How the unpredictable career of Charlotte Church has led to political activism and covers band the Pop Dungeon

More than hits

Charlotte Church laughs when I remind her that she published her first autobiography at the age of 14. A preposterous thought with a title to match. Or maybe not. By the time My Life (So Far) was released in 2001, Church was already three albums into an unprecedented crossover career that had started with her singing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Pie Jesu’ down the phone to Richard and Judy on This Morning. It would become the opening song on her 1998 debut album of arias, sacred songs and traditional pieces – the ultimate parent stocking-filler of the day, ‘Voice of an Angel’.

As the album continued to sell into its multi-millions – regimentally followed by Christmas-ready records in 1999 and 2000 – Church toured the world like an opera star should, performing for Heads of States and dignitaries, including the Queen, the Pope and a couple of US Presidents: first Clinton, and then George W. Bush, who asked Church what State Wales was in when she told him where she was from.

In 1999 she first appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 2001, immediately after Bush’s inauguration, she sat one of her GCSEs in the White House. It seems that My Life (So Far) was in fact a read. And then, two years later and at the age of 16, Charlotte Church retired from classical singing to embark on an increasingly lawless career of doing whatever she likes. And what she likes right now is dressing up with 8 or 9 friends and performing virtuoso versions of tightly rehearsed chart hits in a covers band called Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon. So I don’t first meet Charlotte in a palace or presidential home as once I might have; I meet her in Digbeth, Birmingham, on a wet Friday night at the O2 Institute, where the Pop Dungeon is about to make the weeks of 400 people in a room that resembles a good student union.

By the back door I enter through with Charlotte’s tour manager, Gethin, there are three autograph hunters that I wasn’t expecting. They say that they’ve been waiting since 10am (it’s now 7pm) and convince Gethin to take their books inside for Charlotte to sign. “It’s always the same demographic,” she says of the 50-year-old men, although it is out of the ordinary for them to come to a show these days.

Charlotte is feeling terrible with a bug that’s hit her that day. She’s also pregnant with her third child. Her boyfriend, Johnny, who plays guitar in the Pop Dungeon as Curtis Fridge, keeps her company as the rest of the band (“a bunch of complete hedders,” says Church, who also have ridiculous stage names) drift in and out of the extremely unglamorous green room before taking their per diems to the pub. They return as photographer Gem is shooting Charlotte, who looks great but clearly feels unwell and doesn’t speak much. She insists that the show won’t be a bust, though. “Music heals, and all that.”

The nine members of the Pop Dungeon walk onstage in a camp parade of who can look the most fabulous/ridiculous/magical. There is no clear winner. Backing singer ‘Shirley Daddy’ is inexplicitly dressed as Kermit the Frog, with ‘Purple Pussy’ to her left in leopard print and red tights, and, to her right, ‘Glitoris’ looking like a cosmic ’70s mum in robes and green-lens glasses. On the end of their line is ‘Camel Joe’ – a Viking with no shirt but a silver waistcoat. Drummer ‘Bongo Fury’ almost looks underdressed as a lost member of Dexy’s; keyboardist ‘Buddy Analogue’ takes the Nathan Barley fluro bomber jacket and moustache route; the bottom half of ‘Curtis Fridge’ is Beetlejuice while the top half is of a glam-rock flamenco dancer. Which leaves the big-bearded ‘Galacto Love Spoon’ (definitely my favourite name) – the Pop Dungeon’s bass wizard, in terms of how well he plays and the fact that, in a gold cape and with glitter in his grey chops, he looks actually like a wizard who could be in Wizard. There’s Charlotte too, in fishnets, gold sequin hot pants, gold tasselled top and a vintage army jacket she bought when she was 18.

And then they start to play, and if the unbridled, growing appeal of Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon isn’t realised by the first couple of bars of Prince’s ‘Get Off’, it is by the segue into ‘Get Ur Freak On’, which slides into Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’, what with this being Birmingham, and all. Those three numbers, over within 3 minutes, let you know a few things about what will follow for the next quick hour. 1.) The band are incredible, 2.) That includes Church’s voice, even though she’s spent most of her life smoking, 3.) The song choices are varied far beyond what you’d probably expect, 4.) Whilst this would be the greatest wedding band of all time, the Pop Dungeon is not a dusty covers band who play songs note perfect to their meant-to-be, tidy ends; in their snippets and mixes they’ve more in common with 2manydjs than the Bootleg Beatles.

(L-R) Curtis Fridge and Galacto Love Spoon in Birmingham. May 2017.

