SMALL GIRL, BIG IDEAS
Dougie Gordon, Finland, June 1981
The door opens. A short, 145 cm tall figure
stands in front of me. She's wearing a blue and
grey tunic which has gold embroidery on it. The
fiery red hair looks a like a burning bush
against the backdrop of the outfit. The figure
moves forwards like a Samurai warrior poised for
an attack but you can see a smile on her face
which you can not resist. She's Toyah Willcox,
England's Jeanne d'Arc of latter times.
Her moves are a part of her carefully calculated
image. She's has consciously made herself into a
mystery which invites the audience to explore her
world further. But you can't fit all of the
together it's not easy to find the real
person behind this made-up facade. Her aggression
can turn into warmth in a second and the
other way round. Her mindset changes from a
hearty laugh into the deepest despair. Her
sentences are deep and meaningful half of the
time, the other half you're left wondering what
on earth is she on
about? Toyah is like dynamite made out of flesh,
emotional spark will set her off.
She also has a soft sweeter side which the
audience rarely gets to see. The aggression she
hides behind when dealing with the mass media is
of course there on purpose. The media in turn
treats her with contempt and suspicion. For this
reason she feels misunderstood and defends
herself in a way even Lou Reed would be proud of.
At the start of the interview she tried to
control the whole situationbut slowly started to
open up. She comes across as a very mature person
although she's only 23. At first she insisted on
knowing details about my life and attitude. She
seemed amazed that my main job is a town planner
and asked me some really deep questions about
social problems stemming from what we design.
Slowly the roles changed and she was ready to
become the interviewee.
She talks fast and constantly flicks her hair off
her face. She is determined and clear. She stares
right at you. She is very opinionated.
Toyah's many persona's are leftovers from her two
year career as an actress/singer. She has
portrayed Dr Jekyll's maid and a drug addict. She
also played Monkey in
Quadrophenia and appeared in
The Tempest. With the varied roles
she has earned herself a respected place in the
art world whereas people in music business have
tried to use her to their own advantage,
belittled her and showed very little interest in
general. The various stage and film roles do not
fit into the rock star image. But she tries to
carry on with both careers. Do they clash?
No, because I was already a schizophrenic.
I'm a completely different person on the theatre
stage and in films. When I sing I'm totally
myself. When I act I'm a marionette and someone
else is pulling the strings. I live and breathe
role I've been given although I do try to bring
some of my own personality into the role as
Why did you want to become an actress? What sort
of roles interest you?
Plays like Suspiria. The set,
the music, the lights everything creates a
total feeling of fear. It was scary to be a part
of. As far as films go I like to play roles which
release a lot of adrenaline. I get excited really
Was the excitement that comes with being an actor
that interested you in the first place?
When I was younger I really loved acting.
Going to theatre school was a given and then I
was surrounded with like-minded people. When I
moved to London and started work at the Nation
Theatre I met musicians who shared my views,
that's how the band got started.
Toyah started to put her band together in the
summer of 1977 when Rotten and Strummer were
making the headlines. Her current band is totally
different to the first line-ups. Just like her
idol David Bowie she wants change her chameleon
like stage persona all the time.
Just like Bowie Toyah is constantly searching for
new ways to express herself, new characters to
play. When your musical heroes are Hendrix, Marc
Bolan and Lou Reed you expect the music to be
aggressive and heroic. Her debut album which was
recorded live is exactly like that. (EDIT:
Toyah's debut album is Sheep Farming In
Barnet 1979, not the live album
Toyah! Toyah! Toyah! 1980 mentioned
in the interview) To record your first album live
requires a huge amount of courage and non
Toyah's nasal singing voice is instantly
recognisable. The hard metallic voice slams
against the wavy sounds of the keyboards. Her
music is unique and distinctive. The end result
is like electric sparks and the background music
for a sci-fi film. With these ingredients she
cooks up a cosmic mix of sounds. Toyah's interest
in black magic and mysticism add to the tension.
Her songs are full of magical tools, strange
images and weird insects. Her fascinations to
anything odd reminds her of ...?
It's just an urge. I don't study black
magic I've just been interested in the
occult ever since I was a child. The curiosity
you have when you're young made me look into it a
For a childhood attraction it seems to appear in
your songs quite a bit?
Exactly. That's how I get my imagination
going. My imagination becomes alive via mystical
stories. I made new images to go with the stories
and I drew the pictures. But that's old hat now,
I'm really into science fiction at the moment.
The new album is pure science fiction - I've made
a fantasy album.
The new album Anthem is out soon but
as I write this I haven't managed to get a copy
of it so I can't comment on it. Toyah was talking
about the album constantly.
Why did you choose to enter the world of make
believe instead of writing about real things?
Reality is so boring. All of the comments
from 1977 - I don't want to work in an
office bore me to death. I'd much rather
write about things from my perspective. I wrote a
song about a police officer who has machine guns
instead of hands when he was born. And he doesn't
need to re-load them, his body grows the bullets.
