After 30 years of leading the Pretenders, singer-guitarist Chrissie Hynde has run away and joined the circus. Or, to be more specific, she's joined JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys, a new band with the Welsh singer-guitarist J.P. Jones.
In Great Britain, fairgrounds are the equivalent to America's traveling carnivals, and fairground imagery and metaphors pop up all over the band's debut CD, Fidelity!, which was released by their own label, La Mina, through Rocket Science Ventures. "Let's roller coast through life together," Jones croons on the soul ballad "Fairground Luck," as sparks of glittery guitar rain down. "Sit by my side," Hynde replies. "This carousel ride could last forever." Then their voices wrap around each other as they sing pleadingly, "Throw me a bit of that fairground luck."
Jones grew up on Welsh fairgrounds and arcades, and a sense of wanderlust infuses his lyrics. Although he's not well known in America, he's popular in Britain and has recorded with Big Linda. He used to front the rock band Grace, who were signed to EMI in 2007 and were just starting to make an impact before the record industry collapsed and the group broke up. A year later, Jones was a little drunk and boldly approached Hynde after spotting her in a bar in London. The similarly soused Pretenders singer didn't know what to make of Jones, but before long they were writing songs together and traveling around the world, including Cuba, where they went on a whim and wrote most of the songs that ended up Fidelity! (whose title is a reference to the ubiquitous images of Fidel Castro in Havana).
Hynde and the 31-year-old Jones also found themselves falling in love, despite a considerable difference in their ages. "I found my perfect lover, but he's only half my age," laments Hynde on the album's opening track. Ultimately, that gap proved to be insurmountable, as Jones wanted to have kids and raise a family, while Hynde was in a different place in her life. Their relationship became a conundrum as they recorded the album with Jones' band the Fairground Boys. Both singers are intensely private individuals, but they couldn't avoid talking about their bittersweet affair because most of the new songs are so personal and confessional.
"It's not anybody else's business," Jones says by phone from Los Feliz, where the band is staying this month before making their local debut with acoustic shows at the Grammy Museum (on Monday, August 23) and at Queen Mary Events Park in Long Beach (where they're opening for Lucinda Williams on Thursday, August 26).
"Having said that, we made it everyone's business," Hynde chimes in. "We've written an album that's graphically personal ... We're in danger of grossing out our entire audience, it's so personal ... We're as confused and bemused as the listener!"
During her long career, Hynde has worked with a lot of great musicians, including Johnny Marr, Moreno Veloso, Jim Keltner, Frank Sinatra, Jeff Beck, and former husband Ray Davies. (And think about it: How many singers have done duets with both Emmylou Harris and Johnny Thunders?) Although she's always been the main songwriter in the Pretenders, she did work with outside songwriters like Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly on the Pretenders' 1994 CD, Last of the Independents. However, she'd never recorded under a different band name or collaborated as intensively as she did with Jones until she joined the Fairground Boys.
"I'm usually a sad sack sitting in the corner with a notebook, crying," says Hynde about her creative process. "My songwriting comes from a more solitary place, a biker mentality." Nonetheless she found herself opening up while working with Jones. "J.P. is a revelation," she declares, calling him one of the best songwriters in Britain. "I'm moving with his times," she says, adding that because of Jones she's finding more beauty and melody in things than she used to as a "punked-out" old soul. "He softened me," she admits. "I'm not so hateful as I used to be."
"I'm more easygoing," Jones admits. "She's the loveliest person. She's like a warrior ... We keep calling each other the other's muse."
Jones says he's influenced by a diverse range of musicians, including Van Morrison, Bon Iver, Fionn Regan and David Bowie. "The first song I cried over was 'Wicked Game' by Chris Isaak ... I like anything that has melody and soul," which is an apt description of the tunes on Fidelity!. The albums ranges from the fiery rock & roll of "If You Let Me" to more introspective country-folk ballads like "Leave Me If You Must." Hynde's and Jones' lyrics are always fascinating and achingly romantic, whether they're lamenting the tragic distance in their ages or reveling in the joy of new love.
"I'm jealous of your future and I'm jealous of your past," Jones murmurs dryly. "Leave me if you must/You couldn't blame a man to leave a woman past her prime." Elsewhere, he announces, "Eyes as blue as yours deserve a symphony."
"Surprise me with your mouth of trouble," Hynde gushes on "Your Fairground." On "Colors," Jones sings, "We're the dolphins caught in the nets." She responds poetically, "See the wires down on Park Avenue/So silent they hang, till they spit and they spark," as lead guitarist Patrick Murdoch's shimmering halos of sound float airily through the mix.
Hynde has been based for many years in England, but she recently opened the Vegiterranean, a vegan restaurant in her hometown of Akron, Ohio. "A hometown is like a third parent; you want to go back and help," she says.
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So are the Fairground Boys based in Ohio, England or Wales? "We're homeless," Hynde says. With their recent globetrotting, "You can't really drop an anchor." For now and the near future, the band is based in Los Angeles, with Hynde having only recently become enamored by this sprawling city's diversity. During past Pretenders tours, she usually stayed in West Hollywood and never saw much of the rest of L.A., but now she says she's delighted by the differences between places like Venice and Los Feliz.
After next week's acoustic shows, the full Fairground Boys lineup will play at House of Blues on October 25, and the group has an upcoming new single, a holiday song penned by Jones called "Christmas Soon." Beyond that, there are no firm plans, in keeping with the serendipitous, emotionally improvised nature of the Fairground Boys' beginnings. Hynde is committed to another Pretenders tour in Australia later this year, but she insists that her heart really lies with the Fairground Boys. "I've stuck by the Pretenders long beyond the call of duty," she says. She believes that her future, at least musically, lies with Jones and says that the pair already have at least another album's worth of songs between them.
"We're still cut up about it," Hynde says, referring to her romantic breakup with Jones. "I don't want to hold him back."
Jones says, "I'm real superstitious," but emphasizes that it's still a great thrill and honor to work with the legendary Pretenders leader. For her part, Hynde remains endlessly quotable, whether she's referring to her problems with modern technology ("I'm a digital immigrant") or dissing the current crop of vapid pop singers in England (whom she describes as "porno girls"). Although the Pretenders are coming off one of their strongest albums, Break Up the Concrete, it's nonetheless refreshing to see Hynde so revitalized and inspired at a time when most of her peers are indulging in cheap nostalgia. Chrissie's run off to the circus, and she may never come back.