It is always enjoyable working on releases by artists like Yes or Jefferson Starship that I have admired since my teenage years, but occasionally I discover a completely new artist, and furthermore one who completely defies categorisation. Such a lady is Helen McCookerybook whose songs are fundementally amongst the most peculiar, and the most beautiful that I have heard in a long time.
Yesterday teatime, whilst Prudence the dog snored away loudly in the sitting room I managed to have a quick chat with her:
JON: I love the album – it’s really uncategorisable
HELEN: That’s probably a problem isn’t it?
JON: I’ve been reviewing records for the best part of 30 years and 99 times out of a 100 you can say what genre something is and you can say something like ‘it’s a heavy metal band that sounds like Deep Purple', or 'it’s a reggae band that sounds a bit like UB40', but I have absolutely no idea what yours is.
HELEN: People keep asking me what it sounds like, and I never really know what to say, because I know what it feels like because I’m the person who has done it, but I find it quite hard to tell me people what it actually sounds like
JON: What does it feel like?
HELEN: In my head, when I’m playing my songs, it’s not just a guitar and me, it’s a complete arrangement so in my head I’m hearing harmonies and I’m hearing horn parts and drums, and all kinds of things and as a guitarist I try and play those parts in my playing style, which is why I pick and I don’t strum. And as a singer, I always feel like I am battling against the fact that I don’t really feel like a singer, so I almost feel like I am speaking rather than singing, so it’s quite an odd combination of things, you know, and I don’t think I really feel like a singer/songwriter when I’m doing what I’m doing. I have huge admiration for people who work in that genre, but it’s a mystery to me how they manage to do it.
JON: I think that’s strange, because I think you’ve got a lovely voice. It’s just not a rock ‘n’ roll voice.
HELEN: No it’s not a rock ‘n’ roll voice. Quite often, if I am recording my voice the things that I listen to in it are more to do with the way you hear somebody speaking rather than somebody singing because I haven’t got that kind of rock ‘n’ roll kind of thing in it, and my ideal to sing something is to sing it as though I’ve just made it up on the spot kind of thing, so it sounds quite spontaneous.
JON: I was playing the latest one you did with Martin the other day to a friend of mine and he said that you sounded like a cross between Nico and Julie Andrews.
HELEN: That’s quite funny. In the 1980s people would say I sounded a bit like Doris Day, but that was probably because I did a cover version of a Doris Day song in the band that I was in. It was probably the nearest thing they could reach over and get a hold of, you know. But, yeah, I suppose that’s quite flattering really – to be a combination of those two.
JON: You were in a punk band weren’t you?
HELEN: I was. I first became a musician in a punk band really, living in a really big squat just off the seafront in Brighton. I was actually just finishing an art course there and there was a bunch of guys in the basement who had a punk band, and they just played – because it was a squat it was completely unregulated so they just played from when they woke up, which was about lunchtime, till the small hours of the morning, and to get them out of the house me, and my then boyfriend, got them a gig and they chickened out of playing it, so just to kind of shame them, we decided in the spirit of punk to form a band...that was on a Wednesday, we formed a band and we played our first gig on the Friday.
HELEN: And that was like the guy played guitar, and we had another friend who played guitar and another friend who wanted to be the lead singer, and they just more or less told me that I had to be the bass player, and we borrowed the drummer from a band called the Poison Girls...he was the son of the lead singer of the Poison Girls who was a woman called Frances , who was also a guitarist actually, and their bass player leant me her bass guitar, and she’d bought that from the Buzzcocks, so my first bass which I learned how to play actually belonged to the Buzzcocks, which I was really thrilled about.
JON: Well, with both the Poison Girls and the Buzzcocks, that’s a lot of punk credibility.
HELEN: It is isn’t it? Of course at the time you don’t realise do you, you know. They’re just bands, and I suppose we liked the Buzzcocks because they came from somewhere else. I mean this was in Brighton and the Buzzcocks were from Manchester, but at the time I had no idea how important the Poison Girls were going to become or anything like that, you know. It was all just people making music.
JON: I’ve always been quite fond of the Poison Girls
HELEN: Well ... I am and it’s mainly because of Vi Subversa because she was a real catalyst in Brighton at that time. She just encouraged everybody to make music and that was their ethos and I think they just carried that on for years and years and years. She’s living in Spain now, she’s a blues guitarist. Just outside Barcelona. And she looks absolutely fantastic, I have to say – she’s aged absolutely amazingly.
JON: She’s well into her 70s isn’t she?
HELEN: That’s right. She’s still go punky hair though.
JON: That’s so cool. I knew Crass vaguely – not very well – but I was on the outskirts of the anarcho-punk era
HELEN: Were you in a band?
JON: I’ve been in various bands over the years and made various records that nobody’s ever bought
HELEN: Ah well that’s....join the club
JON: But yours are nicer than mine
We shall continue tomorrow with an interview which was supposed to be promoting Helen's new CD with Martin Stephenson, and ended up being about the ethos of feminist punk bands. Cool! In the meantime check out her Gonzo Artist pages, solo and with Martin S: