80s - Toyah (2010)
Still Proud, Still Loud, and Still Being Heard!
Toyah Willcox has a highly successful, prolific and incredibly diverse career. Her major hit records (I Want to Be Free, Good Morning Universe, Thunder In The Mountains, Its A Mystery, etc.) and many prestigious stage and screen roles have made her one of Britains biggest household names.
In a career spanning over 30 years Toyah has had 13 top 40 singles, recorded 20 albums, written 2 books, appeared in over 40 stage plays, made 10 feature films and presented hundreds of television programmes from The Good Sex Guide Late to Songs Of Praise. She continues to work at the top of the league in media, music, acting and writing.
Toyah has appeared in ITV2s Secret Diary of a Call Girl as the mother of lead character played by Billie Piper. She has also recently released a brand new solo album, In The Court of The Crimson Queen, and has just released another new album, We Are The Humans - as part of the band, The Humans.
Toyah continues to work in all fields of the media and refuses to compromise any aspect of her multi-faceted and varied career.
I recently had the opportunity to chat one-on-one with Toyah Willcox - and asked her all about her career, her earliest TOTP memories, her nightmares, and, of course, ... penguins!
Taking it from the top, and being that you were actually born, Toyah
Willcox - instead of having a stage name created for you - back then,
in Kings Heath, UK, I would imagine Toyah was an unusual name for a
girl at school, was it not? Toyah was a very unusual name, no one ever teased or bullied me about it. In fact it gave me a lot of positive attention. People always asked its origin and where respectfully envious of it.
Coincidentally, Toyah is a town in Arizona, named after the Toyah
Tribe, who where famed for the Toyah arrow. Toyah town is next to Willcox mountain. But my mother never knew this geological fact.
Acting came first for you, with roles as Mad in Jubilee and you
even played alongside the great Katherine Hepburn in The Corn is Green.
But when you were asked to play Monkey in Quadrophenia, did the
characters name make you take an initial step back - or did you dive
straight into the role regardless?! A characters name would never make me step back. This has never occurred to me. In fact, I did not even use the name to build the character, I dived straight in.
Also I was never offered the role. I screen tested with Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols for the lead female role and Johnny for the male lead. After neither of us ever heard back I went to the production studios
and demanded a role in the film - and monkey was the only uncast role.
Noting that your self-named bands singing career was slow to take
off - six singles released before hitting the charts - that seventh
single, Its A Mystery (1981) suddenly set the UK charts alight! Just
before that single hit big, a) Was there ever the thought that Toyah
(the band) just did not have it and changes to the songwriting might
have to be made - and b) In the aftermath of the success, how did it
suddenly change Toyah (the band) and Toyah (you) personally? I differ to disagree. Wherever we played from 1978 till 1981, and we did four tours a year, we where drawing massive crowds and selling out all our shows. Victims of The Riddle, released in 1978, stayed in the first indie chart at number one for 12 months.
Tribal Look, released in 1979 topped the indie chart too. It was a matter of time before this translated into the mainstream. Writing always has to alter unless you want to stick to a formula. Neither being fixed or working to a formula interests me. That said, writing hit songs is not as easy as a formula. There are many other ingredients like fashion, timing, culture and seasons to consider.
It is beyond me why Its A Mystery was a hit. It still does not rock
my boat, but I respect my audience! After Its A Mystery I never looked back. It was chalk and cheese. For starters, there was money and respect. The band and myself enjoyed the moments to the full. No matter what
you think of a song there is nothing like an audience singing that song
back to you louder than the band.
With subsequent follow-up singles Thunder In The Mountains and I
Want To Be Free also scoring chart hits, you were certainly on a great
roll with the album Anthem. But then, with the band being a
mainstream success across the UK and much of Europe, you did not sit
back - indeed, you went back into the studio to record The
Changeling. In reflection, should you have milked the success of
Anthem more, done more touring, come across to the States, etc. - or,
given the chance to do it all again, would you do it all exactly the
same? We should have milked the success of Anthem, but it was my choice and the band choice not to exploit our fans by slowly releasing every track off the album as a single. I could not live with myself if I did that.
But there where certainly more hits on the album, such as We Are and even Pop Star. The Changling was not commercial, but it was one of the albums cited as the beginning of the goth movement. Love is The Law was my favourite album of that period. It was poppy and dark - a nice balance.
And with regard The Changeling, whose idea was it to record a much
darker, gothic album, instead of the more mainstream sound that had
made Anthem so successful? We where in a dark place. The commercial world was not for us. We could see all the pitfalls of commercialism enveloping us. That kind of success is like an addictive drug you want to get off as soon as possible.
I, for one became very uncomfortable as Toyah the product became
separated from Toyah the person. And when the color of your hair becomes more important than your music, I felt trapped and unhappy.
