September 15, 2013
You have composed the music for a new musical, The Light Princess, at the National Theatre. It was supposed to have been delivered in 2011. Has it been a troubled process?
It’s been great, are you kidding? The princess floats around the stage: that took time to work out. Nick Hytner [director of the National Theatre] said to me: “The hardest form to achieve on stage is a good musical. There are more failed musicals than any type of art.” Nick told us to write something powerful, that we weren’t required to dumb down or make something for everyone from 5 to 95.
Where did the plot come from? (It involves a prince and princess of opposing lands, brought down by grief, who fall in love.)
I think everyone understands grief, the journey it takes us on, whether it’s the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a disappointment. Some people don’t deal with it, the power of it. Some do. Some feel the weight of it and it informs their choices. I’ve had to open up to grief in different contexts.
You grew up in Maryland where your dad was a pastor: it sounds very religious.
There was a certain way to behave in the 1960s in a minister’s family. I had a very strict upbringing with my dad and was very close to my mum, who was extremely loving. I’m blessed to still have both my parents in my life.
Your 13 albums have sold 12m copies and you’re an the eight-time Grammy-nominated musician. Was music always your passion?
I attended the Peabody Conservatory for classical music when I was five, but later fell out with its conservative philosophy. My dad said if I wanted a career in contemporary music I needed training. One day, when I was 13, he told me to dress to look older, so I put on trousers and heels and we went out and knocked on the doors of bars in Georgetown, Washington. Mr Henry’s, a gay bar, gave me my first opportunity. My dad got flak from some parishioners, but he told them: “I can’t think of a safer place for a 13-year-old girl than a gay bar.”
You’ve sung about being raped, marriage and motherhood. Why so confessional?
Because it was what I felt at the time. It was truthful and raw. For me, anything and everything is easier to talk about in music than in conversation. I’ve never been clinically depressed, but I’ve gone through tough times. I had years of therapy, thank goodness. It was absolutely vital. I needed it and benefited from it. I realised I didn’t need it any more in 2005 and I stopped.
Why were you pictured breastfeeding a piglet on your album, Boys For Pele?
The message was that it should be acceptable to give all things love. So much of my upbringing had the hypocrisy and judgment of the Christian church. “Love your neighbour”, compassion – everything Jesus talked about didn’t feel present. That cover was not sexual, but a statement of what Christianity should be: that whatever is often judged should be embraced.
You married English sound engineer Mark Hawley in 1998 and have a 13-year-old daughter, Natashya (Tash). Has parenthood changed you?
It is the most challenging experience that I have ever had. I don’t feel I’m as good a mum as my mum was. She stayed at home, I work full-time, but Tash says: “If you were around all the time that would be annoying.” I want Tash to feel the unconditional love I had from my mother from me. I wanted more children but I miscarried a few times before Tash, so after we had her we thought, “That’s it.”
What does she want to do?
She’s at Sylvia Young theatre school. I don’t know what she’ll do. She could become prime minister or president because of her passport status. Our dynamic is not traditional. Since she was a year old, she was on the road with me. She has a lot of friends who are adults, she hung out with the crew, which was an education in itself. She started boarding at 11. She said: “I’ve been around the world and I’m trying to figure out what to do to be independent.”
You have homes in Ireland, Florida and Cornwall…
The house in Cornwall is Mark’s. It’s very much his spiritual home, where he has many memories of his dad, who died many years ago. I have a place in Florida. I’m very much a recluse and Mark is too. I’m married to Greta Garbo. We worked together first in 1994 and still do. He and Tash poke fun at things. They’re outrageous. They keep me laughing.
Is love important?
Romance is important to me and to have a romance with your husband takes a bit of doing. The key is to make sure your partner misses you. That means you have to take yourself away.
How was turning 50?
The cast of the musical sang Happy Birthday. The clock is ticking for everyone. It might not feel so if you are 20 years younger, although I know people in their early 20s who feel their life is slipping away. My own mortality is tangible to me. Where I am at 50 is about the quality of my work, being a good listener for Tash and supportive of the people I work with.
Do men age more easily?
Men in music and the movie businesses turn 50, get a paunch, look as rugged as the Marlboro man and attract younger women. Women get lines on their faces and become rugged too, the Marlboro woman, which is fine but not an aphrodisiac. I won’t talk about Miley Cyrus at the VMAs [MTV video music awards], but I will say women have sexualised themselves and made great art, which they may get flak for, but it’s powerful.
But if you sexualise yourself and you’re not making art, you are just sexualising yourself. Everyone’s embarrassed. It’s not very good, is it? You’re just pooping on yourself.
Will your next album be a return to contemporary music?
Yes and I’ll tour it next year. Trust me, when you write a musical, as well as having a 13-year-old daughter, you have plenty to write about. I’d love to compose for a ballet. Some of my favourite music, especially Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, is written for ballet. I can’t dance myself, but that’s OK.