Now enjoying a foray into electronic dance music, Hope London has a come a long way from Long Island and opera...

THEY may have taken place 60 years ago but this week, Hope London’s lessons in opera singing have finally paid off.

“I had to unlearn all that stuff. But maybe they help a little with breathing technique when I’m singing,” said the 72-year-old New Yorker, who has just released an EP of electronic dance tracks.

"I used my babysitting money to pay for voice lessons. I wanted to learn jazz or rock or contemporary performance but my parents wouldn’t pay for it. So I would walk a couple of miles in the Long Island suburbs to the only voice teacher. 

“She told me I had an opera voice and, even though I didn’t want to learn opera, I went along with her. She made me sing Vergin Tutto Amor then said I had to perform it at the high school concert. I said: ‘No way!’ This was years before Madonna sang Like A Virgin. I was born in the early 1950s and you’d blush just to say the word virgin.

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"Anyway, I did it and it didn’t end well. Use your imagination.”

Hope London has used hers all her life. A New York lawyer, she worked as a rookie brief in California before shifting focus into the creative industries. She’s also been an animator in film and television (The Adventures Of He-Man and The Secret Of NIMH are among her US credits), an arts entrepreneur, a lecturer, artist and now, in her eighth decade, a musician.

The mother of two, who also has a stepchild, releases Could Do Better this weekend. It’s a collection of songs drawing influence from 80s synth pop trailblazers like Soft Cell and Yazoo, produced by Glasgow-based DJ Dean Munch.

She launched the record with a live gig at Munch’s Queer Theory club night in Glasgow’s Stereo, several years after being brought to his attention by a friend who spotted her performing “for five men and a dog” at the Eden Festival in 2014.

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“I was hiding behind a piano on a stage and Alex Main was there, reviewed what I was doing for the New Hellfire Club and mentioned people like Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits in his review,” recalls London, who lives in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway.

“He spoke to me afterwards and said he knew a guy in Glasgow setting up a new night called Queer Theory that I might be a good fit for, and he gave me Dean’s number. I walked around with it in my phone for a year or two before I plucked up the courage to phone him. Living in the wilds of Galloway, I had no idea what it even was.”

The night, which champions queer performance of all stripes, proved to be a surprisingly welcome home for London.

“The first time we went up for a gig at Nice N Sleazy, I had the mattress in the back of a van,” she said. “I drove up with my stage piano. When I performed the songs, people were applauding and getting into this music. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was thinking: ‘I’m too old for this!’”

Rather, she’s the embodiment of the adage that it’s never too late. London’s grandmother played pianos in the speakeasies of prohibition-era New York. Her mother was a piano teacher who would tap her knuckles with a ruler when she was learning. Her father played jazz clarinet and her brother, Frank, is a celebrated jazz trumpeter who, as well as playing with his own ensemble, the Klezmer Brass Allstars, has worked with everyone from Ben Folds, Natalie Merchant and They Might Be Giants, to Mel Torme and beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

London’s songs were written as a result of a challenge-to-self when she hit a milestone birthday. She said: “When I turned 60, I set myself a challenge that I was going to write and record a bunch of original songs myself.”

The Herald:
The songs “percolated for a very long time” before finding their way out to the world. Her late husband would sell her CDs out of a carrier bag when she performed her first gigs.

London’s new tunes with Munch range from simple musings on everyday life (Home Made Haircut) to a number about a close relative coming to terms with her trans identity at the age of 30. Another is about the strictures of gender roles experienced by a young girl growing up in 1960s suburban New York.

“On The Borderline is about being a young gender offender and recalls what my father said to me when I went to cut the grass in the garden. The lyrics of the song go, ‘no, no little girl, that’s for your brothers to do, you might have an accident, cut off a toe and then no man will want to marry you’. I was 11. The assumption was this was the worst way life could go but I was willing to risk the toe.”

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There’s a holistic, community-focused ethic behind much of the artist’s work. She taught at Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts and became a director of the Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. She’s been a key contributor to the Spring Fling art festival since she moved to Wigtown 20 years ago. In 2018, she painted a triptych in honour of Bladnoch Creamery, a historic hub for dairy production which closed in 1989.

Across the Pond, her work features prominently on the walls of the Carlton Arms Hotel, a shabby-chic joint in Manhattan’s Gramercy where each room is painted to a theme by selected artists.

“I was vetted, and they approved; I was sufficiently weird,” she said of her work in the former dosshouse for the city’s broken souls.

“I don’t know if it’s true or invented, but the story goes a man lived here for 25 years and died here too. I wanted to do a mural based on his life story in the form of a comic book. It meant being away from my partner for 12 weeks so I wanted to include him. Alex is in the cupboard stark bollock naked save for boots and a pinny, washing swear words off the wall.”

She’s recorded a song to accompany the piece, If These Walls Could Talk, which will be released this year. She also decorated one of the hotel’s rickety corridors after the wildflower meadows around her home.

“Even back in my 20s, working in a community arts centre in Jamaica, Queens, under the L train, I worked with children and young people trying to make things better through community art. That has stayed with me always.”

Having lost her husband and undergone treatment for breast cancer in the past two years, some might assume that the time has come to put her feet up. Perhaps it’s a form of nominative determinism that keeps Hope London creating.

“Collaborating with other people increases the possibilities in terms of what you can create,” she said.

“My voice has become gravelly and lower and I love that. It’s like working with whatever brushes and paint you have. These are my materials and I have to use them and do the best I can with what I have.”

Could Do Better by Hope London is available to stream on all major platforms now. Queer Theory runs monthly around Glasgow. Check QueerTheoryGlasgow.