The Woman Who Fell To Earth
Rebel rebel, you’ve torn your dress. Daphne Guinness is morphing from fashion icon into rock star under our very eyes with her glam-infused second album. And with the late, great Bowie as her mentor, how could she fail? Pippa Brooks enters her parallel universe and discovers the connection between Bolan, Wagner and…fish fingers!
I’m so glad that, early on in our conversation about her music, Daphne Guinness and I are agreed on one very important fact: Marc Bolan was the ultimate pop star. Absolutely. Wavelength reached. Guinness is known for her visual collaborations with David LaChapelle, Nick Knight and Steven Klein – for whom she will go unwaveringly to the extreme, health and safety be damned – and also for her friendship and creative collaborations with Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow; doomed geniuses and kindred spirits.
Not so well known are her musical aspirations, which are voracious and abounding. Once again, she’s working with the best, and I mean literally. Long-term Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti produced her debut album, Optimist in Black, and the one currently in progress. “I knew a lot about music but I hadn’t done it; life had taken me more on a visual path. Then Tony took me where I was meant to be.” We are joined on the sofa of her London apartment by her musical collaborator, Malcolm Doherty, for the duration of the interview. Whether there for moral support or to keep the conversation on a musical tack, his interjections throw interesting light on Guinness’s musicality and way of working. For instance, who knew that Daphne Guinness is “Queen of the Moog”?! They finish each other’s sentences and are thrilled with each other’s company, share certain important experiences: being born in the same year and having almost identical record collections in their youth, even having been at the same seminal gigs without knowing each other. The similarities in their life experiences presumably end there, but the important, taste-forming moments, from album sleeves to TV shows are utterly simpatico.
You can’t help having certain expectations of an audience with the Hon Daphne Guinness. Her aristocratic roots should imply a certain reserved aloofness, yet, sitting in black stretch shorts, socks and dress shirt, hair simply wound into a scarf and no make-up (if you don’t count her silver-painted ear tips), Guinness comes across as shy and sweetly chaotic, absorbed in the creative process. Not at all the icily perfect fashion plate as she scrambles through her (exquisitely handwritten) notes to illustrate a point, or pulls a blanket around herself as she curls up, warming to the musical subject.
In contrast to her fashion taste, which is defiantly for modernists such as Alexander McQueen, Gareth Pugh and Iris van Herpen, when it comes to musical inspiration Guinness looks back to the Seventies, specifically the British Glam Rock scene. For authenticity of sound, there is no digital technology used during the recording sessions; it’s analogue all the way, recorded onto tape. If you haven’t heard Guinness sing, her voice is deliberate, the vowel sounds exaggerated, as if Nico had had elocution lessons. You get the lyrics first time, as every single word is enunciated immaculately. She was classically trained and can sing opera, but has chosen a much more talky take on her voice for this project. Her first album, 2016’s Optimist in Black made me want to listen to Cockney Rebel straight afterwards, as something about her delivery put me in mind of Steve Harley. And even musically there are similarities: the theatricality, extravagance and mannered delivery; a very British sound.
Unsurprisingly, Guinness’s first foray into music had a very strong visual element. As she says, “A lot of me getting dressed and showing up is about how I’m feeling and it’s like that with my writing.” The David LaChapelle video for Evening in Space is a highly stylised, glamorous take on the future from the perspective of a silent film star of the Twenties. Guinness plays her part like a pro, camping it up, channelling Brigitte Helm, and the whole opulent extravaganza is an unabashed tribute to David Bowie. I prefer her video for The Long Now, in that the music isn’t overtaken by the visuals, and you realise Guinness really can write a catchy song. And with the new, as yet unnamed album, you get the sense that she is simplifying things further. When I say I can hear her Bowie-love in her music, she tells me he was a huge encouragement to her. “He was such a hero of mine; we discovered each other through the visual world. Then with the advent of Tony, he was omnipresent, and it was great having his feedback. He’d say what he did and didn’t like, so generous with his knowledge. He didn’t have to do that. He nominated himself the godfather of my album. Weirdly, we both had a passion for reading Wagner scores. He asked me what I was reading and was amazed and said, ‘I’m reading that too!’”
As much as Guinness and Doherty were in awe of Tony Visconti’s working relationship with Bowie, both are more obsessed with Glam-era Visconti. For Guinness, “The big thing for me when I was young, was watching Marc Bolan’s TV show.” And for Doherty: “Everyone’s obsessed withBlackstar and the Bowie years, and we’re obsessed with the fact that the Glam sound was Tony. He invented that sound. How amazing to be able to work with the person who was responsible for our record collections, growing up. He invented the Glitter beat before it was even on a Gary Glitter record. To be able to put your ideas to someone who has invented that musical landscape… And then his Berlin trilogy of Bowie albums virtually invented the New Romantic pop landscape of the Eighties…”
At this point in the conversation, they couldn’t resist treating me to a sneak preview of a couple of top-secret tracks from the new album. And they’re utterly Glam; much more upbeat and rousing than the tracks on Optimist in Black. I’m not allowed to say anything about them, but their joint teenage obsessions have been honoured and the raw, chant-like choruses do indeed bring to mind The Sweet and T. Rex, but also a bit of Joan Jett.
