THE PRICE OF THE TICKET
AN INTERVIEW WITH WENDY JAMES
Wendy James is an English singer-songwriter most notable for her work with the pop band Transvision Vamp. She was the lead singer and focal point of the group, and attracted media attention with her sexually charged and rebellious image. They achieved U.K. chart success including a number one album. When the band split Wendy formed Rancine, a band who released two albums.
In 2016 Wendy has released a new solo album, The Price of the Ticket, through Pledge Music and just played a U.K. tour. I had a chat with Wendy to discuss the new album and look back on her musical career to date.
With many musicians these days releasing their music through different schemes independent of record label support I began by asking Wendy why had she chosen to use Pledge Music as a format for the release of The Price of the Ticket.
Wendy: “It’s a form of crowd-funding. Recently both Primal Scream and The Libertines have both released their albums on that. It is a very well-organized kind of structure; you get to upload things personally for the fans. There is no real record label cut just for administration charges for the mailing out and stuff. Apart from that, it’s directly between me and the fans – no one is getting ripped off. You don’t have to wait two years to be accounted to, with lots of grey areas.”
The Price of the Ticket features many well-known musicians on the album. I asked Wendy if it was simply a case of her writing a wish list and contacting everyone individually – or putting out feelers in the music industry and seeing who was available. . .
Wendy: “Well I knew James Sclavunos (drummer from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and we wanted to find a way to work together. Contacted him through the Internet, and that was how it started building. Myself and James went out to California and contacted James Williamson (Iggy & The Stooges) whose schedule at that time was busy because he had his own thing going on. At that time they were out doing the “More Power” tour. I asked if there was any way that he could help me with this. I was just in New York and put a request out for a guitarist, because I am always looking for the right guitarist. It hadn’t even occurred (to me) to ask Lenny (Kaye) of Patti Smith. “Well he lives two streets away from you” . . . I phoned Lenny up; we had coffee. And then I have known Glen (Matlock of Sex Pistols) all my life, the same with Steve MacKay, who sadly died in October. So that’s how it happened, really. I just said to Glen, ‘do you want to play bass?’”
The inclusion of cover versions by an artist on a new release always becomes a point of discussion. The motive, I guess, generally is to remain faithful to the passion and spirit of the original song, yet add something fresh and new to it. Wendy’s album actually features two songs in this vein. However, these tracks are not widely known outside of music purists. I went on to highlight those tracks and asked her why she had chosen the particular cover versions to feature on the release.
Wendy: “Well the decision to cover Bob Dylan was very spontaneous, simply because James Williamson and I are both huge fans of Bob Dylan. James said to me, ‘which was your favourite Dylan track?’ and instinctively I said, ‘let’s do that one then (“Its Alright, Ma”).’ Then there was a tune that Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (MC5) had done called ” You’re So Great,” which really is essentially the perfect three-and-a-half minute pop song. It reminded me very much of attitude, a bit rough-sounding in the production. I just always for about eight years had it in my head for when I am about to do a cover version I will do “You’re So Great “by Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith.”
When Transvision Vamp split after achieving huge commercial success including a number one album in the U.K., I wondered if Wendy had experienced any particular difficulty in trying to reestablish herself as a solo artist.
Wendy: “I don’t know if it was difficult; it takes time because you no longer have a huge record label infrastructure funding me. That is not anything to do with me, that is just because that music over the last 10-15 years has rapidly changed. If you are not purely commercial like Rihanna or something then you don’t get that huge label support that obviously you got throughout the ‘70s,’80s, and ‘90s, even. I didn’t have that and so I had a good amount of time to hone and satisfy myself with my guitar playing and my songwriting. It just takes as long as it takes. The difficulty, if one could call it that – I wouldn’t call it that – the truth is unless you are very wealthy you simply cannot hire a mass media deluge that Transvision Vamp would have afforded by being signed to Universal and having all their in-house stuff.”
I wondered why back then when embarking on a solo career Wendy had taken the unusual step of using another artist’s songs/material on her debut solo release, Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears. I asked her for the reason behind that decision which I feel was an unusual one.
