Here She Comes (again) – The Hazel O’Connor interview

HazelOConnorHeadTiltedHazel O’Connor has lived ‘up in the hills’ of County Wicklow for around 25 years now, based just under an hour from Dublin.

She has Irish roots, Hazel’s Dad having left Galway for Coventry, where he worked at a local car plant and she spent her formative years.

There’s clearly a love for her adopted home and its ‘beautiful scenery’, and early on in our telephone call she asked if I’d visited.

For shame – not least considering my love of so much music from the Emerald Isle – I admitted to only having down a few weekends and day-trips to Belfast and Dublin, confessing that in pre-family travelling days, warm climates appealed more than a likelihood of rain.

That may sound like a cliché, but Hazel agreed with me on that.

“Well, I’m sitting here after a month’s worth of deluge, with a crumbling roof and about six buckets on the go.

“I do love it, although I wonder if the strange weather of the world is catching up in Ireland.”

There’s also a home-from-home in the South of France, which we’ll go into later, but whatever you do, don’t get the idea Hazel’s living off royalties these days.

CS1784387-02A-BIGShe’s still gigging hard, and reckons she never saw a penny from the success of the 1980 film that made her name, Breaking Glass.

Hazel wrote all the songs as well as taking the lead, playing alongside Phil Daniels and Jonathan Pryce, including defining hits Eighth Day and Will You.

And while her recording contract led to later litigation battles, she at least thinks that helped her concentrate on improving her live profile.

“There was a day when Albion, probably having got wind of me getting the role, pushed for me to sign a long-term deal.

“I did, and then I was up shit creek without a paddle. But my lawyers argued it was illegal what they had done.

“A&M, who had the soundtrack, didn’t want Albion handling the album, so Albion stood aside for a price, leasing me for a year to A&M.

“They also wanted to buy my contract, but Albion wouldn’t sell. So after a really brilliant year of success I had to go back to Albion.”

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Breaking Glass, but wasn’t that life imitating the film itself?

“It was really. The bottom line was that I never saw the royalties from the film. Albion was the conduit for me to get paid. A&M paid Albion, and they never passed them on.

“So I’ve never known what it’s like to sell hundreds of thousands of records and live off royalties. But the good thing is I quickly learned to live off what I did, my live work.

“And because I’d started out wanting to sing and enjoying bands, I didn’t think too much about it.

“I couldn’t afford to think about it anyway. I had to eat and pay a mortgage. I just continued on my merry way.

“And when I went out of fashion, I discovered other countries, worked away and honed my craft, becoming a much better singer because of it.

On Top: Hazel O'Connor with co-star Phil Daniels on Breaking Glass,1980 (Copyright:  Paramount)

On Top: Hazel O’Connor with co-star Phil Daniels on Breaking Glass,1980 (Copyright: Paramount)

“The voice I have now is a formidable voice. When I started, it wasn’t. I may have written some good songs for Breaking Glass, but didn’t have the voice to match them then.”

Hazel also walked away from the chance of further acting to concentrate on her song-writing, and has 11 UK dates on the run-up to Christmas.

It’s a double-bill too, with ex-Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell, both artists playing full sets each night.

“I’m looking forward to this, and it’s a case of going out on the road with an old comrade from a very long time ago.”

An old comrade, indeed. I put it to Hazel that rumour has it they were an item in the year Breaking Glass made her a household name. The response is that throaty laugh of hers.

“That was just after I got famous, but before the film came out. Our offices were the same. Both of us had a terrible time with Albion Records and we’d all see each other.

“I supported The Stranglers, my first big thing before anything happened. I had three or four gigs with them, which was immense fun.

“Hugh and I became very good buddies. He has such a brilliant mind, his lyrics and music are quite amazing, as is his cynicism and dry wit.

Double Bill: Hugh Cornwell and Hazel O'Connor

Double Bill: Hugh Cornwell and Hazel O’Connor

“We were an item for a very small amount of time, maybe a week … but then he got put in prison!”

Ah yes, so he did. Hugh’s short spell in HMP Pentonville for drugs possession following. But while he was away, Hazel was among those guesting for The Stranglers over two nights at London’s Rainbow Theatre, along with her good friend Toyah Willcox.

“They asked a few of us to do a couple of Stranglers songs, and I did (Get a) Grip (On Yourself) and Hanging Around, while Toyah did Duchess and something else.

