In this exclusive interview, Maggie and Martin talk to Polari about their album Union, and how their collaboration grew from having fun writing music together into a fully realised project.
It is altogether fitting that Polari interview pop duo Maggie and Martin in the upstairs lounge of the Retro Bar, where there are 1980s icons covering every square inch of the walls. It was in the ‘80s that Martin Watkins started to write music for Marc Almond, and Maggie K De Monde sang with the bands Swans Way and Scarlet Fantastic. The first Swans Way album, The Fugitive Kind, is being reissued later this month, and Maggie currently features on ‘Surrender’, a collaboration with Japanese DJs Kill the Hero. Martin recently composed and produced the music for Paul Darling’s August 2012 exhibition ‘Wolfpack: Man 2 Man’ and is currently on tour with Marc Almond.
The Maggie and Martin album Union was released in May. The collaboration started when the author Clayton Littlewood introduced the two. “It was 100% Clayton,” Martin recalls. “We met on MySpace, and when he was doing his stage show he asked if I’d write some music.” Clayton started to write a blog on MySpace back in 2006 when he was running the shop Dirty White Boy on Old Compton Street with his partner Jorge Betancourt. The blog became the book Dirty White Boy, then a play, and the people Clayton had met through MySpace were brought together.
“We made friends on MySpace,” Maggie follows, “and one day I was shopping for a handbag, so I went into Dirty White Boy to say hello”.
“I did the same,” Martin adds (although he probably not shopping for a handbag), “and then we went for a coffee and …”, he pauses, and says, “bitched about everyone!”
“Clayton introduced us,” Maggie continues, “and he said we should write a song together. Martin sent me a piece of music and I loved it. Within the hour I’d come up with lyrics and vocal melodies, and it became ‘A Time For Love’. I think we were both really quite pleased. It wasn’t a difficult process. I was inspired by Martin’s music. I’d been reading Clayton’s book, and he asked if we could work something loosely around the Leslie and Charlie story.” This story of two lovers who had been separated for years then reunited through Clayton’s intervention is one of the main threads in Dirty White Boy. “He loved it.”
“Then we wrote ‘Night of A Thousand Stars’,” Martin adds. “We still hadn’t met, and we’d barely spoken. The first time we met was at Clayton’s book launch.” He turns to Maggie, “You’d just come down from Kilimanjaro or something –”
“The Sahara desert.”
“You were delayed at Heathrow. Anyway, Clayton and David Benson were doing their thing in the bookshop and all of a sudden the door opened and Hurricane Maggie swept in with all these shopping bags.”
“ I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, whether I should hang around outside the door –“
“ You made your entrance, love.”
“And that was the first time we met.”
It is great fun to watch the two interact as they are fuelled by each other’s energy, and complete each other’s sentences.
And was that the moment, then, that they thought, “that’s really good”, or did that come later when other people heard the music?
“That was the track that did it,” Martin says, emphatically. “When Maggie sent it back I thought, ‘that’s fucking good, that’. I can divorce what I do from the song, as long as someone else is singing it, because then it’s about listening to a singer. I just thought, ‘I’m totally into this’.”
Was it at that point that the duo decided to write an album?
“No,” Martin responds, “we just kept on pleasing ourselves, really. Then we realised after a year we had all these songs.”
“ ‘Night of a Thousand Stars’ was a magical thing,” Maggie recalls. “I was travelling from Petra in Jordan to the pyramids in Cairo. I remember getting ideas for lyrics at a place called Moon Beach in Egypt, and it felt quite magical. One night we walked through a canyon in candlelight, and there was a guy playing an ethnic instrument – I’m not sure but it may have been a nose flute – and there was this amazing star-filled night sky. I thought, ‘it’s a night of a thousand stars’. I finished it off on the plane.” She continues the story, laughing, “I was writing the lyrics on a sick bag, because I was quite sick. We were watching a lightning storm, and that inspired me.”
“We got to know each other through writing songs,” Martin says, “and that’s never happened to me before.” He shrugs his shoulders, and continues, drily, “If Marc asks for a bit of music, I’ll give him a bit of music, make sure it’s miserable enough, then it’s a song.”
