Pop: Strung-out, sexy...solo

Lillian Gish, Baby Jane, Aunt Sally - been there, done that. Now Siobhan Fahey is ready for real havoc. By Glyn Brown
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About a month ago, Siobhan Fahey kicked off a Shakespear's Sister comeback with a few small showcases in Dublin. True, she's dropped the scribbled liner and lipstick that turned her into Elsa Lanchester's Bride of Frankenstein, but even in Fred Perry, boots and braces, she still looked loopy to a fault. First she rolled her eyes like a bolting horse, then she screwed one up, keeping the other wide, like an eccentric gent with a lost monocle. The new songs are arch glam-goth, and she sings them in the throttled, breathy baritone that contrasted so well with the four- and-a-half-octave register Marcella Detroit (of whom, more later) once contributed. With mid-brown rats' tails draped in her face, she looked wired, strung-out and sexy, though not someone with whom you'd willingly tussle. Even when the band began to tire, Fahey executed impressive kangaroo leaps between numbers. (Most of her new band are about 21, and Fahey is 38.) The audience at Whelan's, a spit and sawdust venue just off Temple Bar, were mostly enjoying this apparition, but one or two seemed genuinely foxed: what does this woman think she's doing? It's not an unreasonable question.

What some of it is about is exorcising demons, of which Fahey has legions. Some are real (among others, the possibly malign influence of Stock, Aitken & Waterman, who produced Bananarama through their final indignities); others just seem to be. Daughter of a capricious Irish Catholic father who uprooted the family at will (and turns up at her gigs in earmuffs), Fahey first encountered psychological warfare at school, where she was bullied. Apparently, even the teachers joined in: "There's just a natural revulsion against the oddball." Worse was to come when she was sent to a convent school. During a lesson on vocation "we were all assured that you'd know within yourself if you had the calling, and if you had it and didn't answer it and follow Christ, then basically for the rest of your life you'd be wretched. At the end, the Sister said, `There are two girls in this class who'd make great nuns. Would Marjorie Lamb and Siobhan Fahey please stand up.' And I was, like, No! No! No!"

Fahey can laugh about it now, recounting the tale in a Hampstead pub. Some of it. She refused the offer, "and therefore I understood that it was my punishment to suffer - serve or suffer". What followed was months of elaborate, self-inflicted rituals in her bedroom, based on the stations of the cross, to ward off demonic possession.

It didn't stop her joining Bananarama. All-drinking, all-smoking, all- swearing, the shock-haired triumvirate - Sarah Dallin, Keren Woodward and Fahey apparently thought they personified female anarchy, and it was some time before Fahey grew doubtful. "We were signed to a label that wanted us to remain little girls who appealed to other little girls, who were cute and non-threatening and delivered cute little pop songs. And I feel, looking back, that Sarah and Keren were probably quite happy with that. To take another option would have been a struggle, but it could have been achieved - there were the Raincoats, the Slits, there was Patti Smith before them, strong women who didn't conform ..."

Just how far she'd moved from her ideal was made crystal clear when Fahey met ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart, to whom she is now married. Stewart (currently in the news suffering with "paradise syndrome") suggested to her the possibility that she was being used and within a year, she had extricated herself.

What followed was a form of artistic revenge in the garish bizarrerie of Shakespear's Sister. It is a criticism frequently levelled at Fahey that she is devoid of musical ability and thus must harness herself to talent - in this case, the singer-songwriter Detroit - to construct any kind of career; still, there's no denying that the twisted sensibility she brought to the band is what gave it flight. The combination of image - exhumed femmes fatales in sequins - and songs blending Fahey's wry, camp lyrics with Detroit's spangled pop know-how resulted in two hit albums, Sacred Heart and Hormonally Yours, some cracking singles ("You're History" and "Stay" among them) and a string of awards.

It was another strained working relationship. Egos clashed and videos the band made on the theme of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? were, it's said, more than pertinent. You can see the problems. Detroit was a straight- down-the-line rock 'n' roller who'd worked with Eric Clapton, Belinda Carlisle and Phil Collins. Fahey, meanwhile, was using the band to investigate her own mangled psyche.

"I wanted us to wear this mask of make-up that was a bastardisation of what make-up is supposed to do, and it evolved from Lillian Gish, who looked mad, but powerfully so, to Baby Jane to Aunt Sally."

A nervous and often stuttering, though articulate, interviewee, Fahey tips her teetering ash. "I love Wurzel Gummidge, I always have, and I adore the character of Aunt Sally because she's such a sick, manipulating, dangerous, naughty female. This sort of twisted, baby-doll innocence is, I think, the underbelly of any beautiful girl you see with make-up."

Fascination with off-the-deep-end female nature is a key Fahey concern. Her own hormones spend much of their time in havoc, which accounts for the emotional see-sawing to which she's prey - when she started dating Stewart, she was so insecure and so often drunk, she'd fall off his arm at photocalls and stagger away to find something to clutch while she threw up. "Y'know," she says confidentially, "I am not an easy person. As soon as I ovulate, I'm an absolutely destructive and negative person, and that lasts for two weeks. It builds until the only salve is to write a song, which is why my stuff is so negative. Damn shame. I just can't seem to write songs about peace and love."

Fahey's depressions can last for months, and she ticks off a number of drugs she's been prescribed, including Prozac, which she quit because it made her speedy. Stewart has clearly done his time in coping with all this.

"Yeah. And I don't understand ... why he does." She lowers her voice as a couple at a nearby table are eavesdropping with slack-jawed fascination. "The thing about him is I can go into massive dark tunnels, from which there's no return, it would appear when you're down there - the well, y'know? - and that can really freak him out, which doesn't help. Though it's the normal response, and then there's holy war. But other times - and this is what rescues me - he'll just come in and make so light of it, he'll say, `Oh, sod that, let's write a song, or just do something positive and joyous.' Just doing something joyful can sometimes get you out of it."

Stewart has lent a hand with the new venture, although this, with Fahey's history, could spell disaster. "He's a fantastically talented producer, but we fight like cat and dog when we work together." Her hopes are high for the album (called Shakespear's Sister, which means "Siobhan Fahey"); influences are glam-rock kings, from Bolan to Mott the Hoople, and the lyrics more painfully confessional than ever.

I ask Fahey about a line in the 1992 single "Hello (Turn Your Radio On)", which goes "Life is a strange thing/ Just when you think you know how to use it, it's gone". Does she feel she's any nearer to having it sussed?

A derisive snort, a thespian wave of dismissal in the smoky air: "Hah. I just want peace and happiness - yeah, right, how do you get that?"

n Shakespear's Sister's new album, `I Can Drive', is out on London. An album and live dates follow