Chrissie Hynde

Chrissie Hynde Photo: Dean Chalkley

"I’m glad you’re asking me about music."

Chrissie Hynde is fuming. She has spent the morning answering questions from journalists who seem to have little interest in her work.

“The person before you was asking me about online dating,” she seethes. “Of which I know nothing.”

Hynde might be reticent to share insights into her love life, but she understands the interest. She has a daughter with Ray Davies of the Kinks and another with ex-husband Jim Kerr, the lead singer of Simple Minds. She later married the artist Lucho Brieva, before the pair separated in 2002. 

From the beginning of her career, her sexuality has always been part of her rock ‘n’ roll sensibility. When she cools down, she is even prepared to joke about it. “If I was about to get busy in the bedroom,” she says, “I would put on Dirt by Iggy Pop because I would probably be painting my nails.”

As the ice-cool frontwoman of the Pretenders, Hynde wrote and delivered emphatic, sassy hits including Brass in PocketDon’t Get Me Wrong and Message to Love; songs that conveyed sheer joy along with sadness, regret and hard-arse attitude. Her music has featured on television shows, such as Girls and The Sopranos, and films ranging from Lost in Translation to In Bruges and G.I. Jane. You hear her songs on radio, in supermarkets and, to Hynde’s distress, department stores.

“I’m always horrified,” she says. “If one of my songs comes on in a shop, I’m out of there immediately. But that’s where it’s supposed to be, it’s supposed to be heard in the public domain. If I was at a juice bar in Sao Paulo and I heard one of my new songs, I’d be like, ‘Cool, man’.”

Now, at the age of 62, after 36 years fronting the Pretenders, Hynde has released her debut solo album, Stockholm. A cosmic cross between John Lennon and ABBA, it was recorded in the city of its title.“I think there was a darker side to ABBA they didn’t really show and there was a very melodic side to John Lennon he didn’t always show,” she says.

Hynde spent two years making the album, working with Swedish musicians across about 20 sessions. It has been six years since the Pretenders last album, Break Up the Concrete.

For Hynde, dropping the Pretenders name was an attempt to hit control-alt-delete on her career. She wants to jettison all the history, good and bad – the international hits, the constant line-up changes, the drug overdose deaths of two of her original band members – and begin again.

“My goal musically is just to do enough to get on stage and make a few records," she says.

For years, Hynde has been the only real member of the Pretenders. The band rode a wave of success in the early '80s, but drug problems tore the group apart. Hynde fired bassist Pete Farndon in 1982, as his drug use sprialled out of control. Two days later, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott was found dead of heart failure after using cocaine. Farndon died of a heroin overdose the next year.

Hynde continued with the band and the line-up has been shifting ever since.

"I’ve never really f---ed anyone over or used anyone or cheated because I’m not that goal-orientated," she says. "I’ve had to change the line-up – not very often – when the music wasn’t quite right. But I’ve never done anything horrible or unfair. I just wanted to play guitar in a band. I’m not really very ruthless, I just do what I have to do to get by.”

If the name on the record is different, the voice remains the same. It is front and centre in the mix – distinct and strong in its ability to draw you in.

But there is another familiar sound on Stockholm: Neil Young’s guitar. His music is instantly recognisable on the track, Down the Wrong Way. Hynde says she was “beyond happy – extra-terrestrial happy” when she first heard those slashing chords from Young’s amp in the studio. Her connection with the Canadian musician goes all the way back to 1970, when she was a student at Kent State University in Ohio. She was on campus when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students during an anti-war protest, killing four. The incident inspired a national outcry and Young’s plaintive song, Ohio

“The first time I ever met him that came up and I thanked him for writing that song," says Hynde. "It meant a lot to the people who were there.” 

She was thrilled when he agreed to work with her on Stockholm. “That’s the biggest surprise for me in my whole career. I never expected that to happen," she says. "We had one song that sounded like a Neil Young song. I mean, every band in the world has one song that sounds like a Neil Young song. I was trying to get a rise out of the guy that was producing, Bjorn Yttling [of Swedish outfit Peter, Bjorn and John]. I kept f---ing with him, saying, ‘We could always get Neil Young to play on it’. Of course, I didn’t really mean that. But the more I said it, the more I thought, actually, I could get Neil on it because I know him. Eventually I called him and said, ‘You wanna play on this?’ and he was up for it.”

