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It’s dart-sharp and soaring, Skin’s voice; mellow and powerful enough to elevate islands, and when she’s angry, scathing enough to make angels feel guilty. And in the 24 years since she and Skunk Anansie bandmates Martin ‘Ace’ Kent (guitar), Richard ‘Cass’ Lewis (bass) and Mark Richardson (drums) arrived with Paranoid & Sunburnt (1995), there has been much to be angry about.
From their beginnings in London the band have made no bones about their political nature, with Skin confronting racism, abuse, division and insincerity in songs like Intellectualise My Blackness, We Don’t Need Who You Think You Are, and On My Hotel TV (‘Skinny kack para, para dutty d***e n***a / Sell out whitey liberals who hang with blackie sinners’).
The rage comes, of course, alongside their biggest hits, which are known across the globe. Hedonism, Weak and Twisted (Everyday Hurts) leap from the speakers on the upcoming live album 25LIVE@25, which celebrates their unparalleled influence and indomitable live presence across a career that has taken them across the world. At one point Skunk Anansie were Marilyn Manson’s favourite band, and Skin has found herself in the unlikely position of singing alongside Luciano Pavarotti, and for Nelson Mandela on his 80th birthday. Theirs is a trajectory which delivered every success without compromise.
They might have seemed the least likely to succeed. “The music industry and the establishment has never really warmed to my band,” says Skin today. “But those kinds of things never really bothered us because our politics and what we had to say was always in the music. That was more important to us.”
The band have always produced a forward-thinking and perennially modern sound that takes in everything from classic rock to punk and delightful smatterings of drum’n’bass or techno. Think of the scalding riff that opens Stoosh (1996) with Yes It’s Fucking Political. Or the lurching drama of Charlie Big Potato from Post Orgasmic Chill (1999), a grand and dynamic track that Skin is reluctant to analyse even to this day.
“It’s a bit personal, to be honest,” she says. “I could lie like I normally do, but I don’t want to. There are so many stories over the years on what that song’s about. You have to put things out there, then deal with it. I’ve got specific lines, but then I’d just be outing myself.”
Were Skunk Anansie aware of going against the grain in the mid-’90s?
“At the time you had this really big Camden scene where all the journalists and the cool bands were. And then you had this underground scene in King’s Cross, which is where all the proper bands played. Our influences were Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, Nirvana, Tool – American bands. We thought the English bands were kind of wimpy. Skunk’s guitars were louder, and to be quite honest, we were working class. A lot of those Britpop bands were a bit posher, nicer, more well-bred. We’d had poor upbringings – no silver spoons here. It was working-class rock, and that was, in many ways, very anti-establishment. Skunk Anansie, having me as a lead singer, had to be 1 million times better than everyone else to get to the same level.”
On Paranoid & Sunburnt you worked with Sylvia Massey, who also produced Tool’s 1993 album Undertow. What kind of a bearing do Tool have on Skunk Anansie?
“At the time they had that modern progressive sound, which we loved, but we wrote more straight-ahead songs, probably more informed by jazz or traditional influences. With Tool we loved the truth in the music. The truth and the desire to be authentic. We loved Maynard [Keenan]’s voice. The truth, and the intricacy and the design – a song doesn’t have to be verse-chorus-verse-middle eight; it can take you on a journey and have all these other things going on. But for us, the groove was always really important. The bass and the drums; sexiness in the groove and that head-bobbing feeling.”
You grew up in Brixton, where your grandfather had a club. What do you remember about that?
“He had a shebeen [an unlicensed club]. Number 30, Effra Road. My granddad had a shebeen because young black guys couldn’t get into clubs. And they wanted to listen to reggae and drink rum; different energy. So my granddad had probably one of the most famous ones. He’s got pictures of Cassius Clay before he was Muhammad Ali, and Bob Marley, Peter Tosh. They used to come to Brixton, and if you came to Brixton you came to my granddad’s club. We were allowed to be there in the day, and then it got to like, 10 o’clock, and we’d get told to go to bed. We’d sneak and sit on the top of the steps, get told to go to bed again, and then they’d lock the doors.”
What was Brixton like in the mid-’80s?
