"INSPIRATION AND THE BLANK PAGE"
WITH ROBERT ELMS AND HELEN DAVID
"INSPIRATION AND THE BLANK PAGE"
WITH ROBERT ELMS AND HELEN DAVID
ROBERT ELMS: We're here today to discuss the process of creativity. I think for many people creativity begins, rather terrifyingly, with a blank page. That could be a literal blank page on which you're going to draw or write or paint or dance or photograph or whatever it might be.
It's of course also a metaphorical blank page of the mind. Where does it begin? Where does creativity start? What provokes it, what inspires it, what maintains it, what keeps us going?
Those are the kind of issues that I'd like to look at here today. This is a conversation between the three of us but also between all of us in here. It's not a formal question and answer session, I'll lead the dance.
We are in fantastic company today, Helen David is an artist and a designer of the highest esteem and of course Toyah Willcox, actress and an singer, a musician, would you say?
TOYAH: I think that's the polite way to put it, yeah.
ROBERT: To either of you first of all – is the blank page a fantastic set of possibilities or is it a terrifying kind of nightmare? How do you see that start of the process?
HELEN: It depends what mood your in I think. Sometimes the blank page is something that you think "right, I'm going to make a total mess of this, do something and then I can stand back and come back to it" and something will work or it won't work so I think it's a challenge but you have to feel that you can make a mess, you can make a mistake and you can make errors because if you don't do something daring then your work is only going to be mediocre. So I think that ability to rip things up and mess things up a bit is definitely a part of it, for me. Do you think so?
TOYAH: For me the ever increasing problem is getting to the blank page. I just feel that life is becoming so designed to distract us from being creative human beings. I only signed up to Spy TV last week and I've already had about 40 emails from them and about 40 phone calls.
And I really resent the intrusion into my blank space time. For me the blank space is infinite. It's something that can either be your enemy or you look on as something that's just going to open up and make your day something that's spontaneous and utterly wonderful. It helps that you know what you've got to do. With me there's a whole of ream of things that I need to get done -
ROBERT: Do you need a brief? Whether it is from someone else or yourself – do you need a set of goals for that day?
TOYAH: If I'm commissioned to write a book, yeah, I have to do 3000 words a day which I actually don't find a problem with if I'm really interested in what I'm writing. I'm going to go right back to the two books that were last published. I had an autobiography out, which is called “Living Out Loud”, I was so bored writing that. Writing about yourself - it's heinous!
ROBERT: Speak for yourself! (Robert laughs)
TOYAH: It's just so boring! But then I did a book called “Diary Of A Facelift” and I love taboos and in future I will write about taboos. Because I found plastic surgery and the nature of women and the nature of ageing so utterly compelling that my editor actually asked me to write less. It's been going on for many many civilizations and to discover that and to write about it and plug into that I just go on forever.
But the majority of times when I have to face the blank page I have to write about myself i.e. blog and I can't stand it. There's so little I want to share about myself with people I've never met – believe it or not – from someone who takes part in a lot of celebrity culture. So for me that blank page - I would rather approach in finding a new dynamic in my day and a new emotion. And I think one of the reasons Helen and I are close friends is I'm emotionally moved by colour. Colour gives me words.
So when I go into Helen's studio and I see, say this shirt, which is one of Helen's and it started as a painting, words are flying off that for me. And if I have to write something creative I go straight to colour. Or I go straight to taste or I go straight to smell. And I own virtually everything Helen has done in the last 25 years. I have room full of it. And I go into that room and I can see the green man. I can see this colour blue which is a deeply sacred colour.
And just by looking at that colour takes me to the Popes. And the lives of the Popes. Then you go to the golden colour and that takes me to a deep spiritual place. So I feel that I've had a relationship with colour for a long time. Therefore the blank page is something incredibly rewarding when you're surrounded by the right influences.
ROBERT: But are there days when you look at that blank page and nothing happens?
HELEN: No, no. There isn't really a day like that. But as I said there a days when the blank page doesn't work but what I do - I have a kind of ritual, several rituals actually, one is I always work in the same sketch work and if I'm feeling uninspired I might – like Toyah I love colour – I just get a tube of colour and just paint a page of colour and that's a starting point because the colour itself, as you say, is evocative and it has sort of emotional value and that can maybe grab a thought that's somewhere floating out of your subconscious.
Because I think when you really get the best ideas is when you're really not doing anything at all – staring out of a window, sitting on a bus, you're half asleep just waking up in the morning -
ROBERT: Do you jot them down? Are you constantly notebooking?
TOYAH AND HELEN: Yeah -
TOYAH: Notebooks by the bed, notebooks in the bathroom, notebooks in every handbag, notebooks in the car. It's dangerous in the car -
ROBERT: I think if it's any good it will come back to you -
TOYAH: No -
ROBERT: See, I intentionally don't make notes – it's a sort of thing, if it's a good one it will return. It will push its way through.
TOYAH: I disagree totally because when that inspiration hits you, does your energy level go up? When you actually get the muse?
HELEN: Yeah -
TOYAH: My heart speeds up and everything and I think "ooh, I'll feel like this forever" -
HELEN: You don't -
TOYAH: You don't. And a song is about to come … I've had songs take three months to write and two minutes to write. I instantly act on that – for me it's a like a morphic resonance.
ROBERT: What's that?
TOYAH: OK. Morphic resonance – the idea of it is here we all are, we share this planet together, no matter what country we're from, what language we speak, what colour our skin is – we share the morphic psyche. And that is basically there's ideas around the planet that are forming from our consciousness that we all plug into. I will give you an example. I knew if I had idea for a lyric in 1981 that Kate Bush would have, Kim Wilde would have and Hazel O'Connor would have it at the same.
