Grace Jones: confessions of an art groupie

To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve dug through our 40 years-deep back-catalogue to find interviews and profiles with the world’s greatest talents across film, music, fashion and the arts. Over the coming weeks we’ll be posting a selection of these FACE encounters with the best of the best. Creative, resilient and revolutionary: these are our Archive Heroes.

The people from this country really do combine music with style, and without being frivolous about it either.” So said Grace Jones in summer 1980, in London from her home in New York to promote Private Life, the Chrissie Hynde-written third single from her third album, Warm Leatherette. The model-turned-musician was transitioning from disco to a New Wave and reggae sound, partially marshalled by ace Jamaican rhythm section and production duo Sly and Robbie. True to form, Jones knew exactly what she wanted and where she was headed. I’m one for change,” she told original FACE writer Chris Salewicz. I definitely wanted to search and experiment for a sound that was specifically Grace Jones rather than that of any producer. Of course, disco did always tend to emphasise the producer and not the artist.” The following year, her talent would explode all over again: she released Nightclubbing, which included the deathless, forever-mighty Pull Up To The Bumper. But for now, meet Jones in a brilliant profile that appeared in the sixth issue of the magazine (The B‑52’s on the cover, alongside the slogan Rock’s Final Frontier”) accompanied by equally classic photography from Jill Furmanovsky and Adrian Boot.

In the lounge bar of the Kensington Hilton, Grace Jones sprawls supinely in a wicker armchair and digs her fingers under the leaves of lettuce in her salad bowl searching for any remaining shrimps. Her olive shirt and black, red-edged pants are beautifully cut though utterly unostentatious.

Her subdued presence is far removed from the wild, brooding siren suggested by the surly magnificence she offers in photographs of herself. Only her thick clump of hair, distanced from the rest of her high cheekbones, almond-eyed face by a razored back and sides, and sitting on top of her five-foot-eight-inch wiry frame like a black pillbox hat, draws to her the attention of the other occupants of the lounge.

Grace Jones has a dark brown, unpretentious voice that dances naturally between uptown Manhattan intonations and inflections that come from the Jamaica this preacher’s daughter left for the States when she was 13. The sound of her speech reflects the smiles that dash about her face, again contrary to her man-eating photographic image.

Listen, I’m two people. Otherwise,” she giggles, I’d be insane! I’m insane enough when I go onstage: if I was like that all the time I’d be completely nuts. When I go onstage it’s a definite act. It’s very intense and very real for that moment, and I really feel it. But it’s something that I psyche myself up for… I hope you’re not disappointed.”

She chuckles again, more throatily this time. I just like,” she continues, to get my blood circulation going and get a bit warmed up. I mean, everyone gets a bit perverted in some ways, but you can’t be perverted all the time. I like to play at things. But my basic personality stays the same.”

It seems likely, though, that Grace Jones’ low profile this afternoon is directly linked to her not having got to bed until seven this morning. She’s in England from her home in midtown Manhattan on a five-day visit to promote on Kenny Everett’s TV show and Top Of The Pops the hit that has become her near-Disco Rap rendition of Chrissie Hynde’s Private Life.

Following a taping of the BBC programme Grace, along with Ultravox who’d also been on the show, had hotfooted it down for an evening’s posing at Heaven, the gay disco behind Charing Cross railway station. She’s mischievously miffed that she got so out of it that she lost the others and missed the intended trip back to Midge Ure’s place to wind up the night watching pornographic movies.

Of course, with her new album, Warm Leatherette, Grace Jones The Image has become Jones The Voice. The LP includes the Hynde song and Roxy Music’s Love Is The Drug, whilst the title track comes from the b‑side of a 1978 single by The Normal, TVOD. Also, the 45 version of Private Life is backed by a stunning version of Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control: A tape of that song came into the studio at the last moment , and we cut it really just to wind up the session.”

It is not just the material, though, that separates this very definitely Post-Disco record from the three previous Grace Jones Island LPs that commenced in 1977 with Portfolio. Dispensing with producer Tom Moulton and the uptown Manhattan session musicians with whom he works, Grace instead cut Warm Leatherette at Island boss Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point studio in Nassau.

Whilst Blackwell co-produced the album with Alex Sadkin, whose credits range from K.C. & The Sunshine Band to Bob Marley, Grace was backed by the cream of Kingston’s session musicians – drummer Sly Dunbar, bassist Robb ie Shakespeare, guitarist Mao Chung, percussionist Sticky Thompson.

I’m one for change,” comments Grace on this significant shift in musical style. I can feel it coming and I just let it happen naturally. The timing was right, and it all communicated and connected. I definitely wanted to search and experiment for a sound that was specifically Grace Jones rather than that of any producer. Of course, disco did always tend to emphasise the producer and not the artist.”

