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ZOE HOWE: AN ALMIGHTY WRITER INTERVIEW BY HELEN DONLON

Zoe Howe is certainly an almighty rock n’roll writer with several music biographies under her belt, also contributing to several music publications and websites, in addition to TV and radio appearances. I almost forgot to mention she also plays drums, a multi talented woman indeed. Mudkiss has interviewed Zoe twice previously, but having released a further two more books since then we figured it was time we caught up with Zoe once more to hear what she had to say about her latest rock n’ roll publications. Zoe’s most recent tome is a biography of the acclaimed guitarist Wilko Johnson ‘Looking Back At Me’ and is followed closely by her latest piece of writing about the flame haired songstress Florence Welch, AKA Florence + The Machine, which is on the cusp of its release day.

HELEN: Last time we met your book with Wilko Johnson, ‘Looking Back At Me’ was just being published, was that a lot of fun to work on?

ZOE: It was enjoyable as Wilko is brilliant to work with and always interesting, and it was also a real learning curve, as, for the first time, I was also concentrating a great deal on the visual side and how the text would weave into that. Most of the picture research consisted of being allowed to rifle through Wilko's old boxes and files of pictures and documents and so on, which then led to working out what should go where etc and that was great, working so closely with the designer too. So I had a lot of new and really valuable experiences doing that. It wasn't without its stressful moments - what is? - but I am very proud of it, it was worth it!

HELEN: Did you ever get the perfect full moon image you were after (the one we tried and failed to capture during a cloudy and sub-Arctic full moon beach walk on the Leigh sands) I remember you saying at the time you really felt that was an important image to get, for the end of the book, I think?

ZOE: [laughs] well-remembered! You're absolutely right, I was dead-set on getting that picture, it meant a lot to me to open the book with an image of the moon (or rather a composite of pictures from Wilko's telescope that the designer Chris Musto put together beautifully) and also close it with a more traditional image of the moon. Wilko is passionate about astronomy, so I thought it would be a fitting top and tail to the stories within, particularly as the moon, literally and otherwise, has a reflective quality and this was a book full of reflections! Wilko had also told me a beautiful story about how, one night as he was cycling on Southend seafront, he stopped outside the Esplanade (a venue which hosted early Feelgood gigs) and gazed out on this huge full moon over the water, and felt time closing up - remembering himself as a young musician climbing those steps into the Esplanade with his equipment, remembering himself as a boy on Canvey Island, which he could see over the water to the West, and it was just a lovely, introspective moment, made particularly special because of this moon. So I thought this would be a lovely story to conclude the book, and I really wanted to accompany it with such an image. I knew that I'd have to do it myself if I wanted it done - I wasn't living in Essex at the time so every month on the full moon, I would trek out to Southend and try to capture the moon! 

Sometimes it was completely cloudy, sometimes it was perfect and clear but I just didn't have the right camera, basically. Frustrating! In the end, I heard there was going to be a 'super moon', where the moon appears to be much larger than usual, and time-wise it was my last opportunity. It looked staggeringly huge, but I still couldn't get it on my little camera - but, of course, I wasn't the only one trying, and I was fortunate to see amid the people clicking away on their iPhones a chap on the beach snapping away with some very professional looking equipment. I thought if he doesn't get it, then I give up. Far be it for me to normally approach strange men on beaches late at night, but I had to talk to him and lo and behold he had captured some beautiful shots, one of which he kindly allowed us to use in the book. His name is Michael Dyer, and I am really grateful to him! So yes, it happened in the end, just not by my hand, which is probably just as well! Things don't always happen the way you think they're going to, but going with the flow is part of the adventure...

HELEN: I love that image of someone connecting with his past against the vista of the natural landscape.  I have that kind of experience in Ibiza when there's a full moon.  If you're on the beach especially - you just know how tiny you are if you see a photo where you're the only animal in all this nature, and somehow time does get compressed because of this.  Maybe because the landscape changes at such a slow rate compared to us and compared to the surfaces of a cityscape.  Have you noticed this since leaving London and relocating to the coast? I mean do you have a different sense of time at all now?  And are your working hours laid out in the same way as they were in Soho?

ZOE: Yes, that's a good point re the slow changing landscape and how comparatively fast we change, that definitely has something to do with it, even if on a subliminal level.

It sounds obvious but a big thing of course was the sense of space physically - we adored Soho and always will, I'm so glad we lived there for as long as we did, but to be able to see the sky and to see the moon is magical and something I really missed - it was really built up, of course, so I couldn't really see the sky from my window unless I leaned out - and if you're a woman and you're seen to be leaning out of a window in Soho for any length of time at night, well, you can sometimes confuse people, let's put it that way! So yes, physically, the difference is amazing but mentally the space is also something that has really made a huge difference; it sounds a bit cosmic, man, to say this so I apologise in advance if this sounds pretentious but when we moved to the Thames Estuary area we suddenly really became aware of how much constant, frantic, brilliant but often neurotic energy we were exposed to day and night in Soho, it had just felt like we were being pelted with it and it took the move for us to really realise how intense and exhausting it actually had been. And this area has its own very distinct personality; it's vibrant and fresh and also has this incredibly rich rock heritage and very creative, down to earth people.