And I was never proven wrong. We used to be like racing car drivers, you know kind of trying to write the idea down and quickly as possible because we knew (laughs) that we would release virtually the same subject matter whenever we came to release our singles. We would've had a morphic resonant moment.
ROBERT: That's interesting because I see in a much more workman like fashion. I'm going to sit down and I'm going to work my way in kind of rational sense through things and I'm going come to conclusions and then I'm going to end up with something.
Kind of the whole idea of things buzzing around in the ether it's almost – I don't want to know about that. That's really not my world view or my way – colours don't provoke symbols and words provide words and thoughts and ideas and I work my way through -
TOYAH: OK. I'm dyslexic (Robert laughs) so I rely on many many tools. But I do know from experience – my husband Robert Fripp (below with Toyah and Helen), is exactly like you -
ROBERT: Oh really? Do you think it's male/female thing -
TOYAH: I think both you and Helen have a technique …
HELEN: I think it's the way your brain is wired. For me a colour will evoke a scent. Particularly, I get absolutely clear ideas and sometimes a sound so that's synaesthesia, which is when your senses overlap sometimes, and I definitely have that and sounds like you do as well from what you're saying. It's something that children have and then you kind of grow out of it or maybe you don't.
But when I think about the creative process that when you're doing what ever your new idea is and you're in love with that idea and what you were talking about - you get this kind of buzz or adrenaline or whatever it is. That's because you kind of fall in love with that idea and you really have to do that thing ... and all the other things you have to do … Don't like to do emails … Got to do some work …
ROBERT: Is it even remotely a mystical process?
TOYAH: No, the only thing mystical is I actually believe is that we are all utterly connected which I find … You know the whole thought of war is so ironic. I think we're connected eternally. That's about as far as it goes getting mystical. Er ...What was your question just then?
ROBERT: The first one was whether creativity is at all a magical process or mystical process or is it a rational one – one that you can work it out?
TOYAH: I think it's probably not right to say it's mystical process because you then go into elitism which I hate.
TOYAH: Because I feel I'm as capable of coming up with a creative project as a great great brain. I probably would never be able to write Alice Sebolt's “Loving Bones” (sic) because that is an extraordinary piece of writing but I think everyone has the right to be creative -
ROBERT: And the potential -
TOYAH: Potential. And what I say to people in this increasingly disabling world of creativity – I say to people put pen to paper and write a thank you letter to someone who's changed your life. The answer I increasingly get back is "I hate writing letters".
That is a creative act of communication so I think we have to be very very aware, the way Helen is, that when you have the blank page you are forming it into something whether it's a picture, whether it's a story, whether it's a letter with an beginning, a middle and an end -
ROBERT: What's the relationship – and I'll ask you first, Helen, between commerce and creativity in that sense? If you've got to, say, design a collection -
HELEN: Yeah, it's a good question -
ROBERT: And you know there is money at the other end of this if I deliver this ...Does that impede the creative process or does it spur it on?
HELEN: I think it does both actually, to be honest. When I was doing a lot of fashion collections and you have a really tight deadline and there's nothing quite as inspiring as tight deadline -
ROBERT: It certainly helps!
HELEN: I've got to do sixty outfits, done, ready, they've got to appear then and there on the runway, have your show happen or it doesn't happen. There's no time to mess around with it so that kind of discipline I suppose is good and when I'm working in fine art I try to give myself deadlines similar to that because that doesn't come from in the same way. It's not as immediate as fashion. So yeah, I think it's really -
ROBERT: What about you, Toyah? Is there kind of an imperative or have you got a record company breathing down your throat -
TOYAH: Yeah. When I started writing albums and singles in 1977 everything was deadlines. And to put that into perspective in '77 you would do three British tours and you would release four singles a year and two albums a year. That would be to reach about 85 000 people. I can reach four times that many people by just one posting on twitter and one video on Youtube.
So the whole world is completely changed. Commerce - it both helps but it's an incredible distraction. I never ever was thankful to the A&R man. Never. Because for me when you've got a creative thread and you're writing a single, let's say, “I Want To Be Free” which was written to a deadline.
I was in the middle of shooting “Blue Marigold” (below, Toyah on the set) for “Tales Of The Unexpected” - all the backing tracks arrived because I was on a film shoot for two months and I had to write the lyrics to a whole album in 14 days.
ROBERT: But you did it. They're very good.
TOYAH: I did it and they're good lyrics -
ROBERT: See, that's what I'm trying to say -
TOYAH: Do know how I did it? Diet pills.
ROBERT: Sure, But you did.
TOYAH: I did it.
ROBERT: Would you have done it without that imperative?
TOYAH: All I can remember looking back is this incredible pressure, I was writing the lyrics in the morning and going to the studio by 2 o'clock to record what I'd written that morning. And then execs were coming in and listening. So I took diet pills – they were legal – they wanted me very slim on Top Of The Pops – but boy, these these diet pills really helped. (Robert laughs)
When a very famous female cook said that she took substances to write a cookery book I went "don't we all?!" I mean it's just one of those cliches. But for “Anthem” which was a multi-platinum album I had 14 days to deliver it.
I would get up at crack of dawn every morning and I would just sit down starving hungry, which made my heart race anyway because the lack of food put you in survival mode … You're going to think I'm completely mad! I don't work like this anymore! But I literally had to starve my way through the 80's because the pressure was on to be thin and the pressure was on to write write write.
I would suddenly feel this surge of energy come through me and I would just write and write and write – pages and pages and pages. And then slowly I would lift a line like “So what if I I die my hair, still got a brain up there” and think, "oh God that's really imbecilic, that's really young".
