The Independant Interview - Fri 26th Apr

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The Independant Interview
26 April 2002

Behind The Suave Facade
Glyn Brown
The Independent Friday 26th April 2002

Sophisticated, lupine and supremely confident - isn't that how you describe Bryan Ferry? Think again, says Glyn Brown. Underneath the singer's suave demeanour hides a habitual nail-biter and occasional stutterer

Bryan Ferry's studio in west London. The lair of a god, obviously. Someone who can put together the likes of "Virginia Plain", "Pyjamarama", "Mother of Pearl", "Do The Strand" – oh, and too many others to mention – is a genius in anyone's book. Roxy Music (the early years) were pop as art, ironic but heartfelt, clever beyond belief. Last year's one-off reunion tour was unexpectedly fine, a delirium of wit, humour, erotica and romance. Centre-stage, Mr Ferry was the heavy-lidded dark prince, vulpine despite the suit and loosened tie, at 55, mixing memory and desire like some cultivated Heathcliff.
His studio has a secret bit upstairs, to which I'm not admitted; downstairs, rugs all over the place and huge photos of Monroe and, in the loo, surprisingly, a gold-framed picture of Jerry Hall, who snapped Ferry's heart in two. It's an out-take from the Siren cover shoot, showing her on a rock, an eerie mermaid, hair vertical in the wind, 6in-long blue talons. Dangerous.

And then here is Bryan, tall and immaculate in dark suit. Grips my hand, sits down, looks awkwardly away. Bites his nails with ferocity. I'd heard he was shy but still expected suave, sardonic sophistication. Instead, there's genuine diffidence. When he speaks, it's with an occasional echo of his Geordie accent and a slight stutter – Prince Charles crossed with Alan Bennett. He famously hates interviews.

His opening gambit is to ask if my name is Welsh. I tell him that I'm the only female Glyn in the family; the women tend to be named Rebecca.

"I love the name Rebecca. And it's one of my favourite films. In fact, a song on the new album has a touch of Rebecca. The mists, the house in the distance..."

Ferry, I suggest would make a very good Maxim de Winter.

"Do you know, that's what my mother said. Isn't that funny?" He's grinning, pleased with this.

But is that good or bad?

"I don't know. Oh..." The smile fades a bit. "Perhaps it's bad. I think she just liked Laurence Olivier, especially in Rebecca where he's very d-d-dashing and precise. Clipped voice and all that..." Laughs awkwardly. "But that's Hitchcock, isn't it? Quality films. Movies these days are so... shallow. Hitchcock's Vertigo, with Kim Novak and James Stewart. Fantastic voice he had, always captivated me. People find him stiff, but I've always liked that gawky style. What's the one where he's like, er... a rabbit? Harry or something."

It's Harvey. But look, we should move on. "Indeed. Do you want to..." – very self-effacing – " about the album at all, anything like that?"

I sure do. But first – your dad was a miner, and you once called yourself "an orchid born on a coal-tip..."

"Hur hur hur."

When did you first know you were different? Out of place?

"Oh, before I went to grammar school. Back in Miss Swaddle's class."

Fantastic name.

"Oh, yes." He gazes fondly away. "She was incredible. Very tall." At this point, astonishingly, he stands and begins to sashay up and down, doing Miss Swaddle; nose in the air, very Nancy Cunard.

"She always wore spotless white plimsolls and long skirts to there [mid-calf]. Very glamorous, looked like one of those Fifties models. Eyes in the back of her head. She'd be writing on the board, then get the duster and whack you with it, a dead shot."

She threw it?

"Oh yeah, totally!" Laughs. "This is in the days when they used to clip children." Sits down, scratches his chin. "I'm personally all for it. Anyway, Miss Swaddle. Got us writing essays. I was a bit sad, used to write these really sad stories, and there was one in particular. She knelt by my desk and said, 'Where did that come from? You have such an imagination'. And I really just looked at her then [widens eyes boyishly] like my heroine."

He goes for his nails again. "I didn't feel I f-f-fitted in at all, otherwise. And it was pretty much the same at grammar school. But when I got to university, there were a lot of people like me. And that felt so great."

The new album, Frantic, has Ferry reunited with other like-minded souls. Brian Eno is back at last, and Dave Stewart lends his help. Eno is plainly a force of nature, but sounds like fun.

"Oh, he can be very funny. We'd gone for years without seeing each other, but it was as if five minutes had passed. Dave's very entertaining, too."

The album – on the whole, rather good – mixes new songs and covers, and the covers are deeply touching. Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" sounds lonesome and forlorn. "Leadbelly was the first person I heard on the radio who made me want to make music. I was about 10, a bit melancholy, just waiting to be saved. And it was like, 'Wow, what's he... Why is that man singing like that?'" He chuckles. "And so I got the blues, then jazz, then R&B."

Ferry's other favourite cover is Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right". There's a deceptive off-handedness to the lyric, when of course the song is all about pain; a device at which Ferry himself excels. "And I hope I've done it justice. I've never met Dylan. Though sometimes it's best not to meet people you admire, I guess. See all their human fallibilities."

Speaking of fallibilities, the new single, "Goddess of Love", concerns Monroe. In this room, we're surrounded by her image; she's smiling, but that's to hide her disappointment, I always think. "I know. Poor thing." Still, you get the idea that this is not the side of Monroe that Ferry is used to considering. Bit of a shame it didn't work out with... "Arthur Miller. I agree." Might've been the saving of both of them.

Ferry sits forward. "Why did it not? I mean, I mean I wonder why it didn't?"

He's turned in his chair, all his attention on one huge Monroe photograph. "Maybe he was very controlling, was he, or something? Hm?"

Which, perhaps ironically, is one of the criticisms Jerry Hall levelled at Ferry when she ran off with Mick Jagger. Ah well. She's presumably kicking herself now, and Ferry is of course settled with Lucy Helmore, and has four dashing (by all accounts) sons. And, as Ferry is at pains to point out, his interest in Monroe is mainly to do with her status as pop-art icon.

The album also features a medieval song by Richard the Lionheart, which turns into a modern lament. "Sort of makes him sound like the first pop star, doesn't it? Y'know, 'Hi, I'm Richard, just back from the Holy Wars, and I've got this great song for ya now...'" And within seconds he's talking about school again, history lessons in Mrs Hope's class. You have to ask what his parents thought when he became such a swot.

"Oh, that I was a cuckoo in the nest, I suppose. Though my dad was different, too, in his way." Ferry senior, as people may know, had been a farmer; with the Depression of the 1930s, he found himself tending pit ponies. "He had this story about this man who was mistreating the horses." Ferry's voice is barely audible. "And he had to punch him. He got hauled up by the boss of the pit, and thought he was going to get the sack.

"But the boss s-s-said, 'Well done, Fred. Somebody had to do that; we all wanted to'. Because he was a very good boxer, my dad..." Seeming more proud of this story than anything else, yet trailing off, thinking you won't be interested.

In 1985, Ferry said something about hoping that there would be a time when he felt at ease with the world. Is that time a bit nearer? "I think so. I seem to have got in touch with something in myself that I like. I was always a reluctant performer, but the tour last year... people giving such incredible waves of, well, approval." He seems surprised, but then, he's always had detractors, mainly for living a country-squire lifestyle (nothing wrong with that, if you grew up with a tin bath in the kitchen). "Now I think that all the time I spent hidden in studios was a bad thing. Suffered unnecessarily, y'know? Too introspective."

He shakes his head and shrugs, then beams. "Because I like this performance thing. And people seem actually – well, really glad you're alive."

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