Straddling the cutting edge of fashion, art and music for more than 30 years, Grace Jones has made a career out of tearing up the rulebook. As she releases her first new album in nearly two decades, the tempestuous star bares her soul to Tim Noakes
Taken from the November 2008 issue of Dazed:
In deepest, darkest Putney, Grace Jones is cavorting naked on the sofa in her new flat. Her breasts, butt, and everything in between, are being illuminated by the unforgiving flash of Chris Cunningham’s camera, which is photographing every part of her body so that he can drastically mutilate her in his editing suite. Although she once famously declared a compulsion to “bare it all, all the time”, the stark reality of the situation is pretty full-on. There is nothing left to the imagination. Every movement, every limb, every piece of skin is recorded for posterity. But Grace wouldn’t have it any other way. For a woman who has made a career out of stamping on people’s preconceptions, it is a scandalously subversive return to the public eye for the devilish Ms Jones.
Compared to the epic production values of her work with Jean Paul Goude, Keith Haring, and Andy Warhol, Cunningham’s minimal camera equipment and sparsely decorated location make it feel slightly like a casting session for Readers Wives. However, the back-to-basics conceptual shoot has been a long time in the making. Inspired by the auteur’s disturbing 2005 short film Rubber Johnny, Grace first found out about his warped idea while on tour in Australia.
“I got a few texts but I didn’t know who they were from,” she says a few days later in her rehearsal studio.“ They kept mentioning ‘I’d like to shoot you for Dazed & Confused as a Nubian Rubber Johnny’. And I thought it was somebody trying to rip off Chris’s work. I didn’t dare call the person back because I didn’t recognise the number as I had just got a new phone. It was totally anonymous. But when I got back to London, I found out that it was Chris, so I said ‘Oh! Okay! I thought somebody was trying to rip you off! Let’s do it! Absolutely, whatever you want!’ And that’s how I ended up thrashing around like a stark naked baby.”
As she finishes her sentence, she lets out an unmistakable roaring laugh at the memory and pours herself a large glass of red wine.
“It’s not glossy, it’s more arty than fashion. It’s not fashion. It’s an anti-fashion shoot. He’s shooting me like art. He’s going to mould me into something completely different. I hope. You’ve got to be able to trust the person you’re working with. I think that’s important, otherwise you get too inhibited with nervousness or whatever. I never get nervous. I get excited. If I’m gonna do it, I do it 200 percent. If you’re gonna work together and collaborate, it’s important that it excites both of you. It’s almost like making love. You’ve got to work towards that orgasm, you know? You keep going until you get it right. But I’ve always been an art groupie.”
Up close, Grace’s triangular, razor-sharp cheekbones have filled out with age, and her lips look noticeably, almost unnaturally, plumper. It must be the bright red lipstick. Her deep-set eyes still have the ability to penetrate your soul from across the room. And long gone is the harsh Marine Corps flat-top. In its place is a closely cropped shaved head. All things considered, she is in pretty good shape for someone who was once the poster girl for 80s excess. Especially when you consider that she is now reportedly old enough to qualify for a free bus pass.
Noticeably, for an ex-model, she chooses to sit with her back to a huge mirror in the studio. At the peak of her modelling career, Grace was so obsessed with her looks that she used to kiss her mirror image.
“Mirrors? I only look if I have to. It can mess with your mind if you have insecurities about your looks” – Grace Jones
“Mirrors? I only look if I have to, because when I was modelling I couldn’t get away from the mirror. You just can’t get away from it whether you want to or not – it’s just the way the business is. I don’t stay there looking at the mirror too much – I can make up my whole face without looking into a mirror. Mirrors can mess up some people. It can mess with your mind if you have insecurities about your looks.”
The Dazed cover shoot is the culmination of a whirlwind few months for the timeless pop star. In June she headlined Massive Attack’s Meltdown festival at the Royal Festival Hall, playing a 16-song set that drew five-star reviews across the board. Appearing onstage in a black basque, a thong, and hat that looked like a couture version of Orbital’s rave headset, she entertained the audience with material from Hurricane, her first new album in 19 years, as well as all her classics, opening with “Nightclubbing” and ending over two hours later with “Slave to the Rhythm”. In between songs, she slurped on red wine, swapped in and out of countless Philip Treacy creations, and attempted to find the right lyric sheet to sing from. At one point she ran off stage and threatened to come back naked, changing her mind only when it occurred to her that she might get arrested for public indecency. She once made the same mistake at Disney World and was subsequently banned for life. Luckily Mickey Mouse wasn’t in the London audience, as she bounded back on stage shaking her bootay with joyous ferocity to the funk strains of “Pull Up to the Bumper”.
