- 22 Aug 19
25 years ago today, Portishead released their classic debut, Dummy. The album went on to win the Mercury Prize, and played a major role in popularising trip-hop. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting our classic interview with Portishead's vocalist, Beth Gibbons.
"It's only her second or third interview, she's shy and she doesn't say much." This, as you might appreciate, is not what you want to be told by a record company publicist five minutes before quizzing one of their star signings. Column inches do not fill themselves and mono syllabic answers to ingeniously incisive questions are the stuff journalistic breakdowns and ulcers are made of.
Still, this is the man who once considered a career with the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, such is my skill at extracting confessions from people who are normally about as forthcoming as a Trappist monk who's been asked his opinion on bobsleighing.
So, eyes down, cattle prod ready, here's Beth Gibbons' starter for ten.
Are you really Bristol's entry in the 1995 Bashful Person of the Year contest or are you just trying to get out of doing some work?
"Oh dear, I've been rumbled," laughs the Portishead chanteuse a touch self-consciously. "I do get nervous and paranoid and that other stuff but, really, it was the fact that when the album came out I wasn't sure if it was any good or not. You could have said it was crap and I'd probably have agreed with you whereas now I know it's not bollocks."
'Bollocks' is a word that peppers Gibbons' sentences with Roger Mellie-like regularity, although the educated tones that accompany it suggest a plumby fifth-former discovering her first swear word rather than a confirmed Brendan O'Carroll. By her own admission, the 30-year-old's upbringing was stupifyingly normal with drugs and rock 'n' roll poor runners-up to her occasional dalliance in adolescent lust.
"I feel almost guilty sometimes when I think of people like Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, who are heroes of mine, because I wasn't a victim of child abuse, I didn't have a dysfunctional family and apart from one thing which, I'm sorry, I'm not going to tell you about, the worst teenage trauma I suffered was trying to get my homework done on time!
"No, the pressures on me were more subtle. Coming, as I did, from a fairly isolated rural community, the expectation was that I'd meet someone locally, get married and have kids. It was all very rustic and cosy but there weren't that many people at home I got on with and that caused me to feel rather detached. You know, whatever destiny had in store for me, it wasn't becoming a farmer's wife!
At this point the words 'Polly', 'Jean' and 'Harvey' appear on the horizon, circle once and then dive-bomb their way into the next question. Seeing as both of them grew up with the smell of fertiliser in their nostrils and have subsequently spent their adult lives trying to get a grip on the world beyond, does Gibbons regard her Yeovil neighbour as something of a kindred spirit?
"Perhaps if we met and talked I'd discover that we have some shared experiences but, no, Polly Harvey isn't a person I look at or listen to and say, 'yeah, that's me'. You've probably got a better idea of who she is and what she's about than I do because I'm not one to 'hang out' with other musicians and, apart from the odd scan through the news pages, I don't read the music press. I'm sure there's loads of great stuff around if you can be bothered to find it but I'm quite happy listening to my Nina Simone records."
Drat, I have to admit the idea of Beth and PJ loading up on Babycham and going for a good bop down at Stringfellow's had a certain perverse appeal.
"I'm not a pop star, darling," she laughs again, this time with the confidence of someone who's beginning to tumble that this talking-to-journalists lark is actually a bit of a doddle.
"I've never been much of a party person which is probably explained by the fact that I didn't escape from the country until I was 22. Most the friends I did have locally had gone off to university but, not being much of an academic, I'd remained behind. It was funny because even though I was frustrated and wanted to get out, leaving home was quite scary. It wasn't necessarily the reality I wanted but it was one I felt reasonably capable of dealing with.
"Anyway, the bright lights of Bath beckoned and I answered the call, going on the dole and generally living the life of a hippy-chick up from the sticks. It was quite an eye-opener. For instance, until going out with a certain bloke, I had no idea that big lips, long legs and small ankles are supposedly what every man dreams of. The revelation would probably have caused my world to cave in if I'd been younger but, as it was, I foundit rather funny. I feel sorry now, though, for kids who are peddled the line by the media that you can't be happy without looking like Tom Cruise or Cindy Crawford. I mean, 10-year-olds dieting. That's bollocks."
