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Hello (Again) Cruel World: An Interview with Shakespears Sister

After more than two decades apart, Siobhan Fahey and Marcella Detroit set aside differences to make new music and reclaim their shared creative chemistry. Shakespears Sister recall pregnancy, video stardom, and George Harrison's generosity.

When Siobhan Fahey left British pop sensation Bananarama in the late 1980s, she swiftly put together Shakespears Sister, initially viewing it as a solo vehicle. But she soon had company via Marcella Detroit, a formidable guitarist and songwriter who had, among many other musical achievements, co-written Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally”. The pair teamed up for the 1989 album Sacred Heart, writing an impressive batch of songs.

The album saw Fahey and Detroit gain a steady following with singles chart activity in several territories. Sacred Heart’s successor, 1992’s Hormonally Yours, became a smash release and featured the single “Stay”, which became a Number One for eight consecutive weeks. Three more singles followed, including “I Don’t Care” and “Hello (Turn Your Radio On)”.

Speaking with PopMatters, the collaborators point out that Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart (to whom Fahey was then married) had a hand in inspiring Hormonally Yours and also helped get the duo studio time at George Harrison’s Friar Park. That both Detroit and Fahey were pregnant during the making of the album accounts in part for the title.

Despite their rising star, tensions between the two reportedly grew to the breaking point, culminating in Detroit’s 1993 departure. This as they had performed dates with Prince and received an Ivor Novello Award for their sophomore release.

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More than two decades would follow before they spoke again. But, soon after reconnecting, they were making new music and planning for a bright future. The first order of business from them is Singles Party, which features two brand-new songs, “All the Queen’s Horses” and “C U Next Tuesday”. There are live dates scheduled for later in 2019 and an EP on the way.

The pair also launched a podcast, Ride Again: The Shakespears Sister Story, filled with plenty of humor and warmth. Fahey acknowledges the likelihood that their reunion will spawn some sort of reissue campaign, especially for Hormonally Yours,an album that still sounds ahead of its time all these years later.

Beyond that? Both appear cautiously optimistic while keeping their focus on a present many believed would never happen.

How did you two reconnect after something like 25 years apart?

Siobhan Fahey: The way that people do in a café over coffee. There were a couple of emails. We both wanted to visit in a low-key, out of the way place. We spent the afternoon talking to each other about our mutual experiences and laying the past to rest.

Marcella Detroit: We clarified things. Cleared up misconceptions and going, “Now I see your point of view, and maybe you can see mine.” It was quite revelatory.

SF: It was a very healing thing. I couldn’t recommend it enough to people.

Had there been moments in the years between where there were close calls, or you’d hear about each other through friends?

MD: It happened. A few friends had run into Siobhan. I had gotten an email address for her, probably back in 2012. I contacted her. We had a short exchange of emails. I guess it wasn’t meant to be until last year.

SF: Things happen when you’re ready.

How long did it take before you started talking about the band and the work that you’d done and finding a way to move forward?

SF: It was about six months. We went out to the desert then. I certainly remembered our writing and recording being the easy part and very simpatico. I thought it would be great to try. I proposed that we go out to the desert and it turned out that she loved the desert too.

MD: It’s very inspiring. There’s something really special about being out there. Everything sounds differently and looks very differently. There are no distractions from the city or other people. There’s something that makes you focus and get inspired. It was a great opportunity to kick around some ideas and see if we still had that connection, writing-wise.

How quickly did it become apparent that the chemistry was still there?

SF: It was pretty immediate. Marcy brought a small recording setup out there, a laptop with an interface, speakers, a few guitars and a harmonica and mic. We stayed at a friend’s Airbnb in Joshua Tree. She just left us to it, and we started on a song the first day. Ideas and inspiration flowed.

Tell me about working with Toby Dammit from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

SF: We had the good fortune to work with Nick Launay, who produced the last five Bad Seeds records. Toby was coming into town, and he loved the new songs and drummed on them. He added percussion and vibes.

MD: He’s amazing. Truly amazing.

