An Interview with Helen McCookerybook

Helen McCookerybook is a recording artist who was formerly the bass guitarist and lead singer of Brighton based punk band The Chefs. McCookerybook also formed a band of her own with Helen and the Horns, and has been regarded as one of the original ‘she-punks’. In addition to writing and recording songs she has also embarked upon a career as a lecturer for the University of Westminster and remains quite involved in a variety of political causes and is currently found to be touring the United Kingdom on her latest music tour.

It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. My first question; I know it may sound a little clichéd but I would like to ask you to sum up your music in your own words?
Catchy songs (I hope) played on an electric guitar and sung clearly and directly- with some rather dark lyrics hiding away in them.

You have been described in a variety of different ways. Many of the words I have read that describe your sound have ranged from: poetic to punk, light and quirky, folk and jazz. How far would you agree with this?
As a guitarist, I try to replace a band that isn’t there for people to listen to, but it is there in my head. I used to play bass, and I try to make my fingerpicking style encompass a whole band’s sound. I listen to a lot of northern soul, blues and French pop: so I suppose there are a lot of those influences in there. I recently drew a logo for my label of a hare playing my Gretsch, wearing an Elizabethan ruff around its neck. I’d recently been to the Nicholas Hilliard exhibition of miniature paintings and loved them. I had an embroidered patch made up of the design, and the guy who helped with the design of the logo, Ian Button (and who engineered my latest album) described it as Elizabethan northern soul: so maybe that should describe my music too!

Your career seems to have been quite transformative. You have performed in a variety of styles and written songs that have contained anti-war messages, warnings regarding the dangers of consumerism, and even a song about STDs. Would you agree that you do not seem content to remain contained within a single mould?
I’m not musically trained- I went to art college, and art is all about ideas. The idea of a mould, I associate with factories and mass-production! I know it makes commercial sense to create music in a genre and stick to it; I just write songs as they come to me. I am a really restless person; sometimes I wish I wasn’t, so I could just be lazy and sit about watching Come Dine With Me all the time. But it seems that whenever I try to relax, I get an idea and I have to do something about it. I don’t have an iPod or anything like that: I listen to the music in my head, and if it’s engaging enough I make a song out of it. The political songs come about because it’s such a terrible time: we have to speak out about what is happening. It’s cowardly not to.

Helen McCookerybook has been called one of the original ‘she-punks’. To what extent would you say that punk has influenced, and indeed, continues to influence you as a performer and writer?
Punk is something in your blood: it makes you responsible for your ideas and your actions, and makes you feel you can actively change things rather than being passive. It gives you permission to be creative, and makes you unafraid of rejection, even when you know it’s inevitable that you can’t please everyone. It makes you resilient and positive, and it makes you feel you can put your imagination to good use for positive change.

Given the current political climate, would you like to see a return to the classic punk mould?

What artists would you say uphold the beliefs and values of punk music? Are there any such musicians at all?
I think any musician with a conscience: some of the Grime artists for instance. And there are lots of new female led bands that make punk influenced music, like Big Joanie. Punk means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and it always did. Some people were just in it to make money, some to try to change society, and some to do a bit of both. It was very angry and stimulating music to listen to, and it’s very easy to parody now. I know that a lot of female musicians feel as I do, that being involved in it back then totally changed what we expected out of life.

What do you think of the connection between punk and feminism? In an interview with The Guardian you once described this connection as being somewhat separate from the more typical feminist movement. Do you still believe this or has your position changed?
I still believe that: with the caveat that there are as many different feminisms as there are definitions of punk. I didn’t realise that I was a feminist until punk was well and truly over, when it hit me suddenly that there was no alternative. All movements that lead to changes in society take a long time to develop, and some forms of feminism could seem raw and clunky at first. In the end, you have to think about what you want the world to be like, and prejudice has no place in the future.

What is it like touring the U.K. with your music?
It’s a fantastic adventure! Part of me is a total introvert and finds it terrifying, but overcoming the fear is part of it all. There really is another me sitting at home watching the TV, saying, ‘What are you doing, you stupid person! Travelling around with a guitar and a change of clothing to places where you’ve never been and singing your home-made songs to people who you don’t even know, and who might not even like your music!’. But through doing this, I have met some amazing people, heard some fantastic music, and I feel that I am part of an active community that brings a lot of positivity to the world. What could be better than that?

Do you enjoy working independently as a solo artist, or do you prefer working as part of a band?
Sometimes I think it would be lovely to be in a band: all those musical possibilities! But then I hear friends in their bands arguing and I realise I’m doing the best thing for me. I hate conflict. I do a lot of collaboration without formalising the relationships with other musicians and that seems to work out OK.

Thank-you very much for your time and for talking to us. As a last question, there is something I would very much like to know- how did you come up with the name McCookerybook?
I used to be in a band called The Chefs. I was also an illustrator and I kept my sketch book on the shelf in the kitchen with the cookery books, and I wrote McCookerybook on it (my real surname is McCallum). A local newspaper journalist in Brighton where I lived at the time got all 50 bands who rehearsed and played in the town into one street to take a photo. I was right at the back of the photo. He phoned round to ask everyone their names, and I told him my real name. ‘Not good enough’, he said, and read out a whole lot of names like Tim Vicious and Dick Damage, so I said, ‘McCookerybook’. When the paper came out that Friday, the headline to the whole double page spread of the article was ‘Helen McCookerybook is the one at the back in the hat’. I had accidentally chosen a headline-grabbing name, and I’ve kept it ever since!

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