Interview with Pauline Black
published: 24 /
Dave Goodwin chats to Pauline Black from seminal ska band the Selecter about her band's new album 'String Theory' and busy touring schedule
Pauline Black is the lead singer with the ska/Two Tone band the Selecter. She was born to an Anglo-Jewish teenage mother and Nigerian father, who was also a Yoruba prince, but was adopted by a white middle-aged couple and remained unaware of her Jewish heritage until the age of 42 when she traced her real mother.
The Selecter formed in Coventry in 1979 and along with the Specials and Madness became pioneers of the ska revival movement, becoming involved with the Two Tone label. They split-up in 1982 but have sporadically reformed since 1994. In 2001 Pauline formed 3 Men & Black with Jean-Jacques Burnel, Jake Burns and Nicky Welsh. That band at other stages also included Bruce Foxton, Eric Faulkner and Dave Wakeling.
After the Selecter split up, Pauline Black presented the children’s TV show ‘Hold Tight’, and also developed an acting career appearing in dramas such as ‘The Vice’, ‘The Bill’, ‘Hearts and Minds’ and ‘Two Thousand Acres of Sky’. She won the 1991 ‘Time Out’ award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the play ‘All or Nothing At All’. She also starred alongside Christopher Lee in the horror film ‘Funny Man’.
In 2007 Pauline narrated the BBC documentary ‘Soul Britannia’, and later appeared in the 2011 follow-up ‘Reggae Britannia’ fronting the Selecter. In 2010 Pauline and the Selecter got back together again, this time with Gaps Hendrickson from the original band also becoming involved, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1980 debut album, ‘Too Much Pressure’.
In September 2011 the band released "Made In Britain", and toured in March 2012 playing 18 dates in the UK before adding 11 more dates in October. It was during this tour that Pennyblackmusic managed to catch their live show at Derby.
The Selecter have another new album, 'String Theory', due out in March, which, to quote their website, "is a collection of ten new songs, all of which connect with their past while saying something about today." Pauline, Gaps and the rest of the band will be back on the road from late February to late March at venues all over the UK.
Pauline took time out of her busy schedule to participate in her second interview with Pennyblackmusic, and we began by talking to her about the forthcoming tour.
PB: The live sets will start at the end of February and continue all the way through to the end of March culminating inevitably in Coventry. What is it that drives you to get out and keep on doing it?
Pauline: Doing new music basically. It would be very easy to do the whole heritage band thing, where everyone turns up, listens to the singles and then goes home happy. We didn't really want to do that. I feel that Two Tone still stands for something and for something a little more than just the individual bands that made it up. I feel that it is necessary to keep plugging away at that because I don't think the message has actually sunk in that deeply.
We have different words for things nowadays. We have got multiculturalism now and words like that, and still racism underpins a great deal of people's everyday lives. Here we are in the 21st century and you do tend to wonder when it's going to go away.
PB: The tour takes a four night on and a four night off routine. What goes on in between? Do you head off home or a mini holiday?
Pauline: No, there are eight of us spread out all over the country from Nottingham all the way down to London so we need to go home and we need to regroup. It is not like we're eighteen years old anymore, and wanting to spend the whole time in the back of a transit van. You need time to think about things, what you've done, learn from it, do a bit more rehearsal maybe and also interviews. There are also mundane things to do like the washing.
PB: How do you wind down or chill out between the gigs?
Pauline: At the moment I'm trying to write my first novel, so I have started that and I'm at the end of my first draft. I am looking around now for things to take it to that next step.
PB: How does the album to tour link work? Do you choose which songs from the new album and which 'oldies' to sing depending on the venue or type of venue you are at or do you just go with what you feel on the night?
Pauline: I and the other lead singer Gaps Hendrickson tend to choose what we are going to sing. We have the longest longevity in the band, so we know what we want to sing and how we want to sing it. You have got to ease new stuff into a set. It is not a case of okay, let's just do the whole album, because normally audiences aren't quite that patient. We come up with a set list for the tour, and it is important to us that that set list works, and it may take three or four shows until you get it right.
You will get a run eventually where each song will feed off the other, and creates an energy which leads to the end of the set where everybody is in to it and just dances. That is what we are striving for really, and it is what works for us.
PB: I have had a chance to listen to a couple of the tracks from the new album, ‘String Theory’. Which songs for you carry the strongest message?
Pauline: Which ones have you heard?
PB: ‘London's Burning’ and ‘High Hair’.
Pauline: There is a big span of feel and degree I suppose in what we're trying to say with the album. ‘London's Burning’ is about the riots, and ‘High Hair’ is about ladies of a certain age that like to go out and have fun. We just talk about subjects that don't get talked about in the everyday run-of the mill ‘X-Factor’ nonsense that goes on. Neither of those songs are going to make a dent about the way people think about those kinds of shows, but that is how it is for us and long may it continue it like that is the way I look at it. My favourite song from the album would be ‘Prince among Men’.
PB: 'London's Burning' sounds as if it is just begging to be played live. Was it written with that in mind?