It wasn't so much about 'getting away' it was more about going forward into a new adventure and it has actually opened our lives up in ways we didn't imagine. Time-wise, of course, we were in a 24-hour kind of place before, which we loved as we're very nocturnal, but here you tend to morph a bit more into the natural order of things I suppose! I'm still up late but I used to write into the small hours in Soho, often finishing up around 4am when I couldn't write any more (that was quite a good time to go to bed as there was a tiny window around that time when it wasn't quite so insanely noisy!), now when I'm up late it's more recreational!

HELEN: You're right.  I think when you're spending all your time in the city, especially if you're waking up there every day; you just accept without question or awareness that pace.  I know for myself I need both and am fortunate at the moment to have both, but the creative part of my work only happens in the countryside.  While at the same time I need London, mainly to escape from the consummate Englishness of England. Essex has such a tradition of very English music.  Whether it's the folk and pastoral/classical heritage in the north, where I am, or as you say the rock heritage of the Southend/Canvey Area. Not to mention that the whole Depeche Mode electropop scene and the genius of early Underworld sprang from Essex.  

ZOE: Absolutely, it's a huge part of the landscape around here, but also you have that injection of black music, R&B, in the late 60s and early 70s when people like the Feelgoods were listening to a lot of blues, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, and that sound seemed to suit them, and their swampy 'Thames Delta' landscape perfectly! So, using the Feelgoods as an example, you have these American influences coming in but also there is still something very Essex about that sound as well, not to mention the attitude!

HELEN: I've just read Philippe Marcade's memoir which my friend Dom has published in French (it really needs an English or American publisher on board asap) and he was in The Senders who played at places like Max's during the punk era.  He's talking about how much he admired Wilko and Lee and the whole Feelgoods thing.  The Senders even did a live cover of Roxette, so there's that scene connection too.  But yeah, a lot of the instincts you talk about to do with artists relating to the English countryside - that's something that separates most resolutely urban artists from this lineage.  Although, as much as I love Rob Young's Electric Eden which covers the history of all this, I find the ground covered in Dave Keenan's England's Hidden Reverse way more spirited and easier to relate to, perhaps precisely *because* he's looking at a whole generation of artists coming from an urban/industrial music era who have then gone and found connections - both light and dark - in the traditional, like David Tibet getting together with Shirley Collins or Steve Stapleton moving to Ireland.  It's interesting that there is a sort of Albion thread through your music biographies - with Wilko's Canvey Island, and Florence Welch who we'll come to is a very English icon of today - you describe her in your biography as the Kate Bush of the digital generation.  Then of course The Slits. Taking the Slits and Florence together for a moment is there a link, something similar in their roots that drew you to want to write about both? 

ZOE: You're right, it must be a subliminal thing for me, but there is quite an English thread in the biographies so far - there is something about Florence that taps in to something quite deep there, yes, it's theatrical, and you can take that as you wish, but the inspirations are there - the English countryside, the mysteries of the forests, ceremonial (Ceremonials!) magic at a solstice celebration, dark fairytales, primal forces and the heartbeat simplicity of a drum, Ophelia, Wuthering Heights, she conjures it all up! It would be very hard, really, to truly compare anyone to Kate Bush, but I think that, for fans a little too young to have experienced her, then I think there is a route from Florence back to Kate Bush, who is obviously kind of the Queen of it all! If enjoying Florence will bring a fan into contact with artists like Kate Bush, then that can only be a great thing. I'm sure there will be many people who would think that description (a kind of Kate Bush of the digital generation) goes too far, but whatever you make of Florence - and me oh my, does she ever polarise opinion - I think, to most of her fans, many of whom are in their early twenties and have 'grown up' with Florence, that they would feel that was the case in many ways.

It might not be immediately obvious, but there is a connection between the Slits and Florence in that they both have / had a playful sense of adventure in the studio and on stage and there was always a real respect and raw passion for nature, not to mention a healthy dose of British eccentricity - The Slits standing like naked, mud-covered warriors in a bucolic English garden for the cover of Cut, for example. Great incongruity. There's also something very strong and Boudicca-esque about both The Slits and Florence, not just in their image but in the determination that it takes to do what they do / did, albeit in really quite different circumstances! Of course, in so many ways they are completely different, and their paths are completely different as well, but that elemental, free sense of unpredictability, raw emotion and passion? Yes, that stands out to me as being something they certainly have in common, and those qualities will have been there, in both cases, since the beginning. Both parties are passionate about music too, always have been. They're not puppets, they’re not being told what to do. 

HELEN: You mentioned 'Essex attitude' earlier - what is that, to you?

