Rock On, Toyah

It’s difficult to pin down Toyah Willcox – she’s a singer, actress and writer. She tells Steve Pratt variety is the spice of life and why she doesn’t mind replaying her old hits in the North East.

The ever-busy Toyah Willcox will be giving the audience exactly what it wants when she plays an open-air concert in South Shields, during South Tyneside Summer Festival next month.

She doesn’t intend turning her back on the music that made her famous. Witness her touring last year in the Hear And Now shows with other Eighties artists, playing castles, arenas and stately homes.

Her North-East appearance is one of a number of gigs in England over the summer, when she’ll also be travelling to Seattle for recording sessions.

“It’s much more civilised now. You get a dressing room for starters,” she says, of outdoor gigs. “I like doing open-air events. They’re always lovely, there’s a happening factor that goes with the open air.

“This whole thing is about nostalgia. I respect we’re doing songs and music people will know and love. And there’s always a new young audience out there enjoying the whole Eighties scene.

“There’s a lot of energy in the air. We did Ascot to 27,000 people in thunder and rain. I was sliding across the stage. You go on in all weathers. I use a bigger band for the outdoors and always choose music that will get the audience up and dancing.

“The open air shows aren’t really about the artist being indulgent. They’re about the artist sharing their love of music with the audience.

So I’ll be doing all my hits and the songs I love."

It can be difficult to pin down Toyah – one of those people you feel you can refer to by just one name and people will know instantly who you mean – as her career choices have been many and varied. They stretch from her punk beginnings to the present day, when she makes choices ranging from pantomime, to raunchy TV drama Secret Diary Of A Call Girl.

Her diary for 2009 takes in touring dates in theatre show Vampires Rock, a British-funded feature film, an album with her band The Humans, and featuring in a psychic therapy special on the Biography channel.

Those are additions to a list that include 15 top 40 singles, four gold and platinum albums, ten films and more than 30 stage plays. She’s also found time to write two bestsellers – her autobiography, Living Out Loud, and Diary Of A Face Lift, documenting plastic surgery in the world of showbusiness.

She acknowledges this might confuse people.

“The music has been a bit schizophrenic in England. I’m still very much a rock singer related to the Eighties, but I have new projects going on that allow me to be a very different artist,” she says.

“Basically, I’m a rock chick that’s had a lot of good experiences in rock ’n’ roll and I have a big voice.”

Getting older – she’s 51 – doesn’t mean giving up music. She would if her voice wasn’t great, but women’s voices can get better in their 50s, she says. “So, at the moment I’m planning to keep going for the next ten years, but if it ever got to the point where it wasn’t pleasing for the audience...” her voice tails off as if it’s something she can’t contemplate.

“I think everything is fresh because I bounce around from one project to another like a ball.

It’s a very varied life and that keeps me completely enthusiastic. I don’t really have the time to get bored. It’s always been very, very busy.

“In my early career I had the kind of management that said, ‘you can’t do that and you can’t be seen’. Life is about enjoying yourself and having as many experiences as possible.

“I manage myself now, which means I can do anything I want at any time. I don’t surround myself with boundaries.”

Some might find it surprising that she played – with The Humans, her band with Bil Rieflin from REM – at the request of the president of Estonia, in May. That resulted from reading one of her husband’s emails. It’s one way of finding work because, as he’s King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, the correspondence is rewarding. The invitation was to him to go to Estonia, but he wasn’t keen, so Toyah accepted She still loves what she does. “I get a buzz out of having something new to do with my voice because the voice is changing constantly. Because it’s got deeper, it means I can write and explore my register I’ve never written in before.

“In England, that doesn’t have much of a career prospect because people want me to sing like the Toyah they’ve known for 30 years. But in other places I can step away from that.”

Northern Echo
June 2009