Chrissie Hynde: ‘It’s hard work being alone. Paintings are an outlet’

The art studio of the latest rock star to trade in the plectrum for the paintbrush is not in the most starry of locations. It’s in her flat above a row of shops opposite a council estate in an ungentrified corner of north-west London. Her artist’s view is usually a gaggle of buses dawdling at their stops; on the afternoon I visit, a homeless man is necking a bottle of sweet wine.

Chrissie Hynde, for it is she, the shaggy-fringed, no-nonsense Pretenders frontwoman of 40 years standing, has lived here for a few years, which coincides with a time “when her life changed”, according to Royal Academy director Tim Marlow in his introduction to a new book of her paintings, Adding the Blue. A collection of still lifes, portraits, and colourful abstracts, they have been created in a “calm frenzy”, he writes, since 2015.

You’ve got to find an outlet. And if I was in a happy relationship, you wouldn’t be looking at these paintings

Rock stars becoming painters remains one the most cliched career transitions in showbiz, however. You may have seen Ronnie Wood’s canvases of his celebrity friends or Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell’s coffee-table smothering volumes. Hynde has reservations about entering this gang. “I mean, who the fuck am I? There’s so many people who’ve been doing this all their lives and they can’t get a gallery…and then muggins walks in, dabbles for a couple of years and the next thing, here’s a big fuck-off box set of her paintings!” She laughs at herself, although she’s not a phoney, she says. “I’m really doing this shit. But yeah, I’m embarrassed by it. Of course I am!”

Hynde can sound blase on paper, but in person she’s much warmer. She buzzes me into her flat with a friendly hello (I pass her black boots, unlaced, on the bottom step). She’s wearing a black hoodie, black T-shirt and black jeans and her hair is the coolest way out of the rock star-with-greying-hair conundrum I’ve seen – ash-blond over eyes still thick with black eyeliner. Within minutes, we’re talking about where I live (near Hereford, where the other three Pretenders came from) and my young son: she’s got twin grandsons, who live nearby with her daughter, Yasmin, from Hynde’s brief 1980s marriage to Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr (Hynde also has an older daughter, Natalie, from her relationship with Ray Davies; she brought both girls up alone). “They’re great – such balls of innocence,” she says later of the twins. “I love boys. Girls are much more moody.”

She’s a good host: the kettle is on, flowery mugs already laid out. The debut album by 50s singer Julie London sits on top of the TV; its first track is her signature torch song, Cry Me a River. This is one of only three records Hynde’s parents had. “I don’t remember them ever playing it, but it’s probably what made me want to be a singer, seeing that picture when I was a child,” she says. On the walls are drawings done for Grandma, one a street scene with Hovis lorries felt-tipped in red. “I got some fig rolls in,” she adds, before lowering her voice conspiratorially. “And these.” She hands over a plate of Portuguese custard tarts and winks. “Eat up.”

Chrissie Hynde’s painting Dancing Noels. Photograph: © Chrissie Hynde We begin talking about art, not that Hynde finds it easy. “I’m not really into art,” she shrugs (when she does, her earrings shudder: small, silver keys hanging from her lobes). “I just like drawing and making stuff.” She talks about an article she read that morning about an artist whose name she can’t remember (we later work out by text that it was Bruce Nauman). “He’s supposed to be this huge influence on art, so then I read up about him. Then there were 20 other artists on the same page that were the big deal of the last century who are probably my age. I could have gone to university with them and I’d never heard of any of them!” It makes her wonder, she says. “Did I just get waylaid for 30, 40 years by rock’n’roll? If I’d got into art in the 60s, is that where I would have gone?” She shrugs again. “A lot of that conceptual, avant garde stuff has a purity to it, though, that I wouldn’t have got as a teenager. No way. I was too deranged.” She’ll admit to loving Van Gogh. “It’s so psychedelic and I have a psychedelic frame of mind. The music and art that turns me on always seems to be reaching up for divinity, making sense of life.” But then she pulls back. “Not that I’m a scholar. Or pretending that I think I’m an artist either!” You’d be forgiven for wondering why she’s promoting this book at all. Hynde says it’s to thank the team that put the book together. Catherine and Nick Roylance, who run Genesis Publications, approached her after she made an Arena documentary to promote the Pretenders’ last album, 2016’s brilliant Alone. That documentary was her way of doing all the promotion for the album in one hit (“I can’t be arsed usually and it doesn’t help that I’m not a show-off… OK, on stage I am, but only on stage”). She refused to do a talking heads documentary (“they’re creepy”) so the BBC followed her around for a summer instead. There were a few scenes in her flat (“I didn’t mind them coming in because I have no private life to preserve”) with her canvases in the background. The Roylances liked them and approached her.