ZOE: Essex attitude, aha, yes, I shouldn't bandy these vague terms around without having something to back it up with! Good question, it could mean a lot of things, Essex as a county is huge but has a really strong, distinct identity that ties everything together, however loosely. I suppose the Essex attitude that artists like Dr Feelgood exuded, and of course the likes of Ian Dury (again, another artist who, with both Kilburn and the High Roads and the Blockheads, reflected a hybrid of Estuary lexicon and humour and references to funk and free jazz), not to mention contemporary groups such as The Horrors, encompasses a kind of combination of urgent directness, independence, an urban tension that is in some way a reflection of that rather big city that lies to the West and also something very much of its own, a lawlessness, something wild, dangerous, often very masculine. Exciting to witness and infectious. There's theatricality and a strong sense of image, not just with Essex performers but just with people in Essex, that appeals to me hugely. Does that make sense? There's often a great deal of effort and care that goes into the sartorial side of things, which manifests in different ways as we know (!), a hardness and an honesty and a real earthy warmth. There's an incredibly long-winded way of putting it! I was freestylin'...

HELEN: That sense of adventure you talk about both The Slits and Florence Welch having. The Slits certainly did seem to have it in spades and you must have found that working with them on the biography.  How have you gone about the Florence research given you opted to do a non-authorised non-vetted biography and in what ways have you found this easier/harder to do - especially given how very closely you and Wilko worked together. 

ZOE: Yes, the Slits really did, and that was and continues to be incredibly inspiring to many people, myself included. There was also a great sense of cautiousness from Ari in particular, however, at times in the early stages of the book, it was a vicious circle because no one had written a book about them, which was something Ari in particular seemed to feel keenly, and they had been written out of history in many ways, so I really wanted to celebrate them and try to rectify that, but at the same time, because they hadn't really been approached in that way, Ari, as I say, swung from being very onside to quite suspicious, understandable really, they'd not been treated that well in the past, but I really wanted to help shine a bit of a light on them really and I'm glad it worked out.

With the Florence book, I just put a lot of time into doing as much secondary research as I could, gathering information, listening to interviews, talking to people, and Florence's fans, in particular the Florence + The Machine Army, were particularly helpful and enthusiastic! It was hard not to feel motivated when you knew that they were around; they're very passionate, are Florence fans! Lovely people. The book is for them. Obviously, I would have loved to at least have some time with Florence and her group for the project as I prefer to work that way of course, and it was not for want of trying but it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen - which I do understand in many ways. Nobody said I couldn't do it, I hasten to add, just that I couldn't really get close to the inner sanctum! 

HELEN: Did you find it has involved a very different approach in how far you could or were prepared to go with certain viewpoints of your own?  Is one more cautious when the subject is not involved?

ZOE: I'm cautious either way really. Paranoid, some (including myself) would say. It's such a sensitive thing and of course it feels so important because it's so permanent, you're dealing with someone else's life story so far, basically, and that is a huge responsibility which I have always been incredibly aware of from the day I started writing books; sleep, and indeed hair, has been lost trying to maintain the delicate balance and get it right, make sure everyone's happy, make sure everything is still in control... Some writers relish being able to write an unauthorised biography because they are liberated in some ways, they haven't got the thumb-screws on, but the way I look at it is that this book is aimed at those who really love and in many cases look up to Florence as a role model so it was always going to be a respectful, celebratory book at its core.

It was very different in process to the Wilko book and any other book I've written, really, in that there was obviously that distance. There was a little space for musing, up to a point. But ultimately, a story is being told; there are some of my perspectives in there and I find it hard not to inject a bit of humour and a few theatrical fol-de-rols here and there, as befits the subject matter, but mostly I have tended to keep myself out of it!

HELEN: Do you listen to Florence's albums, and did you when writing the book?  Any particular tracks or live recordings you'd like to single out?

ZOE: I certainly listened to them in earnest when I started writing the book, yes. I was familiar with it already of course, but it not only helped for me to gain further understanding of the different stages for Florence and hear the patterns that start to form musically and also lyrically, and of course, music is full of clues, but also just to create the right atmosphere, and Florence + The Machine's music is very atmospheric indeed. A favourite for me will always be 'What The Water Gave Me', I think it's magical and the production is beautiful.

HELEN: Are you going away on holiday after the book's been published?  And if so where and why there?

ZOE: Going on holiday after publication? That sounds like a lovely thing to do... although it's not been possible for me so far, I'm always well into the next project by then so I'm working hard on that! I will be going to Japan, however, in October as my book How's Your Dad? Living In The Shadow Of A Rock Star Parent has been translated into Japanese so we are trying to organise a book event in Tokyo! So that will be kind of work and play. That's the closest to a holiday in the near future, as far as I know! I can’t wait.

Florence + The Machine: An Almighty Sound is published by Omnibus Press

Intro by Melanie Smith
Interview by Helen Donlon
Photo of Zoe by David Coombs