The first time I lay eyes on Debbie Harry in the flesh, she startles me. I’m on my way into a hotel room to interview her and Blondie guitarist Chris Stein when I almost literally walk into her as she exits the bathroom. Once we’re seated and our conversation starts, she continues to catch me off-guard; past interviews I’d read and watched had me prepared for someone a little cold and disinterested. But today, as the sunshine streams in through the window, she is friendly, upbeat and chatty, despite still suffering a little jet-lag. She is dressed rather casually in black leggings and light sweater, with her trademark platinum blonde hair running wild in feathery, blow-waved curls. It’s not natural, she points out. “I was working in a salon after I was fired from a health club as a fitness instructor ... When you work in a salon everybody does everybody else’s hair, so I ended up with blonde,” and hence the band’s name. Stein is also in black, his white hair lying flat on his head, his hazel eyes shielded behind a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers. On anyone else, this look would come across as conceited, but with a career in music spanning close to five decades, he’s earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. Notably however, there is not a speck of ego from either of them.
Throughout our chat, we cover a huge range of topics, like how Harry isn’t really connecting with the two books she’s currently reading, the way Stein feels television has ruined his attention span for reading, and how excited he is for the latest season of Game Of Thrones. “I met Peter Dinklage at a gas station once, he’s a nice guy,” he says.
It’s March, and the band is preparing to release their 11th studio album, Pollinator, which Stein considers to be a “return to our roots” of sorts. But where Blondie was born at the height of the punk movement in 1974 (a rebellion mainly against the commercialisation of bands and the music industry at large, Stein observes), Pollinator has a higher purpose. With a percentage of the sales, Harry hopes to help the depleting bee population, giving the title of their latest release a deeper meaning. Environmentalism is a keen interest of hers; “I listen to scientists and I believe them,” she says of climate change. What a strange coincidence that she should visit Australia as a cyclone that bears her first name ravages Queensland, she notes. It’s proof that Harry is sharp and acutely aware of the world around her. “The more you travel and the more you see what’s happening,” she says.
Perhaps the reason she has given some journalists the cold shoulder in the past is the intrigue into superficial matters, like why she never married or had children. At 71, her age seems to be a recurring theme these days, and it’s something she simply won’t put up with. “You put [age] in people’s brains, and it becomes an issue, you know? That’s what you’re doing — you are creating an issue,” she told one reporter. But both Harry and Stein are conscious of the fact they need to look after themselves as they get older, scaling back the ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ mentality that was held onto in the early days. “Well, I stopped doing heroin and cocaine,” Stein says, “and I don’t really drink.” Drug use is in Harry’s past as well, confessing she was “absolutely a drug addict for a couple of years,” in a past interview. While now she enjoys a glass of wine here and there, she doesn’t drink when she’s working. “I need to be focused,” she says.
Harry is in the midst of deciding whether she wants to write a memoir. “I have mixed feelings about it,” she says. “Obviously it would be the appropriate time in my career to do something like that, but I’m still not convinced;" simply finding the time would be a challenge. As for what the future holds for Harry, continuing to make music (“What else is there?” they both ponder) is of course a priority, and teaching herself piano (again if she has time) is also on the bucket list; and she says it’s a drive for achievement that keeps her motivated. “But I’ve thought about going to college,” she says. To study what? “Literature.” Yes, after 71 years, Debbie Harry will still surprise you.
Blondie's Pollinator is out May 5 through Liberator Music/BMG.
Blondie and Cyndi Lauper are touring Australia. April 1 at A Day On The Green in the Hunter Valley; April 2 at A Day On The Green in Mount Cotton; April 4 at the ICC in Sydney; April 6 at Rod Laver in Melbourne; April 8 at A Day On The Green in the Yarra Valley; April 9 at A Day On The Green in McLaren Vale; and April 12 at A Day On The Green in Perth. Tickets available HERE.