Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders

by Roger Catlin

Chrissie Hynde is back on the road with The Pretenders, and at 65, she's the youngster singer on the tour with 68-year-old Stevie Nicks. Aside from joining the headliner on a version of "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," Hynde is leading the latest version of The Pretenders through a whirlwind of their classic songs, as well as a sampling of new stuff she developed with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys on the 2016 album Alone.

This fall, they headline a string of shows in the UK and Europe. A UK resident, we had to inform her of a few things in the US: That Rush Limbaugh was still around (and playing her song), and that Carrie Underwood has recorded one of her songs.
Songfacts (Roger Catlin): I'm reaching you from Memphis. I see in the autobiography that came out last year, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, that you were arrested there once. [For disorderly conduct. On The Pretenders first US tour, she ended up in a police car and kicked out the windows.]

Chrissie Hynde: Oh yeah, I forgot about that. That's right.

Songfacts: Is that the kind of thing you can forget?

Hynde: Well, I don't think about everything that happened to me every day. I went to Graceland yesterday, so I was thinking more about that. That is right, that did happen in Memphis. That's too bad.

Songfacts: How was your Graceland visit? Had you been there before?

Hynde: No I hadn't. My guitar player [James Walbourne] had. Elvis is his favorite artist, so he's been there a few times. They just built these new buildings. It just opened in the last few days actually, so it's now kind of like an Elvis Disney World, with all of his stuff and everything.

I think when you go into something like that and you're a fan, you have to see it with transcendental eyes. There were a lot of old timers there, wearing headsets and listening to the story and walking through the rooms. He obviously meant a lot to all those people, so I don't allow myself to have too many opinions about the commercialization of it. I've been wearing Elvis T-shirts for my whole last tour, and I'm a tourist-trap fan. I always go in and buy T-shirts wherever I go. I've got a Woody Guthrie hoodie now. I've got one from Reno. So, guilty as charged when it comes to tourist kiosks. But yeah, I can't really answer your question because I don't want to say anything negative about Elvis, because it has nothing to do with him.

Songfacts: How did this long tour with Stevie Nicks happen?

Hynde: When a tour is put together, there are many factors. I guess from a fan point of view, they think you just call up and say, "Let's do this." But there are availabilities, whether someone is going to go on the road at that same time, so that cuts it back to a few choices.

Songfacts: Do you like playing in arenas?

Hynde: The sound that comes back off the hall sounds good in the monitors. It just sounds really good. All I can see are the people in front who are standing, so it almost feels like a club. The audience has been very responsive, and I've enjoyed those venues.

It's been a real eye-opener for me how much I've enjoyed them. I've played them before with other bands but never liked them that much. I saw them as sports venus and kind of looked down on it, but I've really enjoyed it, maybe because it's Stevie's audiences, and maybe also our audiences, I don't know. But it's been a real pleasure.

Songfacts: I guess there have been some improvements in sound technology over the past few decades in those arenas.

Hynde: There probably has been, because the sound has been great. And then we've gone into some casino gigs and smaller theater dates that we've picked up on the days off and sometimes we've had real struggles in the soundchecks trying to reorganize because the sound is so different. So I think what you're saying is probably a contributing factor.

I don't like stadiums and big places because I feel as if I'm looking at a screen. I get that feeling like, Why didn't I just stay home and watch television? That is the way it is these days. What I'm hoping for and looking for and feel could happen is a new underground that gets away from this Grammy culture and this mainstream which is really dull, and to some kind of resurgence of bands. There are some bands that are out there but I haven't seen it to the degree I'd like to see. It's all these singer-songwriters and, like I say, this Grammy culture, which has nothing to do with me. I don't understand the way that works at all. I don't understand how it's interesting at all.

Songfacts: It seems like you and Dan Auerbach hit it off in your collaboration on Alone.

Hynde: He's got all the right elements. I just think he's the guy.

