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AofA People: Lorraine Bowen – Performer, Singer, Crumble Lady


7 Minute Read

Now known as The Crumble Lady, Lorraine Bowen won David Walliams’ Golden Buzzer on Britain’s Got Talent and has attracted tens of thousands of new fans of all ages; children are singing the Crumble Song at school, as are grown men in factories.

Lorraine Bowen is a unique performer! Quirky costumes, original idiosyncratic songs, vintage Casio keyboard played on an ironing board. She adores the fashion sensibility of the 1960s and has one of the largest polyester wardrobes in the UK.

Lorraine began her career playing the piano with Billy Bragg in massive venues in the UK and stadiums in Europe as well as both sides of the Berlin wall. Since then she has produced 6 albums, 100 videos on her Youtube TV Channel and regularly performs nationally and internationally.

How old are you?

59 (60 on 31st October)

Where do you live?

East Sussex, England

What do you do?

Musician, performer, composer, BGT Golden buzzer winner, crumble lady….. bonkers lady!

I write songs, put on shows, wear polyester fashions, think of new ideas, write lyrics, make videos on TikTok and YouTube, sing, dance and muck around on stage.  Others call it performing!

What do you have now that you didn’t at 25?

At 59 you start to see the world in a more landscaped view.  Women of my age should be in charge of the whole world cos we’ve seen a lot, been through a lot and can see the problems and could work through the answers in a more levelled state than a lot of leaders!  It will happen…. It will!

I have stability now that I didn’t have at 25.  Mind you I’ve had to work for it!

What about sex?

Sex?  I’ve got to do the washing up first!

And relationships?

Relationship – 36 years old relationship now.  Met in a pub in Deptford in 1986.  We were punky in nature – still are at heart.  It’s good to keep the grunge at heart.  Privilege isn’t a good thing really – it’s much better to have risen from the dirt and grime – makes you appreciate everything.  If you’ve been through the rough and tumble in life it keeps you centred and focused.  Nothing is a nightmare.  Well, another tornado in Haiti is a nightmare but the dishwasher blowing up isn’t a nightmare.  Keep it real!

How do you feel at this age?

I feel free and fanciful…. But like others, I do often worry about the world, climate change, right-wing terrorism, stupid people and what’s going to happen when I’ve got dementia and am dribbling down my own chin…

What are you proud of?

I’m very proud of my daring creativity over the years.  I’ve written lots of songs and haven’t cared what fashion they fit in, what lyrical strain they fit in – I’ve just done what I fancied and largely it’s turned out well!  My YouTube/Spotify stats tell me my biggest listening age group is 18-25s – how hilarious is that!

I’m proud that I never had kids and am part of a growing group of women who relish being free from all that.  I’m proud that I feel as a woman I’m at the forefront of a new frontier, a new age of thought.  We don’t have to conform.  We are new! We are pushing the boundaries and the boundaries are ever dissolving.

Mind you, I realise no one sees me in the street.  I’m 59 and therefore invisible… except when I’m proudly wearing my bright 1970s polyester jackets and you can see people squirm and smile at my fashion sense!  Ha ha!

What inspires you?

What keeps me inspired is that the world is quite a boring place really. Really boring. It’s up to us to brighten up things, look forward to a new day of being here, keeping it positive, keep the energy gushing out doing good things whether that being creative or working towards goals that are good. I love a new project and if there isn’t one there I’ll make one happen.  I’ve got a big show – my Greatest Hits show – in London on 10th October at ‘Above the Stag’ cabaret lounge and so am working towards that.  Also have been given a tremendous night in Brighton on November 20th to put on my Polyester Fiesta show.  Lots of my models can’t make the date …. so I’ll get some new ones!  Lots of work but a great challenge – HURRAH!

When are you the happiest?

I’m happiest when working on music…. Lyrics that make me laugh out loud, lyrics that won’t work and I wake at 5 am in the morning to scribble something down on a notepad by my bed!  Honestly lying on a beach in the sun doesn’t make me happy at all!  Being happy comes from achievement.  Working hard towards something than seeing how the hard work has made others laugh or brought about some catalyst in life.

Where does your creativity go?

My creativity goes towards my music/lyrics/songwriting/composing.  I’ve just finished writing a musical during lockdown – that took ten months – it was commissioned by a lovely young chap in Germany.  Sheer delight!

Then I recently wrote three environmental songs for piano and voice: ‘Down to Earth’ … and now I’m working on my live shows and wait for it.. a classical piece for mezzo-soprano, piano, cello and timpani!  Why not?  I’m 59 and can do what I like!

Do you have a philosophy of living?

Life is short – make the most of each day. Try to say to yourself – I’ve achieved this or that today… it might only be saving a bee from dying at the side of the road but that’s very important too!  (Without bees we as humans are dead in 9 years. My grandfather was a famous beekeeper in his day and warned of the destruction of the natural world). I think humans have got about 20 years left to sort themselves out…. Else it’s BOOM!  And unfortunately, everything else comes with us.

And dying?

My song ‘Would you like to be Buried of Cremated’ sums up everything!

Audiences love it as it puts life into perspective and you get them dancing on the table!  Total joy!

Would you like to be

Buried or cremated,

Mourned or celebrated?

I’d like to know,

Before you go

 

Would you like a coffin

Or any ‘ol thing to go off in?

Do let me know

Before you go

 

Cos

Life is such a day to day affair and often quite surreal

One minute you’re waiting for the bus

And the next you’re underneath the wheel, So!

 

Would you like your funeral

With all your favourite tunes and all

Can we dance

If we get the chance?

 

Cos

Life is such a day to day affair and often very weird

One minute you’re a little baby girl

And the next you’ve got a really long beard, So!

 

Buried or cremated?

Mourned or celebrated?

Can you face the music? cos

It’s up to you to choose it

 

Buried or cremated

Mourned or celebrated

I’d like to know for certain

Before you draw the curtain!

Are you still dreaming?

Of course, I’m still dreaming! I’m just about human and only humans have dreams and beliefs… no other animal or mammal would be stupid enough to have them! Why do we have them? It’s crazy!  They are a yearning, a make-belief that there is another way that could be better out there/something better that we could do… so dreams have to be fun. Dreams can lead to you doing crazy things so keep having them!  As a geeky spotty teenager, I used to dream of being a fashion model… now I am in my own Polyester Fiesta fashion show… I didn’t fit in with other people’s reality so made my own dream come true!   Have a go at your own!  Go-Girrl!

LORRAINE BOWEN’S GREATEST HITS TOUR DATES

https://abovethestag.org.uk/cabaret-lounge/lorraine-bowens-greatest-hits

Lorraine Bowen’s Greatest Hits

SUN, 10th OCT

15:30 – 17:30

Above The Stag Theatre & Bar (map)

72 Albert Embankment, LONDON SE1 7TP

Lorraine Bowen performs her Greatest Hits from her many original albums and of course the BGT famous Crumble Song!

 

SAT 20th NOV

Lorraine Bowen’s POLYESTER FIESTA

At the Ironworks Studio, Brighton, BN1

Lorraine and friends strut their stuff on the catwalk on polyester’s 80th birthday!  Nylon, Crimpelene, Terelene and more – come dressed up in your best flowery dress and join in the audience catwalk competition!  Fun night guaranteed!

Dancing Queen – from a Mitcham living room to Kensal Green cemetery


11 Minute Read

Movement has the capacity to take us to the home of the soul, the world within for which, we have no name.  Anna Halprin, a legendary dancer, innovator, choreographer who died last week at 100.

The carpet would be rolled back in my Auntie Win and Uncle Len’s living room in Mitcham, Chubby Checker was on the turntable – my dad and I, often known to my friends as George Henry, would be twisting and twisting again. It was a family do. It was the closest I got to wildness at 13. Well, if you don’t count the discos at Butlin’s.

George Henry was a bit of a showman. I’m so grateful. He passed it on to me. He gifted me his dancing spirit. Sometimes it was a bit much. On the Costa Brava – Arenys de Mar, actually – when I was a bit older, 17, I recall our upstairs neighbours doling out the sangria as if it were lemonade. Well, it was partially lemonade but not enough for my mum. My poor mother who didn’t drink inadvertently got drunk and was laid out on the bed. Meanwhile, dad decided to come to the disco with me. No, dad, sorry, that really was cramping my style. Not to mention transgressing the daughter/father boundaries. Yes, that word.

