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Siouxsie Sioux has just returned from vacation — from Sri Lanka, to be exact. It's an odd place to imagine the famously pale punk poetess and avatar of all things gothic. But as she explains from her maison de maître in southern France, she felt obliged to take some uncharacteristic downtime before revving up for her American tour. "The industry can really take it out of you," she sighs over the phone, noticeably tired after a long day of interviews.
She deserved the rest. After 30 years as a legendary punk-rock provocateur, beloved frontwoman for Siouxsie and the Banshees, and an outspoken firebrand who has probably inspired more young feminists than Betty Friedan, there have been some major changes in her life of late. She quit cigarettes. She dissolved her two-decade partnership with Budgie, her husband and drummer. And, most notably, she finally released her first solo album, Mantaray.
A simultaneous continuation of, and departure from, her previous output, Mantaray is nothing if not diverse. It begins with "Into a Swan," a dense burst of distorted electronics and guitars with lyrics asserting a "new kind of strength" that makes her "laugh in the face that is vulture law." (Online bloggers have tried to claim the song as the newly single Siouxsie's closet-smashing lesbian anthem; on the subject, she says merely, "Stop me while I laugh some more.") Elsewhere she swoops through the darkly swooning "Loveless," hums in a buzzing "Drone Zone," and trills around the tribal beats of "One Mile Below." Then she takes some time to play a spy-theme diva on "If It Doesn't Kill You" and adopt the role of a brassy, Shirley Bassey–esque jazz belter in "Here Comes That Day."
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"Things took different curves and swerves," Siouxsie says of the songwriting process. "The album isn't a snapshot of a distinct period of time." That's a result of not working with a normal band in a rehearsal studio, instead collaborating long-distance with record producers (and longtime musicians) Steve Evans and Charlie Jones, who contributed most of the album's synth programming, bass, and guitar work. They'd mail Siouxsie song concepts to which she would add vocals and her own melodic contributions. Back and forth they went until, at last, all that needed to be added were a few session drum tracks.
Of course, the record gleams. When an album's producers are also its programmers, you can be guaranteed of that. And no matter what possible criticisms you may level against Mantaray — it's too eclectic, it's too slick, it isn't Peepshow Redux — its postmodern mash of glam, jazz, synth-disco, and epic pop make it undeniably a product of the 21st century. Siouxsie Sioux at 50 isn't trying to sound like Siouxsie Sioux at 25.
That's partly because the notoriously strong-willed Siouxsie despises nostalgia. "I don't do the 'legacy' thing," she scoffed to the U.K.'s Guardian. "I just want to do what I do, and leave me the fuck alone." And when a Mojo interviewer kept pestering her with Banshees questions, she stormed out, her tongue lashing back over her shoulder: "You're that fucking close to getting a smack in the face."
Can she really expect to escape her iconhood, though?
In San Francisco alone, you could cover your apartment with what she dismissively calls "Siouxsie wallpaper" — the endless flow of event posters, flyers, and handbills that use images of her famous cheekbones, raccoon eyeliner, and black rat's-nest hairstyles as shorthand code for Total Uncompromising Awesomeness. The same fans, of course, also want that icon frozen in time. But the woman whose French neighbors know her simply as "Madame Ballion" — 1957 birth certificate: Susan Janet Ballion — wants to be recognized by her music, not her face.
Siouxsie's drive to reconcile her past with her present, 1978's The Scream LP with 2008's Mantaray and More tour, starts now. Faîtes comme vous voulez, madame.