A fellow Akron native, Dan Auerbach, 37, rose to fame as lead singer and guitarist for the duo The Black Keys with Patrick Carney. Auerbach, who produced the lastest album for his girlfriend Michelle Branch, is also about to release his second solo album in June, and has become known for his production duties in his Nashville studio. The Grammys have snubbed Hynde and The Pretenders, but they love Auerbach: He won for Producer of the Year in 2014 for his own band's ninth album El Camino.
Songfacts: - I was thinking about what you wrote about growing up in Akron and getting an education through the radio, so that when you moved to the cities you had heard of the Velvet Underground and The Stooges, for example, and others hadn't. Maybe he had that same advantage in Akron.

Hynde: This is almost a universal theme. And when I say universal, I suppose I mean more American and European and the West. Especially in the '70s, there were no downtowns in America. They're trying to bring them back now - there's this drive into urbanization and people are moving into the downtowns and I think that could bode very well for bands. But at that point, where you're living in a city with no city center and there's nowhere to go and maybe one or two clubs but not really a scene, then you're spending lot of time in your basement alone, or in your room, and that's where bands form. You'll find more of your favorite artists and bands came from Nowheresville than from major centers.

Songfacts: You call the latest Pretenders album Alone, and it follows a solo album. Was this going to be a solo album in the beginning as well?

Hynde: Well, the solo release wasn't more solo than anything I'd ever done. It wasn't really my idea to call it Chrissie Hynde or The Pretenders. I always work with a band. When I went to Stockholm and did [the album that ended up being called Stockholm], it was with a different set of people and a new studio, which kind of turns me on. And it was the same thing when I went to do the album with Dan. But I've got [drummer] Martin Chambers on the road who wasn't on the album. It's been a 40-year career and I don't really chop and change it that much. I've had my guitar and bass player for 15 years, and Martin has always been in and out of the band.

Songfacts: It's cool Martin is back on the road. Is he not a studio guy?

Hynde: Well, when I went to do the album with Dan, I went to Nashville, because Dan has a studio there and a collection of people he had been working work with, so that's how it worked out. It's been a very fragmented story the way the band has been going.

I don't know if Martin is a studio guy. I've made a lot of albums with him and without him, depending on who's available and who is in the studio at the time. The main part of my band - my guitar player and bass player [James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon] - died in 1983, so I've tried to move it along as best I can.

It was drugs that lead to the early deaths of Honeyman-Scott and Farndon at ages 25 and 30, respectively, just 10 months apart in 1982 and 83. Rattled, The Pretenders soldiered on with Hynde and Chambers, with a revolving cast filling in on guitar and bass, including Billy Bremner of Rockville, Tony Butler of Big Country, Andrew Bodnar of Graham Parker's The Rumour, and Paul Carrack of Squeeze (on keyboards).

By the third album in 1984, Learning to Crawl, Robbie McIntosh joined on guitar and Malcolm Foster on bass. But things began revolving again with T.M. Stevens, Blair Cunningham and Bernie Worrell recruited for the Get Close album and tour in 1986. Johnny Marr of the Smiths joined for one single, "Windows of the World," before the band went on hiatus. When Hynde returned for 1990's Packed! she was backed by session musicians. Adam Seymour and Andy Rourke would join for 1994's Last of the Independents. The longest lasting lineup ran from 1993 to 2006, with Chambers returning to play drums, along with Seymour and bassist Andy Hobson. Nick Wilkinson replaced Hobson in in 2006 and Seymour was replaced by two guitarists, James Walbourne and Eric Haywood, in 2008. The lineup has stayed fairly steady on the road ever since.
Songfacts: Your early songs are complex and nonstandard in their timing and chords. I guess your guitarists have had to adapt to that over the years. Has that been difficult as you've had new players?

Hynde: No. It's not difficult. It's still just rock 'n' roll. Anyone could play it.

Sophisticated is not a word I think I would use. It's just pretty basic stuff, and I'm always there, so I can count it out in my own way. It's not rocket science. I'm the musical director. If nothing else, I can explain how it goes.

Songfacts: Dan has been doing some R&B things with his bands, and I learned in your memoir you grew up doing a lot of R&B standards. Did you find a commonality with him over that?

Hynde: Absolutely. All our favorite stuff is based on R&B, up until whatever they call R&B now. I don't know how it took on that mantle to be called R&B, but it's stuff from up through the '60s and some of the '70s that's really impacted and informed our musical sensibilities the most.