A month after Meltdown, Grace headlined the Secret Garden Party. Turning up fashionably late by 45 minutes, she put in another epic performance until the promoters were forced to pull the plug when she overran the curfew. For someone who once claimed that performing in front of people was like masturbating on stage, this must have been self-gratifi cation and unexpected denial on the grandest scale.
“I don't sit around and take stuff. If you mess with me, I'll fiercely mess with you back” – Grace Jones
“I couldn’t believe it!” she guffaws. “Secret Garden was packed, it was great, but they had a curfew. So did the Royal Festival Hall, but they let me finish. I thought it would have been the opposite – that the Royal Festival Hall would have been the more conservative one. Obviously not!”
Meeting her in person after such a triumphant live comeback is quite surreal, mainly because she turns out not to be the scary pantomime villain that many have painted her as. Well, at least she’s not today. There’s no punches thrown, or tantrums pulled. In fact, all she wants to do is drink wine, chat and eat Nando’s. Which is a relief. But what of her life offstage and off record? Is she still the same party monster who dominated the vice-riddled Studio 54 disco era? Or has she mellowed?
“I certainly don’t get much time to go and party like I once did,” she says, smiling. “There’s not much time now with all this happening. When I perform, that’s my party. I’m constantly doing shows that aren’t publicised. I’m doing them all the time without publicity. I think that’s why it feels comfortable for me, because I never actually stopped doing the stage stuff. I just went underground.”
She delicately pokes at the carcass of a chicken wing and then starts smirking. “Actually, I was at my cousin’s wedding on the weekend. It was amazing,” she giggles. “I’m trying to remember what I was doing. All I know is that I left my dress and my camera by the lake. I had such a good time. I danced for four hours and could hardly walk the next day it hurt so much.”
Her phone rings and disturbs her train of thought. She instantaneously switches from a refined NyLon accent into deep Jamaican patois to talk to a family member. Even though she is one of Jamrock’s most famous exports, it’s still quite astonishing to witness Grace Jones, the style legend, utter the words “wa gwarnin?” After hanging up, she refuses to talk about it, maintaining that some parts of her life must remain private. But, although her reputation for bruising journalists is legendary (Google her infamous interview with 70s talk show host Russell Harty), it’s impossible to resist the temptation to ask if she dabbles in anything stronger than red wine.
“I wouldn’t tell you if I did!” Grace exclaims. “That’s for me to know and you to find out! And there’s no fucking way I’m going to tell you!”
Her eyes narrow suspiciously. She holds the stern look for a few long seconds and then lets out another huge laugh. A mischievous smile spreads across her face.
“I just don’t like to be messed with,” she continues, dipping a stick of corn in some peri-peri hot sauce. “I’m pretty much a straight shooter. I don’t sit around and take stuff. If I see I’ve got to go in that direction, then I’m fiercely in that direction. Whatever it is I’m involved with, I’m fiercely focused on it. And if you mess with me, then I’ll fiercely mess with you back.”
It hasn’t always been this way. Born and raised by a deeply religious family in Spanish Town, Jamaica, it wasn’t until she began working in New York and Paris as a model that she truly came out of her shell.
“I was never called Grace until I moved to America. In Jamaica they call everyone by their middle name, so I was called Beverley until I was 15. It was strange because Bev was one person and Grace was another person. When I got to America, it was like the death of Bev and the birth of Grace. I used to basically hide in a corner. I was the opposite of this big personality. I would have a veil and sit in the dark at the back of a room. I think doing that actually makes other people want to bring you out of yourself, which they did. But music wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a Spanish teacher. That was my intended career.”
However, she proved more adept on a catwalk than she did on a blackboard, and in the late 70s and early 80s Grace Jones became the byword for feminine strength, individuality, and excess. She shared a flat with Jerry Hall, but they only used it to store champagne. Her black androgynous looks and wild personality scared and excited people in equal measure, making her a hit on the NYC gay and drag queen scene. Chris Blackwell signed her to Island Records and between 1977 and 1979 she cut three disco albums, Portfolio, Fame and Muse. She became Warhol’s muse and performed at the city’s most notorious nightspots, including Les Mouches. It was here that art director Jean Paul Goude first laid eyes on her, dancing topless and singing her hit “I Need a Man” in front of a room of gay men.
In his 1982 book Jungle Fever, the self-proclaimed “heterosexual sissy” wrote that Jones was “a creature whose unique beauty transcends both the gender of her sex and the ethnicity usually associated with the colour of her skin. She looks barely human. She is more like a strange, menacing alien, blue-on black, in black”.
Together they created the Grace Jones aesthetic, immortalised in the album covers for Nightclubbing, Slave to the Rhythm, Warm Leatherette and Living My Life. Each one played with a different aspect of Grace’s wild public persona, as well as Goude’s obsession with altering reality in favour of flawless perfection. They also had a son, Paulo, who today plays in Grace’s live band. Looking back at her various incarnations, Grace is adamant that her image has been a natural evolution.
