Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Interview with Jennifer Maidman

Monika: Today it is my pleasure to interview Jennifer Maidman, a talented British musician, songwriter, actress, music producer, humanistic counsellor, and writer. Hello Jennifer!
Jennifer: Hi Monika. Thanks for getting in touch.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Jennifer: Well you've covered quite a few things with your introduction. I suppose it seems like I’m someone who wears ‘different hats’, but I think of everything as belonging under one creative umbrella. Being human is about creativity, and I think any activity can be approached with an artistic perspective. I’m also fond of a term which is used in the world of counselling, the idea of the ‘reflective practitioner’. It’s an approach which can be applied to almost any field. That seems like a good place to start a conversation!
Monika: Your music career began in the early 1970s as a bass player. When did you decide that music will be your profession?
Jennifer: Well my first musical experience was much earlier. My father was a keen amateur musician with a natural aptitude, and my mother also a very good singer and a natural actress. I picked up my dad's banjo at around the age of four maybe, then started picking out rhythms and simple tunes on the piano, with my Dad’s help. Later I saved up my pocket money and bought my first guitar at about 11. My first bass was a Christmas present at about 13 I think. My Mum found it.
Jennifer with Boy George in 1989.
After that I just gradually began to think "this is something I'd like to do for a living if at all possible". I got involved in school bands from about 14, and in fact one of those evolved into my first pro group, straight after leaving school.
After that I suppose it was a mixture of hard work, stubbornness and luck - the synchronicity of being in the right place at the right time. I skipped university and all that. My teachers warned me I'd have “nothing to fall back on”. Maybe it was the arrogance of youth, but it didn't really occur to me that I’d “fall back'. I had no plan B, it was Monte Carlo or bust! Maybe because of that attitude, any opportunity which came my way I grabbed with both hands. All sorts of people were very generous with their time and talents, I could write a very long list of people without whom I might have fallen flat on my face. Hopefully, they know who they are, and know I'm eternally grateful to every one of them.
Monika: You co-wrote several songs with Boy George including "No Clause 28" and have also written for other artists, including Sam Brown. Where do you get your music inspirations from?
Jennifer: I get inspired by all sorts of things. Sometimes it’s working with an inspiring person. Sometimes it’s a dream. There’s no hard and fast rule, but I do think things get created because there's some sort of need for them to exist.
You can make art because you want to make money, or get famous or whatever, but I think, unless there is also a genuine need of some sort, the results tend to lack substance and longevity. I’m not a prolific writer, but f I do write a song lyric, it's because I feel a need to, often because I'm trying to figure something out, trying to explain to myself how I feel about something maybe. It's a way of "working things through" as therapists sometimes put it. With the music side it can be similar, there’s a need to hear something funky, uplifting, sad, or angry, or whatever.
You mention "No Clause 28". George had that whole lyric and chant thing already in his head, and then we worked on the music with Bobby Z, the original drummer from Prince's band. I did a lot of the music, at least on the original version, there's been lots of remixes. I came up with that sort of heroic synth tune. But the key is, there was a need for that song to exist. Remember this was the eighties. It was a time when the LGBT community was losing a lot of people to HIV. We were organising benefit gigs, trying to promote safe sex, raise awareness.
On stage in France 2013.
Then along came this very mean, repressive law, Section 28, trying to force gay people back into the closet. Trying to shut down the flow of information to young people was actually putting people’s lives at risk. So people were angry and defiant and the song I think reflects that. The song was saying very clearly “no, we're not going to disappear”. The music is defiant, uplifting and proud. It needed to be said. The BBC of course wouldn't play it on the radio, to their eternal shame. “Too political".
Monika: You can boast the co-operation with fantastic artists such as Joan Armatrading, Gerry Rafferty, David Sylvian, The Proclaimers, Paul Brady, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morisson, Sam Brown and Boy George. How about any solo projects?
Jennifer: I do write and sing, and recently I’ve been doing more live gigs. A solo album is something I’ve been promising myself I’d do for years. I did actually record one a few years ago, and I do perform some songs from it live, but for various reasons it never got released at the time, and I’m not sure all of it works now. Some of it I’m still pleased with. 
The problem has always been finding the time. It’s great to be in demand as a player, and I’m very grateful to be busy, but one consequence is that I always seem to end up heavily involved with other people’s projects and solo stuff goes on the back burner. Sometimes I think it’s a problem, but then again I suppose things happen if and when they’re meant to. Watch this space.
Monika: You were a long-standing member of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. How do you recollect those years?
Jennifer: It was a wonderful band to be a part of. Lots of happy memories. I met some great people in the Penguins, most importantly my partner Annie Whitehead who plays trombone.
Annie is a great artist and bandleader, who has worked with lots of great people and made several solo albums. She's also an amazing person with an unusually keen instinct for truth. It was Annie who really encouraged me to embrace my own truth and step out of the shadows in all sorts of ways , personally and creatively.
The band was like a family, the members of which did all sorts of other projects too, but who met up whenever they could to make a special kind of music. The founder, Simon Jeffes, picked people who intuitively understood what the Penguin Cafe was all about. It was essentially to do with giving earthly form to something which had started out as a dream of Simon’s.
I think everyone was a bit surprised at how popular it became. We travelled extensively, did a lot of gigs, and developed a great deal of trust and intimacy within the group, both musically and personally. I still see those people. Once a Penguin always a Penguin. A few of us still do gigs as The Orchestra That Fell to Earth. We called it that because that’s what the PCO became over its lifetime. It was a dream and it became a reality.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now? Where can we see your live performance?
Jennifer: Right now I’m rehearsing for some shows in France with Murray Head in March. We’ll be at the Olympia in Paris on 5th March, plus lots of other gigs throughout the year. Murray is a great singer, well known in France, less so in the UK where people know him more as an actor.
Jennifer on stage with her partner Annie Whitehead.
I’m also working with the reformed 1970s funk/soul band Kokomo, one of my favourite bands from that time. The original bass player, Alan Spenner, sadly died some years ago. Alan was a great musician, and a big influence on a whole generation of UK bass players, so it’s a privilege to be part of the band.
I’m also doing some gigs with Tony O’Malley who’s one of the singers in Kokomo, and a very funky guy too. I’m working with Annie on various things, including a duo where we do a mixture of songs and instrumentals. That’s great fun because there’s a lot of freedom with a duo, and we know each other very well obviously. We’ve been doing some gigs in London alongside Lund, a band whose debut album I produced last year.
Also with Annie, I’m part of Soupsongs, the Robert Wyatt project where I sing lead vocals with Sarah Jane Morris and Christina Donna.