“Brixton was a shithole. It was a fantastic shithole. I loved it. I mean, it was horrible, but I had a great time. Most of the shops were boarded up. There were two riots, ’81 and ’85, so there was no money being spent in that area at all. All of the black areas and Jamaican areas, there was no money going in there; proper inner-city places. There was nothing to do, but we used to play on the streets. I had a great childhood – we had no fucking money, and Jamaican parents are extremely violent, but that was our normality. If I tell people about my childhood, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, it must have been awful.’ But I was like, ‘Well, it wasn’t that bad – we played around a lot of the time, we had no money, but nobody had any money, and everyone got beat by their mums and dads. We used to break into empty buildings, start fires, and go fight skinheads. There were a lot of derelict buildings that we’d break into and just play – our little clubs.”
Were you expected to excel educationally and go to university?
“No. There was no expectation whatsoever. As a girl, there was no expectation. I was just going to get married or have a boyfriend, and have kids. No-one ever said to me, ‘You should go to university,’ or whatever. My best friend had the model family. I really loved them and I’d go and hang out, and that was the first time I saw an example of a happy family. That had a massive influence on me because my mum worked nights, and my dad was never around. My mum was a nurse. But yeah, I remember getting to 13 and realising that if I didn’t start to look after myself, nobody else was going to. And I realised that I didn’t want to stay in Brixton. I thought the only way to get out was to get educated. So that’s why I started working hard at school.”
Did you sing for the first time during your university years?
“Yeah, there was a guy who said, ‘I need to practise piano and I need someone to sing,’ like I was doing him a favour, because I was super-shy, like really shy. He’d learn a jazz song and I’d sing along with him. In my first year I worked really hard, and I was top of the class – not being arrogant, I just was – but I thought, ‘Well, I don’t have to work now,’ so I joined the students’ union and became entertainments officer. We’d get all the bands in, and I was a security officer, and I did no coursework and nearly failed. In that year I joined a band, and that was when sexuality was starting to kind of whatever, and I started to make friends with all the locals. I was going to all these gay clubs in Middlesbrough, after-hours. You’d have to knock on the door. And then they’d look at you, and you’d go in. It was really 1960s-style.”
Later, did you ever feel that you’d passed a point of no return with respect to working at a traditional job?
“Yeah, god – I was working as an interior designer, and I was the assistant in an office. It was the end of the yuppie period, and at that point I was singing all around London, in jazz clubs. I was into jazz and rock, and I was singing all the time. I was earning good money, because I got a good job, and I remember I went from being a real office type to going out every night and coming home at four in the morning and having to be at work by nine. It was the worst part of my day. I hated it by then – absolutely hated it. I gave up my job because… I walked out.”
“My mother was really sick. I’d been trying to get time off to look after her and they wouldn’t let me. In the end I just said, ‘Look, I have to leave at one o’clock because I have to buy some food and look after her.’ And they just had me hanging on until fucking four o’clock, just sitting around. In the end I got off at four, got the food, got home, and my mum wasn’t there. She’d gotten so sick she called an ambulance, because she was dying, basically. She was a mess and she knew she was slipping in and out of consciousness. She had severe jaundice, a deficiency of iron, and had shrivelled to nothing. I ran to the hospital and went into the ward and she was like this tiny skinny person. I went to the bathroom, cried my eyes out and that was it. I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life?’ My stupid job kept me away, and my mother could have died for no other reason than I wasn’t there, and I hadn’t been there all week. That was the point I was like, ‘Fuck this. Fuck everything.’ It really changed my perspective. I thought, ‘Stop wasting time with ignorant stupid people and the stupid job.’ I walked out a week later.”
Do you think music still has political teeth? Do you think music fans consider music to be a valid political force?
“Music has always provided the anthems for a generation. It’s not political change; it’s not really the thing that makes political change happen. I would say social media does that now, more than music has ever done. But my problem is that at the moment you have the X Factor and then you have universities. And the trouble is, the X Factor kids are too desperate. There’s no angst in any of them. And I could never have afforded thousands of pounds on getting educated to do music. Musicians nowadays, they’re so fucking nice. You don’t have to be nice. Be a c**t, if that’s who you are. Now, musicians and pop musicians are all so fucking perfect-looking and they’re all so beautiful, and they’re all so sussed. They’re doing the right thing and having business managers make investments for them at 17.”
