Singer, composer, synth pioneer – Annette Peacock has been skating in her own skies for 20 years. Jonathan Coe reckons she's still the one. This interview originally appeared in The Wire 75 (May 1990).
Besides never teaching her how to cook (and yes, that is why she's so skinny), Annette Peacock's mama never encouraged her to go into music, either.
"She warned me off it and I always resented her for doing that," she says, "but I've had nothing but pain and grief from it, you know, so she was absolutely right."
Now hold on - nothing but pain and grief? All right, so her walls aren’t plastered with gold discs, and she must be getting tired by now of seeing less talented, less innovative artists shooting past her in the fast lane to commercial success. But Annette Peacock doesn't look like a sad, disillusioned soul to me. On stage at her recent London gigs she seems newly confident, a focus of mesmerised attention flanked by electronic hardware and a trio of fabulous musicians; in person, through an unexpected shyness, she still radiates integrity and a sort of quiet determination.
She's been making records for 20 years now, and writing songs for longer than that, but it makes little sense to talk of ‘progression’ or ‘development’ in a career which has followed none of the usual patterns. “The marketplace is moving so slow,” she complains at one point, and you do get the sense that Peacock must spend half her time waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. When I venture to suggest that she has been “influenced” by rap, for instance, she reminds me that she was already rapping on her very first LP, Revenge, back in 1969. Point taken.
That was when she was making her initial, pioneering ventures into electronics. She had been writing music for Paul Bley - not so much songs for improvising as “environments he had to perpetuate” - but became so intrigued by the possibilities of the newly-invented synthesizer that she talked Bley into getting one (“I really didn't leave him alone about it”). In those days, of course, this involved something more than just walking into your local branch of Dixon's: in fact it meant wheedling one out of Robert Moog himself.
"Paul was very practical and sensible about it. He said if we go down to see Moog, we’re gonna take a station wagon, and we're gonna leave with it that day: which is precisely what we did. And for the first six months we didn’t know what the hell to do with it. I mean, there wasn't any information, and anybody you talked to who had it in the studio - because it wasn’t conceived for live performing - they were very secretive, very protective about it. I remember Gary Peacock [her former husband] came by one day, and we had it stashed in the hall, covered with a curtain, and he pulled the curtain back and he said, ‘What the fuck is that?’ ‘Cause no one had even seen them."
The first performances at the Village Vanguard were fairly chaotic, by all accounts: "We had people like John McLaughlin and Tony Williams sitting out in the audience, and they had to wait 20 minutes between songs while I was changing patches." But she went on to achieve wonders with the instrument, inventing a way of singing through it which some boffin from an electronics magazine scoffed at only last year, assuring her that it wouldn't have been possible at the time. This period is documented on the RCA LP, I'm The One. "It was really exciting to me because I'd never done that music before, with chord changes or time or anything with a beat, so I thought it was funny, you know, that it was humorous, almost camp. But a lot of people took it seriously, and that astonished me."
One such person was David Bowie, who asked her to tour and record with him; she told him to buy his own synthesizer and learn to play it himself. Committed to following her own path, Peacock continued to tour Europe with Bley and Han Bennink, and then settled in England when a friend, out of the blue, offered her free use of a house in the country. Thus began a reclusive phase which eventually led to the intimate and introspective music of Skyskating, her only completely solo album and the first on her own Ironic label. It was followed by a compilation LP, Been In The Streets Too Long, gathering together some recordings from the mid-70s, and then the gorgeously abstract and melodic I Have No Feelings, which also featured percussionist Roger Turner.
Even this arrangement hasn’t brought her complete autonomy, though. "When I first started, independent distribution was really wide open, it was a very healthy atmosphere, and then somewhere between 84 and 86 the bottom dropped out, and a lot of people went out of business. By the time I put out I Have No Feelings, independent distributors weren’t wanting to accept anything that sounded unusual, so I had to sit back and think, you know, I’d better make the next one so that it slips by the A&R man. It's got to have time, it's got to have a band, it's got to have chord changes and stuff like that. I just grabbed my freedom through the words."
Hence her 1988 LP Abstract-Contact, combining solid rap and dance rhythms, adventurous voicings ("I cannot stand major chords. I find them so sweet, so insipid") and lyrics exploring the areas of emotional and environmental politics which she mapped out as her own long before they became fashionable. It's a vein which her next release, a quartet album for which she's already written the songs, should take even further.
Never complacent about her work, Peacock is now simply happy to have found a group of young musicians with whom she feels a rapport (particularly bassist Mike Mondesir) and to be playing live again: "I’m getting to enjoy it more and more." It's not as if she's attained some final, long-awaited goal, but: "There comes a point, you know, when you think you're mature. All the things have come together as a player, as a performer, as a writer, and you feel that… you deserve."
Annette Peacock deserves: no doubt about it.