But then I'd manage to match against something “Turn the world upside down” - which is a teenage ideal and slowly I would chop together and put together all these images. And I also had to be thinking about the video at the same time. Eventually you get a meter - because when you're writing lyrics - really as long as you've got enough words in front of you, you can get the meter going, you can say anything and make sense of it. That's quite a simplistic way to put it down but I wanted, let's say a middle eight that was close to this new thing coming from America called rapping and I thought I want to be one of the first white women to do this.
So (raps) “Tear out the wallpaper, turf out the cat, tear up the carpet and get rid of that, blow up the TV, blow up the car, without these things you don't know where you are. Burn down the scum, all magazines, pull down the abattoirs and all that's obscene, everything in life should be totally free, live and let live, all live your dreams” - I had such fun writing that middle 8! (Robert laughs) And it came very very quickly. I knew that my audience was relatively young. Commerce and creativity, meeting schedules, terrifying!
ROBERT: Do you always know when you've done good work? Sometimes - I mean I've written two or three books and I've also written a couple of books that I knew should never be published (Toyah and Helen both laugh) but I've done it and I finish and I thought "no, that really" -
HELEN: Did you know at the time?
ROBERT: Yes! But I think secretly you do whether you admit it to yourself or not -
HELEN: That's interesting -
ROBERT: Can you tell when you're doing good or bad?
HELEN: I also think it's brilliant at the time (everyone laughs) because I'm always in love with it. You're in love with that piece of work – you have to be. Just to kind of focus on it and make it happen and conjure it up and do the things required to make it and then a bit of objectivity maybe three months, a year later and then … "what?" That's kind of in the drawer “we're not going to look at
that again” ….
ROBERT: Do you have stuff in the “not very good” drawer?
TOYAH: It's a very good question because I have this thing about I love taboos and because I didn't get on with my mum particularly well until the last two years of her life, I think I wrote “Diary Of A Facelift” (above) to outrage her. But I think it's a fabulous piece of writing. You can't put it down and it's not about me, it's about an attitude. Song wise the only thing I'm ashamed of I was forced into some cover versions on albums.
Totally ashamed of doing that. But my own writing? No, I go back to it very occasionally “how the hell could the critics have put that down?!” (Robert laughs) You know, it's kind of I see why I did it and I see the progression and I feel I'm an OK song writer as I get older as well.
ROBERT: Does life get in the way of creativity?
TOYAH: Gah! Yeah!!!
ROBERT: Families, kids, business, fathers, husband -
TOYAH: Like Helen I don't have a family. My parent's are now gone, they've moved on. I looked after them for ten years and I always thought when they're gone I'm going to be so creative. Now they're gone I actually miss them like hell. I tell you what, just makes me very angry about the modern world - I actually believe that e-commerce, everything that happens on the computer is now just … It's the chain and ball.
The ball and chain around our ankles. I get up some morning, I don't turn the computer on, I don't turn the telephone on, never turn the TV on and I think "right, I'm going to connect with that creative person I used to be".
ROBERT: What about you?
HELEN: I agree. Not life, because creativity is part of life, it's not and or either thing -
ROBERT: Say there's a day when you don't create something where instead you go to lunch with a friend and drink some wine or you, I don't know, clear up the house or whatever it might be … Is that a lesser day?
ROBERT: Is it?
HELEN: For me, I always feel slightly guilty if I do that which I often do because I love cooking, I love friends and I love parties and all that stuff but there's only so many days in anyone's life that you can be creative -
ROBERT: Sometimes I'm kind of the opposite – days that I've spent by a computer or in a radio studio, I haven't spent enough time with my family or haven't phoned up a friend … I think those are sometimes the wasted days because life is kind of real stuff and all that other stuff is just frippery if you like. Does that make sense?
HELEN: No, it's not how I see it -
TOYAH: No, I mean for me my friends are just so inspiring and they have such different lives to me. Helen, who's had children has allowed me an inside to the responsibilities of motherhood which I think is utterly inspiring. Having children is inspiring. My friends are great people and I love the conversations I have with them and say I'm writing -
ROBERT: Is being with your friends a creative process?
TOYAH: I think it should be.
HELEN: It's a part of it. These things feed into each other, conversations you have with your friends and ideas you discuss with your children and family and -
TOYAH: I would just like to say at this point, I have in my office a pile of that high of 20 unfinished books -
ROBERT: That you've written or read? (laughs)
TOYAH: No! Written! And even bigger (pile ) of the ones … Thing is publishers say to you “deliver the first three chapters”. That's almost the easiest thing to do. You deliver the first three chapters. Now my weakness is writing character lines. I can come up with the plot, I can come up with the beginning, the middle and the end.
Plot, no problem at all! Because that's what song writing is all about but going into the third person, going into a different character – I hate reading books where you've got twenty characters because you think "who's that, who's that, of my God who's that? "
And then if you've got to write something that has twenty characters – by the time I get to the 5th chapter, I'm just so bored of the story because I've disconnected with the character line. It's only through meeting my friends, going to different countries and meeting my friends, going and sitting on street corners having a cup of tea or a cup of coffee that I find that way to escape from me and tedium and the limitation of my own writing style that I can find the words to go into that story.
ROBERT: When you're creating whether it's writing or songs or art or whatever – what's your relationship with other artists and creators? Can you read book by someone else if you're writing a book? Can you look at art by someone else if you're creating? Or are you worried about being influenced by them? Becoming a bit too much like them?
HELEN: No, I think there is no such thing as originality, really -
HELEN: Yeah. I think we all see things and you can't not be influenced by the things you see. But you might want to go, say, Tate Modern to see something and it will filter through but you won't copy it. It's like a lot of what me and Colin do when we're working art - we travel, say, like we lived in Japan for a while, which is incredibly inspiring and changed the way we thought about lots of different things. It was my 30th.
ROBERT: Whether you are inspired by all that or you're worried of being being kind of influenced by it I think is the question?
