Interview: PAULINE MURRAY (PENETRATION)


It's 40 years since punk explodes all over the world. You've had first gig in october 76 and the Sex Pistols were a huge inspiration. What can you tell me about that? That vibe and emotions of an era?
I had been going to see bands from the age of 14 and was greatly inspired by Bowie, Roxy Music, The New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Cockney Rebel - glam rock. These bands seemed untouchable and were usually playing in large venues. When I saw the Sex Pistols for the first time in 1976 it was in a tiny night club in Northallerton, Yorkshire. They were like nothing I'd seen before. The energy was electric, the sound primitive, the attitude startling and threatening, their appearance colourful and disheveled and the local audience just stared in disbelief. This was something new and you would either love or hate it. The emotions stirred up were something I'd never encountered before. We already had a band and were doing covers of Roadrunner (Jonathan Richman), Pills (New York Dolls) but seeing the Pistols instilled a sense of urgency and we began organising gigs and writing our own material. Our first gig with a settled line-up was at the Roxy in London, April 1977. We were 18 years old and felt that this was our time!

What does punk mean to you? Then and now? What kind of sweet bitter memories brings you?
At the time, punk meant turning your back on most things that had gone before and stepping into unchartered territory, getting out there and making things happen. It shone a light onto things that were hidden in society and revelealed the hypocrisy and small–mindedness all around. It was dangerous yet liberating and inspired and gave people a platform to express themselves through music, lyrics, poetry, clothes, fanzines, journalism, art, politics and being in the audience alligning themselves with the movement. It uncovered issues such as racism, bigotry and gave an insight into the smoke and mirrors of the music business and the establishment as a whole. Young people came together and felt like they could change things. Lifelong friendships were forged and people were altered and transformed by the new way of thinking. When the mainstream media absorbed all the elements, they presented it as a cliche and turned it into the lowest common denominator. The musical format and visual style became set in stone and soon became restricting for bands such as ourselves. Punk originally meant expressing yourself in your own unique way and all the initial bands sounded different to each other but were propelled by the punk attitude. Punks are still outsiders and there is a worldwide community of people who have grown up together. Punk gave me the courage to be the person I am today.

But by the time of you second album Coming Up For Air, you were finding the rock format intolerable...What was the trap? There are some great tracks on there: Come Into the Open and Shout Above the Noise. What happend then?
When we formed the band, we were totally inexperienced as songwriters, musicians and performers so each step was exciting, challenging and we improved massively in a short space of time. We didn't know how long this would last but just kept moving forward. Things moved at such a fast pace that there was no time to think. When Gary (Chaplin) left the band we replaced him and were by now playing live all the time. When Fred joined we had been playing the material on Moving Targets live and had all the songs. For Coming Up for Air we had to write with the band as it stood. We had mastered our skills on a steep learning curve, lost the punk charm and turned into a rock band. We were now part of the music business with managers, agents, record companies and deadlines to meet. We were touring constantly and it was difficult to get an overview of the music. There are some great tracks on the album but things were beginning to fall apart. Neale said that he was leaving the band and I felt that I had had enough.

From Penetration to The Invisible Girls. And your lyirics are often more and more intense, from track to track also autobiographical... Do you agree?
I always think of Penetration as physical, energetic, intense and outward looking. The Invisible Girls lyrics are more personal, gentler and introspective. I had time to reflect and was able to write more personal songs that were not tied to the punk genre. I could catch up with myself and was not restricted to a regular band. Working with Martin Hannett and The Invisible Girls was challenging and yet another learning curve but we sometimes have to step out of our comfort zone to expand our horizons.

What comes first words or melody... or let me ask you other way, how are born your songs? How would you describe the experience of writing a song and then recording the album?
With Penetration, the songwriting process usually involves the guitarists bringing in individual ideas. Sometimes these are grafted together to form a framework for the song. The ideas have to inspire me and I'm usually involved in the arrangement as I imagine where the vocals will go. Once the song is arranged, the band can start to work on it. I go away and work on the lyrics and melody. Sometimes the music can inspire the lyrics or I have an idea that I want to express. Then I have to find a melody that fits with the lyrics and make the song work as a whole piece. Sometimes I have a melody and have to find words that fit.This was the same process with the Invisible Girls with Rob generating the initial musical ideas. It was at this point that I started to write songs on my own with tracks such as Dream Sequence and Sympathy. My own methods are similar but much simpler and more linear. Occasionally I write the lyrics first as in Don't Give Up from the Storm Clouds album.

You are great songwriter, the guitar player, the singer, performer, arranger; how do you feel in all these incarnations of specific music art?
When I started at 18 years of age, I had absolutely no experience in music. I wrote lyrics out of necessity, sang in my own way and had never been onstage before. Obviously the more you do something, the better you get and I have always strived to improve on previous efforts. I always want to go a step further. I have reached a point now where I can recognise all of these skills which are unique to me as they have all been self taught. I have always found writing lyrics to be quite difficult, singing to be easy and natural, performing to be intense, arranging to be instinctive and guitar playing to be limited. It's quite a specific skill set brought about by what I have learned in music over the years.

The inner force is the most important and powerful thing in the human being. The way you think, behave, how you tolerate the world, says all about you. Your work and words on the latest album will certainly inspire someone; what do you think about that?
I hope to connect with people as fellow human beings as we all try to make sense of the world we live in. I'm trying to put messages across but try to find an interesting inclusive way to do this. Whilst the words may seem obscure they all fit together in my own mind. Then you have the musical aspect which also conveys emotions. Plus the human voice is a powerful tool. The songs on the album work on many different levels. You can just listen to the guitars or drums or the singing or the lyrics. It's mixed in a way that this is possible. Or you can listen to it as one piece of work. It involves and engages the listener, hopefully.

