On the day we arrive at her west London maisonette,
Toyah Willcox is preparing to fly off to Australia for I'm a Celebrity,
Get Me Out of Here! She is reflecting on having to battle her way through
jungle life "with more SAS-style action promised this time round" in the
company of Wayne Sleep, Danniella Westbrook and other fellow celebrities.
Why do it? "It suits my exhibitionist nature," she states, refreshingly.
The little flat gives further evidence of Toyah's
exhibitionist nature. Gold discs, awards, album cover artworks and myriad
Toyah! signatures cover the walls, while screenprints of her face rest
on surfaces and her autobiography is prominently displayed on a shelf.
Elsewhere there are crosses, seashells, and books on her heroine, Dora
Maar, the lover and muse of Picasso whose own considerable artistic talent
was submerged by the ego of her more famous companion.
Toyah is using her time in the Australian outback
to take a break from her lead role in a production of Calamity Jane, which
comes to the West End soon after she returns. It was between rehearsals
of the production that she made an album, Velvet Lined Shell, which is
far heavier than what you might expect from a former presenter of The Heaven
and Earth Show.
"We're all into heavy music," says Toyah as she
brings us tea and Hobnobs. "I love Nick Cave and PJ Harvey - and if anyone's
inspired this album, it's her. We were rehearsing Calamity in Northampton
from 10 until 6, and then I drove to Birmingham and worked through the
night on the album. I'm spurred on by lack of time and needing to be somewhere
else, so we recorded the tracks when we were hungry, tired, and wanted
to do them as quickly as possible. It reminded me of my early touring days,
when you would forget to eat, forget to sleep, spend all your money on
alcohol and then do a gig."
The rock'n'roll life goes hand in hand with hanging
around for hours in smoky dressing rooms, but these days Toyah has done
away with that, and her rock career must be fitted in around other commitments.
One of the songs, all of which were written in the London flat, is Mother,
a dark, lush mood piece that makes Toyah sound like a slightly menacing
sexual predator. "I said to my musical partner, 'My problem is that I'm
44 and I like 20 year-old blokes.' He told me to write about it. But everyone
I've played it to thinks it's about paedophilia. The problem is that people
expect controversy with me, and they haven't got it really."
Much of Toyah's musical choices are fashioned
around having a suitable soundtrack for her regular aerobics workouts,
and she finds that Marilyn Manson fits the bill perfectly. "He's a good
one for aerobics, and a good one for kicking arse," she says. "We're big
friends with a group called Tool who have the same ethic: breaking all
the American taboos in a smart way. I think Marilyn Manson has a better
take on America than Michael Moore and I don't think he's appreciated for
his intellect. There's no range in his voice so I don't know where he can
go, but as a performer he's so sexy."
PJ Harvey's last album, Stories from the City,
Stories from the Sea, was the biggest guide for Toyah's own record. "She
picks the right keys for her voice; she never goes beyond it into someone
else's territory and that's very clever," she says. "I know that I'll try
anything and that's my downfall, but she knows her territory and she claims
Then there is Roxy Music, whose first three albums
had a camp sense of humour that was lost in their later recordings. This
may well have had something to do with the departure of Brian Eno, a long-time
musical collaborator of Toyah's husband, Robert Fripp, and a good friend.
"He's a really nice, kind gentleman who cycles
round Notting Hill and whose main creative endeavours only ever go on inside
his head," she says of the man who once combined a peacock feather collar,
a bald pate and foot-long side tresses to remarkable visual effect. "My
own teenage style was modelled on Barbara Hulanicki's Biba look, which
was based around smart 1930s chic. Roxy Music crystallised that look and
made it high fashion. You felt that they were living the dream."
Toyah is hardly the first pop star to cite Bowie
as an influence, but she is unusual in holding up his last album, Heathen,
as his best. "It sounds like the last gasp of a dying man, and I mean that
in a romantic way," she says. "Bowie has based his life around being youthful,
beautiful and sexually attractive. He has understood the transience of
that, for the first time, on this album. It is a moment of spiritual recognition
and he has done it beautifully."
Bowie asked Fripp to play on Heathen, having worked
with him before on his albums Heroes and Scary Monsters. Four years ago,
Fripp was working as musician-in-residence at the World Trade Centre and
met Bowie there to discuss plans for his proposed album. To Toyah's great
disappointment, he never did. "Bowie went to meet up with Robert a few
years ago, and then we didn't hear anything apart from getting an email
at Christmas," says Toyah. "But I think you can hear Robert's influence
on Heathen. It has an organic feel, like the songs were written 12 hours
before they were recorded. He's gone back to doing what he does best, and
I have a feeling that he won't manage to do it again."
The Guardian, 2003