On the eve of her own first record release, Pete’s daughter reflects on her family’s musical heritage.
As the daughter of Who rock legend Pete, Emma Townshend grew up with no illusions about the reality of a life in music. Yet despite that, she writes, its lure has proved too strong to resist
Do people really say, "Never marry a musician?" I grew up in a family knowing that my mum, most of my aunts, both my grandmothers and some ancestors beyond that had all made this particular life error, so I guess I was always going to be a bit sceptical. My mum will tell you about listening to her dad playing downstairs after she’d gone to bed, manuscript papers sprawled around as he worked through the night to finish the score for a TV deadline. My dad had a more dramatic, bohemian childhood, where you might not sleep for carousing voices, but you could get rich the next morning finding lost loose change from the pockets of merry guests down the back of the sofa.
The London house I grew up in was mostly made by my mum, Karen, but in its heart it had the Aladdin’s cave of my dad’s studio. The warm oxide of reel-to-reel tape in use has a really particular smell, combined with the feel of snaking rubber cable under your bare feet and the comforting, faraway sounds of acoustic guitars when you are just getting to sleep. It appeals to my sense of family history that my mum and dad have these kinds of memories, too – of listening to their dads practising, writing and playing in another room, like a lullaby.
When I was a bit older we would sit around after doing the washing-up and talk about pop music, how it worked, where it failed. My dad is something of a great philosopher in these matters, an elder statesman, and he’s always taken it really seriously. He was the first person who explained to me that there are movements in pop, just like in any art; of baroque and classicism, of pastoral and urbanity, of cynicism and naive optimism. It was a proper household of ideas and arguments. You had to be quite talented to get a word in edgeways with dad – it’s a kind of art in itself.
All the time I was growing up there was this culture of theory and practice. My dad has been completely bullish about me learning to use equipment, too; he’s got no time for you being a fool, you have to really concentrate. I can remember him helping me make little tapes when I was about seven, with big studio headphones on that just slid off my head! He never let me off because I was a kid, but he also never passed off a kid’s version on me.
When I made my record it was quite important to me that it was done at home, in my own flat, for aesthetic and atmospheric reasons. It’s something like the people you might know who are adamant about having home births. It’s a sort of feeling you have that you can’t quite explain. I just needed to work slowly and carefully, when I felt like it, and not have the huge financial pressure of a rented studio hanging over me. I’d seen it so many times, people I knew not ever making money from their records because they’d cost more than a Georgian house in Islington to make.
I also wanted to avoid the traditional recording studio route, when you are in one of those very neutral, constantly recycled spaces that 500 other people have used. I think I expect quite a lot from home recording because my dad always did; his demos are quite famous, and he’s released a lot of them now because they are so interesting in terms of his body of work. And when I was about two, we had a very nice seaside holiday during which he wanted to tape waves for Quadrophenia. It’s not always a disaster working from home….
The other day I told Max Hole, the head of my label, EastWest Records that my dad had called me up to say that he really loved my record, because I’d finally given him a tape. And Max just gave me this look like: "He’s your dad, what do you think he’s going to say? That he hates it?" And I just thought, you have no idea how harsh he can be! He would never stint on criticism just because he’s my dad. I’ve played him things and he’s gone: "That’s just crap isn’t it, really badly recorded. I mean, I suppose there’s a good idea in there somewhere…." So I take it seriously that he says he likes the record.
There were lots of reasons why I should naturally think that this was a really important job, a really important field. But then nobody really wants to be like their parents, do they? Especially when you think everyone’s going to go, "Oh yeah, right, Pete Townshend’s daughter, and I bet she’s really talented." And I knew so much about the downside: I’d seen my dad come back after a six-month tour away with something close to paralysing shock – he sat down while his bags were still being brought in and just started to shake with sobs – and I’d watched mum keep things together in those long absences while she did a full-time degree. I’d even been banned from ever opening my own front door – the number of weird people I’ve met is on the high side.
I don’t think there was ever a point at which I went: "Oh, right, my dad’s really famous and loads of people think he’s great," More likely, I think there was definitely a point when I actually realised that everybody else’s dad wasn’t ever on Top of the Pops. In fact, by the time I was about old enough to notice, my dad went into a sort of semi-retirement. He was just hitting that stage in a pop career when you become supremely unfashionable and have to spend a few years in the wilderness waiting for the Liam Gallaghers to come along and pronounce you king again.
We had this great studio at home that I was just in all the time, making tapes, programming computers. The year I was 15, friends would call me to go out and I’d be: "No way, I’m recording!" Some of the time me and my friend Katy would be composing really cheeky songs about people we hated at school – girls who were constantly on fruit diets; nice, white middle-class boys doing break dancing and saying, "That’s def!" But I used to write serious music as well, generally about boys who wouldn’t go out with me, but I think that’s fairly par for the course.
