In Conversation With… Zoë Howe

Zoe Howe

Zoe Howe – image credit Melanie Smith

Zoë Howe, is a music author, musician and visual artist based by the Essex Riviera. She is married to the drummer Dylan Howe and they have a tortoise-shell cat called Marzipan. Zoë’s books include Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits (2009, Omnibus), Wilko Johnson – Looking Back At Me (2012), Stevie Nicks – Visions, Dreams & Rumours (2014, Omnibus), Barbed Wire Kisses – The Jesus and Mary Chain Story (2014, Polygon) and Lee Brilleaux – Rock ’n’ Roll Gentleman (2015, Polygon).
Zoë’s debut novel, Shine On, Marquee Moon, is out in September via Matador.


How did you end up doing the job you do?

By being crazy about rock ’n’ roll from a ridiculously young age! My dad, formerly a late night rock DJ, had a great record collection which he kindly allowed me to explore from a very early age (I treated it with great respect – at least, I think I did), plus my older sister had / has really great taste in pop. There was always a lot of passion for music in our house and I remain musically very greedy! I’m not a snob and have very eclectic taste to say the least. When people ask me what kind of music I’m into, I find it quite hard to answer.

What are you working on right now?

Book-wise, I have my debut novel Shine On, Marquee Moon coming out at the end of September. It’s a rock ’n’ roll love story, tinged with satire and dark humour. Rock chick lit. For boys as well as girls. It’s a bit nerve-racking, but also exciting – and I was utterly amazed and thrilled when I heard that it had been short-listed for the Virginia Prize For Fiction this year! That gave me such a boost.

I decided to self-publish it with the company Matador, who came highly recommended – they take care of the editing, production, distribution etc. I did have an opportunity to work with a publisher I’d not worked with before on this book, and I appreciated that offer very much, but I had made a positive choice to self-publish and decided to stick with my decision. It’s my first novel, it’s a personal project but also I think artists across the board should try to have more control over their work where possible. Self-publishing has changed, the stigma is disappearing. I chose to work with Matador because they put out really good-looking books and strive for quality. More and more established authors are encouraging new writers to self-publish. I think as long as you work with a discerning editor and ensure the book looks good, then it can be a great way to go.

At the launch of ‘Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits’ in July 2009, with Slits Tessa Pollitt and Viv Albertine.
At the launch of ‘Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits’ in July 2009, with Slits Tessa Pollitt and Viv Albertine.

I also play drums and percussion in a few bands. I’ve played since I was about 11. Southend has always had a fiercely vibrant music scene and I’m massively proud to be a part of this continuing thread of Estuarine rock ’n’ roll in my own small way.

Art-wise, as I write, I am sitting by some of my work in the esteemed Leigh Art Trail. I’m a guest artist this year, and very privileged to be so. This particular collection of collages I’m showing as part of the Trail is themed around dreams, enchantment and the heavens and it’s inside a cute little shed at the end of sculptor Karen Christensen’s garden. I’ve made a playlist to accompany it, as is my wont. Lots of Ink Spots, some Clint Mansell, Nico… it’s my strange little beach hut of dreams! I’m also preparing some work for a group show with the fab Piney Gir for next month at Islington’s White Conduit Gallery, which I’m really excited about.

Describe your first job

I was about 12 or 13 and worked part time in a local health shop. Groovy, man. In my excitement, I’d instantly spend my paltry wages on dried pieces of apple and sesame halva. Or I’d manage to save some and then to the charity shop (many of my clothes came from charity shops, or were hand me downs, or were charity shop hand me downs – thankfully it was the 90s when this sort of sartorial caper was de rigeur) or second hand record shop I’d go. Must have been a funny sight, on reflection – this little girl rummaging purposefully through the racks alongside lots of older blokes who looked like Nazareth roadies.

Then I did lots of waitressing in various caffs and at a kosher hotel which was like the Happiness Hotel in The Great Muppet Caper but with fewer musical numbers. I broke my fair share of crockery (saves on washing up). But I did well for tips in the hotel because I was one of the only members of waiting staff there who wasn’t routinely offensive. Read Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen and you’ll get an idea of the ‘vibe’.

What would was your B plan if this career didn’t work out?

I don’t know if you could call any of what I do a career, although I feel very lucky to be able to make some semblance of a living by doing what I love! I think the fall-back plan would probably be to become a rock star or something. You know, something achievable.

Where do you feel most inspired?

Being on the beach near where I live in Southend On Sea. I have space to think there and ideas always come, seemingly from nowhere. Whether they’re good ideas is another matter! I have a particular affection for that beach, it’s almost as if it has a personality and I kind of view it as a friend. I love the crazy sunsets, all the dogs leaping about, chasing geese and having the best time ever (the dogs, not me), the weird stuff that washes up. It’s also one of the only places where I do not listen to any music. I like to hear the water and the wind, the boats clanking away in the breeze, that’s the ultimate music! It feels like sacrilege to plug your ears up against that.

What did you want to be when you were little?

More exotic. Specifically Latina. That was pretty much my sole ambition. (I was obsessed with Rita Moreno in West Side Story.) An impossible dream, no matter how much black hair dye and hooped earrings I got my hands on. I have very pale skin thanks to Celtic blood and a vampiric schedule. I have a ‘studio tan’ – that’s what they’d call it in rock ’n’ roll circles anyway, which makes it sound groovier. All the same I was, however, a pretty good latin and Flamenco dancer as a teenager, as it goes. Olé.

What advice would you give your children (or nieces/nephews/young people)?

Be kind, but not a doormat. Look for the good stuff and more good stuff tends to appear. Keep a sense of humour. Don’t worry too much about what people think – try stuff out, make mistakes, get better, keep being creative. (Punk helped me MASSIVELY with that). Pick your battles and conserve your energy for what matters. You get one go at life on this beautiful planet (depending on your beliefs) – so turn up the colour, the volume and the contrast, switch channels if you want to, and don’t let the squares drag you down!


Wilko Johnson and I at Rough Trade East, pic - Simon Reed : Musical Pictures
Wilko Johnson and I at Rough Trade East, pic – Simon Reed : Musical Pictures

Which one thing would you like to change about your industry/working life?

I long for the day when we don’t talk about ‘women writers’, ‘women musicians’ – one day we will talk about WRITERS. MUSICIANS. We have a long way to go. Then there are the ‘women in rock’ articles and events – which on the one hand I support because, otherwise, those voices might not be heard at all, but on the other, and depending on how they are put across, I realise they can potentially either neatly tidy female artists away for another day – (‘female’ is NOT a genre!) or, while being interesting and important, preach to the converted and keep us further separated.

I’m interested in integration rather than further segregation, which I know is rarely the intention, but we can inadvertently reinforce a sense of separateness, as well as reinforcing some of the negative feelings and righteous anger that naturally comes when you are banging your head against sexism every day – and that includes sexism from others of the same gender. Women are not always that nice to each other, are they? When it suits them not to be. Queen Bee syndrome, basically indicative of intense insecurity, and why? Because we’re conditioned to feel there isn’t enough room for all women to have their shot. Just one woman on the panel. Just one woman on that movie poster with five blokes. Subliminally, we’re panicking. You can see why, but what a load of bollocks. Don’t buy into it. It gets in the way of your creativity, which is something that should be joyful and liberating.

What you give your attention to expands, it’s that thing again. I was certainly angry for a goodly while – and anger is, as PiL eloquently put it, an energy – but it can also get in the way and stop you from seeing what’s so great about life, you can get shunted out of balance. Being equal – it’s so simple, but we often make it complex. Being equal doesn’t mean being THE SAME, or squashing our femaleness / maleness / sexuality / personality; it means having an equal chance, an equal voice, being treated and respected as an equal. There still seems to be confusion over this.

There’s also a perception that women writers would only want to write about women, women musicians only want to be work with other women musicians. Whenever I’ve been in bands and have been the only woman – something I have no issue with and don’t even think about – people are often surprised that the rest of the band are boys. Like I’m only supposed to be in a band with other girls? You can be likeminded spirits and make music together regardless of how similar your genitalia happens to be.

Again, it’s about tidying people into neat little boxes. (I’m pretty anti-tidying per se.) It’s too easy to be pigeonholed creatively – and to pigeonhole ourselves. We’re told we have to focus on one thing otherwise we won’t be taken seriously etc – that may work for some but not everyone.

Since childhood my strengths were always music, art and writing and I’m only happy when those three things are ticking along in balance in my life – if one of those elements is missing I don’t feel right at all. The thing is, it took AGES to get there. Finally I’m free of all that conditioning nonsense and I don’t really care what people think about me doing lots of things, life is meant to be fun and joyful and creative. I hate that attitude of ‘you’re this, so you can’t be that. Who do you think you are?’ People can get antsy when you break through the little walls they’ve constructed for you. Well sorry, dearies, if you want to live by weird self-made rules and restrictions, knock yourselves out but don’t give me a hard time if I don’t comply.

To give a recent example, the other day during an exhibition I was involved with, someone I don’t know said, ‘And now you’re an artist all of a sudden!’ I might have misinterpreted it, but it sounded loaded – like, ‘What gives you the right? Get back in your box!’ It didn’t sound friendly. I get that now and again. Well, it’s not ‘all of a sudden’ – you just noticed, that’s all. If you’ll forgive me sounding terrifically poncy, I express my creativity in different ways and at different times, as lots of people do, or should at least feel free to do. It also took a LONG time to get out of my own way and be true to what I a) want to do and b) am ok at, so don’t YOU fucking start, mate.

Photo: Gary Franklin


Who is your favourite fictional female character?

Aunt Dahlia in the Jeeves and Wooster novels. She’s hilarious, as warm and fiery as a single malt and she absolutely kicks ass. No fools suffered by Bertie Wooster’s favourite aunt, no siree.

Right Now I’m…

Watching: The Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series. Touch of class, that.

Reading: Austin Osman Spare – The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist. Surrealism, occult, it’s all in there.

Listening to: Louis Armstrong’s divine version of ‘La Vie En Rose’. That beautiful, soft piano lick, shimmering up the keyboard at the beginning is transcendent. When I finally check out, I’d like my spirit to float to its next destination while accompanied by that sparkling, feathery little piano lick. I don’t think I could go far wrong.

Pass it on:

Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?

Simone Marie (Primal Scream) @simonemarie4

Jane Powell, founder of the charity CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably @Calmzone

Vanessa Lobon, co-director of Doc N Roll Festival @vanessalobon

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