Design & Living / Culture Talks

Soul Survivor Wendy James on Punk and Progression

The former frontwoman of Transvision Vamp waxes lyrical about her new solo album, kindred spirits and the complexities of rock’n’roll

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Photography by Ricardo GomesCourtesy of Wendy James

The delicate balancing act required to survive mass adulation and fame, while keeping up the high-octane mystique that put you there in the first place, is a full-time occupation. Throw into the mix a reputation as the pin-up icon of a generation and things get a whole lot more complex. Ms Wendy James knows all about this. She spent her early life fronting the late-80s punk-pop outfit Transvision Vamp – a band that sold millions of albums globally, melding archetypal three-chord riffs and punk-pop perfection with their singer’s raw come-hither sexuality. A heady rock’n’roll cocktail, and one liable, of course, to implode.

It is now almost 30 years since the demise of the band that made a teenage adoptee-gone-wild the darling of style mags the world over, and James' rock’n'roll survivor credentials are arguably stronger than ever. She's now performing under her own name, backed by a band that boasts a member of The Stooges, a Bad Seed and an original Sex Pistol, and what James delivers on her third solo album, titled The Price of the Ticket, is akin to what Patti Smith might sound like were she fronting The Television Personalities – marrying explosive punk classicism with a beguiling, sometimes vulnerable honesty. Here, the true original discusses becoming a songstress in reverse, and distilling emotional complexity into three hot minutes.

On viewing life as a journey...
"I don’t believe in anything as mystical as fate or predestination. I prefer to think of this as my journey. Whatever amount of understanding, temperament and philosophy I may glean contributes to delivering me a fulfilling and challenging life"

On living her career backwards...
"From early childhood years it was obvious I was musical, and I enjoyed immersing myself in the performance of music. The environment I grew up in was decidedly not rock’n’roll, however, and it seemed to me that performing would be the most expedient method of escape. I was driven to perform and seek fame and, having achieved that, I then found that performance without substance, fame without substance, meant very little to me, and that a source of pure happiness would be to work from within and bring songs forth and enjoy the process, not the goal, of making music and writing lyrics."

On making music with kindred spirits...
"I never have a plan when I am writing songs, or for that matter, deciding on how best to make an album. I tend to live in the moment, listen to my own instinct and respond to people who I find to be good company. All the musicians on this album excel in taste, wit, style and talent. They all made culture-changing pieces of music."

On the skills that come with experience...
"As far as the content of The Price of the Ticket goes – the lyrics, the songwriting, the intention – I think as I get older, I become more able to edit down my emotions into something that conveys all the honesty of a life lived to date, and the myriad feelings I’ve lived through."

On the writers who influence her most...
"I’m a voracious reader, and there is a certain skill I admire in my favourite writers, be it Bob Dylan or Ernest Hemingway, whereby they can transmit a philosophy or an experience in such a succinct but poetic way, without clumsily putting too much or too little into their work. It’s a skill to be able to edit down what can be a lifetime into three minutes, and evoke the memory or thought or feeling well enough that anyone listening to those chords, that melody, these lyrics, can understand, relate and, possibly, has felt the very same thing."

On the boundary between who you are and what you do...
"Being a musician is my life. It’s not a choice I ever had to make. It is who I am. There is no distinguishable difference between what I love and what I do. I think I played my part alongside some other wondrous women who inspired me, in inspiring the next generation, the next wave, and I hope I still am."

Wendy James: The Price of the Ticket is available now.

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