Pan’s People on Top of The Pops. Fuck Latin and German, I just wanted to be a go-go dancer. This was the 60s, and I was the proud owner of white PVC boots – I worked in a shoe shop in Ilkley at the weekends – they looked hideous but I thought I was a Bond girl. Oh and white lipstick as well, my family were horrified.

Our place of deification at the time was the Cow and Calf disco. Up on the moors, you went downstairs – it was like a cave with ultraviolet lights and endless Tamla. It was heaven when you could get in. When I could get in. My friends all looked older, I barely looked my age. The security guys often wouldn’t let me in. It was a subject of constant humiliation. To top it all, my parents banned me from going, it was an uphill struggle but of course, all of that didn’t stop me from trying.

Once inside this den of iniquity, the Supremes would start up and the transporting would begin. To another universe. Unspoken and free. Marvin, Ike, Tina – they were alluring dancing partners. Little did I know what was actually going on. We hung out with those young men with sports cars, already at work and therefore in the money. Who wanted schoolboys when you could frug with semi-grown ups?

Much later, post-son, in my 40s, I started 5 Rhythms dancing – New Yorker Gabrielle Roth created this urban shamanism, this limb prayer, this way of connecting, no really connecting, not drunken connecting – because my friend, Carol Lee was one of her first students in the UK. My son often came with me and played amongst us while we danced our bones and blood. These were special times in a church hall in Shepherd’s Bush where our friend Miguel would turn up with his didge and offer its healing growl to our hungry bodies, we would sing the rhythms, we would stop and do spontaneous tarot writings. These were not traditional classes and that’s why they were so inspiring. When we danced with partners, we’d stop and tune into each other, there was a closeness, a tenderness and I loved it.

In my mid-50s, the dance camp arrived. The Field of Love. Ten days on a field first in Norfolk, then in Suffolk and finally in Dorset. With live musicians. We danced ‘til we dropped. We dropped as we danced. It was a crazy love fest where we would bundle together, see into each other without social masks, dance like dervishes, cook over open fires, and roar with laughter in the hot tub made from an old orange juice container with a Heath Robinson fire to heat it. There was even a caravan sauna.

I was single and I went to those camps for nine years. Just as I was disappearing from view in some ways in society, I re-appeared on the Field of Love. It was a space where age did not matter.  Where I felt totally met in the dance. And emotionally. I was able to be vulnerable and there were people to hug me. We were a community – in a loose way, we still are – and we looked after each other. A men’s and a women’s group came out of it, both still exist.

Profound friendships were made. And we’d dance in the morning when we got up when we were chopping vegetables when we were tired and should have gone to bed. We were raw with each other and open to love. Our hearts were on fire.

I got the chance to practice – performing poems, presenting the cabaret, leading runway flamboyance across the green green grass, instigating a hat parade, taking the group on a late-night labyrinth meditative walk, creating a pleasure bazaar based on one I’d experienced at a Tantra Festival in Catalonia. There was no end to our creations.

The camps emboldened me and I made a couple of dance films – well I say I made, my son is a film-maker, he did the practicals – Dance Willesden Junction (https://vimeo.com/34487064) and Dance Harlesden (https://vimeo.com/66771510s) as part of my Harlesden book project. Oh I so loved those dancing days. I felt as though I had my very own nomadic dancing tribe. We danced to Al Green in a piss-stench tunnel, we rolled on the paving slabs in the heart of Harlesden. People stared and smiled and were sometimes entranced. Others rubbished us. We laughed at ourselves. I didn’t want those days to end.

So much of what happened on the Field of Love has seeded what I’m doing now. Both in poetry – I just finished a year’s Willesden Junction Poets’ project with nine poets and BeWILDering, a book of our poems about the station, which was funded by the Brent2020 Culture Fund. And now with Dance Me To Death, an Arts Council England-funded performance, film and exhibition with ten Over 60s non-professional dancers, of which I am one!!! This is the perfect Advantages of Age Project.

Really this is my dream come true. To create a dance piece with choreographers Rhys Dennis and Waddah Sinada from FUBUNATION. I met them in 2020 at the Brent Artist Network – set up by Brent2020, it was such a good idea and meant that artists and performers in the borough got to meet each other. Rhys and Waddah were doing a presentation. I chatted to Rhys afterwards. I had it already in my mind that it would be great to do an intergenerational project.

I got even more excited when I saw the dance that they do. They explore black masculinity through dance and challenge stereotypes around what that is. Their pieces are all about trust and gentleness. They take risks with intimacy and touch. They are two young black men who are not afraid of diving into unknown male territory.

They perform contemporary dance but there are many crossovers with 5 Rhythms. This willingness to explore and take risks relationally in the dance. is what I’m passionate about. Next, I had to persuade them to do this project with me. I met Rhys for a cup of tea in Harlesden, he actually seemed keen. I felt into the potential richness. I felt my body smile.

And then the long Arts Council application slog started. It was relentless. Seventy-three pages of budgets, marketing, management and explanations. I nearly gave up the will to live during this time. It seemed endless. And I was scared that I would fail. Finally, it went off.

When the answer came a few weeks later in December, I didn’t open it for a few weeks. Not wise. I hadn’t got the money. I guess around this time, Rhys and Waddah thought that we wouldn’t get it. I had to gather myself, get through my fear of failing and respond to the ACE feedback. I was in N Wales for this winter lockdown and I just had to hunker down and get on with it. I did.

Two weeks before the Dance Me To Death start date, I found out that I’d been offered the grant. It took me weeks to actually believe it.  Now we just had to create the performance, a short film and an exhibition. There was just one hitch. A condition of the offer was that Kensal Green Cemetery – the chosen location because it is gloriously one of the Victorian Magnificent Seven in London – agreed to be the location for the performance.

This was a stressful period. I was looking for a hall for rehearsals, putting a call out for non-professional dancers while I didn’t know if we had the cemetery to dance in. A lovely Operations Manager at Kensal Green Cemetery, Peter Humphries – he’s Australian, very laid back and has been so supportive of the project – pushed it along for us. And it happened.

Now six weeks later, we’re about to start our fourth workshop and the performance is starting to come together. There have been all sorts of uncomfortable zones to pass through – like counting, like actual choreography. Many of the dancers come from a 5 Rhythms’ background, which is great for me because we get to dance together in a way that I understand.

At the first workshop, Waddah and Rhys taught us ‘flocking’, a term in contemporary dance which means one person starts a movement and the others follow, and when you’re in a group, the change of the person leading becomes almost imperceptible. The group is moving as one. It was terrifying – you have to step out and lead – but thrilling.

This was a way of building content. In fact, Waddah and Rhys gave us exercises so that we created the movements, and then they chose which ones to use in the performance and started breaking them down with breath and counting. This was scary as well. I went home the first week feeling intimidated by the idea of this choreography.

However, by end of the second workshop, I loved it. It was stretching us. And I could feel us moving together as a collective and that was very satisfying. We felt like a dance company. I must say my admiration for all the other dancers is immense, everyone without fail has been giving the workshops their all. It’s moving to witness and be part of.

And the musicians, Fran Loze on haunting cello and Mark Fisher on tight percussion and guitar hold us in the dance and the beat. The performance has started to feel like a wake already. Funnily enough, Fran and Mark are musicians that I met on the Field of Love and I relish that continuum.

In the mornings, I facilitate emotional work around death and dying. We are making layers of trust between us. The first week, I asked everyone – Rhys and Waddah are included – to bring objects to put on the altar (this is a sacred place created every week) that honoured their dead. I brought a photo of Jayne, a close friend who decided to take her own life because she couldn’t stand to be here any longer. I talk about her kindness and how important she had been to me. And the way she’d made a gentle place for herself in the woods as a way to go.

Neither Rhys nor Waddah has had anyone close to them die yet but Rhys brought in one of his grandma’s bracelets and talked about finding his place among his ancestors. I was touched that he was already thinking about the ancestors.

In the second week, I invited them to get in pairs and create an International Grief Ritual for people who had died worldwide from Covid. I don’t think they expected that but they had some great ideas. I think we’ll come back to those rituals. One was a festival like Live Aid, another was a ritual, that was repeated all over the world.

