Pop’s Dorian(ne) Gray
It’s not easy to top a life like the one Grace Jones is leading. In the late 1970s she worked with Sly & Robbie in the Bahamas on the definitive and exciting fusion of dub and pop music. In the 1980s she battled James Bond in “A View To A Kill”. And in the 90ies she observed the Austrian rapper Falco going down the last road of his life on the Dominican Island (or did this just happened in the biopic and not for real?). Alexander Mayor met Grace Jones 2008 in London for a cup of tea and a talk on past, present and future.
So you’re back!
I hate the word back! (pulls a face, turns round to face the wall). That’s my back!
Okay, how does it feel to be … um… “continuous”?!
You can say “return” I guess… it’s like in Gloria Swanson’s movie “Sunset Boulevard” you know she says “it’s so hard to come back… it’s a return!”. It’s like a holiday. “Back” is like Lazarus returning from the dead… (laughs uproariously)
Well in a way the new album “Hurricane” sounds like you’ve never been away, that dark pop reggae, lots of synths…
That was purposely the idea, when we started with Ivor Guest my co-producer I had this idea to just to do it with the magic that works with me, Sly and Robbie, all the Compass Point musicians appearing at some point on the record,… they’re all there at different points, but only together on one song (Well Well Well). Also I wanted to acknowledge the late Alex Sadkin… Brian Eno plays as well, he didn’t want to produce, he played some gloopy sounds… he just wanted to have fun and play but he was like a consultant to me so sometimes we would ring him up…15
So why so long for the new record?
Oh I got very frustrated, I ended up wanting to go off and just make films… Music was just getting all about sampling, not really playing and oh god everything then is just a Campbell’s soup tin! Noises on noises! And this was the first time i ended up crying and leaving the studio and saying “if this is it I don’t want to do it anymore.”
You kind of sound like you’re taking stock of who you are on this record…. songs about your parents… Are you trying to resolve anything through music?
No no, I know who I am – it’s just my family is partly very religious – I’ve guarded them from me, being the sinner, the diabolical one! (laughs) In order to do that which I did sing about on my inside story album (about my brother who is very feminine being thrown out of the church”) but yes I got a bit deeper in this one, death and tears and you know church against, good against the devil…
Your edge is still there though – you have hurricanes hitting the place, business men eating each other – the new album could be called “America in 2008”?
It’s just weird!
You know that they’re not going to let you back in the country!
Ha! But i wrote this earlier… Corporate Cannibal was written with Mark van Eyck co-writing lyrics with me. when I decided I didn’t want to the do music anymore it was because of the labels, the corporates, I was just said “it’s abuse! corporate abuse!”. No one with a face, no-one with a name…
You were being ignored?
No, but it’s all such a game within a game… if you’re not at the top there are no answers to any questions… it’s not for art. Anyone’s that not on top is afraid… And that fear makes people not make decisions, in case they’re wrong and lose their jobs…
From then I started to obsess with this idea and once I met Ivor and his friend Mark van Eyck – talking about my frustration and I started writing a song called “corporate abuse” and then Mark said “cannibal” (laughs). It’s brilliant! They ended up eating themselves and the whole fucking world is doing it now… It’s like this great washing machine and you can’t get out of it…
So why come back after all this time?
Meeting Ivor, he was the motor to get it done, he started me to do another record, I was doing a vocal for one song for him ‘Biomechanics’. His idea was to have me as a vocalist on one song “Devil in my life” that I had already written. I am always writing stories, little stories, I listened to what he’d done and loved it so.
So it was fantastic, thinking this is exactly the kind of music I want to do – the depth and darkness, with a little light coming in every now and then… it was all going great but then the group broke up ! (Laughs)
When was this?
(laughs) This was 6 years ago! But I have more, some great stuff I really can’t wait. I’ve been close with Chris Blackwell all this time and he’s always advised me and he said you know less is more, this is rich stuff… keep it back…
You were a pretty striking figure when you first appeared in the late 70s… Do you think it’s still possible to shock people in such a permissive era?
Oh god! This is not permissive! You’re kidding? This is nothing compared to what it used to be, you can’t do anything! No freedom, CCTV everywhere, a sort of Big Brother communistic situation in a democracy… There’s no shock left and no art behind these celebrities.
But as a popstar you really struck people. Do you think people can still be surprised by popstars? I could rake up a memory of Fischerspooner as a semi-recent act doing the full on art-attack and getting under people’s skin as well as making them dance…
Well I guess I never considered myself a songstress, with a fantastic voice, not like that – my voice is unique, so I have do more of an interpretation rather than a great vocal performance. I always have to work on my vocals… I was blessed Biblically with a tool I can work on, (laughs) and improve and make it better.
I think I’m more of an actress… I know the musicians that I love to listen to and work with and then it’s great when other people like Ivor actually can hear my vision and help me to realise it. It’s a collaboration.
