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Tone Glow 099: Sally Potter
An interview with the English filmmaker, screenwriter, and songwriter about her debut album 'Pink Bikini,' the Feminist Improvising Group, violent sensuality, and more
Although primarily known as a filmmaker, Sally Potter has also made work as a theatre director, choreographer, dancer and musician. A member of both the London Film-Makers’ Co-op and the Feminist Improvising Group in the 1970s, she has scored many of her films since her 1992 breakthrough feature Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel that is now considered a classic of New Queer Cinema. Her subsequent films include romantic drama The Tango Lesson (1997), coming-of-age period piece Ginger & Rosa (2012) and black comedy The Party (2017). Known for her deft storytelling and stylistic audacity, her films often take bold artistic risks, such as Yes (2004), which is written in iambic pentameter, or Rage (2009), a fashion satire designed to be watched on a mobile phone screen. Her debut album of songs, Pink Bikini, is a semi-autobiographical account of growing up as a bohemian teenager in 1960s London.
Claire Biddles spoke with Sally Potter over Zoom on June 7th, 2023. They discussed processes of adaptation and editing, violent sensuality, Leonard Cohen, and the similarities of working with actors and musicians.
Claire Biddles: Hi, Sally. How’s it going?
Sally Potter: Good, Thank you. How are you? Where are you speaking from?
I’m in Glasgow. Have you been to Glasgow before?
I have, but not for a long time, actually.
Are you in London?
I am, yes.
That’s a beautiful piano behind you.
It is. It belonged to my grandma.
Oh, wow. It’s incredible. It looks like a nice setup with the keyboard as well.
That’s the table I work at, and the keyboard I work at, and this computer of course I work at. And that piano, which is where it usually starts.
It’s so nice to speak to you. I’ve been listening to your new record, and I was actually just listening to your Orlando (1992) soundtrack while I was getting ready for this because I was wanting to remind myself of it. I was excited to speak to you because it’s so interesting to imagine how you got from one to the other. Maybe I’ll start by asking you about moving from scoring films to this album, Pink Bikini, which is more of a narrative in itself. What was it like to include your own voice in the music, and your words in the music, rather than have the two separate?
Well, even in the Orlando soundtrack, the choir of voices that you hear is my voice. I was singing the soundtrack towards the edit of the film, but we’d run out of money, and I couldn’t really pay a composer anyway. But I could hear what it needed to be. So the way that I handled that was to go into a studio and multitrack my own voice. Then that was mixed together with different elements, and Fred Frith with his guitar, then sitting with an editor and editing it all into the track as it finally emerged. So my voice was present right from the start, on that film and on many subsequent films.
When I’ve been writing music I often use my voice, but in a very anonymous, under-the-radar kind of way. Not announcing it. But it’s there, actually. And in my 20s I was singing, gigging and touring and stuff, so it’s not really that my voice wasn’t there—it’s that this is the first time I put it out front and center in such an exposed way, with lyrics that are personal. Well, poetically personal; they’re not documentary lyrics about me, but they come from lived experience as well. That’s the difference and—well, there are actually two music videos that I’ve done for this album, but other than that there’s no imagery. They’re storytelling songs.
It feels very apt that there’s a reference to Leonard Cohen on “Ghosts,” my favorite song on the album. His kind of storytelling feels very similar.
I spent many happy hours as a 14 year old repeat listening to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. They were the two troubadours that held my ear amongst many other kinds of musics. Two singer-songwriters. In Leonard Cohen’s case, basically a poet setting his words to music, and Bob Dylan perhaps a more politicized poet. That’s how I experienced him anyway. But there were some similarities to them, and the confidence of their voices, the confidence in the right to take the space. I loved their work, but there was an unease as well that I finally expressed in “Ghosts”: the silence of women that somehow surrounds these wonderful voices.
I wonder if you continued to follow Leonard Cohen’s work? Because one of the things I love about his later work is that he starts incorporating a lot of women’s voices, like Sharon Robinson’s.