The morning’s work feeds into the dance. Dance Me To Death. One of the dancers, Anthony, mentioned early on that when he’s dancing for three hours at 5 Rhythms classes, he can imagine dying in that space. In that bliss and peace.

Yes, Anthony, yes.

Anna Halprin – whose quote I use at the top – died at 100 last week. She was a dancer and choreographer until the very end of her life. She believed in the healing power of dance and indeed used cathartic movement as part of her healing voyage with cancer in the 1970s.

This is all tangling up and finding its way into our performance. I can’t wait.

Dance Me to Death is happening on June 26th at 3pm in Kensal Green Cemetery. You can buy tickets here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/…/dance-me-to-death.

The price includes a glass of wine or sparkling water afterwards.

There is an after-party, an exhibition, a Q & A plus vegan tagines are available to pre-order. There will also be a short film that will be screened later in the year.

We’re on Insta #dancemetodeath

A Warm Coat in April – honing the art of the virtual live show


1 Minute Read

It’s one year on and there is every reason to be optimistic. Thirty-one million people have been vaccinated in the UK, over five million have had their second shot. Last week there were no reported COVID deaths in London. Next week, things will begin to open up again, to a level we last had in November 2020. The very last time I met with my friends for a sit-down after-work drink in Soho, braving the winter outdoors just for the pure pleasure of each other’s company, knowing we would be missing, not one, but two of their birthdays.

Five months on, Easter Sunday has just passed. On Monday, we met friends in Hastings for a ‘Scandi’ picnic. Outdoor lunch in their garden. Typical April weather, we went through all four seasons, visited mid-way with a tiny sprinkling of snowflakes.  At first, we thought it was blossom petals, but the tiny flakes on pristine black linen napkins confirmed: snow. It passed swiftly and we made the best of the day and of each other’s company by moving the lunch table around the garden, following the sun.

I had arrived in a lightweight spring coat, knowing that our host, Colette, had promised blankets, food and alcohol-laced coffee. Luckily for me, Colette had decided a much-loved 1950s wool swing coat needed a “longer body” than hers. Colette found me a furry hat and a pair of dark glasses. In an instant, I had been transformed from grump to glam. I pranced around a bit, mad as March hare (as they say) singing, ‘Dr. Zhivago! Go! Go! Go!’

These are the kinds of things that can’t happen on Zoom, no matter how sophisticated your background screen is. Though I shudder to imagine how much more difficult these lockdowns would have been without technology, virtual space is no substitute for live interactions. There is no virtual equivalent of being given a warm coat in April or resolving the mystery of whether a flake is a blossom or snow.

Like many performers, I have missed live space in ways I have found unexpected. There is lots of talk about ‘skin hunger, more so for people who live alone and have had to endure months of no contact with anyone other than those in their ‘bubble’. Air kissing has morphed to air hugging and it is to the air that we have all brought our attention to; the air that we breathe, the air that gives us life and is also now our greatest threat. I can’t be the only one who has inadvertently held my breathe under my mask while passing a particularly heavy breathing jogger, can I? In November, I was beyond relieved to be put back on part-furlough and told I could work from home. I dreaded going back to full furlough, to be so cut-off from my workmates, but I think HR was worried that I might actually accost a non-mask wearer. I’m not saying that their fears were misplaced. Commuting from my new flat in Hastings to Tottenham had begun to feel like running the gauntlet. Impossibly stressful, full of perceived threats.

Since the first lockdown, I had, like everyone else spent many hours online; many celebrations, socials, writing workshops, book launches, open mics, performances. One highlight was gifting my mother a new mobile phone so we could face-time each other between South Africa and the UK. What a pleasure to see her beautiful face. To check in a few times a week and see how she was doing, even though I was short of scintillating anecdotes and exciting opportunities, just touching base was comforting for us both.

I actually took part in an online panto ‘Snow White’ with some friends. Many people got pressganged into it but the night itself was wonderful. My friend Alexander Blair, upped the ante by posting pictures of the corset he was handmaking for his turn as the Panto Dame. My flatmate turned his bedroom into a green screen studio and created an entire backdrop scene with a hilarious turn with a graphic bear that popped up behind him so that we could all shout, ‘It’s behind you!’ in our separate rooms. I was laughing so much the tears running down my cheeks moistened the glue on my mustache. Prince Charming, under-estimating her time between lines, went out for a fag and had us shouting into the void for him to come back, hilariously trying to stay ‘in character’ at the same time, as we were recording the performance. Mad Pirvan who was playing Snow White amid a projected wood forest, kept valiantly trudging on. It was beautiful, wonderful, chaotic fun; but we all vowed to do this in person as soon as we possibly could. I don’t think there has been a single virtual event that has not left us hoping and longing for a live-live, though equally, I think we would all happily forego traveling for meetings while slowly building up the courage to keep our cameras off.

I have been playing around with different ways of performing (other than being sat in front of the camera). My bedroom is also an office and is large enough for me to create studio space in it. I have got a small kit of ‘stuff’ together, some bought, some begged, some borrowed: a good webcam, a stand to hang different backdrops, access to a good mic (when needed), a light kit. Virtual performances, like other performances, still need to look visually good. For the Poets for the Planet FRESH: Eco-poetry open mic, which we started last summer, we ask readers to check that they have good light and good sound. It makes the world of difference having illumination from either the front or the side. Often this is as simple as moving a sidelight or changing the position of your camera/laptop. I was advised that if I had a mobile phone, using the camera on that for Zoom would be better than using the default camera on my laptop. It is still good advice. It took me ages to work out that you can buy a relatively inexpensive cam card  (£15-£20) to transform your DSLR camera into a webcam. I have done this for live feeds when I have needed to use a better low-light camera and it works a treat. High-end cam cards cost about £110 and are probably well worth it, but you can definitely get away with cheaper ones, though they may be less reliable in the long run.

One of the great advantages of virtual live performance has been the de-territorialising of events. Most events now will attract participants from across the UK and across time zones and have access to events streamed from other places. It has been wonderful to connect with The Poetry Brothel New York, even if that has meant staying up till 3 am so that I could. Virtual relationships are just as meaningful as those in the flesh and I can’t imagine doing another event that does not make some provision for people (both audience and performers) who cannot be there physically, to have some virtual access. It may also work for performers to increase their income streams at a time when social distancing means limiting the numbers of in-the-flesh audience members.

My most creative performance online was for ‘Maiden / Mother /Crone’ – a project by ‘women of words’. The organisers were very open about how the performance could take place: either pre-recorded or live. After a slow start, I became really excited about the performance, choosing a mixture of pre-recorded and live performance, but sod’s law, despite having a great idea and structure, a ‘little match that could’ refused to blow out, resulting in a tussle in what Henni Saarela, who had designed the music for the piece described as ‘Woman vs Fire’. This small delay effectively put the live actions out of sync with the pre-recorded poem, music, and projected imagery. When it ended (all the excruciating six minutes of it!) I collapsed in a ball of tears. So much work and not at all the result I wanted! The organisers and friends who saw it assured me that it was not as bad as I imagined, but when I saw the footage played back, it was so much worse! I berated myself for not just releasing a pre-recorded set, but really, I love live shows, as it does mean that every time you do it, there is some variation. Any performer who does a long run will confirm this. It doesn’t matter if you have performed a piece hundreds of times, every performance is unique.

I am so looking forward to venues opening up again, but I still have a sense of unease. Some internal warning against being too optimistic. A reluctant realisation that it may still be some time before things will return to normal again or indeed that we may have to contend with a ‘new normal’ for some time. My interest in performing multi-sensory, close-quarter readings still looks like another world away. How do we even begin to transfer the world of the senses over digital media?  How would I even begin to translate this into live space in a socially distanced, COVID-friendly way? What is the relationship between the senses and intimacy? For the moment I will have to content myself with being happy just to be able to do any live-live (not virtual-live) performances, even socially distanced ones – but I hope as we return to normal, we don’t lose our capacity or will for de-territorialising events and making access possible for those unable to join us in live space. To extend the offer of a warm coat in April across digital means.

