We wanted to make a record with our Grandmother and thought this record would be the counter weight to that. The last one was very ‘prosy’, all this talking. So we thought we’d better have a record that was more lyrical, with repeated chorus and stuff. I thought ‘I’m going to make it up as if it was by a younger girl, between the ages of 10 and 14. So it was meant to be bright, kind of light, shiny, but also sort of morose.
Why Bitter Tea?
It’s just a nice down-homey image. But it still manages to be foreign, you know, you think of all the tea in China. So, if you look at it a different way, it’s an exotic brew or poison.
Sad lyrics, happy music
My excuse for that was the exuberance of a young person writing the song. They’d try and make themselves sad but they couldn’t help themselves kind of bouncing around the piano. Then when the music was meant to be dark, it would have to be overly, sort of childishly, comically, camply dark. With the backwoods vocals and stuff. So mostly it’s got a childish sort of lilt that comes through, even with sad lyrics.
It’s good to have lots of different games to play to produce lyrics. I don’t mean games really, but I mean little procedures. So I always have lots of words on hand to make up a song. So for this record I tried to think of things a young person trying to pretend to be world-weary might say. So they’d project little things about, woe is me, my man is gone, I’m sick of my boring life. Kind of overly sentimental.
Brand names like Renault
The French lyric, that’s a little joke. At the time the record was done, a lot of people were joking in this country, after the election about France, so that song is loosely about escaping and not really having a place to go. The French cars are there, because, especially to an American, the car name is slightly exotic.
The cover is an imitation of the 60s Penguin Mysteries. We just thought that it would be a nice cover. It was meant to be pulpy in an understated way. Those Penguin crime novels were pulp, but by today’s standards they were pretty tame. And this is a pulpy kind of record.
Back in Glasgow
I want to say something stupid, like going round some alleys in the West End. Depends on where we stay. Last time we were there, we stayed at a friend’s house in the West End by the BBC. I don’t quite know were that is. Could I find it? I’m not sure. Glasgow is very handsome, you imagine Glasgow is going to be a rough, dirty town. It is, but it’s pretty striking in its own way.
Well, a record company guy brought me a Lynyrd Skynyrd boxed set. It was interesting to listen to. I just brought two different Lightnin’ Hopkins weird records. And I bought this DVD from ‘79 and he’s playing electric guitar with a wah-wah pedal. I hadn’t seen that before. You know Chess Records made a Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf psychedelic record with that kind of stuff on it. And they all famously hated it. But Lightnin’ Hopkins looks very comfortable playing a wah-wah. And the funny thing about it is that it’s in 1979, it’s not like it’s 1969, the sounds were kind of passé by then.
I went to the Tropicália at the Barbican. I’d actually seen it in Chicago and I thought maybe in London it’s going to be beefed up a little bit, but it was the same.
On my walls, I’ve got exclusively art by people who are undergrads from Washington University in Saint Louis. An ex-girlfriend of mine went there so I knew all these people who went there. I got all their cast-offs. I’ve also have some stuff by the guy who did the cover for Bitter Tea. He’s a very talented illustrator and cartoonist called Mike Reddy.
I did a couple of things with Mike—he illustrated them. One is something called ‘Alphabetical Ogre, A Fairy Fictionery’—a bad pun. It’s a collection of little poems about various famous fairies. A few years ago I used to do that a lot. It’s up to the low standards of children’s literature. Children’s books today, you compete with Madonna’s books. It’s a bit too cosy.
No, I failed regular university.
Interview by Cedar Lewisohn