‘I said: ‘I want a record deal! How do you do it?’

More than 30 years after finding fame Hazel O’Connor is back on the road with former beau and ex-Strangler Hugh Cornwell. MALCOLM WYATT caught up before she set off.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 27th November 2014, 8:00 pm
Hugh Cornwell and Hazel OConnor
Hugh Cornwell and Hazel OConnor

Hazel O’Connor has lived ‘up in the hills’ of County Wicklow for 25 years, just under an hour from Dublin.

She has Irish roots too, Hazel’s Dad leaving Galway for Coventry, where he worked at a local car plant and she spent her formative years.

But while she loves her adopted home and its ‘beautiful scenery’, she could do without the adverse weather conditions.

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“I’m sitting here after a month’s worth of deluge, with a crumbling roof and about six buckets on the go.

“I do love it, although I wonder if the strange weather of the world is catching up in Ireland.”

There’s also a home-from-home in the South of France, but don’t get the idea Hazel’s living off royalties these days.

She’s still gigging hard, and reckons she never saw a penny from the success of the 1980 film that made her name.

Hazel wrote all the songs as well as taking the lead alongside Phil Daniels and Jonathan Pryce on Breaking Glass, including defining hits Eighth Day and Will You.

And while her recording contract led to later litigation battles, she at least thinks that helped her concentrate on improving her live profile.

“I signed for Albion the day before I got the lead role. They pushed me to sign a long-term deal.

“A&M, who had the soundtrack, didn’t want Albion handling the album, so Albion stood aside for a price, leasing me for a year to A&M.

“They also wanted to buy my contract, but Albion wouldn’t sell. So after a really brilliant year of success I had to go back.”

“The bottom line was I never saw the royalties from the film. Albion was the conduit for me to get paid. A&M paid Albion, and they never passed them on.

“So I’ve never known what it’s like to sell hundreds of thousands of records, but the good thing is I quickly learned to live off what I did, my live work.

“I couldn’t afford to think about it anyway. I had to eat and pay a mortgage. I continued on my merry way.

“And when I went out of fashion, I discovered other countries, worked away and honed my craft, and became a much better singer.”

Hazel also walked away from the chance of further acting to concentrate on her song-writing.

That remains the case, and she has 11 UK dates on the run-up to Christmas, including Manchester Academy 2 on Saturday, December 6.

And it’s a double-bill, with ex-Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell, both artists playing full sets.

“I’m looking forward to this, and it’s a case of going out on the road with an old comrade from a very long time ago.”

Hugh and Hazel were an item in the year Breaking Glass made her a household name.

“That was just after I got famous, but before the film came out. Both of us had a terrible time with Albion Records and we’d all see each other. I supported The Stranglers, my first big thing before anything happened.

“I had three or four gigs with them, which was immense fun.

“Hugh and I became very good buddies. He has such a brilliant mind, his lyrics and music are quite amazing, as is his cynicism and dry wit.

“We were an item for a very small amount of time, maybe a week… but then he got put in prison!”

Hugh’s short spell inside HMP Pentonville for drugs possession followed, but while he was away Hazel was among those guesting for The Stranglers over two nights at London’s Rainbow Theatre, alongside her friend Toyah Willcox.

“They asked a few of us to do a couple of Stranglers songs, and I did (Get a) Grip (On Yourself) and Hanging Around, while Toyah did Duchess and something else.

“Toyah and myself also did backing vocals for Ian Dury, and lots of singers and guitarists played.

“It was fantastic, and on my songs was a young Robert Smith from The Cure, long before the make-up – before he got all gothed up.”

That was then, but this is now, with Hazel set to perform new album Here She Comes and some old favourites with her band, namely saxophonist Clare Hirst (ex-Belle Stars, Communards and David Bowie) and keyboard player Sarah Fisher (ex-Eurythmics).

“I’ve been working with Clare and Sarah around six years now, dating back to when my mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“I’d been toying with doing a little more jazzy stuff with them back then, but ‘put it on the long finger’, as we say over here.

“I then decided I needed to be right by Mum’s side in England. But it’s something I cherish, working with the girls. They saw me through a very hard time.”

How does Hazel’s sound compare to 30 years ago? Songs like I Give You My Sunshine seem more soulful. Is that indicative of her recent material?

“That was written when Mum was on her last legs in the hospice, at Christmas. I couldn’t think what I could do. Should I get her a present, or was that just stupid?

“Instead, I worked out something more fun, more real. We were caged in by a blizzard, but when that died down I went out and built this huge, towering snowman.

“It was watching over from her window. I thought that might make her laugh, and came to the conclusion there’s only one gift you can give – your inner sunshine.

“It’s a spiritual thing. All that material stuff is nothing when you’re dying. It’s what’s inside that counts.

“And Toyah was the first when I did a single a couple of years ago for the hospice, who said ‘Of course – yes!’ without reservation. That woman is mighty!”

Does she keep in touch with anyone else from that era?

“Not really, but only because I live up a mountain in Ireland. I was never really a party girl though, contrary to how PR people would have it in my early days.

“I’m more into hill-walking, gardening, dog walking. I’ve never been into networking and wanting to be famous.”

Will there be an encore on this tour with Hugh?

“Yes, there will be. But we’ve both got this package of songs from the past we’re responsible for as writers too.

“There’s a certain vibe with Hugh, and always will be. He’s a character, and I think I am too. And two characters can maybe make a giant!”

Hazel had a happy upbringing in Coventry before her parents split, but left school early and ‘did a bunk’ around Europe and beyond, ending up in cabaret in war-torn Beirut at one point.

