Cosey Fanni Tutti: 'I got quite close to Delia Derbyshire in a strange kind of way'

It’s now nearly 50 years since Cosey Fanni Tutti left Hull for London on the first stage of a journey of artistic enquiry that has taken her through COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle to adult magazines, electronic music and latterday acclaim as an author.
Cosey Fanni Tutti. Picture: Chris CarterCosey Fanni Tutti. Picture: Chris Carter
Cosey Fanni Tutti. Picture: Chris Carter

Along the way she has encountered her fair share of controversy – the music and performance art collective COUM were described in the House of Commons by the Tory MP Nicholas Fairburn as “wreckers of Western civilisation” – but recent years have seen greater mainstream acknowledgement of her pioneering role in many media. The 2017 COUM retrospective exhibition during Hull City of Culture was widely praised.

She’s now back with a new album of film music which she wrote for Caroline Catz’s biopic of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer Delia Derbyshire and her second book, Re-sisters, in which she examines the lives and legacies of Derbyshire and the 15th century religious visionary Margery Kempe alongside her own outsider art.

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Tutti’s soundtrack for the film Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes developed organically after she and Catz met a Throbbing Gristle event in London. “When I got the first script from Caroline she had highlighted parts of the scenes where she envisaged a particular kind of sound to go with the images,” Tutti says. “So we met up, she came here (to Tutti’s present-day home in Kings Lynn), and we went through the script a number of times because it kept moving and being rewritten for various reasons. We talked about what kind of sounds she thought would work and I discussed them with her, then I did a load of pieces like that for her to see if I was on the right path.

“It was symbiotic how we were over this whole film thing about Delia and the soundtrack. When I sent her the things they were all spot on for what she thought she needed, so that’s how it developed.

“The film hadn’t been shot at that point but the music added something to her feel for the film as she shot it, and that’s what she needed from me as well. It was a real collaborative thing in that respect.”

Tutti gleaned much about the way Derbyshire, best known for her electronic arrangement of the theme tune to Doctor Who, created her otherworldly sounds from visiting her archive at the University of Manchester.

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“You could listen to her working process because within those files there was the starting point for something which she’d recorded for sound that she liked and then process of how she manipulated that you could hear right through to the end point for the piece of music that she had the brief for,” she says. “That was really good for me because I understood then what kind of sounds were inspirational to her.

“It’s quite strange because I was just finishing mastering my solo album and the kind of sounds that I was working with were very similar in frequency. There were different kinds of drones she used, she’d cut them up and use them in different ways, but the initial point of that sound that she took as inspiration I was well into that myself.”

Tutti found other parallels too in the sexism they both encountered in the music and arts worlds. “A lot of things she had to put up with as a woman doing music and as an artist I kind of experienced myself; I think those were the surprises for me,” she says.

“There were certain things in her personal life as well that were very difficult for her, but the way that she handled those was no surprise to me because Caroline had done seven or eight years’ research before she started the film, so there was a whole load of information about Delia that I had access to through Caroline. We discussed what we felt her emotions were at certain points, and I got quite close to her in a strange kind of way of accessing her emotions.

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“I interviewed a lot of her colleagues and personal friends for my book as well, separate to Caroline’s film. I think some of the surprises came from Clive (Blackburn), her long-term partner towards the end of her life. I had an interview with him and then email exchanges about that very one-to-one relationship they had which was wonderful.”

Tutti’s intention with the music for the film was both to pay homage to Derbyshire and use her work as the starting point for her own sonic explorations. “I was there to represent Delia but with my 21st century mindset,” she says. “Also thinking of her and how she’d influenced electronic music from her own work. I wanted to do what I call ‘Delia’ sounds, things that would sound like her but weren’t, they were a mix of me and her.”

Although recorded in the 1960s and 70s, Derbyshire’s music for the Radiophonic Workshop and projects such as White Noise and Blue Veils and Golden Sands still sounds futuristic today. Tutti thinks it is “outrageous” that it has taken so long for it to be properly appreciated. “But I think I address that point in the book,” she says. “There is a lot of male recognition and no matter how much input women might have had into those projects they seem to have been sidelined. Under the umbrella name, they’re referred to as ‘the men of the Radiophonic Workshop’ and they forget that not only Delia worked there but Maddalena (Fagandini) worked there and other people after her.”

