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Interview: Pauline Black of the Selecter

The ska-revival mainstay and feminist icon tells all about her new autobiography and tour

Photograph: John Coles
The Selecter

Back at the dawn of the 1980s, Pauline Black stormed England as the frontwoman of the ska-revival mainstay the Selecter, scoring British chart hits with such strident anthems as “Three Minute Hero,” “On My Radio” and “Missing Words.” Since then, Black has performed with varying lineups of the band, acted and worked as a television promoter, and found success as an author. Black by Design, her new autobiography, is an engaging memoir not only of the 2 Tone years, but also of growing up as an adopted child in an all-white working-class community. 

You write about feeling like your skin was made darker by having been adopted. That could be out of a Toni Morrison novel.
Well, I have read quite a bit of Toni Morrison, so maybe there’s some influence there. [Laughs] What I was trying to get across was feelings of lack of identity. The book is all about identity in that way, and sort of vaguely knowing a fairy-tale version of your origins. Those feelings of displacement, although they were strange at the time, kind of fueled the whole thing for getting into 2 Tone when the opportunity presented itself, and really informed that decision. It’s a little bit like making a positive out of a negative. 

Reading memoirs by pop stars, you have to take them with a grain of salt. It’s wonderful to read one that’s so authoritatively written.
Well, a lot of them are obviously written by other people. [Laughs] The whole narrative of 2 Tone is a bit of a white male construct. There were very few women around the ska scene. So until now there hadn’t really been a female point of view. And then you need to add in the particular color of that female, which informs all kinds of things.

Another striking thing was your discovering a role model of sorts in Langston Hughes.
I wasn't really aware that there were mixed-race people, if you see what I mean. I saw black people on the television, and I saw photographs of black people. But having a friend's mother describe this person as a mulatto, and taking that word away and sort of conjuring with it, as you do when you're a child and you learn a new word, it opened up my world to other possibilities that were out there. Most of the black people that I saw on television were either the black-and-white minstrel show, which was in full flow over here at that time, the blackface, or they were maids or felons or any of the other stereotypes that you can think of in the black acting canon. So it was a bit of an eye opener.

The book has had a nice critical reaction.
I haven't read a negative thing about it, actually, which has been really nice. People seem to uniformly think that at least I got to the nub of something. But what I take away from it is the book readings I've done at festivals, and the people who've come along to those and had very similar childhood experiences and wanted to share that with me, and it obviously informed what they went on to do. It's a little bit like this lost generation that got adopted. I'm not going to call it a stolen generation, like the indigenous people in Australia—it wasn't quite like that. But nonetheless we were a little bit awash there for a while. I feel that the mixed-race narrative has never really been told, and now here we are with Obama as, well, allegedly the most famous man on the planet—certainly the most powerful man on the planet, allegedly—and I look back on that now and I think, hell, where did that come from?

Well, undoubtedly he is, but I think there are shadier people than him who run things—no pun intended.

Something else that comes up in the book is that you have dreams about water.
Well, very Freudian, I guess. [Laughs] I think I don't swim very well. It's just one of those kind of recurring dreams that I used to have—I don't have them anymore—but it was always 15 feet of water and I could never figure out why, and still can't. There could be all kinds of psychology speaking about that one, but I thought I'd just offer that one up there. Maybe someone can come up with a notion about why that might be.  

Do you put much stock in dreams? Do you think they're giving you messages?
I don't think they're giving one messages. I think the messages are already there; you just don't see them very well, because your conscious mind gets in the way. I do put quite a lot of stock in the unconscious, because it's in the subconscious mind, I think, that we're all joined up as humans, no matter what color, creed or nonsense we either believe or don't believe. And therefore, speaking as a creative person, things bubble up out of that that you're not really sure about. I've written songs, and certainly things in that book, that I didn't really understand until I'd thought about it for a while—not dreamed about it, but thought about it for a while. I think these things are constantly bubbling up which you present to the world as a bit of art, a three-minute pop song, and you actually think you know what you're talking about. But much later you find out that it wasn't actually that, and there was something else that informed that. I would say those are the things that are in the unconscious mind.

When you were working on the book, did you think you would reach beyond your fans?
Most of the time I was writing it, I kept thinking to myself, Who is going to read this? Will fans even be interested in this? Will it just kind of be marginalized as only of interest to black people? But I think you have to put things like that aside and just try and tell it as honestly as you can. Honesty is kind of a strange thing, because obviously you can be selective about what you wish to be honest about. But I felt like there were things that I hadn’t seen dealt with in books—or hadn’t been particularly well dealt with, maybe—and I thought, Maybe I could show it in a better way.  

Your band, at least in the early days, had a lot to overcome. With better luck, how big do you think the Selecter might have been?
I never deal in ifs. What if? It’d be great, wouldn’t it? You’d have a mansion and your own private jet. Who knows? It didn’t happen. What I am glad that happened is that we were part of a movement, and the 2 Tone movement said so much more to fans who are around now than just the idle good luck or bad luck of what happened to you out there. And that’s the main thing that I take away from the Selecter: We were there at a very lucky time, in a way, that those things could be talked about and could come to the surface.

Two headlines for this tour are the return of your singing partner, Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson, and the addition of horns to the band.
Yeah, there's horns. And not just horns. Gaps and I have had a really great relationship with Neil Pyzer, who plays tenor sax in the band. We all write together. Neil used to be in Spear of Destiny, and we're all kind of at that age now where we've all been through it, we've all been in bands, and we really have a good thing going. Neil has his own studio at the bottom of the gardens, and we all pile down there and knock these albums together. We didn't feel that it was good enough really just to come back and say, “Yeah, well, we did this then.” I don't want to be doing the past. I want to be doing the past, present and looking at the future at the same time, because I feel that in a way 2 Tone deserves better than that.  

You've worked with Gaps for more than 30 years, and you've got such a tight relationship onstage. What is it like to share the stage again?
Oh, it's like one side of a pair of really comfy shoes. It's just really nice. We both know what our strengths are, and we both know that when we put those two things together we get a really good, high-energy show. We both keep ourselves ridiculously fit—or I mean, try to, you know. Sometimes as you're getting older, it's a little bit like diminishing returns, and it takes twice as many pushups to get as fit as it did 20 years ago. But I just really really love Gaps as a performer: His dancing is second to none, and the whole way he puts his own spin on songs and what he brings to them I just think is wonderful.  

The new album starts with the line, “Stop me if you've heard this one before.” 
That's exactly what I mean about Gaps…I mean, he just comes up with those things.  

So what are people going to hear from the Selecter that they haven't heard before?
Well, they're going to hear the hits, because we have to do those, and we still enjoy doing those. But we have a really good set now that's been honed over the past year, and got honed when we came out to do the West Coast and Coachella in April, culled from the Made in Britain album, which came out in 2012, and the String Theory album, which came out in 2013. So it's both old and new. When we go out there, maybe lot of people in the audience don't really know what the hell we're going to do; they don't really remember us from the first time around. They know we're somebody, but they're not exactly sure who that is. It's our task to make them believe that what this is is a really great thing to have come and seen—and we usually do the job. [Laughs]

The Selecter plays the Gramercy Theatre Fri 20.

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