Yeah, and his fabulous so-called “backing singers,” one of whom [Hattie Webb] I work with as a harpist on this album. Absolutely, of course I followed his work till the very end. I love the fact that his voice got deeper and deeper and deeper as time went on. I think also what fed into his later work was all of his spiritual endeavours, his practices, and the feeling of discipline, and the sacred. You know, the “tower of song,” the sacred nature of the endeavour, which I love very much.
It always struck me that his late work—it can be talking about his usual preoccupations, sexuality and sensuality and all the stuff of life, but it has the lens of knowledge that comes with time. I really connected that with the way that Pink Bikini is about youth, but it seems to be from the lens of now, looking back on that.
Absolutely right. That’s exactly what it is. It’s like reaching a hand backwards across time to this younger, vulnerable, passionate girl, and saying it will be okay. Even though it didn’t seem like it at the time. But as well as reaching backwards into my own history, it’s also like reaching out sideways to young people now, young women in particular, who are having those experiences now, perhaps in a slightly different way. Like “Black and White Badge,” the song about nuclear war that haunted me so much in my early teenage years, this apocalyptic ending that felt possibly imminent. Now, all young people are facing climate change, as well as the ongoing nuclear threat, but climate change is what’s in people’s minds, I guess. And so, that and also the relationship between desire and the body, all that stuff that young women live through.
I think another thing about Leonard Cohen, as you brought him up, that I admire and also know to be true, is just the sheer amount of time of revision he spent on every song. I know this from now decades of writing film scripts, working on films, and working on songs and music. It’s not about having a great idea. It’s about going on and on and on. Revising and revising and revising, every last comma and word and sound, until you finally reach a point where you’re exhausted and you just have to let it go out into the world, because you can’t do any more. And I appreciate what that implies therefore, about an artist’s life of self-discipline: that you get up in the morning, you start work, you work all day and sometimes all night, but mostly all day, then you get there eventually. There’s nothing airy-fairy about it. And somehow that’s true of all musicians and filmmakers that I know.
It feels apt that you’re telling me about this while you’re surrounded by all the things that you do the work on.
This is what I immerse myself in all day, every day.
When you’re working on something, because you’ve worked across so many different art forms, does the form of it ever change? Does it ever start as a song and then turn into a film?
It does grow and change and evolve. Absolutely. It’s very rarely fixed. But I’m sometimes surprised when I look back at my first notes for a song or film, that something in the core of it stays pretty true. Even if I forget my first notes for a while and then stumble across them some time later, years later, and I go: oh! I did know where I was going!
But I think if I start working on a film script, let’s say, I pretty much know it’s going to be a film. It doesn’t turn into something else. But a film, of course, incorporates image, sound, music often enough, actors. It has many elements, all of which grow and need attention. And similarly, when I start working on a song, it pretty much turns into a song. But I have on several occasions, including on this album, started out some songs with completely different lyrics, and then worked on the whole song and then scrapped the lyrics and started again, with the same music. So that occasionally happens. But more likely just revision, revision, revision.
My favorite film of yours is The Tango Lesson (1997). When you put yourself in that film as an actor, I wonder if it was a similarly exposing experience to putting your singing voice on this album? Or did it feel different to you?
Well, I put a version of myself in The Tango Lesson. Even in the cutting room, I referred to that person as ‘her’. I never thought: oh, there’s me. I did that as an acting job. But I was acting as this possible version of myself. I was drawing on actual life experience as research, as material, for this semi-fictitious character surrounded by other semi-fictitious characters, in a real place. I somehow thought that people would go along with this fiction. I was very surprised by the fact that nearly everybody actually took the film very literally as true, and as me, and as my experience exactly, and asked lots of personal questions about my relationship with Pablo [Verón, Argentinian tango dancer and co-star]. So I think it’s different. However, yes, it was very exposing and I felt very, very vulnerable actually. It taught me a huge amount about how vulnerable actors are on that side of the camera, so I think I became a much better director for actors, as a consequence.