“Toyah and myself also did backing vocals for Ian Dury too, and lots of singers and guitarists played.

“It was fantastic, and on my songs was a young Robert Smith from The Cure, long before the make-up, wearing a check shirt – before he got all gothed up.”

Hazel is cackling again by this point, at the memory of it all.

“That was early 1980 and happened just before I was truly discovered.”

That was then, but this is now, with Hazel performing tracks from new album Here She Comes and some old favourites with her band, namely saxophonist Clare Hirst (ex-Belle Stars, Communards and David Bowie) and keyboard player Sarah Fisher (ex-Eurythmics).

Band Substance: Hazel with Sarah Fisher, left, and Clare Hurst, right

Band Substance: Hazel with Sarah Fisher, left, and Clare Hurst, right

Here She Comes is her third studio collaboration with Clare and Sarah, featuring a number of new co-written songs alongside adventurous covers of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache and Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas.

We also get tight vocal harmonies and sense of band kinship from a trio that has spent a long spell touring hard in the UK and mainland Europe.

“I’ve been working with Clare and Sarah around six years now, dating back to when my mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“That’s why I said to you in the beginning about putting off coming to Ireland – don’t ever put anything off if you’re going to do it. You have to do these things before you don’t do them!

“I’d been toying with doing a little more jazzy stuff with them back then, but ‘put it on the long finger’, as we say over here.

“I then decided I needed to be right by Mum’s side in England. But it’s something I cherish, working with the girls. Big time. They saw me through a very hard time.

“It’s a terrible thing, losing someone that close to you, but it does maybe teach you to … what is it? Carpe diem? Seize the day? And that honours our parents, really.”

How does Hazel’s sound compare to 30 years ago? Songs like 2011’s I Give You My Sunshine seem a lot more soulful. Is that indicative of her current material?

HazelOConnorPinkNet“That was written when Mum was on her last legs in the hospice, at Christmas. I couldn’t think what I could do. Should I get her a present, or was that just stupid?

“Instead, I worked out something more fun, more real. We were caged in by a blizzard, but when that died down I went out and built this huge, towering snowman.

“It was watching over from her window. I thought that might make her laugh, and came to the conclusion there’s only one gift you can give – your inner sunshine.

“It’s a spiritual thing. All that material shite is nothing when you’re dying. It’s what’s inside that counts.”

For a lad who went into his teen years high on new wave, I always saw Hazel at the more theatrical end of punk, along with her pal Toyah. Are the two of them still in touch?

“God, yeah, and Toyah was the first when I did a single a couple of years ago for the hospice, who said ‘Of course – yes!’ without reservation. That woman is mighty!”

Does she keep in touch with anyone else from that era?

“Not really, but only because I live up a mountain in Ireland. I was never really a party girl though, contrary to how PR people would have it in my early days.

“I’m more into hill-walking, gardening, dog walking. I’ve never been into networking and wanting to be famous.”

Live Wire: Hazel O'Connor, in concert in Shoreham's Ropetackle Arts Centre

Live Wire: Hazel O’Connor, in concert at Shoreham’s Ropetackle Arts Centre

She’s certainly been into hard work though, and when not out with Clare and Sarah, Hazel tours with Irish harpist, singer and television presenter Cormac de Barra.

“Cormac is a separate entity in my life, I guess he’s somewhere in America, and really up to his eyeballs before Christmas. But then we’ll be working in France and Ireland in February.

“But if it’s not with Cormac, it’s with Clare and Sarah, and all three are just wonderful, inter-changeable, fantastic musicians and human beings to work with.”

Will there be an encore on this tour with her old friend Hugh?

“Yes, there will be. But we’ve both got this package of songs from the past we’re responsible for as writers too.

“There’s a certain vibe with Hugh, and always will be. He’s a character, and I think I am too. And two characters can maybe make a giant!”

Talking of cultural colossi, I believe legendary performance poet John Cooper Clarke’s playing a date with the two of you (December 4th, at Camden’s Electric Ballroom).

“Yeah … that’s coola boola!”

Stage Drive: Hazel and her band

Stage Drive: Hazel and her band

To take on an early ’80s theme, zipping up her boots and going back to her roots, Hazel had a happy upbringing in Coventry before her parents split.

But she left school early and soon ‘did a bunk’ around Europe and beyond, ending up in cabaret in Beirut at one point, just before the worst of the troubles ignited.

