Hazel O’Connor was at home in County Wicklow when I caught up with her, after a long haul from a gig in Taunton, Somerset, including a late-night Holyhead-Dun Laoghaire ferry.
“My boat got me in about half past midnight. It’s quite a palaver, but I don’t like flying, y’see.”
That followed eight shows in two weeks for the still-busy 63-year-old, me asking what happened on the ‘Eighth Day’ when ‘machine just got upset’, and Hazel turning Dalek-like as her mobile phone reception plummeted.
But she soon walked to a different part of her house, telling me, ‘Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring!’ And this being Hazel – our last call in 2014 lasted over an hour and the next bill made for startling reading – a long conversation about her dogs followed.
‘How did I end up with two girl dogs? Last time we spoke I had three, and the other was a boy, a good calming influence. Now I’ve got two crazy women, one’s a Labrador-boxer – with that kind of trembly bottom lip, that really kind of upset face – and the other’s a black Lurcher, who likes to hump and kill … which is not great, because I’m a vegetarian!”
Welcome back to the world of Hazel O’Connor, our next segue heading into more canine talk from both of us, her sweetly telling me, ‘Ah, thank you for giving a rescue dog a home. That’s what I end up doing all the time. He must be so happy.’
While hailing from Coventry, Hazel’s been in the Irish Republic since 1990, and has a base in the South of France too, handy for regular European dates.
“I always try to do a show nearby, where there’s a really nice arts theatre, but it’s hard work organising it sometimes. I love being in France though, and love hanging out at my place.”
Now Hazel has another run of shows over here, involving screenings of a digitally-remastered uncut version of her breakthrough film, Breaking Glass, followed by a Q&A, a live band performance, then a special ‘meet and greet’, after just a few days back home.
“It’s quite extensive. We’re up in Scotland, and all over the bloody place! The last two weeks it was myself, Clare (Hirst, saxophone, who’s also played for The Belle Stars, The Communards, and David Bowie) and Sarah (Fisher, keyboards, previously with The Eurythmics). We were doing what we were in the first part of this year – an up close and personal thing, and we’re back out on the road in 12 days.”
This time it’s the same trio, but with percussionist Josh Blackmore too.
“I got involved in more acoustic music after seeing Elton John with Ray Cooper, which was bloody amazing, featuring all the songs I loved of his, the percussion and piano working so well together. So I wanted to do that this time with tracks like ‘Eighth Day’ and a couple from my new album.”
The new album is Hallelujah Moments, set to be available (on download only) shortly, but this month’s shows are all about the film that led to Hazel’s big break and changed her life, not only making the lead role in Breaking Glass – released just after her 25th birthday – her own, but also writing the songs. Yet last time she told me she’d barely made a penny from it. Is that still the case?
“Pretty much, yeah.”
And yet the tie-in LP went double-platinum over a 38-week chart run, songs like the powerful ‘Eighth Day’ and ‘Will You’ still resonating. The interest clearly remains. It’s had a long shelf-life.
“Yeah, it’s just a shame that the amount of royalties that came from it would have really reached their peak in the first couple of years, and the record company I was in litigation with for so long kept reaping the benefits of Breaking Glass, even though they went into liquidation in 1987 and had been totally dissolved by 1992.
“I’ve just been looking at all the contracts, because I’m having a bit of trouble with something else they did back then which has had repercussions. They hadn’t told A&M Records, who put out Breaking Glass, that they were insolvent, so they kept taking the royalties that should have come to me, putting them in their own pockets I presume. It was only in 1996 that I started to get royalties from Breaking Glass, by which time it had peaked.”
Do you remember the first day of filming? Only it was a huge leap for you at the time.
“Jeez. I can’t even remember the first day. I do remember the first day we recorded a music scene though. We did many music scenes in the first few weeks, I reckon that was so (writer/director) Brian Gibson could make me feel safe and relaxed. But they called in about 200 punk extras from Brixton to this production village where we were in Cricklewood, and they built this pretend pub, giving the young ones alcohol from 8.30 in the morning.
“By the time they were ready to film the first shot at around 11.30, the assistant director said (adopts posh voice), ‘Okay everybody, do something really punky’. That sounded a little patronising, and when they heard the words ‘rolling’ and ‘action’ they did just that, destroying the set, which then had to be re-jigged until about half three in the afternoon. Of course, after that they weren’t given alcohol again!”
What were your first impressions of your co-star Phil Daniels, by all accounts a Jack the lad back then, fresh off the set of previous hit, Quadrophenia.
“I thought he was great. They’d already chosen me as the lead and were giving me the benefit of viewing my potential leading men, so I sat in on auditions for the guy who would play the manager. They told me Phil Daniels was coming in, and I’d seen a print of that film.
“He came in wearing one of his Quadrophenia suits, as that was his last job and he’d got his wardrobe, so he had his Mod suit on. He quickly scanned the script he was supposed to speak from, which included the line, ‘Voila, Kate – a new flat!’ And I understand this as I’m dyslexic myself, but he stood there and went, ‘Viola, Kate – a new flat!’ And everyone cracked up laughing. He did it with such aplomb.
“Yeah, he was something else – very witty and funny and a clever actor, and he was very kind to me. He took me to his acting school in Islington (the Anna Scher Theatre) and helped me a lot with my acting, trying to be up to his standard.”
How about Jonathan Pryce? There was another big name in the making.
“My God – Mr Perfect Actor! They were both perfect actors in different ways. And bloody hell, Jonathan just became ballistic from there in his acting. He too was wonderful and lovely. I just had to keep watching how those guys – really, really good at what they did – did it, trying to learn from them. A great experience. I really benefited from them.”
When was the last time you watched Breaking Glass from start to finish?
“Mmm. Quite a while now. I get a bit upset.”
