Chrissie Hynde: Going It Alone With The Pretenders

Close-up colour portrait of Chrissie Hynde sitting in a doorway in a red-brick wall
(Image credit: Kevin Nixon\/TeamRock)

Chrissie Hynde sidesteps into the London restaurant, an indomitable riot of colour and character and devil-may-care hair, shrugging off her leopard-print coat to reveal a Mothers Of Invention T-shirt. She doesn’t do handshakes, prefers to fist-bump. Famously down-to-earth, she’s happy discussing local buses and Tubes before I think to ease her in by discussing her new album.

“Well, maybe we should start with, ‘Who are the Pretenders?’” she tweaks, not one to acquiesce for politeness’ sake. “Because otherwise I’ll spend half the time explaining the same thing I’ve tried to explain for about thirty years…”

The 65-year-old is opinionated, talkative, prone to digression and fabulously entertaining.

The Pretenders formed in 1978, a few years after the Ohio-born Hynde had moved to London, landing slap-bang in the birth of British punk. Spectacular early success was followed by tragedy as founding guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon died (of drug issues, aged 25 and 30 respectively). The golden-voiced Hynde has kept the flag flying with varying line-ups ever since.

Today, as she explains, the Pretenders are one thing live and another in the studio. The imminent US tour with Stevie Nicks will involve her and her band of almost a decade (though they all work on other projects): James Walbourne on guitar, Nick Wilkinson on bass, Eric Heywood on pedal steel and early-days drummer Martin Chambers. The studio, however, sees a different approach. The new Pretenders album, Alone, was begun as a second Hynde solo record (following 2014’s Stockholm), but once it got going, all concerned felt it walked and talked like a Pretenders album, and therefore was one. The driving guitars, loose, lean-gutted arrangements and sweet’n’strident vocal delivery just screamed Pretenders, even if many of the songs were about the strength found in solitude.

Chrissie Hynde and Dan Auerback

Chrissie Hynde and Dan Auerback

It was recorded in Nashville with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys as producer, guitarist and all-round “captain”, and he brought in members of his side project The Arcs, as well as Johnny Cash’s former bass player Dave Roe, plus a cameo from one Duane Eddy. The album fully recaptures that Pretenders mojo that has latterly been hit-and-miss, as various producers strived for the balance of bite and beauty that characterised the group’s early years. (Those first two albums stand up among the most pinpoint-accurate post-punk poetry ever made.) There have been many high points since, of course, but Alone – knocked out quickly, fiercely and with a big sense of fun – has rediscovered the mix of fiery and forlorn within which that voice best states its case.

“Every time I do another album, people go: but it’s just you, isn’t it? And I have to say, ‘No, it’s not,’ because it’s a band. I didn’t intend on keeping the name, but when Pete and Jimmy died, I kept going because I wanted to keep the music alive. I always think of the back catalogue as the band’s, not mine. When I made that Stockholm album, it just felt like it was time for a change, to reboot. Feelings shift. I like to think the Pretenders is synonymous with the best band you’ll see this year. My role is kinda to set everyone else up. And, y’know, provide some songs.”

So for these sessions, were Dan and his crew honorary Pretenders for the duration?

“Well, we didn’t know that – we’d assumed it was another solo. I mean, it’s just a name. Then people we played it to said how great it was to have the Pretenders back – that’s how they were hearing it. I sent a long email to Dan explaining the history of the band and why this and why that, and he sent one line back saying, ‘Call it whatever sells the most albums.’ [Laughs] It’s more than that though. It’s what feels right.”

Hynde and Auerbach had met “briefly, in passing” on the road some time ago, and he was number one on her producer wish list. “I just admired him from afar really. I mentioned it to my manager and didn’t necessarily think Dan would jump at the chance. I mean, he’s the sought-after producer of the moment. When I heard he was waiting for me to get in touch, I was like, fantastic! Then we made the album in two weeks…”

Do you like working that fast?

“Everybody does! Nobody wants to sit around for a long time.”

Hynde had, however, prepared in advance. Although a few weeks before she was due to fly to Nashville she emailed Auerbach to say she had only eight songs. His reply was: “Oh, that’s the least of my worries.” “He’s just so relaxed,” she says.

He gave the same reply when she arrived after two flights with a bronchial infection that meant she could barely talk, let alone sing. (She’s now given up smoking.) “Ah, we’ll do all the vocals in the last two days,” he said. “It’ll make it more cohesive.”

While the singer says she can hear lines where she would have liked her voice to be better, to the untrained fan it sounds like classic Hynde: a force of nature, by turns declamatory and dreamy, pugnacious and precious. “The one thing that makes you unique, of course, is your mistakes and your foibles. Don’t iron them out. It’s rock’n’roll! Who cares?”