This is different. How can I put it? My one rule about the songs on Pink Bikini was that they were essentially true. Not true to the letter, because they’re poems, not attempting to be autobiographical documents. They’re poems, they’re songs. But the core of each of them is true. And that was my measure, I thought, this has got to feel raw and simple. I can’t hide behind these songs. I’ve got to put out there, very simply, something I know to be true. So that does make it exposing, and of course the voice itself is exposed. There’s no tricks in this, there’s not loads of effects on the voice. There’s nothing. It’s just a voice. With a good microphone! (laughs). But that’s it. And then a lot of very, very good musicians playing acoustic and electric instruments. I play the keyboards on it. So it is exposing in a different way. But there is something about watching yourself on a big screen that’s pretty horrifying, actually. There isn’t much space to hide.
Of course, at the end of The Tango Lesson, there’s the song “I am you” that you sing on as well. Previous to this conversation, I thought that that was the only song that you sang on in your films!
No, no, if you listen, every single film I’ve made, you’ll hear my voice somewhere, usually doing some “ah ah ah ah”—multitracked and stacked in harmonic layers. But there it is, it’s like a texture.
I’m very glad to have found that out. I’m going to be listening to them again, knowing that. I’m also interested in the work you did with the Feminist Improvising Group. What was that experience like? What what did you learn?
Well, it was fantastic. I mean, by that point I’d already made films and knew that I was a filmmaker. I’d made short films by then, not features, and had a dance company and had done a ton of performance work, but I hadn’t worked in an exclusively music group. The group was set up by Lindsay Cooper, who was a wonderful composer. And Maggie Nicols, a fantastic singer. We were a varying number, sometimes we were five, sometimes six, sometimes seven or eight musicians, and some of the musicians were really great. It was a lot of experience, touring experience.
Most importantly, what hour upon hour of improvising like that did for me, was it trained my ear. I was already making music, playing piano and stuff, but until you do fully improvised gigs with a bunch of other musicians, you don’t really understand what it means to listen to five or six or more simultaneous lines that are happening completely unexpectedly, and work with them and wind yourself in and out of them, or respond to them or argue with them musically, or whatever it is. So fantastic ear training, incredible ear training. And I guess, vocal dexterity. Nothing was really recorded, there’s a couple of very, very bad cassette recordings somewhere out there. But it wasn’t about that, it was about being in the moment and doing it.
Also because it was an all-female situation, it was very unusual, very radical and bold at the time. We performed sometimes to an audience of two or three people who left in the interval, and sometimes to an audience of thousands. In Italy we’d be at big festivals, 20,000 people in a huge piazza, and I thought “fucking hell!” It was absolutely brilliant. Some of the gigs we played, some of the festivals we played, there were absolutely wonderful other musicians on the bill. Miles Davis, for God’s sake. So, it was very challenging and very educational, I think, in the best sense of just learning on the job.
Improvised music and the principle of improvising, and what that means, spontaneous composition, has stayed with me. I still work sometimes with improvising musicians on the soundtracks for my films. They do directed improvising, so I’ll work with them like I would work with an actor. Set a task or a key, you know: this is A minor and it needs to be slow, and it needs to feel like this. Then they’ll deliver something, and I’ll be like: yeah, right, now could you do it like this? Between us, we sort of shape it. But it’s about drawing on improvisation skills. Fred Frith, the guitarist who I’ve worked with on every soundtrack since Orlando, he does written parts if I give him written parts. But he’ll also always do an improvised line or some improvised elements in and around it, which adds amazing things from his extraordinary skill set.
Whether it’s working with a musician or an actor or a collaborator of any kind, the more that you do it, the more in tune with each other you are. But also, I guess, you can still surprise each other.
Yes, absolutely. It’s kind of magic, with all the collaborations that I’ve had with musicians, especially Fred because I’ve worked with him so much, but now there’s a lot of other musicians I’ve worked with regularly as well. Not all of them appear on this album, but they did on the last soundtrack [for The Roads Not Taken (2020)]. For example violinists like Viktoria Mullova, cellist Matthew Barley, Misha Mullov-Abbado on double bass and Paul Clarvis on percussion. They’re all wonderful musicians, and I find it very moving to go into a studio and give somebody a part, and they play something I’ve written. It’s like: fuck! It’s music! (laughter). And it’s music because they made it come alive. What I’ve written, I’ve only heard it as a sample in Logic, but suddenly the real sound comes out through their musicianship. I find that I’m very enamoured of musicians. I love musicians. They’re definitely working in the sacred space.
