Former Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James plays her winning hand with album Queen High Straight as she prepares to head to Portsmouth
Queen High Straight is a sprawling 20-track opus, taking in everything from garage-rock, grinding punk to soulful pop, ballads and many other stops en route.
And it is the fourth album to be released under Wendy James’ own name.
The former Transvision Vamp frontwoman had been due to tour on its release last May. Now on its third rescheduling, the tour should – everything crossed – take place this autumn.
The Guide first spoke with Wendy last February, before we knew everything was about to come to a halt, and then again just a couple of weeks ago. It’s not common to conduct two interviews for one piece 15 months apart – but hey, let’s embrace the ‘new normal.’
On both occasions Wendy was in Paris – in non-pandemic times she splits her time between the French capital, London and New York.
The album is her most ambitious work to date, and the singer-songwriter is justifiably proud of it.
‘It's 20 songs and you can hear that the production is quite... substantive – it's not just a garage band.
‘There's a lot of arrangements going on there, so it just worked out that it took me a year and two months to write and then at sporadic intervals raising the money to go into the studio and then executing it properly – not just slamming it down there, but making it perfect – in my opinion.’
The album features renowned guitarist James Sedwards (most recently in ex-Sonic Youth player Thurston Moore’s band) and Bad Seeds drummer Jim Sclavunos in her band. If there’s one thing Wendy has had a knack for over the years, it’s been finding talented sidemen and collaborators.
‘I've worked with James Williamson, who was Iggy Pop's right-hand man, I've worked with Lenny Kaye who's Patti Smith's right-hand man. James Sclavunos, my drummer is obviously also the drummer for The Bad Seeds, and James Sedwards is Thurston's, so I'm very well connected, but it does mean that one has to schedule things very carefully!
‘James continues to be my drummer, but James Sedwards is constantly out with Thurston, but one thing leads to another – it never regresses.
‘The guitarist I have now for my live band is Pip Stakem – and they all know each other in London, some are more famous than others but they're all on that circuit of genius musicians.
‘Everyone in the band has played together in different iterations – so it's a very familiar team. When Pip had to find out some guitar parts, it was very easy to ask James – it's just a continuation really.
‘I've always managed to gravitate towards the right kind of people for my life, in terms of music.
‘Within the musical community I do have a very good reputation now as a songwriter and as someone's who's hard-working and they enjoy working with – and that pays fairly, etc, etc!
‘Musicians, as far as my experience has been, are very happy to work with me.’
At the start of her career, Wendy was happy to sing the words of others – she started Transvision Vamp with guitarist Nick Christian Sayer, who was also the band's principle songwriter.
And at first it was a happy partnership, yielding enduring pop-punk hits like I Want Your Love and Baby I Don’t Care in the late 1980s.
‘In the very beginning, my whole raison d'etre in life was simply to be famous. Most teenagers say they want to be famous or rich, or both – but you have to have the drive and a certain amount of talent, I guess, but my whole energy at that point was to be famous, which was why it was a brilliant coupling with Nick Christian Sayer. He was 10 years older than me and had been in bands and had written songs, but he didn't have that drive, so when you put the two of us together, that's what propelled Transvision Vamp forward.
‘On the second album, Velveteen, I was starting to chip in my ideas, but I didn't become my own songwriter until after the Elvis Costello album.’
After their record label refused to release Transvision Vamp’s third album in the UK, the band folded in 1992. But such was Wendy’s cultural cache at the time that Costello saw fit to write an entire album for her – 1993’s Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears. Although the album didn't do as well as hoped for – it stalled just outside the top 40 – it was a pivotal time for her.
‘That album was very good for me in many ways. It's not my favourite piece of work that I've ever done, but it certainly gave me a way, without it being too traumatic, to put Transvision Vamp in the rearview and set me on a path to the future.
‘By the time of the end of the Elvis album I knew with absolute clarity that I didn't want to have other people write my music for me – I wanted to do it for myself and I think that has been for the better, for sure.’
And she’s certainly made the most of her musical freedom.
‘I haven't been beholden to anyone for a long time. But to me there is no separation between (Queen High Straight tracks) I'll Be Here When The Morning Comes and The Impression of Normalcy – one of them is speed-punk and one is whimsical semi-jazzy blues.
‘They're just songs to me, and any good song whether it's a Pistol's song or Hank Williams, you should be able to break it down and play it on a guitar, and it has melody and rhythm.
‘Every single musician, the music they write is a reflection of their personality, right? Contained within those different styles on that album are my tastes, the things that inspire me, or where my head's at.
‘Unless you're a really kind of mono person, most human beings have more than one interest or one taste – you don't only eat cheese on toast forever do you?
‘Of course I have a comfort zone, that mid-’70s downtown New York kind of new wave music, plus the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, that's my bedrock.
