“End It All” by Atarah Valentine
On Planet Pop following the path of least resistance may seem prudent; it may open doors and could quite conceivably lead to quick fix fame, but at what price? Would you be prepared to compromise your artistic integrity for a shot at stardom? Or do you have a little more veracity and believe that sometimes, slow burn success and retaining your dignity can ultimately be far more rewarding? Compromise and losing artistic control for fames sake does not always bring happiness… Would you dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
In the 1980’s a group of ex- welders and miners from Sunderland, in the north east of England, were intent on becoming the UK’s biggest death metal act, collectively known as “The Culture” they were convinced that their self penned song “Really Hurt Me” was destined for big things. They were soon spotted by A&R men and within weeks they had signed a contract with a major label, but that was when things began to spiral out of control. The record label decided to “smooth out the bands rough edges,” lead vocalist George takes up the story, “Wae’aye man, like, they wanted us to have a total makeover, like, and wear these crazy clowns outfits, it was the decade that style forgot, like, so we went along with it, being young, naïve and full of enthusiasm. They even wanted us to pretend not to be “northern”- they said it made us sound “as thick as pig shit” and “working class.” –Sadly in the 80’s admitting to being working class was rather like admitting you molest kittens,( London at one point in the 1980’s, actually became a “scouse exclusion zone.” ) After a few “minor content tweaks “and a “slight image realignment,” the lads were unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, but all was not happy in The Culture camp. George takes up the story “Wae’aye, bonnie lad, I thought we’d lost our soul, like, I felt proper daft in the clothes, all my mates back in Sunderland took the piss something wicked, –I eventually started taking drugs to make dressing up like a berk a wee bit easier .” When their debut single, which George describes as “complete bollocks,” was released things went “fookin’ mental”, and the band, rechristened Culture Club, at the record labels behest, became a world wide phenomenon.
Sadly despite all their success George, Mikey, Jon and Roy felt like they’d signed away their integrity in what they viewed as a kind of Faustian pact with the label. To assuage their guilt they spent millions, on women, drink and drugs, the remainder of the money was just wasted. Eventually the band imploded as the pressure placed upon them by the record company became unbearable, there were diktats from upon high that the band were required to learn to juggle, swallow swords, eat fire and appear on stage astride uni-cycles. “It was becoming a circus” said George “We told them to shove it.” With threats of breach of contact ringing in their ears, and legal action hanging above their head like the sword of Damocles, the band returned to their native Sunderland , chastened, humiliated and ashamed. Haunted by their past, which Mikey described as “A Fooking embarrassment-strangers would shout Karma Chameleon at me in the street, it was terrible, like, ” they tried to rebuild their shattered reputations and regain a modicum of self respect. George is now a part-time DJ, a qualified plumber and a doting Dad to boot! “ I’m happy now like, it’s an honest profession, I couldn’t be happier with a ball cock in my hand, fitting an Essex flange or fiddling with a leaky O-ring but I still sometimes think what could have been, if we’d have stuck to our guns.”
Compromise can indeed be a terrible thing, take the case of Ukrainian play write, Belize Johanavitchvitchovitch who explains “ Da, in my script “Spin Me A Dream” the central character Romanoff Burgundinski works in the news media and is becoming increasingly disconnected with the world. As the story unfolds Burgundinski develops a progressively unhinged and nihilistic word view as he examines the futility of his own existence, his shallow relationships, the corrupt nature of media spin, and the failure of us all to reach out to other human beings and really connect. His desire, namely to cleanse the airwaves of what he sees as “media whores” ultimately leads to tragedy. For those who survive the bloody finale, there is a spiritual rebirth and a re-examination of society’s complicit acceptance of the discredited capitalist system. I actually pitched it to the studio as “Taxi Driver in a newsroom,” they loved it ! We came to an agreement that there would be some “modification” to the screenplay, I guess I should have been suspicious when they cast “ Elf star” Will Ferrell as Burgundinski changed the characters name to Ron Burgundy ( The studio said American movie-goers don’t like foreign sounding names with “Commie Pinko undertones” ) and made a banal, infantile movie called “Anchorman.” As a result my reputation as a serious writer was in tatters”
Two cautionary tales I’m sure you’ll agree, and ones which flamboyant NYC based singer songwriter, Atarah Valentine may find deeply disturbing. He is without doubt hugely talented, yet it appears despite the quality of his work, record labels aren’t quite sure how to market him.. He’s not a rock band, he’s not an Indie band, he’s’ not techno, hip hope shoegaze or nugaze, nope, his songs are recorded live with a 13 piece string section and his rather androgynous, theatrical sense of style (think part dandy, part Russell Brand or maybe The Mighty Boosh after raiding Robert Helpmann’s wardrobe ) doesn’t really seem to fit into an easily identifiable category. The fact that he’s actually produced a fine body of work and writes emotive, meaningful music should say it all, alas, it seems these days more than ever, record labels are only interested in the “sure thing” ( yes Mr Cowell, I’m pointing my finger at you yet again!) This sort of attitude obviously makes it far more difficult for new and original talent, who refuse to compromise their artistic vision, to break through. We spoke to Mr Valentine about his life his music and his frustrations.
