fast and constantly flicks her hair off her face. She is determined and clear. She stares right at you. She is very opinionated. Toyah's many persona's are leftovers from her two year career as an actress/singer. She has portrayed Dr Jekyll's maid and a drug addict. She also played “Monkey” in “Quadrophenia” and appeared in “The Tempest” (as "Miranda" above). 

With the varied roles she has earned herself a respected place in the art world whereas people in music business have tried to use her to their own advantage, belittled her and showed very little interest in general. The various stage and film roles do not fit into the rock star image. But she tries to carry on with both careers. Do they clash? 

“No, because I was already a schizophrenic. I'm a completely different person on the theatre stage and in films. When I sing I'm totally myself. When I act I'm a marionette and someone else is pulling the strings. I live and breathe role I've been given although I do try to bring some of my own personality into the role as well.” 

Why did you want to become an actress? What sort of roles interest you? 

“Plays like “Suspiria”. The set, the music, the lights – everything creates a total feeling of fear. It was scary to be a part of. As far as films go I like to play roles which release a lot of adrenaline. I get excited really easily.” 

Was the excitement that comes with being an actor that interested you in the first place? 

“When I was younger I really loved acting. Going to theatre school was a given and then I was surrounded with like-minded people. When I moved to London and started work at the Nation Theatre I met musicians who shared my views, that's how the band got started.” 

Toyah started to put her band (below) together in the summer of 1977 when Rotten and Strummer were making the headlines. Her current band is totally different to the first line-ups. 

Just like her idol David Bowie she wants change her chameleon like stage persona all the time. Just like Bowie Toyah is constantly searching for new ways to express herself, new characters to play. 




When your musical heroes are Hendrix, Marc Bolan and Lou Reed you expect the music to be aggressive and heroic. Her debut album which was recorded live is exactly like that. (EDIT: Toyah's debut album is “Sheep Farming In Barnet” 1979, not the live album “Toyah! Toyah! Toyah!” 1980 mentioned in the interview) 

To record your first album live requires a huge amount of courage and non prejudice. Toyah's nasal singing voice is instantly recognisable. The hard metallic voice slams against the wavy sounds of the keyboards. Her music is unique and distinctive. The end result is like electric sparks and the background music for a sci-fi film. 

With these ingredients she cooks up a cosmic mix of sounds. Toyah's interest in black magic and mysticism add to the tension. Her songs are full of magical tools, strange images and weird insects. Her fascination with anything odd reminds her of ...? 

“It's just an urge. I don't study black magic – I've just been interested in the occult ever since I was a child. The curiosity you have when you're young made me look into it a bit more.” 

For a childhood attraction it seems to appear in your songs quite a bit? 

“Exactly. That's how I get my imagination going. My imagination becomes alive via mystical stories. I made new images to go with the stories and I drew the pictures. But that's old hat now, I'm really into science fiction at the moment. The new album is pure science fiction - I've made a fantasy album.” 

The new album “Anthem” is out soon but as I write this I haven't managed to get a copy of it so I can't comment on it. Toyah was talking about the album constantly. Why did you choose to enter the world of make believe instead of writing about real things? 

“Reality is so boring. All of the comments from 1977 - “I don't want to work in an office” bore me to death. I'd much rather write about things from my perspective. I wrote a song about a police officer who has machine guns instead of hands when he was born. And he doesn't need to re-load them, his body grows the bullets."

"I'd much rather write about different possibilities than boring everyday things like politics. It exists but I find it tiresome and I don't want to talk about it. The song about that police officer is political but it's unique and strange because I wrote it.” 




The punk ideology of 1977 does come up in your songs though - like the single “I Want To Be Free”?

“True, but everyone wants to fight the system. It didn't start in 1977. The world has had economic problems before. “I Want To Be Free” is a personal joke, I take the piss out of things. The lyrics go “tear down the wallpaper, turf out the cat, tear up the carpet and get rid of that, blow up the TV, blow up the car”. It's pure anarchy but I don't mean it seriously."

"If people take it seriously there's going to be a riot and it's my fault. I made the joke even clearer by putting a philharmonic orchestra in the song - violins, cellos. I've combined classical music with crazy lyrics. I think it's a great joke.” 

“I've turned to the occult and sci-fi because I'm not a politician. Sooner or later every song writer wants to write about conflict. I want to be different but if I sometimes contradict myself who gives a shit. I don't want my music to be constantly safe. I want to live dangerously. The new album includes a lot of childhood memories."

