A Conversation With Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders)

The new Loose Screw (Artemis) is a winning hint that Pretenders leader Chrissie Hynde has stanched her leaking relevance after a decade and change of few and forgettable albums. Suffering from neither the forced raggedness of 1994’s grunge-conscious Last Of The Independents nor the robotic limpness of 1999’s overproduced Viva El AmorLoose Screw sounds as though it’s been written with an ear on the pillow rather than to the ground. “Complex Person” sets a familiar Hynde lyrical touchstone (love as submission) atop a casual island groove like a paper umbrella in a cold cocktail; her voice still tears but never folds. “I Should Of” marries a lush string arrangement to her most naked vocal ever—a marvel of stubbornness, regret and orgasmic insinuation. This mix of come hither and go fuck yourself is ingrained not only in Hynde’s writing and singing but also in her flinty/sexy persona. In conversation, she comes across as funny, dismissive, self-effacing, hostile, passionate about music and fed up with it. But Hynde insists she welcomes being corrected, and she seems aware of her self-contradictory nature. The person whose most-heard song in recent years, “I’ll Stand By You,” emerged from a collaboration with a pair of noted “song doctors” says she’s never heard that phrase and is amused by its accuracy. And though her support of PETA reportedly extends to a clause in her will giving the animal-rights group permission to use Hynde’s image however it likes after she dies, she still holds a place in her heart for a rocker’s black leather. She might say that all you need to know about a politician is whether he eats meat, but it takes more than a dossier and an hour of conversation to figure out Chrissie Hynde.

During an online chat you did a few years ago, someone asked you whether your approach to songwriting has changed. You said no. If your own approach hasn’t changed, how do you adapt to different cowriters?
Those days of sitting in a room alone with absolutely nothing to do—which is how I started, getting stuff off my chest—are over. I have something to do now. I have a place to live. Things have changed. Writing on your own is very satisfying, but collaborating is much more fun. I’m not very gadget-friendly; I’m not interested. I’ve always sat down with a guitar. I haven’t even used a tape recorder for the most part.

Robert Christgau chided you in print after Last Of The Independents for working with song doctors Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly (Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” Heart’s “Alone”).
That’s a good call, critically. I went in cold-bloodedly with those guys, and I felt personally humiliated by it, by writing specifically to get on the radio. I thought it was conceding to the audience. But pop music is supposed to be accessible. I want the music to be accessible. I don’t want to suffer; I want to have fun. I knew Tom and Billy were professional songwriters—I was, too, but I was a hippie acidhead, not disciplined.

Paul Weller recently told Mojo he started eating meat again because he “was fucking hungry.” What do you think the hazards are with regard to changing one’s mind when one is in the public eye and outspoken?
He’s just a flake. We’re not carnivores anyway, and he knows that. There’s no reason to be hungry if you’re in fucking England. For chrissakes, Paul, wake up. If he’d been in the Sudan for five months, I might say, “Have a sandwich.” I don’t change my mind on moral commitments. It’s not like saying, “I don’t think I’ll wear flares anymore—oh, I think I look good in flares after all.” That all comes from having a belief system. That’s what faith is all about. It’s not something you change your mind on. I hope he gets fucking fat.

At a 1996 Joni Mitchell concert, your fellow audience member Carly Simon got pissed off at you for yelling positive things at the stage. I take it the idea of age or status limiting fans’ behavior offends you?
That was my version of John Lennon with the Kotex on his head. I probably pissed off about two-thirds of the audience, and Joni probably thought I was a total asshole. Not that this excuses me, but I had drunk an entire pint of Jägermeister, and I thought she was so fucking awesome. I’ll never be treated with the reverence Joni Mitchell gets. I’m not the musician she is, and she’s not the asshole I am.

VH-1 recently included you on its list of 100 sexiest musicians. Where’s the line between something like that being flattering and demeaning?
I wasn’t trying to invent anything in the first place. I’ve tried not wearing jeans. I hate all those lists. You’re talking to someone who’s not ambitious or competitive. I shy away from that sort of thing. Having said that, there’s nothing better than being part of a scene where people are making music, a climate. It’s meant to be flattering, though, and rock music is about being sexy.

Is sex appeal the burden of the artist or the music?
It’s a hard call. It’s not like it used to be. Janis Joplin’s music is sexy because it was so real. I’m happy if my music is sexy or whatever. All the people I’ve ever liked have had that sex appeal. The kiss of death is to try to look sexy, though. It’s one thing to look like you’ve had a wash, but trying is so fucking lame.

Someone once asked you about Lilith Fair, and you said you hadn’t heard of it. Do you think that a sorority or female coalition does anything to close the gap between men and women musicians?
I have heard women say they have to work harder to prove themselves. I haven’t had to work as hard. Guys can see when I walk in the studio that I don’t have too much technical ability. I’m not ashamed to say, “Don’t play above the third dot on the bass.” They can see I don’t have any pretensions, though I’m not an idiot. I’ve never found any form of discrimination. Some of the great players I’ve met have complimented me on my rhythm-guitar playing, and they’re not trying to get in my pants. I’ve been treated fairly above and beyond the call. The women I know who are successful never worried about what men—or other women—thought. Who would have told Joni Mitchell to push her tits up or sing about blow jobs?

How do you feel about Napster and its aftermath?
What’s Napster? [File-swapping explanation follows] My take on things is that it’s better to learn to make fire and live in a tent than learn how to use a computer. But I’m all for bootlegging. If you’re gonna penalize some kid for bringing a tape recorder to a show, you’re a cunt, basically. If a record still costs $20, who can afford that? The import Pretenders hits disc costs $30? Fuck it; download it. I think bands should make a fixed fee for an album, and they should make their money on the road. The whole thing is so far up its own ass. I think there should be a cap on how much money you make, an enforced cap over how much a person could get.

There’s the sports analogy about highly paid professionals having only so long to enjoy their abilities.
I’m vain and greedy, too, but fuck off—go work at a florist shop. We’re usually not talking about great humanitarians.

How was it opening for the Stones this fall?
The only Stones anecdote I’ll tell is that one night, I went backstage with (Pretenders guitarist) Adam (Seymour). Keith Richards and Ron Wood were playing pool. We were surveying the food, all the delicacies on ice. Keith’s a gentleman. He asked if he could offer us anything, so I asked for a rollup—some root tobacco, a common English expression. So Keith whispers in someone’s ear, and the guy disappears and comes back with two big spliffs. He lights up and says, “Man’s gotta eat.” I told him that wasn’t what I meant.

Did you join Keith?
Woman’s gotta eat.

—Scott Wilson