She’s no mystery...

Toyah Willcox
Toyah Willcox
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TOYAH Willcox is arguably the busiest she has ever been.

These days split very much between acting and singing, the ’80s legend who set the template for many modern musical maidens returns to Sheffield and Corporation on Saturday in a very different guise to her last visit – playing The Wicked Queen in panto at the Lyceum.

“Actress/singer,” she says when asked what goes on her passport these days. “Because you want to get into different countries you’re not going to put controversial person, troublemaker.”

She’s got a point. In her post-punk heyday Toyah was something of a mould-breaker. With costumes as outrageous as she was outspoken, pop hadn’t really come across someone like her before.

“I was being very successful at a time when it was a novelty for a woman to be successful. When you look at the 1980s the glass ceiling was being raised daily and I came into the music business as a strong woman who knew what I wanted with a strong identity. That sense of novelty continued for quite a while.

“It wasn’t really until the early ’90s onwards and with the presence of Madonna that people started to take for granted that men – and women – as long as they had something to say had a place in the music business.

“It’s been a long time coming but I like to think today the likes of Jessie J and Florence & The Machine don’t have to deal with the novelty they’re a woman in the business.

“That said, it was the best time, apart from the 1960s, to be young. It’s so tough for young people now, but we had so many opportunities. Our energy was rewarded. It was incredibly exciting.”

The tour that brings Toyah to Corporation on Monday celebrates the 30th anniversary of The Changeling, an album that didn’t always reveal its full impact until the band did five ‘test the water’ dates in the spring.

“It’s unbelievable what this album means to people and I’d never been aware of the success of The Changeling,” says the singer who did a lot of acting in the year of release, including a film with Lawrence Olivier.

“I made it during a massive transition. It’s as if it’s taken us 30 years to really appreciate what the album is and what it was about.”

And she continues to leap between disciplines. Just back from USA where she’s been recording the third Humans album, Toyah scheduled tour dates around doing a film and a Channel4 project.

“We put in two or three shows a week because I have to have such a large octave range to do the songs and if I do too many shows I can’t sing Brave New World.

“Even when we toured the album in 1982 it was difficult – to have that range and it’s not natural to sing two and half hours a night.

“In the last 15 years I’ve deliberately lowered my voice to go more into rock.”

Not that she’s made it any easier for herself now by inviting fans to vote songs on to the setlist. “They want the most obscure thing and go for the most difficult thing to perform, deliberately.

“They know certain songs live can be a car crash.

“But the audience dictates the setlist changes and my band know every album, so we’re very fluid and it’s making the night special for everyone.”

And at 54, such challenges – in acting and music – are helping to keep the icon who did voiceovers for The Teletubbies fresh and interested.

“I couldn’t focus on one. I feel very lucky my life isn’t reliant on either musicians or actors; it is reliant on the fact I keep moving. I keep the ball in the air.

“I wouldn’t be happy if I was living in a bubble with actors or just musicians. I’d feel really trapped and stop learning if stuck in a routine.

“I find it important I go away and throw myself in the deep end somewhere else. Both (acting/singing) have their benefits. Touring with the band I’m in control of everything, tour manager, the contracts, booking, I even do the accounting.

“So sometimes to be in a play where all I have to do is learn the lines and turn up is a massive relief.

“They are very separate, though. I’ve been mentioned as an influence by some really good artists in the last few years, such as Florence Welch who cited my live act.

“That has brought along a young audience who are serious music lovers but don’t know the impact I had in the 1980s. They’ve come along because they connect with the music and my voice. There’s a diverse spectrum in the audience; I’ve got the original fans coming back with their children and elderly fans as well.

“With acting people come to see me because they trust I’m a good performer but would never come to see me as a singer.”