Pauline: I think when you write any song it's always written with how it is going to happen live in mind. We are a really good live band. We've had enough practice at it so we don't like to go into the studio and try and replicate what it's going to sound like live.
PB: How did the thought process for ‘String Theory’ work and did you take whatever it is that you wanted to express on to paper and into a song? In essence how do you work?
Pauline: There were more than ten tracks written for the album. We just picked the ones that we felt fully exploited what we were wanting to say.
The whole point about calling it ‘String Theory’ was that all songs start normally from six strings strumming your guitar in a room by yourself and from your vocal chords which are just vibrating strings themselves. You can then open that out from that one particular person in a room making up a song, and then take it out to other people. It is like those strings continue on a journey. It is like as well how long that piece of string is because it then goes to other musicians who put their tuppence worth in. Then you're recording it, and then of course you put it out there, and then a whole new set of people listen to it.
That might just be here in the UK or we might go to America with it. We've been to Australia recently on tour so a whole load of different people have been connected through these songs.
If you look at ‘String Theory’ scientifically it pretty much says that everybody is made up of little vibrating strings i.e. we are made of the same stuff. To my mind that very much says to me that the idea of multiculturalism is people celebrating the things you like rather than the things that separate them. We are all following those strings...how long it is I really don't know.
PB: Did it come easily putting paper to song on this album compared to past albums?
Pauline: The ‘Made in Britain’ album was our return album as it were, and that very much discussed multiculturalism and how things were today, and what Two Tone’s legacy was in this new century.
We wanted to move it on from that, and I think we've very much managed to do that with ‘String Theory’. I look at ‘Made in Britain’ and think to myself it is touching the same areas I think as our debut album, ‘Too Much Pressure’.
I think this album broadens it out in the same way that ‘Celebrate the Bullet’ (The Selecter’s 1981 second album-Ed) broadened out those initial social arguments that we came with at the beginning. Those two are a mirror image of that work then.
You just have to make time for things. We have times when we tour, and we have times when we write, and you just have to get that balance. A year only has so many days in it, so it pretty full on.
PB: Who wrote this album? Was it just you or did it involve other people such as Gaps?
Pauline: There are three of us who are writing currently, and that is myself, Gaps and Neil Pyzer who also produces. We work closely together, and it's a writing partnership that we feel works very very well at the moment.
PB: That partnership has been for quite a while now, hasn't it?
Pauline: Yes. I've also done a solo album with Neil which hasn’t come out yet and which is on a back burner for when we get too old to do this (Laughs ).
PB: With the songs that you penned personally, do they come from your own personal life experiences?
Pauline: What tends to happen is that we lay down like a mini manifesto of what we want to say,and then gear what we are writing towards that. You need some degree of planning, but it depends if the muse is on you. You may write something that is completely leftfield and wouldn't sit on the album, but it doesn't stop you writing it because it may fit on another album down the line or an EP that you want to put out. We very much approach it like that, and then we record them and pick the best out of what we have.
PB: Do have a surplus of songs then that you can use for other stuff?
Pauline: It is always good to have a surplus. When you're in writing mode, it is always good to get as much done as possible because sometimes you don't know when you're going to get back in the studio or you're going to have a space in time to be able to do it.
PB: Do you suffer mental blocks at any time?
Pauline: No, but that's why I try and do a lot of different things. I don't just do music. I write and occasionally act and make radio programmes, and they all feed off each other. You get different ideas from all of these places, and talking to people who are doing something different from you but none the less are also in the artistic field. You tend to stay in the real world as a result.
PB: I was at the Derby gig on the last tour, and I've got to admit I was impressed with the level of energy you displayed. Do you draw your energy from the crowd's reaction to you or is every night as full on as that?
Pauline: Every night is full on like that! If the crowd goes crazy like that, you do draw a lot of energy from them, but they also draw energy from you too. It is a two way process. I hate to go and see bands that just stand there, and there is not much going on as that is fairly boring. The whole thing about Two Tone when we first started was to use it to engage the audience like grabbing them by the proverbials and shaking them till they stop.
PB: It was good to see some of the older Two Tone fans there that night, but also the presence of a younger generation who quite clearly were enjoying it. Do see another movement like that again? Is that what you aim for - to get that feeling/vibe back again?
Pauline: There are other ska bands out there bands much much younger than us, so there is obviously interest. A lot of that interest has come because the Specials have got back together again, and they were such a huge band, but I feel there are a lot of girls out there that don't really have role models from the time that I was first around and with the women that were around then.
There is a really famous photo of myself, Poly Styrene, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, and Siouxsie Sioux together, and when I look at that photo I think that is the time I came out of and those were the kind of women who represented us, and when I look at the scene these days you don't see that kind of diversity. People are following a much safer different path, and it is certainly a path that doesn't really rock the boat too much
PB: What was it that inspired you to write 'Black by Design'?