“I’ve always been my own stylist. I don’t think I’ve ever reinvented myself,” she says, slinking back into the studio’s Chesterfield sofa. “I think I’m one of the only people who has actually never changed. I never try to look like anybody else. When someone reinvents themselves, you can’t recognise them any more – reinvention means becoming someone else. I’m the opposite of that. Madonna reinvents herself. She does Marilyn and then she does Garbo. I’m just me. I’m not a diva or an icon. I hate those words. They’re used so much that they no longer have any meaning. What do diva, icon, and genius really mean? Everybody has been called an icon.”
As a comment on today’s celebrity culture, there’s no doubt she has a valid point, although it’s quite hard to picture her as a retiring wallfl ower. After all, this is a woman who once opened up a restaurant in SoHo named after her song “La Vie en Rose”, and served up such culinary delights as Slave to the Rhythm pâté and I’m Not Perfect frog legs. On the wall hung a solitary picture – a Warhol painting of herself. But 1986 is a long time ago, and Grace has changed. And so has her music.
“I’m still battling against the perception that I’m a devil” – Grace Jones
Compared to the disco-infused dub funk of her early work, Hurricane shows a more mature side of Grace Jones. Opening with the line, “This is my voice, my weapon of choice”, she covers a lot of musical and emotional ground – especially on the gospel song “Williams’ Blood”, which centres around an impassioned chorus chant of “Let me go!” It ends with an acapella of her and her mother singing “Amazing Grace” in unison. Considering that her father passed away in May, and that she has spent most of her life running away from authority, the song’s sentiment of “saving a wretch like me” is particularly pertinent.
“When I went to church, my dad and brother constantly tried to save me, to bring me back into the fold because I’m such a backslider, a sinner,” she reveals. “So I felt all of this tension between my blood and what I love doing. I’m still battling against the perception that I’m a devil. Of course, my parents would have liked me to marry a bishop, but God obviously had other plans. I think God moves me in mysterious ways, and my dad actually realised that.”
Thankfully, Hurricane is not all about redemption. On the album’s standout track, “Corporate Cannibal”, Ms Jones plays up to her inner Beelzebub, rasping the mantra “I’m a man eating machine” over a beat that is reminiscent of Mezzanine-era Massive Attack. After being dropped by Island and spending the best part of two decades without a label, the song is her take on the ruthless nature of big business and the disposability of the people who power the machine. With the future of major labels becoming more uncertain by the day, she couldn’t have timed it any better.
“I’m a part of the darkness. It’s hard to get out of it” – Grace Jones
“I got really upset with the interference and destruction of art and artists by corporations,” she says, looking up from her glass. “I kept trying to write the song, but without it being too abrasive and still maintaining the darkness. I made myself sing it as the dark person as I knew that would make it more meaningful. I got into character, I became the corporate cannibal in the song, and I think that’s what makes it more powerful. I am a part of the poem but I’m not preaching because I’m a part of the fucking darkness as well. It’s hard to get out of it. I just knew I needed to get this out. I needed to express how the machine eats itself. How they eat themselves.”
She lets out a vaguely self-conscious laugh, and pushes her plate of chicken bones away from the edge of the table. Her bass player comes into the studio and asks for a spare cigarette, which she gives up without hesitation. With him is Paulo Goude, her son. Grace picks up a vinyl copy of “Slave to the Rhythm” and turns the screaming cover image towards him.
“Paulo, this expression is what your father said I looked like when I was giving birth to you! That’s what inspired him...”
“Thanks for the visual Mum!” replies the red-faced dreadlocked young musician.
“I know! I can’t belieeeve it!” she shrieks. “I didn’t even realise that he was there! He had a doctor’s mask on!”
Parental embarrassment over, Grace, Paulo, and the rest of the band talk about tomorrow’s plans – she is scheduled to headline the Lokerse festival in Ghent. Her manager looks slightly anxious about the Eurostar travel option – in 2005, Grace was alleged to have attacked one of their ticket inspectors. Luckily, the incident doesn’t seem to have crossed the singer’s mind. Instead, she pours the final drop of wine into her glass and reflects on how her stage show will continue to evolve if she performs for another 20 years.
“Oh my gawwwd! Can you imagine?! If I’m still performing when I’m 80 I’ll probably be shaking my legs, but I’m not sure I’ll still be shaking my ass! I think the legs will probably hang in there, but I’ll have to stand on my hands to move my ass. That’s what I’ll be doing when I’m 80. Shaking my ass upside down.”
Photographic retouching Chris Cunningham and Rob Bliss, photography assistant Dario Vigorito, makeup Terry Barber at Pearle for MAC