Songfacts: And you got Duane Eddy to play on the album?

Hynde: Isn't that awesome? I got an email at 3 in the morning and Dan said, "I've got Duane Eddy in studio, playing on 'Never Be Together.'" I almost fell out of bed.

I think of this album as a Dan Auerbach/Chrissie Hynde album. But when I took it to my manager and he played it to people, they said, "Oh, it's good to hear The Pretenders are back." So I called Dan and said, "What do you think about that?" And he said, "I don't care what you call it. Call it whatever sells the most records."

Songfacts: You weren't in the studio when Duane Eddy was there?

Hynde: No I wasn't, unfortunately. I would have loved to have been. We recorded in two weeks and then I had to get back to the UK.

Duane Eddy was a million-selling guitarist of the 1950s and '60s known for his twangy sound on hits like "Rebel Rouser" and "Because They're Young" - all produced by Lee Hazlewood. Much later, he surfaced on the Art of Noise version of the Peter Gunn theme in 1986. In '87, a roster of artists that included George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Fogerty, Ry Cooder and Steve Cropper joined him on a comeback album. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, the year "Rebel Rouser" was revived in the movie Forrest Gump.
Songfacts: When was the version of "Let's Get Lost" with Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys recorded?

Hynde: Recently. That was done just before I came out here. Neil was at a show we did in Austin last year and he was backstage. He's an old friend, and he said "Let's Get Lost" should definitely be a single. So then, I guess when some of my management team was talking to the record company about the next single, someone had mentioned that Neil said that, and they said, "Why don't we get Neil on it?" I was kind of ashamed that I hadn't thought of it myself.

So we called Neil and he came down and added to it, which is great because I love Neil and I guested with the Pet Shop Boys. I was surprised - The Pet Shop Boys have had many people guest with them, but he's never guested with another act. This is the first, so I was thrilled to have him.

Songfacts: It seems a natural fit for his voice.

Hynde: I know. Yeah, I've done a lot of duets and guesting with people over the years. That was something. I was really pleased he agreed to do that.

Among Hynde's many duets with other artists, the most famous came with her former opening band UB40 on Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe." But she also sang "Luck Be a Lady" with Frank Sinatra on his 1994 Duets II album and lent her voice to records by Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Morrissey, INXS, Ray Davies and U2 - she sang background on "Pride (In the Name of Love)."
Songfacts: I had forgotten you had done the one with Sinatra. I suppose that one wasn't in the studio at the same time?

Hynde: That wasn't in the studio either.

Songfacts: And you did one with Willie Nelson?

Hynde: That was after we did Break up the Concrete [2008] and Steve Bing, who was the executive producer, was a friend of Willie's. He got him and we did the song with him. I guested with him, I guess you could say. It's called "Both Sides of Goodbye."

I've done tons of guesting with people, but I guess the kind of people I like aren't the sort of people who want to be in the mainstream. I'm sure there are some artists who would have made a bigger deal of working with Willie Nelson, but we did it, and we left the studio and thought, "Oh, that was fun."

That's often how I work. I look back on it sometimes and I think, Oh, that's too bad, because no one knows I did that. And it's a good song.

Songfacts: Given your anti-establishment views, I was always surprised to hear "My City Was Gone" as the theme to the Rush Limbaugh's radio show. I'm sure you've been asked about your feelings on this before.

Hynde: Oh, thousands of times. I didn't know about that, because I live in England. Then I had people rushing up to me at airports, saying, "You've got to stop him!" And I'd say, "Who?" And they'd go, "Rush Limbaugh." And I'd say, "Who's that?" And they go, "His show." And I'd say, "Oh, I haven't heard it. Should I listen to it?" And they'd go, "No it's awful!"

So I never listened to it. I know my dad was a fan, when I asked him. Anyway, that had been out there for a long time when I was unaware of it. Sometimes there's a certain amount of bars you can use and loop it where it doesn't count. I can't remember the technicalities. And then so many people told me to stop him, that it kind of irritated me. I don't like being told what to do. I'm sure they had good reason for it, although I still haven't heard his show and I think he's off the air now.