"A lot of the lyrics are about me. I've even written about love. People don't think I'm sensitive but I am really. One of my songs is about a town I'd like to build for my fans where they can live just how they want to.” 

Toyah grinned at me as if to remind me of her ever changing mood. It's almost as if she was testing me – was I going to criticise her? I didn't take the bait but instead asked her why the media have branded her emotionless and hard? 

“They just wanted to make me look that way. I don't think I'm particularly aggressive on stage. Lately I've gained more self-confidence and calmed down.” 




You won't find Toyah settling for the traditional female role in rock'n'roll. Her sudden mood changes from rage to love can confuse even the most experienced interviewer. No wonder the media treats her heavy handedly. 

Is she the victim of her own fickle mind? Maybe. The truth is most likely that the media does not like a female artist who knows what she wants therefore they to remove the last of her self-esteem. Especially with someone like Toyah. 

The male dominated music business is wary of straight talking females. Patti Smith is an example of what happens when you step over the boundaries. When I put this across to Toyah she almost jumps down my throat and asks am I accusing her of being a feminist? 

“I'm not a feminist. I don't give a shit about other female rock singers. I think I'm genderless. I move like a woman, I talk like a woman, I'm a women in rock business.” 

 Maybe but there is a pressure to try to fit you into a mold of a typical female singer? 

“That's true. People think a woman is more easily wounded than a man. Everybody wants to fuck me. People assume it's easier to take advantage of a woman. The rock business is very male oriented and on occasion totally chauvinistic. Sometimes I feel like exploding but I have to control myself.” 




“On the last tour I had my boyfriend (Tom, above with Toyah) with me. I took him with me so I wouldn't feel left out when the rest of the band piss off somewhere with the female fans. Plus I'm no interested in one night stands. The tour promoter booked all of us separate rooms. He probably thought I'd be willing to fuck all of the local boys in each town. Needless to say he doesn't work for me any more.” 

“When I'm on tour I have no private life. Everybody wants to know what I'm doing and what I'm wearing. I feel really insecure. People are trying to find out what I wish for and my deepest secrets. My aggressive behaviour stems from the fact that I'm always distrusting of people in case they want to take advantage of me.” 

How does being in the music business differ from being an actress? 

“It's completely different. When I'm acting they take me as I am. In the theatre world people are more self-aware and ambitious instead trying to get a glimpse of you naked backstage in the changing room. The attitudes are more mature and less chauvinistic due to the fact that most actors are gay - they don't compete with female actors. Being naked in the theatre is completely natural and acceptable - imagine that at the band rehearsals! You're much more mentally liberated when you're acting.” 

Which is harder – rock or theatre? 

“When I'm acting I feel more at home. I experience some sort of transformation. When I'm singing it's a constant fight – people want to touch me or pull me down from the stage. It feels sick sometimes.” 




Who is the real Toyah? 

“She is a person who wants to sit in a room like this - alone and just gaze out of the window. Just sits there and thinks. She likes to be alone with her thoughts. I'm really quiet and sometimes I think too much. People like that get depressed really easily. That happens to me. That's why I'm constantly trying to think of something to do. But I like being alone.” 

Do you pay attention to people or the buildings when you're walking down the street? 

“I pay attention to everything and everyone. I want to know how things change.” 

Toyah entered the main stream music scene around the same time with the New Romantics - bands like Spandau Ballet, Adam & The Ants, Classix Nouveaux and Scars. It's interesting that although the country is in the grips of an economic meltdown and mass unemployment it still produces new colourful music. 

New York feels like a poor man's London at the moment – it's just sitting there waiting for the new ideas from this side of the Atlantic so they can worship the new bands in their little clubs. In the midst's of the economic problems the self-assured New Romantics appear as from nowhere. 

Individualism rules and self expression has found a new avenue. Now people are listening to those with the power, strength and honour. Just like their idols from 1920's Italy the New Romantics are right wing orientated. It's fashionable to be beautiful. Those with beauty and money can stay trendy. The Scottish Highland fashion has been ousted by Italian Renaissance. It's fun if you have money – really boring if you happen to be unemployed and skint. 

The idea is to have fun as long as possible and forget the dreary everyday life. You can kiss your ass goodbye when the super powers push the little red button one after the other. The New Romantic movement gets new ideas from that sort of backdrop. Toyah's music manages just about to avoid the New Romantic label but is it music just for music's sake? 