You can subscribe to my YouTube channel where I will post new videos of performances.

https://youtu.be/ajvpv-yK2uA

PREMIERE OF HEKATE – a filmed live performance

Tues 27/04/202:  8pm

https://youtu.be/ylPQFKflt5Y

Payment by donation.  The recommended price is either the price of a  coffee or a cocktail.

https://www.paypal.com/pools/c/8yU0vnz8TW (till June 21) or https://paypal.me/debrawatson

The Culture Interview – Isa L Levy, artist and psychotherapist


6 Minute Read

Isa L Levy, 72, is a London-based artist and psychotherapist who has just published her memoir, Conversations with a Blank Canvas: From Nowhere to Somewhere Decades of Change and Transformation. You can buy it here.

What prompted this memoir?

Two clairvoyants told me I had to write my life story: one 40 years ago and one more recently a few years ago and so I decided to write it.

What is your aim in writing it?

Sharing my life story so that others can see how it’s possible to overcome your demons and with courage keep listening to your authentic voice to fulfill a sense of belonging to your ‘true self’; so often hidden by a ‘false self’ adapting to an outer superficial world. This is very much a sign of our times within our social media screens of ‘selfie’ curated false images and how that can emphasise feelings of low self-worth leading to depression, anxiety, addiction, and in the worst case of scenarios self-harm, suicide, and high crime rates

You mention ‘invites the reader to enquire more consciously about their own personal journey’?

In writing about my own journey of self-discovery I reveal how the ‘blank canvas’ was the beginning of my true connection to myself. I only discovered painting when I was 40 and some 450 paintings emerged – I say from nowhere but in fact from an unknown place of mystery and that was tremendously meaningful for me and life-changing. What I learned about myself through painting was very much what I facilitate in my clients which is the safe space within which to explore their own ‘blank canvasses’ within and if they can face their fears and pain they will find the richness that is there hiding in their ‘true self’. 

Tell us something about your own Jewish background growing up in Cardiff and how it has influenced you?

I believe my Jewish background is within every gene of my body; however, I did not identify as a religious Jew and have found my spiritual connections as a Quaker and Buddhist. I also realised that I did not conform to family and cultural expectations, which created a deal of painful confusion for me. If I didn’t conform – who was I? The Cardiff Jewish community was tight-knit and my parents were very committed to the local community. However, the pain was my motivation to find out more about myself.

Your family knew Dylan Thomas?

Yes. My father was born in Swansea, as was Dylan Thomas and Dylan lived in Chelsea with my uncle, art critic, and author, Mervyn Levy. My father, at that time, in those Chelsea days, was a poet and had exchanged poetry with Dylan and joined them when he ran away from home. I had the privilege of sitting on Dylan Thomas’s knee as a 2-year-old, although I can’t say I remember the experience. 

You describe yourself as ‘the black sheep of the family’, how did that manifest itself?

I now realise that I am a non-conformist but it’s taken me 72 years and the writing of my memoir to accept that label. It’s hard to fit into a traditional family as a non-conformist as individuality threatens the status quo.

What have been the most challenging areas of your own personal journey psychologically?

Well, I believed I was a failure in everything because I didn’t fit in; Failed in education, the pressure to marry, not wanting to marry, weight issues, and poor body image that created a lack of confidence which led to low self-esteem.

Tell us a bit about ‘questioning your sexuality’ as a teenager and the confusion of that?

Basically, I did not feel comfortable discussing my sexuality as a teenager in the 1950s and coming from a traditional family where we didn’t discuss anything that didn’t fit in socially. I discussed with a few friends but mainly kept things secret.

You performed a one-woman show at Wormwood Scrubs which changed the direction of your life?

Yes. I made a conscious decision to move from performance into the caring profession as I was more interested in the lives of the prisoners than my own performance.

You mention depression and loneliness?

I think depression and loneliness are part of the human condition and I think these problems can be masked by a manic defense against facing our most vulnerable side by compulsive addictions that are socially acceptable – like work, money, drink, narcissistic power distortions. We just have to look at our present demise with politicians and leadership. I think depression and loneliness is what we all face within our own ‘blank canvasses’ and we have been forced to look deeper into ourselves during this pandemic as everything familiar has been taken away from us and left us with time for a re-think.

And then, finding a more meaningful life?

Buddhism as a philosophy for life gave me permission to engage with my suffering as I realized there was nothing wrong with me other than that I was just human. My painting was the beginning of this journey of letting go and just allowing everything to flow out of me – it was liberating. And then 15 years later I had nothing more to say and closed the door on my studio without knowing what next. In the fullness of time I found myself embarking on a Masters degree in Arts and Psychotherapy in my mid- 50s without an A Level to my name and graduated at the ripe old age of 61 with a whole new career as an Arts Psychotherapist.

How has painting, poetry and other writing supported your evolution?

I could not have survived without creative expression as an actor, singer, songwriter, poet, playwright, artist, author and back to actor now for I had no other way to express myself.

You’re now involved in a musical production of ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’?

That was 2 years ago but I am involved with that director, Clair Chapwell and we’re performing a weekly soap opera at Jacksons Lane community centre, North London for a Pensioners Lunch Club; on zoom at the moment. I was invited by my local MP to sing a song I wrote about Climate Change, some 50 years, ago in parliament, when I had no idea at the time about the crisis that we have got ourselves into.

Tell us about your painting The Female Resurrection?

The Female Resurrection was painted after the death of my mother and four other important females in my life. I inherited a 7 foot blank canvas and decided to paint a female crucifixion scene putting the female figure on the cross as I wrestled with the question; how can you celebrate life whilst going through so much suffering? As there was no room for the central figure’s head as if by magic, I could see that there had been a resurrection, completely spontaneous, and therein lay the answer to my question.

How has lockdown been for you?

A very creative time linking me to like-minded international souls on zoom, publishing and promoting the book, seeing my therapy clients, albeit on zoom, seeing friends in a café when tiers permitted, facing myself and my core human loneliness and finding more transcendence, kindness, and compassion towards myself and others with more of a connection to my heart.

Where are you now on this journey and how has writing the book been?

I go with the flow now and enjoy what I have to deal with each day with the resolve to make it the best that I can, opening to new possibilities and expansion in every which way possible.

The Culture Interview – Louise Kleboe, singer


10 Minute Read

Louise Kleboe is a singer and composer, plus she plays piano and guitar. She was born in Cornwall and was brought up in the Orkney Islands. She currently lives in Clerkenwell, London. Her voice is operatic and her attitude and singing have been compared to Kate Bush. She opened the Glastonbury Festival in 2017 and 2019, she will be doing so again online this year. Check glastonburyfestivals.co.uk Her new album Verdant is released this week. You can pre-order it here.

 

You were brought up in the Orkneys, how did that affect your singing?

The weather and landscape there are tumultuous, unpredictable, like a wild barbaric symphony. My dad found a guitar in a skip and did it up. When I was 10, I got a book from Kirkwall Library and taught myself guitar. I loved that massive guitar. I performed my first song that I composed “Wild and Free” at the Orkney Folk Festival and on St Magnus Day celebrations in front of thousands of people. When I was 11 years old I was totally unselfconscious!! Sir Peter Maxwell Davis worked with our school music department, I was his glockenspiel player of choice!! His music was ultra-modern, atonal…it really fitted that unforgiving, stormy world. I was surrounded by folk music, the hundred violins, accordions & guitars of the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society…what a sound!! Pure Cape Breton energy. The song “The Oyster Catcher” is about this time and it features that rhythmic violin loop that conjures up the call of a sea bird lost to the wind and it has the youthful exuberance and determination that we can change this desperate trajectory. People on Orkney care about each other and care about art and music and are leaders in alternative energies, wind power, solar power, tidal power. I did my first recording there in Attic studios at age 12.

When did you discover you had such a powerful voice?

Then when we moved to Cornwall, my teacher Mr Bosustow heard those early Orkney recordings and offered to teach me classical singing for free. I lived in a single-parent household now with two younger siblings and I was a young carer for my disabled parent and we were very poor. I could never have afforded private singing lessons. At this time of being a young carer, I had very low self-esteem and the singing lessons really helped me feel better about myself and process the difficulties and trauma I was going through. I was asked to sing with some famous jazz bands in the Bude Jazz Festival which was a brilliant lesson in improvisation and thinking on my feet!! Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald became my heroes.