Do you feel a similar way about working with actors? I know you’ve written a lot about working with actors in your book Naked Cinema (2014).
At its best, it’s an amazing collaborative process where as a director or writer, I’m really working through the body of an actor. Then eventually they take what I’ve written and embody it, and it becomes something else. Even if they do it exactly word perfect, exactly as written, they inevitably transform it into something else. That’s very magical and very rewarding and very exciting. It’s very close, you know? You become really bonded with each actor in a very profound way. And sometimes if I’m presenting challenges to an actor, that can turn into tussling and wrestling. It can be a very passionate, sometimes difficult process, but on the whole, I’ve found it a very... I’m trying to find a better word than “love,” but I can’t find one. It’s a very loving process. Because, as a director to work with an actor, you have to kind of love them, love what you think they can do. Not necessarily love what you’re seeing right this second, but what it’s going to be, and sort of reaching for that in them. It’s a very deep connection, really, very very deep. And similarly with musicians. So yes, it’s a process I really, really like.
With this album, I recorded all the musicians, obviously, one by one. It was a studio album, and their schedules made it happen that way. But then eventually, there was my voice too. And there wasn’t somebody loving me while I did that (laughs), if you know what I mean. I had to try and do that for myself. Not love myself, exactly. But try and pull out myself, what I felt the songs needed to sound like.
That feels conceptually appropriate, because so much of the album is about that reaching out of a hand to your past self. Another thing that really struck me on the album was the compassion throughout it—that you have not just for yourself, but for your mother, who you write about beautifully. I really love the opening track, “Mama.” What’s that line about her life being hard…
“For me life was hard / But oh, yours was so much harder." I think like most teens, I was a mean teen when it came to my mother. Judgmental, you know, really looked down on a lot of what she did—including all the caretaking of me. It took time for me to understand that, oh my god, this woman gave me my life, you know? And looked after my basic needs, and I dissed her for it. And so, absolutely, I came to really, really reevaluate not only my own mother, but all mothers through history, almost. The feeling of, oh my god, this monumental thing happens, which is that somebody carries you in their body. Bloody hell! Gives birth, often in great pain, and looks after you day and night. And then you go, fuck off. (laughter). Yeah, so I do have a feeling of gratitude, and I wanted to find ways of expressing that as gentle punchlines in the midst of all that teenage anguish.
It’s a nice little callback sometimes when you acknowledge it, almost like you’re breaking the fourth wall. I always think that there’s a moment in your life when you realize that your mother is a real person who existed before you and existed after you as their own distinct person. And it made me think of that realization. “Mama” also really intrigues me because it has a sensuality to it. I remember the first time I was listening to it, I hadn’t read any background on the album, and I thought it was a sexy queer love song. And then I realized that it was a love song, but to your mother. It’s such an interesting way of framing that.
Nearly all of the lyrics can be read in different ways, anyway. And there is a queer love song later on. But yes, I don’t have children myself, but I have this dim memory which must be before speech, of that kind of sensuality. I’ve also observed it, in my goddaughter, and in my friends who have had babies: this violent sensuality. Ownership and breastfeeding… I mean, it is totally physical. It’s not all pink gossamer soft swirly love rose petals, it’s violent. A mouth clamping on! “You’re mine! Waarghh!” And of course it’s known in psychoanalysis, every child goes through that with the first carer, then there’s all these theories about transferring the object of love, blah blah. But the point is that quest for that amazing intimacy, where boundaries dissolve, and you’re one together—that forms the basis of many transmuted sensual and sexual relationships later on. Based on that primary memory of what it means to melt into another person’s body.
When you sing about breast milk in the song, it felt strange to listen to, too intimate almost. I couldn’t think of another song that mentions it in that context. There must be one, right?
Let me know if you find one, because I haven’t heard one. I realized it was like crossing a taboo. The most basic thing, it’s as taboo to write about it as it is for somebody to breastfeed in public.