“We worked in a car city, so we all had a car - something we didn’t realise was so rare then. In every photo we seem to be next to a Hillman Imp or something like that.

“But then my parents split and we were poor then, living in one room. It wasn’t great.”

Was there a lot of music around the house?

“Before the split there was always music. Dad came from a large family in the west of Ireland, where everyone was a singer or a musician.

“He played lovely piano and I couldn’t understand how he did it, until my mum told me he played by ear.

“I thought, ‘How strange!’ When you’re little, you tend to take things literally.”

Breaking Glass, wasn’t her film debut, having made that in 1975’s Girls Come First.

“That was some stupid blooming sex comedy, as they used to call them. The star was Bert Kwouk, so it clearly wasn’t that naughty!

“I did a modelling course, and the agency sent me to that job, because they wanted nude models.

“But at least I’ve got a history. It’s better than me telling people ‘I went to acting school, and …’

She kept in touch with her Coventry roots, and through her brother’s new wave band The Flys got involved with that scene and writing songs.

“There was so much music happening in Cov. I was amazed by the energy at that time.

“I remember meeting up with him and The Specials down in Brighton just after I got famous, with The Bodysnatchers supporting.

“And part of that band became The Belle Stars, who included Clare Hirst.”

Was there a moment when Hazel finally realised where her future lay?

“Yes, when my brother was supporting Buzzcocks, with Howard Devoto still in the band then.

“I remember the energy of the audience, the excitement, the songs … everything. I said to Neil, ‘I want to be a singer, I want a record deal! How do you do it?’”

Hazel got to know The Clash’s Mick Jones and The Rich Kids’ former Sex Pistol Glenn Matlock and future Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, another famous ex.

“The Rich Kids were the next band Neil was supporting, while I met Mick Jones at the Marquee or the 100 Club. He approached me with some daft line or whatever.

“Those were the halcyon days when I did get out and about. But I wasn’t famous then.”

So how did she end up not only getting the star role in Breaking Glass but also writing the songs?

“I wrote this little clutch of songs and The Flys did my demos. Then Albion Records said they wanted to be my publisher and for me to sign a record deal for £1!

“They recorded one of my worst songs though, getting Glenn and Rusty Egan and Steve New from The Rich Kids in.

“It wasn’t one I’d have chosen. I remember word going round about this dreadful song with me on! I was crestfallen, thinking I’d blown it.”

Hazel’s live reputation blossomed though, leading to her album deal.

Her £1 advance soon went, but holiday cover as a receptionist at Albion paid off.

“On the first day a call came through for the owners, who were all out to lunch. The person calling then said, ‘We actually want to talk to a singer there, Hazel O’Connor’.

“I thought that was mad – taking a call about myself!”

That involved an invite to audition for the film, and despite being up against various bigger names, she succeeded.

“I was reading this book which included an exercise to imagine something very exciting was coming my way and keep imagining that, polishing it - like a dream.

“When I got to the audition, there was Elvis Costello – because it was going to be a male singer at first. Then Toyah came in, and I thought I might as well go home then.

“That had happened several times in my life. I had absolutely no confidence.

“But I stopped myself and instead tried to imagine what might happen it if were different, the way I wished it.

“My imagination went wild and I imagined they gave me the lead and changed the script, asked me to write all the songs, and choose my producer, which would be Tony Visconti, because I was such a big David Bowie fan.

“It was all absolutely far-out stuff that would never happen, but I decided to believe it could happen, and by the time I’d left that audition room it had all changed.”

Hazel’s tales of her time as a dancer in Beirut no doubt helped.

“Looking back, I guess I was a PR’s dream. I was only 25, but ran away when I was 16, joined a cabaret troupe at 19, was bombed in Beirut. It certainly wasn’t the norm.”

Huge success followed, her co-stars including Phil Daniels and Jonathan Pryce, her soundtrack album soon going platinum.

On the following headline tour, she also helped another band on their way, support act Duran Duran.

“They were brilliant. They didn’t need my push. I just gave them the platform. When they came on tour they were penniless.

“They took one room a night and the rest slept in the van. They drew straws as to who got the room. Everyone else would bunk in for a shower every day.”

As the ‘80s continued, Hazel’s record sales tailed off. Was she still making a living?

“That’s just it – I didn’t make a living out of any of it. I never got a penny.”

But she continued to retain her profile, despite the court battles, with lots of winning anecdotes from that era covered in recent autobiography Breaking Glass Barefoot.

Has David Bowie called lately, asking for another Hazel O’Connor haircut?

“No, but I thought of that recently when I cut my hair. I was thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ but then thought, ‘Well, I have cut David Bowie’s hair.”

She was even billed as George Michael’s love interest in the tabloids once.

“I’m not sure it would have worked! That was hilarious though. That followed the Don’t Touch Me video.

“So many tongue-wagging headlines followed about him leaving home to move in with me. We just laughed about it.”

By the end of the 1990s, there was her Beyond Breaking Glass show. Was that her coming to terms with her past and the start of her autobiography?

“Definitely. I miss the theatrical side, so to be able to write and perform a show is such a buzz.

“The spoken word is mad interesting for me, telling stories and being a raconteur.

Finally, Hazel’s 60 next year, but I’m guessing there are no plans to give up this career quite yet.

“No, and I couldn’t afford to. What would I have to live on? There’s no royalties … there’s just work.”

Hzel O’Connor and Hugh Cornweel play ue: ACADEMY 2 at the University Of Manchester Students’ Union on December 6.

For further tour details go to http://www.thegigcartel.com/artists/profile:520 or Hazel’s official website at http://www.hazeloconnor.com/