“It was a happy time when we were really little. We worked in a car city, so we all had a car – something we didn’t realise was so rare then.

“In every photo of my early history we seem to be next to a Hillman Imp or something like that.

“But then my parents split and we were poor then, living in one room. It wasn’t great.”

Was there a lot of music around the house?

“There was. Before the split there was always music. Dad came from a large family in the west of Ireland, where everyone was a singer or a musician.

“He played lovely piano and I couldn’t understand how he did it, until my mum let on and told me he played by ear.

“I thought, ‘How strange!’ When you’re little, you do tend to take things very literally!”

Glass Act: Hazel on the Eighth Day (Copyright: Paramount)

Glass Act: Hazel on the Eighth Day (Copyright: Paramount)

Here’s a bit of trivia. Breaking Glass wasn’t her film debut, having previously appeared in 1975’s Girls Come First.

“That was some stupid blooming sex comedy, as they used to call them. Pre-porno. The star was Bert Kwouk, so it clearly wasn’t that naughty!

“I did a modelling course, and the agency sent me to that job, because they wanted nude models.

“I don’t know where you’ve picked that up from! But at least I’ve got a history. It’s better than me telling people ‘I went to acting school, and …’

While away, Hazel kept in touch with her Coventry roots, and through her brother’s new wave band The Flys – perhaps best known for Love and a Molotov Cocktail – got involved with that scene and writing songs.

Was she aware of a certain ska revivalist band coming through called The Coventry Automatics … before they changed their name to The Special AKA?

“Neil stayed in Cov, and there was so much music happening there. So everything that came out of there came to my attention through him. And I was amazed by the energy at that time.

Big Influence: The Specials, during their heyday

Big Influence: The Specials, during their heyday

“I remember meeting up with him and The Specials down in Brighton just after I got famous, with The Bodysnatchers supporting.

“And part of that band became The Belle Stars, who included Clare Hirst.”

Was there a moment when Hazel finally realised where her future laid?

“Yes, when my brother was supporting Buzzcocks, with Howard Devoto still in the band then.”

Wow. Where was that then?

Hazel’s response is a big theatrical laugh.

“Oh, I can’t remember. We’re talking 50 zillions years ago! But I do remember the energy of the audience, the excitement, the songs … everything.

“After that, I said to Neil, ‘I want to be a singer, I want a record deal! How do you do it?’”

Air Borne: The Flys, including Hazel's brother Neil O'Connor

Air Borne: The Flys, including Hazel’s brother Neil O’Connor

Hazel soon got to know The Clash’s Mick Jones and The Rich Kids’ former Sex Pistol Glenn Matlock and future Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, another of her famous exes.

“The Rich Kids were the next band Neil was supporting, while I met Mick Jones at the Marquee or the 100 Club. He approached me with some daft line or whatever, which I’m not even going to say. I wouldn’t like to embarrass him!”

And did it work?

“Well … we became friends, and he was good friends with Glenn. Those were the halcyon days when I did get out and about. But I wasn’t famous at all then.”

So how did she end up not only getting the star role in Breaking Glass but also writing the songs?

“I was trying my hardest and had written this little clutch of songs, and The Flys did my demos with me.

“I walked into Albion Records, and they said they wanted to be my publisher and for me to sign a record deal for £1!

“They also wanted to record one of my worst songs though, getting Glenn, Rusty Egan and Steve New from The Rich Kids in … and that Madness producer.”

I’m guessing that was either Clive Langer or Alan Winstanley, but never got round to checking on that as Hazel was soon in full flow again.

Festival Fire: Hazel O'Connor, live at Chilfest

Festival Fire: Hazel O’Connor, live at Chilfest

“It should have been such a star-studded event, but it was such a crappy song, not one I’d have chosen. And I remember word going round about this dreadful song with me on!

“I was crestfallen, thinking I’d blown it. But one positive thing did happen and I got lots of good press from a few gigs I did, so there was talk of an album deal.

“They started me with Vic Maile, who used to work with Dr. Feelgood.

“He was a lovely man, but when I attempted to play piano or sing backing vocals on my own tracks, he’d just pat me on the head and say, ‘There, there, Hazel, go and make the tea for us. We’ve got musicians for that!’

“Even though I wasn’t a proper piano player, I wrote on piano and therefore the vibe came from me, so I thought it was important that I should be part of that.

