❉ The Queen of Rock on duetting with Meat Loaf, grooving with The Clash, Mick Ronson, and her first solo album in eight years.
It’s late June, and Ellen Foley is tending to her dog. She’s startled by the barking, but contains the animal long enough to return to the Zoom call.
“I had been working with Paul Foglino, the man who composed all the songs, since 2008,” Foley begins. “We were in a show where he composed all the music for a theatre piece. And then it just became a natural progression, that he suggested that we work together. At first it was going to be a Stones tribute band, or something.”
Given their combined talents, it would have been a waste to watch the pair fronting a tribute band of any kind. Luckily in the end Foglino offered to write an album for her. “We spent a lot of time together, and then we put a band together, and it was an actual way of doing it, that I hadn’t really done before.”
She giggles at her pet. “It was an actual way of doing it,” she says, “and we were performing it… That became the first record we did, in 2013, and this was already five years after we had started, which was called About Time. And that was around, and I started touring on my own over in Belgium and Holland [sic].In the meantime, he was coming up with songs, and brought them to me. Of course we did demos in my living room, and decided which songs…”
She pauses for the right word: “It was all done individually, the way people might have been doing it, or have been doing it during the pandemic, but it was before the pandemic. He made some rhythm tracks, and sent them to the keyboard player… Sent them to the vocalist, or background vocalist… Sent them to the guitarist, and brought all that to me. He had Pro Tools on his computer, and we did the vocals in my living room.”
Foley smiles knowingly, anxious to hear what We Are Cult might ask about her musical history. As there is much to select from, whether it’s rocking out with Meat Loaf on his valedictorian anthems, or grooving with The Clash, an outfit who served as her inhouse band on the excellent Spirit of St.Louis.
Night Out is her best loved solo album, a piercing portrait of late seventies rock, spearheaded by Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson. “The biggest experience I had, I guess, was in the first record with the band Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter put together. And that was organic, that was a real band experience.Some of it was sung live, but it was definitely everybody in the same room together. That being my first experience with a solo album, it was a really fabulous way to start.”
Ronson, who produced such classics as Transformer and Your Arsenal, sadly died in 1993, but there’s nothing from Foley’s end but compliments for the arranger. “I always say about Mick [Ronson] is that you didn’t know what he was thinking until he actually did it,” she explains. “Because he actively played on his ideas more than talking about it and making it [does air quotes] ‘academic’. He would say, ‘How about this?’, and he would play it and you would do your take from there.”
Foley agrees that Torchlight is the undisputed highlight on her second album, but when we suggest Mick Jones had the best voice in The Clash, she’s a little cagier in her response. “I don’t think that for Joe Strummer it was about hitting the notes; it was more about getting the ideas over, and getting the whole emotion thing out there. So yeah, that’s probably not a popular thing to say.[But] I think Mick has a more melodic thing going on.”
She may have inspired Jones’ stomping Should I Stay or Should I Go , but more importantly, she guested on their sprawling Sandinista! album in 1980. “Hitsville UK was fun. Once again, things that are up and positive and feel good. And it was about the idea of creating something from nothing-the punk scene was. And it reminded me of the ‘Hitsville USA’ that I grew up with…The whole Motown thing. But it was so much fun: it was about me being able to track my own voice many times. That whole little choir is me and my voice.Mick Jones sang ‘Remember’, and I sang all the ‘nah nah nah nah’, and to me it’s like a children’s choir. I think it’s really sweet.”
Even at seventy, Foley sings with tremendous gusto, and this album demonstrates her vocal style, from the achingly naked (I Call My Pain by Your Name), to the bolstering vocal performance that appears on Heaven Can Wait. We suspect there’s some Janis Joplin heard in the mix, but Foley isn’t convinced by the comparison.
“I like Joplin,” she says, “but as time went on, I found it too unmusical. Too much screaming and not enough singing.”
She stops herself: “I appreciate you saying that. Maybe at some points where I decide to ‘rough it up’… But really, she’s basically a straight forward blues singer, and that’s not really my strength. But I do have a blues song on this record, I Found A Love. But for the most part that isn’t what I do, so I wouldn’t name her as an absolute inspiration.”
And then she steps up: “I would say that my biggest inspiration as a singer is Mick Jagger. And then Streisand, when I was a kid, I would listen to all the Streisand records.” She gushes over Streisand’s métier, before her eyes return to The Stones. “Jagger has the attitude, the kind of [imitates a Jagger clap]. A friend of mine described the vocals on this record as, ‘100% commitment, and no fucks given!’”
Fighting Words holds an anarchic spirit that feels like it was taken from a beggar’s banquet, and she’s understandably excited by the material. “I like a lot of the songs,” she admits. “I think I like that single with Karla DeVito, I’m Just Happy To Be Here. I love the way it starts right into it [imitates guitar sound], and just the idea of it.. It’s so ‘up’, and it’s got a sense of humour about it. Another song I really like, and it will probably be not paid so much attention to, is Fill Your Cup. It’s just very simple: acoustic guitar, and about generosity. For me, it’s about family, and taking care of people.”
She’s keen to remind readers to do “their vocals on Pro Tool in their living room,” and remembers Jim Steinman, the rock librettist, with great fondness. “Heaven Can Wait has always had a huge place in my heart, ever since I first sang it in, I think, 1977. I’ve always sung it and performed it. I did a show in 1977 with Jim Steinman: Neverland. As you know, he’s always had The Lost Boys, the Peter Pan theme to his stuff… This was the first iteration of that, and I played Wendy in that, and I sang Heaven Can Wait then.”
The pet is looking knowingly at us, as if telling us to wrap up the interview. Where does the album stand in the canon of Foley’s catalogue? “I’d say it stands behind the Night Out record, doing Into The Woods on Broadway. That’s an incredible show, where I got to play The Witch, and one of the producers said to me, ‘You’re like a female Mick Jagger!’ Of course, probably in front of everything was Paradise. Because, as I said, when Jim Steinman died, I wrote a little thing, I said, ‘Stop Right There’. Three words that gave me a career, words that had worldwide consequences. But it’s really close up there, because it’s the first time in a long time that I’m feeling I can get out there and communicate with people like you [points at me], because I’ve this great guy called Randy, and he has me interviewing with people from Brazil, Czechoslovakia… It’s really giving me some…” The word escapes her: “It’s giving people some awareness that I’m still out there, and I think I’m able to still do it, and that makes me feel good.”
She’s not the only one!
❉ “Are You Good Enough” is out now digitally with the full-length album ‘Fighting Words’ (August 6 2021) available for pre-order at Bandcamp via Urban Noise Music in both autographed and standard CD formats, as well as digital download.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Eoghan Lyng is the author of ‘U2: Every Album, Every Song’ which is out now and available from Sonicbond Publishing, RRP £14.99 (ISBN 1789520789). Follow him on Twitter. Visit his homepage.