Originally published in
Arise
,
February 2009
It’s 20 years since her last album but with a new release, Hurricane, impressive live shows and modelling for Arise at NYFW, Grace Jones proves she still likes to walk on the wild side
The most remarkable discovery about Grace Jones upon meeting her is how delightfully personable she is. Contrary to the mountain of scurrilous press cuttings, rumours and anecdotes about her that have accrued over the years, all of which make her out to be difficult, if not bordering on insane, it turns out she’s really rather sweet.
When I lived in Paris, sex would always end up being the topic of after-dinner conversation. I don’t think anyone minds
Photography: Rankin/Icon International

But making her acquaintance isn’t easy. Having brought the house down with her turn on the catwalk at the ARISE African Fashion Collective show at Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week on February 13, I’ve been trying to pin her down for an interview for three weeks, first in New York, then in London. She’s proved elusive and cancelled more than once, which I take as evidence that her reputation as a scary prima donna must be true.

With our rendezvous finally set one evening (she doesn’t do daytimes, apparently) at her local Italian restaurant in Putney, I approach with trepidation. Another interviewer had recently met her in similar circumstances and reported in her article that Jones was two hours late, then spent the duration of their conversation stroking the journalist’s face, force-feeding her oysters and sambuca, and howling at the full moon. So the first surprise is that she’s arrived before me. Second surprise, she’s actually not that tall. Unlike her Amazonian public persona (more of that later) she’s only 5ft 8in. And wearing a simple jumper, skinny jeans tucked into knee-high boots and a fur-lined deer stalker hat, she could almost pass for one of the well-heeled yummy-mummies who populate this wealthy borough of south-west London. Almost. Fixing me with her sparkly stare, there’s no mistaking the one and only Miss Jones. She shakes my hand firmly, points me in the direction of her table, tucked away from the other diners on the mezzanine, and pops outside for a cigarette. Joining me five minutes later, her loquacious, generous manner is instantly disarming. She pours us some red wine.

So first things first: how did she find the ARISE show, for which she modelled an outfit for Malian designer Xuly Bët? "I loved it, the atmosphere was fantastic. I enjoy going on the catwalk, especially for a designer that I really, really like," she purrs. "I usually only do it for people who I already know well and I’d met Xuly only once, a couple of years ago in Paris. Katoucha [Niane, the legendary Yves Saint Laurent model who died last year] had told me what an amazing designer he was, so he came by my hotel with a few pieces and I adored them. There’s one of those pieces that I always carry with me; it’s black and white with bat-wing sleeves. It’s beautiful, and he’s such a sweet guy."

For the show she opted for a black mini dress that left little to the imagination and proved beyond doubt that at 60 years of age, she’s still got a body, and long legs, to die for. I congratulate her on said legs, comparing them favourably to my own. "Show me your legs," she demands. I wave one in front of her. "No, you have good legs, there is no wobble at all - great legs!"

Of course Jones is no stranger to New York, or the catwalk. Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica in 1948, she was one of six children brought up in a strict religious household by her grandparents. Her father, Robert Jones, a Pentecostal Christian preacher, and mother Marjorie Williams, a seamstress, lived in Syracuse, New York state. Joining her parents when she was 12 years old, she found the change of lifestyle liberating. "I was looking forward to it, anything different was good, you know," she begins. "I even had a different name - in Jamaica you were never called by your first given name, it was either your middle name or a nickname. Sometimes you can know a person all their life and never know their first name. So it was funny that when I got to America, all of a sudden I was called Grace." Which begs the question, what was she known as in Jamaica? "Beverley, that’s my middle name, or Firefly, which was my nickname." Why? Ask a stupid question. "Have you ever seen a firefly? Because I’m black, skinny and I have big eyes - at least that is what I am told."

As a teenager she found it hard being the only black girl at her new school - one report card labelled her "socially sick". Her first ambition was to be a Spanish teacher (she speaks six languages) but she soon switched her affections to acting and so studied drama, albeit briefly, at Syracuse University before moving to Philadelphia to join a theatre workshop. Before long she hitched a lift to NYC with a motorcycle gang and was discovered by a model scout. The job took her to Paris in the early 70s, where she shared a flat with Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange, and posed for Vogue and Elle. But it was back in New York in the latter part of that decade that she found her true calling in the city’s thriving club scene. Jones became a regular feature at Le Jardin and Studio 54, where her neo-Nubian good looks drew New York acolyte Andy Warhol to her. She would become his muse.

In 1977 she signed to Island Records and released Portfolio, the first of three disco albums with producer Tom Moulton. Then Island boss Chris Blackwell took her to his Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to make Warm Leatherette (1980), Nightclubbing (1981) and Living My Life (1982). These recordings mixed the cold sounds of new wave with warm reggae rhythms and propelled her into the mainstream kicking, screaming, and occasionally slapping (if your name was TV presenter Russell Harty, at least). These albums also cemented her relationship with French photographer Jean-Paul Goude, who was responsible for transforming her on her covers into a machine-like creature with midnight skin, angular proportions and flat-top afro. His most iconic construction of her though appears on the sleeve of the 1985 compilation Island Life - Jones is nearly naked, balancing on one foot, with the other stretched out behind her and her hand holding a microphone far out in front of her - she is at once part robot, part warrior, part fetish object. Also her long-term lover, Goude and Jones had a son together, Paulo, in 1979, who is currently a musician living in Paris.