Hynde, Nick Wilkinson and Martin Chambers get some pre-tour practice in

Hynde, Nick Wilkinson and Martin Chambers get some pre-tour practice in (Image credit: Kevin Nixon/TeamRock)

From the title track on, these serrated rockers and noir country-tinged ballads (which perhaps echo Auerbach’s work with Lana Del Rey) make you sit up and take notice. The album’s opener is a blast: over an unvarnished riff, Hynde celebrates the joys of being alone. Yes, the joys. She says the idea arose after a studio chat where the guys were all talking about how they’d spent their weekends, and she shrugged that she preferred going to cinemas, restaurants, and for walks by herself. “Write a song about that!” exclaimed Auerbach.

Hynde realised there were a million songs eulogising the idea of being with someone, and as many bemoaning the apparently pitiful state of solitude. “Who actually celebrates being alone?” she asks. “This is a freak luxury we’re afforded in an affluent society. You go into a very poor society and you can’t be alone: you have to be in a team, a system, to survive. And yet being alone has been given negative connotations. I know there’s an epidemic of loneliness, where old people are just left, and in America there’s no interaction because of the car culture, but if you choose to embrace it, it’s a great way to get to know who you are.

“I think probably all the artists we traditionally admired, in any field, developed much of what we love in isolation. Perhaps in their studio, perhaps because their social interactions weren’t up to much. Anyone who gives a dinner party now would love to have a Van Gogh painting in their home, but he wouldn’t last very long at that dinner party. He’d be shown the door after ten minutes. People want the kingdom of God, but they don’t want God in it, basically.”

Being alone is “underrated”, she continues, and when Hynde is continuing, it’s smart not to interrupt. “Make the most of it while you’ve got it. You don’t have to argue with anyone, ask anyone, answer to anyone. Who wants someone that’s giving them a hard time?”

Then the voice that sang, ‘Not me baby, I’m too precious, fuck off,’ switches to the voice that sang ‘Maybe tomorrow, maybe someday,’ and says, “But I guess anyone would rather be with someone, right? C’mon! Anyone would love to be with someone they adore. But if that person isn’t there…” She pauses, gives a wry chuckle. “Maybe that song is just getting attention cos it’s so bonkers.”

Getting so animated that she knocks over her soy coffee, she emphasises that kindred themes not normally broached in pop songs make recurring appearances on the record. “I Hate Myself – that’s another song about stuff people don’t normally say in front of friends,” she says. “I talk about sexual jealousy, going to hell and being judged. And Death Is Not Enough, which a friend of mine wrote, is just a classic, as Dan agreed when I sent him a demo.”

For all this, it’s not a morbid album. When Hynde went back to Nashville – “where, by the way, all the country guys want to be cool like the rock guys and the rock guys want to be cool like the country guys” – a few months later, she and the players listened through and kept looking at each other and laughing. “Not that it’s comedy, but… rock’n’roll should be funny! If you’re laughing, it’s rock’n’roll. A lot of it goes over people’s heads – I mean, if you listen to Bob Dylan, who’s considered a poet, I’d say his style is comedic. [The album’s working title was ‘Chrissie Hynde Practises Her Autograph’.] Or then again, rock’n’roll can help you vent your frustrations, which isn’t always funny, but feels great.”

She has, of course, great stories. Dylan offered to collaborate with her, but back then she didn’t really know how to. She gave Bowie a lift home in her mum’s car once. She misses Lemmy, who was “instrumental in me getting my band together”, and recalls how hearing Iggy’s “very American” voice made her feel her own accent, which she’d hated, was okay. Roadie Man, on the new album, is a song she wrote 20 years ago: Elvis Costello said she should record it after she sang the chorus to him. Having her friends Neil Young and John McEnroe as guests on Stockholm was her doing, but it was Auerbach who got Duane Eddy in on the new one. “He texted me at three am telling me Duane was doing the honours. Crazy.”

Hynde also has plentiful views on the state of the art: she thinks the whole musical landscape has got a little conservative, with too many singer-songwriters. “Bands have always been my main turn-on,” she says.

She remembers the impact Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced had on her, and blames MTV for arresting the growth of rock.

“A lot of girls realised that sex sells,” she explains, “and if they made soft porn videos, bumping and grinding in their underwear, y’know, that took over for years. Then you move on another generation and the girls that grew up watching that think it ‘empowers’ them. This idea that getting your kit off empowers you – it’s a real weird one. I don’t get it. For me, rock’n’roll was always androgynous and irreverent. You weren’t trying to get somebody’s dick hard, y’know?”

