Arts & Entertainment
6 min

Know your truth

The gospel according to our Pope

“Ms Pope, please report to the principal’s office/ Ms Pope, to the principal’s office.” This sly demand, amid relentless guitar riffs, thumping techno beats and the ominous ringing of a school bell in the song “The Pleasure Principal,” is Montreal-based Lesbians On Ecstasy’s slick-lipped homage to Carole Pope and her creamed-jeans Rough Trade classic “High School Confidential.” That 1980 hit smacked queer shame upside the head, brazenly championing queer, female and teen desire, all in the span of one four-minute track.

The iconic status of Ms Pope is undeniable. Unapologetically pushing borders, she’s been a pioneer in the world of radical music-making since her emergence in the early 1970s punk scene and the new wave movement of the ’80s.

She’s still pushing, storming 2005 with two brand new solo CDs that have just dropped: Transcend (on the La Petite Morte label) and Transcend: The Remixes (Play Records).

It’s only fitting then, that in addition to the much-anticipated Sat, Jun 25 Rough Trade reunion show during Pride, she was also just honoured, along with other such luminaries as city councillor Kyle Rae and writer and social justice activist June Callwood, at the Pride 25 Awards Gala on Jun 21.

Pope, however, maintains a humble outlook. “I’m extremely honoured and excited. But I’m also kind of shocked. June Callwood is in the mix. What have I done?

“People come up to me all the time and tell me they’ve been really influenced by Rough Trade, so it kind of makes sense. Rough Trade music touched a lot of people – gay, straight, whatever. It’s exciting to think that people are still inspired by me as an artist.”

During her 12-year run with longtime collaborator and coconspirator guitarist Kevan Staples, Rough Trade released six full-lengths: their 1976 debut Rough Trade Live (on Umbrella), Avoid Freud from 1980, For Those Who Think Young (1981), Shaking The Foundations (1982), Weapons (1983), O Tempora!, O Mores! (1984), Birds Of A Feather: The Best Of Rough Trade (1985), all issued via True North, garnering three Junos and a Genie Award, as well as four gold and two platinum records.

Since Rough Trade’s dissolution in1986, Pope hasn’t stopped to catch her breath. Her solo releases include the 12″ recordings Nothing But A Heartache (on RPM in 1988) and All Touch/Transcend (BugEyed, 2003), two EPs, Radiate (La Petite Morte, 1996) and 1999’s The Silencer, (privately published by Pope) the soundtrack that she wrote and performed for the 1992 film of the same name.

It’s hard not to be roused and provoked by Pope. Her autobiography, Anti-Diva (from Random House in 2000), dishes on- and off-stage gossip and politics told with Pope’s clever blend of raunch and wit. In 2001, she guested in the Toronto production of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues at the New Yorker Theatre. And her music has been snatched up by the likes of The L-Word and Queer As Folk.

So how does she account for her longevity as an artist? “It’s simple,” she says. “It’s all about knowing your truth and not letting anyone or anything stop you from making your art. I’m performing and writing for the sheer joy of making music. It’s all about passion. When that goes, I’ll stop. Until then, I do what makes me feel good and hope that translates to the audience.

“It is hard, though. I’m not in my 20s. I’ve been doing this for so long and I’m kind of insulted that I don’t have a record deal, that things are so hard. But I’m not trying to conform to the norm and my stuff is political – I focus on sexuality and politics. Even though there’s a lot of sexuality in music, mine is still considered threatening.

“I think that what’s most important is having an absolute sense of self – and, of course, the way I can blow people away with my evil eyeballs alone,” she says, laughing. “My mouth is really important to me. The power of speech is an amazing weapon.”

Transcend, Pope’s latest weapon, is explosive, electronica that swaggers with rhythmic confidence while Pope’s husky vocals both dare and deliver with the swelling abandon for which she’s known. “World Of One” is dark and smoky, a visceral and sexy send off. “I won’t play nice and make it easy/ In your world of one,” Pope promises. In “Dream6” she blends the lure of desire with relentless, restless guitar riffs. “Americana” is a delicately hypnotic tour of landscapes and politics. “We ventured into some kind of unholy covenant/ With the government/ The rat pack, the leader, the freak, the conformist/ The screamer, Hey! That’s me! Let’s go down to Washington/ The mountains, the citadels, the place of detention/ The literal, the visceral, all our good intentions/ Get out of the car, run screaming.”