You don't want to talk a lot about your past, still I dare to ask you; do you regret any life decisions in your past?
I have no regrets about any descisions. Everything's for a reason and mistakes and challenges are usually part of a learning curve. Regrets are usually about missed opportunities and I think I have risen to any challenges that present themselves. When I retired from music at the age of 23 it was because I was physically and mentally exhausted and needed to put myself back together like a broken vase. I've had so many different experiences in life and have learned from them all. I've also done most things on my own terms so there is no-one else to blame!

How did you change within the years ( when you where 30, 40, 50), what are your experiences about being a woman artist in this chaotic music business?
When I was 30, I put music behind me and concentrated on making a living and moving forward personally. I rented a building in Newcastle-Upon Tyne and opened up music rehearsal studios which is still running today. I have two children so that took a lot of attention and energy! At 40 we re-formed Penetration and began playing live shows again but it had to fit with us. In my 50's we have done live shows, recorded a new Penetration album and I have performed acoustically. I think music is a difficult business for both male and female. I've never had an issue about being a woman in music. I think the punk women (and men) entered with a different attitude- most were probably not meant to be in music- they just fearlessly got up and did it and weren't seriously intending to have a long term career. The open-mindedness of the time mean't that women were treated with respect and as equals which is how things should be.

Like monodrama in teater, songwriters concerts are intense happenings, where all the scenario is on the artist and artist alone. Does it suits you? How comforable are you under your skin, when you perform? Especially when you do your acoustic solo shows last year...
When Penetration first started we were an architypal punk band- aggressive, angry- fitting right into that role. I had never performed before so just went with the flow. Those early gigs were really rough and you had to be super tough to survive those situations and audiences- violence, spitting and general high spirits. Plus the music really wound you up. It was more performing in the unpredictale moment than stage craft! I would often be sick after a show. I am quite a quiet person by nature so it was almost like stepping into another aspect of myself. The more we performed, the more predictable it became as you learn as you go along. With the Invisible Girls it was totally different as the music was much more controlled. There were no surges of energy and I had to concentrate on singing rather than performing. Since re-forming Penetration, I have so much experience behind me that I am comfortable with what I do. I began doing acoustic performances by chance. Martin Stephenson put me on a bill with Viv Albertine, Gina Birch and Helen McCookerybook. I had to learn to play the guitar and sing and was way out of my comfort zone. It's something I'd never done before and was terrifying. Yet it was also strangely liberating to not rely on a band and strip things down to the simplest level. I still have a long way to go but have improved massively since I started and it takes you closer to the essence of the song and the person/artist. I feel it is a fear to be conquered.

Is your approch to songwriting different now, after all these years? Is it possible to say what it is that makes you write songs?
My approach is fundamentally the same with the band. The music has to inspire me. My latest solo songs have been written on acoustic guitar. Lyrics and melodies are all in place. We will be putting music to those which is the opposite of how we usually work. I have to have an interesting idea to explore initially- there has to be some meaning- if only for myself. I began writing lyrics and tunes when the band first formed out of necessesity. As I was the singer, I had find lyrics and ideas that I was happy to sing and it's the same now.

After 35 years a new, great album from Penetration. Can you tell me something more about that? When did you first decide to make Resolution?
I was afraid to make a new album as I wasn't confident that we could better our previous iconic work. It was Rob who pushed for it as he saw that as the way forward for the current band. He set up the Pledge campaign in January 2015 and there was no going back once people started to pay for it. He mapped out who was involved from John Maher on drums, Fred Pursers recording involvement and Vaughan Olivers sleeve design. They were all good descisions that really added to the project. It was an act of faith on my behalf and everyone involved did a tremendous job. We were really satisfied with the results.

You have put Resolution out on your own label Polestar. There are + and – aspects about that; anyway... how difeerent is music business nowadays compare from the past?
We raised the finances to make the album via Pledgemusic. We did everything ourselves and had no contact with the music business while we were recording it. There was a tremendous amount of work involved throughout the whole process. It came out on Polestar as that is our label and everything was done in-house. No-one else showed any interest doing it! Rob was in charge of the project and had the lions share of the work. The plus side to this is that we could do anything we wanted- no compromise but the down side is that we just don't have the resources to take anything further than our own parameters. We have never been approached by established record companies and there are plusses and minuss to everything. When we engaged with distributors, things became difficult and these companies take as much as they can. The same people are running the music business as they were 40 years ago. I call them gatekeepers and they still run the show.

The title name of the album means a lot of things, .could you tell us for example, what is for you Resolution?
It's a title that popped into my head. It suggests that something is resolved, though the word doesn't mean that. It sounds like Revolution and fits with Penetration. The word Resolution means intention, descision, intent, aim, aspiration, design, purpose, object, plan, commitment, pledge, promise and undertaking. This is how we approached the album and the title seems to fit perfectly.

What are your future plans? Any gigs in Europe? A new book written by you... or a your new album?
I'm going to France for the whole of October with Rob and we are taking our recording equipment with us. We'll be interpreting my solo songs electronically. I've been performing them with only acoustic guitar so it should be interesting to see how they turn out. In December we will re-convene with the band and work on some tracks that we started earlier this year. We will experiment with new ways of working so that it's not just carrying on from the last album- treating it as a new project so to speak. We would love to play in Europe but don't have any promoters in place just yet. This is a downside of doing everything ourselves. I started writing my life story a while ago. It's mainly something to hand down to my children ( I think everyone should write their life story at some stage). Once it is completed, I will see if it translates into something for public consumption. So in 2017 it would be good to have a solo album and new Penetration album released.

(Rock Obrobje, October 2016)

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