‘But at the same time I can listen to Django Reinhardt, I can listen to French Yé-yé pop from the ’60s, I can listen to Metallica, well maybe not so much them,’ she laughs, ‘but Deep Purple perhaps. I don't think it's a good musician who says they can only listen to one type of music.’
Wendy last came to Portsmouth as support to The Psychedelic Furs when they played at the Pyramids Centre in late 2019. Her own headlining tour was an attempt to build on the positive reception she received on that tour.
‘It was great – that tour really consolidated my band, we played great and the audience reaction to us everywhere we went was not merely as an opening act, but we actually made new fans and impressed people. That was the very reason I wanted to book this tour fairly quickly so we could revisit all the places we'd been to and expand upon on that.’
Of course – the pandemic had something to say about that.
The Wedgewood Rooms date got bumped from May to September to February 2021, and is now scheduled for September 10.
However, Wendy hasn’t been idle over the past year – for one thing she’s started working on her next album.
‘I'm writing album 10,’ there’s been three with Transvision Vamp, two fronting the band Racine, and four solo, ‘and then in August, I'll decamp to London to begin rehearsals for this tour.
‘I've spent the whole of this last year just promoting Queen High Strait and Covid didn't necessarily have a negative effect on that for me.
‘A lot of people bought the record and in some obtuse way Covid – because everyone was stuck at home and because it is a 20-track album, it freed up the time people would need to actually listen to it and get into it, rather than the typical ADD we all have when we're rushing to work and taking care of family and stuff...’
Aside from a couple of trips to London and Rome when restrictions eased last summer, Wendy has spent most of her time in France.
And she has no truck with Covid-deniers and their ilk.
‘I can't for the life of me understand why anyone would be mask-reticent, or vaccine-reticent. I don't understand it.
‘I watch American news a lot – they talk about liberty and freedom, but the quicker you take the vaccine and mask-up and keep people safe, the quicker the pandemic will be under control.
‘We saw that awful footage of customers in supermarkets haranguing the poor guys who worked there for trying to insist they wore a mask. Then there was some footage in Paris of someone going up and purposefully coughing in their face, which is so disgusting anyway, but now it's potentially a death sentence if you're vulnerable.
‘It's made me regard face-masks completely differently – I can't believe now that I flew that much without wearing one – the amount of germs you're breathing in normally – let alone with Covid!
‘I'm not a germophobe by any stretch, we need to build up our immune systems, but I haven't got time for anti-vaxxers, 5G, any of that conspiracy garbage. It's just dumb.’
For the forthcoming tour, Wendy plans to rehearse three hours' worth of material so she can swap the setlist around.
In a rare show of less than absolute confidence, she admits: ‘I'm actually getting a tiny bit panicky at nights sometime, because of the amount!’
The idea came about after joining one of Tim Burgess’s Twitter listening parties, for the Transvision Vamp album, Velveteen.
‘Hearing it again and through the ears of other people, objectively I was delightfully surprised by the album.
‘I've heard some cuts from it, like the singles, but I haven't sat down and listened to the entire album for... well, since it was made!
‘It got me thinking, there's so many good songs that haven't necessarily been hits, but for those that know my music, there's so many good cuts on all of my albums post-Transvision Vamp, that there's no reason why I should stick to one setlist. I decided, why not circulate in and out some of my favourite tunes from all of them?
‘The end game, because I have the band of my dreams now, is that I can be on stage in future years, like Bob Dylan or like Chuck Berry, and just be able to shout out the numbers and everyone knows every track. One can't guarantee anything, but the band feels very stable right now.
‘I'm going to play a lot of Queen High Straight because it has proven to be very popular, and no-one's heard it yet. But within the spare numbers, gradually we'll learn which ones go down well, and which ones we enjoy playing more.’
The album has received some of the best reviews of her career.‘It's interesting to see what the journalists' take on it is because they listen to it differently and they analyse iy – it's been very flattering in this instance, but the success or failure of the music, for me, lives and dies on my own judgement.
‘I know when it's not good enough – I knew with this album that as each song concluded that it's... perfect,’ she laughs.
‘I can't do any more to it, I can't do any less with it – this is the way it's meant to be.
If a million journalists tell me I'm genius or they tell me I'm terrible, it's not going to impact me one way or another.’
She suddenly stops and says, sounding concerned: ‘Does that sound mean of me? Like I'm doing down a journalist’s role?’
Not at all, I tell her.
‘There's that Rudyard Kipling poem isn't there? If: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs...”
‘That's the thing just to be steady in the centre, so the different vicissitudes of life don't really buffett you around too much.’
The Wendy James Band is at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea on Friday, September 10, doors 7.30pm. Support comes from Paul Groovy & The Pop Art Experience. Tickets £18, go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.
Buy the album at thewendyjames.com/store.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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