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© Dean Stockings

“The energy is in the writing”: Toyah Willcox

Toyah Willcox has had one of the most eclectic and varied careers of her generation of pop stars. Jack Rayner caught up with her ahead of her performance at Rewind Festival
© Dean Stockings

"We had to look like women: there was no cross-dressing or gender choice. You had to look and behave 'like women'. I never felt like that was real and I didn't feel gender specific"

Most people who have had both acting and music career develop one of them first then use their success as a springboard for the other. What motivated you to do both at the same time?

I just think I've got OCD. My career suits my personality, and I like to know I've got different things to do. Acting, for me, is a radical departure from music. It's not even related. It's like living in two different bodies. I adore doing both, but I'm still a writer and I'm still a singer. I know I don't like doing stage musicals, but I do love drama and I have a particular love of the bizarre and horror. I just satisfy what I like doing and it's as simple as that.

Am I right in thinking that you like always having something to do next?

Yes, I'd be a sad soul if I wasn't working. When I'm acting - I'm in 4 films this year - for some reason it just triggers my creativity. It's to do with the whole setup when you're making a movie - you're like a travelling circus of entertainers and it just completely opens me up. The whole energy of being involved in a film complements me as a songwriter. If I'm not working I feel quite adrift, so I do like to constantly work.

Is it that the busier you are, the busier you feel so then the creativity comes to you easier?

Yes. The busier I am, the more creative I feel.

You've talked before about how back in the early days, you had the mad hair and the punk aesthetic long before it became fashionable. Where did that come from?

I grew up at a time when women were supposed to conform to a certain physical ideal of femininity. Young girls today wouldn't be able to believe the restrictions on women that existed even 50 years ago. We had to look like women: there was no cross-dressing or gender choice. You had to look and behave "like women". I never felt like that was real and I didn't feel gender specific, and I can say that now because there's a language to identify that. There wasn't back then. I very much wanted my image to reflect who I was, how I felt, who I was inside, and that I didn't want to conform to this gender imprisonment, so to speak. That's where it came from.

You've also mentioned in previous interviews that you used to get incredibly nervous before shows and get very anxious about your performances. How did you conquer that?

Oh god, well 4 o'clock in the afternoon would come around and I would just wish I was dead. In a way, that feeling still is there but it's such a familiar feeling that I don't feel disconnected by it any more. Performance is something I take very seriously, and the only example I can give you for that is if I'm about to do a take on a movie and someone talks to me about something unrelated, it can give me a panic attack. The last time I performed at Henley I was just about to step on stage and someone started talking to me about their dog or something and it just threw me completely. I have to be in the zone and I think part of that nervousness is the worry that someone is going to distract me. I tend to lock myself away, but I do still get nervous.

Do you have a routine or ritual to keep the anxiety at bay?

Well, the ritual is locking the door and keeping myself to myself.

For someone who does suffer from that sort of nervousness, how did you stay grounded throughout the early stages of your career?

I was very, very aware of the type of people that are attracted to stars. They're very manipulative and they're the kind of people that need to verify their own behaviour by influencing others. I'm talking about people that drink excessively, people that take drugs, people that want to have a relationship with you. For me, they were all so blatantly obvious that I could turn my back on them, no problem. I kept grounded because I could see everyone around me being manipulated, and I just thought that it was a complete waste of time. The circle around me are also very loyal, like-minded people. I think the sanity came from my circle of friends.

Did you have an alternative to the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll?

Well, I think people must have thought I was completely boring because I wasn't into it at all. My alternative is to go on a really long hike up a mountain. I really love solitary activity and being outdoors. Even if I'm travelling down from, say, Scotland and I'm not needed for 24 hours, I might just go off to the Yorkshire Moors and trek on my own. I love England, I think it's one of the most beautiful countries in the world and even at the age of 58 I haven't seen it all, so I'm always finding things to do - I've never needed the party life.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, it was all about bravado and 'peacocking', and the whole scene was very much based on that. How do you recreate that sort of energy nowadays?

It's a good question! The energy is in the music, and the energy is in the writing. With people of my age group, the energy is in their memories, but we're attracting a younger and younger audience because they just love the music. I'm so thrilled that the 80s mean so much to young people, so in a way I feel as if I'm now an ambassador and gatekeeper of who I was 30 years ago. When it comes to recreating the energy, I don't really have a problem with it, because as soon as I hit the stage I have so much energy that it's more about trying to control it. Performers today are quite controlled: when you look at The X Factor and things like that, these performers are either grounded to the mic stand or their doing choreographed dance routines. That's not what we were about: we were about the pure bravado of performing, and for me that is instinctive and it's still there. As for the image, I'm 58 and I do want to look vaguely age-appropriate. None of us are desperately trying to live in the past. These shows are phenomenally tight and up-to-date, and you see great performances from performers who have kept going and are actually at the height of what they can do. On one hand we're performing music that was written maybe 35 years ago, but we now have far more experience.

Do you see a lot of young people at your shows?

Yes, absolutely.

What can we expect at your set at Rewind Festival this year?

We do all the hits. It's a hit show, so it's hit after hit after hit. That's what you can expect: it's feel-good. As far as I'm concerned, my performance is a shared performance with the audience: they are 50% of what I do. They can expect to have a lot of fun and to hear great music with a great band.

What are your plans for the future?

There's a lot going on. I have a musical opening in London on the 30th August at the Scoop Theatre near The Globe, and that's based on Dostoyevsky's Crime & Punishment: my music is being set to that story so that's a big event for me over the summer. I'm also shooting 4 movies, so it's a busy year.

Toyah Willcox plays Rewind South 80s Music Festival at Temple Island Meadows in Henley-On-Thames on Saturday 20th August.


- Jack Rayner


Images - © Dean Stockings


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