“I don't hate the New Romantics but I don't like them either. I'm on a completely on different level. I want to be different and not just because I don't have the same values as them. I have the self-confidence to be different.” 




Were you born with self-confidence? 

“My self-confidence comes and goes. I believe in mind over matter. If you really want something you can have it. I wasn't successful at school but that didn't stop me from becoming an actress. I was very young when I realised that your results in an exam mean very little. I've met loads of kids who are petrified of exams. They're great in class but totally crap at exams. As long as you can work hard and look after yourself don't worry about what the society says - how you should live and be.” 

“When I left school I applied for a job in an insurance company. I lied to them that I had passed all of my final exams, I just didn't have the paperwork with me. I lied to their faces but I got the job because of my personality – not because of a piece of paper. They admired as a human being.” 

How was school otherwise? 

“I was really cheeky and independent. I never had to have a boyfriend just because my best friend did. I hated school but I stayed as long as I had to. I was brought up with middle class standards and morals. The members of my band are shocked that I don't get totally rat arsed every night like the other do. Fucking idiots. They're afraid of me – I'm harder than them. They treat me like a man because I often act like a man.” 

This comes from Toyah's childhood – her mother raised her like a son. 

“My mum brought me up like a son. That's why I act like a man. I have a sister who's 8 years older than me (below with Toyah in 2006) and a brother who's 5 years older than me. I had to fight with him daily so he couldn't assert himself over me. He was very cruel – my whole family were cruel. He used to tie me up or try to set me on fire." 

"Once he broke my arm. He was always throwing me up in the air and catching me but one time he decided not to and I broke my arm. I was 8 years old. I remember writhing on the floor in agony and my mum just said “shut up”. She only realised it was true when she saw the bone sticking out of my arm. She changed my underwear before going to the hospital. My family were very hard-hearted towards me during my whole childhood.” 




Are you devoted to your parents? 

“I am now, not back then. They've encouraged me during the last 8 years. I hated my mother the first 18 years. One time I locked her in a wardrobe because I could not listen to her any more. People used to think we were strange, nobody on the street would talk to us."

"I once threw my dad out of the house in the middle of the night because he was so drunk. Someone called the police and told them there is a body in our front garden. I used to love the fact that our neighbours thought we were weird. One time when my brother and me were fighting I shot him with an air riffle.” 

Were you cruel to animals as well?

"Of course not. I had a pet rabbit - I taught it to bite people I didn't like. It was constantly biting my mum's ankles. Once it attacked my brother and he kicked it like a football. My mum used to let it in the house in the mornings and it would run straight up to my bed. It followed me everywhere. It was the only friend I had as a child.” 

Finally we started talking about the new album. Toyah is happy with the end results. 

“It's called “Anthem” because it's a story of strength. Making it was like winning a war. I felt liberated when it was finished. I felt love and passion while trying to get to the final result.” 

What were you trying to achieve? 

“I was trying to win an imaginary war. Who your enemy is depends on your own attitude. I've wanted to release people's feelings. It's about freedom. I'm trying to paint pictures – I want want people to feel happy for no particular reason. I want people to have their own ideas about this battle though, I don't let them know what I think.” 

But isn't war a negative and an unnecessary subject? 

 “Winning is positive.” 

Why war though? 

“It was the first thing that popped into my head.” 




Don't you think it's dangerous to let people interpret your music? 

“The danger fascinates me. I want to keep my music simple – I don't want it to be too deep. I don't want it getting to a point where people have to look up words in a dictionary. The freedom to interpret is important – I'm an actress after all. I want to use the same methods in music. That way people can find new depths in the characters in my songs.” 

I'm still bothered about the whole war concept … 

“In that case this record is not about war for you. For me it is the only word I can use to describe how I feel. I live in my own little world. If I wanted to change the world around me I'd become a politician. I don't want to send the message out there that society is bad. Everybody can make up their own minds. If my record helps – great. If people agree with me that's even better.” 

“When I'm creating something I stick my head in a bush so that my thoughts stay together. When I made this record I was a recluse for two months. I didn't want to get any influences from other people's thoughts. I observe other people all the time, I watch their behaviour. That's where I get all the strange characters from.” 

Some people might think you're strange? 

“But I am. There is a basic Toyah underneath but I don't particularly like her." 

(Special thank you to Keijo Seppänen)

You can read the original interview in Finnish below, please click on the images to view larger versions


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