Chrissie Hynde: Still going down the middle of the road

[As published in the Austin American-Statesman, Nov. 15, 2014.]

I was looking forward to interviewing Chrissie Hynde but couldn’t help wondering about the mood in which I’d find the 63-year-old rock legend when she phoned from London at the appointed hour. Surely Hynde, about to embark on her first tour without the Pretenders label, though still with a backing quartet, had nothing left to prove after millions of album sales and decades of searing, honest, original music. Would she be in the habit of eating journalists alive as if they were so many veggie burritos? Would she answer my questions in bored monosyllables before cutting the interview short to give equally bored answers to my counterparts in Boston, Chicago, Denver and Dallas?

Well, no and no. After a free-flowing conversation on topics ranging from the current state of South by Southwest (her mood: curious) to audiences’ current mass obsession with smartphones and selfies (dislikes in the extreme) to the comeback of vinyl records (likes) to Amy Winehouse (admired her individuality and her unique take on a retro sound) to the state of music on the radio (great in the ’50s and ’60s, not so great from the ’80s onward, but could be getting good again), I’ve concluded that Hynde is either the most self-effacing, unpretentious major rock star of all time or missed her true calling as an actress. Does she really not think of herself as anything special, just another rock singer and guitarist in a touring band?

Pun intended, I don’t think she was pretending.

This was Hynde’s response when I asked whether she’d rather be known as a performer or a songwriter:

“I don’t really care how I’m known, y’know? As long as I can write songs, I’ll make records. The only thing I don’t want to be known as is a celebrity. Anything but that.”

Since Hynde possesses such a distinctive, expressive singing voice, I ask if she’d ever had any formal vocal training.

“Well, y’know, this is rock ‘n’ roll,” she says. “You can’t learn this stuff in school. It’s not a technical thing — you just listen to the radio and then copy it. I suppose if you were in theater or opera and you have to project certain ways, obviously there are technical abilities that some singers have to have, but not if you’re a rock singer.”

Well, OK, then.

Despite being a Londoner since the ’70s, Hynde retains the accent and rapid-fire speaking style of a gum-chewing waitress in an Akron diner, which, she implies, could have very well been her fate if not for sheer chance and good timing. When I ask if she’s enjoying her life, she retorts, “Hey, I get to play guitar in a rock band! Are you kidding me? Can you think of anything better? I’m even a (expletive meaning “terrible”) guitar player! On top of that, thank God for punk, I found a way to slip through the net. But I’m not very ambitious. All I wanted was to play guitar in a band, so I lucked out, man.”

After heading various incarnations of the Pretenders for three decades, Hynde released the album “Stockholm” under her own name last June. She co-wrote most of the tracks with Bjorn Yttling, of the Swedish group Peter Bjorn and John, using mainly Swedish musicians. Though Yttling’s production is on the commercial side and it lacks the song-to-song hairpin turns of the brilliant early Pretenders albums, it’s decent enough, and Hynde’s patented tender/tough vocals land their intended effect.

It’s good, I note, to change things up every now and then.

“Yeah, every 40 years or so.”

Her penchant for wisecracks aside, Hynde has a few things to say about what it takes for a performer to have a sustained career. Just one decade in the spotlight, let alone three, now seems like an eternity in a world stuck on fast-forward.

“I guess I am an optimist,” she says. “I just sense that at the moment it feels quite good in music. I don’t know much about the technology, because to be perfectly honest, as soon as they brought in pushbutton radios I got lost. Let alone going on the Internet.”

For Hynde, “Middle of the Road” is more than just one of her old songs. “My personal discipline has been to try to stay in the middle, always, no matter what I’m doing,” she says. “If I buy a jacket and it comes in three sizes, I want a medium. You have to learn how to temper yourself and hold back till you get to the end.”

Hynde will always take a club over a stadium, and she praises the importance of local music scenes. “What could be better than to be in your town, and you know five or six other guys that are in bands? I mean, that’s where it’s at. And then all your girlfriends pile into a car and go out to your local club and see your favorite band. Isn’t that better than to go see a bunch of has-beens on stage in a stadium? Wouldn’t you rather see what’s going on right now in your local community, somebody that speaks to you, that talks about the air that you breathe and the water that you drink? That’s more relevant, and that’s got to be more fun, because it’s there, and it’s yours.”

Despite being active in various causes (most visibly, PETA), Hynde’s not into preaching from the stage. “I’m only there for people to enjoy themselves, really,” she says. “I’m certainly not trying to be controversial, or even thought-provoking. I have things to say if they’re interested, but you have to ask me for it. I found something out a long time ago: If someone doesn’t ask for advice and you give it to them, they’ll hate you for it.

“And as far as when we’re onstage, all I want is for at least one person to go home that night and say, ‘Wow, that was the best guitar player I ever saw.’ I mean, it won’t be me, it’ll be James Walbourne, but you know what I mean. I just want one person to go and say, ‘Wow, that was a rock ‘n’ roll band.’”

Hynde won’t be hitting up Franklin’s or La Barbecue, but she looks forward to stopping by nonetheless. “We love Austin,” she says. “Austin’s like rock central. Drag Willie Nelson along, but tell him to leave his vaporizer at home.”

When I tell her there’s actually a statue of Willie outside ACL Live, Hynde, after a beat, says, “A-MAZE-ing. Yeah. I was on his bus once and it took me three days to recover. I was only on the bus for 12 minutes, so, y’know, do the math.”

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