Being rock ‘n’ roll means not giving a fig about anything, to use a not very rock-‘n’-roll expression. Chrissie Hynde, on being asked about people misinterpreting her songs, is more direct. “I don’t give a fuck what they think,” she says. “You think what you want and I’ll think what I want. I’m not telling you what to do, you don’t tell me what to do. I don’t kill you, you don’t kill me. You don’t like my record, you don’t like what I have to say, don’t buy it.”
This is uttered in the bar of a smart Marylebone hotel. Hynde sits opposite me at an alcove table with a glass of water. She speaks in a commanding American voice, uninflected by decades living in Britain. At 66, she still looks the part of the rock star, with kohl-rimmed eyes and a black jacket sporting the slogan imprinted on Woody Guthrie’s guitar: “This machine kills fascists”.
She leans forward and jabs a finger in my direction to make a point, a stranger to milksop English gentility. Fellow Londoners often mistake her for a visitor. “I have to tell people why I’m here about four or five times a day,” she says.
Brought up in Ohio, she left for London in 1973, armed with savings of $200 and three records by The Velvet Underground and The Stooges. Desperate to be in a band, she started The Pretenders in 1978 at the tail-end of punk, acting as frontwoman and songwriter. When we meet she is about to go on tour in support of their latest album, Alone. But The Pretenders did not prove as durable as her American accent. Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers are the only original Pretenders left, and the latter has not played on a studio album since 2002.
“My original band died in 1983,” she says. That was when ex-bassist James Farndon drowned in a bath after taking heroin. The previous year guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, influential on the likes of Johnny Marr, had died of cocaine-induced heart failure. The Pretenders had two self-named albums under their belts at that stage. Hits on both sides of the Atlantic, they established Hynde as a sharp songwriter blessed with one of the great rock voices, indomitable and deep-toned, with a coolly emotive quaver.
“Some things change, some stay the same,” she sang on the 1986 single “Hymn to Her”. The Pretenders continued after the deaths of half their founding members, the rock ‘n’ roll course of action. Their rougher edges got smoothed off, resulting in the pop-rock gem of the 1986 chart-topper “Don’t Get Me Wrong”, but also an increasingly polished output. Hynde rediscovered her spikiness on 1999’s Viva El Amor, launching a sporadic run of solid later-period albums of which Alone is a highlight.
Hynde rejects any notion of being a role model: ‘I just don’t care. It doesn’t mean anything to me’
Recorded in Nashville, its producer is Dan Auerbach of gnarly blues-rockers The Black Keys. He comes from Hynde’s hometown of Akron, Ohio, nicknamed “Rubber City” for the tyre and rubber factories clustered there when she was growing up in the 1950s.
“I had the most colourless, ordinary background you can imagine,” she says. “You’ll never meet anyone who is from a more American story than me. And a nice one. I had a happy childhood. I was just frustrated because I wanted to be in a city and see things, I didn’t want to just be in a car. Simple as that. I could see where it was going and I bailed before it got too much.”
In London she fell into rock journalism for the New Musical Express and became an inner member of the city’s punk scene, almost entering into a sham marriage with Sid Vicious in order to gain British citizenship. All the while she hankered to be in a group, lugging her guitar to endless auditions. “No one wants to be in a band with her, she’s too good,” The Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine wrote in her 2014 memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.
“I wasn’t, believe me,” Hynde laughs. “It’s just because she couldn’t play at all. I still just get away with it.”
A relentless streak of self-deprecation is the flipside to her couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude. She shrinks into her seat (“Oh God”) when I ask about her journalism, including a memorable interview with Suzi Quatro conducted in a ladies’ toilet, and dismisses praise for her own memoir, 2015’s evocative Reckless, which ends with Farndon’s death.
“Please don’t think I am a writer. I know what writing is,” Hynde says. “I never read any of the books I was supposed to read at school. I just about got by. I went to university as all kids do just to bide my time until I could think what to do. I feel like a dropout.” After a pop-oriented solo album, Stockholm, released in 2014 under her own name, Alone returns her to the fold of rock ‘n’ roll. Guitar riffs have the thick tread of the tyres that once rolled off Akron’s factory lines, while Hynde sings with customary self-possession.
Madonna once described seeing Hynde perform as an important moment in her own formation as a singer. But The Pretenders’ frontwoman rejects any notion of being a role model for women: “I just don’t care. It doesn’t mean anything to me.” Motörhead’s ultra-masculine figurehead Lemmy Kilmister, whom she befriended in the 1970s, was one of her own inspirations: “Lemmy was rock ‘n’ roll. He’s like a template to the way I think.”
“Sentimental gestures bore me to tears,” she sang on “Private Life”, from The Pretenders’ 1980 debut album. But Hynde is not as impermeable as the old-school rock ‘n’ roll stance suggests. Activism on behalf of the un-Lemmy-like issues of animal rights and environmentalism show there are things about which she cares deeply. Her interventions in those issues date back to the start of her career: a 1980 concert review chided her for telling her Detroit audience to give up driving cars.
She produces a pamphlet about her latest cause, support for a Rutland dairy farm producing cruelty-free cow’s milk. It has provoked the ire of the vegans who once counted Hynde as an ally, on the purist basis that only calves should drink cow’s milk. “It’s become almost jihadist: if you don’t agree with us we will kill you,” she says. The inflammatory rhetoric is typical. Hynde once caused controversy by jokingly claiming to have firebombed a McDonald’s restaurant. “Then a guy bombed one the next day, so of course I was chuffed that I could have inspired such a thing. But I couldn’t take credit for it.”
Other things she does give a fig about include trashing an Al Green album in her NME days (“To this day I’m mortified I did that”) and snapping at fans who invade her privacy (“I can be depressed for months that I hurt someone’s feelings”). But the insouciance returns when she contemplates her future in rock ‘n’ roll.
“I like to think in terms of finite time,” she says, “like I’ve got five good years left in me, let’s just have a ball. As for what happens after that, I’ll just go home and paint. I’m not bothered.”
UK tour continues until October 18; thepretenders.com
Photograph: Felix Clay/Eyevine