When Chrissie Hynde was eight years old, growing up in Akron, Ohio, she wanted to be a cowgirl. She had pigtails and striped T-shirts and corduroy trousers, loved horses, and never, ever wore a dress. Sixty years on, Hynde still refuses to do what’s expected of her. She still loves animals, and these days, she says, she can describe her style in one word: ‘roadie’.
Today she is wearing a black hoodie over a black T-shirt (which says ‘Love Milk Hate Slaughter’), Bella Freud tracksuit bottoms and a pair of Birkenstocks. I have not actually witnessed this outfit – current circumstances mean that she is in her flat in west London and we are talking on the phone. But I believe her.
And it’s pretty much the same thing, she says, that she would have worn 50 years ago. An awful lot has happened to Chrissie Hynde in those 50 years: the Pretenders, the band she originally formed in 1978 (several different line-ups on), have made 10 studio albums and are about to release another: Hate for Sale. She has also made two solo albums, has been married twice and has two grown-up daughters (Natalie, 37, and Yasmin, 35) and twin grandsons. She has written a memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender (2015), and at the age of 60 she gave up cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. Not that she was a drunk or a junkie or anything, but still – her book has a few hair-raising stories. In the early ’80s she lost two band members to drugs within a year – half the group – but unlike many of her friends and contemporaries, Chrissie Hynde has longevity.
‘Having kids gives you longevity if you’re a woman, because you have to take time off [she brought up her daughters alone] and that way you don’t bore the public with yourself, and then if anyone’s still interested, you’re glad to get back into it again – so there lies the longevity,’ she says. ‘Taking drugs and getting completely f—ked up and drinking and smoking – that can give you short-gevity. But if you survive and you finally pull the plug on all that stuff, you feel like you did before you started, which for most of us was when we were 15, and that gives you a second wind.’
She’d been thinking about giving up smoking for 30 years, she says. ‘I tricked myself into thinking I didn’t smoke very much. But I smoked every day – I rolled my own.’ Of course she did – like roadies do. Allen Carr helped her give up. Not the comedian. ‘The Easy Way To Stop Smoking – it works! He bangs on about it so much that by the end you’re thinking, f—k it, I don’t even want one any more.’
She is pretty healthy now, which she puts down to being a vegetarian since she was a teenager, and doing yoga every day for the past 30 years. Chrissie Hynde doesn’t leave the house unless she’s stood on her head.
‘Drugs were the defining characteristic of my generation,’ she wrote in Reckless. Does she have an addictive personality? ‘According to Allen Carr there’s no such thing, so I’ll go along with him. Some people can be moderate, but my guess is that if you’re in a rock’n’roll band, you’re not one of those people.
‘Eventually everyone comes to the same conclusion – at a certain age you just can’t do that stuff any more. Look at Keith Richards, Iggy Pop – all the real caners in rock history – after about the age of 50 you just have to slow down.’
Her book is dedicated to ‘all my crazy friends (many now departed)’, but it chiefly refers to her guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who died when he was only 25, after taking too much cocaine. ‘He’s the one who really created the Pretenders’ sound,’ she says. ‘Whether I’d still be working with him or not – who knows? Chances are, after 40 years people aren’t still working together. But I’m very mindful of his musicality and I’ve kept it alive in his honour.’
Right now Hynde was supposed to be on a bus with her band on a tour of 60 cities in the States. She has mixed feelings about this being cancelled. ‘We were the support act [to Tyranny – a metal band popular in America]. If you support a big household name you are beholden to do a greatest-hits package because it’s not really your audience, so you kind of have to play what they’ve heard on the radio, and that is not very satisfying.’
It’s been postponed until next year. She is undaunted by the idea of such an exhausting-sounding venture because Chrissie Hynde is still such an out-and-out rock chick. ‘As soon as I see the scaffolding and the stage and the road crew, I just feel like I’m at home. Everything else in life is like a waiting game.’
Like many people who didn’t expect to, Hynde has enjoyed lockdown, savoured it even. She has been recording some Bob Dylan tracks over the phone with her guitar player, and getting on with her other obsession, painting: oil paintings, both figurative and abstract, which were recently collected in a book, Adding the Blue. It’s like a meditation to her, and she paints pretty much every day. She says that in a funny way, she gets just as much satisfaction out of painting as performing. ‘It’s the sense of relief that you’ve done it – there’s nothing like it.
‘If you’re going to do a gig, you have to rehearse, you faff around with the set list, you’re nervous, your hair looks like s—t, you’ve been travelling, you didn’t sleep well. Whatever it is, by the time the show is over the sense of relief just pours over you like honey.’
But the main reasons she’s appreciated the lockdown are the obvious ones: the quiet, the birdsong, the lack of pollution. She says it’s rejuvenated London and made her fall in love with the city all over again.