And you studied music at Trinity, how did this influence your trajectory?

Studying singing at Trinity College of Music was a shock after a very deprived existence in Cornwall. Suddenly I could buy a Mars bar whenever I wanted. It was so exciting being introduced to musical theory and exploring polyphony in the hallowed company of Monteverdi and the Jazz/Opera of Gershwin.

I generally hung out with the guitarists…they were more laid back. Know what I mean?

How did you partner up with Alfie Thomas musically? I love the combination of that punk accordion and your soaring voice.

I left college early to become a full-time carer for my disabled parent. After a while and with no opportunities or time to pursue a career in opera, I decided to give up singing altogether. The vicar of the local church asked me to do just one more concert before I quit, a solo spot in a carol concert in the Regents Park Housing Estate. Alfie was dragged in by his little daughter. He heard me sing and later wrote a song for me called “Stillness”. He said that I create stillness around me when I sing. He was writing music for film at the time and our shared love of Shostakovich clinched the deal!! Alfie has an unusual mix of punk-folk attitude (he was in urban-folk outfit Band of Holy Joy) and orchestral sensibility. We clicked immediately, we formed a band “Society of Imaginary Friends” where punk accordion meets opera/blues to explosive effect and have written two full-length operas together.

Tell me about opening Glastonbury in 2017 and this year online?

Glastonbury 2017 was my first experience of singing at the incredible opening ceremony in the green field, although I had previously performed on the amazing Arcadia Spectacular giant Spider stage as “voice of the spider” at Glastonbury Festival 2011. The Opening Ceremony in 2017 was a magical evening, a hot sultry Solstice night. So special, my first experience of working with that incredible team of fire dancers, choirs,  druids,  drummers, sacred women, the Native American  “Water Protectors” of Standing Rock and pyro-mystics and the atmosphere of the 65,000 joyous people. It is always a wild journey that starts in January when we are asked to write and perform the music and songs for the next ceremony. Everything associated with the Glastonbury Festival is extreme and super-charged. It is a Sun Festival and is very male in nature. The opening ceremony in the Green Field balances this extrovert male energy with female energy with gentleness, love, healing and compassion. It’s the opposite of the corporate music industry side of Glasto and has its roots firmly in the original free festival.

It has been an honour to have been part of the Green Fields team in 2017, 2019 and now this year sadly in lockdown but still vibrant and energised. I think the online 2020 opening ceremony will be very powerful and emotional. I am singing “We’re a Real Force of Nature” and this message feels so strong and true in the performances and messages from all involved. Normally people don’t get to see the fire dancers or any of the participants close up so hopefully, this lockdown version will be a real treat.

What was the process of creating your new album Verdant like?

You won’t believe this but “Verdant” grew out of me moving my studio (Laptop, Speakers, Table) from the bedroom to the front room of my flat in Camden. I was going down a very dark cul-de-sac with my next album. Then my friend Carol who knows about these things told me to move the music production area to a more positive energetic space and suddenly the songs started to flow…the concept finally crystallised when I was moon-bathing in that incredible May Flower Full Moon.

Alfie and I have been heavily involved in the Green/Environmentalist movement for many years. We wrote music for Franny Armstrong’s film “The Age of Stupid” and are painfully aware of time rapidly running out for the earth and for our children and all of the living creatures of this amazing planet. Verdant starts dreamy and shifts into anger and desperation but is determined and hopeful in the end.

Do you and Alfie write the songs together?

Most songs are 50/50 collaborations. We are both composers and lyric writers and swap roles all over the shop. But I am the one who is most careful about LEVELS when recording, mixing and mastering!! Alfie’s punk side means he always has the knobs rammed up to 11!!

How do your politics affect your lyrics?

I am passionate about what is happening in the world. It seems to me that we are being led down the garden path by a bunch of criminal, ignorant, narcissistic psychopaths upholding a man-made economic system that works against the planet, society, equality and love. Sadly it sometimes feels like I am shouting in the wilderness or just into a social bubble. We have never been more isolated than this time of social networking. But I can’t keep silent about the madness that we are descending into.

You’ve also made soundtrack music for films?

People often describe our music as being “cinematic”. We write music for film. It’s an exciting process because the image becomes the voice with the music in the supporting role. It is a different skill I love to explore. I love the film scores of Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and Nino Rota. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score for DEVS was great and we are currently loving Adem Ilhan’s score for the hilarious “Avenue 5”. It’s a really healthy art form at the moment. I’ve got to tell you about my proud moment when I recently won the “Best Sound Design” award at the Southampton International Film Festival for the film Night light.

Tell me about a couple of the songs on the new album – Virus and The Garden?

Our song “The Virus” from “Verdant” is a twisted operatic duet between myself and the amazing tenor David Pisaro who sang the part of Bill Gates in our rock opera “RAm”. He has a brilliant messianic, almost psychotic edge to his voice. The Virus is a premonition. We recorded it in Autumn 2019 secretly in a church over the road (someone left the doors open). No sign of COVID yet. I sing with trepidation about the virus leading to the death of truth and David comes back at me saying that the virus is his crowning moment as God of Earth. It is quite crazy how reality has just caught up with the song!!

“The Garden” is a question about where exactly we humans fit in, in the great scheme of things. What kind of animal am I?

I hear lots of different influences from traditional folk songs to Indian drums?

Our ears are open and we paint with a very broad palette, we have worked with some of the world’s greatest musicians on “Verdant”. For example Anselmo Netto, Brazil’s master of percussion, Kiranpal Singh’s delicate waterfall of sound from his Santoor and Tabla and Oxhy, a brilliant young producer/ composer who created beats for one of our tracks.

You finished the album during lockdown in the woods. How was that?

Our friend very kindly offered her cabin in the woods just before lockdown so that we could carry on recording at a reduced pitch of anxiety. It was an amazing offer as Alfie has diabetes and would be vulnerable if he caught COVID. If you listen closely there is the sound of birds singing on vocal tracks. We drink coffee, we eat things but the joy is missing. The taste has evaporated. The tragedy is always there in the background and the knowledge of a huge climate Crisis around the corner, it feels very biblical – pestilence and then famine.  It’s a very important lesson about priorities. Nature has finally had a rest from us humans, which is so wonderful. We saw otters and a huge snake side-winding by the door…birds of prey…the insect population is healthy, especially the ticks!!  Spooky, beautiful and precious and undeniably “Verdant” but for how long? We need Nature but Nature doesn’t need us.

You’ve been compared to Kate Bush and Grace Jones in the Telegraph?

Yes, I have often been compared to Kate Bush and I find the comparison a great compliment. Although I don’t think our voices are really that similar as my voice is deeper. I suppose she has a folk edge and classical leanings and she isn’t afraid of departing from musical norms. So we are similar in that way.  Grace Jones? She is a stylish and a formidable presence on stage with massive charisma…so…OK !! Wow !! Both wonderful comparisons, which make me happy.

Book Review: Dear Life – A Doctor’s Story of Love & Loss


1 Minute Read

Reviewed by Asanga Judge

Dr Rachel Clarke is a specialist in palliative medicine. She has often been in the media during the Covid-19 crisis talking clearly about what is needed in terms of provision of PPE, perspectives and compassion.

Asanga Judge is a former GP.

I am not easily moved to tears, so the fact it happened to me repeatedly when I was reading this book is a mark of Rachel Clarke’s profound compassion towards her patients, in her capacity as a palliative care specialist running a hospice for terminally ill patients.

As a reaction to some of the awful experiences she had during her early medical career, for instance, people dying in terrifying and undignified circumstances, she decided that she intended to do everything she could to make her patients’ last days comfortable, peaceful and fulfilling.

One example was Ellie, in her early 20s with aggressively metastatic breast cancer that was causing her organs to shut down rapidly. She desperately wanted to get married with her family and friends present. She asked Rachel, ‘Can you keep me well enough to make it to Thursday?’ – that was in two days’ time. Rachel knew all she could do was to promise to try. She used all her medical skills to keep Ellie alive for the next two days and then to give her enough strength to manage the ceremony. As the final moments of the ceremony took place – Ellie was momentarily transformed ‘from a dying woman to a luminous young bride on her wedding day – radiant, ecstatic. Her cancer vanishes. And everyone sees it, everyone feels it – the world falling away until only one thing remains: two 20somethings getting married with beaming smiles. Ellie dies the next day, held by James and still wearing her dress of white chiffon.’

