“It’s good to hear The Pretenders again.”
It was these simple words that heralded the unforeseen return of the greatest group on the planet. In a nutshell: Chrissie Hynde was working on solo project with the Black Key’s Dan Auerbach in his Nashville studio, organically recording the follow up to her 2014 album, the superb Stockholm. The new record had been tentatively entitled Chrissie Hynde Practices Her Autograph.
Then it dawned that those driving guitars, ragged-but-righteous arrangements, the tough yet tender lyrics delivered by the most distinctive voice of a generation sounded fantastically familiar. Ultimately, this could only mean one thing: The Pretenders were back.
And this wasn’t a cynical brand reboot, more a happy accident. Chrissie Hynde shrugs, still as cool as the other side of the pillow, “These things happen. It’s just a name.”
Having effectively reformed her ground-breaking band, Hynde decided to rechristen the record. With characteristic perversity, she called it “Alone.”
Thirty six years after The Pretenders’ first album, Alone could be the older, wiser, badder sister to that exhilarating debut. It’s that good.
“It’s a riot,” announces Chrissie Hynde landing in a subterranean restaurant banquet sans ceremony or entourage. “I am blown away myself. I really am. Every time I hear it, it just makes me laugh. To me if you are laughing it is rock and roll. I don’t know how we achieved it but it sounds classic. I guess the team just went out and scored some goals.”
The team, approvingly described by Hynde as “real people playing real instruments,” features Johnny Cash’s former bass player Dave Roe and country rocker Kenny Vaughan on guitar plus sundry members of Dan Auerbach’s side project The Arcs: Richard Swift, drums, Leon Michels, keyboards and Russ Pahl providing sly curlicues of pedal steel.
Auerbach stood as captain, producer, multi-instrumentalist – he unleashes some outlandish electric guitar - and all round cool head. The album was mixed by Tchad Blake. “I love his vibe. He makes cool stuff sound even better,” Hynde says kindly avoiding technical terminology.
Fizzing with infectious energy and still punk rock skinny at 65, the singer, a natural raconteur, orders a dairy-free cappuccino, shunts up the sleeves of her Elvis t-shirt and picks up the story.
Those of a delicate disposition, or the few misguided souls who haven’t read Hynde’s 2015 best-selling autobiography Reckless, should be warned: she sings like an angel, but talks like a truck driver. “About a month before we were going to go into the studio. I called Dan and said, ‘I don’t think I have sent you enough songs to go on an album yet. What are we going to do?’. I was starting to panic. I said, ‘I have only sent you eight songs.’ And I can remember his exact words. He goes, ‘That is the least of my worries. We’ll be fine.’”
“I finally got to the studio but I had some sort of chest infection and by the time I got to Nashville I had no voice. I could hardly talk. I was spending all my time in my hotel room just popping Tylenol all day long. Halfway through the session I said to Dan, ‘Man, I can’t fucking sing. I have got no fucking voice. What am I going to do?’ He goes, ‘That’s the least of my worries. We will do them all in the last two days. It will make it sound more cohesive.’ I thought, ‘Wow. I really dig this guy.’”
And so it came to pass that the extraordinary vocals for The Pretenders’ Alone album, were recorded in 48 hours. “Yeah,” says Hynde, fleetingly ruminating on the writing process. “Forty eight hours to sing them, 40 years of… preparation.”
It has been time well spent because these songs are special. The title track is a superbly spiky take on the joys of solitude. “We were in the studio hanging out,” Hynde begins, dark eyes flashing beneath a dirty blonde fringe. “And the guys were talking about their families and their wives and I said, ‘Well I do everything alone. I go to the cinema alone. I go to restaurants alone. I live alone. I pretty much do everything on my own. I don’t mind.’ Dan says, ‘Write a song about it.’”
“I went back to my room and I wrote this lyric out. Then on the last day in the studio I was waiting for my cab to come. Meanwhile they had gone and bashed a song down. I came in and said, ‘My cab is going to be here in 20 minutes.’ Dan goes, ‘Do you want to have a pass on that song?’ I said, ‘Yes let’s go.’ I went in and had one pass on that song Alone. The doorbell went and I said, ‘Okay, I have got to go. That is my cab.’ That was it. That was the song Alone.”