HELEN: I think it's all food for the mind really. It's a not a bad thing to – when you're a student it's quite good to copy people's style until you find your own. When you've got your own style -
ROBERT: (To Toyah) Say you're acting in a piece -
ROBERT: And someone else had famously performed that piece in a film or something -
TOYAH: Oh, That does not bother me at all.
ROBERT: Would you watch their performance?
ROBERT: Would you?
TOYAH: I'm not worried about influence at all. There was a time when every critic I used to read 25 years ago – I don't think this happens so much now – where you're grouped together with a certain genre of other females and then you actively try and do anything not to look as if though you're influenced by them even though you respect them. But for me I often go to France to write and the first thing I put on is Muse's “Black Holes” (sic). I put it on.
I don't want to write a new song, I want to be amused but they just utterly transport me to another place. There's a few things, I see people writing notes. I just want to quickly mention this. There's a bird called the male Bowerbird, that to attract mates will build structures that look like different homes for the mates to walk through. Look this up online because I always think that humans are elusively the creative race on this planet.
But the Bowerbird creates incredible sculptures that look like Andy Goldsworthy sculptures. I have a book list that I will read, I will read anything by Alice Sebolt to unlock my head. I will read anything by Lauren Beukes, A South African writer to unlock -
ROBERT: Do you have music on when you're writing, when you're creating?
HELEN: I don't have anything with lyrics if I'm writing, obviously that is impossible to do that but will have some music that doesn't have lyrics.
ROBERT: Do think it's impossible to do that -
HELEN: Because if you're thinking in words you don't want to listen to other peoples words. It's confusing.
TOYAH: For me, I would watch a film. I would go to Youtube, watch videos, rock videos. But I wouldn't have them on when I'm writing. When I'm writing and it goes with collaboration as well – there's only two people in this world that I can collaborate with as a songwriter. If I'm put together with a stranger to collaborate I actually find it impossible to be creative -
ROBERT: Is that because creativity is a selfish process for you?
TOYAH: I think it is selfish because I don't think like anyone else I know. The two people I collaborate with seem to understand the way I'm wired -
ROBERT: It's all the slimming pills! (laughs)
TOYAH: That was a long time ago but they seem to understand my use of language so for me when I'm writing with The Humans, which is my American band, I do cut and paste music through Garage Band. I do very basic arrangements, write all the lyrics and the melody lines. Then sit down with my collaborators with almost a finished album and they go “nah, we don't want to do this” and they will take it and re-arrange it. Then two months later they go back to my original idea. But I do find creativity a solitary thing …
ROBERT: Do you?
HELEN: I do too.
ROBERT: And yet for many acting is the opposite of solitary -
TOYAH: Stage is collaborative -
TOYAH: Film -
ROBERT: You're in your ensemble, you've got a director, you've got a producer, a camera man, all of those things -
TOYAH: Yeah, I agree. But I think a lot actors don't even acknowledge the camera or the director or the lighting people there. They are so in charge of their persona. I really would be surprised if Tilda Swinton is on camera thinking about the camera, the director and the lighting man. Because there's certain actors you look at them and they are completely possessed in their kind of bubble which I think utterly magnificent.
But there are ensemble pieces. “Burn After Reading” I think is a great ensemble piece. But for me stage work, Shakespeare work, oh my God it's about the whole team. If you've got one egoist or one loose chain in a Shakespeare … My God it falls apart.
ROBERT: It's interesting because acting is the opposite is of the blank page because you're given the words.
TOYAH: It's fabulous, yeah.
ROBERT: Is that very different in that sense? I'm not saying you're going to think “ah, I'm going to improve on that Shakepeare a bit” but sometimes if you've got a script but think “well, yeah, they wouldn't say it like that, they should say it like ...”. What's the relationship with the opposite of a blank page if your acting, if you've got a script?
TOYAH: Sometimes if you're working with a new script writer you feel such a force to say “you can't take this scene there” but you're there as a tool for their words and I respect that a lot. We have a wonderful script writer in here, I'm not going to say her name but I've done her last movie and the script was an absolute joy to perform. It was about three women and it just was … My God -
ROBERT: So you weren't tempted to re-write it?
TOYAH: No, not at all. We didn't do any re-writing. She did because she watched us perform on camera. You know she could see things that there were areas we could go into but also when you're working with a writer they sometimes work to your ability which I think is sign of respect rather than sign of dis-respect. But I'd only say sometimes with very new writers, when they get the actors on the floor, they sometimes feel the need to re-write.
Of my God I've been in re-writes right up until the curtain goes up on the first night which is terrifying. I did with a version of “Therese Raqcuin” (above) where the re-writes were going in literally not only when the curtain went up but in the interval as well. And when you're a lead actress your head is just exploding! It's terrifying!
ROBERT: Helen, you were saying you work with your husband. Do you work collaboratively?
HELEN: We do -
ROBERT: Or the at same time together but apart?
HELEN: Because of the studio so we work on the same theme and we'll discuss our themes and we critique each others work -
ROBERT: Do you do “you'll show me yours if I'll show you mine”?
HELEN: Kind of - (both laugh)
ROBERT: Does that affect the process for you? Is it good to have a sounding board -
HELEN: I really like it. Yeah. It's very good to have a sounding board. It's essential for an artist to … When things are in progress and they're half formed they're very kind of fragile and you're kind of protective of it so there's not many people – there's only a few people you trust and you would show your work to … Like Colin for example. Most people you don't want to.
The other thing is that if you're in a collaborative thing that the other person can do something that you can't do. For example he's very could at sculpture, I'm good at colour, painting, flat things so they compliment each other and it's kind of inspiring to see where somebody else is taking an idea that you both have because it's probably really different to where I would be taking it. And then it feeds back into where I am taking it -
ROBERT: Do you like talking about your work?
