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Hazel Oconnor - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 21 / 6 / 2005

Hazel Oconnor - Interview


Hazel O' Connor was one of the first important female singers of the 80's, and her film 'Breaking Glass' was one of the classic rock films. John Clarkson talks to her about coming to terms with her past, and her new album 'Hidden Hearts'

‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ is a popular early Saturday evening British television show hosted by Vernon Kay in which each week 5 former chart topping stars from the 80’s and 90’s compete against each other in a series of heats by performing their greatest hits along with modern day cover versions. Viewers then vote for their favourite, with the winner from each heat going on to battle it out in a final. When Hazel O’ Connor appeared on ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ in April playing both her classic 1980 ballad ‘Will You’ and a cover of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, it was a somewhat unorthodox choice for the series’ producers. Brief footage showed O’ Connor talking from the cottage where she now lives in Ireland about both songs and what she has been doing in the 25 years since ‘Will You’ was a top-selling chart hit. While many of the other acts who appeared in the programme including Hue and Cry (who won O’ Connor’s heat), China Black and the Real Thing were simply nostalgia acts who had reformed or had come out of retirement specially for the occasion, the gravel-voiced O’ Connor has, however, never stopped working . She has recorded over a dozen albums since her early 80’s heyday, the latest of which the Irish-folk tinged ‘Hidden Heart’ came out in late May and was produced by Martin Rushent (The Stranglers, The Skids, The Human League, Shirley Bassey, Joy Division). Born in 1955 in Coventry, Hazel O’ Connor, who is an actress as well as singer, spent much of her early life abroad after leaving home at the age of 16. She lived in a squat in Amsterdam, travelled to Morocco and then headed to Japan where she worked as a dancer. She subsequently moved to Beirut where she continued dancing. Forced to leave when civil war broke out, she travelled to West Africa, eventually crossing the Sahara Desert to North Africa, before finally returning to Britain at the age of 21. Inspired by the punk movement and her older brother Neil who was already working as a musician, O’Connor decided to become a singer, and played in various small-level bands before being picked by director Brian Gibson to star in 1980 rock film ‘Breaking Glass.’ One of the classic films of its genre, ‘Breaking Glass’ charts the progress of singer Kate (O’ Connor), her manager and love interest Danny (Phil Daniels) and their band Breaking Glass. Set in early Thatcherite London where unemployment, inner city violence and racism are all rife, ‘Breaking Glass’ is essentially a rags-to-riches tale in which Breaking Glass find themselves falling victim to dodgy pub landlords, unscrupulous promoters and skinhead thugs before eventually winning a recording contract. Any happiness at having found fame is, however, only fleeting. When the group are sent by their record company to play at a big free concert called ‘Rock against 1984’, a larger group of skinheads turn up, a riot ensues and a teenager is killed. A horrified Kate subsequently falls into depression and starts abusing anti-depressants. The record company forces a new producer on them and Danny out. Breaking Glass starts to break up amidst internal tensions and other drug problems, and, after playing a final gig, Kate runs into the London tube where she has a breakdown. The film ends with her being visited by the ever loyal Danny in a nursing home. O’ Connor’s gritty performance in the film won her the Royal Variety Club of Britain’s 1980 Film Actress of the Year award. She also wrote and performed all the songs from the accompanying best selling album, which spent 28 weeks in the British albums chart and which was nominated for a BAFTA. She had two Top 10 hits from it, one with ‘Will You’ and the other with ‘Eighth Day’. Her next album ‘Sons and Lovers’ spawned another Top 10 hit ‘Decadent Days’, which found her controversially appearing on 'Top of the Pops' stripped down just to a black bra and a mini skirt. The contracts she had signed with both her label and publisher were, however, flawed, and, despite selling hundreds of thousands of copies of her records, O’ Connor spent much of the rest of the 80’s in law suits and fighting bankruptcy. In the time since then, O’ Connor’s many other albums have included ‘Cover Plus’, a covers album, and ‘Beyond The Breaking Glass’, which found her reinterpreting the songs from her back catalogue with celebrated Irish harpist Cormac de Barra, who has subsequently since appeared on every new ‘O’ Connor album. ‘Beyond The Breaking Glass’ also spawned in 1998 a show that O’ Connor took to the Edinburgh Festival and in which she told her own life story. It subsequently went on to play to critical acclaim all over the world. In the early and mid 90’s, O’ Connor ran her own label Mystic Records, but has now linked up with Invisible Hands Music, a London-based label who have the policy of allowing the acts on their roster total artistic freedom. Invisible Hands reissued all her Mystic albums in 2002, and also at the time released ‘A Singular Collection’, O’ Connor’s first ever Greatest Hits collection. They have also now released ‘Hidden Heart’. Hazel O’ Connor continues to act. She appears regularly on the stage in Irish theatre, and had the lead role as a single mother in the acclaimed British drama series, ‘Fighting Back’. She is also an author. She published ‘Uncovered Plus’, a first volume of autobiography in 1981, and has an as-yet-untitled second autobiography due out next year. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Hazel O’ Connor a few days before ‘Hidden Heart’ was released and she was due to begin a British tour. PB : When you got your part in ‘Breaking Glass’ how much experience of acting had you had before that ? HO : None at all. I did a few rudie nudie films in my hippy days, but that was all. I was living this guy that I was in love with at the time, and we couldn’t pay the mortgage one week. I ended up appearing naked in two nudie films, but I don’t think that can really be counted. Some might say otherwise though (Laughs). Show business was initially never something that I wanted to go into or that I ever thought about. I wanted at first to be a painter or an artist or something like that. When I came back from travelling abroad, I wanted do something which made me happy. I had sung a lot with my brothers and cousins when I was a child and it had got us through many hard times. I think that’s why the idea of being a singer first cropped up in my head. When I thought of that, I thought “Oh yes, that’s what I would like to do.” When ‘Breaking Glass’ came about and when it looked like I might be in for a chance with it, I really wanted to get the part, so that I could better neutralise my singing career. PB : Your acting career really, therefore, came about as a sideline to your singing career. HO : Yeah. I thought that maybe if I did the film I would get the record producer of my choice, and maybe get more help selling records because I was signed to this really naff record company at the time, which didn’t believe in helping out too much financially. PB : ‘Breaking Glass’ is one of the classic rock films. It was made with a wealth of acting talent and people who have all gone on to become very well known such as Phil Daniels, Jonathan Pryce and Derek Thompson. Were you aware at the time that you were making something special ? HO : I wasn’t smart enough to be really aware of that. I was working hard, and all the people that I was working with seemed really good, but I had nothing to judge it all by, so I just kind of threw myself into it in a rather Zen like way. Whatever was thrown at me I tried to do. I relished the challenge, but my mind stopped there. I didn’t really formulate any ideas. I didn’t even know what you do when you are filming. With those two rudie nudie films I had just turned up, and done an afternoon in each case of showing off my body. There was very little in the way of speaking parts. And then that was it. Off I went and it was goodbye. ‘Breaking Glass’ had so many more different levels to it. The thing which was most important to me when I was making it was when the tea breaks were (Laughs), as these lovely cakes would come around and I would then try to sneak some of them away. I had been told not to eat cakes as I would get too fat for the film. PB : How many of the songs in it were written specially for the film and how many of them were written beforehand ? HO : ‘Will You’ was written beforehand, but it wasn’t written in its final form. It was only half written if you like, because I added another verse to it. The spoof song in it, ‘One More Time’, was written ages before. It was a daft song of mine, but I would have never personally let it see the light of day. The rest were all written as we made the film. PB : The character of Kate in the film finds herself in several parallel circumstances to your own life. She ends up getting screwed by her record company and becomes a victim of label politics. Were you conscious of that at the time or did that all come afterwards ? HO : It had already happened. That was why the film got written. The film’s original script was by Howard Schuman, who did the ‘Rock Follies’. By the time they chose me for the lead Howard Schuman was gone, and the director, Brian Gibson, had taken over as the scriptwriter. He had previously written the script for ‘Gossip from the Forest’, a film which he had directed for the BBC. Nearly everything in the film was based around my recollections. He would tug all sorts of information out of me about who I had been with and what I had done. A lot of the writing and the music happened in collaboration together. Phil Daniels and I did a lot of improvisational work with him. Most of what happened to Kate in the film had happened to me in my real life already. I was a little bit banjaxed by the time I got given the film part because, before I was told that I had got the lead, I had signed myself down the river for two very long deals with not any real money attached. Well, one of them had about twelve grand attached, which was not a lot for what they got. I did not know I was going to be a useful bit of property within about six months at that time. That’s why it took the direction it took. Art was imitating life and life imitating art. We put in a whole series of new things within the film’s original parameters and afterwards we were very choosy about what would happen to that character of Kate. There were a few occasions in which we had to second guess before we actually knew what would happen to someone who had become famous. We didn’t always get that part quite right. There were times, for instance, after the film came out in which I thought I was going a bit loopy myself, but that was for other reasons than Kate did in the film. PB : The film ends with Kate in a nursing home having had a breakdown. It’s 25 years now since ‘Breaking Glass’ was made. Do you ever imagine