At first, Hynde refused their invitations point-blank. “Then I thought, well, there’s no point in pretending I’m not doing what I’m doing.” She sent them 15 snapshots of her work, went on tour with the Pretenders and came back to the Roylances’ mock-up of a boxed book. “And I was blown away, to be honest, that they had made such a presentation of it.” Not that she likes all of her work in it: “Some of the paintings look like student art, which horrifies me.” She shrugs again and lifts up her drained mug. “More tea?”

Chrissie Hynde with the original line-up of the Pretenders in 1979, James Honeyman Scott, Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns Before the last Pretenders album, and the period in which Hynde got addicted to painting, came her acclaimed 2015 autobiography, Reckless: My Life. This seems to have been a turning point. “It’s hard fucking work. I did all the heavy lifting,” she says, talking of the long hours in front of the computer keyboard trying to assemble things. She was shocked “at all those people who get ghost writers and just sit down with a bottle of wine and talk – and then the ghost writer doesn’t even get a credit.”

Written after her parents died (she said in the book’s prologue she couldn’t have written it before), Reckless charted her jaw-dropping life in no-nonsense detail, taking us from small-town Ohio childhood to Kent State University, where she was present at the anti-Vietnam war protests where four students were shot. Then she jumped ship to London, where she worked at Sex – Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s King’s Road shop (and nearly married Sid Vicious for a green card), did life-modelling at Central Saint Martins (she drew the others when it wasn’t her turn), then formed a band. The third single from the Pretenders’ debut album was Brass in Pocket, which became the first new No 1 of the 1980s. Three years later, half the band were dead from drug overdoses, which is where Reckless ends.

Then there was the passage about Hynde’s gang-rape by a group of Hells Angels, which caused much controversy on publication. “This was all my doing and I take full responsibility,” she wrote in one chapter. “You can’t fuck around with people… who wear ‘I Heart Rape’ and ‘On Your Knees’ badges.”

“My autobiography was the Chrissie Hynde lite version,” she says today, unbelievably – she genuinely doesn’t think this passage was particularly shocking. However, one painting early on in Adding the Blue, of a young man with blank eyes and an open mouth, appears to refer to this incident explicitly. “I have a certain history with some bikers, so I won’t say if I had anyone in mind,” Hynde writes in the picture caption. “Let’s just say, maybe.”

Self-portrait, Chrissie Hynde. Photograph: © Chrissie Hynde Her art book in its entirety is a grand, lavish thing showcasing nearly 200 oil paintings, from vivid abstracts to portraits of her daughters, herself and friends including Sandra Bernhard and Michael Clark. Brian Eno writes a foreword: “Page after page, I’m thinking, this woman is really alive.” The RA’s Tim Marlow says her works embody “a directness and immediacy,” later adding: “I’m not saying for a moment, and nor I’m sure is Chrissie, that she’s a great artist, but she’s an authentic one.” The book proves this in its range of pictures, but it tells a more interesting story in its captions: one of an older person enjoying solitude, finding fulfilment and focus in a new kind of creativity. “When there’s a crisis, I always look for the opportunity,” she writes. “When my kids left home, it created an emotional crisis, but it was an opportunity for me to go on the road – and to paint.” Hynde started painting properly, she says, after rereading her final draft of Reckless and noticing how she kept mentioning her love of painting throughout, but had never really done anything about it. “I realised [painting] was always in the back of my mind, whatever I was doing.” Then she started doing it and found she couldn’t stop. She’s totally untrained, she says, only learning recently how to clean her brushes properly. “But I’m totally untrained as a musician too. Even when I had my first baby, the doctors called me the do-it-yourself girl, because I didn’t go to any classes. Nothing! I just like to go away, to have things wash over me, to figure it out.” Being a rock star who has long shunned the rock star lifestyle – no booze or drugs for many years and no cigarettes now for four – probably helps the painting life too. “Most people who live that long in this world come to the same conclusion. I mean, even Kate Moss has put the cork in the bottle!” Teetotalism also means Hynde doesn’t like restaurants or loud parties. One painting in the book, Dancing Noels, is named after an event on the day it was painted: Noel Gallagher’s 50th birthday party. “All the time I was there, I was thinking I had to get home,” she writes. She adds another note too: “Noel Gallagher never dances.” Hynde’s clean living also extends to her having been a vegetarian since she was 16. “Back then, I was living on what the English called ‘cheese salad’,” she laughs. “I can eat in thousands of places now!” So many good social changes have happened in her lifetime, she says, not that you’d notice this today. “The ongoing discussion about how shitty things are now annoys me – come on. Obviously, there’s some bad shit in the world, but there always has been.” Positive changes get forgotten far too quickly, she continues. “Smoking killed more people than two world wars and nobody’s said since the ban that it’s great that so many people have stopped. Stop fucking moaning about things! Do something about it or shut it!”