TOYAH: I love Helen's work -
ROBERT: No, I mean do you like the process of analysing it because I really don't like it. I like to do my work and then forget it, it's gone. I don't want to discuss if it was good or bad, then I'll do the next one. I don't want to sit and analyse it and pull it apart. Some people love that!
TOYAH: I think to a certain extent you need to be very purist about your idea. I think you need to say “right, I believe in that, keep it intact”. I mean is someone pulls apart something I've written I'm literally feeling “what the hell have you done with your life?” I get quite arsey about it -
ROBERT: Can't believe that!
TOYAH: No, I think if you've written something that you must believe that it can exist as a whole on its own when you've gone. I like to think of leaving a body of work behind and I think that's actually more important than your actual life in many ways. Something being left behind that has meaning.
HELEN: I agree. I think that's very much part of the creative process that you're making – that's what I was talking about earlier when I said there's only so many days in your life you can be creative. Because if you don't make that thing and you die it's never going to be made, it won't happen at all, it won't exist. So it's a kind of - there's almost a duty to the thing your making, if it's a book, or a painting, a sculpture -
TOYAH: And I think also there's beauty in everything that we create and leave whole from your grandmother's cookery recipes to Victorian diaries to books of fiction to books of fact. There's a beauty in it, it's something that transcends and I think see it that way.
ROBERT: Isn't there also creativity in a life well lived? For the person who might never write a great book or make a great painting. Life well lived in itself is -
TOYAH: Well, it's not all about commerce. I think a creative life is a life well lived, yes. And that's down to interpretation. Some of the most creative people I know don't want to be in the public world. My husband (below with Toyah) doesn't want to be in the public world but he's incredibly creative. Dare I say it, the wonderful Kate Bush, whom I've known recently, does … You know she's staggeringly creative but she doesn't want to be in the public world. So it's not all about commerce.
ROBERT: Is there a relationship between creativity and vanity or arrogance and believing that you've got something important to say whether it's -
TOYAH: Well, that's just misguided in some people isn't it?
ROBERT: You see what I mean though? Does the person have to be an arrogant person? Do they have to think that they've got something worth showing the world?
HELEN: I don't think it's arrogance. I think it's more you just have to do it, you have to do the thing and there's lots of people who are artists who aren't arrogant at all and they're not trying to make money out of their art. They just do it because they are compelled to do it. And that's part of the process. And that's probably a much better place to come from than doing some art because you sold some art in a gallery and the gallery says “oh, do something more like that”. That's not going to be so interesting.
TOYAH: Are you talking about the relationship between the critic and creativity -
ROBERT: I'm talking about relationship between ego and creativity perhaps …
TOYAH: Oh my ego was huge 25 years ago. Not now. But I actually feel I'm a better artist now because I got rid of the ego. I found it quite intrusive. I'm more analytical about what I do now I think in a good way.
ROBERT: Actually talking about the ageing process is not quite what I'm thinking of but does creativity diminish as we get older?
TOYAH: I totally disagree. If you look at Doris Lessing's work throughout her life I now find her work more relevant to me as a 56 year old than ever before. “Marriage Between Zones” makes so much sense to me now whereas when I read it 25 “what the hell is she going on about?” Memoirs Of A Survivor” makes so much sense to me now.
I think biologically – this is going to sound almost verging on sexist – but women, because we are so driven by hormonal stages in our lives, I personally think that we get more creative the freer we get from out hormones.
So I think when I look at myself as a late teen and a 20 year old I was driven by incredible emotional shifts through hormones. Now I feel completely liberated from all of that and I actually think I'm going to do my best work now right through to my 60's. There's probably less drive -
ROBERT: I was going to say you're less driven when you're young - there's always a sense of imperatives. You want to siege the day, you want to do it all now -
HELEN: And you have to because you've got – well, most of us started with nothing. You just have to make it happen. We just created ourselves and our own lives and you know when I was a student the industry was falling apart. So I had to make it happen by having a little market stall and making things by hand and printing them and sowing them and that was – the amount of energy required to do that was 24/7. I could not do that now.
ROBERT: I was going to say when you get older you get hopefully a bit more financially comfortable and you know, you've got nice things around you so what makes you get up in the morning and do – you don't need to do it any more, could you go and sit on a beach or whatever or what ever it be -
TOYAH: Oh, Robert! (all laugh) I have to do it. I'm talking about being engaged with the world. What I do engages me with the world. I have to do it. I could not – even if I never had to work again and earn a living again I would just whither and die if -
ROBERT: Would you? Isn't there something sad about that because surely you can be engaged with other people, with nature, with all of those things -
TOYAH: I do and I will do but … how can I put this? I watched my parents get increasingly frustrated with not being connected with the world. And I think that we have this myth that we hit 70, we hit 80, we retire. What the hell does that mean?
ROBERT: Picasso never retired.
TOYAH: No. I mean stay engaged with the world. I would love to be able to be a creative person without thinking about it being related to money. And that is something that I'm learning to do but I could not just back off from what I do …
HELEN: I don't think it's motivated by money and don't think it's motivated by age either. I think it's to do with living in the present moment and when I'm making something with that paintbrush in my hand I know that I'm really happy. And that sort of feels right, you know.
So it's actually about moments of your life but I'm equally quite happy making lunch to a whole load of friends in the country. So you know, it's just part of a full life. It doesn't stop you leading a full life, it's not like being a nun - (laughs)
TOYAH: I think also with the life that we lead we travel a lot , so many fantastic accidents happen, happy accidents. You know I could be in a -
ROBERT: You mean plane crashes? (laughs)
TOYAH: No no no! I mean I've created accidents, something that is completely spontaneous that you didn't intend to happen and it happens when you're out of a familiar environment. So for me to travel and to see things and to be in communities that are so different from the community that I live in in Worcester. “Wow!
