Interview Mark Wardel
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“I’m on a huge adventure in sound and vision, seeing how far I can take myself…”
What seems like a billion people, a swirling, boiling mass of rainbow colours, whistles and chaos has brought London’s West End to a standstill on this hottest Pride day ever. But a few minutes later I step from the blowtorch heat and melting tarmac into the home of musician and high-octane muse Daphne Guinness, and it’s like stepping through the wardrobe into another realm where all is cool, calm, spacious and hushed. Soft light filters through leaded windows as billowing nets cast a diffused, ever-changing light onto Japanese screens, framed butterflies, glass bell jars, a series of top hats and various other arcane, museum like pieces that contrast with the cutting-edge contemporary art hanging on silk-papered walls. An eclectic outward manifestation of its owner’s inner psyche? Perhaps; because, in common with her friend and mentor David Bowie, Daphne Guinness has a super-bright and enquiring butterfly mind that skips from one subject to the next. Musician, model, designer and art collector, she’s as happy to talk string theory as string arrangements, and her knowledge and enthusiasm for all things creative shines as clearly as does her scrubbed, sculpted beauty.
Mark Wardel: Your new album is named ‘Daphne and the Golden Chord’ – so what exactly is ‘the Golden Chord’?
Daphne Guinness: It’s the secret of sound, and the mathematical, scientific and artistic routes you can take to reach all the magic numbers that exist in the universe. A sort of golden chord string theory… It’s that unanswered question, that reaching for something – the idea of God, or the universe. It’s a spiritual quest really.
MW: How do you set about writing your songs?
DG: I go in with an idea and often words will come to me in the booth. On the first album I just had bits of paper all over the floor all over the walls – automatic writing – then I cut it up and put it back together. The bottom line is you’ve got to understand what you’re trying to say – for me, these are emotions that I’m going through – in order to bookend it into a song.
MW: You have said that you need visual stimulation to create music and vice versa. I’m the same, when I make my art I always have music playing; I wondered if there’s a metaphysical connection, or is it just coasting on emotion?
DG: There is a metaphysical component, but all of the above is true. I observed this in my photographic world, which is a very silent world: I’d always have to have my headphones on and be playing Wagner or T Rex or the Stones or the Beatles to get some emotion from the music and create a mood: I want to set the scene in my head before I start the shoot. If you think about it, we all used to dress up to the music and we all kind of discovered who we were – you’d find each other through your clothing, clubs and what you listened to.
MW: Exactly, and your music dictated what you wore, who you mixed with and your whole life philosophy.
DG: Precisely. And through music you found your ‘tribe’ and created your look. When I was growing up we didn’t have access to fashion. The world wasn’t like it is now. I didn’t have very much pocket money when I was little, so you’d make it up out of plastic bags or whatever, you know? Kensington Market was about as rad as it got.
MW: But it fostered creativity.
DG: That’s what I liked! It’s nice to have money and be able to do these things, but if you took it all away I’d still be creating out of whatever I had available.
MW: Exactly! You don’t need money to be creative.
DG: No, you don’t. A lot of these brands… what they are looking for is talent, and that’s why I approach the industry with caution. The executives have a completely different idea of what creativity should be; but what have they created? Reality shows! Well, I’m sorry but that’s not me. If you want reality, look out of the window! Artists create fantasy – we don’t want to know how it’s all done. Who wants a television camera on them all day long? We want some mystery.
MW: We were the Bowie generation and he was launched on a tide of mystery. We knew nothing about him in the 70s.
DG: And who wants to know what celebrities had for breakfast or what the state of their relationship is? That’s not what I’m about. I’m about creation and illusion. The art should speak for itself, and people either like it or not. Somebody recently said to me: “People should know how hard you work on this!” But that’s not why I do it. I don’t want people to know how hard I work – that’s beside the point. I’m on a huge adventure in sound and vision, seeing how far I can take myself, and that’s what interests me.
MW: I believe Bowie encouraged producer Tony Visconti to work with you…
DG: Yes, he did! I was reading Götterdämmerung in the studio – I read a lot of music scores – and David came in and he was reading Parsifal… it was very spooky! There was immediately this connection. He was a magical creature… he is a magical creature. He’s still around, he really is!
MW: I love real strings and I get the impression they are very important to you in your music.
DG: Tony Visconti is the most brilliant string arranger on the planet, which is one of the reasons I wanted to work with him. I solo all the strings and just listen to them. They are things of divine beauty that I have written out. Tony conducts them, 24 strings, and just it’s so beautiful sitting in on those sessions.
MW: Coming back to your songs, I get the impression there’s a lot of messages encoded in them and wondered whether they were aimed at any specific person or persons, or maybe even aimed inwards at a facet of yourself…
DG: Interesting! All of the above. I’m having conversations with myself, working things out in my head and also describing what is happening to me at the time and coming to terms with… well, thank goodness I’ve come to my senses and I’m actually back in the room now!
MW: Yes, they are quite triumphal messages. Have they hit their target?
DG: Well, I have a good time singing them and that’s the only target I want to hit!
Daphne Guinness’ new album ‘Daphne and the Golden Chord’ is out now.