THE REAL PRETENDER
Chrissie Hynde’s debut solo album was a great leap into the unknown, she tells Iain Shedden
CHRISSIE Hynde has a reputation as a quality songwriter as well as being the distinctive voice of the Pretenders for almost 40 years, so it follows that she could call on just about anyone to play guitar on her debut solo album, Stockholm, which is released next week.
Rock legend Neil Young would be a good choice, for example, and he shows off his familiar, gutsy guitar chops on Down the Wrong Way, one of the 11 songs on the new album, which Hynde recorded in Sweden with local producer Bjorn Yttling.
Less distinctive than Young’s contribution, but 10 times as surprising, is the wild, bluesy guitar lines on another song, A Plan Too Far. They come from someone just as famous, but not rated in the pantheon of guitar greats — John McEnroe. Yes, seriously, that John McEnroe.
“He can play,” says Hynde, 62, an old friend of the tennis superstar. ”I know John because he loves rock ’n’ roll and we always invite him on stage whenever we’re in New York with the Pretenders. I’m always encouraging him to give up everything else and be in a band because that’s what he likes. So far I haven’t succeeded.”
The McEnroe play was designed to impress Yttling, whom Hynde didn’t know before making the album. “He had a tennis racquet in the studio,” she says with a laugh. “I noticed that. I mentioned that I knew John McEnroe, and that was the first time I got a reaction out of him. So now I’ve got the hang of this guy. So the next time John was in town (Stockholm) for some seniors thing, I made sure I went there for a recording session at the same time. I got John to come to the studio just to get a reaction out of Bjorn, which I did. It was great. Of course then I had to go to the rest of the seniors championship with Bjorn. He was just thrilled. I never really watch the tennis.’’
Hynde, oozing the smarts and sexiness that have been a feature of her steady rock ’n’ roll journey, is in a good place, it seems, as she embarks on this new stage of her career. The poster person for thousands of female (and male) rock wannabes since the late 1970s doesn’t find it odd that she should be going solo at this point in her life. For most of her career she has been identified as the only real Pretender, as musicians have come and gone from the band through the decades, some of them in tragic circumstances.
“I’ve been told by people for 25 years that I should use my own name and I’ve been told by people that the Pretenders is really just me,” she says. “I’ve battled against this for years. I just want to be in a band, I work best within a band, but people have their own ideas, so on this one I relented.”
The new album, featuring Swedish musicians other than the two celebrity ring-ins, was a marathon project, spread across two years and 20 or so sessions in Stockholm. The Pretenders’ last album, 2008’s Break Up the Concrete, was done and dusted in 11 days. While it’s her name on the cover, Hynde describes the album as “the most collaborative work I’ve ever done”. Most of that partnership was with Yttling, of Swedish band Peter Bjorn and John. The producer, whose credits include Sarah Blasko’s a ward- wi n n i n g album As Day Follows Night, cowrote many of the songs on Stockholm and has brought a poppier sensibility to Hynde’s traditionally r o c k - f r i e ndl y Pretenders approach. She was aiming for somewhere between ABBA and John Lennon.
“I’m used to sitting down with a guitar and writing a song, so going over to meet this guy Bjorn was a new experience,” she says. “And agreeing to try some things … for me it was a lot of fun just to try something like that with a stranger and it triggered off a lot of creativity. He would give me a bit of a song to listen to on his laptop, then he’d piss off for a while and by the time he came back I’d written a song. So it was fun and it was unexpected.
“Sometimes it’s agonising and you get really down on yourself if you’re not able to articulate. A lot of songwriters suffer that way. This wasn’t like that. I’d take notes back to London and I went back to Sweden about 20 times because we could only work about three days in a row. We’d get two or three songs per visit.”
Yttling’s pop veneer is apparent on songs such as You or No One, Dark Sunglasses and In a Miracle, although there’s room also for heavier fare, particularly when Young gets going from the off on Down the Wrong Way. It took Hynde a year to get around to asking the Canadian star to contribute to the track.
“We started off for months referring it to it as the Neil Young song, just because the chords sounded like Neil Young,” she says. “Then I would try to f..k with Bjorn a little by saying, ‘Oh I’ll get Neil Young to play on this.’ Of course I didn’t mean it. I would never ask Neil Young, on a solo record, out of respect for one of the gods. It wouldn’t occur to me to do that. But the truth is I’ve toured with Neil and he is just a potsmoking hippie. He’s the easygoing Neil Young that every fan wants him to be.
“After about a year of talking about it, I thought: ‘ Why not ask him?’ We put in a call. Later he was in town (in London) doing some shows and his manager called and said he had one day free. ‘If you can organise a studio he’ll do the song.’
“Bjorn was on the next flight to London. Neil had never really done any overdubs like that so it was a high spot in my career.” AS a girl growing up in Akron, Ohio, and later as an art student at Kent State University, Hynde had no great ambitions as a musician, although she did play in a few fledgling bands. She was passionate about music, though; about bands. “I grew up loving bands,” she says. “That’s when I got the most fiercely interested in music. It was all about bands.”
It was also about getting out of Ohio, so in 1973 Hynde bought a ticket to London. She spent the next few years working there, first as an architect’s assistant, then in a variety of jobs, including a stint at Vivienne Westwood’s clothing store SEX. She had short periods in Paris and back in the US before settling again in London in 1976, just as the punk scene was taking shape. That was her opening, although it took a few attempts and a few bands before she made a breakthrough.
“Mainly I was cleaning houses and living on a pretty low level,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t going to go back to the States permanently.”
She played guitar briefly in punk acts such as the Moors Murderers and Johnny Moped, but still was unsure about her calling.
“I liked the idea of being in a band,” she says, “but being a girl I didn’t ever feel it was going to