So that's how they approach their day” or “Wow! OK, that's how they spend their hour out of the office.” I don't want to dis-engage with that. It's ever changing, it's fluid.
ROBERT: (To Toyah) You live out in Worcester, (to Helen) you live in town – does the environment, strictly where you live and where you work – does it affect you? Do you need to be in the country, do you need to be in the city? Or can you be in either or - does it affect you?
TOYAH: I need to be in both.
HELEN: It does affect you. I quite like - because I'm usually by myself in my studio – I love the fact that I've got all the trains – I live in King's Cross so I can look out the window and see all the trains buzzing away and bus stops and people and student's from St Martin's and it's terribly exciting and I really like that because it gives me a sense of urgency. “Get on with it!” Rather than just sitting there thinking what am I going to do next and there's all this stuff going on. So I think being in town is great.
TOYAH: My creative meditation is walking. So if I'm in London, where I live in London I'm next to drama school and get to see these vibrant kids on the green who are just so full of ambition. The world is theirs, the world is about them. To see that and to identify with that and to remember how I felt at that age, you know it's really good for me. I commute to Seattle in America a lot.
I get such compassion I suppose – where I live in Worcestershire and where I tend to base myself in Seattle I see people who are just struggling to pay for food each day, which is common sight I around the world, the way the world economics is at the moment. And just to observe these people, to observe how they engage with life without being utterly angry at the system is really good for me -
ROBERT: Is it really good for them? I mean they're -
TOYAH: Well, I think, you know – what I witnessed in Seattle people went into shops and bought food for people on the streets and it was done thing without any depth, without any emotional connection, it was “Here, brother, here's your lunch”.
ROBERT: Is there any relationship between anger - whether it's political anger or personal – and creativity? Are you creative when you're -
TOYAH: Yeah. This is what I'm trying to get to. I think there's a creative responsibility as you get older – starting to think ... "Well, what can I do that could change something? That could swap something around? You know, could I donate an idea to these people?" I think (to Helen) you think a lot like that, it's a how can you use your creativity to help someone empower themselves in some way.
And I think that comes with age as well. When I was 25 living off 30 quid a week when I had a platinum album I was struggling to eat. But I think you need to remain connected and it does become slightly political in a kind of art/political way.
ROBERT: It's a funny thing about a place and I have a house in Spain, it's in a beautiful village in Andalucia. When I first bought it is was “I'll come here and write”. But I go there and I drink! I can't write there, I can write in London, I can write with people in my house, with sirens going off, with the telly on, and in fact I can write better like that. Solitude and me don't work in a creative sense. I just cannot do it.
TOYAH: All my writing places are in cities.
ROBERT: It's interesting because you tend to think that the pastoral, the rural will somehow bring out the creative in you – it does exactly the opposite. I find it soporific. I quite like it.
HELEN: You see you think that's soporific but actually what might be happening is the beginning of things -
ROBERT: Yeah, you might be charging the batteries -
HELEN: Exactly. When you get back to London, you're kind of whoomf! You've got something to go with. I think it's kind of fragile and a difficult thing to analyse but I'm sure various stages of mind and things that are going on and you might not even know they're going on because they're on a subconscious level – unconscious level - but things could well be going on. And then you process it when you get back to town and you get, you know …
ROBERT: Do you suddenly think I want to do something completely something outside of what you normally do? I mean (to Toyah) you do so many things it would hard to think of anything that would be outside of your -
TOYAH: I never think I want to do something outside the bubble. Things come to me.
ROBERT: My wife suddenly decided to learn the piano aged 47.
TOYAH: Oh, I'm taking piano lessons at the moment.
ROBERT: Now, I can't imagine that. The idea of doing something badly but I can't do – really appals me. I don't do anything that I can't do. (laughs)
TOYAH: I disagree. It re-wires the brain. So I'm working with two choirs next month and I'm having to sight read and I took up piano lessons so I became more instinctive as a sight reader and it re-wires the brain. It's a good thing.
ROBERT: So could you suddenly do visual art? Could you suddenly write?
HELEN: I could write.
TOYAH: I do life drawing. Helen and I and Helen's husband, we sit down and do life drawing anyway. I'm rubbish, Helen is brilliant. You participate and – I think participating is just as good as being creative.
HELEN: Yeah. I think problem that you're talking about Robert, is that we're experts. When ever you've done your 10 000 hours of whatever it is, you've become an expert at that and then you're in your mind “oh yeah” -
ROBERT: I can do that.
HELEN: So when you're challenged – like recently we were trying to do some Salsa dancing and (laughs) you kind of think “I'm not as good at this as I might be” and it's kind of a weird … It's actually very good for your brain. It's probably very good for the ego as well but it's just uncomfortable, outside your comfort zone -
ROBERT: I tried to lean Tango for two years -
HELEN: Did you? That's a hard one!
ROBERT: Oh! Honestly! (Helen laughs) It is the most difficult thing I've done in my entire life. I did try, I persevered for two years but I am not a Tango dancer!
HELEN: I tried the Limbo -
ROBERT: Sometimes you have to admit defeat! (laughs)
HELEN: Yeah. Often that is true. I tried Flamenco dancing when we were in Spain and it was really really tricky …
ROBERT: Can you teach creativity?
TOYAH: I think you can teach people to just observe and see differently, personally. Some people I meet who think it's wonderfully glamorous to be a singer or an actress and to write and you talk to them and you think “actually you've had a fantastic life, you've known fantastic people”. You just kind of open their eyes to just see things differently.
Helen opened my eyes to see colour because I just see the spectrum of the rainbow whereas actually the relationship between those colours in infinite. I love being with Helen because she just makes me see the world differently.
