Hilary Woods is having none of the “why on earth did you walk away from life as a rock star?” line. Music fans of a certain age and disposition will know she was once the teenage bass player in JJ72, a Dublin band that really did make it big in Japan (for a while) and that skirted the singles and albums charts of numerous countries.
Woods – now in her 30s – enjoyed the fruits of such moderate success for several years: first-class flights to New York, touring in a bubble around Europe and Asia, making surreal videos, becoming photogenic fodder for music magazines. Within a short space of time, however, the fruit started to rot.
“I was incredibly young, but I don’t think you feel old at the age of 17 or 18. It was my first experience of being in a band, and I was on tour with all men. There were no women on tour. I missed my sisters and friends, and it was a full-on, pretty gruelling touring schedule.”
Playing live virtually every night made up for any misgivings, and the daily routine of repetitive on-the-road schedules meant there wasn’t time to think of important creative issues such as writing your own music.
“When you’re in a successful band and touring so much, there isn’t a lot of time for that. And I knew that I was very much the bass player in someone else’s band, in that the lead singer and guitarist [Mark Greaney] wrote the songs. That dynamic was very much set up, and I knew after two albums that it was time for me to leave.”
Bass for hire
Did she mind being a bass player for hire? "I didn't care. I signed up as the bass player and I didn't participate in the creative side of things. I just took it as it came. What I did mind after a while was that there was very little time doing my own thing, and I wanted to start putting my energy into that."
By the time she was 22, Woods left JJ72 to do just that. A multi-instrumentalist with rare intuitiveness, she had plans to continue in music as a solo artist and collaborator, as well as embarking on a career as a visual artist. Life had other plans, however. By the time she was 23, she had a baby daughter. She was a single parent, so she turned her back on life in the fast lane.
Woods, a thoughtful presence with cheekbones straight out of a Lloyd Cole song, is realistic about how her life changed so radically, and how the perception people have of rock stars can be drastically different from the reality.
Appearing on Top of the Pops, she says, “was a huge deal, and such a badge of honour”. Honour, however, doesn’t pay the bills. “Although we were flying around a few times a week to different places, there was no difference in the bank balance. We were very much still contained within a certain bubble and were too busy to think of things like that. It’s hard to come off touring, that’s the thing, but I was delighted to leave the band.”
Motherhood, she says wryly, took some adapting to. "I was catapulted into a whole other world. I was on my own, so it was incredibly challenging. And I was totally broke, so that was a huge adjustment."
She shifts in her seat. “I was a bit all over the place for a few years, trying to adjust, but nonetheless it was a very productive few years, creatively.”
In those early years of child minding – when minutes, let alone hours, of free time are appreciated like little else – how did she balance parenting with work? Externally, she says, her situation had changed from being signed to a major record label to signing on the dole, but she never let herself be defined by either state. She was, she recalls, very excited by motherhood.
“It’s a huge task, as any parent will know. Initially, I found it quite isolating, but equally liberating. To carve out time to do anything was very difficult. Hence, I stuck with painting and charcoal and doing things at home.”
About a year after her daughter was born, Woods embarked on third-level education, studying English and film. “I lived in a flat with my daughter. I just stayed at home painting and reading, and then I felt I wanted to return to music, but didn’t know what kind.”
It sounds like quite a solitary existence.
“It was and it wasn’t,” she says. “I connected with friends and I met new friends through my daughter. So no, it wasn’t all that, but it wasn’t glitz and glamour, either.”
Returned to music
Gradually, as time passed and as circumstances aligned with opportunity and inclination, she returned to music – "tinkering on the piano, playing guitar". Slowly but surely, she says, "I followed where the music took me".
A few weeks ago, Woods released an EP, Heartbox, which she will be promoting throughout the summer. In the meantime, she has a 12-year-old daughter to help navigate through her own teenage years.
From the perspective of what she went through as a teenager herself, if in four years’ time her daughter dropped out of school and wanted to join a rock band and go on tour, what would her response be?
“It would depend on the people surrounding her. I mean, I never thought I’d be in a band. It wasn’t something I’d ever have written down on a list of things to tick off. At that age, I liked doing things by myself – choreographing, making jewellery, baking and so on.”
It must have been a much more masculine environment in JJ72. Can she recall what it was like for her 18-year-old self?
“I wasn’t wholly invested in it. Leaving the band was about me making things for myself again. For the boys, Mark and Fergal Matthews, JJ72 was very much the thing. I was very proud of the band, but, yes, it was a masculine environment, but that’s shifting now and it’s wonderful.”
And the tired ‘woman in rock music’ tag? “Oh, I was fed up of being labelled but, male or female, no one likes it. Labelling is undignified, and it’s reductive. I did feel that in the band; I wasn’t into it, but it wasn’t why I left. Luckily, I was equipped with some sense of self to pay too much heed to it.
“But it’s not healthy, and having a young daughter, it’s lovely to see her empowered in the way that more girls are these days.”
THAT MELODY MAKER TAG: ‘THE SEXIEST GIRL IN ROCK MUSIC’
“Oh, that’s best forgotten, isn’t it? I never invested in that, and took it with a pinch of salt. There were fewer girls in bands then, but all of that defining stuff is just tiring – and it’s not a particularly liberating thing, is it? It’s extremely constricting, in fact, and it certainly didn’t help me want to stick around, but then I just wanted to do my own thing anyway. Also, you really don’t take any of that labelling too seriously; I think if you have a sense of yourself, then it’s okay. I’ve always been self-contained, so I didn’t allow it to inhibit me in any way at all.”