“It really pisses me off when people say that it’s like karaoke,” Church tells me. “It’s not Karaoke at all! It’s a really carefully crafted set to bring maximum joy.”

It certainly works. Proudly kitsch and with no big secret beyond the unpretentious glee of seeing these songs performed so well, the band are having the most fun of all, with Church a generous host. In turn she introduces Purple Pussy for a star turn on Amerie’s ‘One Thing’, welcomes Shirley Daddy to perform ‘Paper Planes’, which she adds her own daft verse to, and pulls Glitoris into the spotlight to scream ‘Killing In The Name’ mixed with ‘Independent Women’. Curtis Fridge and Galacto Love Spoon get theirs on the “You don’t remember…” section of ‘Paranoid Android’ and, the most surprising track of the night, Nirvana’s ‘Aneurysm’. There’s also a moment when Church goes full opera and performs the theme to E.T., which is accompanied by a silhouette paper puppet of a bike sailing crossing a full moon. She rolls her eyes at us for cheering so hard. “Yay, the ’80s,” she mocks – a reminder that Charlotte Church likes to take the piss.

They end on an R. Kelly medley of ‘Bump N’ Grind’, ‘Ignition (Remix)’ and ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, although Charlotte later tells me: “I’m starting to question the morality of that medley. It’s a shame, because they’re such tunes, but to me he’s a bit of an evil human being. I’ve been trying to ignore it, but our drummer Dave [she means Bongo Fury] came in and said, ‘You know what, you need to look at this R. Kelly shit – it’s really not cool; we should stop doing it.”

Pockets of the room chant: “Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte fucking Church,” as they have done on and off all night. Then we all have to go back out into the Birmingham rain.

(L-R) Camel Joe, Glitoris, Shirley Daddy and Purple Pussy

The following Monday I meet Charlotte in Dinas Powys, the village she’s lived in for the last six years, a few miles outside of Cardiff. We order pots of tea and sit in the window of a small, traditional café. She feeling much better and as far as the what-you-see-is-what-you-get notion of Charlotte Church goes, it’s true. She’s instantly familiar; from the way she might refer to you as “my love” to how she describes her genuine loved ones as “lush”. Due to her pregnancy she’s kicked smoking (she thinks for life) and is off the booze, but she still revels in bad language, and it’s quite a gift how naturally she can slip “fuck” into a sentence without you noticing it. She’s frank and funny and, after 20 years of public scrutiny and increasing abuse, she has no intention of holding her tongue when it comes to the issues that matter most to her – chief among them the threat of Tory rule and the danger of a Conservative landslide in the upcoming General Election. But first: the happier subject of Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon.

She says that Friday night was a pretty good show, “but at others the crowd have been mental from the get-go. Mainly up North.”

I mention how diverse the crowd was in Birmingham. On the barrier was a solid line of slightly disconcerting 50-year-old men, one filming the entire performance on his phone, but behind them a mix of all sorts danced and got pissed together. From the lone, bearded young dude behind me to the group of mums in flats in front, it felt almost alien to be at a show so inclusive.

“The people I see at Pop Dungeon gigs are the people who really need it,” she says. “That’s how it feels to me – people who are like, ‘oh God, please, this life is just so fucking harrowing,’” she laughs. “And there is something of a balm to it; there is something soothing and re-energising. That’s not how we meant it to be, it’s just developed like that. I mean, I don’t do it all the time because I need to be in the moment and feel it, but sometimes I do little spiels throughout, like whispering ‘fuck the Tories’ or some stuff about communal heartache.” (In Birmingham she introduced Beyoncé’s ‘Sorry’ by slowly saying: “This song is for anyone who’s had their heart opened up and literally shat in.”.)

“Sometimes there is a bit of self-love too,” she says. “Before ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ I’ve said before that life is tough and really hard and sometimes you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘well done, you’re doing really well.’ I say this because it’s what I do.

“You’ll have broken people there; you’ll have people who are off their tits on drugs there; you’ll have drunk people there; you’ll have aggressive people starting fights – we’ve had a few fights in the audience while we’ve played. I’m thinking for the festivals we’ll add a slow dance section to calm everyone down.” She’s also planning a ‘diva-off’ section, where she’ll play herself.

It’s a festival that we have to directly thank for the Pop Dungeon. And not some mobile phone provider’s corporate day event that thinks a craft beer tent will disguise the fact that you can also win a Volvo at the VIP bar. Charlotte Church devised her shameless pop party specifically for ATP in April 2016, at the behest of that year’s curator, comedian Stewart Lee.

