Interview: Wendy James on returning to live music after the lockdown

Thirty-three years after she snarled her way into the nation’s conciousness as the iconic forntwoman of ’80s pop punks Transvision Vamp, Wendy James is back in the top twenty with her fifth solo album Queen High Straight, a strident and eclectic record brimming with energy and invention; and back on tour around the UK, playing sets spanning her entire musical career to packed out venues.

It’s a much delayed tour, for the obvious reason, rescheduled for the third time and taking place almost a year and a half later than planned. We spoke with Wendy from the tour van as she made her way with her band to their show in Portsmouth, to find that the delay had done nothing to dampen her enthusiasm for performing.

How has the tour been so far?

Ah, it’s been so great. I think this tour was a really important thing to do. Obviously you know that it was originally scheduled for May of 2020 and this is our fourth go around with all the delays of the pandemic. The audiences are so happy to be there and when I do meet and greets afterwards there’s massive queues of people just wanting to say nice things. It’s really lovely, a good way to reconnect with everyone and the venues are small enough that there’s the possibility that we can all meet each other in human terms.

This being your first set of post-lockdown and sort of pandemic gigs, has it felt different in any way from how things were before?

I don’t know, I’m probably happier than before. I’m with a line-up of a band that is truly exceptional, and so we’re having the most brilliant fun playing the music each night and also just enjoying being together, especially after the pandemic – keeping it together via Zoom while we were all in isolation – to actually re-enter the rehearsal room was very, very thrilling and yeah, everything feels really good at the moment.

Is that the same band that you recorded the album with?

Well, not really – James Edwards from the album was taken for Thurston Moore’s band. He’s been replaced by Pip Stakem who is a friend of James’ and is equally phenomenal. Lino Kurunis replaced Harry Bohay on bass, so they’ve all been replaced because they had prior commitments, with the exception of Alex Ward, who played Alto sax on Queen High Straight but is now playing guitar and keyboards in this line-up along with another guitarist and keyboardist called Andrew Saunders and Jordan Cook on drums. It’s the best!

The tour was supposed to be happening in May last year originally to promote the release of Queen High Straight. I guess a lot of time has passed since then and I don’t know whether you’ve been writing since… How does it feel  going back to the album with that kind of length of time in between?

Well, I really just spent the most part of 2020 promoting Queen High Straight by digital means around the world and so that album has been very present in my life. It’s not like I finished the mix or the mastering and then just didn’t listen to it again. And I’ve made videos quite regularly for us as well – when lockdown allowed me to I would nip over to Rome, which is where my photographer lives and we would shoot a video. So I’m still very familiar with Queen High Straight and still loving it and it feels wonderful to be playing it live.

You’ve been waiting for the opportunity to share it in person with people, so that must be really special after all this time.

Yeah, we had opened for the Psychedelic Furs at the end of 2019, and we played a handful of songs from Queen High Straight – “Chicken Street”, “Perilous Beauty” and “The Impression of Normalcy”, but obviously there’s more in this set list, which is running at about 18 songs a night on average, including a good handful of Queen High Straight, plus some favourites from all the other albums from Transvision Vamp onwards.

And you’re all over the UK over the next month or so aren’t you? Is there anywhere, any venues or cities, that you especially look forward to playing when you’re going out on tour?

Well, we were very excited to get down to Truro, which has been and gone now, and it was a lovely venue. Swansea looks interesting because that’s in a cinema. We were very happy to be in Cardiff the other night at Clwb Ifor Bach, you know – classic, and although some of the band have, I’ve never played King Tut’s so I’m looking forward to getting there as well. But you know I’m thankful for each one of these dates – we played Nuneaton last night and honestly it was fucking madness. You can never tell where the good ones are going to be.

You worked with some great musicians on the album as well as the people on the tour that you’ve mentioned and I know over the years you’ve collaborated with some fantastic people. If you had to think of your dream collaboration, who might that be?

You know how The Rolling Stones always have a guest come on and sing a number with them? They’ve had Gwen Stefani and all sorts of people jump up there, of course it would be nice to get up and sing a Stones song with Mick and Keith, though sadly not Charlie. And if I lived in previous time then I would have wanted to be part of that line up at The Last Waltz with The Band and Bob Dylan. But apart from that, no I’m quite happy as I am.

You’ve had really fantastic responses to the album from what I’ve seen so far, it seems to have gone down extremely well in the reviews and it sounds like the crowds are absolutely loving it as well.

The reviews were insane. I literally have never had reviews that good in my life so yeah, it was it was very pleasing to get such nice words said about me.

And I’ve seen an increasing number of people talking about you as somebody that’s been an influence, particularly on female musicians, in actually getting into making music in the first place.

Yeah, I mean it’s that generation now, right? There are girls playing music because they saw me, which is cool.

And so, having spoken about you as an influence on a generation of female musicians, who were the female musicians when you were growing up, that gave you that similar inspiration?