I think I probably went to university in the end just because I love learning new things. But it was like being somebody’s little sister the entire time, with your nose pressed up against the window but not allowed to touch anything. I never could understand what I was supposed to be doing, what the rules of it all were, and consequently I spent three years putting my foot in it. I did a load of demos for Doug Morris, who’s now at MCA, before I went. People were offering me actual real-life money. I’m glad I didn’t take it, though. I was the most naive, dumb 20-year-old, and in the end I would just have fallen apart.
After going to Cambridge University, I came to London to do a Masters. I had the kindest teachers, and for the first time people told me where I was going wrong and really encouraged me – something that Cambridge had just failed to do. And at the end of the year, I went back to Cambridge to start a PhD. I really got into what I was doing and soon started to teach, which was a life-changing experience. I’m still teaching now; my recent video shoot had to be rescheduled as I teach a social history class on Thursdays. It gives you a complete perspective on things, which I knew from talking to my family that I would need. Pop music is mostly about satisfying your own goals; a lot of tantrums and dramas that don’t seem that bad if you can remind yourself of the deeper meaning to everything I’m working really hard to promote the record, but I won’t die if I get dropped.
So a couple of years ago, I was happily living in Cambridge, doing my doctorate, spending happy, silent hours in the dark corners of the library, giving papers to the seminar group on the significance of fruit breeding, the meanings of memorial gardens. I lived in a happy, noisy house of poly students, got drunk, danced as much as I possibly could, came to know all football statistics and trivia machine questions off by heart.
One evening I was in the pub with my friend Charlie and his friend Dylan and we began to have a really passionate conversation about music. And I can remember the thought almost coalescing above my head like a cartoon light bulb; music, sweeping me back into its orbit. Dylan, a medical student, was probably the first person I’d met in Cambridge who looked at pop music in the same way we had all done at home – fundamentally serious, capable of greatness, all these quite pretentious, really exciting ideas.
Just before I went to university, I had a conversation with my dad in which he told me that I shouldn’t bother doing a degree, I should just do my music. (He ate his words when I graduated, though because then he was the proud father. I remember he said: "I underestimated how important it was to you to learn.") My mum was really the same – she has great respect for her dad, and her brother and sister, who are all musicians. So I had the reverse of most people’s parental influence. Parents generally beg their children not to pursue a career in music, while mine were, "Oh, for goodness sake, stop messing around and get on with it." It’s like inheriting a big aristocratic estate – you’re allowed a few years of messing around, but then you’re expected to knuckle down and take your place in the family business.
Trying to decide what to do at this point was really difficult. In Dylan, (now my partner), I’d met someone I just knew would be a brilliant, ambitious, visionary collaborator. But I also knew that my much-loved PhD was only half finished. The characters who most terrify and fascinate me in books are people like Dr Lydgate in Middlemarch, who, by a tiny wrong turn he hardly realises he is making, brings his whole life’s dream to a close. I always make major life decisions as if I had a painless but terminal disease, and the most important thing is just to try to do as many different things in the time remaining. That kind of swung it for me – I’d been to Cambridge; I’d never done anything like making a record.
We slowly began to evolve a way of working: Dylan and I built a kind of sound lab, the walls swathed with gorgeous Indian silks to hide the woodchip paper. We went though hundreds of records to build the right musical world for the songs, but by the end of it, the tapes were almost too inward-looking. Max suggested I went somewhere else to do the vocals, to put a glassy, glittering finish on to these warm tracks. And he was going, "Oooh, I’ve got just the person, he’s really messy, he’s got sofas everywhere!" So I went to meet Ross Collum, who I finished the record off with.
I actually think it’s quite funny that, despite all the reasons I had to do something else, I should end up making a record. There’s just something permanently dark, mysterious and exciting about pop music. The people at my label have been super cool, because everybody in the building is doing it because they love music. You go into someone’s office and half an hour later you’ve discovered some new music you never knew existed.
I also think it’s quite funny to end up working with my boyfriend. There’s probably a fairly good argument that I’m being sad, but I think it’s pure opportunism on my part. He’s a proper musician who can use all the tools. He’s also the perfect colleague; he goes away, thinks about what you’ve said, and comes back firing on all guns. Like my dad, Dylan always tries to do something new. Dad never settled for just going, "Oh, this worked for somebody else – I’ll get in the Rolling Stones horn section and then I’ll really rock." Because of him, I’m really ambitious about what can be achieved. I know that it’s pretentious, but I’m an idealistic person – I can’t get a good cynical act going. The other week I had to go to New York for talks with the record label Elektra and got invited to this party for a big rap star called Busta Rhymes. There were metal detectors, people searching your crotch and everything, and all these cool East-Coast rappers … In the cab on the way back to the hotel, I thought, "Oh God, the day after tomorrow I’m taking a group of students around Kew Gardens to look at the 18th-century landscape."
I ended up coming back with terrible jet lag, rushing straight to my desk to take notes on the pagoda, then coming home, lying in bed and thinking, "Thank God, an afternoon off." Complete peace. And, just as I was drifting off, I could hear Dylan, in another room, playing the guitar really quietly. I mean, it’s the family business. Somebody has to mind the shop.