‘Living does not stop because one is dying.’

I have selected this quote from the end of the book because I think it creates a very welcome and inspiring picture of how the life of dying people in this type of palliative care is not typical of the generally held view of hospices. They are still viewed as places to die rather than places to live well until you die. And even in today’s progressive climate of death cafes and end of life doulas, there is still reluctance in our society to discuss the subject of dying.

‘If there is a difference between people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it is simply this: the terminally ill know their time is running out, while we live as though we have all the time in the world. Their urgency propels them to do the things they want to do, reach out to those they love and savour the moments of life still left to them. In a hospice, therefore, there is more of what matters: more love, more strength, more kindness, more smiles, more dignity, more joy, more grace, more compassion – than you could ever imagine. I work in a world that thrums with life. My patients teach me all I need to know about living.’ Rachel Clarke.

For me, one of the most important issues dealt with here is how fear and misunderstanding around death and dying, cause a lot of anxiety and potential, yet avoidable, suffering. That simple listening and communication around each person’s individual circumstances are at least, if not more, important than the use of sedatives and analgesics. Death remains a taboo even for doctors. And I speak here as one of the profession myself. Traditional medical teaching has always been focused on the ability to cure illness. Palliative care was, and still is among the profession as a whole, associated with failure. Because of this, the subject of caring for the dying patient has been woefully neglected in the teaching schedule.

Rachel Clarke also explains how for most people in a hospice their final days pass very much in the same way: gradually sleeping more and slipping into deeper unconsciousness. I imagine that prior knowledge of this, which many may not have, would be a blessed comfort. It was for me.

I cannot over-emphasize how much I was affected and inspired by this book. It even motivated me to discuss my own death with my daughter and let her know about practical matters such as my financial arrangements, which she found useful as well an indication that I was looking after her for the future. I am almost 77.

I think everyone should read it.

How My Wife and I Persuaded Sir Karl Jenkins To Play At Our Village Church


1 Minute Read

Peter Harrison, 81, tells the story of how he and his wife, Vivien, 78, set up a fantastically successful series of classical music concerts. In their local village church. Sir Karl Jenkins, the classical composer is bringing the world premiere of his new work there on November 29th.

This is the story of an unexpected later-life vocation that has transformed my life. Alongside my wife Vivien, I am the co-founder of registered charity Grayshott Concerts, a classical music concert series established in 2004. I have no musical qualifications, but the sheer joy of sharing live classical music with others and creating a legacy for my community has culminated this year in bringing the world premiere of the new work by Sir Karl Jenkins, the world’s most-performed living composer, to a small village on the Hampshire-Surrey borders.

In 2003, our daughter married at our local village church, St Luke’s in Grayshott. We wanted a choir to perform during the service and lead the singing, not least as St Luke’s is a relatively large church and a big space to fill. I had been a chorister at school and university, and evidently had more important duties to perform on the day as the father of the bride, but we successfully recruited a host of singing locals and the ceremony was beautiful.

The following year, the church was appealing for funds and we rallied the same choir to put on a paid performance. The result? £3,500 raised for the church and much local acclaim which prompted people to ask us when the next concert would be, and so Grayshott Concerts was born.

The marketeer in me could see that there was clearly an appetite for high-quality classical performance in the very local area, but my musical knowledge and education are limited. I had sung in amateur choirs since my school days and have always enjoyed listening to classical music but have never played an instrument or performed myself, nor has my wife. We are however great believers in the power of positivity and take an “If you don’t ask, you don’t get” approach to most challenges.

Having decided to create an ongoing programme of classical concerts, we needed to find performers to fit the bill. As a starting point, Vivien and I compiled a wish list of our personal favourites. And then went about tracking them down to ask them to forego more familiar venues like the Royal Albert Hall to instead come and perform at our village church!

Amazingly, several of them said yes! Along came London Mozart Players, Chloe Hanslip, Howard Shelley, Tasmin Little, Alison Balsom, Nicola Benedetti, The Sixteen Choir and others. Sir Karl Jenkins had been on our list for some time, so when we learned that he would be visiting the area one particular weekend, we engineered a meeting where we could quickly tell him about our concerts and ask him to get involved.

He also said yes! In 2007 he became our Patron and since then we have commissioned him to write several works including The Healer: A Cantata for St Luke to celebrate our tenth anniversary in 2014. He has also composed a shorter piece for Shoshanah Sievers, a young and very talented local violinist that we have supported since the age of six with opportunities to give public performances.

From two performances that first year, the programme has grown to include five or six every year, and every event has been a sell-out. This has encouraged us to stage bigger concerts with major works including symphonies, oratorios and operas. We have also invested in staging and a permanent lighting rig and screen systems in the church. But of course, none of that comes cheap so, alongside the visible activity of promoting the concerts, Vivien and I have invested a huge amount of time in securing additional funding from individual and corporate sponsors and grants.

Unsurprisingly, by 2009 Grayshott Concerts was taking up so much of our time that we decided to wind up our business in order to concentrate fully on it. In 2011, Grayshott Concerts became a registered charity so we now work with a board of trustees, which has enabled us to benefit not only from a wider pool of volunteers to manage the programme but also claim tax benefits through Gift Aid. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to bring the local community of all ages more closely together through the joy of music.

We have invited children from the local primary school to sing at several concerts (including the Karl Jenkins compositions), and members of our house orchestra, the London Mozart Players, regularly visit the local care home to entertain residents in between rehearsals. We’ve also extended the social aspect of the concerts by adding on pre-concert suppers, hosted at a nearby restaurant which has always sponsored every event.

This year we are celebrating the 15th anniversary of Grayshott Concerts. Quite a milestone, and one that we are tremendously excited to be marking with the world premiere of Sir Karl’s newest work, Miserere: Songs of Mercy and Redemption, on 29th November. We have managed to recreate the exact line-up of performers featured on the newly-released CD including Polyphony Choir, Britten Sinfonia Orchestra, international counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, cellist Abel Selaocoe, former Royal Harpist Catrin Finch and percussionist Zands Duggan, conducted by Stephen Layton.

As with all of our concerts and events, it’s a sell-out – in fact, it’s our fastest selling performance to date with all tickets selling out in just two days. And that will take some beating.

The Yeastie Girlz Interview


9 Minute Read

SERENA CONSTANCE interviews with Cammie Toloui, co-founder of 80s feminist rap band, the Yeastie Girlz. 

It’s a muggy Friday night in August, and on the spur of the moment, I’ve made it to the last Haiku Hands UK tour gig in the intimate venue above the Hope and Ruin bar in Brighton. I’m not disappointed by the energy these three Australian female rappers (sisters Claire and Mie Nakazawa, with Beatrice Lewis) unleashed into a mixed audience of all ages. I can still bump, grind and squat at the front with great energy. Just the tonic I needed after a stressful week, though my thighs are groaning the next day. 

Coming out of the Peaches mould of electro hip hop and dance-pop, Haiku Hands are a feisty act with lyrics full of attitude and girl power. They get the whole crowd dancing. Together with their local Brighton support act, rapper Boudicca, the show contains a sense of energetic empowerment in these uncertain times, when modern pressures on young women are affecting their mental health more than ever. We need girl bands like this.

On the walk home, I’m thinking about the history of female singers in hip-hop, rap, and other genres. Before Haiku Hands, Peaches and Pussy Riot, when I was a teenager in the early to mid-80s, I was riding the wave of post-punk and new wave bands fronted by women with attitude, who were blazing a trail through a sexist, male-dominated industry. On the UK music scene, The Slits and the Au Pairs made me feel strong. They were singing about the reality of sex and female bodies from a women’s perspective, not through the male gaze. Hell yeah! Their music is still as powerful today with Peaches and Pussy Riot taking the genre further.

In 1987, the year I started university, hip hop was big but so male. I remember going to see the Beastie Boys and Run DMC at the Brixton Academy, on their infamous tour featuring a giant inflatable penis and caged female strippers. (Peaches does it so much better with her feminist twist.) On the other side of the Atlantic, three young women at Berkeley were performing their response to the white male hip hop explosion. Although I hadn’t heard of the Yeastie Girlz at the time (too busy raving in fields), I met one of the founding members, Cammie Toloui, when she stood up to rap at a monthly Sunday gathering of Guerrilla Poets in Lewes, performing an acapella Yeast Power.  As she had the whole pub crowd cheering, I realised just how relevant her music and lyrics are for women now as they were thirty years ago.

Cammie is a professional photographer, as well as a rapper, and also runs a massage treatment centre in Lewes. I wanted to know more of Cammie’s story, so caught up with her for an interview in her studio, on how the DIY band ethos of the Yeastie Girlz emerged.

“I was a teenager growing up in the San Francisco bay area. In the town of Berkeley, there was a magazine called MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and the editors had found a great venue on Gilman Street for young bands to play. We would all volunteer to help run the nights, and it was an incredible community. Not long after it opened, there was a big 4th July music festival; the trouble was all the bands were boys. My friend Jane came up to me and Joyce and said we have to do something about this. There are just too many boys on stage. Usually female bands were lumped all together in one line up, instead of integrating and mixing us up. Jane sat down and quickly wrote this rap Yeast Power. In between bands, we just jumped on stage, grabbed the mic, shouting “we’ve just written this song and want you to listen”:

We’re the Yeastie Girlz and we’ve got yeast power, we don’t shave our armpits and we don’t shower…

“We were terrified, but we sang it and jumped off the stage. It was so scary but kind of exciting too. We were 18, fresh out of high school. We’d sing as a bit of a joke, standing around the club, from time to time. Then the editor of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL was going to put out a 7 inch EP of all the bands that performed at Gilman Street and included us. We recorded as an acapella rap, it was about the lyrics and the attitude. Then the name came up; the Beastie Boys had just burst onto the scene but their songs were kind of rapey, so we said we’re the Yeastie Girlz.  We started to write more songs and add to the performance. We’d get speculums and explain to the women in the audience how to use them.”

This made me think of Annie Sprinkle’s sex-positive feminist performances where she’d use a speculum on herself and invite the audience to look at her cervix.  I asked Cammie more about this part of their act:

“ I wanted to educate. I’d worked out you could play the cardboard tube of a tampon applicator as an instrument, so I figured out how to play songs such as Iron Man on it. I’d get on stage and play this thing, sometimes throwing a whole bunch out into the mostly male audience. It was very feminist; we’d be teaching women how to defend themselves too.  Most of the guys would be totally embarrassed, as we’d be singing about our periods, cunnilingus, yeast infections and so on. We were throwing it back into the faces of these punk guys who thought they were so tough; we’d freak them out! Most were great, but some just couldn’t handle it. However, the club was very open-minded; we wanted to talk to women but also shock the guys!

“In 1988 we went on tour as a joke; Joyce had moved to a squat in Amsterdam and Jayne moved to New York. I asked my friend Kate to join the band. We went over to Amsterdam separately and did European tours with Joyce; we’d just show up, no music, just our voices. Most people didn’t know what we were singing about but occasionally they would because of the international reach of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. We were trying to sell our demo tape too, so we dipped tampons into fake blood and put them in with the tapes so people would have to pull them out. We were really challenging guys’ attitudes to women and our bodily functions.

I kept a scrapbook with all the comments and material we created. All our memorabilia is now in a feminist archive at Harvard. 

“By the late 80s, we’d split, as everybody had moved and were focused on different things. Then in 1991 we were contacted by a band called Consolidated. They were an indy dance band and wanted us to feature on their album. They sent us their music and we thought yeah, we could do ‘You Suck’ to this one. We recorded in the studio – me, Kate and Wendy O.  It became a dance hit, even to this day people tell me they’ve heard it or we get some royalties from radio airplay. “

I ask Cammie where she saw Yeastie Girlz within the feminist history of rap and dance music.

“We were pre-Riot Grrl and there were lots of female punk bands before us that set the stage; we weren’t breaking totally new ground, but every movement since has pushed it forward. To talk about your pussy, your periods and yeast infections was new. I look at other bands now like Pussy Riot and think wow, it’s really evolved. At the time, with what we were doing, we’d really taken the subject to a new level.”

As women, we have come a long way in terms of openly discussing periods and our power over our own bodies. with movements such as the campaign to end period poverty and group performances by artists within the Menstranauts collective founded by Dr Marisa Carnesky. I asked Cammie if she’d be performing more Yeastie Girlz:

“We’ve occasionally performed over the years, sometimes sitting down to write new songs. Now that all of us are going through perimenopause or are in menopause, we’ve got lots more to sing about. I feel there are people who are writing and performing about this now. For instance, whenever I see Pussy Riot – not that they are menopausal, but they are even more forceful and radical – I have so much respect for them; they are incredible. I look at them and think the world doesn’t really need the Yeastie Girlz anymore! I’d like to think the three of  us would get together to write a couple of menopause songs – that would be hilarious.” 

I wonder what Cammie’s now older wiser menopausal self would now say to her 18-year-old self. She laughs:

“Go girl! I don’t have any regrets. I’ve lived a full life as I could. We started the Yeastie Girlz when I was 18, but then in 1991, I became a peep show dancer at the feminist strip club The Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I was studying photojournalism at Uni and really needed more money to fund all the costs involved. I didn’t expect to stay as long as I did there – three years – but the work turned into a photojournalism project. I was documenting clients who agreed to be photographed. In fact, more people know me for the photos that came out of the Lusty Lady, as I’ve exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world.”

Having danced briefly at the Raymond Revue Bar in Soho back in 1998 – the now-defunct club had just celebrated its 40th anniversary – I became interested in sex-positive, feminist performers such as Annie Sprinkle. Co-incidentally I also have a copy of The Lusty Lady by Erika Langley on my bookshelf. I ask Cammie how receptive Lewes is to this aspect of her creative career:  

“I did a presentation with photos from the Lusty Lady era at the Westgate Chapel in Lewes. The audience was really surprised and enthusiastic, and I’ve had lots of positive feedback. I think people here see me as a mild-mannered massage therapist; they don’t tend to see me as a Yeastie Girl or a Lusty Lady!”

I’m glad that Cammie has stepped out of her Yeastie Girlz closet, and am looking forward to her latest creative project. You can view her photos at www.cammiet.com and find more about her current photography service. 

The Culture Interview: Lucy O’Brien – Writer & Academic


11 Minute Read

Lucy O’Brien, 58, is a writer and academic. She has written for NME and City Limits as well as the Guardian etc. She has published various books including Madonna: Like an Icon. She has just updated and re-released her biography of Dusty Springfield – Dusty.

What attracted you to writing this biography of Dusty in the first place in the late 80s?

I interviewed Dusty in 1988 when Phonogram released The Silver Collection, a sumptuous greatest hits album. I’ve interviewed quite a few musicians and artists and she stood out – for her Goonish humour and her original responses. She didn’t trot out a PR spiel, and she thought carefully about each question I asked. I think that summed up her approach to life and music. She never sang the obvious, and she made each song her own. The angle I took with the piece was that Dusty was ‘Queen of the Mods’. She had a cool mod sensibility, and was a regular on the 60s pop show Ready Steady Go!

I did the interview for City Limits magazine, and shortly after it was published an editor at Sidgwick & Jackson wrote to me saying, ‘Would you like to do a biography of Dusty?’ I jumped at the chance. I hadn’t published a book at that point, and it was a great opportunity.

Can you tell us something about that initial undertaking and the process around it?

Ooh, it felt arduous at first. I’d never written a book before…but then I realised that it was like a string of articles put together as chapters, with a linking theme. The next challenge was tracking down interviewees, people who knew her and had worked with her. In the late 80s there was no internet, so I had to use a lot of snail mail, do a lot of phone calls and face-to-face interviews. I also spent time in the US, travelling to New York, Memphis, Nashville and LA, interviewing friends and musicians she had worked with. There was a mystery around her at that point, because she moved to America in 1970 and disappeared from the scene. No one really knew what had happened to her…and I had to somehow piece the story together. All I had to go on was a trickle of articles in back issues of NME, and some press around the time she visited the UK for a ‘comeback’ tour in 1978. It was like doing detective work.

How has Dusty’s image changed now in this LBGTQ-aware era? 

