Interview: Shakespears Sister

‘I usually write, you could say, bitchy lyrics. This song didn’t need that. I was vaguely uncomfortable with the sweetness of the sentiment:’ says Siobhan Fahey.

She’s musing on Shakespears Sister’s latest single, the Richard Hawley-guesting When She Finds You.

While sweet sentiments are not what Siobhan and Marcella Detroit are collectively known for, unpredictability has been a hallmark of the duo’s career.

Following her departure from Bananarama, Siobhan conceived Shakespears Sister as a solo project before Marcella Detroit joined for the recording of Sacred Heart and they became a partnership.

While that album spawned the breakout hit You’re History, it was their follow up record that earned them one of the strangest number ones of all time.

The gothic sci-fi aesthetic and theatrical moral tug of war at the centre of Stay – fantastically showcased by Sophie Muller’s striking video – landed them the top spot for eight consecutive weeks.

Hormonally Yours also afforded Shakespears Sister further successes in the form of the singles I Don’t Care, Hello (Turn Your Radio On) and Goodbye Cruel World.

Nevertheless, in a move to rival the notoriety of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s embattled relationship, the prickly dynamic the duo so brilliantly incorporated into performance spilled out into real life and resulted in a well-documented fallout.

Roll on 25 years, and a few cups of coffee plus a trip to Joshua Tree has one of the 20th century’s most intriguing pop acts primed to ride again.

We caught up with the duo ahead of the release of their EP to find out how they rekindled that creative spark and much more…

Following a 25-year gap, how easy was it to start creating together again?

Siobhan Fahey: It’s been literally like riding a bike. That’s not a very nice analogy, I know. (laughter) It was easy. It was just natural. We’ve just always written really well together and created really well. We didn’t know that that was still going to be the case. It was worth exploring because I did remember, despite everything, Marcy and I always just had a really easy communication when it came to the creative side of the song writing and making records.

How has Shakespears Sister’s sound has evolved from the first iteration of the band to the present day?

Siobhan: Well, it’s changed direction slightly with the five new songs. We’re plundering a different set of influences. I’ve been listening to, since moving to America, just lo-fi sixties/seventies Americana, particularly Nancy and Lee, and, living in California, the Spaghetti Western landscape. California is magical, that and the psychedelic history it has. I know that I personally wanted to make something that was organic and sounded like that rather than a machine-driven thing, because I think our earlier stuff, especially the first album, was more machiney, wasn’t it?

Marcella Detroit: Oh yes, very electronic, yes, but that was what was happening then in pop. We were doing pop music, even though our stuff was a little edgier and more alternative than regular pop music. It was still electronically driven, as much as it could be back then, with the times and technology. We had our first meeting with a coffee to talk over our differences and then thought, ‘Well, we should try to write something.’ In October of last year we went out to Joshua Tree to a friend of Siobhan’s Airbnb. I brought my recording gear, a little studio, my Mac setup, and we just started talking about ideas and shooting ideas back and forth and listening to our favourite music and just started going for it and coming up with stuff on the spot.

Did all those years apart change your songwriting process?

Siobhan: Not really.

Marcella: Not really, no. The second album was just Siobhan and I together, just she and I in my studio. I had all analogue stuff. I wasn’t computerised then.

Siobhan: It was pre-computer days, wasn’t it?

Marcella: Yes, it really was. You’re able to create those warm analogue sounds with technology these days, still. I used what I had in my system, but it was still the same process.

Siobhan: Yes, we were still out recording weird sounds in the desert with weird objects against corrugated iron and…

Marcella: Yes, it was the loo out there, wasn’t it?

Siobhan: … recording the wind. (laughter)

Marcella: It was hysterical.

What is it about your creative partnership that works so well?

Siobhan: I don’t think you can plan for chemistry. I think both of us have written with loads of other people in our lives. Myself, personally, it’s such a delicate process that the energy has to be right. It has to be an equal exchange for it to work for me and for me to bring the best of myself to the situation. I have to feel safe. I have to feel heard and respected. Marcy and I, we’re both really open to each other’s ideas.

Marcella: We’re both so unique, individually. We have our own thing, and what we bring, our sensibilities, are quite different. We meet somewhere, like with our appreciation of T. Rex and some other artists, but we both bring something different to the table.

Siobhan: Yes, we come from different ends of the musical spectrum roots wise. Marcy is more blues rock and I’m more punk and British art school rock. Both of us really love sixties soul music, though, and seventies soul music from the States. I think both of us are really open to good music of all genres. Shakespears Sister has always been a weird melange of disparate influences.

What’s the thinking behind the Ride Again EP?

Siobhan: Well, musically, it was out in the desert and the sound we were going for was that retro Americana flavour. Marcy plays all the instruments on the demos and all the guitars and harmonica. She’s a phenomenal musician. It’s really great for me because it’s like, ‘Can you do this?’ ‘Yes, I can do that.’ ‘What, you can play the accordion?’ ‘Yes, I can do that.’ She can play practically any instrument.