But that person that I somehow call “The Giant Squid” or the “The Yellow Brick Road”, you know I could still have easily just said “no” to him as I didn’t want to do any music, but he didn’t push it on me the first time we met…
So how did you meet?
He had a fantasy that I am the vocalist perfect for his band, “on a perfect day you know Grace Jones is the singer I would like on my record.”
He stalked you?
He put it out there…. he found out I was doing some stuff with Philip Treacy the hat designer, a true artist in my opinion, he knew Philip and said you know “I’d like to meet her – I’ve got this track”… and I think Philip told him “Look come for dinner but whatever you do – don’t talk to her about music!”. I get a lot of offers and pitches all this time and I’m turning them down, maybe if it’s interesting then I just say “that’s shit, that’s shit…” But then I came back to London and he found me…
Like a courtship?
Hmmm… Well, I was a bit scary to him I think. I’m saying “No more music!”. Philip had scared him off too but he brought over the track, I listened to it and I loved it. And immediately I left America. Basically when Bush came into politics. I just saw something in his eyes and I didn’t like it, “I’m outta here!” So I call my friends in Italy where I have roommates, a place I keep there with them, “I’m coming!”, I call.
You worked with Arnold “the governator” Schwarzenegger on Conan the Barbarian. He seems to have done alright as a politician?
Ah yes but the thing about Arnold is he surrounds himself with intelligent people… Bush was a spoiled brat with no brains, some kind of bad puppet who has cut free from his own strings…
Have you turned your back on America?
No, I’ve just gone to where I feel more comfortable. You can feel the fear in the air there. I feel things very strongly. Lightning strikes and I feel the electricity through my body and I’m very much sensitive to my environment. So I become like a gypsy, a wanderer! <laughs>
To talk about your films … you’ve done the Falco biopic?
Is it out now? I just did a small part, the woman who worked in the tourist club, the last person to see him before his car crash. He was just smoking and drinking in the car lot the whole day.
Did you ever meet him back in the 80s?
You know it’s hard to say… I meet so many people. Sometimes you meet them on TV chat shows, but I did go to a lot of Austrian balls at least three times, so… maybe?
Unlike a lot of your contemporaries you avoided the madness of the pop life though? How? The whole drink drug madness as the artist gets successful…
I think it’s a discipline thing, I don’t have an addictive personality. I can use it but not abuse it. I’ve always been like this, I hate to be controlled by anything. It’s just how I am. Even when I remember a lot of really good cocaine being everywhere and really openly … “served” (laughs) There was none of this hiding it in toilets! And now you have all this doing as much as you can do because you don’t want to go back to the toilets and there might be a queue! (laughs)…
We’re not so civilized these days…
No! And it’s terrible! But cocaine was never my drug of choice… I preferred a downer pill… I prefer bumping into walls than going berserk and crazed out of my mind… But at any rate it was just so sleazy and the now the pharmaceutical firms are giving so-called legitimate drugs to children…
Exactly… I mean at least when you get older you can say “well I like a little of this and a little of that” – this is much better than what is happening with these corporate cannibals. So you have these advertisements “Ask your doctor for this!” on the television – it’s fucked up! It’s contagious, it’s American but contagious, it’s scary!
Is Grace Jones happy?
Honestly I never even know what year it is, what month it is, what day it is. That makes me free to not worry about happiness. I have my memories and I have dreams.
The editor in chief says you are a Dorian Gray of pop – how come you got this free pass? (note to readers, she looks about 40)(Laughs) That’s funny because I have always been thinking about doing a film of Dorian Gray. But the big part of it is I eat well and I don’t pay any attention to time. I think too many people worry about age and time…
Maybe you could write a best-selling lifestyle manual? “Living Forever with Grace Jones”?
(laughs) A lot of its genetic, it’s my mother and father. And I just kind of don’t do excess now. I did it, I try everything once, then I tick it off. And anyway I did excess at the right time, when the products were really good! (Laughs)
So you’re a connoisseur?!
No! it was a scientific experiment!
There are parallels, connections between Grace Jones and James Bond, always coming back the same but with slightly different styles… Do you still have filmic ambitions?
There’s a film I’m about to do, which got held up by the writer’s strike but I can’t say too much about it yet as you never know with these things. But I want to write and direct, I’ve done some work with Chris Cunningham…. Film is still a big part of what I want to do. I want music to be the key but I started out in theatre at school so I always want to do other things…
Are you listening to anything current?
Mostly I don’t hear anything I like – I guess I still sit up to Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, James Brown, but I do like Amy Winehouse, her voice she’s very gifted. But I think she needs a friend!
If you were starting out now what would you want to do?
Well I did think of this in a way I think of “Hurricane” as my first album. The first time where I wasn’t being told what to do, but I was realising the vision and paying for it all myself, and taking control. And of course, lucky that Ivor came along.
It’s one thing to do it on your own, but another to do it well. But with Ivor we made it work, I could hear that it was working. I think that’s why I’m happiest now. It was a bit scary to do it all again but it was so much better than just “good”.
Thank you so much for this entertaining tea time.