Was it a bit too close to home with its subject matter, drawing on a few of your own experiences?
“No … just because I was slimmer then. Ha! It’s just a woman thing really.”
I suppose I get that. We all look back at photographs, wondering where the years have gone. And with moving images …
“It’s terrifying! You can really whip yourself about stuff like that, so I tend to be careful about what I look at, what I believe … including press. Good or bad, it’s just subjective really. It’s the same being in a film as a young woman. And now I’m not a young woman now.”
Last time we spoke, you were out on the road with old friend Hugh Cornwell, the former Stranglers front-man, who funnily enough was another former interviewee I spoke to again just a week or so ago. And like you, he’s still doing the rounds and coming up with new material all these years on. Neither of you are wholly reliant on past material.
“I think it’s great if you can make you money as a legacy act. I’ve got nothing against that, but again I haven’t had that fortune to do that. I have to just get on and work.
“And I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with Clare and Sarah for 10 years now. I could get lazy, but they push me, and Clare will say, ‘When are we gonna make another album?’ I need that.
“This year I made my album in Ireland, because I wanted to do duets with different people, and I invited them to come over and play on it, doing a gig over here to justify them doing that. It was something I wanted to do, and I was off my feet for three months after a foot operation. I wasn’t allowed to walk and was going crazy.
“I like to be busy and the fact that I could just sit there on my sofa watching box-sets with my foot in the air for three months was all too much for me. But my neighbour is a really good record producer with a lovely little studio, and I decided to make an album, and he was kind enough to come and fetch me then bring me home after around two sessions a week. And I was really thrilled with the results.”
That got me thinking about Tony Visconti, who produced the Breaking Glass soundtrack, which kind of inevitably brings me on to the loss of his good friend and collaborator David Bowie since we last spoke. A huge influence on her, and someone she got to know (see the previous WriteWyattUK interview with Hazel for details, not least her past role as ‘hairdresser to the stars’).
“Yeah, the whole idea of the evolvement of that artist in Breaking Glass was trying to follow the Ziggy Stardust story in a way, and how the characters slowly become what they’ve created, having lost themselves in the characters they are portraying.
“We watched lots of David Bowie stuff just to get ideas, and having Tony Visconti produce the album was just like my dream come true.
“But yeah, very sad, and of course Clare played with David, and when it happened she told me, ‘I just thought I’d play with him again’. And with me, I always thought I’d see him again. It goes to show that you can never take anything for granted.
“The more you experience in life, the more you have to get clued into the idea that it’s not forever and you have to treasure every single person that you treasure – good and bad, warts and all. Otherwise, you might blink and it’s gone.
“And that was such a weird time. Some of the best people, or those I consider the best, disappeared – David, Prince, George Michael … so it’s carpe diem, all the time.”
Talking of those we’ve lost, I was thinking about Joe Strummer back in 2002, someone I’ve written a lot about in recent times …
“Joe was amazing. I thought he was lovely. And he shouldn’t have died. I could sit here and say that about so many people, but … we’re all gonna bloody die!”
Well, I was going to ask about you and the Roxy scene in Covent Garden, seeing as The Clash played their part in that, the first to play there on New Year’s Day, 1977.
“I wasn’t part of that, actually, but the guy who ran the Roxy, Andy Czezowski, and his wife were friends of mine. They managed The Photons, also including Steve Strange, a band that included an ex-boyfriend of mine.
“Andy and his wife were so kind to me. That’s my Roxy link, but I’d go to the 100 Club and The Marquee. I wasn’t an original Roxy-goer. I wasn’t in that first draft of amazing people. I was a follower.”
You had a link with fellow Coventry outfit The Specials too, at one point managed by Bernard Rhodes, as per The Clash. It always seemed quite a small scene to me.
“Yeah. But there again, once I’d been plucked for the film, the scene kind of disappeared from me. My experience of those Covent Garden days was because of this ex-boyfriend really. Otherwise I’d just go out and see people. I was a fan. I wasn’t part of a scene.
“Then I signed with Albion Records, and they paid Glenn Matlock, Rusty Egan and Steve New … well, Clive Langer did. He produced my first single, and those were the lads he’d always employ. I knew them anyway as my brother Neil was in The Flys, who supported the Buzzcocks and The Rich Kids. So I knew them from Neil really.”
“Oh, a couple of weeks ago! I go in and out all the time. My Mum’s buried there, so I stick flowers on her grave and see a few friends. It’s like a central stopping point for a person who doesn’t fly. When I drive to England, like at the beginning of this tour, I’ll go to Coventry first.”
With time for a few words at the graveside?
“Always. I don’t think people are where their graves are, but they seem to be a good focal point.”
Have you unearthed much family from your Dad’s side since your Irish move.
“I’ve loads of family over on the West of Ireland, but I so rarely get over there. I guess what happens in life is that your friends become your family though. I’ve still got a half-brother in Coventry, and it’s lovely when I see him. Apart from that, my family are my friends. I haven’t seen my brother Neil for nearly a year now, after he came over to play on my tour last autumn. That’s a bit sad, but we get what we get in this life.”
While we can’t get you to sit down and watch Breaking Glass, what for you would you say was the best music film ever made?
“The best music film ever? Cabaret. I don’t like musicals and hate when people burst into song … unless there’s a reason, but Cabaret kind of fulfilled all those reasons and I thought it was really stylised and really cool.
“And the other one would be The Rose. I thought Bette Midler was outstanding. Beautiful. And then I’m thinking of This is Spinal Tap. Ha! Actually, I love any films about a band, and any musical films where they’ve made sure the music is not just, ‘I’m going to start singing now!’ is fine by me.
“Except I have to allow for West Side Story. There are always exceptions to a rule!”