Updated: Jul 19, 2020
Sometimes in life, great privileges must be seized, a chance to learn, a chance to digest, a chance to intently listen to a luminary with reams upon reams of experience in the music industry, and what’s more, graciously willing to share. Punky glamour and sass go hand in hand for singer Wendy James. Recently she released her twenty track album Queen High Straight: “Every song is essential listening, and I set out to do twenty tracks which would stand alone as singles, you know, no filler, no throwaways. It reflects all the various emotions, experiences, musical tastes, life experiences I’ve had to date, and it shows off my ever-evolving songwriting,” she states as our in-depth conversation unfolded.
It is true that from an early age, Wendy gravitated to music singing in the school choirs and then in public performances. “I also learnt Piano, Clarinet, Flute, and Violin. I thought the best way to perform was to go to Drama School, but having seen The Clash when I was fourteen, my focus, clarity and instinct came into play, and I knew that Rock n Roll was for me!”
It makes sense that this led to the fronting of Punk-Pop band Transvision Vamp. James recalls a poignant memory: “The first time we were on the radio! I distinctly remember we were in a recording studio and got told the time that our first single would be played. We gathered around a radio and listened intently, and the sheer thrill that something we’d made was being listened to by thousands of people was unbelievable; that is a joyful and palpable memory.”
Undoubtedly, Wendy has witnessed a great many changes in her industry, acknowledging that there are two very different sets of circumstances. “During Transvision Vamp, we were signed to a large conglomerate MCA/Universal. The music business had a lot of money in it in the late ’80s, and on top of this, we were successful fairly quickly. There was never a concern about which format we could afford to manufacture; one didn’t have to choose either/or. We were backed up and promoted by a giant behemoth of a machine. This also had its downsides: decisions were painfully slow to be made as to the big dinosaur slowly maneuvered its plan.”
As an independent operator, she can be very nimble in her decisions, and responds, reacts, and is proactive at a moment's notice. “I govern what happens entirely. From the production of the music to the visual decisions of presentation, the buck stops with me. It is a lot of work, but I am comfortable with this, more than being beholden to anyone.”
Queen High Straight is a collection of classy tunes that altogether celebrate a whole profusion of genres. Its retro elements are bold, but hold their freshness and are never dated. Wendy expands, “I find music such pleasure, and I very much enjoy each stage, from writing to producing to mixing and mastering. Of course, when it’s time in the sessions for my vocals and backing vocals, that’s when I switch out of production head and back into singer mode. Then I’m so excited and fully committed to being on the mic and singing my heart out!”
She sites that it was rather whimsical when she decided to write an album of twenty songs as she was coming around after the long stretch of writing, recording, delivering, and touring the previous album The Price Of The Ticket. “I was feeling the lovely current of momentum. My audience was growing, and I felt I’d achieved a landmark, the calibre of guest star musicians working with me was superlative.”
Lenny Kaye from The Patti Smith Group, James Williamson from Iggy & The Stooges, James Sclavunos from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and dear Glen Matlock, the original bass player in the Sex Pistols offered her a myriad of outstanding musical craftmanshift. The recording engineer on The Price Of The Ticket was Ivan Julian from Richard Hell & The Voidoids: she was in the company of people who had made the music that shaped her in the first place.
“The album sounded great, and it charted; I felt good about things. Especially so because I’d managed to manufacture it on Vinyl, CD, and Download, also releasing two 7” Singles drawn from it and a Picture Disc. And I wondered, how does one top that? It must be a double album! I remember Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy from The Who, Quadrophenia, Tommy, The Clash’s (triple album) Sandinista, and of course, the supremo of double albums, The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St. Audio-wise, I figured twenty songs, five cuts aside: simple! At 33 bpm a side of vinyl can successfully contain about 22 minutes of audio give or take,” the savvy performer shares.
Overall, her taste and style have not changed with time. The music that excites her now ultimately is the same as when she was starting songwriting and back through her days in Transvision Vamp. “I continue to marvel at Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground; I continue to be blown away by The Stooges; I continue to be everlastingly enthralled by Bob Dylan. Of course, the older one gets, the more one discovers, and I am now informed more cohesively and fully by all the music, new and old, which settles into my consciousness.”
Armed with phrases, words, and ideas, she continuously compiles extensive lists for future lyrical inspiration. She gets out her guitar, looks at all her lyric notes, sits cross-legged on the bed, stares out of the window and begins to look for chords on the neck of her guitar: “That’s how it happens, it’s osmosis somehow, one plays some chords, hums a little, looking for a melody, looking for a chord sequence to set off one’s imagination and start the flow of songwriting."
