The Versatile Hugh Cornwell: 'Always Give People What You Want for Yourself'

Of his new novel, Hugh Cornwell says "it's likemeetsmeets. It's a Dickensian tale, a black comedy."

Of his new novel Arnold Drive, Hugh Cornwell says "it's like Being There meets Forrest Gump meets Father Ted. It's a Dickensian tale, a black comedy."

The novel tells the story of a Wiltshire vicar whose religious career is suddenly brought to an end, forcing him to re-evaluate his place in society; it's one man's journey, to discover his long-suppressed inner self. It perhaps also casts a revelatory light upon Hugh Cornwell himself, given that the very soul who lent himself to The Stranglers and to a long solo career is one that still restlessly searches for things to engage him, artistically speaking.

"I get bored easily," he tells me over a plate of eggs and smoked salmon out west in Notting Hill. "I'm constantly looking forward to the new thing I'll be doing and it's not always music. So it's a challenge to finish things off. And I like completion."

He speaks of how, when he was in The Stranglers - a British band of unique inventiveness that pre-dated and outlasted punk and New Wave - they were, as band members, at the mercy of each other, as well as of the scheduling of the record company. "We had to do things when it suited everybody. But as a solo artist, it's much easier to be flexible."

Cornwell learned his songwriting craft from a golden age, and like contemporaries such as Lydon, Costello and Strummer, knew well the power of poetry encased in the three-minute pop song, The Stranglers' classic Golden Brown (1981) being a case in point. "That song was written in 15 minutes by me and Dave [Greenfield]. Jet Black realised what we had and said it was going to be a smash. Jean [-Jacques Burnel] didn't like it because it wasn't rock. I thought it was a dainty little song.

"I was brought up in the era of the classic songwriter. As a teenager I'd stand in the entrance of The Marquee and pat musicians like Steve Winwood on the back as they made their way through the corridors. I took my cue from guys like him. Growing up in the era of The Who, The Kinks and The Beatles was like going to the best music college you could ever go to."

But what's left to do after a career as fecund as his? "Well, I've never been married or had children. But to be honest, how would either fit into my life right now?"

Cornwell's other home in Wiltshire hints at a man who also needs a measure of peace and quiet. "Writing isn't a lonely thing to do because you're there with your characters, with your people. But I also like the art of performing, the idea of communication with an audience. Never make it repetitious, which is perhaps the reason why some people get addicted to touring because every day is a different experience. Always give people what you want for yourself."

When asked if gigging is life-affirming, he's quick to say yes. "I've no idea what my contribution has been to popular music, but I started off as a bass player at school, took up the acoustic guitar at university, then an electric in Sweden; after that I started writing songs. It's a skill that you learn.

"Making money as a gigging artist is still an issue because you still have to pay bills, but I've come to the conclusion that issuing material on digital [formats] is pointless because that's the end of your income. Issue it on a physical product. Go back to vinyl!

"Before the gramophone was invented, musicians and composers had to perform their work. And the sheet music they sold was their merchandise. We're heading back to that situation, so if you can't perform, you don't have a livelihood.

"But as you age, and if you're creative, you cannot allow cynicism to get you down. Negative thoughts must be banished. Luckily I can survive by doing exactly want I want, and when I want to do it."

As the lead singer and lyricist of The Stranglers, a band which he's been out of for longer than he was in it, Cornwell still possesses the abstraction of thought one might more commonly attribute to a one-time art school student. "I toyed with the idea of going to an art school but I ended up getting a biochemistry degree from Bristol University." He tells me he recently performed at the university to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the biochemistry department. "I met the new generation of biochemistry professors, who live like Damien Hirst, directing teams of lab staff. They, as scientists, are creative. So there's creativity in almost anything, if you want there to be."

Currently making promo films for each track of his new album Totem & Taboo, Cornwell occupies a unique place in the music world, utilising wisdom accrued from a gilt-edged past to invest in a future that must be different.

He says the high points of his creative career are almost too numerous to count: "There was our first record, finishing the first novel, the first solo records. All the firsts. Those are the great feelings, the first time you experience something."

It strikes me that his quest has been a brave one. "Intellectually, I think I am brave. And frankly, if you're not brave in life, what are you? You've got to follow your instincts because the secret of doing anything is self-belief."

Photograph by Kevin Nixon


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