Jennie Bellestar: There Is Not Much Music I Don't Like
Jennie Mathias, better known by her stage name Jennie Bellestar, was the lead singer of the British pop rock band The Belle Stars. This female group had their big moments in the 80s when they conquered the charts with the single "Sign of the Times". Their version of "Iko Iko" even appeared in the movie Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Jennie is still making music, and her most recent work includes a collaborative album with musical mastermind Mat Sargent (Chelsea). The album Nothing Stays The Same was well received and we had a chance to talk about it with her. We spoke not only about the new album, but also about the rather interesting musical life of this talented singer.
Supposedly you became a singer purely by accident, after you were in a recording studio with a friend and the producer liked your voice and asked you to sing a whole song, is that right?
Yes, a person I was hanging out with asked me to give her some support in the studio as she was doing backing vocals for a track called "Iko Iko". The producer asked me if I would like to go in and do some singing and I told him that I didn't think that I could sing. He asked me to give it a try and the next thing you know is that he had me singing the lead part. I went home that night with a cassette copy of my vocals and told my then-boyfriend Paul Jenkins what I had done, he said, "I never knew you could sing" to which I replied, "nor did I". Then the following day his ex-girlfriend Sarah Jane-Owen called him to ask if he knew of any good singers preferably black or mixed race to front their band The Body Snatchers and Paul said: "My girlfriend sings and she would be perfect for your band."
What followed then? Were The Belle Stars born?
Yes, the Bellestars were formed from that moment onwards.
You didn't have any experience singing in a band before? What were your early inspirations?
No never. I have been interested in music all of my life and have an eclectic mix of favourite artists. I am influenced by several genres. Probably at the age of 6, I used to sing the chorus to the songs that I liked the most at a very early age. Music has always been around me as my aunts and uncles are big fans of music. I have also been lucky enough to have gone through many eras from the 50s through to the 90s and beyond. My first record was by "Fire Brigade" by The Move. I was a massive Tamla Motown fan and I also loved early SKA music, soul, blues and funk, I then moved on to Glam Rock and Prog Rock plus Heavy Metal, there is not much music I don't like.
If my information is correct, your first concert with The Belle Stars was on Christmas Eve 1980. Do you have any memories of that event? What songs were in your repertoire at that time?
The name of the place was called The Merry Makers and I was so scared that I never said anything in-between the songs because I was not experienced and I was petrified I might not remember my lyrics. I know I sang "Iko Iko" as that was the only song I knew perfectly but I remember doing "Too Experienced", "Hiawatha", "Big Blonde" and many others. We did 9 songs altogether.
Not long after that, you signed a contract with Stiff Records. How did that happen?
We were doing a gig in Dingwalls and all the main major record companies were there to see us, Stiff was an independent label and we really liked the way they worked, we also had many of our friends on the label and so we went with them because they had more in common with how we were at that time.
What was it like to be a girl band in the early 80s? At that time it wasn't really common, there were The Slits and other bands with girls in them, but there weren't many girl bands. Was that more of an advantage or disadvantage for The Belle Stars?
I would say it is always an advantage being in a female-led band purely because there are not that many.
Was it disappointing that you didn't actually have more success in the charts until after the break-up, and that was when your cover of "Iko Iko" was used as the theme song in the film Rain Man?
We had a fair amount of success as the band and far more whilst we were in the band than we did afterwards. Yes, the track "Iko Iko" was in the film The Rain Man but I wouldn't call that a huge success although we were all very grateful at the time.
You left the band before it broke up. What were the reasons?
The usual, musical differences and personality changes.
After that, you lived in America for a while. Did you go there to deal with your drug problems? What did you do in America?
I went there to visit my family and friends and to get away from the London drug scene. Hung out with friends, made some great music, toured with my music, did some fashion shows, did the video for the Rain Man. I have never stopped doing music, I write with many people in all different styles.
How did the song "Iko Iko" get into the film Rain Man, and where did the idea to make the famous music video for the song come from?
It was put in the film by someone that thought we were an obscure band, when they found out that I was the lead singer of a popular UK band and I was living in Miami, Hollywood came looking for me to front the video, the ideas were a mixture of mine and theirs.
You have a very interesting life story. Despite a very traumatic childhood, you've managed to deal with life, whether it's your creative activities in the music scene or finding the strength to confront drugs. What helped you find that inner warrior in yourself?
Over the years you become more philosophical about life and the cards that you have been dealt with. You search for the meaning of life due to the trauma you received as a child, it brings you down the path of the road less travelled and it is there that you realise that every experience you went through was for a purpose, it is how you respond to that purpose which is the most important. Going within and observing life with an inner eye, I was able to realise that each experience no matter how bad or good had to be the way it was so that I become the person I am today. Self help books were my cure and brought me to many forms of awareness about life and purpose.
You also wrote your own book, Surviving The Storm. Was writing that book like personal therapy for you?
I guess it was in some ways but I did not set out initially to start writing a book especially as I had written most of the notes when running on the treadmill. It started off as notes and then a publisher friend of mine asked to read it and mentioned that I had a book there which was strange because my intuition also said the same thing. She offered to publish it and the rest is history.
Your latest musical project is the album Nothing Stays The Same, which you recorded in collaboration with Mat Sargent. You've worked with Mat in the past on his Sex Drugs & HIV project, is that when you met or have you known each other for a while?
When you are on the road you grace many of the same stages as your peers. I had known Mat for quite some time before the HIV project as we played several of the same stages and gigs. Mat and I have been friends forever and we have done live street protests playing to thousands of people, we have also written many other songs outside of this album.
Who came up with the idea for a collaborative album?
It wasn't meant to be a collaborative album as I had initially only wanted to do possibly three songs as at the time I thought Mat might have wanted to find other artists for the album. Mat kept sending me tracks and it ended up being a full collaboration. It was really quite enjoyable because I also got to work with my old label mate Dick aka Richard Coppen from Ten Pole Tudor. He finalised everything in his studio with Mat.
What was the writing process like? Did you first have the lyrics which Mat subsequently did the music for or was it the other way around and you did the lyrics to Mat's music?
I did the lyrics and vocal melody ideas to Mat's music, it is something I do with a lot of people I write with. People send me backing tracks and I send them full vocal melody and lyrics. I think Mat most certainly had a clear idea about how he wanted it to sound because it is essentially Mat's album. Of course, me and Mat are great, great mates and we always have a dual input into how we would like to be seen and indeed of how we would like it to sound but Mat's the boss on this one really.
How did you choose the musicians for this project? Was Mat in charge of this?
Like I said, Mat is the boss of this as he had a clear idea of who he wanted on the album and what their roles would be, everyone loves Mat as he is so easy to work with and highly creative so he gets his peeps at the drop of a hat.
What are your plans for the future?
I have far too many to mention but one of them is to finish off my autobiography and book of poetry this year and the other is to finish off any loose ends musically as I have many unfinished tracks with other writers.
Do you have any dreams that you would like to realise?
I would love to lead a creative artistic project that raises the vibration of this world and all the people in it.
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