Chrissie Hynde grew up in a conventional family in Akron. Her father was a former marine who worked for the phone company, her mother a glamorous housewife, and she had an older brother, Terry. Hynde was an unusual American teenager – she liked walking, in a culture where nobody walked, and she was a vegetarian in a land that was founded on hamburgers.
She was not academic (‘I was incapable of doing things I didn’t want to do,’ she says), but she was good at art. She went to Kent State University’s art school, but did very little work because she was obsessed with music. Bands were everything. She hung out in record shops, she saw the Stones when she was 14, and she was devoted to Iggy Pop.
‘The overriding thing,’ she says, ‘was that I just loved rock music. Everyone from my generation loved it, but people that actually got in a band took it one step further – it really got inside us and there was nowhere else to go.’
She had long been enthralled with the idea of London and its music scene, and arrived there in 1973, aged 21, with her friend Cindy and $200. They stayed in a cheap hotel in Bayswater and Hynde was disappointed to find that the reality was warm beer, Rothmans and floral dresses.
She sold handbags in a market until she met the writer Nick Kent and started working for the NME. They didn’t care that she couldn’t write. ‘They wanted a pimple-faced loudmouth to push the male staff around,’ she says in her book. She wrote searing critical reviews of various bands until it occurred to her, at some point, that maybe she should get out there and do it for herself.
She worked at Sex, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique in Chelsea, and was right in the thick of the punk revolution, becoming good friends with the Sex Pistols and The Clash. After a few false starts, the Pretenders were put together in the spring of 1978, from musicians she found along the way. Their first single, a cover of The Kinks’ Stop Your Sobbing, was released in January 1979 and went to number 34 in the UK charts. A year later Brass in Pocket went to number one, as did their debut album.
In 1981 – by which time they were properly famous – their second tour of America was derailed by alcohol and drugs. Bass player Pete Farndon had become an obnoxious heroin addict and Hynde’s own behaviour was out of control – she drank a lot and regularly abused her audience, and once she kicked out the windows of a police car after being arrested in Memphis.
In June 1982, James Honeyman-Scott, her revered guitarist, died. Farndon died the following year after taking heroin and drowning in the bath.
Since then there have been long breaks and varying line-ups within the Pretenders, and Hynde has collaborated with renowned artists from Frank Sinatra to Emmylou Harris.
Hynde’s great strength is her voice, pretty much unchanged from the early days, which contains a sort of suppressed longing that is impossible to manufacture. This is evident in the beautiful solo album of jazz and blues covers she recorded in 2019, Valve Bone Woe, and in songs such as I’ll Stand by You.
But it didn’t come easily. ‘I loved singing, but it took me a long time to feel like I owned it,’ she wrote in Reckless. ‘But I knew it owned me and always had.’
In 1980 she met Ray Davies of The Kinks, whose songs Stop Your Sobbing and I Go to Sleep the Pretenders had covered and made into hits. It was a tempestuous relationship. When they traipsed off to the registry office in late 1982, they argued so much that the official refused to marry them. Nine months later they had a daughter, Natalie Rae Hynde. Her second daughter, Yasmin, is the child of Simple Minds’ lead singer Jim Kerr, whom she married in 1984 (they divorced six years later). She was also married to Lucho Brieva, a Colombian sculptor, from 1997 until 2003.
She’s mostly on good terms with all her exes, she says (‘I just reconnected with one recently. Cool dude. Guy in a band…’), but has lived on her own now for about 15 years. A lot of her songs are about loneliness, but she says firmly, ‘I’m not lonely. I’ve had the occasional boyfriend, but I now realise that I am a kind of lone wolf. And I like it. I can do what I want. When you live with someone a lot of time is spent socialising, which is fine, that’s why people want to be in love and have someone around, so they can share the mundane moments and turn them into something satisfying. But I have a lot of extra time to do stuff. I’m not advocating it, I’m just saying it works for me.
‘I don’t feel unloved,’ she continues. ‘There’s nothing better than being in love – everyone knows that – but it’s kind of a hassle, too. One bad text can destroy your whole day – and then if you’re away, there’s that gnawing longing to see someone and they’re not there. I like things the way they are. I don’t want to rock the boat.’
She has a lot of friends, and her daughters are not far away. ‘They’re adults now – and I see them a hell of a lot more than I saw my parents. I’m not a very touchy-feely type – we don’t have to keep saying "I love youuuu" and see each other all the time – although I do love them and want to be there for them whenever they need me, but I also respect that they have their own thing.’
She is not one to rustle up big family meals. ‘That was never really my cup of tea. I’ve never made a big dinner and had people over.’ She usually gets takeaways, but lockdown has made her go back to cooking and being ‘a brown-rice hippie again’.