“Then the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘I’ve heard 1,000 songs in my life that I remember. They are all about, I am so tired of being alone. I can’t live without you. Since you’ve left my world has fallen apart. When am I going to see you again? Marry me and be with me for the rest of my life. Every song I have ever heard is about, ‘The sun doesn’t shine anymore now that you have left.’ I have never heard anyone celebrate being alone in a song. I couldn’t think of one. People think that everyone is out there on social network looking for a partner all the time. Actually a lot of people are glad to just be able to get on with their life.”
While Alone is unique in its outlook, and deliciously defiant in execution, the most immediately arresting lyric on the album is the open-a-vein honesty of “I Hate Myself.”
“Most people go through life and there is a moment where they say, ‘I hate myself,’” Hynde revealingly explains. “It could be some stupid thing you have done. It could be because of your alcoholism, because your drug addiction, because you can’t stop smoking, because you can’t lose weight, because you have been an asshole. There are hundreds of reasons daily that someone could say, ‘I hate myself.’ Or you have just made a mistake. That you got a parking ticket and you knew if you put money in the meter that you wouldn’t have but you thought, ‘Fuck it I am going to take a chance.’ You go and blow some money in William Hill and your wife is leaving you and you have lost your house. You think, ‘Well, I hate myself.’ I stretch the truth a little bit in the song because there are things I accuse even myself of doing that I have never done. But it is a general self-loathing song,” she concludes, perhaps unnecessarily.
Meanwhile, “The Man You Are” - ostensibly a simple love song - expresses a distinct distaste for money worshippers. “Wealth turns me off,” Hynde scowls. “Give me a bum on a park bench any day to a guy in a Lamborghini. You’re never going to get a situation where people will say, ‘What is she doing with that decrepit old billionaire?’”
Romantic resignation also runs through the album like a river, in ballads such as the wistful “Blue Eyed Sky” (“my song for a surfer boy”) and the aching “One More Day.”
Even the softly-crooned “Roadie Man,” a paean to the workers bees of the Pretenders’ touring organisation, is wreathed in yearning. “I’ve had Roadie Man knocking around for about 25 years. I remember Elvis Costello telling me, ‘You have got to do Roadie Man.’ That’s how long that song has been around. It’s what I call it, The Christmas Song,” she adds promisingly.
Hynde’s famously acerbic side is well served by the pounding, impatient “Gotta Wait” (“Dan turned that into something magnificent”) and the dumped and indignant “Chord Lord” - nobody does haughty humiliation like Chrissie Hynde.
“That’s a song about general sexual jealously,” she laughs. “When you feel that you are in a public place with someone that you like and you can see that he has got his eye on someone else. It is just one of those things.”
Hynde may have been put off the notion of co-writing some time ago when a master of the art suggested they gave it a go. Quite the wit, she is fond of saying “Bob Dylan is always telling me to quit name-dropping,” but in this case it's entirely justified. “When I first met Bob Dylan 35 years ago he more or less invited me, ‘Let’s get together and try to write some tunes,’” Hynde recalls. “I was so shocked to meet him anyway I couldn’t even speak. When he kind of mentioned, ‘We have to get together,’ I said, ‘Well I have never really written with anyone before.’ I just kind of dismissed it. I was too much of a fan. I couldn’t have got my head around it.”
Alone’s sole songwriting collaboration with contemporary hit-makers Amanda Ghost and Dave McCracken, a seductive entreaty called “Let’s Get Lost.” “I wrote the lyrics in which I mention ‘riding on a bus,’” Hynde says of the session. “I am pretty autobiographical in my lyrics. And they’re looking at me going, ‘Riding on a bus? I don’t ride on a bus.’ I was like, ‘Well I do.’”
Neil Young made a memorable guest appearance on Stockholm’s earth-quaking “Down The Wrong Way,” a high-calibre cameo that seemed impossible to improve upon this time around. Until Duane Eddy pitched up. “Dan just gets these guys in,” marvels Hynde. “I woke up in the middle of the night and opened my phone to see what the time was. It was three o’clock and it said Message received. I looked and it was from Dan Auerbach. He goes, ‘I am in the studio right now with Duane Eddy, he’s playing on Never Be Together.’ I thought, ‘Holy shit. Someone up there likes me.’”
The twangtastic 78-year-old’s elegant contribution poignantly complements the album’s beguiling glow of vintage valves and shadowy mystery. “As soon as you hear one note you know who it is,” says Hynde proudly. “I don’t get real excited about vintage guitars and stuff but I do if someone else is playing them that brilliantly. I listened to a lot of radio when I was growing up and I just instinctively know what sounds good.”