While touring internationally, have you experienced any outright racism?
“Oh gosh, all the time. The worst of it was in Australia when we toured with the Sex Pistols. Because they had all that swastika stuff back in the day, that was causing aggro. But people would be sieg-heiling, ‘Get off the stage you black bitch,’ blah blah blah. I would stage-dive, and every day the head of security, a black guy, used to come up and say, ‘Okay Skin, don’t go over to that part of the crowd – that’s where the White Nationalists of Australia are.’ Pockets of fascists were at those gigs, and they never did anything to curb that, so these people didn’t feel that they couldn’t go. In America, it was much more, like, normalised.”
What was your experience of touring America like back in the day?
“If we were in a bar, they would send some pretty girl over to talk to one of the boys in the band. And then the boyfriend would come over and start a fight. We had that a couple of times. The girl would come and flirt with Cass, for instance, and then if Cass responded in any way, the boyfriend would come over and be all like, ‘Hey, you flirting with my woman?’ Cass might say something like, ‘Hey, she was flirting with me.’ We learned that one the hard way. Because my boys like to fight. Especially Cass and Mark. They like to fight, but not for stupid reasons. So in that case, we said you can’t fight. You need your fingers to play bass.”
How, if at all, is society short-changing young women?
“We’re short-changing our youth, actually. Genders are kind of merging, and kids overall are getting a hard deal. Brexit is going to be so awful for them, if it happens. Life’s going to be a lot more expensive; we’ve already seen that. Are we going to be able to travel like we used to? Are bands going to be able to tour? Are we going to have to get visas? All these questions are unanswered. The thing’s a fucking disaster. We’re listening to kids more, but we’re not listening with the right ears or any kind of soul. We’re listening in a mercenary way. Kids are getting drained of all their goodness and original ideas. Everything’s just being thrown at them and everything’s so fast. We’re raping them of their fucking souls and their ideas and all the good things that youth has.”
There’s more awareness of mental health and wellbeing in music today. Is this something you think has been unaddressed and is important?
“I think so, and I think it’s important. Mark’s talked about it a lot. I had a mental breakdown when we recorded the first album. God, I forgot about that – the pressure. People kept saying to me every day, ‘Your vocals have got to be amazing.’ I was like, ‘I’ve never recorded an album before.’ But I got so caught up in my head with how good I was or had to be. I think I acted too confidently, and people around me thought I could handle it. But I couldn’t.”
What form did that take?
“Everything went upside down in my head. And so in my room at night, I put the furniture upside down and did all this crazy stuff – anxiety. I lost it a bit. I had to go home. I recorded 100 Ways To Be A Good Girl first, and while I had to sing that song I was a bit weird – with anxiety attacks all the time. It was too much pressure. And then everyone laid off me, and I went back and recorded the rest of the album.”
What do you do for self-care nowadays?
“A lot. I learned early on that prevention is better than trying to find a cure. It’s better to look after yourself. In the early days we’d always drink before we’d go onstage to play, and after a while my body basically ground to a halt. On the first or second tour. I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to go onstage?’ I had no energy left, and it was then that I stopped drinking completely, and I started looking after myself and warming up. I used to wear thick Doc Martens onstage – now I wear bouncy ones. From that time on I’ve always done preventative stuff. I’ve never had Botox or anything like that. It’s better to have good face products and put good stuff into your body. As a rock musician, it’s always good to go to the edge. A couple of times you go over the edge, but not consistently. You only have one life. Some people are so goody-two-shoes and so healthy, and they live just as long as other people do. It’s just that they didn’t enjoy themselves. So I have fun – I have a lot of fun. I’m not an innocent person, at all. But at the same time, I’m not going to trash myself.”
Skunk Anansie’s 25LIVE@25 is available on January 25 via Republic Of Music.
Stay up-to-date on all cancelled and rescheduled tours, festivals and events this year.
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Vocalist Skin has also announced her forthcoming memoirs, due to arrive this September.