We’ll be in Ravenna in Italy on 7th May, and back in Canterbury in early September. Annie and I are also doing some gigs with Michael Horovitz, the poet. We also just started recording some ideas with Richie Stevens, my groove buddy from Boy George’s band, and a great drummer and producer. I’m excited to see where that goes.
And there’s a live album coming out very soon with Paul Brady, featuring some amazing people. We’ll probably do some TV to promote that. Paul is one of the finest songwriters around I think, I was lucky enough to produce two of his albums in the eighties. There's also a new project just started out with Annie, Steve Monti (ex Ian Dury and the Blockheads) and Phil Saatchi, a great singer songwriter and friend who I've known since the eighties. All in all seems to be a lot going on. Still hoping to get some solo stuff happening though!
Monika: In addition, you are an actress. Could you elaborate more on your roles and films?
Jennifer: Only very occasionally, though I do have my Equity card! I did quite a bit of acting as a teenager with a group called the Renegades. A lot of people came through that company, notably Ken Campbell. It was run by Jimmy Cooper, a man of extraordinary talent, determination and enthusiasm. Nobody who knew him will forget the experience. He acted, directed, built the sets, and anything else that needed doing. He was looking for a child actor and picked me out from a school play.
Come to think of it, he was a big influence , because he was the first person I ever met who was utterly devoted to his art. He lived and breathed the theatre 24/7 and seemed to be not remotely interested in fame or fortune. He made theatre because he felt it needed to be made.
With guitarist Phil Palmer in 2013.
The things you learn from people like Jimmy stay with you forever. I’ve done music for films, All The Little Animals with John Hurt and Christian Bale is probably the best known, and acted in a devised theatre piece with a company called Diverse City, ‘Strange Cargo’. That was based around a group of people with ‘extreme bodily experiences’.
I’d love to do more, but I’m not sure there are that many parts for transgender people. It’s changing perhaps. If there are any casting directors out there looking, please give me a call!
Monika: Did the transition change your artistic perception of the world? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Jennifer: I think every experience in life changes your perspective as an artist. I guess transition isn’t an experience which very many people have had though. But then that’s true of all sorts of things. I’ve never fought in a war for instance. I’m cautious about any sort of exceptionalism.
What does it mean to be a transgender artist? I don’t think I see myself as that. I’m an artist who happens to be transgender. It’s always work in progress for me, but if being trans has an effect, maybe it has something to do with ‘dancing outside the box’, bringing a perspective which is perhaps a little less polarised and binary than the norm. Something about embracing uncertainty and fluidity at a deep level. You don’t have to be trans to do that of course, but maybe it helps a bit. 
Monika: The contemporary music has produced a new wave of transgender female artists, just to name few of them: Mina Caputo of Life of Agony, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Marissa Martinez of Cretin, Amber Taylor of The Sexual Side Effects, Namoli Brennet, Sissy Début, and Jennifer Leitham, and many others. Are we facing the creation of a new music trend in this respect?
Jennifer: I’m honestly not sure. I think there is less stigma now, and more people are coming out. Inevitably some of those people are musicians. But a new music trend? I don’t think so. I’m not sure that there’s really something identifiably ‘trans’ which the very diverse range of music those people are making has in common, not in the same way that for instance, music can have a particular geographical or cultural root. But I might be wrong. Maybe it’s too early to say?
Monika: Do you witness more and more successful transgender artists in the United Kingdom?
Jennifer: I wouldn’t say more and more. A few. C N Lester springs to mind as someone up and coming. But it’s still a bit scary to be openly trans in the UK. Things are moving fast but we’re not there yet.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the British society?
Jennifer: It’s a work in progress. I think that’s all you can say. For a start, you can’t really talk about the situation of transgender women without considering the situation of women and girls as an entire group, and that’s a vast subject, and a situation which has its own complex and problematic history, and which is itself very much evolving all the time. It’s beyond the scope of this conversation to get into all the issues around power, gender and sex, and I don’t want to trivialise. But suffice to say, I think about these things.
With singer songwriter Robert Wyatt.
For me it comes down again to being willing to hold a certain degree of uncertainty about oneself and the world, remaining flexible at an interpersonal level, whilst continuing to stand strong on fundamental human rights. Human beings, trans or not, tend to crave control, but the truth is we don’t really have very much.
We’re all mortal, fallible and vulnerable, and passengers on a mysterious journey we don’t fully understand. The least we can do is try to be nice to each other during the trip. I suppose I’m still just a hippy at heart.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Jennifer: That’s a huge question! It didn’t happen all at once, and I probably wouldn’t describe it in the terms you have. It’s been a long journey. I came out to my parents as a teenager, then spent a few years trying to deny my own nature and find a therapist to fix me.
Then in my twenties I was working with Boy George and I came out with a bang, but still wasn’t sure what it meant. I was seen as a ‘cross dresser’. For quite a while I oscillated between self acceptance and self hatred, which I think is quite common. There wasn’t much around in the way of role models in those days.
I think I knew intuitively who I was at some level, but I hadn’t really found a framework or a language with which to explain it to myself – and the available stereotypes didn’t seem to fit my experience. I did crave authenticity but the idea of formally transitioning at that point didn’t seem to make sense, and I probably wouldn’t have ticked the official boxes anyway. Things started to change in the nineties with the coming of the internet.
Trans people across the planet began to talk to each other for the first time and break new ground in terms of identity. We realised there was a lot more to being trans than the very limiting stereotypes that the dominant culture or the medical profession liked to impose on us. More positive images of gender non conforming people from other cultures began to seep into our consciousness. We began to challenge our own internalised transphobia. It was a quiet revolution, and in many ways the professionals had to play catch up.
At some point, I think around the turn of the millennium, I found a professional sufficiently open minded to help , but the ‘official’ transition was in his words “like falling off a log”, because I’d started the journey years before that. Transition can be emotionally very tough for those around you, who feel they are losing somebody. There’s a grief process that has to have space. That was probably the most difficult part, working through all the emotions, both for me and those close to me. 
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Jennifer: I don’t think I did. Maybe that sounds strange, but I can’t recall anyone in particular.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Jennifer: Probably the fear that comes from being out in the world and encountering people who hate you and seem to wish you harm just for existing. But in my experience they are the exception. Most people are pretty OK. Sometimes they say silly or hurtful things, but we all do that in one way or another don’t we.

Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Jennifer: I must be honest, I don’t know that many. I loved Jennifer Boylan’s autobiographies, honest, funny and moving and I recommend them. I’d like to see more trans characters in films and TV and that does seem to be happening now at last.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Jennifer: Love is the answer. Without love, the desire for spiritual connection and the flourishing of the other, all is lost. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to meet my soul mate. 
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Jennifer: No, it hasn’t occurred to me. Maybe if I had the time. To be honest I don’t think of myself as a ‘lady’ at all, I’m far too rough!
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Jennifer: Be yourself. You don’t have to fit anyone else’s boxes. There are as many ways to be human as there are human beings. Coming out, transition; those things are important stepping stones if you happen to be born this way, but not the final destination. Get out in the world and be the best person you can be. Life is not a rehearsal.
Monika: Jennifer, thank you for the interview!
Jennifer: Thanks for asking.

All the photos: courtesy of Jennifer Maidman.
Done on 18 February 2015
© 2015 - Monika 


  1. Jennifer, a great bass player, a gentle spirit, a sweet voice.

  2. j'ai eu la chance de la voir et de l'entendre jouer cet été à Picarrou:Cintegabelle prés de Toulouse au coté de Murry Head , je suis tombé sous le charme .....j'adore cette Dame , cette Bassiste hors paire !


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