I'd much rather write about different
possibilities than boring everyday things like
politics. It exists but I find it tiresome and I
don't want to talk about it. The song about that
police officer is political but it's unique and
strange because I wrote it.
The punk ideology of 1977 does come up in your
songs though - like the single I Want To Be
True, but everyone wants to fight the
system. It didn't start in 1977. The world has
had economic problems before. I Want To Be
Free is a personal joke, I take the piss
out of things. The lyrics go tear down the
wallpaper, turf out the cat, tear up the carpet
and get rid of that, blow up the TV, blow up the
car. It's pure anarchy but I don't mean it
seriously. If people take it seriously there's
going to be a riot and it's my fault. I made the
joke even clearer by putting a philharmonic
orchestra in the song, violins, cellos. I've
combined classical music with crazy lyrics. I
think it's a great joke.
I've turned to the occult and sci-fi
because I'm not a politician. Sooner or later
every song writer wants to write about conflict.
I want to be different but if I sometimes
contradict myself who gives a shit. I don't want
my music to be constantly safe. I want to live
The new album includes a lot of childhood
memories. A lot of the lyrics are about me. I've
even written about love. People don't think I'm
sensitive but I am really. One of my songs is
about a town I'd like to build for my fans where
they can live just how they want to.
Toyah grinned at me as if to remind me of her
ever changing mood. It's almost as if she was
testing me was I going to criticise her? I
didn't take the bait but instead asked her why
the media have branded her emotionless and hard?
They just wanted to make me look that way.
I don't think I'm particularly aggressive on
stage. Lately I've gained more self-confidence
and calmed down.
You won't find Toyah settling for the traditional
female role in rock'n'roll. Her sudden mood
changes from rage to love can confuse even the
most experienced interviewer. No wonder the media
treats her heavy handedly. Is she the victim of
her own fickle mind? Maybe. The truth is most
likely that the media does not like a female
artist who knows what she wants therefore they to
remove the last of her self-esteem. Especially
with someone like Toyah.
The male dominated music business is
wary of straight talking females. Patti Smith is
an example of what happens when you step over the
boundaries. When I put this across to Toyah she
almost jumps down my throat and asks am I
accusing her of being a feminist?
I'm not a feminist. I don't give a shit
about other female rock singers. I think I'm
genderless. I move like a woman, I talk like a
woman, I'm a women in rock business.
Maybe but there is a pressure to try to fit you
into a mold of a typical female singer?
That's true. People think a woman is more
easily wounded than a man. Everybody wants to
fuck me. People assume it's easier to take
advantage of a woman. The rock business is very
male oriented and sometimes totally chauvinistic.
Sometimes I feel like exploding but I have to
On the last tour I had my boyfriend with
me. I took him with me so I wouldn't feel left
out when the rest of the band piss off somewhere
with the female fans. Plus I'm no interested in
one night stands. The tour promoter booked all of
us separate rooms. He probably thought I'd be
willing to fuck all of the local boys in each
town. Needless to say he doesn't work for me any
When I'm on tour I have no private life.
Everybody wants to know what I'm doing and what
I'm wearing. I feel really insecure. People are
trying to find out what I wish for and my deepest
secrets. My aggressive behaviour stems from the
fact that I'm always distrusting of people in
case they want to take advantage of me.
How does being in the music business differ from
being an actress?
It's completely different. When I'm acting
they take me as I am. In the theatre world people
are more self-aware and ambitious instead trying
to get a glimpse of you naked backstage in the
changing room. The attitudes are more mature and
less chauvinistic due to the fact that most
actors are gay - they don't compete with female
actors. Being naked in the theatre is completely
natural and acceptable - imagine that at the band
rehearsals! You're much more mentally liberated
when you're acting.
Which is harder rock or theatre?
When I'm acting I feel more at home. I
experience some sort of transformation. When I'm
singing it's a constant fight people want
to touch me or pull me down from the stage. It
feels sick sometimes.
Who is the real Toyah?
She is a person who wants to sit in a room
like this - alone and just gaze out of the
window. Just sits there and thinks. She likes to
be alone with her thoughts. I'm really quiet and
sometimes I think too much. People like that get
depressed really easily. That happens to me.
That's why I'm constantly trying to think of
something to do. But I like being alone.
Do you pay attention to people or the buildings
when you're walking down the street?
I pay attention to everything and everyone.
I want to know how things change.
Toyah entered the main stream music scene around
the same time with the New Romantics - bands like
Spandau Ballet, Adam & The Ants, Classix
Nouveaux and Scars. It's interesting that
although the country is in the grips of an
economic meltdown and mass unemployment it still
produces new colourful music. New York feels like
a poor man's London at the moment it's
just sitting there waiting for the new ideas from
this side of the Atlantic so they can worship the
new bands in their little clubs.
In the midst's of the economic problems the
self-assured New Romantics appear as from
nowhere. Individualism rules and self expression
has found a new avenue. Now people are listening
to those with the power, strength and honour.