Lee and Church had become friends some time before, and so when he got the ATP job he asked her if she’d like to perform. Anything, he said. Church hasn’t released any music since her 2014 alt. rock EP ‘Four’, though, so that was out. “And then we thought about how chin-strokey ATP was going to be, with Stewart Lee and his free jazz, so we were like, let’s do something that is really kitsch and so full of joy that it’s going to be impossible not to love. You need that release at a festival like ATP, which is very intellectual, and that’s exactly what we were.

“We were after The Fall – everyone had had a shit time at The Fall – and we couldn’t believe it. The reaction was completely mad – not what we were expecting. And then we just kept getting booked again and again. And every time we did it, it was better. We thought it was going to be a weird one-off for Stewart Lee at ATP. I thought people would be mad at us. We did ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – a beautiful, deconstructed version of it – but it’s almost a hymn, that song, so we thought people would hate it. We did Neutral Milk Hotel as well, so cult bands and songs that people really hold dear.”

The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with the Pop Dungeon heralded as the hit of the weekend. Charlotte and her band celebrated by getting shit-faced.

The praise for the show keeps coming, and its reputation is why I travelled to Birmingham to see if it really could be as much fun as people had told me. Part of the reason that it is, is down to the band’s choice of songs. Cover bands at your local black box venue – it doesn’t sound good. And the term “pop hits”, for me, at least, equates to the cheese clubs that I can’t stand – ‘Living On A Prayer’, ‘I Am The One And Only’, Culture Club, Steps. The Pop Dungeon rescues pop music from a preconception of complete and utter naffness with songs by En Vogue, Prince, Destiny’s Child and the half-forgotten Blue Boy. And they’ll also throw in Can, Funkadelic and Nine Inch Nails. That it’s presented so proudly, and executed so well, you can’t imagine that anyone would be down on it.

“We had one guy who Tweeted at us saying we need to check our fucking straight, white privileges, saying that we were culturally appropriating things, because it was an all-white band,” says Charlotte. “So I started a conversation with the guy to ask if he could pinpoint some of his issues, because he had some form of a point, I get that: yes, the band is all white, it could definitely be more diverse. I mean, I didn’t design it like that, but then again, if we’re looking at a society where equality means not treating people the same, it means helping some people more than others, then he’s got a point.

“He said his piece, and I said I’d think on it. To feel like that about the show, though, you do have to be searching for problems. Yes, there is a ember of a point there, and I’m sorry for that, but you’ve missed the point.”

People have never had a problem telling Charlotte Church what they think of her. “Whether it’s because of my weight, or I’m a shit singer, or I’m ugly, or Cheryl Cole is better than me.”

It’s disputed whether it was at the hand of The Sun newspaper or an anonymous website, but in 2002 a disgusting and predatory clock appeared online counting down the days to Charlotte’s 16th birthday and the moment she would be “legal”. Around the same time, the Daily Star ran a photograph of the then-15-year-old Church in a tight top under the headline ‘She’s A Big Girl Now’. The only thing more unbelievable than the story and its use of lines like “looking chest swell” is that on the same page the paper branded the Brass Eye paedophile special as “sick”.

After that, Church spent a few years being chased around by paparazzi to encourage swathes of the population to judge her for having a good time like every other teenager on the planet, and certainly no more than you’d expect from a highly successful child star millionaire. Cue thousands of cheap headlines about ‘Fallen/Hell’s Angel, Charlotte’.

As Charlotte’s fame has lessened, though – with music releases on the back-burner and with her becoming a mother who is no longer the partner of a Welsh rugby star (she has an 8-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter with Gavin Henson) – the rise of social media and her newfound passion for political activism has exposed her to more abuse than ever before.

Trolls love to harass Charlotte, just as they love to harass any opinionated person in the public eye, especially women. I find her approach to the whole depressing thing commendable and rare. Like the guy who to told her to “check your fucking straight, white privileges”, she responds to them all. In part it’s to defend herself, but it’s also to engage with people; and not simply to shout them down and prove herself categorically right. It can eat up her day, but she says it gets to a point where she simply can’t ignore it.

Still, I argue, there must be times when you want to dismiss a comment as that of a moron who you’re never going to be able to reason with.

“No,” she says, “because then if you felt like that, you end up being on the other side – ‘this person is a moron, they don’t know what they’re talking about.’ Everybody is worth trying to talk to. It’s worth trying to make them understand.