The album’s closing song “Death Is Not Enough,” written by Marek Rymaszewski, is a show stopper in every sense. “Marek is a friend of mine that I have known for many, many years,” Hynde explains. “He is a singer songwriter and sort of a classically trained pianist. I haven’t seen him for years. Then he made an album called The Despicable Mischief of Marek Rymaszewski – it was put out by (producer) Robin Millar. He sent me this record and that one song in particular really, really got me. I went in and I did a little demo of it. I never told Marek that and I sent it to Dan. Dan said, ‘This is a classic.’ And he was right.”
“There is quite a lot of death on this album,” she reflects. “The first song ‘Alone’ ends up in a graveyard talking to someone who has died. Then it kind of concludes with ‘Death Is Not Enough,’ which to me sounds like you’re talking to someone who is lying in a coffin. So the album begins and ends with the recurring theme of death.”
Hynde acknowledges that, for the music business, 2016 was The Year Of The Reaper. “I started out calling it Sweet 16,” she smiles wryly. “And within two months everyone was dead.” She speaks sadly about the passing of her great mate Lemmy, who was responsible for The Pretenders forming, and David Bowie, to whom she once, extraordinarily, gave a lift in her mother’s car.
Does it ever concern Chrissie Hynde that all the reckless rock star behaviour of the past might catch up with her, as it undoubtedly did her peers? “Let it catch up,” she scoffs. “I am ready to go.”
It comes as a welcome surprise that, aside from making some magical music and sneering in the face of her own demise, Chrissie Hynde has been “painting her ass off since the start of the year.” “Adding The Blue” on Stockholm hinted at a move towards brush and oils but the whole of the Alone album has a painterly quality, in the freehand nature of the lyrics and the smudged beauty of the voice.
“Really?” frets Hynde, keen to keep the pretentious out of The Pretenders. “I don’t want to get too airy-fairy or witchy-poo about any of this because I’m not really like that. But I’m an observer. I’m an orchestrator. I think there are certain things in the air that you just kind of pick up on.”
She feverishly scrolls through a hundred Hynde originals on her phone. There are detailed flowers, lots of bamboo, some chairs, a selection of imaginary men and some real women: Harry Potter producer Tanya Seghatchian, Ingrid Newkirk, who started PETA, and a wild-eyed self-portrait. “I did that and I thought, ‘I am never going to paint another self-portrait,’” Hynde declares. “Then I started painting thousands of self-portraits because I am a big hypocrite.”
But in her work and within herself it would seem that Chrissie Hynde is cautiously approaching happiness. She's on her own but likes it that way. In fact, she's rocking. As Elvis said, “If you can't find a partner, use a wooden chair.”
Her fellow solo traveller, and ally Morrissey believes being on one's own to be “a privilege” and maintains that alone doesn’t always mean lonely. “But believe me it is a fine line,” Hynde warns. “Because I have been alone most of my life as has Morrissey, who I value as one of my very dearest friends, and I know for a fact that he fucking hates it too. We hate it and we don’t want to be alone but on the other hand we accept it because it affords us a lot of freedoms that otherwise we couldn’t do. But let’s not in any way diminish the fact that loneliness is an epidemic in our society.”
Draining her coffee cup, Hynde – possessed of a restless pirate’s soul - confesses that she’s itching to get out on the road with The Pretenders. “I personally love being on tour but a lot of people find it hard,” she accepts. “They always say, ‘Oh, but don’t you want to be in your own bed.’ I’m thinking, ‘That is the last place I want to be!.’ As soon as I get to a venue and I see the scaffold and the guys on the rigs I feel like, ‘Mom I’m home!’”
She tugs on her jacket, which has a small punk-hearted safety pin in the lapel, and rummages in her bag for the keys to her Mini, literal proof that this artist doesn’t live especially large.
Earlier, in a philosophical frame, she’d said, “A lot of the guys in my songs aren’t really guys. I am thinking about some higher thing, going to my spiritual home.”
And that is what Chrissie Hynde is doing right now. Heading home. Alone.
The Rails are running. English singer-songwriter duo Kami Thompson and James Walbourne have reached deep into their rich musical histories to concoct the kind of sharp, true folk rock blend rarely heard since the Seventies. Produced with indie legend Edwyn Collins and featuring folk frontierswoman Eliza Carthy on fiddle, The Rails debut album Fair Warning is a little wonder, packed with traditional and original songs that stand outside of time yet resonate with contemporary urgency. Recognising perfection when they hear it, Island records have revived their vintage Pink Label for the duo, home to John Martyn, Nick Drake and Fairport Convention.