Just like their idols from 1920's Italy the New
Romantics are right wing orientated. It's
fashionable to be beautiful.
Those with beauty and money can stay trendy. The
Scottish Highland fashion has been ousted by
Italian Renaissance. It's fun if you have money
really boring if you happen to be
unemployed and skint. The idea is to have fun as
long as possible and forget the dreary everyday
life. You can kiss your ass goodbye when the
super powers push the little red button one after
the other. The New Romantic movement gets new
ideas from that sort of backdrop.
Toyah's music manages just about to avoid the New
Romantic label but is it music just for music's
I don't hate the New Romantics but I don't
like them either. I'm on a completely on
different level. I want to be different and not
just because I don't have the same values as
them. I have the self-confidence to be
Were you born with self-confidence?
My self-confidence comes and goes. I
believe in mind over matter. If you really want
something you can have it. I wasn't successful at
school but that didn't stop me from becoming an
actress. I was very young when I realised that
your results in an exam mean very little. I've
met loads of kids who are petrified of exams.
They're great in class but totally crap at exams.
As long as you can work hard and look after
yourself don't worry about what the society says
- how you should live and be.
When I left school I applied for a job in
an insurance company. I lied to them that I had
passed all of my final exams, I just didn't have
the paperwork with me. I lied to their faces but
I got the job because of my personality
not because of a piece of paper. They admired as
a human being.
How was school otherwise?
I was really cheeky and independent. I
never had to have a boyfriend just because my
best friend did. I hated school but I stayed as
long as I had to. I was brought up with middle
class standards and morals. The members of my
band are shocked that I don't get totally rat
arsed every night like the other do. Fucking
idiots. They're afraid of me I'm harder
than them. They treat me like a man because I
often act like a man.
This comes from Toyah's childhood her
mother raised her like a son.
My mum brought me up like a son. That's why
I act like a man. I have a sister who's 8 years
older than me and a brother who's 5 years older
than me. I had to fight with him daily so he
couldn't assert himself over me. He was very
cruel my whole family were cruel. He used
to tie me up or try to set me on fire."
"Once he broke my arm. He was always
throwing me up in the air and catching me but one
time he decided not to and I broke my arm. I was
8 years old. I remember writhing on the floor in
agony and my mum just said shut up.
She only realised it was true when she saw the
bone sticking out of my arm. She changed my
underwear before going to the hospital. My family
were very hard-hearted towards me during my whole
Are you devoted to your parents?
I am now, not back then. They've encouraged
me during the last 8 years. I hated my mother the
first 18 years. One time I locked her in a
wardrobe because I could not listen to her any
more. People used to think we were strange,
nobody on the street would talk to us. I once
threw my dad out of the house in the middle of
the night because he was so drunk. Someone called
the police and told them there is a body in our
front garden. I used to love the fact that our
neighbours thought we were weird. One time when
my brother and me were fighting I shot him with
an air riffle.
Were you cruel to animals as well?
Of course not. I had a pet rabbit - I
taught it to bite people I didn't like. It was
constantly biting my mum's ankles. Once it
attacked my brother and he kicked it like a
football. My mum used to let it in the house in
the morning and it would run straight up to my
bed. It followed me everywhere. It was the only
friend I had as a child.
Finally we started talking about the new album.
Toyah is happy with the end results.
It's called Anthem because it's
a story of strength. Making it was like winning a
war. I felt liberated when it was finished. I
felt love and passion while trying to get to the
What were you trying to achieve?
I was trying to win an imaginary war. Who
your enemy is depends on your own attitude. I've
wanted to release people's feelings. It's about
freedom. I'm trying to paint pictures I
want want people to feel happy for no particular
reason. I want people to have their own ideas
about this battle though, I don't let them know
what I think.
But isn't war a negative and an unnecessary
Winning is positive.
Why war though?
It was the first thing that popped into my
Don't you think it's dangerous to let people
interpret your music?
The danger fascinates me. I want to keep my
music simple I don't want it to be too
deep. I don't want it getting to a point where
people have to look up words in a dictionary. The
freedom to interpret is important I'm an
actress after all. I want to use the same methods
in music. That way people can find new depths in
the characters in my songs.
I'm still bothered about the whole war concept
In that case this record is not about war
for you. For me it is the only word I can use to
describe how I feel. I live in my own little
world. If I wanted to change the world around me
I'd become a politician. I don't want to send the
message out there that society is bad. Everybody
can make up their own minds. If my record helps
great. If people agree with me that's even
When I'm creating something I stick my head
in a bush so that my thoughts stay together. When
I made this record I was a recluse for two
months. I didn't want to get any influences from
other people's thoughts. I observe other people
all the time, I watch their behaviour. That's
where I get all the strange characters
Some people might think you're strange?
But I am. There is a basic Toyah underneath
but I don't particularly like her."
Thanks to Lärwi