Pretenders singer-songwriter Chrissie Hynde tells Rob Garratt of her disdain for music business hype after 40 years at the sharp end, and how, a career and two children later, she's a far wiser woman
Chrissie Hynde: A private life played out in public glare
Like a glacier in the throes of climate change, Chrissie Hynde is cold and jagged, but quick to thaw. Sharp, prickly and frequently profane at the outset of our conversation, an hour later she is offering me reading recommendations and encouraging me to write a novel, while apologising for keeping me on the phone for so long.
All the wit, warmth and peculiarity you might hope for, then, from a 66-year-old artist who is variously held up as punk’s first authentic female voice, a rock ‘n’ roll survivor, feminist hero and uncomfortable fashion icon.
Hynde is, of course, best known as the lead singer and driving force of The Pretenders, the band which headlines Dubai’s Live on the Lake mini-festival on Thursday. Next year will mark 40 years since the American singer-songwriter assembled the rock act, although she declares herself blissfully unaware of the impending landmark.
“I really hadn’t even thought of that until you pointed it out,” she says laconically. “Some clever [guy] in marketing will have to get on it.” Still, kind of a big deal, no? “It’s significant that I’m still making records. You don’t really run out of gas until you run out of things to say.”
No one could accuse Hynde of that. As well as leading her band, she has recorded with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bruce Willis, UB40 to Emmylou Harris. A brilliant, bluesy duet with Robert Plant emerged on the former Led Zeppelin frontman’s new solo album Carry Fire earlier this month. Not that Hynde had a clue it was out already, sounding baffled when I praise the tune. Try Googling yourself, I suggest.
“I’d rather hang myself than Google myself,” she snarls, with no apparent irony. “I never read a review or interview, I don’t watch anything back, never look at my bank account, I never ask about sales or chart positions.
“I have a Facebook page the record company set up which I’ve never seen – I don’t pay attention to what doesn’t interest me – which is why I have time to paint and read. Anything else I don’t want to do, I won’t.” A day after the Dubai concert – her first in the region for 10 years, by my count, a fact Hynde cannot recall well enough to verify – The Pretenders release an expanded “special edition” of the band’s 10th album, the pointedly titled Alone.
Officially breaking a four-year hiatus, the release has proved a fine excuse for Hynde to regroup for a giddily received tour which included a redemptive Glastonbury stop, but in truth she is the only Pretender featured on the record. In the years since her band’s last recorded outing, 2008’s Break Up the Concrete, Hynde also found time for her first solo album, 2014’s Stockholm, which featured star guitar turns from Neil Young and, bizarrely, tennis champ John McEnroe – and to record Fidelity!, a 2010 duet with Welsh singer-songwriter and romantic muse J P Jones, as J P, Chrissie and The Fairground Boys.
Crafted alongside Dan Auerbach, Hynde has suggested Alone’s raw, rootsy garage rock was originally slated as a duo record with The Black Keys frontman, until the fellow Akron, Ohio native told her to “call it whatever sells the most [records]”.
“The solo thing is bull,” she proclaims. “It was never a solo thing. I can’t carry my band around, they have their own things to do.” In truth, it is Hynde’s talents that have been carrying many musicians around for years, and sliced any way, she remains the only consistent member of a band which appeared condemned to self-combustion within a few years of being formed.
Allegedly named after doo-wop group The Platters tune The Great Pretender, when Hynde founded The Pretenders in 1978 it was just the last of several attempts by an American émigré set on breaking into London’s punk explosion. Earlier ventures included a failed band with The Clash’s Mick Jones, being fired from what became The Damned, and briefly joining future Visage frontman Steve Strange in the dubiously named The Moors Murderers.
“I formed a band because I wanted to be outside the law, do something subversive, anti-establishment,” she recalls. “That turned me on.”
A rare rebellious female voice on a testosterone-fuelled scene, The Pretenders broke out with their punky 1979 eponymous debut – powered by the strut of UK number one Brass in Pocket – followed by Pretenders II less than two years later.
Soon, this career-defining early line-up burnt out in the most flagrantly sad rock ‘n’ roll fashion: lead guitarist James-Honeyman Scott was claimed by cocaine abuse in June 1982; bassist Pete Farndon by heroin less than a year later. Hynde had occasion to revisit these tragedies – and her own heavy drug use – in her controversial recent autobiography Reckless: My Life as a Pretender.
“Everyone has a life story, their story, and I don’t think mine is more significant than anybody else’s,” she says. “Even if I were a nobody and worked in a shoe store, I would have a story to tell.”
Hynde’s antagonist posturing and kohl-eyed chic do not always chime with the music, which became increasingly polished following the band’s 1983 regrouping – none of the three new members recruited survive today – and as both a songwriter and public figure Hynde’s greatest gift might be marrying a punk kudos to an eager ear for a good hook. This observation prompts Hynde to single out the uplifting 1994 ballad I’ll Stand by You, penned alongside hitmakers-for-hire Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, and later covered by Girls Aloud, Carrie Underwood and Shakira.
“I wasn’t getting on the radio anymore. I made a very concerted effort to get on the radio with that song – and it worked,” she says. “I was embarrassed, ashamed, I didn’t want it to be released. It felt like selling out.”
Hynde is talking from London, her on-off home since the early 1970s, emigrating to first find work variously as a cleaner, waitress and a writer for storied scene-making music magazines NME and Melody Maker. Her two daughters – fathered respectively by Ray Davies of The Kinks and Jim Kerr of Simple Minds – are now in their thirties, and Hynde lives alone, with no pets. “I’d love a dog, but I just travel too much,” she says.
Around her 60th birthday Hynde gave up cigarettes, a struggle of will she credits almost entirely to Allen Carr’s self-help book Easyway to Stop Smoking, and in recent years has turned to painting, completing more than 100 canvasses since picking up a brush two years ago. “They only take a couple of hours each, so it’s one a day,” she quips. They are stacked against the walls. She has no plans to sell them – yet – but believes all art exists only to be seen.
Much of her remaining free time is apparently taken up by reading, with Hynde a proud member of an elite-sounding book club mixing academics, actors and writers. “Not really my crowd,” she says of the circle, which is slogging through Mrs Osmond by John Banville. “I like to read, but I don’t have the classics under my belt because I never read at school, I never studied anything.”
Hynde’s last suggestion was Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest – a particular favourite – and she is a fan of Joseph O’Neill’s withering Dubai portrait The Dog. Parking the jadedness that comes with discussing her own work, she gushingly recalls recently accosting Ian McEwan, whose last novel Nutshell she read twice, at Inverness Airport, the frosty British novelist pegging her as a “crazy American tourist” until she explained that she, too, was famous.
“I’m in my sixties, so all my homebuilding is done – my parents are dead and my kids are grown up,” says Hynde. “I’m like a teenager again. But without the figuring out ‘what I want to do with my life’ part.”
The Pretenders perform at Live at the Lake, The Irish Village, Dubai tomorrow, doors 5pm, tickets Dh225 from tickets.virginmegastore.me