“And I think lots of it isn’t real,” she says. “I’m not saying that everyone loves me, like I’m Sally Fields, but I think that there are so many online presences that aren’t real profiles, which are controlled to sway public opinion. Especially all of the political stuff, and all of the horrific misogynistic stuff, it doesn’t feel real to me. And when it’s all directed at you, you start to see patterns, then. Like, all the profiles that are calling me ‘a feminazi whore cunt who should get raped by immigrants’ etc., a lot of them have a profile picture of a really pretty young girl who’s a Conservative Activist or a Republican, and I just don’t believe it – none of it makes sense, and it’s not well constructed enough.”

She says she loves having deep conversations with taxi drivers and talking to people with opposing views to her to better inform her viewpoint and take away her prejudice.

“If somebody is saying: ‘I can’t stand Jeremy Corbyn; he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing; he’s a bumbling fool’, instead of saying: ‘I disagree with you on that and here are the reasons why,’ it’s more like: ‘Why do you think that? How have you come to that conclusion? What do you read? How is Theresa May better? Are you left or right, then?’ It just better allows you to argue your point. And you are then constantly, slightly remoulding what you think, which is how things should be. It should never be a case of, ‘right, I’ve spent all this time honing my perfect set of beliefs and it’s been the same for 10 years.’ That’s not progressive. Life is fluid.”

Charlotte detractors would probably read that and dismiss it as naïve and ideological. I’m sure she wouldn’t care if they did, but sat talking to her you can’t miss how impassioned she is by it all. What’s ironic, then, is that the same people who bemoan ‘Charlotte Church the champagne socialist’ for appearing on Question Time and speaking at anti-austerity marches are the same people who bemoan the younger generation for not being politicised and not giving a shit. That used to be Charlotte Church, until as recently as the last General Election, when she voted for the very first time in 2015. The catalyst for her, she says, was when she spoke at The Leveson Inquiry as one of the victims of the News International phone hacking scandal. (The Murdoch-owned organisation was ordered to pay Church £600,000 in damages.)

“It’s because I was appalled at the corruption and injustice,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe it. And once it’s laid out in front of you like that it becomes impossible to ignore, and then I had to get involved as a moral obligation. As Dumbledore says in the last Harry Potter book, ‘there’s what’s right and there’s what’s easy.’”

I point out that that’s the third reference Charlotte has made to Harry Potter today. (Earlier when she talked about the dark arts of Cambridge Analytica, the digital data company that supported Trump’s presidency campaign and the Brexit ‘Leave’ campaign, she says: “You start to see these Internet data forces behind right wing ideology… It’s like they’re all Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix is totally fucked!”)

She laughs. “Well, I’m quite a simple person,” she says, “or maybe it’s about simple philosophies as everything is getting more and more complex with the amount of information – it’s about rationalizing it for yourself. But it does seem very simple at the moment – either you care for other people and the wellbeing of other humans, and that’s regardless of the fact that they are stupid or a different religion to you, or had a bad education, or have 15,000 kids. Either you care for other people and you want to see the general betterment for everybody, or you see that as unrealistic and ideological, and so therefore you go, what life is forcing me to do is survival of the fittest and I have to concentrate on looking after my own family because that’s the only way we’re going to survive. I understand that point of view – that comes from a place of deep love for your family and a fear and a want to keep them safe, but in order to achieve that you have to do it at the exclusion of others, because there’s only so much space and so many resources etc. So whilst I don’t think that’s abjectly wrong and makes you a dreadful human being for thinking like that, I just don’t think that that’s the right way to go.

“Conservatism is about shrinking the state, and it’s important to go back and remember who the Tories are – they’re not the party of the workers. I’m not saying that Labour are or that Jeremy Corbyn is the guy, but these people [the Conservative Party] aren’t who they claim to be.”

Like most of the country, Charlotte expects a Tory victory on June 8th; she just hopes that it’s not a landslide, for fear of Britain becoming a one-party state, and the very real threat of the NHS being the first institution on the bonfire.

Having come from a community that typically doesn’t vote, this morning she’s been trying in vain to write a script for a video to encourage people to register and do so.

“The NHS is the best thing about this country,” she says. “It’s the only thing fucking keeping me here.

“It’s very unlikely that Labour’s going to win, but I really hope it’s not a Tory landslide, I really do, because I think it would be the end of our society that’s been built by our families and by our money for years. Because the wealthy have been avoiding paying their fair share for many, many years. So this whole society – the NHS, our institutions, our schools, everything – it’s been built by our families, our parents and their parents’ before them, by everything that they’ve paid in and by working in these institutions. They are ours. They belong to us. This isn’t a ‘we’re lucky to have them’ situation, which is what people will have us believe.