“When I later made records with Tony Visconti, he felt it was absolutely imperative that I played piano, on tracks like Will You and loads of others I’d written.

”But half-way through that album with Vic, the £1 I’d got as an advance from Albion had run out, surprisingly.”

Thankfully though, Hazel’s spell as a receptionist at her record company saw her back on to the right path.

00034“The girl who worked the telephones had gone on holiday, so I begged for that job for two weeks, and on the first day a call came through for the owners, who were all out to lunch.

“The person calling then said, ‘We actually want to talk to a singer there, Hazel O’Connor’. I thought that was mad – taking a call about myself. I said, ‘That’s me!’”

That call involved an invite to audition for a certain new film, and despite being up against various bigger names, Hazel proved successful.

“I went to meet this director, and he thought I was a bit of a character. Next minute, I’m auditioning for maybe a bigger part.

“At that time, I was reading this book, (U.S Andersen’s) The Magic in your Mind, which included an exercise to imagine something very exciting was coming my way and keep imagining that – polishing it, like a dream.

“So when that call came, I thought, ‘Bloody hell, this experiment is working!’

“When I got to the audition, there was Elvis Costello – because it was going to be a male singer at first. Then Toyah came in, and I thought I might as well go home.

“That had happened several times in my life. I had absolutely no confidence. But I stopped myself and instead tried to imagine what might happen it if were different, the way I wished it.

“My imagination went wild and I imagined they gave me the lead and changed the script, which wasn’t great anyway.

“In my fantasy, they also asked me to write all the songs, and choose my producer, which would be Tony Visconti, because I was such a big David Bowie fan.

TV Times: Hazel's dream producer, Tony Visconti

TV Times: Hazel’s dream producer, Tony Visconti

“It was all absolutely far-out stuff that would never happen, but I decided to believe it could happen, and by the time I’d left that audition room it had all changed.

“They asked quick questions, such as whether I had an Equity card, and I’d just got one as a by-product of working in cabaret in Beirut when I was 19.

“When I said that, they said, ‘You’ve been a dancer in Beirut?’ And you could see the warmth in that room, it was getting hotter and hotter.

“Looking back, I guess I was a PR’s dream. I was only 25, but ran away when I was 16, joined a cabaret troupe at 19, was bombed in Beirut. It certainly wasn’t the norm.”

Success followed, her co-stars including Phil Daniels and Jonathan Pryce, and the soundtrack soon going platinum.

And on her following headline tour, Hazel also helped another band on their way, support act Duran Duran.

“They were brilliant. They didn’t need my push. I just gave them the platform, via my manager, Alan Edwards.

“When they came on tour they were penniless. They took one room a night and the rest slept in the camper van.

“They drew straws as to who got the room for the night, and everyone else would bunk in for a shower every day. It was all very sweet.”

Later hits like D-Days suggested Hazel had moved on from her punk beginnings to a more ’80s synth-led sound.

“Well, that song came about because I was in one of Steve Strange’s clubs, A Club for Heroes I think.

Vinyl Portrait: Sons and Lovers, the 1980 LP that spawned D-Days

Vinyl Portrait: Sons and Lovers, the 1980 LP that spawned D-Days

“They had this theme one night where there were all these lads dancing around in mankinis and little g-strings at one in the morning, and I thought, ‘How bloody weird is this?

“That was then recorded, but I didn’t really like where we’d got to, so asked Albion to get it remixed by Tony Visconti, which we did.

“That was the one change on that album that really helped. We were always tinkering with synths in the Breaking Glass days, but liked to juxtapose that with the saxophone sound.”

Talking of saxophone, Wesley Magoogan’s solo on Will You will always be remembered.

“I think that was Tony’s idea while we were recording, or demoing it in his garage in Henley.

“We’d work in the garage all day and into the night, then his wife, Mary Hopkin (of Those Were the Days fame), would make us some delicious food, then we’d get back to it.

“It was first demoed on my little toy organ, and it was then that he’d be formulating it all, including adding that sax sound.”

As the 1980s continued, Hazel’s record sales tailed off. Was she still making a living?

“That’s just it – I didn’t make a living out of any of it. I never got a penny!”

Beyond the music, are those acting roles still coming in all these years on?

“Not really. I took the decision some time ago that the singing part of my life and the writing is so important to me.

