Ipswich: Corn Exchange bound Hazel O’Connor talks music, movies and being a free spirit
It’s 1980; the UK has slid into recession and inflation is out of control. For an unknown singer-songwriter from Coventry, life was about to change for the better. Entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to Hazel O’Connor about her career and how she got a bucket of water thrown over George Michael.
WITH just four songs to her name and no money, when destiny finally called Hazel happily answered – literally.
“I was just trying to get ahead with the singing thing and me brother had just taught me to write songs a little bit. I’d gone stamping around London putting me own posters up, trying to get people interested,” she laughs.
“I took over the job of telephonist at my record company for two weeks while the girl went on holiday.”
The first day a call came through asking to speak to somebody about a singer on the label called Hazel O’Connor.
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“It was me that took the call. I said ‘I’m Hazel O’Connor’ and they were ‘oh no, this one’s a singer’,” she laughs.
“They were phoning up to get me to come for an audition for the film Breaking Glass. First I went for a part as an extra, then in the audition they said ‘oh no, give her the part of the bass player to read’ and I thought ‘hey we’re going up the hill here’.
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“The next minute [it was] ‘we’re actually thinking of you for the lead’ and I was thinking ‘no, no, I want to write the songs’. Within a few weeks they said ‘maybe we should let Hazel try to write all the songs’ and I’m thinking ‘yes’.
“It’s how it began. Getting the lead [of Kate]; was a total surprise, never being one who got cups or badges or being a winner at anything in my life.”
The film, starring Phil Daniels, fresh off Quadrophenia and a yet to be discovered Jim Broadbent, told the story of a rock singer who lets nothing stand between her and the very top.
It saw her win the Variety Club of Great Britain’s Film Actress of the Year Award, nominated for a BAFTA for Best Newcomer and the album nominated for Best Film Soundtrack; earning Hazel a place in the history books as the first woman to write and perform all the songs for a film.
She went on to star in countless stage productions and TV shows. Most know her for classic songs like Calls the Tune and Big Brother to Hanging Around and That’s Life. Fans coming along to Ipswich Corn Exchange on November 1 will get all her greatest hits together for the first time; including songs from Breaking Glass and new album I Give You My Sunshine.
“This tour is so important because a [digitally re-mastered special edition] DVD of Breaking Glass is finally coming out and so is my autobiography [Breaking Glass Barefoot]. It’s weird; it’s all happening at once.”
Which brings us to George Michael.
“He came to a little party we were having for November 5,” she says when talking about stories for the book, “and bought in his new solo single demo on a cassette player. We got a sneak preview and all danced and sang to this thing. Then he went off that night and everybody left the party.
“At five in the morning I’m woken up by Mr George Michael again at me window going ‘Hazel, Hazel, open the door’. When I did the poor man was soaking wet and it wasn’t raining,” she laughs.
“He’d forgot his demo and came back to get it. He’d rang my doorbell but I’d switched it off, I didn’t want people coming to a party that was over. He’d rang my neighbour’s bell several times and she was not happy. She’d gone to her bathroom and poured a bucket of water over his head.”
Back to the tour; Hazel says she wouldn’t dare not do Eighth Day or Will You; the songs that are important to audiences and her.
“Sometimes I look at the songs and go ‘God, there’re so many to choose from’. It’s a nice problem to have really, it’s just a bit of a strife because I never thought I’d be a songwriter, it was never on my remit of things to do in my life so the fact I ended up becoming one and now you’re asking me these questions it’s lovely.”
Her brother was the musician in the family, getting a record deal and doing very well. Hazel describes herself as a free spirit seeking constant adventure.
She’s had a few.
“I was a snotty 16-year-old who was selfish and didn’t want to live the normal life. I took a plunge to change my life; I ran off to live in Amsterdam and never looked back in a strange way because once you take a path in life and it suits you, you carry on along it.”
By 19 she was working as a dancer in countries including Japan and the Lebanon after a spat with her then boyfriend.
“[Then] I wasn’t interested in singing, showbiz or any of that stuff. When I got me dancing job it was merely because me boyfriend had accused me of being a hippy, living off of other people and not having a job of my own. I took umbrage and remember looking in the Stage magazine for a job and thought ‘I’ll show him’.
“This job came up in Tokyo for go-go dancers and showgirls and I thought ‘ooh I can do that’,” she laughs. “For some bizarre reason I got the job and the next minute I’m off to Japan hoping my boyfriend will say ‘no, don’t go I love you’ but he didn’t so I carried on. He realised he loved me in the end.”
The Hazel saw what her brother was doing.
“The times were so exciting at the end of the 70s, the bands that were happening. The punk thing was so crucial for me because in those days it was the end of when you were judged on your sexuality as a girl singer. It was more to do with the energy you were portraying… you weren’t selling your sex.
“I liked that because I never found myself to be a beautiful woman or anything like that. So I thought ‘my God, here’s a chance to be doing what you do without being judged on what you look like’.”
She can’t wait to tour.
“It’s a blessing when these things happen to you and you don’t expect them; you appreciate them more. I think there was a time when I thought ‘oh my God, Breaking Glass is like an albatross around my neck’; people are always expecting me to be that girl. Then I realised that girl was something we created and I can be whatever girl I want to be.”