In Conversation with Pauline Black

About to embark upon their ‘Too Much Pressure’ UK tour, following on from their impressive, energetic headline set at Sheffield Inner City Music Festival: Tramlines in 2013, The Selecter are back in the Steel City on 2nd March at the o2 Academy. Iconic singer and front woman, Pauline Black talks to editor, Charlie Barker about life on the road after 35 years, her passions and influences.

Charlie: You’re celebrating 35 years in the business, what’s the key to keeping a group going and touring so long?

Pauline: I think obviously it helps if you’ve had some hits in the past, which we have and also I think that it helps if people are still enthusiastic about what you do. Both from the people who are in the band and also from the audience’s point of view. Fortunately a lot of people very fondly will remember The Selecter and even more fondly remember the two-tone movement and the two-tone tour that we did with The Specials and Madness and On My Radio still gets a lot of airplay.

C: When you have been that successful everyone still wants to hear those hits. Do you ever get tired of playing things like that?

P: I like performing so, that’s like saying to somebody in the theatre ‘Do you get tired of reading Shakespeare?’ I’m not trying to put On My Radio on a par with Shakespeare, but you find new things in it every time you do it and its a different audience that you’re doing it to. You can either be in a band where you’re one of the people just goes through the motions and you take no notice of the audience and its as much as you can do to get out of the tour bus and get on stage, or you can actually get involved in the moment and actually enjoy live performance. I enjoy live performance and certainly with Gaps Hendrickson the other singer in the band he enjoys it and there is nothing more that we like. In the two-tone genre of music, we’re the only band that has a male and female duo up front. I think people quite like that even though we maybe bend the rules of that a little. I think people generally like hearing people who look as though they are engaged in the sound and are a bit more varied than having just one singer up front doing their thing all the time.

 C: You certainly go for it in every performance I’ve seen you!

P: I don’t know of any other way. People think that I’m mad or something but I don’t know any other way of performing. Christ, if you’re going to go out on stage you’d better perform!

C: When you started out in music it was 1979, would you have ever believed back then that you’d still be doing it today?

P: No. You’re quite young I take it? Let’s go forward 35 years; do you think you’ll still be doing what you’re doing today?

C: Well life evolves so much and I think for me to keep enjoying what you’re doing whatever that may be, that’s always been my aim.

P: That’s exactly the same aim that we’ve got. When we finally got back together again in 2010 after a bit of a hiatus we didn’t just want to come back and say ‘Oh well, let’s go out and truck out the hits again. Let’s make some new records’ and we made two; Made in England and String Theory. We now have a touring set, we did up to 80 shows last year, with a set that embraced all of those records and it was probably our best year so far because it was both looking to the future and looking to the past, which I’ve thought is pretty much what we should be doing. We’re in a unique position to be able to do that. So it’s not like ‘Oh my god, in 1975 we’re doing exactly the same as we are now’. We’re not. I feel as though any band that has been going as long as us, you have to embrace your past and when these things come along; milestones like 30, 35 and 40 years its like being in a very long marriage, you’ve got to keep it fresh. We have to do something about making people interested in the band again, which isn’t just playing On My Radio but looking back at those past songs and renewing that for us, because there’s a lot of that material on the Too Much Pressure album that we don’t do anymore. Mainly due to, we’d be on stage for hours every time we played and that’s just not practical.

It’s really great to get back into rehearsal and look at those songs and say ‘Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that. How can we make this fresh and what’s happening now that maybe wasn’t happening then?’. It is a new era and a different spin on a song and that’s what makes a classic.

C: You’re a very strong female front-woman and you’re very much one of a kind. Who are the people that have inspired you?

P: Even if I told you who inspired me to perform, you wouldn’t really see much of that in what I do or have decided to do. Its very much the way that I am. I got really, really tired of the people who preceded my generation and particularly for black women as well. There weren’t really too many ways either the old sequined dress or the ‘Mister Whippy’ hairdo or wig. I just didn’t see myself being like that on a stage. It just seemed a bit boring and a bit interchangeable. I felt that if you were going to do something, if you’re going to make the music memorable and different then obviously what you brought to the table in the way you looked and the persona that you had, maybe you should make yourself stand out in that way too. It’s part and parcel of the same thing. I was lucky enough to have grown up in times where there were some pretty strong women around. There’s a very famous photo that has myself, Poly Styrine, Debbie Harry from Blondie, Viv Albertine from The Slits, Siousie Sioux and Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders and we’re all just sitting there together, we’ve all got our clothes on just looking at the camera. That would be a complete and utter rarity for anything like that to be done today. If you took similar females in each of those facets of music and put them all together it would probably just be a who could have the biggest hair, have the most flesh on show and all of those kind of things. That’s a bit like saying presumably my music doesn’t mean that much? To my mind. In those days all of those women, I feel in their particular genre were great musicians and songwriters as well. Particularly Poly Styrine who sadly is no longer with us. I consider myself lucky to have grown up at the time I was in. When I came along and thought ‘F**k it, there’s rude boys. Why can’t there be Rude Girls?’ it was like I’d just invented a ‘Rude Girl’ in that way and it seemed to resonate with other people up and down the country and before you knew it every time you went out on tour there were lots of little clones of oneself hanging around. But that’s cool!

C: In a very male dominated industry and being a woman on your own surrounded by guys in the group, was that hard for you?

P: I think it was probably harder for them! No pun intended! I don’t know any other way, it’s not like I’d ever gone away and thought I’ve got to put together an all-female band.  The Body Snatchers were around, they were an all-female band and they were great and I love what Rhoda Dakar did. I think uppermost in my mind was to get out on stage and not knock over the furniture and sing and try and get my thoughts and feeling into the songs that I wrote.

C: Whilst taking a break from The Selecter you worked on your acting career. You must be quite busy right now but do you have any other acting projects in the pipeline or anything else we’re going to see from you personally?

P: No, I’ve spent the years between 1982 and 1992, pretty much full time acting or presenting stuff on TV. I had a show called Black On Black, which was like the first black magazine programme on TV and that had about 3 series. I just did a whole range of stuff acting-wise, every now and again I do bits and pieces on TV but I kinda got that out of my system. I like doing what I’m doing at the moment, which is a very hands-on musical career.

I like doing things for radio in particular that highlight the black experience or the black female experience or just female experience in this country. Whenever those opportunities arise it is just a great thing to be asked. I narrate loads of things sometimes on TV, normally a black artist from the past like Ella Fitzgerald or Sister Rosetta Tharpe or something like that because I’m always very happy to see that these women are being recognised and maybe I can bring something to the narration of it.

C: As one of the most influential artist in your field, who do you see as the future of British ska and reggae?

P: That would be really, really difficult. We’re taking out 3 bands. We’ve got 26 dates and we won’t have the same support band for all of them. So we thought we’d parcel it up between three separate bands. One of them is a reggae band called Talisman, who were around during the 80s when we were around and I still really fully respect them and they have really lovely music. Another one is called Stone Foundation, they’ve got a soul thing to them and they’re really young guys and the one who I really like and they’re really up and coming, they’re called By The Rivers. They are young guys who are into reggae and I really love that about them. They do really great shows and I’m looking forward to that. It is like all generations are there and will be joining us to celebrate this 35th year.


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