VP: Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to make music
AV: I was always a performer at heart. My father was in an early incarnation of the group that would become “Skid Row” here in the United States . He left to have more of a normal life and to settle down and have kids. I think a part of him always wished that he had taken his career further though, especially after Skid Row went on to be pretty successful. As a child I was given a guitar in the 2nd grade for Christmas, I would just strum it with an open chord and yell over the top of it. I went on to play Saxophone and trumpet. Then I discovered Nirvana. I felt like I related to this person more than I’d ever done with anyone up to that point! This inspired me to put all of my thoughts on paper, write music, and record my songs. 1994, suicide, devastation……
Meshing with my peers in high school proved to be more and more difficult. At this point, I was cutting my own hair, shaving my eyebrows, making my own clothes. I was stuck in a small town, and I couldn’t figure out what my role was. I was becoming bored with the guitar; I bought a cello. I continued playing, moved to Los Angeles after receiving a scholarship for Fashion Design and started a band called “Hollowood.” Warren Zevon lived in my building. I had no idea who he was, but he knocked on my door one day, literally, and then continued to come by my house to listen to me sing and play my cello. My dad was really excited! After I graduated I moved to NYC. In that first 6 Months I wrote 30 new songs for a project called “New Radio”. We were together for 5 years, had a steady following and were introduced to Leigh Lust who would be the catalyst to a big change in my career. Leigh was A&R at Atlantic records. He got in contact with me to see my band play, and, a few days later we played an acoustic set for him in my tiny apartment in Brooklyn . An hour later we were invited to play the Iceland airwaves Music Festival in Reykjavik . This led to Atlantic Records signing me, because I wrote all of the songs, was the one in charge, and my band was to be paid through me. We broke up. I was devastated, but it was a blessing in disguise. I took a year out to write all new material.
After several other ups and downs, I ended up with a record that I couldn’t be happier with. I worked with producers Eli Janny (Girls Against Boys) and Damian Taylor (Bjork, Prodigy, UNKLE.) I feel for the first time I have something that is an honest representation of my character. I believe I made something special. My label on the other hand, isn’t sure what to do with me.
VP: What have you /or are planning to release in the future?
AV: Right now, I have a finished record. We are trying to figure out how to get it through the system. I hope I can build enough hype to make my record label look it over again. I’d love to launch out of the UK . I just don’t have any way of coming there right now (ideas anybody?) I have my second record written already. Writing is my life. At the rate things are moving, my second record will turn into a box set. I’m also shooting a video for my song “One Month” In December, with an internet release for January. It’s going to be pretty provocative.
VP: How would you describe your music?
AV: I’d call my music Dark Chamber Pop
VP: And who would you say are your major musical influences?
AV: I don’t think I have major musical influences. Writing music, for me, is therapeutic. I write what I feel. Also, most of the music I listen to doesn’t reflect what I do at all i.e.- Sonny and Cher , Eartha Kitt, Carole King, Peggy Lee, Queen, Devo. I’m more, directly, inspired by performers. I love watching a great performer- Madonna, Freddie Mercury, Bjork, Steven Tyler, etc I think these people are really great at sharing their energy. You feel like you know them just by watching them perform. It’s intense. It’s massive. It’s pure electricity. They have certain attributes that are uniquely theirs on stage. From watching these people, I’ve learned a lot about who I am as a performer.
VP: How healthy is the music scene in your opinion at the moment?
AV: I think, like the economy, there is a huge gap in the music industry. Some have the golden pass and some have a meal ticket, if they’re lucky. There are a lot of really wealthy people and a lot of really poor people. The middle class is shrinking. There are a lot of really successful bands, and a lot of bands that are going nowhere. There isn’t a middle ground. You are either playing a dive bar, or playing the VMA’s. Everything is too extreme right now. You’re well connected or you’re not. This is my opinion. Commercialism is killing the music industry. There is too much American Idol and not enough individuality. It used to be about promoting talent that you believed in. Now it’s about how much of a profit you can make in the shortest time possible. There’s no investment on the labels part. It’s sad. Too much business, not enough passion.
VP: What’s been your favourite record this year?
AV: Randy Newman- Harps and Angels
VP: Is the digital age a help or a hindrance to new artist?
AV: Both. We’re in a difficult time. I don’t mean to make this a “not fun” interview. I hate those, BUT the state of the music industry is shaky. People aren’t taking risks. Labels aren’t promoting new acts properly. There’s no funding for anything! Music fans get mad when an artist they like allows a commercial to use there song, yet they download their record for free. Artists don’t make money off of their records. Especially not in these times. People aren’t paying for music. Licensing is a great way to make money as an artist. Look at the Santogold record. It’s great. She is getting a lot of exposure through those bud lime and converse commercials. Look at Nicole’s (Atkins) AMEX commercial. These things help an artist survive when their label isn’t doing anything for them. Yet, people want to crucify these girls for “selling out”. Why do people have a problem with success? They don’t want to buy your record, but they will slay you if you try and make a bit of money. I don’t understand that mentality. I still buy records AND I support the decisions of artists I like. On the other hand, the internet and file sharing allow new artist to get their music to people all around the world. This doesn’t solve the problem of financial backing for tour, PR, etc, so it is still quite limiting. We have along way to go until the new prototype is presented.
VP:If you could work with any artists past or present who would they be and why?
AV: If I could work with any artist past or present I would work with Damian Taylor again. I’m so proud of the record we made and I feel like there is a lot more to come. We’ve just scratched the surface.
VP: If you’re having a bad day which song is one that always seems to lift your mood?
AV: If I’m having a bad day I tend to listen to something that just exacerbates the way I feel. This is horrible, I know. “Hey Jupiter” by Tori Amos always does the trick though.
VP: Five words to describe the past week?
AV: Five words to describe my past week?- Physical, productive, exciting, disappointing, pro-active