Belinda Magnus was born in Britain during 1953 to a white teenage mother and Nigerian father. Like many mixed-race babies at the time, she was quickly adopted out to a white family and her name was changed to Pauline Vickers. Despite having a loving mother, father and four adoptive brothers, she never felt like she quite fit in, she always had the sense that her family didn't quite understand her. Then in 1979, Pauline, who had been performing in pubs for 10 pounds a night, was invited to rehearse with a group friends. What emerged from that rehearsal was The Selecter, with Pauline as the lead singer. A few months later the band, who were being compared to Madness and The Specials, came out with hit single 'On My Radio'.
Around this time, the singer changed her name by deed poll to Pauline Black, and started refining her sharp onstage outfit of a black suit, shirt and grey fedora. The Selecter was firmly taking it's place in the two-tone movement and Black was being hailed as the Queen of Ska. She had finally found the family she had been searching for. Fast forward a few decades, and The Selecter are still going strong, after reuniting in 2010 and rejigging their line up, the nine-strong group has put out two new albums in the last few years, and been busy touring the globe. Ahead of their first ever visit to New Zealand this week, UnderTheRadar caught up with Pauline Black to ask about her recent memoirs, life on the road at 60, and if The Selecter still feels like family...
UTR: Pauline, first of all I wanted to ask you about The Selecter, you stand out in that you are one of the original two-tone bands that are still making new music, what keeps you going and inspired to write?
Pauline Black: Oh, the audience mainly. I mean this is our 35th anniversary year and just to know that there are people still out there. Just to know that people are interested in what we did at the beginning, and in what we are doing now. I think itís a testament to the band, and itís a testament to two-tone, which obviously had a complete ethos behind it, both in the black-and-white iconography and also in the social stance which was missing from a lot of the music at the time.
You donít get tired of singing the same songs, the hits like 'Too Much Pressure' and 'Three Minute Hero', that you have been performing over the last three decades?
Well, they are good songs, you donít get tired of singing good songs and I donít think audiences necessarily get tired of listening to them.
Youíve toured the world over and over again with The Selecter, whatís one thing you canít do without on the road?
Well, Iíve been pretty hands on over the last four years, Iíve kind of been managing the band and things like that. So I have plenty in my laptop to keep me sane, or maybe insane, Iím not really sure hahaha. But yea, there is a lot to do to move a nine people around the world and keep them in good spirits and primed to perform. But itís a great deal of fun these days because once you get over 50 you never really know whatís going to happen to you, so itís been quite an experience over the last few years, like Ďwow weíre all healthyí and long may it remain so, and letís just get out there and do it. And I think that every day is a good day.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your most recent album String Theory, and how you think it compares with your early material?
Well, weíve done two new records since we got back together again and started touring in 2010. And one was Made In Britain, and the other was String Theory, and the press over here very much said that Made In Britain, had the same vibe as Too Much Pressure (1990). And String Theory pretty much had the same vibe as maybe the one that followed our debut album, Celebrate the Bullet (1981). I think that was a reasonable and fair assessment of it. You know, as long as albums are growing and you are growing in your way of production, things are good. We had a great producer, Neil Pyzer-Skeete who does our production and also plays tenor sax in the band, and everyone loves him so itís a very organic process. And we are in the process now of recording a new album called Subculture and that will be out in 2015 when we tour the UK then.
Oh great! And you personally, youíve had quite varied career, youíve worked in the health sector, youíve been in the music world since the late 70s, youíve written an autobiography, youíve been an actor on television. Is there anything else youíd like to cross off your bucket list?
Umm, I never really saw it as a bucket list, Iím not really sure what I saw it as. None of these things have been career moves, if you know what I mean, itís just they present themselves in my life, and if I fancy doing it, then I do it. Someone said Ďhey do you want to be in a play, youíll get an equity card out of ití, and I said yes. Another person said hey have you thought of writing a memoir?í, and I said Ďoh Iíll give it a goí. And out of that it kind of just trucks along. So itís quite strange I guess. I think if you approach these things with a degree of enthusiasm, that helps. And that enthusiasm rubs off on anyone who might be listening and watching you.
Speaking of your memoir, Black By Design, how did that feel getting all your personal experiences down on paper?
Well, that book was written to give a nod to the people who wanted to know what happened with The Selecter, and the music industry and those sorts of things, but I wanted to widen it out a bit, because just another diary of an ex-pop star was going to be pretty boring for people. So I decided to discuss the fact that I was adopted in the 50s, and I was mixed race, and finding my birth parents, and it kind of made a wholeness of the book. Because back in 1953, when I was born, there were a lot of children born in Britain to unmarried mothers who were treated abominably, and sort of taken away and adopted into white families who maybe didnít understand the needs of their mixed race children. And I felt that this hadnít been sufficiently talked about, what it meant to be mixed race, because we are all living in multicultural societies now and these things are all out in the open and they are talked about. Most mothers get to keep their children now. But those were very different times, and I think my book spoke to a lot of who came along to mixed race people who came along to book signings that I did and wanted to discuss what their experiences had been. And I thought if it gave a platform to some of those people to express what they felt, then all well and good and it was worth writing the book.
So you had people reaching out to you with shared experiences?
Yes, absolutely. It was quite staggering and in some ways quite heart wrenching. Iíd give a talk and people would come up to get their book signed and then relate some horrendous experience of their own, totally worse than any I had. It was very humbling in a lot of ways, and you begin to understand, not just from the sense of the child who was adopted, but also mothers at the time who had mixed race children and had to give up their children, and the anguish they had gone through.
You also talked about becoming part of The Selecter, and that felt like finding a family that fit for youÖ
Yes itís one of those things that I donít think you realise at the time, but when you have the time to sit down and think about what youíve done over your life and you begin to write it down and look at the decisions and choices you made, you can see where itís going. But, you know, there was some sort of guiding hand to the nonsense I either went through or put myself through. Iím pretty well balanced now, put it that way.
And now, all these years later, with a reunited and rejigged line up, does The Selecter still feel like family?
Oh, it feels more like a family now than it ever has done, being back on stage with Gaps Hendrickson, the other singer in the band is absolutely magical. And heís so fit and so fine. Itís like slipping into a nice pair of comfortable shoes, thatís all I can say really.
Here's The Selecter performing their first ever single, 'On My Radio', live in Norwich earlier this year...
The Selecter are playing three New Zealand shows this week, starting with Christchurch on Thursday 9th October. Then on to Wellington and Auckland. Head over here for more details and to buy tickets.