“Transcend took forever to make because there was no money and no way on earth to get a record deal. I’m a starving artist. But it was an important album to make. Part of the motivation behind Transcend is about getting over things, letting go. As you get older, you learn to let go of a lot because why the fuck bother?”

Or, as Pope states amid the dark and driving rhythm of the title track, “I’m gonna transcend all of this… / Throw off this mortal coil/ I don’t need anything.”

With Transcend: The Remixes, Pope’s music is catapulted into an even wider realm of dancefloor revelry. Presented by radio host and local electronica power-house DJ Iain on Melleny Melody’s Play Records label, Transcend: The Remixes boasts an assortment of beat talent, including Iain, UK-based DJ Myagi and local bigstuff DJ Serious, among others, and a lush array of genres – trance, urban, drum and bass, breaks and an assortment of house. “DJ Iain organized the whole thing,” says Pope. “He picked four songs from the record – “Seduction,” “Transcend,” “Dream6” and “Americana” – and various DJs from all over the world to remix the tracks. Though I had some involvement, for the most part, they had carte blanche.

“My attitude was let them go wild. As long as the main body of the song was there, I was happy. It’s really weird to turn over your material to someone else, but I’m loving the results. It’s a great way to get your music out all over world.”

Pope, who was born just outside of Manchester, England, moved to Montreal when she was five before her family decided to call Toronto home a few years later. All the while, the young Pope nurtured her desire to become a singer. “My parents weren’t very good when it came to sex education. But they taught me to love music and art – and to work my warped sense of humour. Realizing that I wanted to make music more than anything else was a defining moment.

“I didn’t really do any kind of vocal training. In fact, I don’t believe in it if you’re a rock singer. Rock and roll is all about sex and passion. I think voices just get deeper with age, the more worn out you are,” she laughs.

It was after a 1968 audition for a band called Deva Loca Sideshow that Pope and Staples decided to form the short-lived O, along with pianist Clive Smith. In 1971, O dissolved and Pope and Staples merged into the sex radical duo The Bullwhip Brothers before reincarnating as Rough Trade in 1976.

“We wanted to do a full band thing, so Rough Trade was born. I was obsessed with sexuality and fascinated by gay men and gay culture and I loved the term Rough Trade. It really represented what we wanted to do and our dark sense of humour.

“When Rough Trade began, I was trying to find myself as a woman and a feminist. Rough Trade was part of the collective consciousness that was punk and new wave. All these bitter, funny, political bands hit the scene at the same time in London, New York and Toronto. Playing New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s was great. It was such a vital scene.

“When we called it quits in 1986, we were frustrated by the industry. For the most part, the run was great – appearing on Solid Gold, touring with David Bowie [during the Canadian leg of his 1983 Serious Moonlight tour]. But I think I was intimidating as a sexually andro-gynous woman and artist.”

Pope wears the badge unrepentantly. “I’ve always had a fuck-you attitude. My sexuality has been both threatening and erotic and there’s an audience for it. For me, performing is an exercise in seduction – seducing the audience and speaking to them as equals. I make somewhat pithy stage patter and try to get the people off. My validation is having somebody relate to what I’m saying. I don’t think that the Canadian music industry really gives a flying fuck about me.

“I have a great cult audience, some of which I’ve found because of my website [Carolepope.com]. It’s kind of funny because in the US, I’ve only played in New York and LA but even still, my American audience has quite an on-line presence. I do have a weird fan base – people range in age from 18 to 50-something. I get a lot of, ‘I saw you back in ’79.’ I’ve had stalkers: They’ve found out where I live, stayed outside my house. One person just kept leaving underwear for me and at the time, I lived a high rise. All I could think was, ‘How the fuck did she get in?’

“I used to be very resistant to hanging out with fans after a show, autograph-signing. When you first become a star, it’s easy to become arrogant and full of yourself. I’m over that. People are so sweet. You want to be there for the part where you smoke the cigarette – the aftermath.”