Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Archive: Grace Jones

Ahead of her appearance at the Electric Picnic at the weekend, some words from the archive with Ms Jones

Grace Jones is watching you

Tue, Sep 1, 2015, 15:23


The last time Grace Jones played the Electric Picnic, there was a run on oysters and Cristal in Co Laois. That was in 2008 and Ms Jones was in the form of her life. A few months after that appearance, she released a new album “Hurricane” and she got on the phone to talk about it. We’re also very much looking forward to reading “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs”, the forthcoming book about her colourful life co-written with our old mate Paul Morley.

“I feel like I am running for president”. Grace Jones makes this observation with exaggerated seriousness, before cackling like an old hen down the phoneline. Pop’s most extravagant dame has returned from a lengthy spell in the wilderness and she’s relishing the attention.

Those feelings of presidential grandeur have to do with the amount of media amount she’s fielding at the moment. A new album – actually, a rather magnificent new album – called “Hurricane” means the lights are shining on her once again. And no better woman to deal with that glare.

Naturally, there’s a significant focus in all of this coverage on her past. At her pomp in the early 1980s, Jones was an exotic and colourful fixture on the pop-culture landscape. Few could match the superfly, statuesque Jamaican with striking looks who had high-stepped her way into the frame as a singer, model and actress for headlines or intrigue.

Her back-pages are full of starry-eyed snapshots as she linked arms and pouted with similarly inclined peers. She hung out with Andy Warhol at Studio 54, starred in Conan the Destroyer alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, appeared as a James Bond villain in A View To A Kill and did a Playboy shoot with a body-builder boyfriend.

There was also an infamous TV appearance where she slapped the presenter, Russell Harty, in the gob when he turned away to talk to another guest. That one still keeps getting YouTube traction.

But there was also a lot of music, something which tends to get overlooked in many of the re-ups. From her “Portfolio” debut album in 1977, the one where she collaborated with Fire Island disco don Tom Moulton, to those timeless classics like “My Jamaican Guy”, “Nightclubbing”, “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Pull Up to the Bumper”, Jones knew how to make a sonic dash. Her very best tracks always had the X, Y and Z factors, coasting along on waves of after-hours robofunk, slinky grooves and art-pop elan, as Jones chattered and sang on top. Even her not-so-good tracks were worth a listen.

And then, without a word to anyone, she just stopped making records. After the rather brutal “Bulletproof Heart” was released in 1989, few realised that it would be nearly 20 years before a new Jones record would turn up again.

“I was disappointed with the last couple of experiences in the recording studio. I recorded a few albums, actually two albums, during the 1990s but they were never released. We did one record and it took a long time to write and a long time to record and it never came out. It was such a heart-breaking experience for me.

“I now know that I was just working with the wrong people and they messed up the material. They took all the reggae out because the new head of the record company came in and said he didn’t like reggae. So I said to him ‘what are you doing then with me?’ I can’t make a record without reggae, it would not be natural.

“I was very unhappy and it was taking up too much of my energy which I should have been using for other things so I stopped making records.

“I suppose things just kind of fell apart. It was not the time for me and it wouldn’t be the time for years to come. I was trying really hard to make records that I wanted to make, but I guess it wasn’t to be because the magic and the spontaneity weren’t there. I thought I’d just continue to do my shows in the underground way without making too much fuss. I don’t like a lot of publicity if there’s not really something new to talk about.”

So she did her shows. Some of these were a little weird – she did a duet with Luciano Pavarotti and turned up at the bizarre Jones Jones Jones gig in Cardiff in November 2006, where 1,224 Joneses set a new world record for the most people with the same surname gathering in the one place at the same time.

She did corporate shows and club shows. And she always got paid. Like Chuck Berry, Jones insists on getting her fee in her mitts before her feet touch the stage. No-one’s going to rip her off.

“Yes, I get paid before I go onstage. In this business, I have been burned many times before and I don’t want that to happen again. One time, I forgot to get the money before I went onstage and afterwards, the promoter had left the premises and the money had left the premises with him. Some people in this business are criminals and you can find yourself dealing with a dodgy crowd. My solution is to get paid in cash.”

There were other nixers too. She modelled for Diesel and Louis Vuitton, did a couple of TV shows like Beastmaster and took up most of the film offers which came her way.

