The High Priestess of Punk on 40 years in showbusiness ahead of Irish gig

Toyah Willcox

Always the high priestess of punk Toyah Willcox has achieved a lot in four decades. Now at the age of 60 she still enjoys ‘living out loud’ — and makes no apologies for it, writes Lorraine Wylie

In four decades, she’s released more than 20 albums, written two books, appeared in 10 feature films and over 40 stage plays. She’s also presented a number of TV shows.

But to die-hard music fans, Toyah Willcox will always be ‘The High priestess of punk.’ Between 1979 and 1981, she released three albums, Sheep Farming in Barnet The Blue Meaning and Anthem.

The latter hit the musical jackpot and as well as spawning hits such as ‘I Want to Be Free’ and ‘It’s A Mystery,’ went on to earn her a gold disc. Now, she’s ready to showcase her latest collection, ‘In the Court of the Crimson Queen,’ described as ‘a rally cry to forever living out loud.’ Ahead of her performance at the Forever Young Festival in Naas, I caught up with Toyah who told me why, at 60, she still enjoys ‘living out loud’ “I think 60 is a great age,” she tells me.

“I love the independence. One of the things I enjoy immensely are live festivals. The summer is here, the sun is out and you’re outside. There’s no better way to communicate your music, it’s so much fun. I like to write from my perspective today and am not interested in writing from the historical angle. My music is very much for my age group and the audience that has travelled with me over the past 42 years.

My lyrics are a nod to experience but I don’t do break-up songs or write about being two-timed. But there is great energy and fun and when I look out at my audiences I see many are under 25!

The music industry today has transformed compared to when she started out.

“It’s a very different world now. I mean, 40 years ago, it was hard to be quite broad as a performer. People really only wanted you to do one thing. Now I just don’t think it matters anymore. If you’ve got something original to say and do, then it won’t matter if it’s through YouTube, a record label or a television company. The things that have remained constant are originality and energy. It’s really as simple as that.”

As a youngster, Toyah suffered a raft of medical issues and underwent a series of painful surgeries and gruelling physiotherapies. A fragile child with a slight speech impediment, she was the perfect target for bullies. Then her dad taught her to throw a punch and the bullying stopped. But by her teenage years, the seeds of rebellion were in full bloom.

“I was quite a naughty child at school,” she laughs when I mention one of her notorious pranks — setting off alarm clocks during a visit by the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

”I did do that. Although, compared to what goes on today, it really was very light. I didn’t learn at school and would deliberately sit with my arms crossed, looking out the window. I was very defiant. But at 16 I was diagnosed as dyslexic and found anything to do with the rigid education system very confining.

Part of the problem is that if you don’t have teachers who understand the individual, you’re in trouble. There’s your catch 22. Teachers cant give individual attention. I just didn’t work within the system.

Today, Toyah regrets those years of lost education and wants to encourage young people to value it.

“I think education is one of the greatest gifts we have in the free world. You may go out into the big wide world thinking you’re great for giving a tweet. But you really do have to know everything. There is no such thing as success without knowledge. Now at 60, I’m learning every day, taking lessons all the time. I’d say if you don’t know something, go and learn it. It doesn’t matter how old you are, the door is never closed, we are all about potential. Right through our lives, opportunities don’t end.”

What does she think of social media?

“I would have loved social media! Back then, when I was younger, I would have been really interested in it. Now, because time is so precious, I’m only interested in creative things, like preforming, writing and all that stuff. I tend to steer away from anything that doesn’t involve my work. It’s a very different world now.” Like many performers, Toyah’s success has survived and indeed grown with the decades.

“I think one of the most important things for young artists today is to be able to perform live. That’s how you hone your craft. It’s nothing to do with fame when you’re performing live you’re learning to become a better musician, a better singer and a better writer. I mean, it’s really important to come into the music industry being able to write songs and knowing the technique of writing. If you can’t do this, you can still find work out there but you’re kind of governed by other people’s interests. I think record companies are looking for people with originality and the ability to write and write well.”

Bowie was one of her biggest inspirations.

“The one who inspired me right throughout my life is David Bowie. Then again, another artist who made me think, and think especially about women in the music industry, is Patti Smith. Throughout the 80s and 90s, we had fantastic artists like, Anne Clark, who was a poet working in orchestra music.

David Bowie
David Bowie

"She did incredible things. But she would never enter the field I’m in. She wanted commercial and could fill concerts halls all over Europe. The whole thing about music and art is the incredible people all over the place who don’t necessarily have profile.

So, you’re constantly discovering these incredible people if you make the effort to search. I think the wonderful thing about what I do is that, it lets you step away from the mainstream to get to the really interesting stuff.

"That’s the area I always look in.”

On a lighter note, I remind Toyah of how, in the early years, her hair colour was often a major talking point.

“Back then, 45 years ago, when I was colouring my hair, it was a very unusual thing. In fact, it lowered you in the social status. Now it’s not a problem. In fact, Looking out my window I saw a young girl, her hair bright blue walking along with parents, no big deal. My mother would never have been seen with me! She was ashamed of me. Looking back, I find it quite shocking that someone’s morals were judged by something as simple as the colour of their hair. Fortunately times have changed.”

Conversation moves on to the gig in Naas and Toyah tells me how much she appreciates her Irish audiences.

“Irish audiences are very warm and welcoming, they have the best time. Culturally they have such a strong identity. I mean sometimes, if you’re in a city, you could be forgiven for not knowing where you are because all the High Streets seem to look the same now.

"But when you’re working in the music industry, culturally everything is incredibly different.” Having proven her talent across the entertainment spectrum, I ask Toyah whether music is her favourite.

“No, there’s no such thing as favourites,” she insists. “What I do is a very deliberate thing. I am quite fluid in what I do. So for example, this year I will be performing all over the world but if a movie came along, well you have to make time for it. It’s not a question of having favourites, this is who and what I am. It’s me, it’s my style. It’s what I do.”

Toyah fans will have an opportunity to hear tracts from ‘In the Court of the Crimson Queen’ when the star takes to the stage in Naas as part of the ‘Forever Young Festival.

What can they expect?

“Some old favourites, some new, a lot of energy and a lot of fun.”

- For more details on Toyah’s upcoming events visit toyahwillcox.com; foreveryoungfestival.ie starts on July 5.

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