Songfacts: Oh, no.

Hynde: I thought they kicked him out for being totally offensive. He's still on?

Songfacts: He's very much still on.

Hynde: Because I was listening from afar, I was thinking, These American concerns are not number one on my agenda, because I live in England and don't see a lot of things people reference a lot - Saturday Night Live and stuff like that. I left here in 1973.

But a lot of shock jocks, I guess that's what they're called, they stir up a certain dialog with people and I think we're going to see that now with the current president. It's certainly not a good time for people to be complacent. That kind of dialogue can be helpful, but I don't know. I don't want to comment too much because I've been warned off against Rush Limbaugh so much. In fact, we finally organized it so if there was any profit coming in from this, it would go straight to PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. I don't really remember how that ended up because it's not something I paid too much attention to. But yeah, it might have pissed people off. You know: Sue me.

Songfacts: This issue came up again recently with Trump's use of the Rolling Stones as a theme song even though they don't condone it.

Hynde: There was a time, and I'm not talking about a presidential campaign because that's very high profile, but just in television commercials and stuff 30 years ago, when if your music was on anything, it was like you were endorsing the product, and I wouldn't have had my music on anything unless I really believed in the product. I was very critical of people putting their name to a Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola ad, because why are you doing that? Well, clearly people were doing it for the money, but it seemed quite a betrayal of why you were making music.

Then "Revolution" got on a Nike ad. I think that might have been a Yoko Oko thing [sort of - Michael Jackson had a lot to do with it]. After that, it seemed like the floodgates opened and then people were putting their music on anything. Then you move on another 20 years later, radio had changed a lot, it was very formatted, and a lot of artists, let's say Etta James, who nobody in the younger generation had heard of, her music comes out on a Diet Coke ad and suddenly Etta James is back in the charts. It was kind of cool people were listening to her.

So this whole thing with commercialization and endorsements got very blurred. This might be a very long-winded answer, but my thoughts on it are that a lot of people, they might have a song at the beginning of, let's say The Sopranos. You know, that helped that band a lot. What was their name?

Songfacts: Alabama 3.

Hynde: Yeah. So there's all sorts of ways of people are being heard, other than the radio. That's what I'm trying to say.

It might be in a film. I miss great film soundtracks, like by Lalo Schifrin. I don't like it when it's just a bunch of rock music. But you know, that's always changing. What I do when they ask for one of my songs in any kind of ad now, we just send it straight to PETA, and if PETA approves it, I'll think about it.

Songfacts: PETA decides based on the content of the ad?

Hynde: No, it's not about endorsing. They'll see if the company that's asking has committed any offenses against animals, or it might actually be a company that they want to have some kind of leverage with, for some reason. So I let them decide, because I trust [PETA president] Ingrid Newkirk unconditionally. So if they say, "Yeah, that's cool, go for it," I'll do it if I don't mind the product myself, or the way it's placed in something.

PETA-approved ads include this one for Progressive and this one for BlackBerry.
You might get in an ad for something, and your music is playing in a car radio that's passing in the advert. It's a twofold thing. You get a fee for it, probably not as much sometimes as people think you get. They think you must be rolling in it. I don't really pay attention to that part of it myself. I never have. But it also means the music gets heard, and the next time you're on the road, you can play that song, and that's more how I see it.

Songfacts: One of your most enduring songs is one of the most surprising: the ballad "I'll Stand By You" that you wrote with Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg. How did that come about?

Hynde: I met them, and went out to California to work with them - they invited me to come out. And I just liked them so much. I had so much fun with them. I think I was probably, in their history of songwriting, the biggest collaborator. We wrote about 10 songs together. Usually they wrote a song and sent it to someone who might change a few lyrics, but we really stuck in the studio and really worked together. I had a ball working with them.

Songfacts: Was getting back on the radio important to you?

Hynde: Obviously that's all changed now, over the last 30 years. Like I was explaining, there are other ways to get your music out there, because radio has taken on a whole different life with the internet and everything. But I'm still a huge fan of radio. That's still my number one. But when I worked with Tom and Billy, that was really a cold-blooded attempt to write something to get on the radio.