what might have happened to that character since ? HO : I do (Laughs). Sometimes I still write little doodles about what might have happened to Kate. For years people would come to me and say “We’re going to make a sequel. Do you want to do it ?” and I would go “Sure.” Those things never came to anything, but it would start my head whirling. I would sit there doodling and thinking “What did happen to Kate ? Did she go off and become a mountaineer or have a totally new life?” I would hope that she did. PB : You’ve said in the past that you see ‘Breaking Glass’ as a handicap. In more recent interviews you seem much more ambivalent about it. How do you feel about it now ? HO : Okay. It began to feel like an albatross around my neck about the mid 80’s because it had me pinned me to things I now wanted to move away from as you do in life. In the 90’s it was neither this nor that because I had a new career with Sony Records, and I had moved on and was working with Irish musicians and Irish rock bands. Then in 1998 I did the ‘Beyond The Breaking Glass’ shows and album in which I tell my own life story. I had been working with the Irish harp player, Cormac de Barra, and I asked him if he would help me take it to the Edinburgh Festival. It was a musical marriage made in heaven really and definitely the right thing to do. By that stage ‘Breaking Glass’ was no longer an albatross, but it was also something that I could talk about and move on from by playing the songs from it in a radically different way. I do think the songs from that film are really good. I am still surprised by them. I tend to work better when I am under pressure and I wrote those songs within a week. It was easy peasy for me as I was writing about stuff I wanted to write about. I am the kind of person who when I am given a platform I will work my arse off, but otherwise I prefer to laze about (Laughs). PB : You’re an artist who has looked back to your past a lot for inspiration, yet at the same time you seem to have moved on. On ‘Beyond The Breaking Glass’ the original tunes were still there, but, by stripping them down to you and Cormac on harp, you developed and built on them. Is it important to you not to do the same thing twice ? HO : Yes absolutely ! I can’t that at all unless it is something that really, really, really touches my soul and thrills me. I don’t think that it is a safe thing for someone like me to get stuck in the mud. That’s not putting down anyone else who does and people who do those where are they now tours, because I have been asked to do those tours as well. I knew that I couldn’t afford to go off to Edinburgh and do it with a load of people. I wanted to do something that would be interesting for me and the audience, and so I thought “Cormac ! Is he free?” He is such a doll that I can ask him if he wants to do something creative and he will always have a go. PB : You appeared on ‘Baby, Hit Me One More Time’ in April. Were you worried before you went on that about being seen as a nostalgia act ? HO : I would have been if they had asked me to sing ‘Eighth Day.’ I don’t have anything against doing ‘Eighth Day’ in my own gigs, , but on a TV show like that, a light entertainment show I would have been worried. I was happy to do ‘Will You ?’ That’s what I mean about certain stuff being ever green for me as well. ‘Will You ?’ is a song that never fitted into the idiom of the time 25 years ago. PB : And again the version that you did of that was very different from the one you did in 1980 on ‘Top of the Pops’. HO : Yeah. The general run of the song is still exactly the same, full and slow, but my vocal was slightly different and there were some changes. I had to think hard about ‘Hit Me Baby.’ I had all sorts of questions for the musical director of the show about song choice and what I could and couldn’t do. My first choice for the cover which we also had to do was David Gray’s ‘Babylon’, but they didn’t want that one, so I had to go away and really think about it because I wanted to come up with my own choice. I was worried that I was going to get choices thrown at me, and then I came up with the idea of doing that Kylie song. I think that it is a great pop song, and I thought that it would be a challenge to do it with a totally different inflection. I asked if we could do it with congas and the musical director went away and I thought “Oh God, I hope that he doesn’t make a mess of it”, but when I got backing track a couple of days before the show I was really pleased with what he had done with it. That was great. No offence to the show, but I am glad that I didn’t win because I have a tour coming up and I didn’t want to end up in the final which coincided with it. It was fun though as one off. I had to go and get some clothes for telly (Laughs). Generally I like to do things that have more grassroots. Most of the TV shows that I do these days are more arts-based. On an arts show the lighting is totally different to a light entertainment show. The lighting on a light entertainment show is much brighter. It reminded me of doing ‘Top of the Pops’ all those years ago. PB : You put out a covers album, ‘Cover Plus’, in 1982. It included covers of songs including the Stranglers ‘Hanging Around’ and Lou Reed’s ‘Men of Good Fortune’, which you still play when you tour now. Since then you have recorded a cover of the George Michael song ‘One More Try’. If you were to record a covers album now, what songs would you put on it ? HO : I would love to sing ‘Babylon’ and I will at some point. I have been singing Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ lately, and I would put that on record. We’ve recorded the Kylie song and that