PETULA CLARK OPENS HER HEART
By Paul Freeman [2009 Interview]
During the ‘40s, Petula Clark rose to prominence as a child star in her native England. Youthful zest and charm intact, voice as captivating as ever, the pop icon continues to perform before adoring audiences worldwide.
She might include selections from her enchanting recent album, “Open Your Heart: A Love Song Collection,” as well as her smash hits and numbers from her stage successes, such as “Blood Brothers” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
“Apart from the obvious ones, I can pretty well do what I like after that. It’s got to be fun and fresh for me,” Clark told Pop Culture Classics. “I like to have a good time when I’m on stage. I don’t want to get up there with an attitude of, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ That’s not what I’m about.
“I’’ve been blessed with good songs. I don’t get bored with singing ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ or ‘Downtown.’ But my favorite song’s always the newest one... like a boyfriend.”
Clark’s vocal delivery brims with honest emotion. “It’s like a small play going on in my mind, when I sing. To me, singing is just the beginning of performance. Anybody can sing. The difference between one singer and another, between a good one and an exceptional one, is what’s going on behind the singing. Singing should be a way of expressing something. It’s a medium. The voice is not the whole thing.
“There are singers who have beautiful, crystalline voices and just sitting there listening is an amazing experience. I don’t have that kind of voice. But I can use my voice to express something. I don’t see myself as a great singer. I sing in tune and I have a good sense of rhythm. And I suppose I’m recognizable... I don’t know. But for me, singing is much more than just getting the notes out.”
Clark was born in Surrey, England. For her Welsh mother, music was a way of life. Her father, the spitting image of Errol Flynn, had harbored dreams of acting. He encouraged his daughter to perform.
“I think he was living out his dreams through me, frankly. Even though I didn’t have a show biz mum, I had a show biz dad.”
Clark made her radio singing debut in 1942 and became the darling of Allied troops, often touring with fellow child performer Julie Andrews.
“We were not spoiled show biz kids. I had a strict upbringing. This was wartime England. People were on rations, being bombed. Growing up in that time gives you a backbone of steel. It wasn’t Liz Taylor, Judy Garland, glamorous type show biz for a kid.
“When I started pulling out of childhood and adolescence, a tricky time, something great happened to me. Quite by accident, I fell in love with a Frenchman [Claude Wolff, still her husband, though they have lived separate lives for many years] and moved to France, where they had never heard of me before and just accepted me the way I was. That was a blessing. I found myself doing my proper growing up in France - not a bad place to grow up.”
Clark achieved superstar status in her adopted country. Songwriter/producer Tony Hatch visited her in Paris and implored her to record in English again. Clark said she would, if she found the right song.
“He said, ‘I’ve just started writing a song. I’ve got a title. I’ve got the melody.’ It wasn’t finished. But it had the big line - ‘Downtown.’ I told him I loved it and said, if you can write a lyric that’s up to the standard of that tune, I would be more than happy to record it. Two weeks later, in London, with a live orchestra, no tricky bits, we did record it.”
When it became a hit in the U.S., she spent time in L.A. and New York. “I loved the American ‘60s music. Just as Americans thought the British music had a special sound, I though the American music had a special sound. I still think so.”
Hatch and Clark followed “Downtown” with a string of winners that included “I Know A Place” and “A Sign of the Times.” “We knew we were making good records. We didn’t know we were making monster hits. We knew that they were good songs, that they were beautifully produced and orchestrated. There was no trickery in them. Somehow they’ve lasted. I don’t get bored with them, because they’re still good. They seem to touch people.”
Clark fit in perfectly wherever she roamed in the pop world, singing on John and Yoko’s bed-in recording of “Give Peace A Chance” or performing a duet with Andy Williams.
In ‘68, she earned a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for the musical “Finian’s Rainbow.” The shoot was based in Petaluma, in Northern California. Her costar was Fred Astaire; her director, Francis Ford Coppola.
“Francis was kind of the wild, young, new boy and Fred was more proper, thinking everything had to be absolutely perfect. And Francis wasn’t interested in that at all.
“There were all of these huge Warner Brothers trucks and equipment everywhere. It was like a traveling circus. Francis just hated all of that. He said, ‘’Come on, let’s get out of here.’ So we got in a rather eccentric limousine - the driver, Francis, Fred and me - and we just took off. Francis had a camera and did the filming. Of course, this was really not allowed. You weren’t supposed to do that, because this was Hollywood movies and Warner Brothers and stuff. We just dumped all that and went off into the field.
