the records that changed brix smith start’s life

With a just released memoir and new music on the horizon, these are the records that shaped the wonderful and (no longer) frightening world of ex-Fall guitarist Brix Smith Start.

by Matthew Whitehouse
10 May 2016, 12:00am

Brix and Philip's wedding

"It's about learning through difficult circumstances, how to turn them around into something great," says ex-Fall guitarist Brix Smith Start of her new book, The Rise, the Fall and the Rise. "A woman's reinvention again and again and again."

Her life - from child of a child psychiatrist raised in a dilapidated Hollywood mansion in the 1960s to guitarist in one of the most complicated and radical bands of Manchester's post-punk renaissance would be enough to build a memoir around alone. Factor in a marriage to said band's misanthropic frontman Mark E. Smith and the titular fall that would see Brix go from NME cover star to California waitress in the space of only a few years - via a relationship with world-famous violinist Nigel Kennedy - and you have the kind of extraordinary story that, had it happened twenty years earlier, would have landed her the cover of a Smiths 7" sleeve. And that's before we've even mentioned her mid-life reinvention as fashion buyer and prime-time television regular.

Brix and Mark, 1987

"There's a big theme in my book about control. And allowing myself to be controlled my other people," she tells i-D, today on the rise once more, happily living in Shoreditch with second husband Philip and making music with current band Brix and the Extricated. "From my father to Mark Smith to Nigel Kennedy to my eating disorders. I allowed myself to be controlled. And never allowed to reach my full potential. Ever. In music. In anything. Because I marginalised myself by these men."

She continues: "I alway thought everyone was better than me. I thought, 'Yes! I'm a muse. I'm a catalyst. I can stimulate smart people to be more smart and more creative. I know I've got that magical ability'. But I didn't realise that I was the one. It was me. Not them." All rise. These are the records that changed Brix Smith Start's life…

Brix, LA

The first time music shook me to the core was…
The summer when Carole King released Tapestry. The Carpenters had, like, loads of songs out as well and Janis Joplin had Me and Bobby McGee from Pearl. It was that summer. Because I used to go to summer camp and the hippie driver would pick up all the kids in the neighbourhood in his van and we would get in there and he would have the radio on every day. And these songs kept coming in and it was the first time that I was really aware of songs, where I would sing them, hum them and want to buy the record. So the first record I bought as a child, and I'm talking young, I'm talking seven and eight, was Tapestry. And the thing is, not only were those songs incredibly memorable, but they were written and performed by a woman. So the first things that I really resonated to were songs performed by women.

I first picked up the guitar when I was about seven…
My dad bought me, like, a child sized guitar. He was really into banjo. He was really into bluegrass music and folk music. I can't remember what the first song I learned was but the first chords were A and E. Maybe it was like Mr Tambourine Man, Bob Dylan or something like that. But for the most part, I didn't play other people's songs. I started immediately writing my own.

Prince was my favourite guitarist…
I remember seeing Prince in 1990 or maybe a little before. I went with Mark Smith so it must have been before. And I remember turning to Mark and saying, "Oh, my god, he's the best guitarist I've ever seen in my life." And not just that he was the best allrounder. Best songwriter, best producer. I got married in 1999, on purpose, because of the Prince song. I said we're getting married in 1999 because we're going to party like it's 1999, and I did it because of that song. I got married because of Prince.

I heard about The Clash late…
Because things got to America late. Everything about them was appealing to me. The way they looked, their attitude. Their music, although it was really punky, it wasn't inaccessible. There was something about them. It was one of those things that was an addiction. I couldn't stop listening to them over and over and over.

We would go to this really cool record store called Wax Trax! in Chicago…
And just paw through the import bins. Albums and bands that didn't have a US release but were super cool in England. And we'd go straight there and look through. That's how I discovered The Fall.

When I met Mark and came to Manchester I did not have any idea…
I had no preconceptions about what it was like. I knew the Hacienda was there and I knew great bands came out of it and that was good enough for me. When we got off at Piccadilly Station and I saw the city… Well. But I grew to love it very much. There's something about Northerners that's so amazing and so honest and strong and real and you know what you get and they'll take you into their house and look after you. So I grew to love it and part of my heart belongs there now. I had to embrace it. My ex-husband was probably the staunchest Northerner ever in the history of Northern people. To the point where he really had anxiety attacks when he had to go south of Birmingham. One of the first bands I knew that came from Manchester was Joy Division. I stopped being obsessed about The Clash and I went bang into Joy Division. So deeply into that. By then Ian Curtis had died. I only came to it after he was dead.

We recorded three albums at Abbey Road…
We did it with a producer called John Leckie. He was amazing at getting them most warm and interesting sounds. And he put everything through this cabinet called a Leslie. So for some reason, the circular vibration thing, we put vocals through, we put everything. It was so good… I like things that take you out of your environment. Blow your mind.

I guess there's a part of me that started out trying to be a perfectionist…
Before I realised that the flaws and the vulnerability of the performance are what makes it. But it took me a long to be secure enough to let those flaws and vulnerability be there. And actually the were the magic moments. Really magic. But Mark knew it. So Hotel Blöedel, that was a song I'd written originally when I was in Bennington. I was like seventeen or eighteen. And when I met Mark, he heard this demo tape I had and he really loved that song and he asked me if I would record it with The Fall on the first album that I was on, which was Perverted By Language. I was really nervous because I wanted to join The Fall but I was terrified that I would be slaughtered. Because how would it look? This post-punk, Northern, working-class band and this American, Californian, fucking girlfriend coming in. It was, you know, a recipe for being ripped apart. But still, I was a musician and I wanted to do it really badly so when he said, "Will you play guitar on it?" and I said 'Sure". I sat in the room, it was next to the control room, in a separate cubicle. I had my cherry red Gretsch, it was the only belonging I brought with me to live here, and I sat in a chair with an amp and a mic, not even a vocal mic, a guitar amp mic, and I was playing and my volume was low so there was that, like, clunky string thing. I just remember practicing, not thinking anyone was recording it, just practicing, practicing to get it and then I hear over the headphones, "Right, that's it" and they just took my rehearsal. And I was, like, "No, you can't!". For a long time I hated my voice on it. But people loved it. And then I realised… It's quite special actually.

The Rise, the Fall and the Rise by Brix Smith Start is out now. 


Text Matthew Whitehouse

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