Julian Isaacs

by Nickie Shobeiry

In the 70s you recorded Halfway to Venezuela and Marmalade Freak at Pathway Studios. The tracks were produced by Dick Taylor from The Pretty Things. What was your working relationship like? I still play with Dick occasionally, down at the Isle of Wight. He’s still touring the world with The Pretty Things. He did play with me this year – the last gig we played was for a campaign you must be aware of, “Save Soho” – it’s for most of Denmark Street, where all the music shops are. We played there, and the week after the gig was the year when The Pretty Things, like The Rolling stones, were doing their 50th year anniversary world tour. Instead of taking a break from it, Dick wanted to do a gig with me, and it was great! Bless him. I really enjoyed that gig – he told me after, “It was one of the greatest gigs I’ve done all year! And saying that, it’s been a bloody good year!” and I thought, “Yeah it has! You’ve been to Australia and New Zealand and America with The Pretty Things, and you’re saying a pub gig with me is one of the best gigs of the year!”

How did you come to write both tracks? They were both written the way I work now, really – if you think of something with a good title, you go with it. I liked the assonance between “way” and “Venezuela”. I actually went to Venezuela about five years ago, which was a life-long dream of mine. In 1999 I did a version called Over Halfway To Venezuela, we re-wrote the words, and then All The Way To Venezuela – but because people know the original, we just play that one when we gig.

You were kicked out of public school; the Sunday Mirror called you a “Public School Punk”. What do you think “punk” is, and is that how you’d describe yourself? Punk is about social exclusion and people who don’t fit in – so yes, in retrospect, I am punk. In terms of thrash music, it wasn’t what original punk was like. The Clash, they’re a great reggae band. Or the Pistols – you listen to them, you see it’s the same speed as a Rolling Stones song. Really, punk is about an attitude.

As well as being known as the “Punk Balladeer,” you’re also Auntie Pus. You and your friend came up with the “Pus” bit – where did the “Auntie” come from? My mate had a son named Jed, who was just learning to speak, and they’d tell him, “Say hello to Auntie Jules!” and it just stuck. I liked it! It was better than nicknames from school, like “Four Eyes” or something, for people who wear glasses.

Syd Barrett was a big influence of yours, and the poems you performed at the BikeShed Poetry Slam last year had an experimental, humorous edge too. Has who else influenced you? My instinct is to say Blake, because all the people I grew up reading around said Blake was the man, and to me, he is. However, it’d be inaccurate to say he’s an influence, because I don’t really write in that way. I do enjoy studying him but no, he’s not an influence. I’ll tell you people I like, but influences are probably the Beats, Ginsberg – people like that. I read all sorts, and I like difficult poems that you struggle with, like layers of a painting. In terms of close reading I like Marianne Moore; she was an enormous influence on Sylvia Plath, and she’s got a wonder about her. But in terms of influence, I’d say the Beats.

Your more recent solo single, Yolanda’s Dream, is available on iTunes, telling the story of a girl going “quietly insane”. What was the inspiration for this? That came all at once before I started uni. A dear friend of mine who’s dead now, he was a fantastic song-writer, and he’d say people’s heads were a “shocking mess,” which could mean anything, really. That’s why I wrote, “in Yolanda’s head, things were a shocking mess” – that’s where it started off. Anyway, after I got the recording, I got this girl named Holly at the Plymouth College of Art to do this really disturbed cartoon as a cover for it. It’s a strange figure with this horrible, ghastly, contorted face, all quite stark and with few lines, and an enormous blade dripping with blood.

You play with gypsy-swing band, Hot Club of Stonehouse, and gig around the region. How does this differ from your previous tours? Well the gypsy music and punk music are different things – I think my poetry is more punk. People who like to swing dance come out for that, and that’s what they like to hear. The double bass player is wonderful – we had a gig and he brought his electric loop pedal, and he did five minutes in the interval!

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians? Play with your heart, not your head. If you’ve got a yearning – and I was talking about this on the way to the poetry event in Bath the other week – if you’ve got that spark, you have to do it. No matter what job you do in your life, no matter how successful you are, you have to do it. Things might go really, really well, or they might not, so get some back up, as it saves a lot of grief in life… but if you have a yearning to go out and perform, don’t choke it.