She has become an LGBTQ icon. She was in the closet as a lesbian in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Being out and gay on the pop scene was tantamount to commercial suicide (and to an extent it still is). She had to invent boyfriends and live a life in public that felt artificial. In private she had a very active love life and used to go to lesbian clubs like Gateways, and had a legion of gay male admirers, some of whom used to enjoy dressing up in her gowns!

What did you find challenging about the writing of it?

The main challenge in the late 80s was what I couldn’t put into the book. It was read by lawyers, and I couldn’t write about Dusty’s lesbianism. I could only hint that she was bisexual, because she had said once or twice during interviews ‘I’m just as easily swayed by a woman as a man.’

I loved writing about her music, her childhood, the 1960s pop scene, and all her soulful influences. But I had to be careful when discussing her mental health issues and her drug use – she hadn’t talked about these things in our interview, and they were not in the public domain.

Would it have been different writing it now with the internet?

Writing a biography now is a very different process – it takes half the time. You can get in touch with people much more quickly via the internet, you can do Skype interviews, and there is SO much more information at your fingertips. However, you still have to fact check. And there is no substitute for physically travelling to a place and breathing in the air and absorbing the atmosphere, and talking to people face to face. Old-fashioned physical research gives you much more emotional information about a person’s life. The internet is very flat, gossipy and superficial. For instance, I learned so much about Dusty’s experience recording Dusty in Memphis when I actually went to the rundown studio in Memphis where she recorded it. And feeling the close-knit cameraderie of the Nashville music scene, or, by contrast, the alienation of those sun-baked LA freeways.

Tell us something about the interviews you did? For instance, with Pat Rhodes her longstanding assistant? Or others that stand out? 

I loved meeting her 1960s manager Vic Billings – he was a camp impresario of the old school, a real gent, and hilariously funny. Also her Philips producer Ivor Raymonde, (whose son Simon was part of that amazing post-punk band Cocteau Twins). Ivor was dashing, dedicated, and very good at explaining why Dusty stood out from the other 1960s beat girls like Lulu and Cilla Black.

I also remember interviewing the Dusty In Memphis producers – Jerry Wexler (so articulate, yet a little exasperated with Dusty), Arif Mardin (he drove me through Manhattan in his enormous station wagon and talked about Dusty’s instinct for soul music), and Tom Dowd (who gave me funny anecdotes about her tottering into the studio with her beehive and gown ‘made up like a Southern lady’). Sadly, all of those wonderful people have passed away, so I’m thankful I was able to capture their words and memories.

Dusty’s assistant Pat Rhodes was also helpful, giving me insight into Dusty’s childhood – her vivacious, slightly unhinged Irish mother, her shy, lumbering father, and brother Tom, who formed folk act the Springfields with Dusty in the late 1950s. Pat was a constant in Dusty’s life, and she has been really supportive of the book, at each stage.

This publication is updated – could you tell us something about that?

What’s good with this publication is I have been able to use some of the interview material that was out of bounds in the first edition. I can be much more frank about her lesbian relationships, and her struggles with mental health and addiction. It’s enabled me to go into her story in greater depth, and really explore the full impact of her legacy. I was able to interview her former lover Julie Felix, who told me a lot about the tensions of their secret relationship in the 1960s. I also talked to Pat, and Dusty’s close friend, the singer Simon Bell, about the last five years of Dusty’s life after she got the cancer diagnosis. They both spent a lot of time caring for her, staying at her house in Henley. It was reassuring to know that Dusty’s dry wit and humour stayed with her to the end.

And I interviewed playwright and TV scriptwriter Jonathan Harvey, who wrote the recent Dusty musical. He gave me a fresh perspective on her music, her psychological struggles, and her legacy as a gay icon.

Was there anything that shocked you when researching Dusty or Mary O’Brien’s life? 

I never forget talking to Brooks Arthur, producer of Dusty’s ill-fated, unreleased 1973 album Longing. ‘She wasn’t handling her New York trip very well. Something had begun to tumble,’ he said to me in an interview for the first edition of my book. He was hushed and close to tears when he talked about how she attempted suicide. He had to take her to hospital, and was devastated that he couldn’t take ‘good enough care of her.’ I was also shocked when talking to her US manager Howard Portugais, about how she tumbled so badly through drink and drug use, that she ended up with no money, living in a ‘halfway house’ in LA. I had no idea things had got that bad. I felt enormous sympathy for her, and realised then what a fragile character she was.

Did you understand Dusty’s mental health problems any better at the end of this research? 

Yes…that she was a bit like Amy Winehouse in the way she had to fight personal demons just to sing. She was her own worst critic, and had such a harsh opinion of herself. Yet she created such vulnerable, beautiful music. So much more is understood now about mental health. Many musicians struggle with it, and the music industry, with its punishing schedules of touring and promotion, can make someone’s mental health much worse. Dusty suffered from having to hide her true sexuality, and she battled anxiety and depression. However, as Jonathan Harvey says, what’s so inspiring about Dusty’s story is how in the end she made a brilliantly successful comeback with the Pet Shop Boys. And although she died young at 59, she found happiness and peace of mind at the end of her life.

I hadn’t realised what happened to her in South Africa and how she took that stand that made her controversial at the time, she wouldn’t play to segregated audiences in 1964? Good on her. Max Bygraves wasn’t too pleased!

Yes, Dusty was close friends with the Motown crew, particularly Martha Reeves. She was a huge supporter of the civil rights struggle, and was utterly opposed to playing to segregated audiences. However, Dusty really paid for that – many of her peers (like Max Bygraves) criticised her, saying she shouldn’t mix politics with showbusiness. A question was even raised in Parliament, asking whether a pop star should get involved and speak out against apartheid. Times really have changed.

And what about that beehive? What did it represent for her?

Dusty modelled her look on drag queens. She was never particularly comfortable being a typical girl, so she created a style that was hyper-feminine and over-the-top, with the panda-eye make up and the huge beehive. The queens loved it. I explore this in the book, how there was a split between the real-life Mary O’Brien and the stage persona Dusty Springfield. After a while, though, this split triggered a psychological crisis, and Dusty felt dominated by the alter ego she had created.

And the Lady? Her reputation wasn’t always great with musicians? And she was known to throw things around in her dressing room?

Dusty had a fiery temper. She had a ‘difficult reputation’, but many argue in the book that she had this reputation just because she was a woman making demands in the studio, and not accepting second best from the musicians she worked with. She was a hard taskmaster…and she fell out with a few musicians – notably jazz drummer Buddy Rich. They got into an argument and she whacked him round the head, sending his toupe flying.

She also liked to release tension by throwing food and crockery around her dressing room. She says that she always cleared it up!

Why did she disappear in the 70s in the US?

Dusty adored US soul music, and wanted to perform and record in America. She was also fascinated by American culture and Hollywood films, so moving to the US in the 70s was like the fulfilment of a childhood dream. Unfortunately it was also her undoing. The US music industry then was still very segregated, and they couldn’t understand or market a white English woman singing soul music. Also, as her backing singer Doris Troy said, there was a lot of cocaine around – ‘the devil’s dandruff was rulin’.’

And did she ever find a good gay relationship or was her family Catholicism always at play in the background? 

Dusty was inhibited by her Catholic upbringing, and found it hard to form lasting relationships. However, she had a long-term lover in the 1960s, artist-singer Norma Tanega. And she lived with a number of lovely women in LA. Pat says that towards the end of her life Dusty was single, and more devoted to her cats. It was simpler that way.

How was your interview with her in the late 80s?

I really enjoyed talking to Dusty. She was an original thinker with a nice turn-of-phrase. I always remember her talking about how being a female performer involved ‘such a lot of upkeep. All those hair extensions…’ And she enthused about Sinead O’Connor saying, ‘Where were women like her in my day? She’s young, Irish and so talented.’ She was analytical, and she KNEW her music. I would love to have known her as a friend, and to have her perspective on pop music now.

Dusty: The Classic Biography, by Lucy O’Brien is out on August 22nd

* Lucy is featured with writer Julie Hammil at The Rock N Roll Book Club event ‘Madonna and Dusty: Icons of Song’, London Dublin Castle, on September 4th. For tickets and info: https://www.wegottickets.com/event/476707

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