Pauline: I was asked if I wanted to write a memoir, and I thought about it for a while and I though, “Yeah, why not?” I'm always game to give something a go, but I'd written a novel prior to that which has never seen the light of day, so I thought I would I have a go at it this. People say that every person’s got one book in them, so that might be my one book and it might not be my one book. I don't know.
I just wanted to put into perspective about how I felt growing up in the fifties and being mixed race in this country, how it was and how it formed the decisions I made, and why I became involved with Two Tone, and why I continue to put that multicultural message out there and why I hope I will continue to do so until I fall off my perch.
PB: I was watching an interview of you on I think the BBC ‘Breakfast’ show, and the host mentioned that during the Two Tone days he thought you came across as a bit intimidating, and you laughed and sounded quite surprised and said, “Did I?” At the time did you mean to come across like that and do you think you've changed over the years?
Pauline: I hope I haven't changed at all. I don't think I was intimidating. I mean let's face it. Any woman who speaks her mind is considered intimidating! I've always been the same since 1979. and there's nothing I can do about it to help that. I don't want to come across all fluffy and nice like they do on the BBC news and stuff like that. That ain’t in me. It is what you see is what you get. People may think that that is opinionated, but I don't think that women's voices aren't heard enough really, certainly not the alternative type woman's voice. Plenty is heard from you if you want to wear pink (Laughs).
PB: Did you enjoy writing it, Pauline?
Pauline: Absolutely! I didn't want it ghost written by anyone, and to chat away into a tape recorder and then for somebody to take it away and write about it...
PB: Well, there does seem to be a lot of that being produced at the moment...
Pauline: Well, there is... I'm not going to mention names, but there is a lot of it these days (Laughs).
I really wanted to have a go at it. I've got a bit of handle on how to put things together. I've done plenty of radio stuff, so I knew how to put scripts together. To a certain extent, it's a bigger script. The main thing about it is a huge discipline to do something like that and becoming that disciplined to be able to get all those strands of your life together and into a form of coherent story with a proper scene rather than just a potted history or diary of events was something that I really wanted to do.
PB: To return to that Derby gig, I posted a photo of you that got some rave comments on your Facebook page, and this guy left a message saying that it was an old photo, insinuating I'd cheated somewhat.
Pauline: And photo shopped it?! Maybe he just needed to go to Vision Express (Laughs)!
PB: Well, it cheesed me off and I thought at that gig that you've not changed a bit in 30 years?
Pauline: Oh well, it's very nice of to say so!
PB: What's the secret?
Pauline: I think it's not just me. It is Gaps as well. Gaps is older than I am, but he moves like a twenty year old at times. We think it is important to keep ourselves fit as you can, but if you are given a set of genes that aren't that kind to you and make you look the age you are then there is not much you can do about it. But we haven't been handed a set of genes that has gone really wrong on us yet (Laughs)!
PB: So how old is Gaps now?
Pauline: Erm........I'm not telling you (Laughs).
PB: At Derby I stood right at the edge of the stage, and as he came past I patted him on the back, and told him what a cracking gig it was, and he turned round and said, “Thanks very much,” and my hand was absolutely wringing wet.
Pauline: Well, he sweats after the first song. You can wring his shirt out
for days. He has to replenish his electrolytes after every show with a bucket of it!
PB: He was absolutely dripping.
Pauline: Yeah! And he's like that every night. That's the kind of energy that's involved. If you can't put that level of energy into it, there's no point in doing it.
PB: With the four nights on and four nights off, he must be absolutely shattered after he comes off on that fourth night.
Pauline: That's why we need three nights off!
PB: On a more serious note, what have we learned or what can we still learn from that era which you helped to create?
Pauline: I think people can still learn lessons from racism. I think they can still learn lessons about a more tolerant way of being with each other and culturally being interested in other people's cultures. It will probably never stop really, but that's all I want to see.
PB: I am a big football lover and I must admit I've never seen the level of racism out their today since the late 70's and early 80's, especially in the Eastern bloc countries. As a general theme and not just in football, does it worry you that racism can rear its ugly head so easily?
Pauline: Well, racism is a worry at all times particularly if you happen to be black within football (Laughs). Football is something that I don't really know that much about, but in general I feel it needs to be stamped out immediately.
We have, however, been trying to do that for thirty three years and it hasn't cottoned on yet. There are people out there that will always think that way. But there's a new generation that is growing up today that are growing up side by side with other Asian kids and black kids all over the world, and it's to them that you have to look.
Generations have probably got to die off before things can substantially change but I think, I'm hoping, that young people will be able to work it out for themselves.
PB: Young people do seem to be a bit more tolerant than some people back then.
Pauline: They've all gone to school with each other. They chat with each other. There is a kind of homogenised youth these days in terms of how they dress and the music they listen to, so it's not quite as tribal as maybe what it was in our day. But a lot of the people that were around then were around 34 years old, and they are still fairly entrenched in their ideas.
I think you have to look at the reasons for racism. Nobody is born racist. They learn it. And they learn it for a reason. And the reason for it is working to keep people divided, and while you're worrying about something else you're not looking at the guy ripping you off…
PB: Thank you.