ROBERT: Have you ever tried – can you pass on creativity?
HELEN: I don't think you can pass on creativity to say students but you can certainly help people harness what they've got and make the most of the talent's that they have in themselves.
TOYAH: It's making the individual see what they can do.
HELEN: Yeah, exactly.
TOYAH: I always tell do not fight your weaknesses. Work on your weaknesses. If you're writing a story use your weaknesses. Don't pretend to be someone else. Know yourself, be yourself, go into your own experiences to find your way through a story line.
ROBERT: It's interesting you (Helen) said that thing about 10 000 hours because we haven't yet discussed the dichotomy between inspiration or perspiration. Hard work does play a part in this, doesn't it?
TOYAH: Technique and hard work, yeah -
ROBERT: They have to mastered to some degree -
TOYAH: Especially if you've got an editor phoning you up and the editor doesn't particularly like you. You are battling to be true to your voice. The hard work and the sweat start in the relationship with the publisher for me sometimes because they're trying to get something they see and you're trying to do something you see. Making them meet in the middle you sometimes feel you're murdering your own creativity. It's tough. And to have the will to carry on …
ROBERT: So just to master your craft, whether that craft is shaping a sentence or singing a song or writing or drawing or painting or sculpting or whatever it might be – you have … It's like jazz musicians can improvise because they can play perfectly anyway to get to the point where they can go free if you like. But you have to work though, there is a process, there is skill to master and it does involve work.
HELEN: Yeah. It takes time and that's the thing is that there's no point in a huge rush trying to be brilliant at something because you probably won't be. Your ideas might be but your ability to express them properly, that takes a while sometimes.
TOYAH: It can take a lifetime. And what's wrong with that?
TOYAH: I think some of the greatest writers -
ROBERT: Except we live in a society increasingly don't we, of instant gratification -
HELEN: Yeah -
ROBERT: People want things instantly, they think they can get anything at the click of a button. And you can't get skill and talent at a click of a button …
TOYAH: No, I think technique is incredibly important. Being able to value technique in other as well it's … My neighbour Cressida Connolly, who's a wonderful historian and a reviewer – she will lock herself away for three months in a bedsit until she's delivered the book. And I just think that is such a discipline.
It's incredible. To just divorce yourself from the world and make yourself write that book and put yourself through that with incredible discipline. I mean that to me is sweat and pain -
HELEN: (To Toyah) You do that, how many performances are you doing at the moment, that's huge discipline I think -
TOYAH: It's instinctive -
HELEN: Running around the country and jumping on stages and at the same time writing. That's incredible discipline. You don't realise it but it is – that's amazing -
TOYAH: I think since my feet are on the stage, I know what the mission is and I'm there so it's … Can we take some questions?
ROBERT: Let's do just that.
TOYAH: It's a really interesting -
ROBERT: The only problem is the lighting in here – I can't see anybody -
TOYAH: Hand up first over there -
ROBERT: Hand up first. Well, there's a gentleman there.
A MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: Hiya. It's a question for Toyah. I just wondered how much you've felt the influence of dyslexia over your career. It is positive, negative or not at all?
TOYAH: OK. Dyslexia, if they said to me tomorrow it could be cured I'd really have to think hard about because dyslexia has made me who I am today. I'm only ever embarrassed about it when I talk to people who a really intellectual. And what I mean by that – because my husband is such a fantastic success world wide I get to meet great people and sometimes I talk to fabulous authors and after half an hour of conversation I say "well, I'm dyslexic so when I read your books I always go over a page again and again and again" and they say "yeah we can tell by talking to you".
And I feel a bit of shame there because there is nothing I can do about it. There's absolutely nothing. But I've worked out these little gains like a rat in a run trying to find a reward that I work my way through my dyslexia, I get to the point I need to be eventually. And I think that's why my creativity is so insular. I need to be alone for quite a bit.
MOTA: I asked the question because a lot of people who I know who are dyslexic are incredibly successful. Some of the greatest brains in the industry and some of the most creative people I've ever met have that level of dyslexia which causes them to work that much harder to drive their own personal creativity and success.
ROBERT: Perhaps there's a way to see this perhaps in a slightly different way -
TOYAH: Yeah, we just see things differently. I mean one example is my husband is amazed I don't need Sat Nav because I know every city by heart in my head. I have visual memory. I can literally take you to any road like a taxi driver can. And I have always used visual memory and I think that's why colour triggers all my emotions.
But it's equally frustrating and it can be ridiculous but I always say to people if you're dyslexic see it as a gift. You usually excel at something if you're dyslexic. You really can excel.
ROBERT: Other hands raised. There's one -
MOTA: Suppose somebody comes to you with a brief so you're working on an idea, you've got your creative process, you absolutely know in your heart that that is the right way forward but they want to fiddle and they want to change. How do you talk them back round because like a dog with a bone you won't let go of that idea because you know it's rightful?
TOYAH: I've had this as a songwriter a lot and I usually let them go with the idea until they know it's a bummer. You know their changes are not right and they go “let's go back to what you originally did.” So sometimes I can predictably go that route.
Where I find it hardest is creative writing with publishers and editors and I think if you truly believe in what you're doing, you truly believe in the audience for what you're doing – you have to stick with it.
ROBERT: But does that mean you must never listen to outside -
TOYAH: I think. Most of the times I listen, I go away and I do a bit of tweaking but I think when you're talking about plays or you're talking about stories – sometimes someone elses ideas just lead you up an alley. And it's so destructive and I think for me the people I really admire dig their heels in about that creative nature.
MOTA: Take it one step further then. So someone wants a change to an idea and they take you off in a different direction – how do you allow yourself go in their direction and perhaps improve upon their idea?