“It’s funny once one has found a motif or the spirit of the thing, the song somehow writes itself. Like a roadmap written in front of you, showing you where to go, the mind is fully engaged. It knows instinctually if it’s a bridge or a chorus or a verse or a solo that is needed. It is composition, and it has to start and end in a perfect arc. I do not like flim-flam; I do not like filler; I cut out anything that isn’t making a full contribution to the overall song.”
On average, it takes her one-week per song. From inception comes the sitting on the bed stage, the playing it, again and again, stage, and then refining it. When recorded in guide form on her phone, she then can allow herself to be temporarily purged, emptied, satisfied, jubilant, and relaxed. Wendy reveals, “The vessel refills itself, and after days, the whole process begins again. When I finished writing Queen High Straight, I could hear the full production in my head already, and I knew I was onto a sure thing; simply, it was a matter of doing this same thing twenty times over!”
Wendy thinks a moment to think about tracks that resonate with her: “Song 18 Cancel It…I’ll See Him On Monday. Whatever you all decide are your favorite songs, for me, Cancel It… I’ll See Him On Monday was a Eureka moment. I ran out into the garden and started dancing, 'I’ve got it! I’ve got it!' There are so many growth spurts on this album.”
“I have embraced Motown with Here Comes The Beautiful One and Little Melvin, and I have returned, once again, to my favorite guitar guttural filth and sex for Perilous Beauty. There's an unlikely-sounding love song in Chicken Street and a 90’s pop groove in Ratfucking. You'll find melancholia in Testimonial Django Reinhardt, and whimsy in I’ll Be Here When The Morning Comes.” Thanks to Jim Sclavunos, who told her to speed the fucking song up, she has a speed punk in The Impression Of Normalcy, and finally, track 20 Kill Some Time Blues: the ultimate 60s girl group sounding number. “I just love it all!” She ends.
Kill Some Time Blues inspiration came from the all-girl groups of the 60s, where Wendy wanted to close the album with a wall-of-sound song, all in all, a prominent number.” She goes on, “The horn sections played by Terry Edwards and Alex Ward are marvelous. The guitar parts played by James Sedwards are magnificent and the drumming and percussion by James Sclavunos and bass playing by Harry Bohay, superlative! - and I must say I’m rather pleased with my singing too. To this end, I went on a video clip treasure hunt to find some great shots of The Supremes, The Ronettes, The Vandellas, The Shangri-Las, The Blossoms and I stumbled upon some fabulous old footage of 60’s girls letting loose and getting their freak on!”
Spliced and cross-faded into this pleasing imagery is footage of Wendy performing live at Hultsfred Festival in Sweden and a performance on a broadcast tv show called Live At The Dome. The video is masterfully timed out, edited, and presented by David Leigh Dodd, who has been the photographer and videographer for the entire presentation of Queen High Straight. “I think the video is an enormous success, and it serves to amplify this great song! I love the late 60s / 70s generally speaking for style and music and even the hopeful and progressive politics of the time. But! I Love all the decades; there is a thread running through them all.”
Next spring, Wendy is undertaking a substantial UK tour, which fills her with anticipation and great happiness: “I LOVE the camaraderie! I love my band; I love the laughs; I love the tour manager; I LOVE watching Alan Partridge on the video monitor in the back of the van: so many laughs. I love the motorway driving, and the rest stops. I love it all. I love entering the venue, stepping onto the stage and getting a taste of the performance ahead. I love it all. I am at my most vital on stage and in the studio. Firing on 100% cylinder!”
We meander onto Sclavunos, who is one of the most admirably skilled percussionists we have ever come across. “I adore Jim. He is a true friend. I take advice and counsel from him; I love his personality, and I trust him. I don’t know if he’ll be on the April dates of my tour because we have rescheduled. He has his big commitment: Nick Cave & The Bad Seed, so we’ll see. The setlist is maybe, roughly, divided into thirds: Transvision Vamp, previous solo work (inc RACINE), and of course, QUEEN HIGH STRAIGHT! I know that works because we tried out a short version of it when The Wendy James Band were opening for The Psychedelic Furs last year!”
Our fascinating time had to come to a close where the most fitting word I can use to sum up Wendy James is FABULOUS. She concludes with another insight: “My home I would say is NYC now. I wander around those streets like my own. I arrived in NYC permanently in 2002, and the ease with which I adapted to downtown NYC life was so natural. I also love wandering favourite areas of Paris, and it's the same for Soho and Chelsea and West London. I’m a traveler by heart, and there’s so much I would like to see. If I had enough lifetimes, I’d try living all over the globe. Mexico would be nice; the Caribbean would be nice; Italy would be heaven! All sorts of dream locations.”
Article by Beverley Knight