Jones went on to add to this androgynous image through her collaborations with Keith Haring (his 1985 performance piece with Jones transformed her into an 80s Josephine Baker), choice of film roles (the spear-wielding Zula opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan The Destroyer; Bond girl May Day in Roger Moore’s A View To A Kill) and seemingly bizarre roll call of beefy boyfriends including body builders Dolph Lundgren and Sven Ole-Thorson. The late 1980s and 1990s saw three more albums and a smattering of forgettable movies. Two further albums were recorded yet never released. Despite her lower profile however, Jones has never fallen far from the zeitgeist, making her current renaissance with Hurricane less of a comeback than an inevitability.

"I didn’t set out to make an album, I only meant to make one song, Devil In My Life, for a project Ivor Guest was working on for his band. It’s now the last song on my album," she says, pouring us both some more wine. Guest is many things - musician, producer, fourth Viscount Wimborne, descendent of Winston Churchill, and - yes, you’ve guessed it - Jones’ ex-boyfriend. "By the time we finished recording the song, his band had broken up and we had got together, so we just kept on making music for fun. And then after a while we were like, ‘Oh god, we’ve got a record here, you know.’" She also recorded with Tricky, Brian Eno, Wendy and Lisa, and old friends Sly and Robbie and re-visited several tracks that had never seen the light of day. The results update her signature sound without losing one ounce of what has always made her music unparalleled - namely Jones’ intoxicating, inimitable singing voice.

Hurricane is undoubtedly her most personal work to date. Gone are the songs about raving and kinky sex to be replaced by ones about watching a lover come out of a coma (new single Love You To Life) and the evils of big business (Corporate Cannibal). It’s also a family affair with both her mother and son featuring on it. Two songs, I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears) and William’s Blood, deal directly with the pressures religion put on her upbringing, the latter also boasting a gospel choir and ending with her rendition of Amazing Grace.

"My mother has always sung on my records, but she didn’t want to be credited until now," explains Jones. "Her dad was a jazz pianist with Nat King Cole, and now my son composes and plays keyboards in my tour band. Music runs in the family."

Her relationship with her father was always strained - his church wanted him to cut her off and delayed his ascension to bishop because of her antics - but by the time of his death last year, aged 84, they were friends. She was by his bedside when he died. "He heard Hurricane and he loved it. I sang I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears) at their 60th wedding anniversary just before he died too. In his quiet way, he never judged me and he never said, ‘By the way, this is affecting me.’"

Released late last year in the UK to critical acclaim on Wall of Sound, she brings Hurricane to the USA with a tour this June, and is currently in the throws of planning her stage set. I caught the last date of her UK tour at the Roundhouse in London in January. It was a tour de force performance with her new songs received just as rapturously as her old hits such as Nightclubbing, Pull Up To The Bumper and My Jamaican Guy. Madonna at 50 has nothing on Grace Jones at 60 because armed only with a rotating pole and a giant wind machine, she managed to enthral her audience with a change of designer outfit (Azzedine Alaia, Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake) and Philip Treacy headpiece for every single song. "My headpieces are one of a kind, I call them my crowns. They’re my power hats!" Sauntering offstage for each change, she’d take a microphone with her and amuse the crowd with wicked innuendos and asides. "I like to keep a connection with the audience even when I am not on stage, so it’s nice to have a little bit of, how do you say, taboo talk, you know?" she chuckles. "When I lived in Paris, no matter what, sex would always end up being the topic of after-dinner conversation. I don’t think any one minds." Her fans didn’t mind when she produced a hand-held camera and flashed her small, pert breasts either. The highlight of the gig though had to be her encore, for which she performed Slave To The Rhythm while hula-hooping. She didn’t once drop the hoop - nor a beat. "That just came out of the blue. I did a photo shoot and in the studio there was this hula-hoop. I brought it home with me and it was then I remembered I used to do hula-hoop competitions in school. I could make it go all the way up and down my body. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we do some on stage?’" Jones has her own rituals when preparing for a show. "I don’t like to be touched before I go on. You know, I don't get nervous but I can feel it if someone else is. I do my vocal exercises and order oysters. I also like Cristal champagne. I was drinking it for years before it became bling. I like the taste." Does her son share the same on-the-road rider? "Yes, but he’s quite protective of me. He will say, ‘Oh mum, you look really tired. I’m going to go party now but you should go home. And I am like,"OK", because normally when I am working I have to rest, otherwise I get bombed out, my voice can’t take it." What? Did Grace Jones just admit she can’t party like she used to? "I can party harder than anyone if I want to," she corrects me. "I just choose to take my party on stage."

After the tours are over, she has several projects on the go including a documentary on her by director Sophie Fiennes, an art project with cult director Chris Cunningham and her directorial debut of an independent movie about Jamaica. "I have apartments in London, Paris, Venice and New York, but it’s Jamaica that’s really home. Whenever I get there I feel grounded. It’s where I go to heal. But Jamaican men are like lions: they’re horny all the time. I tell them to [slips into patois], ‘G’wan about your business!’" She also claims she has two albums worth of material ready for release, so fingers crossed it’s not another 20 years before the next one.

Her phone rings, she answers it. This is a sign that our interview is over. As Jones puts on her fur coat and gathers up her belongings from the table, she also swipes the half full bottle of wine we’ve been drinking. "I’ll take that home," she says slyly, giving me a small glimpse of the mischievous Miss Jones I’d originally been expecting. We saunter downstairs to the restaurant’s bar, where five people patiently await her, among them milliner Philip Treacy. She bids me a fond farewell, lights up a cigarette and disappears into the night. Hmm, maybe I should come back when it’s a full moon.

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