Marcella: Yes, just give me it and I’ll make a sound out of it, whatever it is.

Siobhan: Our next album, it could be a Parisian street ballad album and you’ll be able to play the accordion and violin. It’s great being able to work with such a gifted musician.

Marcella: Why, thank you.

Siobhan: It’s rare.

Marcella: It’s fun. I just love music and exploring different things and being more experimental.

What was it like working with Nick Launay on these songs?

Siobhan: We’re so lucky. He happens to be a friend of mine. Hurray. For the first four days out in the desert we’d written All the Queen’s Horses and C U Next Tuesday. I loved them both, so I sent him the MP3s going, ‘Listen to this.’ He’s like, ‘Wow. I don’t know what you’re on, but keep taking it. (laughter) It’s really working.’

Marcella: Literally.

Siobhan: When I came back to town he said, ‘If you want, I’d love to produce them.’ That was just kismet, because he was the perfect producer. He loved the demos. He was very sensitive to the demos, but he just enhanced them. We used some of the original vocals from the demos, original guitar parts, original harmonica parts.

Marcella: I had all the audio files. That’s what I like about him. Some producers, they hear a demo, ‘Now, let’s rethink the whole thing and take all the essence of what it is and try to create something else.’ He really appreciated and respected what we did and we used some of that on the recording.

Siobhan: He took it as the blueprint directionally, but just got great musicians in on bass and drums. We got the drummer from the Bad Seeds. Toby Dammit is playing drums and percussion throughout.

Marcella: He’s phenomenal.

Siobhan: We got Cat Power’s ex MD playing a Hammond on C U Next Tuesday. My friend Marco Pirroni did some, not that we needed it, but on All the Queen’s Horses Marco threw down some added guitar parts. He’s going to join us on the road as well. Yes, it’s exciting. All our friends have rallied. They all love the new material and wanted to be part of it.

How did the collaboration with Richard Hawley come about?

Siobhan: Well, when we’d written the song, I just kept hearing a male vocal. I just kept hearing Scott Walker singing it. We love the song. We’re very excited about the song. Marcy, I remember when we went for dinner…

Marcella: Yes, you weren’t sure.

Siobhan: … you were going, ‘God, that’s a really good song we’ve just written. I can’t believe we’ve written that song.’ I was like, ‘Great, (laughter) but it’s a bit sweet.’ I usually write, you could say, bitchy lyrics. They’re biting, often, just working out my own angst. This song didn’t need that. I was vaguely uncomfortable with the sweetness of the sentiment. And that’s about as sweet (laughter) as I can get.

Marcella: There’s a sweetness to it, but also it raises a question about love. It raises that question, so when you find love, what will you do about it? Will you recognise it or will you just discard it? I think there is a little bit of a darker side to it as well.

Siobhan: I just thought Scott Walker would slay this song. He’s not here, but Richard Hawley is and he’s Sheffield’s Scott Walker. Our manager reached out to his manager and got his email address. I’ve never met him. We just sent him the song. We’ve still to meet him, although we feel like old friends now, obviously, because there’s Facetime toing and froing and creative collaboration. I can’t wait to meet him, but with the wonders of modern technology, he heard the song and loved it. He had three days off in this crazy, busy schedule, because he’s just released his album, and he booked a studio and went in and did his vocal and sent the files over to us.

Marcella: It was absolutely stunning. He’s got such depth and emotion to his voice.

You had some massive singles the first time around, not least with Stay, do you know when you’re onto a winner in the songwriting process?

Siobhan: I think you know in yourself when something is really good, but with Stay that was a surprise because it had such a huge response the moment we demoed it.

Marcella: Yes, we finished it and took it over to your house. Chris Thomas, the producer, was there working with Siobhan’s ex, Dave Stewart. We played it to everybody. We were having dinner. Chris was like, ‘Smash hit, number one.’ We were like, ‘What?’

Siobhan: ‘Really?’ (laughter)

Marcella: We were just writing a song about this concept album where in this one scene we’re trying to be inspired by this film called Cat-Women of the Moon. We were taking different scenes and we were writing songs to them, scenes that inspired us. We wanted to get the rights to the film, which didn’t happen, but we still used that film as inspiration for many of the songs. It was just a fluke.

How does it feel to be performing songs like Stay, You’re History, I Don’t Care and Hello (Turn Your Radio On) together after so many years?

Siobhan: We’ve done preliminary rehearsals, just the two of us in LA. It’s exciting, isn’t it? It’s really great to make more than an acquaintance with the material again. It’s not like you spend all the time listening to your own old songs. You don’t. It’s like, ‘Wow, I’d forgotten how good they were. Wow.’

Marcella: They hold up. They still hold up.

Siobhan: And they’re really enjoyable to perform. Yes, very excited about doing the shows. I know that the people who are coming to the shows are people to whom those songs mean a lot. I feel like it’s going to be a joint celebration.

What drives you both to keep creating and performing?

