Based in Plymouth and also attending Exeter University, Julian Isaacs is a 70’s punk balladeer, known fondly as ‘Auntie Pus’ by his fans. As well as being a performing poet with a biting edge, he now plays with gypsy-swing band Hot Club of Stonehouse.
You are a musician and also a poet – is it possible to ask which came first?
Yes, it’s possible, and the answer is poetry – just. I’ve always liked writing things – I wrote scripts when I was six in primary school, and the teacher got the class to perform one. I started learning the guitar when I was about eleven, and by the time I was thirteen and could play a few chords, I wanted to be in a band, like everyone does at school.
Do you remember the first time you performed?
I played at a school rock concert whenI was thirteen, going on fourteen. Years ago I met an old school friend through Facebook and he’d remembered the name of this bizarre instrumental piece I wrote on classical guitar, which I’d completely forgotten about! So my first time was in front of about 500 people – the whole school. They made a record of it, and some of the bands were really quite good.
How does your writing process differ from your song-writing?
Retrospectively, not really an awful lot – but because I’ve studied creative writing, I can tell you how to structure something. I spoke to Andy Brown, and he said the thing to remember is if you write a song, the music does half the work for you – but if you’re writing poetry, those words are all that there is. You listen to master song-writers like Harold Aren, for example, with songs like ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ – they’ve worked out every note and every syllable. That’s why they’re great songs. They might not have that much in there but structurally, it works. I try to do that, now.
The poetry of yours that I had the pleasure of seeing at the Poetry Slam last year had a very wry, black-comedy style. How did you come to develop this style?
I’ve always thought of poetry as paintings, with layers and layers of words. You get some out the way, and you find some others. You can have your own style, of course, but it has to have some sort of direction – as with any great paintings. I’m not an art or art history student, but I’m very much aware of the critical theory of art – so I always try to write a poem like painting. It might be pictures that overlap like a Venn diagram, but it’s still going somewhere from when the reader starts to when they finish.
Do you have a favourite poem of your own?
No, I haven’t. There’s things that I write that I do like; I’ve looked at some pieces I wrote when I was 16 or 17 and, well – in light of what I know now, yes, they’re unfinished, but in terms of what’s done, it’s not so bad. It doesn’t look like the ramblings of a teenager! I know what’s wrong with it because I’ve learnt in the last two years that things that sound clever, or look so on the page, aren’t always clever.
Aside from being a poet, you’re also 70’s punk balladeer Auntie Pus, and now play a lot of gypsy-swing music as Hot Club of Stonehouse. Does your punk past effect your gypsy-swing present?
It’s unavoidable with punk! Only the other day – and it’s not the first time – a man messages me on Facebook, and he runs the Gloucester Swing and Jive association. “You’re Auntie Pus aren’t you?” he asked, and then says “wait a minute!”. He then sent me a picture of a letter I’d written to The Ruts fan club years ago, a really funny letter as well – it was all in block capitals. Not that I can’t do joint-up writing, but my opinion of the punk-rock clientele was low enough to think they wouldn’t be able to read my writing! I wrote a standard letter but on the bottom I’d written – their subscription had to go up – ‘THANKS VERY MUCH FOR THE LETTER, GLAD YOU ENJOYED THE FAN CLUB, LIKE I SAID, SEND MORE MONEY! NOW!”. I love punk music, but I also love gypsy music – and anyway, gypsy’s the most punk lifestyle there is.
What advice would you give to someone who is an aspiring musician?
In this day and age? I guess I’ll tell you where I went wrong, which I can advise every other young person not to do. When things start going well, don’t think you’re going to be the next Keith Richards. The Keith Richards, or the William Burroughs of the writing world – they’re very inspired people, who achieved what they achieved in spite of all the drugs, not because of it. The reason people do drugs is for visions, but you know, people can have strange dreams. I have strange dreams! ‘Kubla Khan’ talks about the ‘abyss’ and ‘sunless chasm’ – everyone can dream of those things. Or for example with acid – it’s the people who can articulate those experiences well that are people who can articulate other things. So, don’t start living the life of a rock star before you are one, and even if you get to be that, think about it. Write the stuff before you live the life. If you try to do it back to front, you won’t get very far.