Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1981
Introduction text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet*
This interview was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #8, dated 1981, by Managing Editor Julia Masi. – Robert Barry Francos, 2018.
She has the smooth, clear voice of a 1940s chanteuse, the guts of a hard rocker, and the theatrical presence of Marcel Marceau. Scurrying about the stage, her pale skin is made whiter by make-up. With hair a strikingly unnatural shade of red, she is the perfect mime, creating characters to personify her songs. But Hazel O’Connor refuses to be manipulated.
On her own since the age of 16 when she left home in Coventry, England, Hazel has traveled from Beirut to Tokyo, working odd jobs as a singer, painter, dancer, and actress. Once penniless in the Sahara Desert, she is now a movie star on two continents, thanks to her portrayal of Kate in Breaking Glass [see film trailer below – RBF, 2018]. And now, she is embarking on a recording and concert career.
Sitting in her room at the Iroquois Hotel on an afternoon before her New York City debut last April, Hazel sipped tea, toyed with her corned-beef sandwich, and speculated about her career, her album Sons and Lovers on A&M Records, and the music scene.
“Singing is what I want to do. For me, that’s my major form of expression. It makes me feel the most.” She claims to have started her career with a “poxie Minnie Mouse voice,” but soon learned to sing with her guts when she found situations that she wanted to sing about. She learned the piano from an old boyfriend, who wrote the notes on the keyboard with a felt-tipped pen. Then she learned “a bit of guitar,” and asked her brother Neil to teach her to write songs.
“The first songs I wrote were about this girl, Montana Wildhack. She was the porno star in Slaughterhouse Five who gets kidnapped from Beverly Hills to mate with Billy Pilgrim. I have about three songs on her because of that book.” But her first single, “E-I-Addio,” was inspired by the fights her parents had before they broke up. And the 13 songs she wrote for the Breaking Glass soundtrack were laced with political overtones.
“I would never want to be a politician,” she admits. “I hate people pushing a point down at me in a too obvious way. I write about what I see around me, what I feel. People can make what they like out of my observations; like, people get meaning out of an artist painting pictures. I try to see lyrics in double images. My lyrics are quite pointed. They have their meanings underlying, of what I want to say, for anyone who wants to dig deeper. Sometimes, it starts with the obvious on the top level, and goes to the less obvious, with an underneath level, which a lot of people don’t bother to find out unless they listen.”
Influenced by the Velvet Underground and the Small Faces, she follows a definite formula when writing music: “Both of those groups have very structured ideas as far as songs are concerned, even though they played very loose. It was always verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Or possibly, middle eight or solo, finish on a chorus, or stop; end of song. I like that cos I’m one of those people who works well around a structure. If you put limits around what you’re doing, you can go past your limits and set new limits. I haven’t got past my first set of limits.”
Sons and Lovers is a reaction to what she has seen on the European music scene. After the release of Breaking Glass, Hazel was invited to all the “in, clique-y dos.” While making public appearances at clubs and discotheques, Hazel tried to stay out of the limelight and just drink in what was happening around her.
“In those days (1979), it was sort of a new regime where fashion hadn’t really been established. It was a cabaret-like setting with everyone coming up and wriggling around. It reminded me of Berlin back in World War days, with people watching other people and getting their rocks off.”
The passions of love and war are the central theme of her album, which includes an unusual cover of the traditional Irish song, “Danny Boy.” “I just imagined this smoky desolate field that had been a battleground forever, which was, like, in Ireland in the days of the Revolution, and always picking up arms against the oppressor, with this girl who’s singing about her lover. And gradually you change the coin, and you’ve got this lovely, lilting tune, then suddenly it goes, ‘Par-rump-par-rump,’” she started to imitate the drum and sings, “’Oh, Danny Boy…,’ because they gave people lively songs to make them march better.