One wonders, though, to how great an extent the change in sound is due to Grace, and how much to her production team. From what she says, it is apparent that the idea of which songs to cut obviously came more from Chris Blackwell than from the singer herself. Also, she knows Sly and Robbie have a very good reputation” but is surprised to hear how vital a role they occupy in Jamaican music.

Moving in 1974 from New York to Paris, Grace established herself as one of Europe’s top fashion models. Notwithstanding the fact that she frequently appeared on covers of Vogue magazine, Grace still came up against that innate snobbery that is so uniquely Parisian: The French are pretty racist, and what’s worse is that they’re not open about it – they’re really sneaky. And it’s bizarre because they also really get into exotic-looking Black women.”

How different did she find the world of music and that of modelling? The music world” – Grace frequently interrupts herself with machine-gun like bursts of schoolgirl giggles – is a lot more confusing. There’s a lot more responsibility – every record is like having a baby. But they’re both quite similar in that luck plays a large part in both.

Modelling is bitchy, but that’s OK because I can be very bitchy, too. And I can understand bitchiness. The music world is bitchy as well, also… But I try to concentrate more on what I’m doing than on the political games that’re happening. I can’t totally pretend that those numbers don’t exist because I have to work within it, and I like to maintain control in everything I do – though they constantly try and take that away.

And they do that in modelling, too. Although I found it was much freer in Europe: in the States they totally brainwash you and those big modelling agencies are just the same as big record companies. Which is how I learnt I must never, ever go with a big record company. If you’re with one of those agencies in New York you can’t even cut your hair without permission.

In fact,” she considers, sipping from her glass of white wine and Perrier, if you can come in with control in the first place there’s far more artistic freedom in the music business. It just depends upon yourself.

In European modelling,” she continues, they were a lot more into individual personalities rather than into making everyone look like they were out of the same mould.

In America you definitely have to have this certain look, and they go for girls who all literally look alike. It’s so fickle the way they dictate those looks. And,” she sighs histrionically, it’s so killing for the ego. I think I was the only Black girl working, though. I always thought there was room for rather more than just one, actually.”

Grace Jones’ initial foray into music-making came about when her fashion model existence simply mutated into her first musical fling. She’s a soul fan who now speaks of James Brown as always having been the ultimate disco artist” and the twin brother with whom Grace shared a New York apartment was a club DJ. He really understood DJ-ing as an art form. We always had the best records and the best system of anyone around.

Basically,” she giggles again, I got started in music because someone saw a chance of making some money. It was while I was still living in Paris. These people know I was already successful modelling and there’s this assumption that all Black Americans have great voices. So, c’mon Grace, let’s go cut a record!’”

For her demos, Grace recorded John Lennon’s Imagine and The Three Degrees’ Dirty Ol’ Manone slow one and one fast one.” She was sent to singing lessons. I was very undisciplined about that, and they threatened to tear up my contract. But I thought it was ridiculous people trying to teach me how to breathe. I learnt how to breathe when I was born!”

Grace Jones ended up on Island Records after that company had distributed the music she made for a small New York independent label connected with the people from Paris who’d sent her into the studio. I really had nothing to do with the signing with Island. I didn’t even know which record companies were around – I just came from a totally different world.”

Despite her naturally having gravitated to Heaven when she went on the town with Ultravox, Grace claims the extent of her involvement with the gay scene has been considerably over-emphasised. It was not gays, she insists, who were the first to pick up on her. Her initial audience, she says, sprang out of the self-consciously elite New York world of artists, fashion designers and writers that make up the SoHo art scene.

I was an art groupie,” she laughs, for a long time. All my boyfriends were artists. I found that scene very interesting, although it was probably more superficial than I realised at the time. A lot of those people really get off on being unhappy – they find that struggling artist image very romantic, which is a bit screwed up, really.

I was totally involved in that scene – very attracted to it. Maybe it’s the mother in me – there’s a lot of heterosexual cissies in it: the sort of guys who aren’t uptight around gays but whose sexual preference is female. I think, in fact, that a large part of my attraction for gay guys is that I do serve as some sort of mother figure to them.

But basically,” she splutters yet again with laughter, if you do a song like I Need A Man… Well, I had no idea it was going to be looked upon as a gay national anthem. And that’s how they saw it. It went to Number One on the disco charts within about three weeks. Which is because most of the discos started as gay underground discos. That was the beginning of the scene that eventually they ended up making Saturday Night Fever about.

But it wasn’t all that at all: the real rootsy scene in New York was started in gay private clubs with great music and the best, most fanatical DJs. Though what’s happened to it now is very typical of the way of life in New York that’s capitalism: it just destroys things.”

She concedes that much of the current New York obligation to feel sexually confused is mere role-playing. This is just the time when it’s hip to be gay – even though the current gay look is really very macho, very muscley. I must say, though, that gay people tend to be a lot more sensitive and have a lot more style. I always used to think that outside of Britain the style that went with the music business was really horrible – especially in America.

The people from this country, though, really do combine music with style, and without being frivolous about it either.”

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