Guinness is prolific, there’s no doubt. Having released her first album last year, there are already 22 new songs recorded, some for the new album and some darker ones for a “shadow album”, which is being written concurrently. There is a sense that, since finding her voice and her team, she could go on forever, making up for lost time; that she never wants it to end. “I do start to go into a kind of decline when I see the drum kit being dismantled in the studio. After the first album I went into a serious depression… thank God I started the second.” And with no pressure as such to release to a particular time schedule, when is a record finished? “I was in a quandary whether to release the first album or not for about a year. Then someone pointed out to me that to release is part of the artistic process. It completes the circle. Otherwise, it’s like living in a hall of mirrors, like the last scene of Citizen Kane, mirroring everything back. I’d rather live in the constant process, but you can’t carry on forever and ever. The worst thing is a release or a kind of presentation, because then it’s done, and that’s like sending your child off to school. There’s no strategy or master plan, I’m just doing this because I love it. I feel so blessed, it’s been a magical journey.”
Another surprising fact I discovered about Guinness is that she enjoys the camaraderie of the tour bus and is in fact “pretty easy-going” when it comes to the general “dicking about and laughing at service stations whilst YouTube-ing idiotic videos” that goes with the territory. Why it should be a surprise says more about my preconceptions, I suppose, but I like the idea of her scoffing a post-gig Pot Noodle with the band on the bus. After being initially “quite freaked out” the first couple of times she played live with session musicians, now she has her solid, trusted band. “I’ve begun to really like performing on stage,” she says.
Guinness has spent a lot of her life doing very grown-up things such as being a mother, mentor, curator and producer. And we have her to thank for purchasing her departed friend Isabella Blow’s entire clothing archive to prevent her legacy being shattered into many pieces, and then initiating the extraordinary A Fashionable Lifeexhibition, which will continue to inspire future generations of fashion students and remind us to cherish our true style mavericks. From the ashes of loss and grief, it is clear that making music has had a hugely healing effect on Guinness. “I try to keep it as un-personal as possible, but it’s hard. Even when the lyrics are really confessional, no one really gets that because I can just present it almost like a joke. It’s happened so many times that I’ve written a song and it peels back a layer of something that’s about to happen, or something I wasn’t aware of.”
She continues to mentor students in the creative arts; something which is very important to her. “Arts funding has been cut so much, it’s awful. I wish I could do more. I worry about the corporate world that these often very sensitive students will be going out into… I want to help people follow their dream.”
I feel that there is a sense that, with music, Guinness’s own needs are being nurtured and, giving completely free rein to her muse, she is able to follow her own dream. To this end I ask her whether she thinks creativity has saved her, and the answer is simple and immediate: “YES! I’d be dead otherwise, quite seriously.”
THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE: DAPHNE GUINNESS
What’s your favourite smell?
I make all my own smells; I have a whole wall of smells to choose from.
Do you have a signature dish?
Who was your role model, growing up?
Farrah Fawcett-Majors, just this beautiful babe, you know, with this hair and the teeth!
First record you can remember being obsessed with?
Electric Warrior by T. Rex [at which point Guinness and Doherty break into the opening lines of Cosmic Dancer, the first track they ever played together].
Debbie Harry or Patti Smith?
Patti Harry! They’re both great.
Do you vote?
What drives you?
That there are so many songs to be written and it’s so much fun. I know I sound like a hippie but I love what I’m doing and who I’m doing it with. If it started feeling like work, I’d give it up.
Do you collect anything?
Books, guitars, microphones, musical-effects equipment…
Do you have a favourite childhood memory?
Climbing on roofs and escaping. Being Batman.
Do you have a beauty ritual?
I wish I did! I’m so caught up with what I’m doing that I forget.
If you had to choose only one item of make-up, what would it be?
[At a loss for a moment, genuinely unbothered] Mascara?
The Ramones at the Lyceum. Oh, actually I saw The Stones before that, in ’81.
Do you exercise?
I’ll normally do about 45 minutes of aerobic exercise but the heel-less Noritaka Tatehana shoes I wear [see opposite] go a long way towards stretching me out.
Have you ever broken the law?
Quite obviously! Nothing serious, though; I’ve never done anything awful.
Were you ever bullied?
Do you hate anyone or anything?
No. I have contempt for certain things but I can never bring myself to hate anybody, that’s my problem, I always blame myself before I blame anybody else [laughs]. Contempt is about as far as I’d go in that direction.
Would you ever write your autobiography?
My dad’s writing his at the moment, but for me, it’s all in the songs and I think it’s more interesting like that. I’m in the middle of living my life and I’m not that self-obsessed enough to do it.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
I don’t really understand what a feminist is; I was brought up as a boy, really. I’m very bad at labels and subdivisions.
What do you think about the election of Trump and the rise of the far right?
If I were Education Secretary, instead of teaching about European history between 1760 and 1820, I would teach people about voting, who’s managing the water supply and stuff like that. It’s about being a citizen and having a balance in what is taught. But my role is to be a poet, not a politician. I mean, thank goodness one lives in a parallel universe!