will go on an album which I am doing with Martin Rushent, but which won’t be out for another year or two. That will be a collection of lots of different things, but they all have to fit into an r and b and electronic idiom. If something touches me in any which way now and it doesn’t have to touch my soul, but if it touches me and makes me want to breathe it and sing it I will think “Great ! I can do that !” Years ago, even when I was doing the covers album, there were a lot of songs that I wouldn’t have dared touch. I wouldn’t even know how to approach them. There were songs which I was a big fan of like ‘Do What You Do’, the Jimmy Webb song that Nina Simone sang, but which I didn’t really feel that I was free to do. I know that I am free to do that now. I know I have developed my voice to the point where people have come to hear my voice as well as the songs, and they are kind of inter-relatable. PB : On the subject of Martin Rushent, he is also the producer of your latest album ‘Hidden Heart.’ That was the first time you have worked with him in about twenty years, isn’t it ? HO : I did an album with him called ‘Smile’ in 1984, and my brother ended up working with him down at his studio, and so throughout the 80’s we stayed in touch. Then I went off to live in America and after that in Ireland. My brother had moved to Canada and I hadn’t really seen Martin in years and years. Sometimes we would go “I wonder how Martin is” and that would be it really and then Martin turned up to a gig last year. We got on well and he was really amazed that my voice has now developed such a standard of r and b now and he said “Fucking hell, Haz ! We’ve got to do a r and b and electronic album (Laughs).” I said “Sure, let’s just work slowly at little ideas!”, so we had already started working on this other r and b electronic album. I did all the recording for ‘Hidden Heart’ at my place in Ireland and then I decided I needed somebody to take the steering wheel and to mix and to sort it who had good taste and that Martin would be that person. He did his bit of work over in England after we had finished recording it in Ireland. PB : What do you think he has brought to ‘Hidden Heart’ ? HO : The audio landscape which I wouldn’t be able to do. I know what I like when I hear things, but I am not able to say “Press this and this and get this”. I think he has brought the audio landscape to life. I really love ‘Beyond The Breaking Glass’, but it a simpler album, and this is a little more complex. I wanted to do a studio album that would have some complexities, so I think that what he has brought to it is a proper landscape. PB : The album was inspired by the children’s book, ‘The Little Prince.’ In what ways did that inspire the album ? HO : One of the characters in it, a fox, tells the Little Prince a secret, which is that we can only see what is true within our hearts, and I think that is absolutely right. I have actually put that on the cover of the booklet of the album. There are so many things that we miss, so many things that are essential to our life, and it is only when you start to feel life with your heart that you see that they are missing. It is only now as I am entering the second part of my life that I am starting to see things that are important that always before I have missed out on. A year and a half ago I was diagnosed for the second time with cancer. I had to have surgery this time and I ended up with a big bloody scar only to find out later for the second time that it was a mistake. I had told the story of what happened first time around in ‘Beyond The Breaking Glass’. I had been doing a tour at the end of the year before last in Holland. I had done some tests for something else unrelated before I went and the hospital had been ringing a lot and saying “We really want you to come in.” I was busy working and then my dog died of cancer. My head wasn’t properly adjusted. I kept putting it off, and then the doctor phoned and I finally went to the hospital and she said “Well, we have wanted you to come in because you have got cancer.” All I could say was “Bollocks” (Laughs).” I kept saying “Bollocks ! Bollocks !” I really thought I was being punished for having made light of it before in ‘Beyond The Breaking Glass.’ I kept thinking “Oh no ! All these years I have been messing with my mantra ! (Laughs) and then it all turned out to be a horrible mistake. I went into the hospital and I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t even tell my mother because she had been really ill. I remembered the first time around that the people I told made me feel very depressed as soon as I had told them because it was an obvious threat to their own mortality. If you’ve got HIV or Aids or cancer or MS or Hepitatis B or anything else that you have been told that is really scary and you start telling people, you immediately see their faces going “Woooh”. The might tell you that they are sorry, but they’re often not sorry at all. They’re just scared. I didn’t want to go through that again, so I went through the whole surgery on my own, only to be told six weeks later at my check-up “Look Hazel, you’ll never guess. The cells are not cancerous cells.” They were exactly the same cells as I had had when they treated me for cancer 13 years ago. They mimic cancer closely and in the laboratory they can’t always tell the difference. They then start chopping you around, and so I was duly chopped and that is where the inspiration from the album came from. It came from the day I was in the hospital saying “Bollocks.” Two things happened from that moment. Songs started to come pouring out of me. I also started writing my second autobiography. PB : This new book is going to be your second autobiography. Your first autobiography, ‘Uncovered Plus’, came out in 1981. Is this autobiography going to just look at the period after 1981 or are you going to reassess your life before then as well ? HO : I am going to look back at the whole thing. ‘Uncovered Plus’ was a coffee table book and was ghost written with a lady called Judith Simons. I really wanted this time to write it in my own write. I might prove to be a shit writer. We’ll see. I have a proof reader, Julie, who runs the local organic hotel up the road. She is married to Russian bloke, and she knows me from nowhere, only for my music from now. She first knew me from ‘Beyond The Breaking Glass’ and I thought, therefore, she would be a great guinea pig to proof read it as I write it. She’s been reading the book the whole time. I am up now to a bloody stupid amount of chapters. I think it was 32 chapters at the last count so I think it is going to have to be chip chopped down a bit. I wanted the opinion of someone who knew absolutely nothing about me and to see if the writing would stand up. I read a lot of autobiographies myself and I am hoping that mine will tell a story, as that is what I as a punter would read about. PB : You’re now 49, nearly 50. Do you have a very different interpretation of things than when you were 25 and publishing your first book ? HO : I think that in some ways that will be summed up at the end of this new book when I finally write it. I am on the last year and I keep hesitating from saying “Okay, that’s where I finish.” I have a feeling that my life is very, very slowly evolving into something quite scary but interesting. When the cancer thing happened, it set off a whole chain of reactions inside my head. I immediately started thinking if my cancer got really bad and I was to die what would I have to show for myself. I really had to look at that. I am trying hard to find a meaning in life. I am no nearer probably but the fact that I am looking makes a difference. I would always get by before on action, reaction, action, reaction. I have always been a fighter and a survivor, but you can forget what you’re fighting for and why you’re trying to survive. Now I want to smell the roses. ‘The Little Prince’ has kind of been a bible to a lot of people. It was the actor James Dean’s bible. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, its author, wrote it as a kind of allegory to his soul’s journey. At the end the Little Prince is with a pilot and he tells him “In a minute it’s going to look like I am dead, but I won’t be dead. It’s just that I can’t take my body with me because it is too heavy.” I find that very strong stuff, and, therefore, any book I do now has to be strong stuff, not coffee table stuff, because of the age I have come to. PB : You ran your own label in the 1990’s for a while, but you are now with Invisible Hands. How are you enjoying working with them ? HO : I love it. In the olden days I didn’t know what I could and couldn’t do because I was either with a record company that didn’t give a shit and just wanted to make money, or I was with people who would spend money on me but only if I would do this, that or the other. The corporate mind set never suited me very well Invisible Hands, however, are much more flexible and allow me total artistic freedom. There is nobody saying you should or you shouldn’t do this. I just do what I want. I think that is better for me because even with that I know that I will sell records. I don’t need to sell zillions, but I can still make enough of a profit margin these days to survive. I have still kept a lot of my old fans, but I am getting a lot of young fans who are cool dudes in their early 20’s and who are just discovering me. I can’t pander to anybody else but myself. If I pander to anybody else, it might not be true and authentic and I really believe in being true and authentic. PB : Last question ! You’re obviously very self-motivated. You do you own art work. You sell your own CDs and you even drive the van when you are on tour and you book a lot of the gigs yourself. Is it important to you after everything that has happened, the record company policies that have gone wrong, your experiences abroad, and especially the cancer scare, to have as much control as possible ? HO : I wouldn’t describe myself as a control freak, but yes definitely. I do have a delegation behind me. I have got a great manager, and, as I said, I love working for Invisible Hands, but if I am on tour I would rather drive or that Cormac, who usually comes with me, drives. I don’t like been driven about by people who I don’t know or who I don’t trust. I don’t like going around in big groups of people. I want to go and do something different every day. I want to go and find a nice tea room or a castle and basically have a life. If you’re travelling around with a group of musicians, you often can’t do that. That doesn’t work for me. That is the reason why I do that. I really don’t like wasting time and if I am wasting time I want to waste time on my own terms. That’s the difference for me I think-to have control of my own time wasting or not, however that may be. I have got this ethos in life which is if I am working, I am working. Let’s not piss about and get on with it. If I’m not working let me be a lazy, slovenly slob because I love to be lazy and actually I have had to fight against my own lazy, slovenly nature. PB : It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.

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Hazel Oconnor - Interview

Hazel Oconnor - Interview

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