SF: Amazing musician and an amazing spirit in the studio. We put the bass and drums down at the legendary Studio One at Sunset Sound. It had all this atmosphere to it that was like an old school recording session. Even though there’s all this technology, we wanted to make a record that sounded organic and was produced as organically as possible. It’s all live musicians. Most of the musicians are Marcy, by the way! [Laughs.] She played all the guitars with the exception of on “All the Queen’s Horses,” my friend Marco Peroni added a few flourishes. Otherwise, it’s Marcy.

MD: I like to make a sound out of whatever I can make a sound out of these days.

SF: We did “C U Next Tuesday”, which was done with Gregg Foreman, formerly of Cat Power. We were really lucky.

Had you listened to the music you made together a lot through the years or was this something where you went back and heard some of these things for the first time in quite a while?

SF: Yes! I hadn’t listened to Hormonally Yours in a couple of decades probably.

MD: Oh, really? Wow!

SF: Yeah, I don’t tend to revisit old music very often. So it was great to hear it with fresh ears. It was a record that wasn’t a product of its time anyway.

MD: It was absolutely. Sacred Heart sounds a little more ’80s but Hormonally Yours still holds up. I’ve listened to a few times over the years. It always sounds surprisingly fresh.

What do you think the biggest difference between Sacred Heart and Hormonally Yours was?

SF: The approach was very different. Sacred Heart was very much a studio, programmed sound. With Hormonally Yours, we had excellent musicians.

MD: And it was a concept album. Most of it was written around this movie, Cat-Women of the Moon,a really cheesy 1950s, American movie, 3D. I think Dave [Stewart] brought it to our attention.

SF: Dave had this crazy idea that we should buy the movie and shoot some additional scenes that would put us in the movie so that it would be a movie/album. It was a pretty original concept that the record company didn’t quite understand, but it inspired about half the album.

But when we came to record it, we were so lucky because Dave was good friends with George Harrison and George invited us to spend a month at his house in England, Friar Park, and use his home studio. It was a very intimate, private, organic process. There was lots of cool, old gear and fantastic musicians.

MD: That was truly incredible. What an honor. There were 59 guitars on the wall. I counted them one day. There were lots of Gretschs and every kind of amazing guitar you could think of. I got to play one of the guitars he used at Shea Stadium with the Beatles. And the Vox amp.

SF: Do you remember which track you played it on?

MD: I’m sure I used it on “Hello (Turn Your Radio On)”. I played the guitar solo on that.

SF: That was the Shea Stadium guitar?

MD: Yep. Not too bad, right? If you had told me that was going to happen when I was a 12-year-old girl going crazy over the Beatles, I would have said, “That would never happen!”

But it did and it was incredible. Quite surreal.

SF: So we’re very much indebted into George’s generosity and his wife and son putting up with us for a month.

You were both pregnant during the making of the album.

SF: Hence the title, yeah. [Laughs.]

MD: Hormones are so powerful. I don’t think I’ve been the same since. [Laughs.]

SF: I, on the other hand, have never been so tranquil as during my two pregnancies.

MD: Really?

SF: Yeah.

MD: I don’t know if I was tranquil, but it did bring me different energy and make me see the world differently. I’m really grateful for that. It changed my perspective on life and the world.

Have your respective children from that time met each other?

SF: At a jam session two weeks ago with Marcy’s son Max and my son, Sam. My other son, Django, is not in town at the moment. It was surreal.

MD: Sam’s a great musician. A pro.

SF: He’s playing in a band called Lo Moon at the moment. He’s been in bands since he was 14.

MD: My son is an artist. He has a degree in media art and animation, but he also has a fantastic ability to play drums and pick up any instrument. Our kids seem to have picked up on the creative gene.

I feel like the American audience really latched on with Hormonally Yours.

SF: Everybody did. It didn’t hurt that “Stay” was Number One in Britain for eight weeks. I think the writing and direction were more cohesive on that one. The band had evolved into a duo. It reached its perfected incarnation then.

