In Conversation: Cosey Fanni Tutti

"We are who we’ve become from the past..."

“Everything we do is informed by what’s happened previously,” says Cosey Fanni Tutti. “That’s what life is. Anyone that says ‘I hate nostalgia and I never look back,’ is making quite a false statement, really. We are who we’ve become from the past, so what you’re working with now is because of where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what influences you’ve had, events that have happened, both good and bad. So to say you’re never going to look back, and that the past is nothing to do with who I am now is just rubbish.”

Cosey has spent the last couple of years actively trawling her past, whether that be her childhood in bomb-ravaged post-war Hull, her position at the very epicentre of Britain’s gritty arts scene in the 1970s with her solo art actions and the COUM collective, the later formation of Throbbing Gristle or the countless collaborations that followed TG’s collapse with Chris Carter, Philippe Petit or Factory Floor’s Nik Colk Void.

Her latest body of work, ‘Tutti’, comes some thirty-six years after her last completely solo album, 1983’s ‘Time To Tell’, and its genesis was almost entirely formed from Cosey’s exploration and appreciation of her life’s journey.

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Cosey Fanni Tutti, or Christine Carol Newby, was born in Hull in 1952, a city struggling to rebuild itself and its economy after World War II had wrecked its port and its infrastructure, but not its inhabitants’ indomitable spirit.

Her childhood was informed by moments of unadulterated joy – careering down the mounds created from the ruins of demolished buildings and cycling for miles to nearby villages – and the overbearing strictness of her father, while her teens saw her discovering live music through performances by Hendrix and others that performed in Hull’s theatres and music halls. Her exposure to music drew her to what she has described as the “physicality of live sound and the raw power of rhythm”, staple reference points of her own career on music’s peripheral and sonically adventurous fringes.

We know all of this, and much, much more, because of Cosey’s unflinchingly honest memoir, Art Sex Music, which was published in 2017. Informed by re-reading her diaries, writing Art Sex Music was cathartic, but not difficult.

“Those emotions that you’d expect me to be going through have already been and happened,” she says. “I can look through my diaries, and there were moments that were definitely really emotional. It wasn’t that I had forgotten what had happened, but I just didn’t realise the intensity of it, or I hadn’t accepted it. At the time I was just focussed on surviving and making sure that I carried on doing what I wanted to do.”

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At the time I was just focussed on surviving…

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“The book wasn’t traumatic in any way. It was just emotional, especially when I revisit my mother. It was good because I got to retrospectively look back at my life, and when you see what’s happened between then and now, it all suddenly makes complete sense. Now I understand why certain things were happening. I had no sense of the context of it at the time.”

Shortly after Art Sex Music was written, Cosey was asked to create a new piece for the Hull International City Of Culture festival that took place in March 2017, which included two whole weekends devoted the artistic endeavours of this former resident. The focal point was her work up to the point she had left for London to focus on her art actions and to form Throbbing Gristle with Genesis P-Orridge, Chris Carter and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson.

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Like her autobiography, the film that she created trawled her memories, this time via family photos, shots of collapsing buildings, her childhood pet dog and many other highly personal moments , all morphed together into a visual representation of who Cosey Fanni Tutti is and where she came from; the film was presented with a live soundtrack by Cosey that also incorporated sounds, samples and voices accumulated over many years.

That accompaniment formed the basis of the ‘Tutti’ album, which Cosey reworked completely at the Norfolk home and studio that she shares with Chris Carter. The eight tracks play on that physicality of sound and rhythm that has been a feature of all of Cosey’s work, veering from the cornet-inflected dubby pulse of the opening title track through pieces that nod toward techno or that brood with an ominous intensity. It is a tension-filled body of work that fizzes with a restless energy: sounds crackle and buzz like sparking power cables, each one controlled and ultimately dominated, but the whole thing seeming to be perpetually on the edge of chaos. 

For Cosey, that this is how the tracks can be interpreted is entirely logical. “As a person I always have that quivering inside like there’s things developing and waiting for the moment to come out and manifest themselves in some way, whether that be photography, film or music,” she says, “That represents how I feel all the time. I do have an inner restlessness of wanting and knowing that something is just waiting in the wings for the right time to emerge, and to take whatever form it’s going to take. It’s like when you go over humpback bridges and you get butterflies in your stomach.” 

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I do have an inner restlessness…

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“But it’s also that moment where you have, not doubts, but where things are going really well and you’re really happy and then you think ‘When’s it all going to crash?’ Chris puts that down to my Northern roots, and I think he’s right in some ways. It’s not just Northern – it’s down to my life. I’ve always been a really happy person, but I’m always aware that something could come along and completely change it. That’s down to my upbringing. I was always going around and playing, and being really happy, and then suddenly my dad would come in and everything just went bang.”

“So I’m not a pessimist at all, I am optimistic, but I am a realist and I’m pragmatic. Things can be great, but I am aware that things can turn suddenly. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. There are dark forces as well as very great, wonderful, light forces. And I think it’s an awareness of that that I have, rather than that I prioritise it or I want to give it a bigger platform than more positive things in life.”

For an album that was so inextricably linked to her past, ‘Tutti’ does not feel like an impenetrably personal statement; it stands up on its own and doesn’t require you to be able to make sense of where it came from to appreciate or understand the edgy atmosphere that prevails throughout.

“While I was making ‘Tutti’, making the film and writing my book, I was constantly projected back into where I was at that time, and the mood of the time, so that had a lot to do with it,” says Cosey. “And because it’s so personal, emotions and things like that are really at the top of how this plays out. But emotions are applicable to everyone, and certain sounds trigger different things for different people.”

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There are elements that are universal to all of us, where we can access emotions in a different way…

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“It’s been like that right from the beginning of doing my work: I’m putting forward how I feel, but there are elements that are universal to all of us, where we can access emotions in a different way. I’m putting me out there; it’s an expression of how I feel in audio, and it’s there for people to tap into as they go along. We all have a subjective experience of the world, so we’re going to be triggered by different sounds and feelings.”

“And I think that’s what’s important about all our work, whether as Throbbing Gristle, as Chris & Cosey, as Carter Tutti, Carter Tutti Void, or Chris’s and my solo work: we offer it as something for people to experience and there is no definitive way of listening to it, or interpreting it. It’s for people to have, and once you release it to the world, it’s everybody’s.”

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‘Tutti’ by Cosey Fanni Tutti is released by Conspiracy International on February 8th.

Words: Mat Smith
Photo Credit: Chris Carter

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