Marcella: I can’t imagine not.

Siobhan: Yes. Life would be very dull. I’ve tried to stop doing music before because you go through years where no one wants to know, no record deal, no management. When you get to this point in your life, you’ve been through the ups and the downs. When you go through the downs you go, ‘Oh God, maybe I’m not meant to be doing this. This is too hard.’

Marcella: Yes, it’s a natural question.

Siobhan: I think, should I try and write a script or find another outlet, but it’s like an itch that needs to be scratched every few years for me. The sap starts to rise.

The industry has changed beyond recognition in the intervening years; how do you view the developments?

Siobhan: I’m very nostalgic for the way it was before. I’m nostalgic for the days when I was growing up when I literally would wait all week for Top of the Pops to be on and then the whole of the next day that’s all anyone would talk about at school, about what they’d watched the night before. There was something so unifying and so massively affecting for everybody.

Marcella: Yes, made it special. Now it’s just pretty disposable. I can sit here and create a new song on my freaking phone and put it out. There’s no mystery involved.

Siobhan: I think the problem is that nobody has that joint shared experience anymore. Everyone is in their own little worlds on their own little iPhones. The only time you probably all listen to music together is if you go to a gig, and then half the people are just filming it on their iPhones.

Marcella: They’re not even really there enjoying it in the moment. It’s so strange. Put your phones down. Be here.

Siobhan: Do people still get together, mates still get together and put on albums and just listen to them? I don’t think they do. I don’t think music occupies the same huge central place in the culture as it used to.

And the album itself is perhaps a precarious concept now.

Marcella: There’s really no such thing as an album, is there? ‘This one is going to be free and that one is going to three tracks.’ It’s so different.

Siobhan: The whole album thing has been eroding for years as having any meaning, really since it went to CD. I remember 20 years ago they analysed the average CD listener/purchaser, and they listen to 2.3 tracks. They buy it for the two singles, just play the singles, try another track. That was devastating. It’s like, ‘What about the rest of the album?’ It makes sense now. The way people listen to just tracks in isolation, why bother making an album unless it’s this beautiful vinyl thing and you commit to the whole experience.

Ride Again had a unified, stylistic starting point. I guess lyrically, what I personally was going through at the time pervades it. I love the fact that the EP, it sounds like one. I’m glad to hear that it does because one track sounds like Nancy and Lee, another one sounds like Roy Orbison. Another one sounds like The Sonics. It’s good that it’s got that cohesion.

You were known for making subversive, gothic pop. Do you think you’ve held on the that irreverence, or have you mellowed in the intervening years?

Marcella: Well, yes. One song is called C U Next Tueday.

Siobhan: Which I think is a smash hit single, but management and label and plugger said, ‘There’s just no way you’ll get it on the radio.’ We were like, ‘What?’

Marcella: They’re afraid of it. (laughter) It seemed so perfect.

Siobhan: Well, I don’t understand.

Marcella: Controversy always helps.

Siobhan: We live in such a hypocritical world, double standards. We don’t really set out to upset people. It’s not like a pose or a strategy. It’s a twisted sense of humour at times that comes through.

The All the Queen’s Horses video, which references Stay, expresses that dark sense of humour.

Siobhan: Yes. It’s a masterpiece. Sophie Muller, who directed all our videos, directed the latest two, of course, and luckily for us because who else could (laughter) tell our story as well as Sophie, who was really the third member visually and very much an architect of the visuals, which was such a powerful part of Shakespears Sister. Luckily, it helps that she’s a bit of a genius. They’re really works of art.

You have a tour coming up – what can we expect from your shows this time around?

Siobhan: Well, hopefully there’ll be some drama, of the best kind. (laughter)

Marcella: The best kind, yes. We’re putting that together now and we’ve been rehearsing. We’re going together with our band next week, but we have some ideas.

Siobhan: It’s a real mixed bag musically, if you know our stuff. The songs are great, the band is great, Marco Pirroni on guitar, which is really the first time he’s been on stage for 20 years or so. That’s exciting. I think it’s going to look good as well. Well, that’s our intention.

Marcella: It’ll be fun. It’ll be a lot of fun.

Siobhan: We don’t have the enormous budget, huge LED screens or anything like that, but it will look good.

Do you have any further plans beyond the EP release and tour?

Marcella: We’ll see.

Siobhan: Yes, who knows? Nothing’s concrete. I never plan ahead, just see how life unfolds.

Ride Again is released 25 October via London Records.

Forthcoming tour dates:
31 Oct – Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
1 Nov – New Theatre, Oxford
2 Nov – Liverpool Empire
4 Nov – Sheffield City Hall
5 Nov – London Palladium
8 Nov – Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
10 Nov – Sage Gateshead
11 Nov – Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
13 Nov – Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth
14 Nov – Bath Forum
15 Nov – Regent Theatre, Ipswich
17 Nov – Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea
19 Nov – Birmingham Symphony Hall
20 Nov – Brighton Dome

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