I don’t have children either, and I think especially as somebody who hasn’t experienced breastfeeding as a mother, to be writing about it from the point of view of yourself as a baby, it feels even more unspoken of.
It’s either romanticized or it’s taboo.
I also want to talk about the queer love song you referenced as well, “Hymn.” As well as telling this story of adolescent queer romance, it’s also about the romance of religion, in the way that the lover speaks about Jesus and becoming a nun. It’s like these two opposing sexualities.
Absolutely. Well, I mean, I think nuns call themselves the brides of Christ. What I recall in this composite person that’s there in the song, is a very sensual relationship with spirituality. You know, the language of it: taking the essence of Jesus into your body. It’s enough to be jealous of, and to be wary of. For myself as a young—how can I put it?—non-believer… I’m not sure if I actually named myself an atheist, but I couldn’t accept the authority of the Church. I think I was an atheist, let’s call myself a teenage atheist. So yes, that song is indeed about that. But somehow in the song, God is also standing in for the ultimate male power. The insidious power of patriarchy and a young, gay, queer woman having your love taken away by all of that. So it’s about exploring passion, jealousy and prayer, and love for another girl.
I wonder if you consider the album an adaptation in the same way that some of your other works are adaptations?
That’s a terribly interesting question. Yes. I’ve only adapted one book, Orlando—taking the raw material of the book and figuring out how it can translate into another medium. What to lose, what to throw away, to add, refine or expand. And that’s very similar to going through, looking at this period of life, which is mostly the teenage years, and looking at that as a sort of story. A narrative of this person—me—living through that period, and then thinking what to take from it, what to add to it, and so on. So yes, it is a form of adaptation. You’re absolutely right.
I wonder: is every poem or every lyric a form of adaptation? Well, it is in the sense that you take raw material and then shape it, twist it, bend it, mold it, whatever. Occasionally a lyric will come out almost fully formed. But mostly I think it takes a lot of adapting, as you say, for it to work in its own right.
I was nervous about it ever appearing to be a sort of therapeutic exercise or something. It’s a completely valid thing to do, to write poems or songs or paint paintings for your own pleasure and benefit. But essentially, I’ve spent my life as an entertainer. I’m doing these things to then communicate them out, I’m not doing them for myself. I have to use myself as a yardstick, as a first audience, but in the end my desire is to put things out and see where they land. It’s a form of giving in that regard, or it certainly tries to be.
I think especially in work by women, there’s an expectation of our work being “raw,” like women are unable to change things up and adapt things.
Because we’re so full of feeling! (laughter). I think that is absolute nonsense. I mean, 90% of what one does is grafting. And these songs—we haven’t talked about music, actually, but 90% of my time was spent writing, making the chord sequences, writing the melody, doing the arrangements, trying the arrangements on a bunch of different instruments, editing the arrangements, starting from scratch, lifting it a tone, gauging the tempo, until the shape was there. It’s craft and work and shaping. But you do need a core of raw material that somehow propels it, like an engine pushing the song in some way.
And that’s what you talked about earlier, about them all having this core truth to them. That’s something that you can’t explain, unless you’re the person who’s done it—you’ve just got to trust it, I guess. Maybe we could talk a bit about the composing process then.
Lyrics are much easier to talk about. Music is to some degree outside of language. You can talk about it, but it’s harder to do I think.
Was it a different experience working with Fred on something with lyrics, rather than working on something that was composition only?
Yeah. I did demos of all the songs where I could hear the entire arrangement, albeit using samples from Logic. That included first demos of me singing. I went on and rerecorded the vocals many times, but they got a demo. So they knew what the song was, they knew what the journey was—what world we were in, let’s say. So for Fred, yes, that is different than when I’ve been working on films, where he would have an image to look at often, or the parameters were a little clearer, but the function of the music was very different. Because the music was there to work with the image, or serve it. In conversation or in argument with the image. That was how the music was gonna function. A song is it. It’s not serving anything else.