“I’ve done two films in the last year. One was about Falco, the Austrian musician who did “Rock Me Amadeus” and then died in a car crash. The other film is “Chelsea Rocks”, which Abel Ferrara did about the Chelsea Hotel. I play a nurse who was living next door to Janis Joplin when she was living at the Chelsea. I did the music for another Abel film, Go Go Tales, with my son. I do a lot of dibbling and dabbling like that, I stay busy.”

During this time when she was otherwise engaged, music offers kept coming in, but Jones never took the bait. “A lot of people were sending me stuff that they wanted me to sing on but the trouble was most of it was not very good. Even though I was busy, I knew that music still had to be a part of what I do. I could have – and did – go out and sing without a new record, but doing a new record that I loved meant I could go out and do interviews like this and talk about myself and my music again.”

““Hurricane” didn’t even start out as an album. I was just supposed to do a guest appearance with a group called Biomechanics that Ivor Guest was in. He was producing the record and he wanted me to sing on “Devil In My Life” and I had the words already written and it worked really well.

“By the time we had finished recording, the band had broken up so myself and Ivor decided to continue working together because we had worked really well together. We wrote some new stuff, went back to some of the older material that had been recorded badly before but never released and put the album together.

“The mix of musicians we put together was magical. You had Sly & Robbie doing their Jamaican thing that they’ve always done and I’ve always loved. You had Brian (Eno) playing off sounds, Martin Slattery on the piano, Don-E jamming and Tony Allen doing some drumming.

“I loved getting that mixture of sounds and putting them together so it works best for me. That’s something that Chris Blackwell (Island Records boss) taught me when we worked together. I think I got spoiled working with him. He gave me a lot of freedom and made me realise that I should have confidence in my sound.

“I had the same sounds in my head that I’ve always had. That mix of Jamaican sounds and pop has always worked really great with me so why change it? You just have to sound like yourself, which should sound of the moment. It was important that we didn’t follow someone else’s idea of what the Grace Jones sound is, whatever that is. You just have to follow where the music is going. We recorded most of the tracks live rather than using overdubs to get back to that timeless sound. I wanted live, live, live. Otherwise, I didn’t want to do it.

“And I paid for the record. Oh yes, I paid for it. I did much more than just turning up to sing with this one. I gave Mark Jones and Wall Of Sound the finished record. They didn’t have to pay for the recording. They better remember that.”

Some of the most striking songs on the album deal with Jones’s family background, the first time she’s considered these relationships on record.

She was born in Jamaica and reared by her grandmother and step-grandfather, after her parents moved to work in New York. She had a strict church-going routine on the island, before the lure of the bright lights turned her head when the 12 year old Jones joined her folks in New York.

“I started writing “William’s Blood” with Wendy & Lisa in Los Angeles quite a while ago. It came from something my mother always said to me about her father who was a musician who toured with Nat King Cole. My mother thought the music business was a very tough lifestyle and that I would end up dying young and drinking too much. She thought that if I didn’t slow down, I’d die. I thought it was a good thing and a time to write about those feelings.

“The other song (“I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears)”), that came out of a conversation with Sophie (Fiennes). She has been following me around for the last four years shooting a film about me and we were just having a conversation about our mothers and I remembered my father crying for my mother at her mother’s funeral. I used that story as an example of how people who cry tears for the people they love, be it a lover crying for their lover or a mother crying for their mother. It’s all connected.”

She’s delighted with the reaction to the album and to recent live shows, like her show-stealing turn at the Electric Picnic. She just hopes people will dig the record and not keep on comparing it to what she did in the past. For Grace Jones, the past is another country she doesn’t want to visit again.

“People look back too much. Yes, we had an amazing time back then and I have some great memories, but people have to make their own fun. I still have a great time now when I go out. You have to live it, darling.

“I’m sure some people thought I was dead because I seemed to be out of the limelight so much. I did a few talk shows so I did keep popping up. A lot of people probably saw me as some kind of celebrity but the people were interested in me, they could always find me. And they did!

“I have an audience that kept coming to the shows. I know they didn’t really care if I had a new record but I always thought that a record was the key. Once you have that new record that you’re happy with, you can ride on the back of that.”