“Music is my first love… and it will be my last; slam it!” – The Pasadenas: Love Thing (1990)
I wasn’t born into an obviously musical family, but music has seeped into every cell of my existence, from my earliest memories. If everyone’s life is a mixtape, then mine includes the crackle and scent of the Tchaikovsky and Strauss vinyl that my young parents brought back to our flat in Aberystwyth; the 1980s videos that transfixed and traumatised me (Visage’s Fade To Grey was one thrilling culprit); the bootleg pop cassettes that I collected during a baptism of fire in Saudi Arabia; years later, the Iraqi lullabies that my mother would sing to my baby son.
I came of age with my first “proper” gig on my sixteenth birthday (the Pet Shop Boys’ extravagant Performance tour). Music leaves its mark on me, and my most-loved records also bear battle-scars; my beautiful copy of New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies album (its artwork based on Henri Fantin-Latour’s 1890 painting A Basket Of Roses) is dented from where I flung it against my bedroom wall, in a teenage rage. Even at the time, I wasn’t sure why I was so angry.
“For as long as I have a pulse, the right notes will send it racing”
My musical tastes exploded as I grew older, joyously fuelled by my job as a music journalist. For years, I was the youngest in my peer group; these days, it’s curious to be much older than many of the musicians I interview (and to realise that the “old” stars I remember are now “younger” than me). It’s also frankly brilliant to hear headstrong young talents inspire new generations—it’s an age of musical riches, whether it’s Billie Eilish, Ray BLK, Dave or LA trio MUNA; I’m a grown-up fan of these artists, but I’m also wowed by how life-changing they’d sound if I was a kid again.
I still evolve through countless musical epiphanies: catching Kraftwerk for the first time, at the Tribal Gathering all-nighter, age twenty-one; seeing kids rave on the streets to Arabic pop hits in downtown Cairo; watching a sixty-something Tina Turner tear along an arena catwalk in stiletto heels; watching a Rio samba school rehearse for Carnival; even a couple of nights ago, crammed into a Hackney sweatbox for a gig by the glorious Christine & The Queens. For as long as I have a pulse, the right notes will send it racing.
I’ve been lucky to interview multi-generational, multi-genre artists over more than two decades as a music-obsessed journalist; these encounters have often been surreal, and they’ve frequently been insightful. Below, I speak to four diverse stars who each offer different takes on age, experience and music. An older interview that I did, with Yoko Ono for her 2013 Meltdown Festival, keeps springing to mind, too, because her voice has always sounded like wisdom from the future:
“People have this incredible prejudice about age,” Yoko told me. “But it actually gets easier. It will for you, as well. You have to know that.”
Staying Up Forever: DJ Paulette
“That room was blazing; sweat running down the walls, people dancing on the bar…” – DJ Paulette, recalling her sets at the Hacienda’s legendary Flesh club
When I was a Brighton student, a poster for DJ Paulette’s Saturday club Go It Girl (swiped from The Zap venue) had pride of place in my room. Paulette’s style—melding house, disco, techno and soul—has always been a distinctly vivacious, boldly glamorous headrush, on the dancefloor and over the airwaves (her ongoing Reform Radio shows are a blast). Groundbreaking moves seem to come naturally to Paulette; her pivotal stint at early-nineties Hacienda club Flesh came after she’d made her DJ debut at Manchester’s Number 1 club, and it represented crucial progress for club culture, both as a wildly influential LGBT space, and an event where female DJs received equal billing to the men (she also credits co-resident Kath McDermott and promoters Lucy Scher and Paul Cons).
“I was about twenty-two when I started DJing,” recalls Paulette. “I’d been working as a journalist, presenting on Piccadilly Radio; I’d always been pushing myself to do something with music, because I’d been buying records since I was about seven. But I totally learned on the job; when I started, I didn’t even have DJ decks at home!”
Paulette’s DJ repertoire has developed on an international scale, as she’s lived in the nightlife hotbeds of London, Paris and Ibiza; she’s played on massive bills, and tackled learning curves and losses—including when her entire personal record collection was destroyed in a flooded storage unit in Ibiza. “I went into a mad depression for a couple of weeks, but I eventually lost all of my preciousness about vinyl,” she admits. “When you’re using it to work with, digital is better; you’re not damaging it with every play. Vinyl has a shelf life.”
Obviously, she’s well versed in dealing with (invariably less experienced) vinyl purist DJs: “Why am I trying to do what everyone else is telling me to?” she reasons. “There’s a point in life where you have to please your fucking self. Yeah mate, I’ve been doing this for thirty years, you’ve been doing it for two; I’m not carrying around boxes containing 23kg of records.”
By 2018, Paulette had settled back in her Manchester birthplace (“it was a return to the source”), and presented the highly acclaimed, and deeply personal, multi-media exhibition Homebird at Salford’s The Lowry gallery, vividly spanning her life’s experiences and inspirations, including collaborations with Michael Barnes Wynters (with whom she’ll work again at The Lowry this April, on the Public Access TV-focused Take Back Control).