As Tutti recognises in her book, Derbyshire struggled with patriarchal institutions much like herself. “She, like me, didn’t regard herself as a separate being to men; she was a person like they were,” she says. “It’s very difficult when you have that attitude about yourself to accept being treated differently, and there are moments when it’s really obvious. Along that trajectory of working with other people, whether they’re men or women, you’re just artists or musicians and you’re doing a project together as a collaboration and gender or sex does not come into it. So when you’re suddenly caught up short (feeling) ‘Hang on a minute, this is because I’m female, why suddenly am I being separated from what we’re doing together?’ it has no place there at all.

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“So that to me was a big thing that connected me to Delia, and her spirit – she wouldn’t allow things to stop her doing what she wanted to do, which is like me.

“On the personal side of things, which is misogyny again about how females are treated by males and how we have to cope with that.”

As regards Margery Kempe, Tutti explains her interest was began when she came across a book on on the medieval mystic, who wrote the first autobiography in English, ​​​​​​​in a shop in Kings Lynn. “I think what really piqued my interest was when I read that she was called ’the madwoman of God’ and I thought, ‘my goodness, that’s quite a title,” she says. “It’s a bit like the ‘wrecker of civilisation’ that was given to me. That started me thinking, why did she get called that? She must have done something ​​​​​​​outrageous, so I read about her.

“I was just thinking this was ​​​​​​​extraordinary for a woman to have written her autobiography​​​​​​​ and then what she’s done throughout her life. She just decided what she was going to do, how she was going to live her life ​​​​​​and how to navigate around all the obstacles she would have thrown ​​​​​​​in her face.

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“She was travelling thousands of miles on the pilgrimages and surviving. People weren’t expected to survive (then), they would have to write their will before they went.”

Key to relating to Kempe’s experiences of misogyny in the 15th century, she says, was recognising it was “so different”. “Margery lived in pre-Enlightenment so she didn’t have access to the knowledge that we have now, so we wouldn’t been have been able to understand why she was being treated so differently. It was accepted, it was the culture of the time, that women were subordinate and basically did as they were told. That was what was amazing about Margery, because she repeatedly didn’t. If other women stepped outside those roles, whether it’s to do with religion or society, they were punished and learnt their lesson and did as they were told, but she wasn’t like that. She had total faith in God and she only answered to him.”

From being a young child, Tutti also pursued her own path but it has not always been easy. In her memoir Art Sex Music she recalled tough moments with her abusive ex-partner Genesis P Orridge; today, she says what sustained was self-belief. “What was being done to me was wrong and there was no reason for it being done. I had a belief in myself that they were wrong and I was right, that’s what drove me forward. I didn’t do anything to harm anyone, to be treated the way I was, was worse than unreasonable, it was unconscionable, really. I think being from Hull, people are very strong​​​​​​​ characters, they’ve had a lot to deal with. Chris (Carter, her longtime partner) is always saying to me, you’re from Yorkshire, you do what you want when you want to who you want, but that’s not totally true. It’s just a saying that says I know myself, I know my place and I know what is right and wrong, and if it’s right then I’ll go on.”

​​​​​​​As well as the soundtrack album and the book, Tutti has also been closely involved in a film adaptation of her memoir Art Sex Music. She says it has not been as strange as she thought it would be watching someone else play her during the casting. ​​​​​​​”I think because I’d read the script and written the book, so I’d not left it all behind but it was settled in my mind about it being in the past and how things have transpired and been assimilated, so when it came to watching the casting tapes I was looking at it more objectively,” she says. “Does this person get across how I felt? Do they say it with the right kind of Yorkshire accent – which is very important. ​​​​​​And are they imprinting something of themselves in it which was what I didn’t want. The actor that was chosen was marvellous, I didn’t even think of anything being wrong with her casting tape at all. All of them were amazing but there was something which slipped in comfortably with this one.”

The album Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes is out now. Re-Sisters is published by Faber, £18.99.