Toyah Willcox, the high priestess of punk, on her 40-year career

Toyah Willcox has forged a reputation as a talented actress, singer/songwriter, producer, storyteller, television presenter and author during a career that spans four decades.

Toyah has teamed up with Hazel OConnor for a new show due in Yorkshire later this year.

Arguably one of the most prolific artists of her generation, her creativity remains undimmed. And now, in homage to post-punk and new wave music, the star has teamed up with Hazel O’Connor for a new show, aptly named Electric Ladies Of the Eighties, due in Yorkshire later this year, all things being well by then.

So where did the idea for the show come from? “This is something Hazel and I have been planning for 40 years. Ironically, we’d both been too busy doing other things so this is the first time we’ve ever actually toured together in this way, so we’re both very excited,” says Willcox.

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“Hazel will be performing Breaking Glass and I’ll do Quadrophenia so there’s a lot of material that the audience will be very familiar with. We’ll be inviting everyone to join in and sing along with their favourite songs. It’s going to be one of those shows that is warm, welcoming with lots of great music and a real feel good factor.”

Singer Toyah Willcox says much of her audience has followed her for 40 years and are like a community. Picture: Gary Longbottom

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At a time when the music industry was jaded by repetition, Toyah’s unique sound, high energy and stunning visual imagery was like a breath of fresh air for a whole generation of rebellious teenagers. Four decades later, her concerts are still a magnet for youth.

“I look out at my audiences and I’m delighted to see so many young people,” she tells me. “A little while back I was doing a concert and I noticed an older couple sitting at the back wrapped in blankets. All around them, younger men and women were singing and dancing, having a great time. Then further down, all the 20-year-olds were sitting in the front rows.

"The diversity is amazing. I think it’s all down to YouTube and the internet. I mean whenever I do a show, everyone is standing up, holding their phones, filming the entire performance. It’s very strange and I often wonder why they just don’t sit down and watch it.

"But the thing is, five minutes after I’ve left the stage, all that material is up online and is watched around the world. I think that young people see it and hear the music and discover something they really like.”

Technology is one of society’s most valuable tools but for young artists hoping to find fame through social media, Toyah has a few words of advice.

“Don’t look to the internet for verification,” she cautions. “What I’d say to young people is, know yourself. If you go onto social media looking for support or strength you’ll realise that you can only find these things within yourself.”

Citing the tragic case of Caroline Flack as an example, she points out the psychological harm social media can inflict. “She was made to feel so alone in the world and it appears to be related to social media.

"I think that the years of having to be an artist through that medium chipped away at her and so, what I’d say to young people is, know yourself, be yourself. That way, if there’s a keyboard warrior who is attacking you, you will know it means nothing, the world still goes on.”

Whatever the merits of social media platforms, Toyah says it’s hard to beat a live, on stage performance. “That’s how you hone your craft. It’s nothing to do with fame. When you’re performing live you’re learning to become a better musician, a better singer and a better writer.

"I mean it may sound silly after 40 years in the business, but I am constantly learning, getting to know more about my music and my audiences.”

Over the years, Toyah has developed a special bond with her fans affectionately referring to them as her ‘exclusive club’. “I have people who have followed and supported me for over 40 years now. My audiences are extremely friendly and they feel like a community.

"I always want to give them my very best. You know, I don’t go to a concert to have a jolly or a party. I live for that moment on stage. It’s the most important part of that day for me.”

Well-known for challenging artistic boundaries, at 61, Toyah is currently exploding a few myths, including the one that says as we get older we must slow down. “As you get older you have to tell your body what you want it to do. That means a lot of stretching, lots of exercises to maximise joint movement. I think yoga is best for that. I do physio every day.

"I’ve been taught a special routine that helps me do posture realignment, which sounds a lot grander than it actually is. I never do anything that hurts me, there’s just no point. On the day of a concert, I treat myself like a sport’s person – eat well, move, stretch and don’t do what your body really doesn’t want to do.”

Born with some serious health issues, including a twisted spine, no hip sockets, complex foot problems and one leg shorter than the other, Toyah’s early years were marred by pain. At school, her battle with dyslexia, a relatively unknown condition at the time, left her academically short-changed and she finished her education with just one O-level in music.

Nowadays, dyslexia is better understood but Toyah believes the education system could do better. “I agree there is more understanding today and people who are dyslexic are no longer considered dumb. I was actually quite lucky that, in my school, I had two teachers who saw that I was exceptional, one was my art teacher the other (taught) English.

"The problem with school is that it is part of a system and it is very hard to step outside that, so if you have someone who has a super IQ but cannot perform well in exams, then that person is in big trouble. I think the most important thing we can do is to encourage individuality.

"Parents need to be involved with the development of their child’s individuality. I mean, If children can’t excel at school because of dyslexia, parents need to give them the confidence to be the individual they are. You can’t hold someone back simply because they don’t fit the system.”

To describe the singer’s schedule as busy would be an understatement. She is the first to admit that work is her raison d’etre. It seems, a strong work ethic is a family trait. “My grandfather was a Lincolnshire man and I was told that, at 19, he walked from Lincoln to Birmingham, pushing a wheelbarrow full of tools, to find work. Whether or not he made a detour to Yorkshire, I’m not sure.”

Her versatility means she is not short of job offers. “I’ve been asked to be part of a major ballet company, but I try to choose things my audience would like to see.”

That said, don’t be surprised to see the high priestess of punk doing opera one day. “Well, I could break my own boundaries and surprise people. I never say ‘no’ to anything.”

Due to coronavirus, The Electric Ladies of the Eighties event has been postponed to September 17 at the Picturedrome, Holmfirth. For details visit www.toyahwillcox.com

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