“For me the joy of working with Martin, and I don’t want to sound to clichéd, is that it’s like a key that fits a lock. Writing songs is sometimes not a pleasure, it can be an exercise that’s verging on an ordeal. You come out and you get a product at the end, and I don’t like to work like that. With Martin’s music I’ll have ideas within 20 minutes. It’s that wonderful thing of synchronicity, and Clayton has been the key.”
“The thing is, we were just doing it for us, there was no one waiting for it, it wasn’t about that.”
“No pressure,” Maggie agrees. “I have nightmare stories from the early ‘90s. I had a record deal with Pete Waterman, and I was sent off to Manchester and then told to sound like Alanis Morrissette …” She trails off. “We’ve been putting this jigsaw together, not knowing what the finished picture was going to be like. We’ve just enjoyed putting it together.”
One of the first professionals to be interested in the work was Tony Calder, who used to manage the Rolling Stones. “I don’t know how he got hold of it,” Martin says. “He hauled us in. It was like meeting the Colonel with Elvis Presley, aside from the fact that he just ogled Maggie’s legs. The whole time he talked to Maggie’s knees and thighs. He was great.”
“It was inspiring at the beginning to have someone with his credentials interested,” Maggie adds.
“He was the first one who made us take the whole thing a bit more seriously,” Martin agrees.
With a smile on her face, Maggie adds, “he sprinkled fairy dust on it. It was inspiring. It was a turning point and we thought, we can really do something with this, it’s really good.”
It was then that the songs started to become an album, which was sent out to publishers, but Tony Calder advised the pair that, rather than get a record deal, to release it themselves.
“These days it’s rare to be able to get any kind of deal,” Maggie explains, and Martin adds, “Especially at our age. No one was going to sign us. Regardless of what they thought of the songs, we’re not 18.”
“You have the whole X-Factor pop culture thing going on,” Maggie continues, “which we’re so NOT, obviously. Most people doing new and interesting work are self-funded.”
“I wanted a CD in my hands,” Martin explains. “I wanted a CD with a little booklet. I thought, I haven’t done this if I don’t have a CD in my hand.” And so rather than simply release it through iTunes, they went in search of a distributor, and were picked up by the independent music distributors Shellshock.
And here is the stark contrast with the pop scene of the 1980s. “There was so much money flying around then,” Maggie recalls. “I had two major record deals, one with Swans Way, one with Scarlet Fantastic, and the advance was over £80,000 for each. That was a lot of money in the ’80s – not that I saw much of it, but that’s another story. Video budgets were a minimum of 80 grand, tour budgets, 100 grand.
“The record companies were dishing out the money. In those days they could write it off as a tax loss if the advances weren’t recouped. These days there’s not so much money around, but people can do it themselves. Back then the going rate was a grand a day for the studio. The recording budgets were hundreds of thousands.
“There’s pros and cons. It was great to have all the finance, especially when what you’re doing is not run of the mill. We had to fight to get our deals. We had to hustle it. The problem is that once you signed to a major record company you were owned by them. They could tell you what to do, how to do it, and they had the power over whether to release something. To be autonomous is so much better, so much healthier for artists. That power of the major record company has gone.”
And now? “There’s the X-Factor dictating what’s the next chart hit, but you’ve also got all these underground indie people, and when they put something up on YouTube there’s millions of hits. I love that. It shows there’s something healthy going on that’s not governed by any major moneyed corporation.”
And what is the plan for the Maggie and Martin collaboration?
“I think we’d like not to be giving them away free for Christmas for the next few years,” Martin laughs.
“It’s come to fruition for us,” Maggie concludes, “but we’ve only just released the album, so it’s just the beginning. I am believer that the material finds its way. I can speak from experience. One song that haunts me to this day, and people are still doing new remixes, is ‘No Memory’ by Scarlet Fantastic. We originally recorded it in ‘87. Then it got picked up in the early ‘90s and played on Radio 1 daytime. It wasn’t pushed by anyone, and still today people are finding it. It still sells consistently. The album is out there now and who knows where it’s going to go. We’ll do what we can do.”
Photography by Artfeeder