Singer-songwriter Helen McCookerybook musical ventures first came to light as the bass player and co-singer with The Chefs in the late 1970s and early 80s. She then formed Helen and the Horns. John Peel admired both bands and between them recorded six BBC Radio 1 sessions. Then came the long break filled with the stuff of life. In 2005 Helen started again as a solo artist and up until the pandemic was regularly playing live gigs, and releasing recordings. Thankfully ( at least in the UK and for the time being) we seem to be emerging from that crisis. So a good time to chat with Helen about the past ,present and future .. Enjoy .
D St: How are you/things? Your latest release is a 3 track Ep The Cutty Wren in collaborations with Synth musician Willie Gibson . A new direction? How did it come about?
H Mc: The drummer and producer Ian Button, who has produced and mastered some of my music, put Willie in touch because he was looking for a vocalist for ‘The Cutty Wren’. Once we’d done it, Willie asked if I had any songs for the b-side and I sent him ‘Fatberg’ and ‘Emerald Leaves’. It was really fun to do for a change, and we may well work on more music together, but it’s not music I can play live and I’ll be concentrating mainly on that. I have also got a song writing collaboration with Robert Rotifer, the Austrian singer/songwriter, and we’ll be releasing more collaborations soon too.
D St: There’s a timeline that seems divided by life before Covid 19 and life since then. Hopefully, we are now emerging from a period of lockdowns (within the UK) . How has the past year affected you in terms of the flow of your music, cancelled gigs, going into the studio and so forth?
H Mc: I get all my own gigs normally, so it was disastrous to cancel them all. It’s going to take a lot of time and energy to reschedule them, so I’m delighted to be playing at the Thunderbolt. Booking gigs for later in the year and for next year is going to be the next thing I do. However, it’s been really busy from a writing and recording perspective. I’ve written an album, and I’m recording it at home in the kitchen on an old computer. I’ve been working with Robert and we recorded a six track 10″ EP called ‘Equal Parts’ in between lockdowns last year, and (I hope) we’re going to Vienna to play there. I think you can hear on the recordings how great it felt to be ‘released from captivity’ for a couple of days! Equal Parts, by Helen McCookerybook and Robert Rotifer
“”Losing friends and acquaintances makes you realise how valuable life is, and how important it is to use your creativity wisely- and always!
We are working on a new collaboration too. I’ve also said yes to loads of things- recording a version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’ for the Mexican fanzine Pintalo da Negro’s cassette release, and lots of online gigs and events. I have had the opportunity to learn to engineer my own song recordings (plenty of time to concentrate), which has been a really good thing. So I’ve been really creative, despite all the terrible things going on. Losing friends and acquaintances makes you realise how valuable life is, and how important it is to use your creativity wisely- and always!
D St: There has been a lot of reschedualing but it seems that gigs are starting to happen again. You have one coming up at Bristol’s Thunderbolt late October, along with The Band Of Holy Joy and Stuart Moxham( previously of Young Marble Giants ). A one off for the moment, but do you envisage doing more gigs?
H Mc: I hope so! The best gigs are always with musicians you like and admire. I’ve gigged with Johny a few times now, and I always get really absorbed by their performances and emotionally drawn in. He is a great song writer. I have also worked a bit with Stuart (although nothing has seen the light of day yet) and was a massive fan of Young Marble Giants. I’ve got lots of The Gist’s music too, so I’m looking forward to seeing him live. I love the Thunderbolt as a venue, and I think it’s going to be a brilliant gig.
D St: Musically you came to prominence via The Chefs and Helen And The Horns in the 80s when you were based in Brighton. Another band from the region were Poison Girls. How important were they to you?
H Mc: If they hadn’t helped us, I’d never have picked up a bass and never become involved in music. Vi Subversa set up the rehearsal studios in the Vault in the 1970s where everyone rehearsed; my original punk band featured her son on drums, and I borrowed the bass from Sue, their bass player (good provenance- she’d bought it from Buzzcocks, who were friends of hers). Vi just encouraged everyone, and because she was such a pioneer, being older than most of us, there was no way you could shy away from just getting up there and doing it, because that’s what she did. The word inspiration doesn’t do her justice. She was incredibly kind, and I clearly remember her being the first adult I spoke to in my life up till then who actually listened to what I said and seemed to value my opinions.
Image by Ruth Tidmarsh
“It’s not hard to see that the music world is still totally sexist.”
D St: At that time there was a DIY ethos of people setting up bands and record labels. There was also a dynamic shift with the presence of bands such as The Slits The Raincoats and Delta 5. Thanks to streaming platforms new listeners are discovering such bands for themselves. Why do you think they are still relevant today ?
H Mc: Their value is much more than simply music. It was a time of free spirits. Since the upsurge in pop music courses at Universities, young musicians are guided to focus on careers and people-pleasing. The great thing about punk was its expression of energy, individuality, and general joyousness. We also had the ability to create communities that supported political movements that needed us- like Rock Against Racism. For some bands, it was just about personal rebellion, but for the female bands there was much more of a subversive edge to what they did as expression of girls and women’s feelings in a man’s rock world. That’s still an inspiration: it’s not hard to see that the music world is still totally sexist.
D St: Everyone has blind spots as to what music they listen to, what 5 bands / records /albums would you suggest to people checkout for their playlists?
H Mc: Tracks: Linda Lewis ‘Old Smokey’; X-Ray Spex ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours’; Rejji Snow ‘Cookie Chips’; Lost Generation ‘The Sly, the Slick and the Wicked’; Viola Wills ‘Gonna Get Along Without You Now’
Rejjie Snow : Cookie Chips ft. MF DOOM & Camo O’bi (Official Video)
D St: Streaming is a great way to hear new music past and present but how can people support the work that you and other musicians do in a more direct and tangible way ?
H Mc: Coming to our gigs, buying stuff from us at gigs, and from Bandcamp.
D St: What’s next for you?
H Mc: I’m going to spend the summer finishing my songs and recording them, and also writing with Robert for our next album project. I have to sit down and re-book all those gigs too.
NOTE: Tickets for the Thunderbolt gig are available online via https://www.wegottickets.com/event/512401