Well it wasn’t particularly female musicians. But I suppose of all the females I guess it’s Debbie Harry. I didn’t have any posters on my wall apart from Debbie Harry. I loved the way she looked and I loved the fact that she was fronting a gang of men… boys… males.

Which I guess you’re doing now as well…

Yeah, I think it’s a good look.

Thinking back to that time when you were starting out and comparing it to now, has it changed for you as a female musician, writing and performing. Has it become better or easier in any way or have the challenges stayed the same? Or is it just that there are different challenges now?

Yeah, it’s hard to quantify. Life and society and the music business is always going to be sexist I guess, until there’s true equality between the genders, between the sexes. I wouldn’t think that we’ve got there yet. We have had our Me Too surge forward but in the music business, it’s kind of different – if you earn money for the businessmen then they like you. If you don’t, then they don’t, so it really just does come down to money.

I can only speak personally – I look at someone like Rihanna and she’s obviously fucking really on top of her finances, she’s a good businesswoman. Whereas, somebody like me, I didn’t even think about it. Didn’t even think about being sensible or building a brand or any of this kind of stuff. So I would think probably a certain type of female has become more brand conscious of how to take care of their finances in the music business and that makes for very powerful leverage. But I wouldn’t think the way women are actually treated is any different to any other time. You know, you’re going to have leering sexist arseholes, and you’re going to have men that are really decent. But yeah, controlling your money can give you power.

Now they can make tonnes of money because they all diversify, just like the men do. It doesn’t have to be Kanye and his clothing line, it can be Gwen Stefani or it can be Rihanna or it can be Beyonce. They’re all pretty shrewd with their dollars.

Returning to the tour – are you playing with the same support line up each night?

Generally the opening acts have been chosen locally by the venue. Although we did come across a really good little opener, but they actually contacted me. They’re called Tailgate and they opened for us in Cardiff and they call themselves a trans glam rock band. I think they’ve got some spark to them. They may well end up doing something perhaps, I don’t know.

A lot of venues have been struggling over the course of the pandemic, what’s it been like to be back in live music spaces again?

We were in Bristol the other day, we played The Fleece, which was fantastic. They’ve had an infusion of Arts Council money during the pandemic, so they’ve done some incredible updates to the venue, as have a few places we’ve been – some of the lucky ones, they’ve had some good Arts Council money, and quite right too!

The venue we played in Blackpool, they were massive Motorhead fans, so they had tonnes of Lemmy memorabilia which was donated to them because they didn’t qualify for Arts Council money, but somehow the locals… I don’t know quite how they got the money in, but I guess they had an auction or something, they’ve got tonnes of Lemmy stuff in there – they’ve got Lemmy’s Cowboy boots! They’re really great as well.

I guess sticking on that pandemic theme, obviously there wasn’t the opportunity to get out playing – have you been writing in that time?

Well, like I said I spent most of last year promoting and then toward the end of last year I sat down and started writing album ten. I’m very happy with the opening number. I’ve got four strong songs and a fifth song that really wasn’t finished by the time I left to start rehearsal. So when I get back, after sleeping for ten days straight, I’m gonna start finishing the writing for album ten. With a view to next year, doing more touring, but also re-entering the recording studio.

I guess it’s in its very formative stages at the moment, but musically and thematically is it going to be a continuation from Queen High Straight…

To me there seems to be a thread running through all my music from the first scream of “Revolution, Baby” in Transvision Vamp up until Queen High Straight because I am me. So it is always going to be that, but there’s certainly evolution in musical spectrums, and abilities and skills and confidence and yes, there’s always more to be done with music. There’s always more to discover. And one can get better every single time as well, less of a blunt instrument more of a surgeon.

You can definitely hear that on Queen High Straight. There are a lot of interesting and unexpected styles thrown in that…

But the songs write themselves, you know, I start off with a chord and an idea but really, the song somehow develops itself. So with “I’ll Be Here When The Morning Comes”, I didn’t wake up and intend to write a kind of Django Reinhardt pretty ballad, but that’s the way it turned out. You just can’t tell – the music has a will of its own.

I think that probably leads on quite nicely to the question that I often round our interviews off with, which is because we have a lot of aspiring musicians who read Joyzine. From those who are just picking up an instrument through to those who are making their first tentative steps into playing gigs and recording. So if you could give those people one piece of advice, what would it be?

I’m sure a lot of people say it but trust yourself because it doesn’t matter how many people tell you you’re great or how many people tell you you’re rubbish – you know whether you’re doing good or bad and you have to be guided by that. I know when I’ve done well and I know when I haven’t and I know when it’s great and I know when it’s not, so that’s the voice that you have to respect the most and if you stay true to yourself and you are talented than there’s the possibility you’re gonna achieve something, if only great satisfaction, but maybe also, you know, a life of music. And then once you do make it, I’d say hold on to your fucking money. Because that goes and then it doesn’t come back (laughs).

Queen High Straight is out now on vinyl, cd and digital download. Order now, including signed copies, from the official Wendy James store.

Find out more at Wendy James’ official website

Interview by Paul Maps

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