Petrol Head: Hazel as Kate in Breaking Glass (Copyright: Paramount)

Petrol Head: Hazel as Kate in Breaking Glass (Copyright: Paramount)

“So unless some really good dramatic role comes in, I wouldn’t want to do it and miss out on the other part.

“I was doing a WB Yeats play with Cormac de Barra, and loved that, but can’t really afford travelling around doing theatre. Besides, I lived out of a suitcase for maybe three-quarters of my life.

“Do I want to be selling other people’s stuff, or my own? The answer is always my own, unless some amazing film, TV or stage role comes in.”

Much of Hazel’s story is retold in her autobiography, Breaking Glass Barefoot, including many winning anecdotes.

Speaking of which, has David Bowie called lately, asking for another Hazel O’Connor haircut?

“No, but I thought of that recently when I cut my hair. I was thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ but then thought, ‘Well, I have cut David Bowie’s hair!”

You may recall Hazel also appeared in the video for The Eurythmics’ Who’s That Girl. And she was even billed as George Michael’s love interest in the tabloids once.

“Mmm, I’m not sure it would have worked! That was hilarious though. That followed my Don’t Touch Me video, where we had to kiss.

“So many tongue-wagging headlines followed about him leaving home to move in with me. We just laughed about it.

“Funnily enough, (Strictly Come Dancing judge) Bruno Tonioli does the disco-dancing in that video too.”

Hazel-OConnor-Beyond-The-Breaking-Glass-C1-2002-IHCD18-400x400By the end of the 1990s, there was her Beyond Breaking Glass show. Was that her coming to terms with her past and the start of her getting together that autobiography?

“Definitely. I miss the theatrical side, so to be able to write and perform a show, and getting Cormac to do some dramatic parts, is such a buzz.

“The spoken word is mad interesting for me, telling stories and being a raconteur, and someone like Cormac is able to become a foil for me.”

Time moves on, and I hate to bring it up, but there’s a big birthday next year – Hazel’s 60th. I’m guessing there are no plans to give up this career quite yet though.

“No, and I couldn’t afford to! What would I have to live on? There’s no royalties … there’s just work.”

We’d been on the phone for about 49 minutes at that stage, and I asked if all her interviews lasted that long, to which Hazel replied, “Yeah … I’m a kind of talk-aholic.”

Finally, I asked about her second home in France, and Hazel told me that story too.

“Just before my Mum got diagnosed, I realised we’d never been on a road trip together, despite all this driving around I do. So I said, ‘Why don’t we go somewhere?’

“I love to read non-fiction and one period that interests me is that of the Cathars in the Languedoc region, having read up all about them and their beautiful castles.

“We went down to stay, really loved the area and looked at a few houses, despite me not having any money.

“I got very disgruntled, but on the last day Mum found one which was relatively cheap and came with a big piece of land.

“This guy took us to it and it was across a river. The only way to get there was via this bridge with big gates. That really appealed to me, the privacy of it.

“It was just outside the village and had been used as a depot, with a roof, dirt floor and four good walls, but no doors, no nothing, and a ladder to get upstairs.

“It wasn’t expensive, and I thought, ‘I can do this’, if I get a friend who’s a builder to do things for mate’s rates.

“I got an interest-only mortgage which has been the death of me since, but managed to pull it off by raising money, and keep chipping away at it.

Hazel-OConnor-And-Hugh-Cornwell-On-Tour“I learned to build too, and ended up doing all the work myself – laying floor, re-building walls, putting doors and windows in. And it’s something I really enjoy.

“People look at me and think I’m nuts, but I know all my tools and know they’re all very important to me.

“And if you’re a girl working on a building project, you need your power tools! It’s the same with my screw gun …”

I reckon if I didn’t end the conversation there, we might still have been on now. But I was worried about my batteries.

So there you have it – Hazel O’Connor, singer-songwriter, actor, author, DIY enthusiast and all-round entertainer … available for live shows and house renovations.

To catch up with this site’s interview with Hugh Cornwell from July, 2013, head here.

For details of Hazel O’Connor and Hugh Cornwell’s forthcoming tour dates, try http://www.thegigcartel.com/artists/profile:520

And to find out more about Hazel and her back catalogue, go to her official website here

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on November 28th, 2014. For the original online piece, head here.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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One Response to Here She Comes (again) – The Hazel O’Connor interview

  1. Pingback: Getting up close and personal with Toyah | writewyattuk

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