“Club culture will always be connected to youth, but pioneers like Paulette prove that it’s more expansive than that: it’s a perennial life force”
“I’m proud of Homebird for lots of reasons,” she says. “It showed that my musical journey had everything to do with growing up in a post-Windrush generation black British family [Paulette’s eldest siblings were born in Jamaica]. My experience of growing up in the UK was as a minority. Watching TV, black people didn’t have lead roles.”
Club culture will always be connected to youth, but pioneers like Paulette prove that it’s more expansive than that: it’s a perennial life force. “I don’t feel like I’ve aged a day since I was sixteen, because I will always feel that adrenaline rush of being outside a club and feeling that bass,” she enthuses.
There’s a holistic side to this hedonistic spirit, too, whether it’s her fondness for gardening (“you work out if a plant is rootbound or under-watered; you have to treat your psyche the same way”), or her work with organisations that empower youth: “We should be getting young people to find their voices in society,” she says, emphatically. “There’s this big void; we’re not looking after the young people who are carers and also trying to work their way through school.”
We’re never the wrong age for the dancefloor, and its inclusive community feels more vital than ever: “Clubs are one of the last bastions of being around lots of people, putting your phone down, and being social,” says Paulette. “Everything I play is driven by voice, melody, bassline, beats. I do try and tell a story. I’m taking people from one state to another, in whatever length of time we’ve got.”
Radiant Youth: Glowie
“At nine years old, I started to train myself to become the singer I am today…” – Icelandic pop star Glowie
The music industry’s obsession with the elixir of youth has often bordered on the maniacal. Back in the 1980s, eerily interchangeable Latin boy band Menudo apparently ditched its members once they hit puberty (Ricky Martin joined Menudo aged nine, and left at sixteen). Madonna, who earned her “Queen of Pop” status in her twenties, was facing rampant ageism by her thirties; now a sixty-one-year-old superstar, she’s regarded with reverence and incredulity. One of the worst magazine planning meetings I’ve ever been in was for the NME’s “Youth Issue” in 2001; the editor announced that the premise was that “everyone over twenty-five knows fuck all about music”. I was, at twenty-five, the youngest person in the room; “What’s the point?” I thought.
For contemporary young music artists, having a strong creative vision is definitely an objective. The notoriously ruthless pop machine is now less inclined to invest in developing artists, so there’s intense pressure to emerge “fully-formed”. Reykjavik-born vocalist Glowie (aka Sara Petursdottir) did at least have a home studio as a “creative playground”, while she looked up to US stars including Missy Elliott, Alicia Keys and Miley Cyrus.
“Everyone in my family is musical, and I learned a lot from them as I was growing up,” she says. “I had so much freedom in that studio to experiment with music… I would record a song and always hate it at first and then work on the things I wanted to do better.”
“The music industry’s obsession with the elixir of youth has often bordered on the maniacal”
Aged sixteen, Glowie won the Singing Contest of Icelandic Junior Colleges, and faced an array of record labels keen to snap her up, but she decided against immediately taking an offer: “I think it was 100% the right move at that time, ‘cause I was very young and overwhelmed and just wasn’t ready for anything as big as a record deal,” she explains. “Of course, it was a huge opportunity and there was a chance I’d never get it again, but protecting myself was more important than rushing into the big music industry that I wasn’t ready for.”
Now twenty-two, Glowie has an international deal with Columbia Records, and performs coolly catchy pop songs (Body; the Tayla Parx-penned Cruel) that, like many of her generation of artists, embody positive messages (including a refreshing openness about mental health), a collaborative streak, and savvy social communication. The industry continues to objectify youth, but we can hope that young artists themselves feel ownership of their identity.
“I personally do like to use my platform to share my experiences to help and support my young audience,” says Glowie. “But… I do not think I have responsibility to be the role model that their parents want me to be. Sometimes it gets to a point where it needs to be clarified that I’m an artist not a school teacher. As I’m growing up and changing, my art will too.”
Generations Across Nations: Angelique Kidjo
“My earliest memory comes from music always in the house… my father playing the banjo; the radio news jingles… I was drawn to anything that has harmony.” – Angelique Kidjo
Benin-born superstar and social activist Angelique Kidjo has remained a genuine creative powerhouse, in numerous languages, over several decades. She began her recording success as a teen in West Africa, moving to study jazz in Paris in 1983 when Benin’s political turbulence made a music career impossible. Kidjo’s global breakthrough came in the early nineties (I first heard her work through the club anthem Wombo Lombo); her multi-award winning catalogue has encompassed pan-African styles to gospel, rock, salsa and more, and she has campaigned for gender equality, education and health rights, including projects for UNICEF, and a current affairs broadcasting role for French channel TV5Monde.