Another massive difference was that I’d written parts for him. This was after years of working in a very different way with him, drawing on his improvisational skills, as I said, in this collaborative way that we developed between us. And now suddenly there he was, with a music stand and a part, needing to play it. So, from that perspective, it was more like “proper” composing—it’s all proper composing actually, but this looked more like the conventional thing where you’re handing out the parts. So I think there was a process of adaptation with that.
He responded in the same way as he does to anything, which is he responds to what he hears, or what’s written, or what information I might be able to give him about what I’m looking for, and then something will happen. He just has this beautiful tone, a beautiful sound. He often manages to make a sound that does express the deeper themes, whether it’s an image or scene, or a song, very beautifully. And he’ll pretend he’s gruff: “Want me to play that do you Sal?” “Yes, please Fred,” “All right, I’ll have a go…” (laughs). That’s about the level of the conversation. We don’t engage in deeper meanings in that moment, but he’s an incredibly intelligent and sensitive person who understands what the whole thing is about. Musicians tend to feel it don’t they? They feel the core, they feel the atmosphere of something, and how to come into that atmosphere with their instrument.
I’m always very in awe of people who are able to do that because I’m not a musician myself.
Obviously, I’m a musician because I play the piano. All the parts that everyone plays are first played by me on the keyboards and through samples. But I always think of myself as not the musician, but more the writer, the author of the thing. To a degree directors are quite anonymous behind the work, but present in every aspect. But if you’re singing, you’ve got to actually do it. You’ve got to be heard. That was my personal threshold. Accepting visibility. It was like coming out (laughter). Coming out as a singer! Oh my god!
It’s interesting that you have a similar view of your role in music and films, which is as the author, with other people fleshing it out. I wonder if you can talk a bit more about when you’re scoring films. Does your idea for the score formulate as you’re writing, as you’re filming, or afterwards?
It is dependent on the film. The most recent one, The Roads Not Taken (2020), and the short that emerged from the same process [Look at Me (2022)], I wrote the score during the edit of the film. I would be editing during the day, and then at night I might write a piece based on that scene or whatever, and then take it to the edit the next morning, and then try it and then take it away again and revise it and stuff. So it happened that way.
Going way back to Orlando, it was also done during the last stages of the edit, but it was put together in a different way. I thought of it as constructing a soundtrack, gathering all these materials. It was analogue, with tape decks and so on. There were overlapping layers of sound, bringing in certain sounds for certain moments, and then this choir of my voice in there. So it’s a different way of shaping the soundtrack, very different.
Soundtracks like The Tango Lesson, with the exception of some bits of the score, that was existing tango music. That was curated after a huge amount of research into tango recordings, and working with people in the tango world in Argentina. And then, in the case of The Party (2017), it was a curated soundtrack based on things actually from my record collection, music that I thought would be a really interesting counterpoint to this story. So in other words, there are so many different ways of thinking about music with film. From the most atmospheric and loose, to the most structured, and—I hate the word, but diegetic, where the music is coming out of something in the scene. All are possible, and all are interesting.
One film that we haven’t mentioned, which is interesting, is Ginger & Rosa (2012), which takes place during the ’60s, the same time as Pink Bikini, and is also about young girls involved in protest movements. When I was thinking about adaptation, I was actually thinking about that as an adaptation of a time that you have lived through. I noticed that the music in Ginger & Rosa and the music in The Party overlap. They feel like very, very personal choices.
It’s a lot of jazz. Albert Ayler and Thelonious Monk in The Party. And then in Ginger & Rosa there were similarly a lot of jazz greats, because it’s from that period of the late ’60s.
I feel like there’s a continuing thread in your work about editing, it feels so prominent in your process. I guess it takes a while to realize that that is the crux of the artistic process.
Exactly. A lot of people feel like they’re a failure if they don’t get it on first go, thatit didn’t arrive fully formed somehow on day one. I mean, Pink Bikini started out as 30 songs. There was a song for every year of my life up to 30. Per your earlier question, do things change? Yes, they do. You realize what’s important to leave in and what to let go.
Absolutely. And just one last question. I wanted to ask how you chose the image on the album cover?
The 16-year-old face? It’s my passport photo from when I was 16.
Thank you for reading the ninety-ninth issue of Tone Glow. Take time to reevaluate your mother.
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