Taking a dip in Putney baths at a party thrown by the Boomtown Rats in 1979. Photograph: Ray Stevenson/Rex This extends to her feelings about women in music. “The idea that women couldn’t be in the music industry 40 years ago – not only did I prove that wrong, but I just disagree. In music, you can do whatever you want. The only person who ever tried to stop me was me.” Surely she was treated differently to men in the industry in the 70s? “I was a chick and it was a novelty, sure – but this is showbusiness. Novelties are what showbusiness runs on. Jimi Hendrix didn’t have to set his guitar on fire. He played pretty fucking good without the theatrics. But people liked it.” She was never discriminated against either, she says, then pauses. “I think a lot of guys didn’t want me in their band because I was a girl. Maybe. But so what?” As for the controversy about the gang-rape in her book: “It was just total bullshit. All of a sudden, I became this rape apologist. I thought, ‘Fuck you all!’ I don’t talk about it [feminism]: I am it. I fucking do it.” She’s never “taken a penny from a man”, she adds. “I’ve never had anyone help me get to the top, so to be suddenly this anti-feminist…” She shakes her head. “Go fuck yourselves.” She wants to move on, but doesn’t quite yet. “I wasn’t saying I was a victim, but I was saying I was a bit of a fucking idiot. I mean, you don’t walk into a bikers’ clubhouse, with a sack full of Quaaludes, all padlocked up and you find out you’re the only person there. Surprise, surprise!” We talk for a while longer and she asks me not to include a few of the things we discuss: she worries about some of her tamer, topical statements becoming the only things people ask her about in the future. And this worries her today. “We’ve now got to a point where even people who are very outspoken, know their own mind, who aren’t afraid to be criticised, who don’t care what people think, are putting a sock in it because it’s not fucking worth it any more.” She went to see Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse on tour recently, she says, and noticed how they were restricting themselves. She’s not advocating general rudeness, along the lines of people who troll – she doesn’t like that – “but the idea of doing it anonymously, it means most people can dish it out, but they can’t take it”. Hynde can take it, clearly. “Anyway, I told my story [about the rape]. That was my story. If you don’t like it, don’t buy the book. Let’s move on. I don’t give a fuck.” I ask to see Hynde’s studio. “Yeah, sure!” She’s bouncy after her rants, which never seem directed at me personally, despite my questions. Hundreds of canvases lean against each other on shelves and teeter against the wall. Some lovely abstracts sit drying, full of colour, light and noise. By the door, there’s a black-and-white photograph of her parents, Bud and Delores, in front of the house her father built. “We didn’t get along,” she explains. “It was during that time in the 60s when no one got along with their parents. Mine were very conservative and the only way I could deal with it was just to split.”

Chrissie Hynde’s portrait of the Observer’s Jude Rogers. Photograph: © Chrissie Hynde Did she feel guilty? “No! I never thought about it. I kind of feel guilty now. I think, ‘What did my mother think? I just disappeared.’” Even after she got famous, she didn’t stay in touch beyond the call of duty; they came to see her on tour “eventually”. “I just needed to go to another continent to do what I wanted to do,” she says, all matter-of-fact. “I could be bitter about that or see it in another way – that’s how I fulfilled my destiny. So now I can actually say, ‘Thank you, Mom and Dad, for making it so hard on me that I just pissed off!’” She smiles, a little sadly. “I know they’d be offended by that. I don’t want to offend them. But that’s what it was.” Hynde likes being 67. “I find it really interesting, getting older, because life starts to make sense. I didn’t get famous until I was quite old – 27 – so maybe that’s part of it too.” She also thinks being alone gives her perspective – she’s been single for a long time. Her last marriage, to artist Lucho Brieva, broke down in 2002; she also points to a painting of a man in her room – “some arsehole I don’t hang out with any more”. “You have to have a very strong sense of yourself to be alone,” she says. “It’s hard work and I don’t recommend it. It’s not like you can have a lovely moment sitting over a cup of coffee discussing the ordinary pleasures of everyday life.” She picks up a paintbrush. “You’ve got to find an outlet. And if I was in a happy relationship, you wouldn’t be looking at these paintings.”
Then she looks at me sitting on her studio futon. “Hey! Can I paint you? Oh go on, let me do a sketch. I’m quick!” She is; for the next five minutes, I sit as straight as I can as Hynde looks at me and a brush dances across the canvas. “OK!” She shows me an obvious outline of my face – hooded eyes, my nose, a slightly square chin. She is going out tonight, but has two hours free now and knows precisely what she’s going to do when I go – fill me in. Two hours later, after apologising for rushing me out,, an image arrives on my phone – a bold, colourful picture that is unmistakably me. “Crude, but honest!” she writes, adding a kiss. The message is straight, no-nonsense, disarming: Hynde in a nutshell. • Adding the Blue is published on 22 November by Genesis Publications (£35). To preorder a copy for £30.80 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846