“And although I know I’m going to get a fucking shitload of crap [for this video], and eventually I might be on the losing side, it doesn’t matter, because for me it’s what’s right.”

Immediately after the Pop Dungeon had left the stage on Friday night, Charlotte was back in the green room, out of costume, shattered and still ill. Impressively, she’d made it through the show, but that image of her couldn’t have contested more the perceived impression of Charlotte Church the perma-pisshead, fuelled by Cheeky Vimto (Blue WKD mixed with port). Just moments before, as the O2 Institute emptied, I heard two girls weighing up whether to wait a little longer to see if Charlotte might come back out to meet some fans. “Oh c’mon, this is Charlotte Church,” they reasoned, “she’s probably already getting pissed at the bar.” When I ask Charlotte if she’s ever felt a pressure to live up to the persona that has stuck with her since her late teens, she lets out a loud laugh of disbelief. “Oh no,” she says. “I’ve never felt any pressure. I did that all by myself very easily. But everything about me is sort of like that – it’s proper what you see is what you get.”

I ask if that means that there are no misconceptions about her.

“How much my wealth was exaggerated really pissed me off,” she says, referring to the recurring estimate of her being worth £25 million. “At my height I was worth £7 million, and now I’m worth far less than that because I’ve spent loads, I’ve given loads to my family – I bought everybody a fucking house – I’ve lent loads of people money, I’ve given loads to charity and I’ve paid my fair share in taxes. So whilst I’m really comfortable and will be for the rest of my life if I don’t earn any more and I’m reasonable, I’m not worth what the average Tory politician is worth.

“Some people see Pop Dungeon as a fall from grace,” she says. “Doing ‘Tissues & Issues’ and ‘Back To Scratch’ [her two pop albums in 2005 and 2010] I was trying to carve out my own thing. After ‘Tissues & Issues’ the record company [Sony] was being fucking awful, so I tried to find a different way of doing it, with private investment and not being under the thumb of a label. That didn’t go quite as well as I planned and ‘Back To Scratch’ didn’t do very well. So the EPs [‘One’, ‘Two’, ‘Three’ and ‘Four’, released between 2012 and 2014] were starting from scratch again, recorded in my garage and released through my own label. So I’ve tried to carve my own path.

“I don’t know if I ever could recreate my early success because what I did was really commercial and was fluky and I was a commodity. It was a real time and place thing. It was immediate and mad and completely out of leftfield. So that’s completely unsustainable anyway.”

I suggest that rather than seeing Pop Dungeon as a fall from grace, it’s more likely that people are thinking why the fuck is Charlotte Church playing down the road tonight to 500-odd people? Surely she doesn’t need to do that.

“And I don’t,” she says. “If I wanted to go and present on an ITV daytime programme, or be a judge on X Factor for a million pounds, I could. But that’s not what I want to do – that’s not what I’m searching for. Success for me isn’t about earning the most money and being the most famous I can possibly be. I’ve had that and it’s quite empty. It doesn’t make you feel good, especially when so much of it is somebody else’s vision, and a lot of the time that somebody else is a finance person and their vision is cash.

“I was offered X Factor and I went for the meeting out of curiosity, to see if I could sabotage it somehow, and it turns out that I absolutely couldn’t, and there’s no control there at all.”

Instead, Charlotte has spent recent years interviewing Pussy Riot at Glastonbury; as a member of Hacked Off, campaigning against the intrusion of the press and their unethical methods of reporting; speaking on Newsnight and Question Time in support of Jeremy Corbyn; protesting with Greenpeace against Shell’s drilling for petroleum in the Arctic; and staging a modern dance production of ‘The Little Mermaid’ in 2016 (called ‘The Last Mermaid’), complete with an experimental electronic score, 3D projections and a gender-fluid whale.

The Pop Dungeon is essentially an accident that’s too good to stop now, although Charlotte is aware that it has a lifespan. “I don’t know how long that is,” she says, “but I definitely know that it’s this really sparkly, beautiful little thing, and it needs to be treated with care and really nourished, and then it needs to be done.”

She can do without the fame but not the singing, which she “fucking loves.”

It’s pretty niche, being Charlotte Church, I say.

Really fucking niche. I haven’t been an artist all the way through. I’ve done really shit things. My path has been really odd. It’s great – I’m having a lovely time.”