The last time I caught her live (in 2019), the fifty-nine-year-old legend was pogo-ing fabulously around London’s Royal Albert Hall stage, paying homage to several of her musical favourites, including Cuban singer Celia Cruz, Talking Heads and Miriam Makeba. This year, Kidjo will headline New York’s Carnegie Hall (celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of independence for Benin and many neighbouring nations, and her own birthday), and play the WOMAD UK festival.
Kidjo’s musical recollections are incredibly vivid and resonant. She tells me about how, aged nine, she was fascinated to find her elder brother playing a Jimi Hendrix record: “I looked at the sleeve, and asked my brother why the singing was in English; then I asked him what ‘African American’ meant. He told me he was a descendent of slaves… so I went to my maternal grandma and asked: ‘what is slavery?’”
At fifteen, Kidjo saw Nelson Mandela on TV, and learned of apartheid in South Africa. “I slammed the door, and raised my voice to my parents for the only time in my life,” she recalls. “I wrote the first draft of a song, The Day Will Come, with such angry lyrics. My dad told me: ‘I understand your hate—but you’re not a violent person; you couldn’t even kill a fly. You have to use your brain to challenge people; it’s your greatest power.”
“If you don’t have a sense of humour then you’re dead”
The young Kidjo felt certain that she would become “a human rights lawyer or a singer”; as an experienced artist, she has given voice to political issues, as well as proving an immaculate entertainer. Her approach is also essentially multi-generational, whether it’s using her platform to highlight youth groups, or expounding a respect for elders that feels particularly rooted in African and Asian cultures.
“We know that the ones who come before us have gone through what we’ve experienced, and overcome hardship,” she says. “Times change, but they can still inform our way of thinking.”
What can Kidjo do now that wasn’t possible when she was much younger? “Technology has made my life so easy,” she replies. “Now I can create an album while I’m on tour, with a microphone in my hotel room; I don’t need to stop anything to come into the studio.” There is an irrepressible enthusiasm here; she exclaims, delightedly: “If you don’t have a sense of wonder, then you’re dead.”
Seasoned & Savage: Slipknot’s Clown
“Life is art, art is life; the bloodstream is Slipknot.” – Shawn Crahan, aka Clown
Around twenty years ago, I watched masked Iowa metallers Slipknot live for the first time, and I’ve never forgotten it: the acid-green stage lighting; the exhilarating rage of their debut album; the sight of the hulking Clown (aka Shawn Crahan) pounding barrel drums (Clown was also said to carry a dead crow in a jar, which would induce band members to vomit onstage). Slipknot’s sound seemed to summon the nihilism of youth in Middle America—but hard rock and metal gigs draw genuinely multi-generational audiences, and their Grammy-winning discography has also proved undeniably sophisticated and visually startling. Clown/Crahan is now fifty, and has driven their artwork, from mask designs to engrossingly psychedelic films such as the recent Pollution (accompanying the track Nero Forte from their sixth LP We Are Not Your Kind).
While Crahan never went to art school, he credits his mother for encouraging his creative tendencies (“She knew from an early age that I lived in my own imagination; she gave me books on artists like Rembrandt and Cezanne”), and his late bandmate, Slipknot co-founder/songwriter and bassist Paul Dedrick Gray (who died in 2010 aged thirty-eight) for having faith in his artistic ability: “Paul’s the reason I’m here,” he says. “When we were kids, he’d tell me: ‘You’ll change the way that hard rock and metal are looked at.”
“Slipknot’s sound seemed to summon the nihilism of youth in Middle America, but hard rock draws genuinely multi-generational audiences”
Faith also played its part in Crahan’s moody visions, as he points out: “I went to Catholic school for twelve years, and most of what I do comes from that place of serious discipline and education, with ideas about God testing man.”
Crahan is gruffly charming in conversation, and also candid about the traumas he’s faced, including the death last year of his daughter Gabrielle, aged just twenty-two. “I just did the biggest tour of my life—we were playing to crowds of 20,000,” he says. “I’ve got the most success, but I’ve also got the most pain.”
I ask what has kept him committed to a band that he formed in his own youth: “Slipknot encompasses most of what my mentality is in life, and it’s still a great canvas and palette for me,” he says. “I communicate best to the world in my mask; that’s when you know I’m telling the truth.
“The music we make is harder and darker, chaotic and aggressive. But one thing I can say after twenty years is that we have legions of fans, young and old and based around our vision, that are our culture. There’s nothing more pop than Slipknot.”
Age and time has allowed Crahan greater creative freedom; he’s currently working on Slipknot-inspired fashion designs, and the sequel to Pollution, tentatively titled Feed The Worms Birds. He’s also still given to a child-like excitement about everything from exploring otherworldly designer HR Giger’s house while on tour, to impressionist art history (“These nineteenth-century masters just blow my fucking brains out”).
Harder, darker, louder. Surely it’s a myth that we mellow with age? “It’s bullshit, man,” snorts Crahan. “I’m more dangerous than I ever was, but I’m more calculated. I’m more accelerated, because I’m closer to the end days.”