Indeed, a recent British Department of Education study reveals that by the time they reach school-leaving age, one in three girls will have suffered from some kind of eating disorder. While it's perhaps unfair to blame all of these ills on the teenage glossies, it's hard to disagree with Beth when she says that "making money is the only conscience they have."
The reason we've been delving so painstakingly into Ms. Gibbons' past is, one, I'm a nosy bastard and, two, a significant part of Portishead's appeal lies in the poignancy of the lyrics that accompany their spliffed-up soundscapes. Amateur psychology has never been my strong point but you don't have to be a direct descendent of Sigmund Freud to realise that Beth invests an inordinate amount of herself into her songwriting.
For proof of this, look no further than 'Glory Box', the piece de dubwise resistance from their BRIT-nominated Dummy album which is so melancholic you're advised to listen to Leonard Cohen afterwards for a little light relief. "I'm going to give my heart away, leave it for the other girls to play...for I've been a temptress too long," she mourns, "Give me a reason to be a woman, I just wanna be a woman."
"I don't actually think the songs are that desperate," she insists. "I do have an emptiness but, then again, everyone has to a lesser or greater degree. I tend to dwell on mine more than other people do which I'm sure manifests itself in my lyrics. Suffering for your art is most definitely overrated but I do get a certain, I don't know, satisfaction from being able to deal with my paranoia and insecurity. I wake up sometimes and think, 'no way am I going to be able to get through the day', but you do and at the end of it you feel a tiny bit stronger."
You only have to look in the doom-laden direction of Nick Cave and Morrissey to see the benefits -artistic and fiscal -of being a miserable old sod but aren't there moments when Gibbons wants to skip gaily through meadows and recount the experience in a cheery pop song?
"When I'm that 'up', I'm too busy enjoying myself to write about it," she explains. "I'm naturally pessimistic but what motivates me isn't so much depression as a sense of helplessness. I keep thinking there must be more to life but I don't know what it is. In that respect, I find life both scary and slightly unfulfilling."
She's not an Arsenal supporter, is she? While six months ago Portishead were so far underground the only person championing them was Arthur Scargill, a quick flick through the 'quality' press finds them being feted nowadays by such Bruce and Tarbies as Sting, Elton John and Linda Evangelista. Next stop Des O'Connor Tonight?
"The back-slapping isn't as bad as I imagine the back-stabbing might be. We haven't done much of it yet but when I'm in a showbizzy environment I tend to get paranoid because you don't really know what they're thinking. It's that sort of quizmaster mentality, isn't it? When the camera's on the contestants are your best mates but as soon as the show's over you forget they exist. The idea that people are being nice because that's their job makes me feel crap."
Finding that life as an unemployed hippie in Bath isn't all that it's cracked up to be, Beth moved to Bristol where legend has is it she met Portishead mainman Geoff Barrow on a Youth Enterprise training scheme. A soundtrack junkie who firmly believes that John Barry is God, the 23-year-old infiltrated the local music scene by getting a job as teaboy at Coach House Studios and convincing Neneh Cherry's old man Cameron McVey that he was worth taking under his managerial wing. Armed with the glimmer of a record deal, he recruited asuitably eclectic posse of collaborators which includes Portishead's unofficial third member, engineer supreme Dave McDonald.
"Geoff's a bit of a... contradiction," continues Beth picking her words carefully. "On one hand, he's a rather staid meat-and-two-veg-and-I-don't-like-garlic Englishman and on the other he's the sort of bloke who'll almost go out of his way to break the rules. He was alright personality-wise but what really made me click with him is that I thought he was incredibly talented. We don't socialise much because our taste in friends is different but we do get on in a brotherly/sisterly way and although he keeps saying, 'I don't understand you Beth', he's got a better idea of what makes me tick than he thinks."
