By Pat Prince
The tale of JP and Chrissie is not your run-of-the-mill love story. Two musicians fall in love over similar admirations, fly off to Cuba and write an album’s worth of songs together. The key to this newly developed songwriting team is both the joy and lament of their romance. Sure, they are in the moment and enamored with each other, but they also come to realize their age difference of about 30 years between them.
The outcome is “Fidelity!,” an album fresh with lyrical honesty and a folksy alternative-rock sound. Welsh singer JP Jones and longtime Pretender Chrissie Hynde recruited the rest of their band (known as The Fairground Boys) from former bandmates (keyboardist Sam Swallow was in Jones’ last band, Grace) and U.K. friends (musicians from a band known as Big Linda: guitarist Patrick Murdoch, bassist Vezio Bacci and drummer Geoff Holroyde), and are currently on tour throughout North America.
The following is a recent interview with both Jones and Hynde.
The songs [from the album] sound even better live … they have so much energy to them.
Chrissie Hynde: We wrote the songs pretty quickly, made the demos and then went straight to the band. So, of course, once you’ve been playing them for a while — it’s always the way — they start finding their own, you know, soul, I suppose.
You went to Cuba to write the album, but it has a very Nashville feel to it.
JP Jones: We went to Cuba just to go there. We didn’t go there to write an album at all. It was so unplanned. I took a guitar with me, and we started writing these songs about each other, and to each other, and it just came out of nowhere.
The lyrics are very personal and honest. That’s what makes the record so special.
Jones: Yeah, well, I mean, I’ve been in a band before (Grace), and we were sort of being pushed to write hits for radio and stuff. So, yeah, [this is] the most honest thing I’ve ever done.
JP, were you intimidated when first meeting Chrissie?
Jones: No, because I was drunk. (laughs)
Did you know she was Chrissie Hynde?
Jones: Of course, yeah.
Hynde: Remember, in other parts of the world, I’m just another drunk in a bar. Over here they have things like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and all these accolades which are, to my mind, a bit, you know, irrelevant. JP recognized me, but intimidated? By what?
Well, who you are. I might be, too. (laughs)
Hynde: Well, then you’d never write an album with me (laughs).
Throughout your career, have you ever thought about doing a side project?
Hynde: No. I never thought of being solo, and I never would. I like playing in the band dynamic. The Pretenders as this present incarnation is awesome, and I was really excited about it, but I met JP, and it’s been a revelation, like a gift in my lap to have this.
I felt maybe I looked at other people who have been in the game as long as me, and they all have different projects and side projects, and I guess maybe I’m not very ambitious. I mean, I have done other things. I went to Brazil and toured and worked with (Brazilian musician and singer) Moreno Veloso (in 2004) but we never really documented it, so … To answer your question, no, I never really thought of a side project, but this isn’t a side project. This is what I’m doing.
You’ve jammed with so many musicians over the years. Has anyone clicked with you as much as this?
The songwriting between you and JP started by texting ...
Hynde: He sent me a couple of songs after we met, and that’s what really got my attention. And then we’d suggest ideas to each other. We write the best when we are sitting in a room together.
I love this text message [from JP]: ‘We could make a great album together.’ That’s just classic.
Hynde: Yeah, well, no one’s ever said to me before.
Out of all those musicians?
Hynde: Yeah. JP really has vision and instinct. And also he’s a very collaborative person. I think he could probably write a really good album with my mother. He just has that thing. He’s motivating, enthusiastic and really encouraging. And he really loves things. He’s not critical. I come in it from a different angle. He made me feel freed up, and everything happened so quickly, we didn’t have time to think about it too much.
And a great voice, too.
Hynde: Oh, he’s amazing. I think by this time next year, everyone will recognize his voice. He’s got lots of songs. I would really love to go record The Fairground Boys with his songs. But I think we have another album — well, who knows how many other albums — in us. He’s really prolific, and I think he’s really coming into his own. So, I’m delighted.
You think there will be a lot of crossover from Pretenders fans, buying this album?
Hynde: I never thought about it. Who knows? I think people that know who I am like what I do; they might listen to it. I don’t know. I mean, nobody knows how to sell records these days. That’s a big worry, because you try to finance it as much as you can on your own, but you gotta break even and you gotta keep your thing alive. I never been conscientiously going out to sell records. But now, no one really knows how it’s done anymore. I suppose you buy one record and then burn off about six copies for your mates.
When you talk to young bands today, they are doing so many different things and need to wear so many different hats, whether it’s marketing or social networking …
Hynde: Social networking … I mean, clearly I’m from the old school. My idea of social networking is to wander into a bar at night. But JP’s really good at that, and he understands that, and it is important these days. That’s where a lot of the audience is. I mean, I’ve been more ... you know, I don’t want people to contact me. And I’m finding out that maybe I’ve been too anti-social.
Is there a favorite song you would pick off the album?
JP: No. It’s a body of work. It’s such a story, the whole album, that it makes it difficult to pick one out.
Hynde: I regret the fact that many people might download one song, because I feel that they may be missing the bigger picture. But, so be it, if that’s what people do.
Is there a single on this album?
Hynde: Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure if anyone knows. I see this album very much as I saw albums up until the mid ’70s — where you get an album and listen to Side One and then listen to Side Two. You know, you really got into the album tracks, and I see this album like that. You have to really get into it.