“Fred was really a bit taken aback - ‘You can’t do this.’ It seemed like a lot of fun to me,” Clark laughed. “I’d done a couple of things with Claude LeLouch in France and that’s the way he worked - camera on the shoulder and go for it. I have memories of a couple of days up there that were hysterically funny. It was a bonding time, too, between Francis, Fred and myself.
“The music is great, but it was weird a bit of a fairy tale mixed in with a racial problem, which was kind of odd. But we had fun doing it.”
That same year, Clark had a run-in with racial tensions. During her TV special, she touched Harry Belafonte’s arm while they sang together. Fear of offending sponsors’ Southern markets sparked controversy. In the Obama era, such a fuss seems unfathomable.
“I was bemused by the whole thing. The fact that I touched his arm while I was singing a song? Come on! I’d come in from Europe and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.
“We had the other takes wiped, so it would be impossible for them to show any other version of it. So that’s the way it went out. The guy who was there representing the sponsor lost his job. It goes to show how times have changed... thank God.”
Other changes have not been so positive. With today’s emphasis on the superficial, there’s not as much appreciation for the elegance of a good melody.
“Let’s face it, the world has changed. Music has changed. Everything has changed. Show business has changed. Show business is a business. It’s about churning it out, most of the time. Talent obviously does come out of it from time to time. But it’s such a commercialized business.
“When I was making records, people in the record business loved music. They kind of understood what you were trying to do. I don’t want to sound like some old fart, because I’m absolutely not, and some great singers have come out of these ‘Pop Idol’ sorts of things, but I don’t know if longevity is what people are after anymore. I think they’re perfectly happy with having a great new singer who lasts a few months and then disappears and they launch another one. I don’t really know if longevity is really what the record company wants... and what the public wants.”
The public wants to experience pretty Petula in a variety of avenues. Clark played Norma Desmond in the West End production of “Sunset Boulevard.” She seems to be constantly testing the boundaries of her remarkable talents. “Sometimes reluctantly. I didn’t want to do ‘Sunset.’ Trevor Nunn heavily nudged me into it. He’d made up his mind I was going to do it and I’d made up my mind I wasn’t. I’m glad I did though.”
She also enjoyed triumphs in other musicals, including “The Sound of Music” and “Blood Brothers.”
Clark’s creativity extends to writing songs and poems. “In other situations, particularly movies, you don’t have a lot of control. But when you’re writing or performing on stage, they can’t come and drag you off... well, not so far, anyway.”
Her confidence in her compositions has grown. “It’s really only in my own songs that I can express myself. If I’m singing somebody else’s lyrics, I’m expressing their feelings.”
With her music, Clark has touched the lives of countless listeners. “That’s a funny thing - you’re not aware of how much you’re touching people. Now and then I have to be jolted into remembering that these are not just songs that I enjoy singing, these are songs that have touched people all over the world. I get letters from Mongolia, from places I’ve never been to. And they’ve been touched by these songs. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do. Sometimes performers are inclined to forget that that happens. We’re transmitting, we’re not receiving.”
She’s now based in Geneva, Switzerland. “I’ve lived in different countries and I’m very interested in other people’s cultures. I’m not a touristic kind of traveler. When I travel, I try to really see what it’s all about. It can be overwhelming at times. You go to some countries and think, ‘My God, are we on the same planet here?’ I’ve taken my children on some of these visits, because I think it’s important that they see how other people live. They’re very aware and intelligent, because they’ve seen and they’ve learned. I think that’s a very important thing to give to a child, if you can, rather than stick them in front of the cartoons.”
Clark - mother of three, grandmother of two - doesn’t dwell on the past. “As Simone Signoret said, ‘Nostalgia’s not what it used to be.’ I don’t sit around talking about the good old days, doing a Norma Desmond, looking at my old DVDs.”
She revels in a vibrant, multifaceted existence. “It’s a kind of kaleidoscope, really.”
Performing remains Clark’s lifeblood. “I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for singing, working or creating. All that side of me is still very much there. It’s really who I am. It’s like the air that I breathe.”
For all things Petula, visit www.petulaclark.net. Be sure to check out her new “Butterfly in the Snow” CD. Her original title song benefits the Art-Therapie Foundation.