How Charlotte Church Went from Pop to Politics
Britain's "Voice of an Angel" was selling millions of albums and singing for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Now she's undergone a very unlikely political renaissance.
All photos by Steph Wilson
Charlotte Church is making her stage debut in a play about cockblocking men. That is pretty much the story behind Gaggle: Lysistrata, an update on the Greek comedy by Aristophanes. The women of Greece, fed up with the unending Peloponnesian War, stage a sex strike as a means to bring their men home.
This remake is being helmed at the Almeida Theatre in London by Gaggle, the radical, 20-woman choir that has staged feminist librettos and released music videos fronted by hula-hooping animated dicks. As audience-friendly first roles go, Church is not exactly taking on Eponine in Les Miserables.
"I just did it because I really like Deborah [Coughlin, the director] and I really like Gaggle," Church says, shrugging. Coughlin, the de facto frontwoman of the choir, says that she "gravitates towards strong smart women."
"Charlotte was on my wish list of people I wanted to work with," Coughlin says. "This is the role I always thought would be perfect for her."
Church takes on the character of Hannah, a burnt-out former MP who finds herself on the vanguard of the revolution. Set in an unnamed modern city, the play depicts women who have ceased to care about pleasing men--or anybody, for that matter. Judging from our meeting, Charlotte "Voice of an Angel" Church can relate.
As an 11-year-old, she broke into entertainment by calling up the British daytime television show This Morning and belting out Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Pie Jesu" over the phone. She was singing arias at the Royal Albert Hall and opening for Dame Shirley Bassey before she turned 13.
But take note, future rags-to-riches stars: If you grow up as Britain's voice of an angel, you are being set up to fail. When Church was 15, the Daily Star printed a picture of her in a low-cut top, noting: "She's a big girl now.... Chest swell." There was an online countdown that ticked off the days before she turned 16. After her pop crossover album, tabloids drank up the hate figure of chavvy Charlotte, squandering her voice on rollies and Cheeky Vimtos (a cocktail of port mixed with blue WKD, a popular wine cooler in the UK). We like perfect angels and fallen women and nothing in between.
Church is 29 now. This year marks the weirdest phase of her career--unlikelier than even her most recent four-EP project, which mixed Björk-style visuals with sweeping prog-rock arrangements. She has emerged as the unexpected figurehead of the anti-austerity movement in Britain. From marching on anti-Tory protests to bigging up Labour ultra-lefty Jeremy Corbyn ("I think he's lush! He sort of reminds me of the Big Friendly Giant"), Church has reinvented herself as a post-opera pop singer with politics.
This didn't come out of nowhere, she explains. "All of my family are working class... My Grampy and Nan are socialists." When she was nine, her mother brought her to her first protest, an anti-racism march in London.
On the night of the Conservative victory in May, Church sat at home watching the election results. "I stayed up all night, hugging my dogs, inconsolable," she says. "I'm not the sort of girl who has conversations with her mother and starts crying. But her saying, 'I can't imagine what it's going to be like for people, this is awful'... I got off the phone and had a little cry."
The morning after, she joined a march in Cardiff after spotting it on the Facebook page of the People's Assembly Wales, an anti-austerity group. "I turned up, and they were like, 'Do you, er, want the loudspeaker?' I was a bit 'are you sure? Are you sure?'"
"Then all this mad shit started to happen. People were like, 'What do you think, Charlotte?' and now it's turned into this weird thing," she says. That explains how, a few months later, she found herself in front of 250,000 campaigners to deliver a speech at one of the biggest anti-Tory protests in years.
"We need to win back these young minds and save ourselves from decades of yuppie rule," Church declared to a cheering crowd. "There is only one way to fight the onslaught of crusading austerity, and that is to come together in unity."
Church claims that testifying at the Leveson Inquiry--an official series of public hearings on the culture and ethics of the British media after the News International phone hacking scandal in 2011--turned her on to politics. In 2012, she accepted £600,000 in damages and costs as a result of the hack. "Going into Leveson and just seeing the corruption firsthand really prickled my sense of injustice," she says. "I just couldn't cope with it. From then, I started to be like, nah. Fuck this shit."
She joined Hacked Off, a campaign group lobbying for press regulation. But she could have just stayed in that lane, quietly agitating for change in the media. Why did she go out on the day after the election, "Mad As Hell" placard in tow? Why bother at all?
"I suppose it was because the Conservatives got another term. That was like, 'Oooh, shit.' This is going to be awful for so many people, like really awful where people can't eat," she says. "And that's not acceptable [given] how affluent and rich we are as a country."
"I also just feel like this Conservative government, they're like little boys playing government and not really understanding--or maybe not caring--about the consequences of putting [out] their hardcore rightwing ideologies for the public that they're supposed to care for and serve."
These days, Church tweets YouTube videos titled "The Crises of Capitalism" and pictures of herself reading Mary Wollstonecraft's proto-feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She set up a blog (sample headline on Blair: "T-O-N-Y! You ain't got no alibi! You Tory!"). She's also told online haters to fuck off in basically every way you can think of, including telling one, "Keep laughing and hopefully your dick will fall off. I hope the wait in the overstretched and underfunded NHS won't be 2 long."
The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew RT Davies, branded her a champagne socialist ("I'm more of a prosecco girl, myself," she commented in the Guardian). One troll told her that she should dip her tampon in petrol and set fire to it when inserted. "Some of the misogynistic abuse I get is fucking HILARIOUS," she says. "I've been attacked for a long time, you know? I've been fodder for the press at least since I was 14. That's like, almost 16 years. You get used to it."
A few months ago, she said that she would happily pay 70 percent tax, leading some to ask: Well, why not? In 2014, the Telegraph reported that Church was worth £3 million, according to the most recent accounts for her personal company.
"I got loads of stuff saying, 'You know you can voluntarily pay more tax'--which isn't true anyway--but it's like, that's not the fucking point," she argues. "All it is, is [those in power] going, 'Sssh! We're going to find all these ways to make what you have to say seem hypocritical because we're trying to peddle our narrative all the time, so that you stay fucking ignorant and fucked.'"
These days, people send Church their own stories of misery on Twitter and Facebook.
Most recently, there was a woman who was a part-time carer for her autistic son. Her husband has just been diagnosed with brain cancer. "So she's had to give up her job and she was like, 'They're cutting all our benefits. I don't know how we're going to survive.'"
Church is still a baby in activism years. But it's obvious that this zeal isn't a one-off project for her. "I've been really angry about loads of shit," she says, "for as long as I can remember. I was dissuaded against doing all that kind of stuff because when you're within a corporate structure--as I was because I was signed to Sony Music--I was always told you don't talk about politics and religion."
And though Lysistrata is fictional and over one thousand years old, she thinks that it beats with ever-increasing relevancy. "In the show, a movement starts," she says. "A female movement. They start to blockade all of the banks, it spreads like wildfire. It becomes a global movement. That would be wonderful. I absolutely think it's possible."