Steinberg and Kelly were thrilled to write with Chrissie Hynde. The duo had written hits for Madonna ("Like A Virgin"), Cyndi Lauper ("True Colors") and Heart ("Alone"), but rarely wrote with the artists (an exception: "Eternal Flame," which they wrote with Susanna Hoffs for The Bangles). Here's what Steinberg told us about writing with Hynde:

"Chrissie is a very complicated person, a very no-nonsense person especially when she doesn't know you. She was a little intimidating on the phone. The butterflies in my stomach were fluttering so much I could barely speak because I love The Pretenders. She said she'd like to get together and write some songs with Tom and me, and I went, 'Woo Hoo!' She came to Los Angeles and she was so determined. She said, 'I want to write a hit.' Over a period of about two weeks Tom and I wrote a handful of songs with her."

Other songs they wrote in those sessions include "Night In My Veins," "Love Colours" and "977." Steinberg adds: "When Tom and I first met Chrissie, we were very familiar with the Pretenders sound and repertoire. In the beginning, we were concerned that 'I'll Stand By You' was a bit generic, while we knew that 'Night In My Veins' sounded immediately like a Pretenders song. BUT, at this point in time, I no longer prefer 'Night In My Veins.' 'I'll Stand By You' has aged well and is one of the most popular songs in the Steinberg/Kelly catalog. I would guess that it's also become one of the most popular Pretenders songs."
Songfacts: What about the versions people have done? Do you have any favorites?

Hynde: I'm not sure I've even heard them.

Songfacts: Rod Stewart did one.

Hynde: Did he?

Songfacts: And Carrie Underwood.

Hynde: OK, well I haven't heard them.

Songfacts: It's interesting that, many times when people record it, they're doing it for a charity single.

Hynde: I would always say yes to things like that, so there might be more. I always say, unconditionally, "Yeah, have it." Of course, Tom and Billy have to agree to that, but I let my managers sort that out. I don't think they have problems. I've given a song to PETA and other animal charities a lot.

Songfacts: Writing songs. Is that something that comes easily to you?

Hynde: Sometimes. It depends on the song. I'm not very driven. I don't have a guitar in my room at the moment. It seems like it would be a good place to write, on the road, but it doesn't really work out that way, I find. It's a hard thing to find because I'm not really structured that way. I always did it more when I'm moved to write a song, and in these last years, especially after collaborating with Tom and Billy, I've learned how to collaborate with people and I found that was really fun.

Like, I went in with Dan Auerbach and we knocked a couple songs out, just on the spur of the moment. And that's really fun because it's unexpected and I'm always getting something off my chest. It's fun to have this surprise element of someone else involved. I'm not the lonely, depressed singer-songwriter, sitting in my room crying as much as I used to be.

Songfacts: Growing up, you saw a lot of great shows, according to your book, including the US premiere of the Ziggy Stardust tour by David Bowie in Cleveland.

Hynde: Isn't that a blast? I still thought he looked like the girl on the Hunky Dory album cover. So I was pretty blown away by that.

Songfacts: Had the album come out by then? Were you hearing it for the first time?

Hynde: Yeah, the album was just out. I had the album.

Songfacts: Was that the time you went out to dinner with him too, or was that a subsequent tour?

Hynde: Yeah. Well, we were just hanging around the soundcheck, me and my girlfriend, and they came out. Yeah, it's all in the book.

Songfacts: You have a lot of great stories in there.

Hynde: Well, I'm a fan more than anything else, and that's how I approach it. When I go on stage or anything, I always think I've been in the audience more than I have been on stage, so I go out there and I just try to be who they think they want me to be.

Songfacts: Has it been hard to be a vegetarian on the road all these years?

Hynde: No, not at all. There's always something to eat. I've never found it a problem at all. Yes, I go to restaurants in hotels and there's nothing on the menu, but I just order off the menu. I just get some side dishes or something.

I mean, we have food. I think if I were living in a desert in Africa, getting food would be a problem, but this is America, food is never a problem. There's always too much of it.

Songfacts: You stopped smoking in recent years?