“People are redundant. Whenever there’s economic declines, people start looking for scapegoats and that’s the first problem. And we have all these fuckin’ arms problem. And Big Money. Who needs it? They’re living life in true rock’n’roll fashion; let’s all destroy ourselves. I’m not interested in the destruction of the planet. People get so small-minded about what politics is about. Politics is about living together as people with feelings, and it’s been institutionalized to the point where my music comes in, because I really believe in feelings. It’s been said that I’m a ‘silly girl who’ll probably never hurt anybody but myself,’ but I don’t really care, if that’s the point.”
But what Hazel does care about is conveying her kaleidoscopic visions to her audience. By combining her theatrical talents with rock’n’roll, she had come up with a rowdy, regimented stage show.
“As big a love as I have of racing around on stage, I have a love of old-time cabaret. Not musical cabaret, but that sometimes seedier side of life that I know from being a dancer and stuff like that. I’d like to be able to stand up there with a piano, or even without anything, and be able to sing. I think that must be a great feeling.
“In England, my medium is mostly rock’n’roll concerts, but in France, we had a hit with ‘Will You,’ off the Breaking Glass album.” Naturally, having a hit song meant that Hazel had to make personal appearances and do a barrage of French rock’n’roll television shows. “And because everybody is so penny-pinching, all they wanted was just me to go over and mime to a tape. I at least waned to take my keyboard player. So me and Roots went over and he played piano and I sang it live. It was real good fun, cos that’s like another part of me.
“I really love stuff like old-fashioned jazz. I love Gershwin, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf. Women singers like that mean more to me than Grace Slick or Janis Joplin any day. I listened to the heavy rock scene. I liked Nico. She was maybe the first one I liked, but she didn’t go up there and sing and try to be a man. After that, I like all my contemporary girl singers that are happening now. I think they’re far more exciting than in the ‘60s, like Siouxie from the Banshees. And Debbie Harry; I like what she does.”
Kate, Hazel’s cinematic alter-ego, seems to be a composite of all her contemporaries, but with a few similarities to the real-life O’Connor: “I’m not going to disown my character. A lot of this that happen to (Kate) happened to me later, like going a bit nuts in the end. But some of the reasons I felt like going nuts were totally different. The real reason why people go nuts in any artistic sense is that people never recognize them for what they want to be recognized for; I just was not getting much recognition for being a musician, or being a writer. I was being recognized for being a puppet and a dummy.”
Hazel, who sees herself as “resilient and stable,” diagnoses the death of the punk movement: “The media has made bands inaccessible. They just started off on one track and finished up on another. Like the Clash started out as a street band, and eventually they had to give into commerciality to make money. That is classed in some people’s opinion as ‘selling out.’ I don’t see it that way. They’ve just become inaccessible. I understand how that happens. I used to see Mick Jones hanging out a lot. It gets to be difficult. I still think they make good music; it’s just that things are not the same anymore. Things can’t stay the same.
“We did this pop show, ‘Top of the Pops,’ when Breaking Glass was in its height. I’d been taken there in some old mini-cab; when we came out to be met, in what we thought would be our cab, there was a bloody Bentley waiting for us. I’d never felt so embarrassed in all my life, as getting into that Bentley. The record company had sent it as a present to sort of cheer me up. All I could think was, ‘Oh, no! What am I going to do with this thing?’ When we got to the gates of the television studio, there were loads of kids waiting for the stars to come out. And I remember physically sliding down in my seat and saying, ‘Oh, no!’ But that’s not fair to the kids, so I kind of popped up again and went, ‘Oh, hello!’” She demonstrated by sitting straight up with a stiff, toothy smile on her face.
“See, I believe in a certain commercial process. There’s two ways of looking at it: being absolutely against the media; then you shouldn’t do interviews. You should do nothing. You should just stick to your guns, if that’s what you believe in. Or, you believe in the art of commerciality. And I think there is a certain art to it. I think publicity is a very interesting phenomenon and I think media happenings are great to get involved in. I know I’m not a product, and I’m not going to be told I am by anybody.”
Video (c) Gareth Lewis: