Arts

Toyah Willcox: The things that have remained constant are originality and energy

Almost 40 years after Toyah Willcox first appeared on Top Of The Pops, the ever-busy Birmingham-born performer is set to join other stars of the 80s at the Forever Young festival in Co Kildare this summer. Lorraine Wylie caught up with her

Toyah Willcox, performing in Ireland later this year
Lorraine Wylie

TOYAH Willcox is a woman of many talents, proving her skill as an actress, producer, author, singer and songwriter in the past four decades. But for diehard music fans, she is best known as the 'princess of punk'.

Between 1979 and 1981 her band Toyah released their first three studio albums, Sheep Farming in Barnet, The Blue Meaning and Anthem; it was the latter that truly launched Willcox into the spotlight and, as well as spawning hits such as I Want To Be Free and It’s A Mystery, earned her a gold disc.

This summer, fans will have an opportunity to hear material from Willcox's most recent album, In The Court Of The Crimson Queen, when she joins a host of other stars of her era at the Forever Young Festival in Co Kildare. With that Irish visit in the pipeline and a British tour about to kick off, I caught up with the star who told me why, at 60, she still loves performing and what inspires her music today.

“I love doing live festivals,” she said. "The summer has arrived, the weather is great and you’re performing outside. It’s a fabulous way to communicate your music. I’m very much looking forward to coming to Ireland. There’s such a strong cultural identity there and I get such a warm welcome. My music is very much for my audiences who have travelled with me for the past 42 years.

"Although, I say that but when I look out at my audiences, they’re all under the age of 25. Today, I’m writing from the perspective of my age. I’m not interested in a historic perspective. My lyrics are a nod to things I experience at this age.”

I asked her how the music industry now compared to when she started out.

“It’s a very different world now," she replied. "I mean, 40 years ago, it was hard to be quite broad as a performer. People really only wanted you to do one thing. Now I just don’t think it matters anymore. If you’ve got something original to say and do, then it won’t matter if it’s through YouTube, a record label or a television company. The things that have remained constant are originality and energy. It’s really as simple as that.”

In four decades, Willcox has released more than 20 albums, written two books and appeared in 10 feature films and more than 40 stage plays. She has also presented a number of TV shows. With such a varied career, I wondered whether she has a favourite medium.

“No, there’s no such thing as favourites," she insisted. “What I do is a very deliberate thing. I am quite fluid in what I do. So, for example, this year I will be performing all over the world but if a movie came along, well you have to make time for it. It’s not a question of having favourites – this is who and what I am. It’s me, it’s my style.”

Looking back, who were the artists that helped influence her ‘style’?

“The one who inspired me right throughout my life is David Bowie. Then again, another artist who made me think, and think especially about women in the music industry, is Patti Smith.

"Throughout the 80s and 90s, we had fantastic artists like Anne Clark, who was a poet working in orchestral music. She did incredible things.

"The whole thing about music and art is the incredible people all over the place who don’t necessarily have profile. So, you’re constantly discovering these incredible people if you make the effort to search. I think the wonderful thing about what I do is that it lets you step away from the mainstream to get to the really interesting stuff. That’s the area I always look in.”

Whatever the genre, the one thing successful and popular artists share is fame. How had she dealt with the downside of being in the public eye?

“I can't say I ever found anything that intrusive,” she told me. “I think it's quite easy to maintain your privacy. You just don’t give too much away. I was too busy working and doing what I love. There’s something extraordinarily exposing about what I do anyway. To go on stage every night is not exactly a private experience!”

With everyone today seemingly tweeting or caught up in Facebook, I asked Willcox whether she was a fan of social media.

“I would have loved social media when I was starting out. Back then, I’m sure I’d have been really interested in it. But now, because time is so precious, I’m only interested in creative things like performing, writing and all of that. I tend to steer away from anything that doesn’t involve my work now.”

As a child she suffered severe medical problems that required a series of painful surgeries and physiotherapy. She also underwent speech therapy to learn to communicate. In past interviews she talked about being bullied and how, it eventually stopped when her dad taught her how to throw a punch.

Educated in a school for girls, she developed a rebellious attitude toward authority. I mentioned one of more memorable pranks – setting off alarm clocks during a speech from the then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

“Yes I did do that,” she chuckled. “I was very naughty at school. But compared to today’s standards it doesn’t seem such a big deal. At 16, I was dyslexic and found anything to do with a rigid system confining. I was very defiant and would sit in class, arms crossed, staring out the window, refusing to learn.

"Part of the problem is that, if you don’t have teachers who understand the individual, you’re in trouble. Teachers can’t give that individual attention. There’s your catch 22. I just didn’t work in that system. Now I’m 60 I love to learn. I’m always learning.”

She had some advice for today’s youth.

“I’d say this to young people – you must learn. You may go out into the world thinking you’re great for giving a tweet. But you actually do have to know things. You know, there is no such thing as success if you don’t have knowledge.”

:: Toyah Willcox tours Britain from April 6; she performs at the Forever Young Festival, Palmerstown Demesne, Johnstown, Co Kildare, July 5-7, along with The Human League, Level 42, Kim Wilde, Cry Before Dawn, Midge Ure, Holly Johnson The Hothouse Flowers and more. See foreveryoungfestival.ie for full line-up and tickets. For more details on Toyah see toyahwillcox.com

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