She's an Original, Not a Re-Pete

Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

Meet the new boss, hardly the same as the old boss--just your typical debuting singer-songwriter child of a certified rock legend. Not to mention doctoral candidate who fantasizes in song about stalking a rival star.

"That was written out of quite a bit of envy of other people's confidence and ability to go ahead," Emma Townshend says of "The Last Time I Saw Sadie," an edgy number that evokes then-President Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin in the line "something came and made me a little Hinckley."

"It's exaggerated," cautions Townshend, whose album "Winterland" comes out on Tuesday. "But I think there were definitely moments when I was sitting there listening to other people getting played on the radio and thinking, 'Why can't I just do it?' "

In other words, hope I'm signed before I get old. But paraphrasing papa Pete is not an inherited trait.

"My dad never used to bring home his records, so I don't really know any of his music," says Emma, the oldest of Townshend and his wife Karen's three children. "I've been 'round at people's houses and I've gone, 'What's this music?' and they've gone, 'It's your dad.' So it would be very hard to argue a case for there being an influence on my music."

While Pete Townshend's music with the Who and in his solo records has tapped rock's aggression, grandiosity and epic sweep, his daughter, 28, turns in the other direction. "Winterland" is an austere, intimate collection of nocturnes more likely to draw comparisons to Tori Amos than to "Tommy" or "Baba O'Riley." (See review, facing page).

"I tried to choose some songs that would go together in that they were quite mysterious, quite dark," she says. "They were inviting in a way, but you sort of had to work quite hard to get into it. . . . Then you would like it for a long time. I wanted to make that kind of a record. . . . A very honest record to start with, that people wouldn't perceive to be a big media effort."

That might be wishful thinking. Media attention, along with general debauchery and chaos, is part of the classic rock 'n' roll lifestyle--even Townshend, who knows better, entertains the stereotype.

"My idea of a rock star childhood is like you get up in the morning and there's all these people you don't even know asleep on the sofa, you know? That is so the opposite of what my childhood was like. The first time I ever saw proper drugs I was like 22, and it certainly wasn't at home. My mum was very strict, and there was never any kind of musicians hanging out at our house or anything like that. Very, very stable--very much 'Do your homework and go to bed' kind of thing."

Emma's father and his musician parents weren't the only musical forebears in the family. Her maternal grandfather, Edwin Astley, was a composer who did the music for such TV series as "The Saint" and "Secret Agent Man," and her mother's brother is a recording engineer who has mastered the recently issued Led Zeppelin BBC sessions as well as the new Tori Amos album.

(Emma's sister Aminta, 27, is tackling the movie business and was third assistant director on "The English Patient"; they also have a brother, Joseph, 8, who lives at home).

While Pete might not have bequeathed her any direct musical influence, he played a role in Emma's artistic development.

"I don't think he's ever advised me musically," says Emma, whose first music job was singing backup vocals on her father's 1985 album "White City--A Novel."

"But he has definitely helped me out by teaching me very carefully how to use recording equipment, things like that. He's been very conscientious about explaining. I would be very surprised if there were that many women musicians who had as good an idea of how to use a studio as me. . . ."

He also made sure that Emma had good legal and business representation, but beyond that he kept his distance from her debut work.

"If we needed a drum kit, I'd ring him and go, 'Can I borrow a drum kit?' But in terms of the music, he didn't hear it till it was completely mixed and done."

And his reaction?

"Well of course he went, 'Oh, I'm tremendously proud of you' and got a little tear in his eye."

We're talkin' about a generation.

From Chris Stills to Adam Cohen, from the late Jeff Buckley to Jakob Dylan, from Rufus Wainwright to Joachim Cooder, the offspring of '60s-rooted pop figures are knocking more and more loudly at the gates. Despite their proliferation, familiarity hasn't set in. The second-generation hook remains a popular one with both the music business and the media.

"I realize I've got loads more exposure than somebody who didn't have a famous dad," says Townshend, one of the few non-Americans and non-males in the company. "There's absolutely no denying that the amount of press that I'm getting is because it's an interesting story. It's got a good angle. . . . I was reading an interview with Michael Douglas the other day, and he still gets asked what it's like to have Kirk Douglas be your dad. It's not gonna go away, is it?"

Well, no, but the inevitable assumptions of nepotism or special connections don't hold up in Townshend's case. She turned down her first record company offer 10 years ago so she could attend university, and her first contact with her new record label, EastWest, came when she met the head of the company on the beach while on vacation in Cornwall, England.

Townshend has been writing and recording since her teens, keeping at it even while pursuing advanced degrees in the history of science, with a specialty in the history of gardening. Her dissertation topic is gardening and the English national identity, and she still teaches undergraduate courses a couple of hours a week.

The singer, whose tastes embrace everything from Randy Newman and Tom Waits to ABBA and Oasis, is moving gingerly into the professional level, with just some showcase dates in a few U.S. cities in the works, rather than a full-scale tour.

"The record's not an easy listen, and it's not an instant listen," says EastWest Records' International Director Ian Grenfell, describing the label's slow-growth approach with the artist.

As for the Tori Amos comparisons that have already cropped up, he adds, "There's definite similarities, though I'd say that in personalities Emma is probably a bit more alternative. . . . I think she'll probably not go more mainstream, but if anything go slightly edgier on the next record."

Townshend, who lives in a London suburb with her boyfriend, Dylan Rippon, the co-producer of "Winterland," has the big picture in mind.

"I really want to do quite a few different records. I feel like I could have a long career. At the moment, my ambition is just to be given the chance to develop ideas.

"When you hear one record you like, it's nice, but you always wait to see whether they can pull it off again. And when someone's done it like three times, all of a sudden you go, 'Aha, this is really interesting.' That's my ambition, to be given that chance."

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