Writer and broadcaster Paul Morley meets Siouxsie Sioux the recipient of the 2012 Ivors Inspiration Award.
Outside the packed, plush Hotel bar opposite Broadcasting House in Central London, it’s dusk, it’s blustery, and it’s suddenly pouring with an almost violent rain. A discreetly glamorous, off stage Siouxsie Sioux sips her tea from a bone china cup, looks out at the swaying trees and spiralling rain illuminated by lamp light, and expresses quiet, almost childlike delight. She can be quite stern and even withering about things that concern her, and limit the world, but her attitude is, in general, strangely sunny and positive – craving difference and newness. It’s her kind of night, hinting at something untamed, at the mysteries that lurk the other side of the ordinary. She admits she prefers the sun setting to the sun rising, that she’s a night owl, something she discovered when she started to go out to night clubs in the early 70s as a 14-year old.
“I used to love dancing and I had my outlet there… it helped being able to identify with gays. I just couldn’t hack it with straight guys when I was 14, 15, 16, they were really weird and clumsy, not much fun. I discovered the clubs, they were open until four in the morning. Experiencing gay culture in discos opened up all sorts of fantastic music, sometimes novelty music, but with amazing strings, incredible bits of screeching, swelling music. It was so physical, and it was full of life and celebration, about the moment and the joy of being alive.”
We’ve met to talk about the award she’s received, although she’s not too sure what it’s for. She’s cheered when she hears it’s for being an inspiration, as a songwriter.
“Inspiration is much better than just contribution. I am thinking why now, I am probably the most inactive I’ve ever been, it’s typical isn’t it… I hope it’s not a way of shutting me up – giving me an award. It’s great that it’s not an icon award, which is usually wheeled out for what I look like rather than my work. Inspiration is good, as long as it’s for the right sort of thing, not The X Factor or anything… perhaps it’s an award for someone who gave this industry hell!”
What kind of songwriter does she think of herself being ?
“Well that’s the thing, I still don’t feel as though that is what I am – I just couldn’t really get anyone else to write the sort of songs I wanted to sing, so I thought, well, I’ll write them myself. I just see it as ‘I wrote my songs.’ And needs must. I taught myself really, to do it the way I wanted, whereas now it is so institutionalised. There is actually a college course now to learn how to write pop songs. I find that an anathema. It’s why the world is full of the Bonnie Langfords I used to despise. There’s a lot of competence about now in music, but who wa
nts to be merely competent?
For me the most important element in any creative endeavour is instinct, much more so than having a good technique. Instinct is so overlooked, and so is having an imagination, because without it you just get the clichéd greeting card lyrics and the constant recycling of themes and ideas, not in a deconstructed level, mashing things up in an interesting way.
To just slavishly copy and water things down seems very uninspiring. Instinct makes you explore, technique takes over and removes the imagination. Technique is satnav, and instinct is working out which direction to go by following the sun and stars. The satnav tells you where to go, but it’s best to find out for yourself.”
Siouxsie’s been singing, writing, and performing since the days when she was in the court of the Sex Pistols, pretty much their first fan, participating in some of the early scandal, forming Siouxsie and the Banshees, tearing into all forms of complacency with spectacular haughtiness. They were the Banshees because of the Vincent Price film Cry of the Banshee, a film they watched a few days before their first gig in September, 1976. “The intention was to play one number until they threw us off stage, but they never did. We got bored before then. It was meant to be our 15 minutes of fame, but it ended up lasting for years and years, which just goes to show how addictive dressing up and making noise for a living can be.”
She was liberated by punk to create a mutant, militant pop music that was as influenced by movie soundtracks, experimental literature (Ballard, Beckett and Burroughs
), and surrealist provocation as it was by glam theatrics, Germanic electronic rock and psychedelic punk. The extreme pop fan became a fantastic, ingenious writer of extreme pop songs, creating a bewitching repertoire of songs that reflected her idea that a great song is cinematic, atmospheric and alien.
“When I started it was based on an idea that the things we were influenced by were not necessarily in the Top Ten, like the Velvet Underground, but they should be. Iggy Pop should have been our Frank Sinatra, so we were trying to change what had become the establishment. For me, great pop music was where you wondered how it had made it through the system, through a barrier of blandness. It was all about finding a sound that acted like a drug no matter how weird it was, so that something hooked you in that turned the strange into a pop song – think of O Superman by Laurie Anderson, that was number one, and it was entirely different from anything else, and I love that way of surprising with the unexpected but it still being a pop song.”
From the very first chaotic, cathartic gigs, she was an irresistible performer, coming to challenging life on stage. “I feel intrepid and brave when I am on the stage… there is no one better, I am indestructible. Without that I feel vulnerable and at a loss because I am not letting out things… I am getting better at being relaxed, but I still need to be able to do that. And it has always been about being physical – even though I could singer better if I don’t move about I can’t help it. My body just has to go with it.”