Hynde: Yeah, probably four-five years ago.

Songfacts: What got you to stop then, and what has been the result of it?

Hynde: Well, I wanted to stop for years, as everyone does. And then I read Alan Carr, he wrote a book called The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, and I read that a couple of times and stopped. I think it's kind of cognitive therapy. He just kind of talks you through it.

Songfacts: So it's an intellectual thing you decide to do?

Hynde: You'll have to read the book. It worked for me and for millions of others. The benefits are incalculable.

Songfacts: Has it had an effect on your voice?

Hynde: No doubt. I might get a respiratory infection, like I did when when I made the album with Dan, which is a shame and I can really hear it, because I used to get bronchitis when I smoked, and I was just coming off the back of smoking around then.

I'm untrained. I don't do exercises. I think that's all psychological anyway, unless you're an opera singer and you really have to train and read music and stuff. But this is rock 'n' roll. Smoking just enabled me to keep doing what I do, and then I stopped.

Songfacts: I was surprised to read how much drug use there was in your book.

Hynde: Yeah, as I was writing I thought, "Fuck, we took a lot of drugs." Back then, there were two categories, the straights and the heads, and everyone in the heads category were bombed out of their brains for 30 years. And they're all coming to the same conclusions now, to sort themselves out.

Songfacts: But then there's a new drug epidemic now.

Hynde: All over the country, people are all taking drugs and don't even know they're taking drugs, because they're called meds. And once you can't get the meds legitimately, or you can't steal them from your dying aunt, you go on the street and get it, and that's caused major problems in Ohio and everywhere. People are taking all sorts of drugs they don't need. They're on a cocktail of prescriptive drugs, hormones, stuff for their hearts, stuff for their blood, stuff for their cholesterol. They're on a cocktail of drugs. And frankly, probably most of those drugs people don't need.

Songfacts: What do you see in the future for The Pretenders? Do you have another album coming up?

Hynde: Yeah, I have another one that I just have to finish off, which will come out next year or something. I won't say much about it, but it's going to be interesting.

As far as the future, my future, I don't know. Just see what comes along really. I don't have any big plans. Touring for the rest of the year.

Songfacts: Is touring something you enjoy doing?

Hynde: I love it. It's the best. It always was.

Songfacts: OK, great. I'll let you go. Don't get arrested again in Memphis while you're there!

Hynde: Thanks for reminding me - those magic moments I can relive.

May 3, 2017
More at, where you can order her book.

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Comments: 8

  • Phillips Lisa from Louisville Great interview
  • Deborah from OregonMy first album was The Pretenders in 1979! I still have it and several other vinyl plus a VHS of Isle of View I can't play anymore. I've seen them in concert three times. Big fan here
    I am vegan too now.
  • Shawn from MarylandGreat interview! I remember where I was when I first heard "Room Full of Mirrors." I bought the CD (Get Close) soon afterwards. Great artists, great songs, great interview!
  • Heather Moore from Sarasota, Fla.It's so awesome that she supports PETA! She can really reach people and inspire her fans to make more compassionate choices.
  • Am from VirginiaChrissie Hynde is the definition of a rock-n-roll rebel. She speaks her mind and isn't afraid to step on toes. I saw her perform at William and Mary Hall in Virginia in the early 80s. I remember it like it was yesterday. One of my favorite concerts ever. She inspired me to go vegetarian a few years later. Rock on, Chrissie!
  • Kimmarie from San FranciscoGosh, I love her. Chrissie's dedication to the animal rights movement and to her own authenticity is so refreshing. Rock on, Chrissie!
  • Amy Donovan from Union Mills, Nc Thanks for this great interview. I have always been a huge fan of Chrissie, both for her music and for everything that she has done for animals on behalf of PETA. Her protest against horse drawn carriages in NYC was epic. I love that she's never afraid to speak her mind or stand-up for what is right.
  • Craig Shapiro from Norfolk, VaI admire so much about Chrissie Hynde--her music, her tenacity and her independence. But what really sets her apart is her advocacy for animals. It's a great example. We can't all be rock stars, but all of us can do our part to help animals.
see more comments

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