Some of the songs have words, some don't, some are written, some completely improvised. If Shadow Puppeteer fits into a genre at all, it's probably the commercially tricky one of free improvisation, but the material is so varied and the delivery so extraordinarily good, that anyone could enjoy it. At times - as on the terrific "Torch Song" - Tippetts's voice goes all deep and bluesy; one multi-tracked vocal chorus doo-wops a rhythmic backing while another coos and soars over the top, like an a capella soul choir. If you're in on the secret, this is when it hits you, for in her earlier incarnation as Julie Driscoll, Julie Tippetts was the best female soul singer we ever had. And as Shadow Puppeteer makes clear, she still is.
"People say you've gone into retirement, when are you going to come out, but I've never really been away," Tippetts said when I interviewed her at her home in rural Gloucestershire. Of late, she has been unusually active: appearing in the London Jazz Festival concert devoted to the songs of Robert Wyatt, who's a friend from way back; performing in an opera written by the composer Edward Williams in Bristol; playing with her husband Keith Tippett (Julie adds an `s' to her surname to distinguish her artistic identity) as part of the birthday celebrations for Ogun Records at the 100 Club last week. But her past as Julie Driscoll was so brief yet so glorious that people are still drawn by it. For a while, she even had a fanzine devoted to her called A Kind of Love In, after one of her most famous songs. A grandmother now, she still looks beautiful; like Julie Driscoll in fact.
Starting at the age of 17, Driscoll toured constantly for four years as one of three vocalists with the soul revue band Steampacket (the others were Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart). When Baldry and Stewart left in 1966, she and the rhythm section continued as Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger and the Trinity. Their version of Bob Dylan's "This Wheel's On Fire" reached number five in the charts in 1968 (Tippetts later re-recorded the song as the theme for the television show Absolutely Fabulous). If you listen to her work with Auger now, it still sounds hip, and Julie's voice is quite outstanding. Even then, the normal soul vocabulary of generic slurs and slides is made utterly distinctive by rough, throaty, sandpaper- textured burrs that are as close to Celtic folk-music as they are to Memphis. Along with the voice went an alluring image that launched a thousand imitations. If you wanted to search out a Posh Spice-style icon for the late Sixties, Julie Driscoll was it.
"That whole Sixties thing did leave a scar and a mark and it put me in a situation of retreat for a while," she says. "I couldn't go out without being recognised, so I used to go for walks around Vauxhall Bridge and Lambeth at 3am. It sounds dangerous now, but because that was where I grew up it felt like that was my cocoon, my protection, and somewhere where I wasn't being prodded and touched all the time." For her, fame wasn't just a double-edged sword; it really did cut to the quick. "Some people love it but I didn't like it. I just felt it wasn't real; I had no anonymity and I couldn't go out without being plastered in make-up. Because I'd built this mask of the fancy make-up, I didn't help matters. I gave myself an image that others wanted to imitate; it nearly threw me over the edge and I had to really battle. I was only a minor star but I found it invasive and unpleasant; I didn't like being looked at that much. After Season of the Witch [a BBC Wednesday Play of 1968 in which she starred] I stopped for a year. I just internally exploded and, for want of a better word, I went through a kind of breakdown. Then I had to crawl out of it, and it wasn't very pleasant."
The crisis was artistic as well as personal, reflecting the problems faced by British artists who based their careers on music derived from a culture they knew only at second-hand. "Eventually, I felt this responsibility to stop this superficial thing and be true to myself. When I worked with Brian Auger we did a lot of cover versions but then I started writing my own things and everything was pointing to an inevitable split. I wanted to explore - and I know this sounds like a cliche - but I was searching for my own ethnic soul. It might sound yucch, but I wanted to find me, a real me, and not just the influences I'd had. Nobody's going to play like Miles Davis, so okay, learn something, but you've got to put your own real self into it on your own terms, not just embody other people's. I had to do a lot of learning, delving really deep to listen and perform and to discover this other area of music that became more than entertainment."
The new area of music was free improvisation, which she discovered in tandem with her husband, whom she met through her manager, Georgio Gomelsky, who asked Keith Tippett to do arrangements for her first solo album, 1969. This terrific album offered a possible future as a British Joni Mitchell, but it wasn't to be. Shortly afterwards, Driscoll joined Tippett in the small group Ovary Lodge and the big band Centipede. They've gone on from there, often working with the same group of like-minded friends.
"We made a conscious choice and when you fully believe in something you can't go back," Tippetts says. "Early on, we decided not to think in terms of money and though it's been a struggle we really still do have this belief." Tippett had been asked to join the band King Crimson, and Julie received numerous film offers, but they turned it all down in favour of free jazz and, well, love. "We don't have any money but we're so rich in other ways," she says. "The way it is now at least I'm not ashamed of anything I've done. I might get a bit fed up with "This Wheels's On Fire", but I'm not ashamed of it. At the age of 52 I have more passion now than I ever did, and I've always been passionate." The scar, it seems, is healed.
`Shadow Puppeteer' is released next month on La Cooka Ratcha Records. `1969' is on One-Way RecordsReuse content