TOYAH: For me it would be how much you respect them as a creative person. If I was sitting down and writing with Michel Faber, who is my favourite author, I wouldn't dare argue with him. And what I love about Michel Faber's writing is he never will finish a story off. He's brave enough to create tangents and at the end of the book you're still on a cliffhanger, you don't know where it's going to go.
It doesn't necessarily mean there will ever be a sequel. So I think depends who you're working with and the nature of the person you're working with. And if you really respect them, great. I've been with A&R men musically who I have not respected one iota and I've just literally thrown the album away.
ROBERT: But I mean – I hope you don't mind me chiming in – when I was first starting out as a journalist and a writer, there was a couple of editors in my life, Nick Logan who edited The Face, which is why I first started working, who was a fantastic mentor and took my work and said “yeah Robert, but it would be better if you did this or you shape it like that and just change the structure” Invaluable advice!
If I'd been digging my heels in and saying “no, I'm not having any of that!” I would've not been half the writer – I'm not saying I'm some Tolstoy, but you see my point, there are times when -
TOYAH: There's one key to what you just said there, Robert. He said “Robert, if you”. Some people say "I want to do this" or they come in a see a project, they never mention your name, they never mention the form of the project you've given them. It's just “I want to do this”. Sometimes that's when you dig your heels in because you go “wait a minute, are just trying to earn your living here?”
TOYAH: And I think people sense that.
ROBERT: Would you be swayed by criticism? In the same kind of sense?
HELEN: Yeah, definitely. Absolutely.
ROBERT: Do you respond to it?
HELEN: Yeah, I do. Sometimes I think “no no, this is definitely right” and sometimes I think “oh yeah, why didn't I do it like that?” You know "the scale of that is completely wrong" ... Yeah I mean some people like friends will come to the studio sometimes and say one or two things and they're always helpful. I think it depends, like Toyah said, the respect you have for the person, how creative they are. Maybe even what their motive is as well.
TOYAH: Motives are very -
ROBERT: What about critics? People who's job it is -
TOYAH: I just phone them up and threaten to kill them (Robert laughs)
ROBERT: Do you read them?
TOYAH: No, I don't any more because a lot of the time they're just buttering their bread on my name. The very spiteful critics are just spiteful to get the people to read the paper. So, no I don't read them. But there are people I trust like Helen, like the group I work with, who I would definitely sit and say "tell me, pull this part, what's is weaknesses?" Definitely.
But when you read a paper online and then you go down and then you read the comments under the article you're only ever reading trolling these days and I just think don't waste my life, it's too short to read this. I think a good critic is a very rare and a magnificent thing.
ROBERT: Because it is a skill -
TOYAH: It's a skill. The majority of the time with me it's just spite on the page so I just don't read it. Can we have some more questions because I'm really interested in you guys being here.
MOTA: When the demand isn't there – there is no buyer for the works, it's not a commission. How do you motivate yourselves to paint, to draw or write or whatever. Where does the motivation come from - when you can just lay on the couch?
TOYAH: Oo-h-h … (Helen laughs)
ROBERT: Can you afford to lay on the couch?
MOTA: I'm there on the couch quite a lot it has to be said.
TOYAH: It's a question I find really interesting because as I get older I've got more and more space, there's probably less and less demand at my time so I have to create things and I kind of think as a creative person how do I want to connect with the world. Whereas a lot of the last 35 years the world has wanted to connect with me. So I'm constantly thinking of what can I give? What can I give to this country I live in? To this world I live in? As a creative person.
And that to me is quite spurring, it's woohoo! It's how do I make that connection still? So for me if I get moved by a story I try and put myself – it's empathy. A lot of my creativity comes from empathy now. And I think the world has never been more frightening and there's a lot of things to empathise with and I find creativity in that. I totally get where you're coming from.
If someone has not commissioned you or not kind of drawing you to the page every day - why do it? I think do it for you and that's a voice that's so personal, it's so seductive. Allow yourself to love your thoughts and do it for you. I see no waste of time in that at all.
ROBERT: (To Helen) You wanted to say?
HELEN: I agree, yeah, it comes from you. It's your self. That's where you're ultimately working anyway, you're not working to please an art gallery or -
ROBERT: But you're all working to pay the bills. I mean one might not be but most people are -
HELEN: We're talking about – is your question about not having that pressure of doing it for money?
MOTA: Yes, when there's no deadline -
HELEN: There's no deadline, there's no financial pressure – why do it? Well, that's the thing about – you have to do it because it's a part of who you are.
ROBERT: My response to that is definitely different. I can only do it because it's my job. Now, it doesn't mean that I don't love what I do. I love writing, I've just written a book and I've just written a film script and I present a radio programme every day but I have to think that I'm going to work.
When I get up in the morning and I sit down in front of a computer or I go into a radio studio – this is my job and the same way as my dad went and built walls with a trowel and did that. I see it like that. And I see it as this is my role in life, this is my job and my function.
My mum was a bus conductor and my dad was a builder and I'm almost as good as they were. And think what they did was just as noble and just dignified, it so happens that I work in a different context. I don't see it as fantastically creative or inspirational or any of those things. For me it's work. If it wasn't work I'd go and get drunk every day. I would! I'd eat very fine wood and sit in the sun. I have to think of it as work.
TOYAH: For me I do it stop being bitter. (All laugh) If I wasn't creative I would just become so bitter. I've learned this lesson, you meet people after shows, after concerts and they present to you your drawings or a book they've written, something they've done of their own back. I think that's so honourable, there's nothing wrong with that at all.
ROBERT: I think that's it, this is the time we're allowed in here but let me say what a privilege it has been to be with such a – I think a creative audience and also two fantastically creative people to talk to.
TOYAH: I hope you all got something out of it. I hope it's been informative.
ROBERT: And enjoyable. Thank you very very much.
TOYAH: Thank you.