A Year in Music – 2021 – Zoe Howe (Author)

A Year in Music – 2021 – Zoe Howe (Author)
by Killian Laher

How are you?  How have you been?

I have been good thanks, certainly in comparison to many, and I’m counting my blessings all the time. I hope you are doing ok too.

Do you think we’re over the worst at this stage?

Tarot readers are calling this the time of the ‘Tower’ – the Tower is the card no one wants to see: it’s chaos, destruction, violence and all the rest of it. But the positive side of the Tower indicates that the old, outdated structures are finally being dismantled and are falling, as they must, and after the chaos, hopefully the ‘new normal’ will be a rather more healthy, compassionate and respectful one than before. I won’t be holding my breath but you have to try and do your bit. It does feel like we had an opportunity, through this collective experience, to be better than we are, and I think we’ve fudged that opportunity so far – it’s just highlighted the gulf between the best of us and the worst. We just have to tune our dial to the best, otherwise, it’s all too easy to get dark and lose faith in humanity, especially if you’re a sensitive flower like me.

What music/albums did you particularly enjoy in 2021?

As you know, Killian, I’m a bit of a nostalgianik and have a tendency to wrap great comfort blankets of old favourites around me, especially at times like these. However, my Soho Radio show ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Witch’ does force me into the present day and I’m grateful for that. I tend to resist anything that is super-hyped and then realise that I’ve missed out, so I’m late to the Billie Eilish party, but I stumbled across her recently in earnest and was really mesmerised by her beautiful energy and this kind of amazing powerful quietness which seems to hold people in a spell. It’s the antithesis to so much at the moment, and I felt very moved by it, and encouraged that so many young people are enthralled by her. She seems like a force for good, and God knows we need those at the moment. Lesley Chow in her book ‘You’re History’ included a great Sheila O’Malley quote which basically said that, rather than turn our noses up at the kind of pop music that teenage girls take to their hearts, we should be listening to them – they picked out the Beatles and Elvis, after all.

Have you been up to much yourself in the last 12 months?

It has been quite an active 12 months, believe it or not. Our film Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (winner of two British Independent Film Awards – Best Documentary and the Raindance Discovery award) finally came out, so that’s been exciting, especially to see how people have related to it and taken it to their hearts. It’s a companion to the book Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, which I co-authored with Poly’s daughter Celeste. We developed the film together too, with Paul Sng. In addition, I provided some written material for the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Darklands tour, which has finally got underway after being rescheduled, so that’s wonderful. There’s also a Spanish edition of my JAMC biography coming out next year.

I’ve also been finishing my latest book Witchful Thinking: The Modern Wise Woman’s Handbook To Creating A Charmed Life which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in April 2022. Like my radio show, it combines my two great loves: rock ’n’ roll and magic! The book is meant to be fun and thoughtful, lots of folklore and personal reflections from my own background, also connecting with my Irish heritage. There’s plenty of patriarchy-smashing too. Some people might see this as a bit of a departure, but it’s the most ‘me’ I’ve ever felt writing a book, and it’s just been so enjoyable to do. Rock ’n’ roll and music generally is magical to me anyway, it’s transformative and alters our state. I suppose I was always bound to do this – since I was a kid, I was always obsessed with bookshops and the section I always immediately went to was the occult section, and I’d plonk myself down in front of the shelves and sit there for hours. A happy place for me. That said, I could also be found from time to time by the foreign language section as I liked to know how to say surreal things in various languages, especially if they were listed in weird old phrasebooks as if they were daily essentials. ‘Ove kruške su pretvrde’ (‘These pears are too hard’ in Croatian) remains a favourite, and I use it more often than you might imagine. I’m learning Irish currently, and my favourite phrase that came up in a phrasebook is: ‘bhí sí ag déanamh ceapairí mar ní raibh amárach ann’ (‘she was making sandwiches like there was no tomorrow’). The problem is I am still so slow at saying it that by the time I get to the end of the sentence, tomorrow will have dawned and the sandwich-making will have ceased.

How do you feel about playing/attending gigs?

I’ve not been doing much of either, to be honest! I’m sure I’ll feel a bit more confident after my booster jab, but in the meantime, I’m connecting with my inner hermit, which is alarmingly easy to do. My husband has been playing a few more gigs though, which is a great relief, and touch wood they’ve been ok.

It has been a particularly tough time for the Arts right through the pandemic, in comparison to other sectors.  Is it difficult to keep going?

Very true – and it has been interesting to see how little they are really valued or supported, especially in Britain, with a few strategic exceptions. But we have to keep going, we have no choice. We have to be like those valiant weeds that just pop up despite being covered over with concrete – they’ll just find another crack to push through and strain towards the light!

Anything else going on with you?

Apart from the film, the radio show and the witchery tome I mentioned, I am still doing lots of art: I try to do something every day, even if it’s just mark-making, and I love automatic drawing as it reveals lots of interesting things. I was recently part of a brilliant exhibition called ‘All Kinds of Naughty’, inspired by Ian Dury and his genius. It was a group show by the Thames Group of Artists and we toured it around London, Essex and Kent – all very Dury-appropriate regions! As well as the artists in the group, we had guest contributions from Sophy Dury, Sir Peter Blake, Humphrey Ocean and Jemima Dury contributed a piece by Ian himself.

Ian and the Blockheads are very close to my heart, not just because I always loved the music and their uniqueness as performers, but because my husband was in the Blockheads for the final few years of Ian’s life, and the ten years that followed, so it was special to be invited to be part of this show. My piece was ‘a valentine for Plaistow Patricia’: basically, a wedding-like bouquet made up of syringes. ‘Pricks’ indeed! Much blood was shed in the making of that piece, but I loved doing it.

On a different tack, another thing that is taking up much of my time is learning Irish, which is hard but I am enjoying it. I always wanted to do it, for lots of reasons – family, identity, reconnection etc – and it’s finally happening. My Dad’s Mum and her family were from the north, and now I’ve found lessons in the Ulster dialect I’m having to relearn quite a bit of what I’d already picked up in the Connacht dialect, but this blow has been softened by watching these videos called Now You’re Talking which were made in about 1992. I find the colourful 90s knitwear very soothing.

I’ve also been working as a RLF Writing Fellow with the students of Newnham and Selwyn Colleges, Cambridge – it is a privilege to work with them and it’s such a different world, but they have been very welcoming. Newnham particularly has a fabulous, radical, feminist history and I am really enjoying getting to know about that. The Newnhamites especially of the Edwardian era were just ferocious and I find it very inspiring.

What are you looking forward to next year, musically?

I think just embracing live music again will be wonderful, but I don’t know what to look forward to yet in that respect, as everything still feels so unsure. I’d like to make some more music – a former bandmate of mine and I keep talking about sending each other files to tinker with and maybe build something up with each other in a remote way, so we’ll see. It’s nice to know that creative channel is open.

Have you any plans yourself next year?

Witchful Thinking will be coming out, so that’s exciting, and I’ll be continuing the show on Soho Radio, which I love doing. On top of that, I’m thinking of a bit of a change of direction so we’ll see where that takes me. (Hopefully to Ireland, le cúnamh De!).

Go raibh mile maith agat – slán go foill!



Categories: Header, interview, Music

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