She takes a breath, shakes her mane, her earrings flickering. “Ah, I shouldn’t get into gender issues because I find them boring as fuck. There’s just a real lack of common sense. Like back when Malcolm [McLaren] and Vivienne [Westwood] were doing that bondage gear, we saw it as a piss-take on the conservative society. Two fingers up to the establishment. But then the next generation missed the irony… now so much that music is just advertising. You tell a teenage kid that you were offered a million dollars to do a Pepsi Cola ad and you turned it down, and they’re like: ‘Why?’ You can’t explain to them. The goalposts have been not so much moved as completely dismantled and shifted to another planet.”

Nevertheless, Hynde is optimistic that now a generation bored of watching reality TV with their parents will rebel, and that the cycle arrested by the rise of the internet will resume. “It’s an interesting time. Even two years ago I was depressed: it wasn’t like when I was eighteen and could reel off forty bands that were amazing, unique – and looked great too. This was before stylists. This was when it was underground. Now that everyone’s adapted to the protocol about all the new technology, we might get surprises again. I want surprises!”

Hynd’s memoir Reckless emerged last year and delivered its fair share of surprises. The story ends in 1983: “Because once I got to where Pete and Jimmy died, I thought: ‘This feels wrong.’”

Its candid tales of her youth caused some controversy, but her style – “I don’t consider myself a writer, as such. Never have” – was typically frank and upfront. She reasons, “I’m not a storyteller in my songs. They’re pretty much specifically autobiographical. I sometimes wish they weren’t. If I’m singing something, it’s because I’ve experienced it personally.”

She’s baffled when she reads the term “break-up album”, as if that’s a rare thing. “Every record I ever bought was a break-up album. Every song I ever wrote was a break-up song.”

She’s got momentum now. Pausing only to rant about the “bullshit” that is the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (into which the Pretenders were inducted in 2005) – “Americans love that shit. I think it’s everything that rock and roll isn’t” – she explains that she’d rather be interviewed by Classic Rock than “any fashion magazines”. I point out that she’s also defied standard celebrity behaviour by riding on buses.

The Pretenders circa 1980: (l-r) Pete Farndon, Chrissie Hynde, James Honeyman-Scott, Martin Chambers

The Pretenders circa 1980: (l-r) Pete Farndon, Chrissie Hynde, James Honeyman-Scott, Martin Chambers (Image credit: Getty)

“But that’s just the way I am,” she laughs. “I’m not ‘keeping it real’. It’s my choice. This all blew up cos I rode on a bus in LA and a national TV show made a big deal of it. They couldn’t quite believe it. I was going: are you people serious? I’m just trying to live my life. I want the freedom to walk down the street. I’ve never wanted a ‘celebrity lifestyle’ – that’s just… queer. When you meet those people, most of them are dullards. I met
a lot of these clowns and you assume because they’ve got big money and success that they’re smart… no, they are not! They’re basically living in a high-security prison.”

Similarly, she’d rather play theatres (“I wanna see the audience”) than stadiums, though she’s looking forward to the arena tour with Stevie Nicks. “You take what you can get,” she says, adding that Nicks has her respect for always being herself. “But if I’m in an audience, I don’t wanna look at a screen. That makes me feel like a c**t! Why did I come out to watch a screen? I could’ve done that at home. It’s the antithesis of rock’n’roll. Rock’n’roll should be intimate and personal and… not for everybody.”

Digressing back to her loathing of the word “empowerment”, Hynde reckons it shouldn’t be about gender but about individual expression, about “feeling that you can be yourself”. She read Charles Mingus’s autobiography when she was 17 and was struck by the line: “Music is a colourless island.” Ignoring all stereotypes then, Alone covers what in one song she calls the “perversions of the heart”, and does so with the kind of relaxed intensity that Hynde herself exudes. “It came together like a constellation,” she says.

Hynde gets out her phone to show off some of her art. She started painting in February, and now “knocks out one a day” when at home. “I’m obsessed! I’ve done about two hundred…”

She’d always wanted to, and is now making up for lost time. There are flowers, chairs, portraits, self-portraits “and some abstracts, and some… imaginary people”. She gets so into it that she doesn’t even have music on, just stares at it for hours till it’s done. “Oil painting is so sensual.”

Could this be your new passion? Might it replace music? “I love being on the road, my kids are grown up now and it buoys me up,” she says. “But you can’t do it all the time or else that becomes mediocre too. Once something gets boring, it gets ugly. So now I go out for like two months, not two years. But hey… I have no idea – maybe something else will come up that I like even better. I do things when they feel right. I don’t have a ‘goal’. That’s the thing: with music, I’ve never had a goal. The goal is just not to stink the place out.”

Alone again or representing the Pretenders, this bullishly brilliant bouquet of barbed wire has always come up roses.

“Life’s a canvas,” she declares. “And I’m on it.”

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Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.