It's an obvious comparison but when you hear the scratchy samples and valium-laced hip-hop beats, it's impossible not to think of Portishead's Bristol neighbours Tricky and Massive Attack. Suggestions that they're cynically exploiting the Wild Bunch's success receive short shrift from Beth Gibbons, the singer insisting that if there are any stylistic similarities they're the result of a shared environment.
"Geoff ought to be answering this because he's the one who grew up in Bristol but, yeah, it's such a small place that unless you consciously try to keep yourself isolated, you're going to come into contact with all these different cultures. I've only been here a relatively short length of time but I'm aware of the areas and what they stand for. I wish I could be all cosmopolitan and say I go to a reggae club in St. Paul's on Wednesdays and an Asian disco somewhere else on Thursdays but that's more Geoff and Dave, who's black anyway.
"To tell you the truth," she confides, "I've never thought of us as being in the same court as Massive Attack. I know on their second album they've got Tracey Thorn but on Blue Lines Shara Nelson did most of the vocals and her voice is far more soulful, in the traditional sense of the word, than mine will ever be. The lads know them but the only person I've met out of Massive is Tricky and that's because we share the same manager. The notion of a Bristol 'scene' makes wonderful copy for you guys but I'm afraid we don't go down the pub together in a big gang or drop round each other's houses for cups of tea."
In keeping with Geoff Barrow's penchant for cheesy soundtracks - Ennio Morricone and Avengers man Laurie Johnson also occupy a hallowed place in his record collection - Portishead's first release was a black & white short film, To Kill A Dead Man, which packs more heavies, gangsters, hitmen and flash cars into its 10 minutes than an entire series of the Sweeney. This late '60s/early '70s retro kick also surfaces on Dummy, the most blatant example being 'Sour Times', which makes no attempt to hide its influences and borrows liberally from the Mission Impossible theme.
"You know, it's mainly the people who weren't around during the '60s that hanker after them. I can't say I share the obsession myself but it was the decade when Britain got its own pop culture and I imagine there was a feeling among musicians and filmmakers that they were breaking new ground because everything before them had been so staid and establishment. Personally, I think a lot of the records and TV programmes that are held up now as high art are complete bollocks, but I wouldn't say that to Geoff because he'd be most offended."
As the main visual focus in an increasingly successful group, has anyone ever suggested to Beth that she hoist up her hemline, sweep back her hair and generally play up the sex-kitten angle?
"Geoff would never dream of telling me to be like that - partly because he thinks it's tacky and also because he knows I wouldn't stand for it. At the very beginning, the management took me out to buy some new clothes and that did do my head in. What upset me was this idea that, all of a sudden, I wasn't interesting or attractive enough the way I was. The place I got taken to was this trendy, expensive shop in London called Joseph's and I'm not joking, I kept expecting to see Joanna Lumley there - it was straight out of Absolutely Fabulous!
"I don't normally spend a great deal of money on clothes because it feels as if I'm being extravagant. There's nothing wrong with looking nice but when every penny you own goes on buying clothes to impress other people, that's not healthy. We're back to the way the media create these stereotypes for us to slavishly adhere to. If Portishead stand for anything, it's being anti that sort of bollocks."
I told you she's fond of the word. While Gibbons and Co are proud of their art, they're not precious about it and didn't bat a collective eyelid when Nightmare On Elm Street director Rachel Talalay asked whether they'd be sports and let her use 'Roads' on the Tank Girl soundtrack.
"I don't know much about it, to be honest. Is it a Chinese cartoon character or something?"
Not exactly. Created seven years ago in deepest, darkest Worthing by comic-artist Jamie Hewlett, the big screen Tank Girl is a gloriously violent Clockwork Orange/Mad Max hybrid with newcomer Lori Petty starring as the hard-hitting, beer-swilling anti-heroine and Ice-T cameoing as a generously-libidoed half man, half kangaroo creature called Ripper.