With the only so-called hit single coming from that album, Be
Proud, Be Loud (Be Heard) (a great song in its own right), and even
though the subsequent tour was highly successful (some saying the live
double album, Warrior Rock: Toyah On Tour showing the band at their
peak), did it ever cross your mind that you still had not matched the
popularity of the debut album - and if so, how did it affect you at the
time? Well, Be Proud Be Loud was never on an album. Again we did not want to do that kind of obvious exploitation. We kept albums and singles separate when ever we could. Brave New World was the only single off The Changling.
As for matching popularity, I was just moving forward, not regressing.
Matching popularity, as far as I am concerned is for people selling
products in a supermarket. This is not why I am in music.
If you get to watch such live shows now, such as Warrior Rock,
with reference to outfits and hairstyles, do you do it with unease,
through hands/fingers covering your eyes, or with pride and a huge
smile?! I never watch past performances and secondly I feel no shame. Pride and self preservation might be in there somewhere, but I never revisit the past if I can help it. It is not part of my ethos.
That said I do perform in the Here & Now shows which are retro, but
even then I am performing as Toyah today.
After all that late 80s/90s pop fame whirlwind came to an end, it
seems to me (from press now that relates to it back then) that you were
kinda relieved - was that the case at the time? Incredibly relieved! In the 1990s I did more TV than music. I presented some of the
largest shows on TV, mainly for the BBC. Now I am back in front of 10 thousand to 20 thousand people again and I am really enjoying it.
You have continued to record - an incredible 20+ albums as both a
solo artist, and part of groups - and are still known in the UK as one
of the most successful female artists in British history! Today, and
with your last solo album, In The Court of the Crimson Queen (2008)
and the just-released band project, We Are The Humans both giving
forth differing musical styles, how is recorded today different (for
you personally) then back 20 years ago? I love recording today because I am the record company. So I book the band, the studios, the photographer. I love the immediacy of the recording world today, the middle man has gone, the idiot at A&R is defunct, and as an artist I can just get on with it.
You have also done a lot of TV roles, ones that range from Minder and
The Ebony Tower, to vocals on Teletubbies and the reality TV series,
Im A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! Choosing just one as a stand
out moment in your life that you will never forget, which would it be -
and why? Playing Miranda in the film The Tempest. I loved the director Derek Jarmen and we filmed the whole project in isolation in a derelict stately home in Coventry. I just loved every spine tingling moment!
OK, here is a fun one ... looking at the cover artwork for these six
(6) singles/album releases, please describe in just 5 words or less per
cover, what was going on in your mind at that time - I Want To Be
Free, Thunder In The Mountains, Love Is The Law, Brave New
World, The Changeling, and Minx:
I Want To Be Free - I love my life!
Thunder In The Mountains - This kicks arse!
Love Is The Law - God I love being tough!
Brave New World Time to get weird!
The Changeling - I am depressed with it all
Minx - I love Issey Miyake!
If asked to record one for charity, what 80s (and possibly
cheesy!) pop/rock song would you love to cover today...and why? Tainted Love - Soft Cell.
And will the USA ever get to see Toyah (Willcox) tour over here?
There is the Here & Now, Rewind, and Regeneration tours, but we never
get to see you named on the bill for the American side of things. Is
there anything we can do to change that, perhaps?! I never had American hits. You might get to see the HUMANS.
Fun Five - OK, it is now time to fire off some quick questions - to allow those that think they know Toyah Willcox to perhaps think again!
a) Can you remember your very first TOTP appearance? What song/year was it and at what level of nervousness were you at that whole day? 1981, March. I was over the moon. It was all I ever wanted. Of course
I was nervous, but loving it.
b) Is there one of your songs that you look back on and would today
change the title to, or a line/lyric from it - and if so, which one,
and why?! I Wanna Be Free ... I now have rewritten the chorus to remove Pull my hair with Scream and shout, less poncey!
c) Do you have a recurring nightmare or dream - and if so, how does it
usually end? No recurring dreams. Well, sometimes I dream my teeth fall out! They just shatter and fall from my mouth, but that is a common anxiety dream ... is it not? I like the dreams where I have sex with my closest friends! Sadly, they are incredibly rare.
d) What is your sweetest, guiltiest pleasure (food wise!) late at night? Cadburys Cream Egg, of course!
e) If you could meet any deceased celebrity, who would it be - and what would be the first question you would ask them? Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison ... Tim Buckley, Jeff
Buckley ... Mama Cass ... lets jam!
Lastly, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, Exclusive
Magazine loves Penguins (the flightless bird, not the chocolate bar!)
...do you? Yes, I love their solid taught torsos and wabbly walks, but they smell really bad.
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
If you are interested in knowing more about Toyah, visit her website:
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