Wendy: “Well that entire album is written by Elvis Costello. First of all the whole premise when I was doing it was that I was not yet ready – this was very quickly after Transvision Vamp had ended. So I told him that I was not ready to do the big f*cking 360º-180º transformation from Wendy James of Transvision Vamp into my solo album. I needed something to help me bridge that gap. The whole arrangement from the very beginning was that Elvis said, ‘OK, I will write you a whole album.’ That is exactly what he did. It didn’t even occur to me that I would also pepper that album with songs by me. It is very much in my opinion, in retrospect, his album.”
Doing my research prior to the interview I came across several references to a lost album by Wendy James – of which had never seen an official release. I attempted to unlock the mystique by inquiring if she ever had any plans to release the album, perhaps again by utilizing the Pledge scheme. Wendy unlocked the mystery and clarified fully the story behind that particular rumour:
Wendy: “Yeah I mean, this is just some crazy . . . Even my bass player was asking me about that the other day. It’s some urban myth that there is a missing album somewhere. There just isn’t. I went to a recording studio under the umbrella of the Indie label One Little Indian, whose owner was a good friend of mine at the time. This was like the next step after Elvis Costello. Up until then I only had my home portable studio demos of songs that I was writing; the beginnings of songs that I was writing. I had said to Derek (from One Little Indian) that I would like to produce up a few of these and see what I could do with them in a proper studio. He said, ‘OK, let me give you some studio time and you go in there and find yourself, basically.’ That is all that it ever was. I called the session Lies in Chinatown. At no point was it a completed album. I think that there is about four songs, that I don’t even have copies of – I wouldn’t know where to look for them. I mean, it was still analogues then; it was on multi-tracks. . . I cant even remember what studio we were in. . . As I called it Lies In Chinatown and the tape officer said, ‘Wendy James is in recording Live in Chinatown,’ it has grown into this missing album. Unless my memory is really wrong and I recorded a whole bunch of extra songs. . . that I have completely forgotten. To my knowledge there is just not an album out there.”
Being a fan of Wendy’s former band at the height of their commercial success I was very surprised recently to discover that the band had actually released a third album. Was this another lost secret? I asked Wendy, as it definitely didn’t have a U.K. release.
Wendy: “Oh my god, yeah, that was our best one in America. The head of Universal had said to us, quote/unquote, he ‘didn’t like the direction that we were taking.’ We said OK then and we went off on tour and around America. It started doing really well in America and the wisdom (not really)of the U.K. Managing Director put a hold on the U.K. release. It was released every place else. All of our fans got it but they just had to buy it on import. That’s got nothing to do with us, that is just stupid record label bullshit. It started doing really well in America and then other things took over like tiredness and fatigue. So again very spontaneously Nick and I decided to split the band up.”
I get the impression that there has been some personal disillusionment with the music scene from talking about some of your experiences. . .
Wendy: “No, not really. I love music now more than ever. I am performing better than ever, and I am playing with the very best musicians in the world now in my opinion. Pledge has made the release of this (album) really, really successful. It has sold more than all of my previous solo albums put together. It’s connecting with a lot of new fans. It is what it is. Whether you look at any industry; I know when you look at America where I have been living that every industry maybe had a boom time naturally through evolution and technical advance, discovery and invention changes. Everything is digital now, everything is multimedia. It’s not the old days and there is no point in wishing that it was. You have to adapt, and take advantage of the new inventions.”
Would it be fair to say, Wendy, that you feel rejuvenated and re-energized by this release?
Wendy: “Well I would say so; I am always re-energized by playing with good musicians and writing a song that makes me happy. It’s not like I went through a disillusioned period and then I found myself again. It’s just life is a process of evolution and each time that you do something you try to do it to the best of your ability. Each time that you do feel quite satisfied with your own talents and with the people that you are working with then that is what propels you forward.
In conclusion I asked Wendy if she felt that she still had something to prove in her solo career given that she had attained commercial success with a band:
Wendy: “Prove, I don’t feel that I have got to prove anything. I mean what have I got to prove?. . . Nothing. I certainly want to achieve more; I certainly want to continue to make music. Goodness knows what adventures are going to come my way over the next 20 years. It could be anything. None of us know. My whole purpose in life always since I was a teenager is just to be open to the possibilities and see what happens. I never really have a fixed plan. The one constant in my life is music so I have no doubt that after this album has taken up space in 2016 I will start writing a new one.”