The other surprise special guest is the tennis superstar John McEnroe on the song A Plan Too Far. The seven-time Grand Slam singles champion was in Sweden while Hynde was recording, playing an exhibition match against his former arch-rival, Bjorn Borg.

“I don’t know much about sports but I started watching tennis about 30 years later than I should have,” Hynde says. “I should have gone to see them at Wimbledon when I had a chance but I wasn’t interested."

The pair are old friends and McEnroe has been on stage with the Pretenders a number of times. “A lot of people know that McEnroe’s a music fan and he loves rock guitar but no-one’s really heard him play," she says. "He loves it and I’ve always encouraged him to play but ... he wasn’t prepared to switch vocations. So this is a great break for me that I got him in the studio.”

McEnroe is notorious for his short fuse - a characteristic that delights Hynde. “It’s real easy to wind him up,” she says. “You actually have to be quite careful with him, he’s quite delicate. It doesn’t take much to get him going. Once you know that, it depends on what mood you’re in if you want to access that or not – if you want to unleash the monster..."

It is easy to see that Hynde gets a kick out of stirring the pot. “If someone is really nice and mild-mannered, it’s easy to get a little sadistic," she says. "But these days I’m a lot more relaxed and try to keep a lid on it.”

In song, however, she is as feisty as ever. On Stockholm, she pinpoints the follies and frailties of old lovers, friends and the English class system [Dark Sunglasses]. There is also longing, angst and a hint of disappointment but, she says, “I’m way past writing my break-up album”. 

She nominates Adding the Blue as the song that gives the most away about her emotional life but, she says, “I’m not really spilling my guts or pouring my heart out or licking my wounds or feeling sorry for myself. At least not too obviously.”

As for those who might suggest she does not put enough of herself on the line, "they can go f--- themselves. What can I do about it? It’s already done.” 

A moment later, she is contrite. The beauty of a conversation with Chrissie Hynde is that the mood can change in an instant. “Actually, I don’t mean that. I reserve my ‘go f--- yourself’ for more extreme measures.

"I invite criticism. The great thing about criticism is when you find out you’re wrong. That’s when you improve and get better at something. That doesn’t really apply to rock ‘n’ roll because in rock ‘n’ roll it’s not about being good or bad; it’s about attitude, it’s not about excellence.”

With only two albums in more than a decade, Hynde has been exploring passions outside music. She has been involved in anti-fur campaigns for the animal rights organisation PETA and her zeal for vegetarianism [“My real goal in life”] is well known. Her PETA work saw her arrested in Manhattan in 2000 after she slashed leather goods at a Gap store and in Paris three years later for daubing red paint across a KFC outlet.

In 2007, Hynde opened a vegan restaurant, VegiTerranean, in her childhood home of Akron, Ohio. It served fusion Italian-Mediterranean cuisine and won plenty of plaudits but things turned sour in 2011. 

“That was a big f----up,” she says. “My restaurant went under because I wasn’t there. Anyone who has a restaurant will tell you, you have to be there each and every day. That’s what everyone told me. They said, ‘Don’t be the only investor’. The restaurant was great, it had fantastic reviews, it was always full but the guy I had as a manager didn’t pay the taxes so the whole thing collapsed. I took a huge loss.”

A few years ago there was talk from Hynde that VegiTerranean would open a restaurant in Australia. “I really had planned on doing another," she says. "I was looking at locations in Melbourne and everyone I talked to really wanted to do the restaurant. Maybe one day it could still happen. If it could survive and thrive in any city it would be Melbourne, I’ve no doubt about that."

From Stockholm to Melbourne, then?

“Yeah! That’s a very good possibility because it’s a great music town ... I’m sure I’d have a very productive time. Maybe some rich guy in Melbourne will give me a call and say, ‘Hey, Chrissie, let’s do this restaurant’. Maybe it’s on the cards.”

Stockholm is out now.