My introduction to the band was “I Don’t Care”. Did you feel strongly about that from the start or was it one that you had to massage into what it became?

MD: I don’t think we thought about it being a successful song. We weren’t thinking, “We’ve got to make this hit.” It wasn’t anything we changed 10 million times.

SF: We were quite experimental in our approach. That song has an Edith Sitwell poem in the middle of it, which is hardly your obvious Top 10 product. [Laughs.]

You’ll do some live dates later this year. Was that something that was on the table from the start?

SF: It took us a while to be sure. When we started writing together, it felt like it was an exciting new venture. I know that Marcy said in a previous interview that it felt like somebody pressed the pause button 26 years ago. It was like that.

MD: When I was contacted by Siobhan and her manager last March, it was, “Let’s just get together and talk.” We did that, had coffee a few months later, and then I was in England, Siobhan was there with Bananarama, and we started talking. But we didn’t just want to do it for that. We wanted to see if we could create. It was all a process of figuring out where to take this. What would be the best way to do this.

Did you enjoy the process of making videos? Some people found it painstaking and the last thing they wanted to do.

SF: For us, it’s always been hugely enjoyable. We were in the privileged position of being close friends with a genius, Sophie Muller. She was very much part of our inner circle. Several of them are mini works of art. She’s brilliant. They’re not like your typical videos. They look way more expensive than they actually are.

MD: She was almost part of the band in her vision and her help in making us look amazing.

SF: A muse as well, when we did the first video for Hormonally Yours, “Goodbye Cruel World”, the whole Sunset Boulevard/Whatever Happened to Baby Jane thing became part of the intro to our live show. It was another enjoyable aspect of what we did and so fantastic. And she did the new video for “All the Queen’s Horses”. She’s produced another masterpiece on a slender budget.

And only she could have done it. She explored the struggle we had between ourselves and made it funny. It’s sort of a sequel to the early videos.

MD: Only Sophie could have done that, understanding the dynamic between us and using that in the videos.

SF: It’s always been fun to do because both of us really enjoy performing. It’s high camp, comedic. We do have a laugh when we make videos.

MD: Except for the “Stay” video. That wasn’t much fun. Videos are long hours, and maybe that’s what some people mean by painstaking. It’s long hours, but that’s part of the job description. You should be grateful that you’re getting the opportunity to share your music and have it portrayed on camera. It’s fantastic if you can look at it as not a chore but as having this incredible opportunity.

SF: At its best, it’s another art form. I miss the days when videos were everywhere. Now they’re just on YouTube.

Videos were such a powerful force.

SF: Music was such a powerful force. I miss it being on television. In England Top of the Pops has disappeared. It was a great opportunity to see cool bands on television.

MD: Every week there were three or four shows to watch in England and America.

SF: Netflix needs to catch up and do a cool music show.

I was talking to somebody the other day who said that music is not the cultural unifier it once was. You had punk fans or heavy metal fans, and there were specific subcultures that went with each. It still exists, but it’s more diffuse now.

SF: There are so many artists working on their own kind of thing now.

MD: The independent thing. There’s a glut.

SF: There’s no scenes now it seems. Maybe tiny underground scenes here or there. That sort of cultural identity that people would get from music seems to be gone.

As musicians do you find that worrying? That your new music may not find a wide audience or do you say, “If it reaches ten people then we’ve done our job”?

SF: You want to create because you want to do something beautiful, but then you want people to hear it and be moved by it or amused by it. It’s kind of soul-destroying if nobody gets to hear it. I have no idea how you get to mass consumption these days.

MD: That’s the hurdle that every artist faces unless you have some huge machine behind you. You have to say, “I’m an artist; this is what I have to do. I’m not doing it to please other people necessarily.” The icing on the cake is when you do something you love, you’re committed to, you put your heart and soul into it and if it makes somebody happy or they can identify with it, they say, “Oh my god! Your music saved my life.” That is an honor. That’s a very humbling experience. You do it because you love it and if other people do, hey, that’s not a bad thing either.