Frankly, I think every song on this album, I can hear on the radio. It’s very radio-friendly. But I don’t know how that works with the whole marketing. That’s why we’ve gone out with guitars and a tambourine into radio stations, and we’ll just play as long as anyone wants us to, because I believe in radio, and I think all these songs sound good on the radio.
I listen to satellite radio. It’s refreshing because it’s so different than regular commercial radio — which is now so strange to me.
Hynde: I suppose it’s a lot more like when the FM stations went underground in the late ’60s. You know, you could hear Velvet Underground songs and stuff that wouldn’t get on Top 40 radio so much. I don’t know so much about all the different formats, but it feels like it’s a return. The way I see it is, if people like something, it will always come back. Like vinyl. It’s not the companies that produce turntables that brought vinyl back. It was the individuals that like vinyl. So a lot of these things that are fads and that everyone gets into it, they get kind of fed up with it, and there will always be a return. Like that corporate takeover of radio in the ’80s, I think, was pretty disgusting for everybody. Then it became more college radio and, I suppose, satellite.
I love radio, because you can be at a juice bar in San Paulo and hear a song you can hear anywhere in the world. That gives to me a sort of timelessness, which is what I associate with the music I love. Popular music or pop music or rock music, it’s a signature of the moment that it’s made in and it reflects the culture that it’s born of. But it’s the timelessness of it, and in any of the arts, really. And I think radio is what brings that, you know; it’s out there for everyone. You can hear it when a car passes and you’re standing on the street. You know, it’s in the air.
When I grew up with radio, in the ’80s, a lot of it was crap.
Chrissie: The ’80s was a horrible time for radio. In the ’50s, all the top music was on Top 40 AM radio and the AM frequency was really long and you could get it from state to state. And the FM stations were what they’d call what you’d hear in the dentist’s office, or stuff your dad would play in his car on his way to work, you know, it was more like Glenn Miller, that sort of thing. And then when they could see this sort of fertile and exciting movement in music in the late ’60s, that’s what happened — it went onto FM and it went underground, and that’s where radio really had its best moment, if you ask me, when the disc jockey became like your local guru and could turn you onto stuff that he liked. And then in the ’80s, it became very corporate, and you could only play what was sort of a computer playlist that was sent to you, and if you deviated from it you were out in front of the building with a cap in your hand begging for spare change.
To me, it feels, at the moment — and I don’t have evidence of this — but it feels in America like it felt in 1976 in England, like you knew something was in the air and something’s happening.’
You mentioned vinyl. Do you have a vinyl collection?
Chrissie: I don’t really have any collections of any kind. I’m trying to get rid of stuff, not collect stuff. But I recently found a box of my vinyl that I had up until I left Ohio when I was 22. And I’m gonna have to dig into that one day and have a good listen to it. If you went through that box, you could almost see every idea I ever had in that box of records.
What about some of the romanticism towards fairgrounds on this album?
Jones: It’s my background, coming from the fairground. My mom traveled on a fairground and they [Jones’ parents] had an arcade inside one fairground, and on school holidays I used to work in another arcade on the fair. Chrissie, when she met me, I told her all that, and we had this kind of attraction to fairgrounds and stuff. She just loved that, so it just seemed right to call the guys The Fairground Boys and there’s a lot of fairground images in the songs, as well. That’s how the whole album started. Chrissie said you should write a song called “Fairground Luck.” And we did, and that was it, that was the start of the album.
Hynde: When I grew up in the ’60s, the fairground was set up in your local shopping center. And the guys looked so cool. They were real carny-looking guys. For me it was pretty rock ’n’ roll. It was exotic and romantic. You know, Jack Kerouac, hobos jumping on freight trains, the feeling like I had to get away. And also I think this attraction to fairgrounds — when I met JP, it made sense. And that’s kind of how I recognized it.
As far as sharing vocals ... I know you’ve done it before with UB40, but it seems very natural here.
Hynde: It’s fantastic. I love it. I love to look over and watch him sing, and we’re singing together. Our voices are really different, but they blend well. You know, I’m not really a spotlight grabber. The minute I’m off that stage, I like to go back into the shadows. It’s nice to have a voice and have people respond to you and come to the shows. But outside of that, I’m not comfortable with it. So to share the spotlight with somebody, it’s a joy for me.
Chrissie, does touring sometimes exhaust you after all these years?
Hynde: I think not touring is more exhausting.
Because of boredom?
Hynde: No, it just becomes a lifestyle. I like moving and living out of a suitcase. I feel more grounded that way.
And The Fairground Boys have never toured around here [North America], even though they are very seasoned musicians and done a lot of touring. And that makes the whole thing new and exciting to me.
Touring America is an experience in itself —just the vastness of it and how different it is from section to section.
Hynde: And one thing about America that has always been true— and as long as people listen to rock music — is that they really love guitar-based rock music. Synthesizers come and go, and there are certain people who like dance music, but the kind of people who will go every year to see the Steve Miller Band or ZZ Top ... those are our fans — bikers and waitresses and people who really dig guitar-based rock and good songwriting. And when they hear JP and his voice, I think by this time next year, he’ll have his own following here. I know he will.