Taken from a full interview with Wendy which can be found in Blogzine 4.
These days, there’s a massive gap between fresh-faced pop stars and those earthier, dangerous-sounding musicians. Sweet funky K-Pop, romantic soul or flat-personality boy bands line up against Parental Advisory Grime, metal heads and the edgier EDM. Nowadays not so many musical artists walk the line between the two worlds – accessible clean-living on the one hand and glamorised under-worlder on the other. It’s something we miss from the punk and post-punk era – the way that bands would pull good and bad together – righteous law-breaking, offensive clothing, a bit of noise and some singable pop tunes.
For Blogzine 4, we spoke with songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Wendy James who comes from the world of 1980s Top 10 hits that flaunted risqué, glamorous and opinionated pop music along with an underlying punk spirit. You may know her as the singer of Transvision Vamp – the platinum-selling global pop stars. We at punkgirldiaries have come to know her, nearly 30 years later, as a remarkable and talented musical whirlwind, whose last album Queen High Straight has been universally praised for its brilliance and diverse range of songs. You can hear lush horns, growling rock, Arrangements (with a capital A), 70s funk rhythms and West Coast-isms, girl group harmonies, and a whole series of lovely narrative-led tunes.
It would be easier to think of Wendy as someone whose best work is behind them, but the truth is that Wendy is more articulate, and more creative than she’s ever been. Speaking to us from the South of France, we all bonded over a mutual love of both post punk and a wider musicality …
We talked about Transvision Vamp and wondered how the Wendy of now sits with the Wendy of then …
Wendy James – I was such an outrageously confident young female; I don’t remember record company people trying to guide me in a direction. Quite cynically or astutely, they thought ‘We’ve got a live one here; give her enough rope, you know – put her on TV and she’ll say something.
To me in those days, the whole purpose in life was to get up in the morning and get famous. It was just a drive that teenagers have; that you can’t fail. It’s magnificent – it should never ever be squashed. If you could bottle it and give it to older people, it would be great.
How and when did you realise that you were going to channel that energy into music?
Wendy James – My parents were huge Sergio Mendez fans; I remember dancing round the living room to Brazil 66. They gave me a vinyl record box when I was very, very young, with two singles. One was Mary Hopkins ‘Those were the Days’ and the other was ‘Lily the Pink’ by The Scaffold. I learned lots of instruments and I sang in the choir … flute, violin, piano and then finally I settled on clarinet. I played in the youth orchestra and made my way up to first clarinet. I got up to grade 5 on the piano but then punk happened and … I saw Joe Strummer and his mohawk – I guess on the Combat Rock tour and thought that’s what I’m gonna do. I didn’t know how to navigate out of the youth orchestra and into a punk band but my commitment to being straight, my life as a straight person ended there and then.
On her most recent album Queen High Straight, Wendy strides through her own complex and high-end compositions with the kind of hard-earned bravado that comes from a woman at the peak of her game. These range from the low light poise and delicacy of someone like Francois Hardy, to the growling Wendy, brash and sarcastic. Wendy’s boots are still primed for both walking and talking …
How does she do it all?
There aren’t many men, let alone females who do all of that composition, produce it with objectivity, hold a band together and then front it as a singer. There are some wonderful producers out there; some wonderful musicians, songwriters, but there aren’t many who are all of that. I do want to be successful but actually the pay-off for me now is just the musical achievement of it all. And the hilarity, and the hard work of me and my band … I learned a long time ago not to associate with dickheads because they can sink a project in no time at all, no matter how talented they are – with a bad, negative attitude.
Was that the attitude around Queen High Straight?
Wendy James – I can remember every stage from the demos, recording, mastering. It’s a very intense thing and the payoff is the record and then the shows. Every single day that I was making it I kind of knew that it was a good one. I don’t have enough money to make mistakes; I can’t just book a studio for five months and muck about. I have a porta-studio app on my phone which is very good for writing parts … I just stood up in this sitting room for about a month and sang all the parts – all the backing parts – the vocal parts weaving in and out of each other, the horn sections.
Wendy James – There’s a competitive streak with myself; it’s that drive. I hope I’ve done something magnificent with ‘Queen High Straight’ – a new album can feel like a purge and afterwards you can’t think about creating new music for a little while. Things are easing off now and I can’t help myself; I’ve started making notes. I want to go back and listen to The Zombies more closely – backing vocals again, but also chord choices. I’ve also got a note to myself to make every single song a hit. This time I’ve had horn sections and everything; now I want to elevate to George Martin and The Beatles – choir and orchestra. You know, because I just want to be in f*cking Abbey Road to watch a conductor do my string section orchestrations. I don’t know how I’ll pay for it; I don’t know how I’ll organise it but somehow or other it’s in my head to push to the next level. I’d like to be able to orchestrate, not all, but some of my songs.
Punk. Music or attitude?
Wendy James – Punk’s not just music … it’s an attitude; I’m sure you could equally call the Rolling Stones punk or Chuck Berry punk or even Mozart was a little f*cking punk, wasn’t he? Punk attitude doesn’t have to be tied to the British punk music movement. But that idea sets you off on a journey of counter-culture, right? A way of handling and viewing life … and even more as I get older. The older I get, the less I give a f*ck. It’s really, really true; you just don’t care what someone thinks of you.
Wendy still has a lot of fans who grew up loving Transvision Vamp and who continue to follow her musical development. But to anyone who lost interest years ago, in the days of media-hype and subsequent slaggings, we urge you to give Wendy’s newer material, especially the sublime ‘Queen High Straight’ a very big listen; there’s a maestra* at work.
*It’s the female version of maestro, apparently
After a sucessful 2021 UK tour, Wendy continues to work on a follow up currently titled ‘Album 10’ (which is already available to pre-order). You can find out more about Wendy and buy her music, t-shirts, and posters including rareties https://thewendyjames.com/store
For information about live dates and ticket links https://thewendyjames.com/live
Follow Wendy on twitter @THEWENDYJAMES
1 thought on “Talking with Wendy James”
I had a proper crush on Wendy way back.