Text by Jim Downs and Julia Masi, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Article © 1983; RBF intro and live photo © 2010 by FFanzeen
Other images and video from the Internet
The following article with musician, actor, and performance artist Nona Hendryx was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #11, in 1983. It was written by writer and photographer Jim Downs, and our managing editor, Julia Masi.
I had the opportunity to meet Nona when she was interviewed on the cable access show, Videowave, where I worked as a floor manager for a number of years. The picture below is from that day.
While we were not in the habit of printing articles that did not focus on rock’n’roll, but Nona was very nice to all of us there, with a joyous heart and an open mind, which not everyone had being on public access. We would all later learn about her relationship with Dusty Springfield, but it is Nona’s own funk queen work that brought her to both Videowave and FFanzeen. – RBF, 2010
Her light blue inside-out pants suit sports a bright silver patch that says, “Tailor Made.” And although she confesses to picking it up off the rack, on Nona Hendryx, it’s an original. Her style is all her own and her vice is unmistakable, and almost impossible to imitate.
Since her days with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells (and then Labelle), to her more recent work with Talking Heads, or her new album, Nona, on RCA Records, she managed to transcend the trends and keep a thread of consistency in her music.
“I don’t particularly like my voice,” confesses Nona. “I just use it because it’s the only vehicle I have for getting my music across. And getting my words across. Poetry is my first love. I think it will continue to be, and music is a tool. I don’t think of myself as a singer.
“A lot of the singers today try to sing like Mahalia Jackson or Aretha (Franklin). I once did one of Mahalia’s songs when I was about 13 or 14. I don’t even remember which one it was. It’s not something I tried to emulate in my voice. I just never had any delusions in my mind that I could sing like Aretha so I didn’t ever try. I appreciate her voice.
“Music really hasn’t changed that much. The only changes have been the electric guitar and computerized music. Punk was a variation of the hippies. Punk shock. That to me is not a change. And the other biggest change is the involvement of women in the arts and, therefore, music. Those are the biggest changes I’ve seen,” notes Nona.
“After 22 years in the music business – I started at five,” she doesn’t see that it’s any easier for a woman now than it was in the early ‘60s, “it’s not so much easier, but it’s less restricted. If it were easier, you’d just be a musician.”
One of the major differences between being accepted as a musician and being labeled a “female musician” is the cosmetic packaging of the performer. “It just seems that to become a part of what’s considered the norm and to be successful, you do it (package yourself). They assume that you’re gonna look like Brooke Shields. Every woman who reaches that status, and the people who’ve gotten to that place like the Go-go’s, it all goes back to that whole image of being glamorous. There’s always someone trying to sell that to you. Because that’s necessary to be liked. I think, in a way, it’s sad because a lot of women with talent are not given the opportunity because they don’t look like Brooke Shields or Diana Ross, or Farrah Fawcett.” Oddly enough, no one has ever tried to package Nona. “I do such a good job of it myself,” she laughs. “I think I’m just a very visual person. I like visuals. I love the movies. I love clothes. I go buy make-up, and then go home and try it all on.”
Nona’s also quite handy with the pen and paint brush. “I was always good at art. It came naturally and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the creative process. The frustration. I love it!
“I love poetry. It was a way to write down my feelings and divorce myself from my feelings. Like a lot of teenagers, I was very shy, except when I was around my friends. Then I wasn’t shy; I was bad then. And I mean bad as in being bad. And after junior high, ‘cause I was switched from a different high school from my friends, which was a predominately white school, and I came from a neighborhood that I’d say was a 95% black neighborhood, I felt disoriented. A teacher there helped me; you know, introduced me to poetry and also worked with me on the poems. And I just took to it really quickly. I was really good at interpreting what was being said. And then I began to write some and took public speaking in high school and did a couple of plays.
“When I started going on the road with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, I tended to use that as a way of passing the hours or riding in a station wagon, writing short stories and developing a writing style for myself. And what I began to develop was one of – well – taking a word and – like, joy: joyfulness; joyless; overjoyed. All the things you can add to a word (like) the prefix and the suffix, and summing up the word. I love words.”
Her taste in poetry is eclectic, ranging from Shakespeare to e.e. cummings, to Nikki Giovanni, and every style in-between. When someone admits they have a hard time understanding when words become a poem, Nona is happy to explain: “The fact is that it’s verse and it needs nothing else to make it. It needs no music or visuals to make it. Although in modern poetry what matters structure within literature, within how you use verse. Poetry can be one word; if the choice of the word fits the feeling. And if it causes your mind to bounce off or if it’s like a magnet that draws you, it pulls you into the poem.”
She believes that writing lyrics is different from writing poems. “Poetry has its own meter. When you read it, you’re reading to the meter. In a song, music has that meter also, but you must write the words to flow with the music. The syllables must fit the notes of the melody.”
When Nona writes songs, she usually goes into the studio with “the musical ideas set and the lyrics can change up to the last minute of my singing it. Sometimes I think I have the right words for something and later on in singing it and singing another words by accident, it becomes the right word instead of the one I had.
“I always leave it open for change. The music is always changing. That way it’s still something I enjoy doing. I don’t do it the same way live as I do it on record. And I don’t do it the same way each time I do it. Each time I do it, it’s different.”