Siouxsie and the Banshees were the last of the original punk groups to be signed, but the most imaginative, and enduring when it came to developing as musicians and writers. They were twisted show business luxury
fronted by the hardest, strangest most flamboyantly inscrutable female pop star of them of all. She evolved quickly into a distinctive and startling if underestimated writer.
Her collaborators included core Banshee member Steve Severin, Banshee guitarists including Robert Smith of the Cure and John McGeoch of Magazine, and drummer/percussionist Budgie who became husband and partner in her other great psych-pop group, the Creatures. (They divorced in 2007.)
Their songs travelled through space, time and sexuality, used handsome, enchanting melody to confront traumatic experiences. The Banshees and the Creatures ended up gate-crashing the pop party playing the most violent, exquisite and erotic pop music imaginable. They sneaked hell into the pop charts, as well as a brittle, opulent heaven and a jarring lewdness. Considering their song topics included mental illness, medical terrors, surreal diseases, depraved urges, sinister intensity, unearthly energy, sexual abuse, childhood disturbances, sordid mysteries, unbearable nervous anxiety, fairytale fears, urban discontent and the bleak dignity of solitude, it was astonishing that they ended up as much as anything else a sublime singles band. Nothing that has come since has made those songs sound dated; they’re of their time, but completely timeless.
Sioux had plenty to write about, much of it growing up in a household constantly on the edge of frightening breakdown. A word she uses when describing what many of her songs are about is damage.
“Damaged lives, damaged souls, damaged relationships. Most of the damage I sing about first happened when I was younger and I am still feeding off it and working it out. Early experiences are what create a lifetime of damage. The songs you write can help you fix the damage. And just the environment you are in is so important and can waste potential and corrupt something. For me, there was neglect. An alcoholic father who is not there because the most important thing for him is just to get alcohol and your mother is trying to compensate for the non-existent second parent so she’s never there because she’s working all the time and when she is around she’s stressed out. Being isolated and not having anyone to connect with, there was just no physical touching back then… it was a post-war, generational thing, there was no physical contact, which can make so much difference. A good hug is so important…”
Your songs have ended up becoming…
“Strange, creepy hugs…”
And the word she uses
the most in her songs?
“Skin, apparently. Breaking out of it, being enclosed by it, it’s easily bruised, it’s a source of pleasure, it’s at the end of your fingertips, it’s what makes us different. Without it, we’re all the same. We’re just bones.”
I tell her that as pop star, she’s up there with those that were on her list of inspirations when she started; the Bowies, Bolans, Iggys, Reeds and Nicos, and I swear she blushes a little. For someone so sure of herself, so damned fearless, she takes nothing for granted about her influence and impact.
“You want something but you don’t know what it will be like. You want to leave your mark. I was here, wasn’t I? I did do something, didn’t I? But you don’t know how overrated fame is until you have some form of it… and it is the one thing I’d say that anyone who has it and is not an idiot would prefer not to have… if people didn’t meet me and have this preconception about me I would love that. They think they know me, ‘Oh, I saw you on the telly the other day,’ and some will use the ‘p’ word, you’re a punk are you, as if that captures me, and dismisses me… or they use the ‘g’ word… ‘I know you, you’re in that goth band.’ How dare they say that! It makes me want to punch their lights out.”
When mentioning some favourite cover versions of her songs – by Jeff Buckley, Devotchka and LCD Soundsystem – she is only aware of the Buckley – “which I love, and perhaps that is a real moment in terms of thinking, I really am a song writer. That’s my song, and it sounds like a proper song even when sung by someone else.”
It occurs to me she never reads her own Wikipedia page. “No way!” she recoils, absolutely unconcerned this might make her seem disconnected. “I hate the internet… I can Google on a friend’s computer, but when I am at home I would so much rather be outside at my home in France with the birds and bees and my cats… if it’s miserable weather I will read or watch Sky Arts.” She doesn’t need to monitor her own image? “That’s for others to worry about. I don’t want to know, it might change the way I think about myself and not in a good way.”
Because she’s won a song writing award, I ask her what the most important kit is that she uses as a writer.
“Pen and paper. I never write on the computer. No, no, no. The paper has always got to be big and lots of it. A song becomes a bit of trail that I have to follow. And I don’t want to scroll down… I want to see it all and hold it in my hands.” What about musical equipment? “I’m the singer not the fucking drummer!” (She will admit she picks melodies out on keyboard and, sometimes, guitar.)
Sioux can still be as scary and uncompromising as she was 35 years ago, with an uncorrupted youthful energy, but (whisper it) she’s mellowed slightly, and is realistic about being in her mid 50s. “The older you get the less you know oddly, so there is uncertainty about what to do next. Can I do what I’ve always done as a 60-year old? It might be a bit obscene… I don’t know. I haven’t made my mind up. The writing, yes, but the physical side takes its toll, and I can’t perform without being physical.”
What happens next?
“I don’t know. Surprise me. If I say what I want someone up there will say she thinks she knows it all and that’s not going to happen…”
A final hug, and then Siouxsie Sioux disappears into the night, where she belongs, where nothing is certain.
This article was featured in Issue 34 of The Works magazine.