'Oh' in this case translates as "bloody hell, what have we let ourselves in for here?", I presume.
"I don't know if I'd rush to the box-office to see it myself," she clarifies, "but it sounds like a bit of fun. There's another track we're doing for a film -which I shouldn't be telling you about -and that's interesting because it's the first time I've ever written lyrics to order. They flew me out to L.A. which I know sounds glamorous but after an eight hour fucking flight, it rather lost its appeal.
"I enjoyed the work side of it. It was really nice seeing the clips and hearing what the woman in charge wanted but as for Los Angeles, I'm not sure what I made of it -apart from 'big!'"
While Beth admits that she leaves most of the business decisions to her goateed partner, the creative workload gets split down the middle with Barlow supplying the backing-track and Gibbons then agonising -her choice of word, not mine -over the melody and lyrics.
"I've got my own little set-up at home, so I jam my part out and then take it back to Geoff who sometimes helps with the arrangements and drops in whatever samples he's got up his sleeve. That's how, for instance, we added the 'I'll Never Fall In Love Again' bit to 'Biscuit'. The sample makes the song but it was actually an afterthought."
What about when the lyrics cut really close to the bone? Does Beth worry that she's maybe revealing too much of herself on record or is what we're being made privy to a form of self-exorcism?
"No, I'm not trying to save on psychiatrist's bills. It's more me asking, 'does anyone else feel this way?' And if it does reach the point where it gets uncomfortably personal, I tend to disguise what I'm saying in the phrasing."
Of course, baring one's soul in public isn't without its occupational hazards. I remember Andy Cairns telling me about the letters written in blood that Therapy? receive and Courtney Love has taken out a barring order against a man who's listened one too many times to Nevermind and convinced himself that he's Kurt Cobain reincarnated.
"I haven't had any yet but the idea of receiving that sort of mail does scare me," she admits, "not because I'm frightened they're going to come round and chop me up but because I wouldn't know the right thing to say to them. If a person who was finding it difficult to hold onto reality or was seriously depressed did write, I'd try and pass their letter on to somebody properly qualified who could help."
She hasn't come right out and said it yet but judging by her oft-proclaimed enthusiasm for Geoff Barlow's youthful rebelliousness, it's obvious that Beth gets a major kick from working with someone seven years her junior and possibly far less world weary.
"When you're younger you have this romantic ideal that you're going to grow-up and everything's going to be alright. You know, you'll find this wonderful boyfriend or girlfriend, get married, have kids and live happily ever after. Nothing -absolutely nothing -has turned out the way I imagined it would. Have you ever been out with someone who's younger than you?"
Oh dear, it's usually me who asks the questions. Yes.
"Now or in the past?"
"And how much older are you?"
11 years but I'm remarkably well preserved.
"Right, you'll know then that however unintentional it might be, there are times when you feed off their youth to curb your own cynicism. You've no right to do that, of course, but when I meet people like Geoff, and other men his age, their perspective seems nicer. They're of a slightly different generation, so they've had different influences and seem more aware of them. You've got to watch it because, remember, they haven't lived the extra ten years that you have. You can't do their growing up for them."
Don't worry, I'm determined she'll suffer as much as I did. For a woman who's meant to be about as verbally communicative as Marcel Marceau, Beth Gibbons sure talks a good interview.
"I hope no one thought I was trying to be dark and mysterious," she reflects, "because that's bollocks. Literally, we'd just finished the album, I was totally unsure of it and I didn't know what on earth to say. Whenever I get nervous like that I start giggling incessantly, so rather than making a fool of myself, I decided to keep my mouth shut. I still think, 'who's that they're talking about', when they refer to Dummy as a classic or a landmark, but I know now that it does have its merits."
Portishead make their Irish debut in May and if you're not there you'll have me and my cattle prod to answer to!