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 counselor, 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 that is used in the world of counseling, the idea of the ‘reflective practitioner’. It’s an approach that 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 musical inspiration 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 have 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 organizing 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 Morrison, 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 essential 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 traveled 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 favorite 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 that 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 a 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 that 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.


All the photos: courtesy of Jennifer Maidman.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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