Hynde was a vegetarian in the days when that meant the only option on the menu was a cheese salad. She is passionate about it. One of her best friends is Ingrid Newkirk, president of Peta. ‘But I’ve never been a vegan – though I used to have a vegan restaurant [the VegiTerranean in Ohio, which closed in 2011], but the distinction I make is that for everyone who eats dairy products there is probably a 99.9 per cent chance that you’re buying commercial dairy that comes from the meat industry.’
Hynde has long been a devotee of the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita and is a fervent supporter of the Ahimsa Dairy in Rutland, where the cows are never slaughtered, they are milked by hand, and the calves are not separated from their mothers. ‘There is a symbiotic relationship, where we take care of animals and they take care of us, in non-aggressive farming.
‘But I’ve now been dropped by some animal-rights groups that I’ve been a patron of for years because I’m promoting milk. But I’m not promoting commercial milk.’
Her family and all her close friends are vegetarian and she attributes her good health to it – and yoga. That is also how she copes with ageing. The advantages of which, she insists, outweigh the disadvantages.
‘First of all, when a person gets older, they’re wiser. They’ve had realisation – there’s a difference between knowing something and realising it. And generally I’m much calmer, I’ve learnt not to overreact to things - if anything I under-react - and I don’t worry about anything.
‘The disadvantages are that you have to be pretty vigilant about looking after yourself. I’ve never been on any meds – I may well be the only 68-year-old American who’s not on meds! And I’ve never been in therapy.
‘I do yoga every day, even if I’m in a hotel,’ she says. ‘A half-hour every day can keep you aligned for pretty much the rest of your life. So yeah, that helps with ageing. I might be falling apart – my hair, my nails, everything else – but I’m not crying, “Oh my looks are going!” Because they weren’t very good in the first place…’
Even alone in the house she wears make-up every day. ‘Of course I do. What if there was an emergency and I had to run out in the street? I have the same routine whether I’m on tour or at home. I get up, drink a pot of coffee or tea, scroll through emails and look at the news. Then I’ll put on my make-up and do my yoga. God – I look like s—t today. My hair looks really bad – I’ve been cutting it myself, so I hope the lockdown lasts at least until it’s grown out, but I’ve had the same hairdresser for 30 years, so he can tidy it up.
‘I’m like Lemmy [from Motörhead]. I just don’t change.’
For all her bluster, I get the impression that Hynde has never been that confident. But she’s not needy – far from it, she’s very self-contained. She doesn’t seek attention, and she doesn’t want any more acclaim, she tells me. ‘If anything, I feel like I’ve already had too much acclaim. I’ve had a lot of respect – more than my fair share, if you ask me. So if anyone likes the paintings – great, but I’m not trying to make my name as a painter. Really, who cares?’
She’s lived in the UK for decades, but still has a connection to Ohio, and occasionally goes back there. Is she appalled by Trump? ‘Of course anyone who’s alive is appalled – that goes without saying – but I can’t control it and I don’t worry about things I can’t control. What can you do? Vote and hope for the best. Or, if you really don’t like it, then go and take the guy out. But to keep talking about it is a waste of time. Either do something about it or shut up.’
She is outspoken, Chrissie Hynde, and she has been called out for it. In her book there is a story about how, as a teenager, deeply stoned, she went back to a deserted house with a bunch of bikers and a lot of drugs, and she was sexually assaulted by them. She is quite matter of fact about it, saying she should have known better than to take a risk like that. ‘I never blame others for my transgressions – that would be bad form,’ she wrote. Acknowledging this meant that she got labelled a rape apologist.
‘You provoked controversy in your book, about the rape…’ I say. ‘Excuse me,’ she cuts in. ‘I provoked nothing. First of all the book didn’t say the word 'rape', but some bright spark who hadn’t read it got this idea to run with some aspect of it that they didn’t like, and it really blew up into something. I had people calling me, saying, “Are you all right? [adopts a faux-sympathetic tone] Do you want to come to Scotland and stay with us?”
‘I’m fine! It doesn’t bother me. So that blew over. But then, so did my book.’
The book was good, too. She has a great way with words (she describes Johnny Rotten as looking ‘like Steptoe crossed with Joni Mitchell’), and some excellent stories of rock’n’roll life. ‘I don’t know what I was supposed to have done to invoke all that ire. I didn’t say anything. But that’s the way it works these days, you don’t have to say anything. It can be the headline that goes viral and everybody focuses on that.
‘If you put a foot wrong and say something that’s politically incorrect, then you’re in the dumpster – and it’s not just you and your little project that’s sabotaged, it’s everyone else who has been involved, too.’
She resents the fact that these days people know more about someone’s personal life than their work. ‘I preferred it when it was the other way round.’ She sighs. ‘Oh – do you need a headline for your story? How about, “Rape apologist Chrissie Hynde speaks out…”’
You can almost hear the eye roll.
Hate for Sale is released on 17 July