“There is something about folk as an ideal that we were reaching towards,” says Kami. “Music by the people, for the people. Songs so icky, and potent, and heart wrenching, they could have been written five hundred years or ten minutes ago, it doesn’t matter.”
“We wanted something almost simplistic,” says James. “Singing, fiddle, electric guitar, no tricks. You can hear everything, it’s bare. It’s hard to convince people to make a record like that now but the sound is fantastic, it’s so direct.”
James, a teenage prodigy with a fascination for early rock ‘n’ roll and roots Americana, is now one of the hottest rock guitarists in Britain. Cult singer-songwriter Peter Bruntnell took him to the US to make an album and James went on to play as a member of such Americana icons as Son Volt and The Pernice Brothers and record with the legendary Jerry Lee Lewis.
Back in the UK, he has played with Ray Davies, become part of the touring line up for The Pogues and joined The Pretenders as lead guitarist in 2008. In 2011, he made his first solo album, The Hill, for Heavenly records. Author and fan Nick Hornby described his guitar playing as “an unearthly cross between James Burton, Peter Green and Richard Thompson” and enthused “Walbourne’s fluid, tasteful, beautiful solos drop the jaw, stop the heart, and smack the gob, all at the same time."
It was Hornby who introduced James to folk siren Linda Thompson, and James first met Kami when they both worked on Linda’s 2007 album Versatile Heart. “We hit it off on a musical level straight away but it took a long time to take that any further,” he reports.
Kami is the youngest daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson, the first couple of Seventies folk rock. She has been a backing singer with Linda, performed with members of the Wainwright family, toured with Sean Lennon and Bonnie Prince Billy and released her own solo album, Love Lies, on Warner Music in 2011.
“I suppose this was the music that was formative to me, but at the same time Folk was a box I didn’t want to be in, and I did my best to avoid it,” she admits. “In folk music, people love the idea of family. When a son or daughter picks up a guitar it’s like the legacy continues. In rock, it’s considered slightly nepotistic. They aren’t easy relationships and it’s difficult for me to talk about, so I think it’s better if I just don’t. I am a musician, and this is the music that was around me growing up, just as it was for many others, and I need to find my own way through it.”
Kami and James have been working together since 2011, romance blooming alongside their music. They married in 2012. “The less said about that the better,” says Kami. “Our long term goal is to make the perfect divorce album, obviously.”
‘Fair Warning’, their debut album, is produced by The Rails with Edwyn Collins and Sebastian Lewsley at West Heath studio, in North London. “They usually do more punky stuff there, so this was a bit different,” notes James. “It’s all analogue, old mics, the sound that comes out of that studio is really direct.” Cody Dickinson (Mississippi Allstars) was recruited to play drums, the great Danny Williams (Black Grape) played bass, Eliza Carthy added fiddle to a couple of tracks but mostly it was James and Kami.
Most of the songs on ‘Fair Warning’ are Walbourne / Thompson originals but the process started with visits to Cecil House, as so many artists have done before, to seek out lost treasures from the world famous folk archive. “We picked songs that we felt could have been written right now,” explains Kami. “‘Bonnie Portmore’ taps into our sense of endangered nature and fears about the planet. And ‘William Taylor’ is the ultimate bitch revenge fantasy for every guy you’ve had a shit time from. Those old murder ballads are my favourite songs ever, they give you permission to say something you’re not allowed to say in real life: I’d really like to kill you for fucking someone else.”
“It’s quite therapeutic,” adds James, wryly. “My folk music is really ’56 Elvis, that’s where I come from. I was introduced to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music at an impressionable age, bands like Son Volt taught me a lot of American old time folk ballads, and they are all rooted in the old English and Irish ones, as I found out spending time with Shane McGowan and even Chrissie Hynde, she knows all this stuff. Who is to say what is folk anymore? These are our own songs but written with a certain sound and attitude that connects to music that came before.”
“Folk changed forever when we moved into a world of recorded music but the essence remains the same,” according to Kami. “To me the purpose of music is to feel the feeling multiplied by ten and get it out and have an emotional moment, be sad, cry, laugh, be angry. You make it so other people might feel the same way.”