|Born||) 26 September 1959|
Virginia Astley (born 26 September 1959) is an English singer-songwriter most active during the 1980s and 1990s. From the start of her songwriting career in 1980, Astley took her inspiration from many sources. Her classical training influenced her as did a desire to be experimental with her music. Although more popular in the Far East, most notably Japan, she remains a cult artist in her native England.
Virginia Astley was born in Watford in 1959, the second daughter of composer Edwin Astley, noted for TV themes such as The Saint, and his wife Hazel Balbirnie, whom he married in 1945. Virginia Astley's family was from the Warrington area and lived in Grappenhall, where her elder sister Karen was born in 1947. The family relocated to Stanmore in Middlesex because of Edwin Astley's work as a film and TV writer. In the early 1960s he was musical director at ITC Entertainment in Borehamwood, the company responsible for TV series such as The Saint and Danger Man.
In 1968 Karen became the wife of Pete Townshend of The Who. In the 1970s Virginia's elder brother, Jon Astley, became a tape operator for Eric Clapton and worked his way up to his current activities as a remasterer and producer.
Virginia began learning piano at the age of six and flute at fourteen. After leaving school, she studied at the Guildhall School Of Music. Her first professional appearance in public was as a busker outside South Kensington tube station. In 1980 she auditioned for a new band from Clapham, the Victims of Pleasure. Virginia, playing keyboards, worked with them for a short while playing in clubs and pubs around London. The band released three singles between 1980 and 1982 before splitting up.
Afterward, Virginia wrote, arranged and performed music with Skids frontman Richard Jobson for the album The Ballad Of Etiquette. Their collaboration continued when Jobson moved to Belgian label Les Disques Du Crépuscule, and Astley contributed to the Crépuscule compilation The Fruit Of The Original Sin. She also contributed as part of The Dream Makers (in collaboration with filmmaker Jean Paul Goude) for a cover version of "La Chanson d'Helene" (Helen's Song), showcasing an early example of her distinctive vocal style.
It was during this early period that Virginia started to give serious consideration to releasing her own material; however, nothing immediately came of these plans. Then in 1981, she signed to the small UK label Why-Fi and recorded a series of songs. A school friend, Jo Wells (Kissing The Pink) and a university friend Nicky Holland both contributed as did Tony Butler, Mark Brzezicki and Peter Hope-Evans. Virginia then received an offer from another Why-Fi artist, Troy Tate, for a supporting band position with The Teardrop Explodes. In the nineties, finding that her musical style was popular in Japan, she went on to collaborate with Asian artists.
Ravishing Beauties (band)
Virginia recruited Nicky Holland and another university friend, Kate St. John to form the band the Ravishing Beauties. The trio joined The Teardrops in Liverpool during the winter of 1981 for a series of dates at a small clubs and a UK tour in early 1982. They also recorded with Echo & the Bunnymen, Skids, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Kate St. John and Nicky Holland went on to maintain solo careers in the 1990s at the time of Virginia's reemergence in Japan. The Ravishing Beauties did not record as a band, but appeared on radio shows, including a John Peel Session on BBC Radio 1 in April 1982.
The Ravishing Beauties first played at Club Zoo in Liverpool and followed this with the support tour with The Teardrop Explodes. Virginia wrote most of the band's songs, some of which appeared on her first solo project with Why-Fi. The band was short lived, with St. John first becoming a model and then eventually a member of The Dream Academy, while Holland did session work and joined Tears for Fears.
One of the first musicians Astley recorded with was Richard Jobson. Together with John McGeoch and Josephine Wells, they created a musical backdrop for Jobson's poetry. This work was released as The Ballad of Etiquette in late 1981. Later, Astley went with Jobson to perform in Japan. She also worked on other people's projects, including work for Les Disques Du Crépuscule label, playing piano and arranging music for Richard Jobson and Anna Domino. She also had a track on From Brussels with Love in 1982. Sessions followed with Richard Jobson and Russell Webb for the final Skids album Joy, which featured Astley on flute and as a backing singer. Astley recorded a solo album, She Stood Up And Cried for Crépuscule but this was withdrawn, eventually being released three years later as Promise Nothing. She signed with Why-Fi in mid-1981 and recorded an EP called A Bao A Qu, the title taken from a Malayan legend featured in Jorge Luis Borges's 1967 Book of Imaginary Beings. This was produced by Jon Astley and Phil Chapman. Using a demo studio in Wapping called Elephant Studios, Astley recorded the song that was to place her in the indie top 10 (#8) in 1983: "Love's a Lonely Place to Be", a song of despair and anxiety in spite of its Christmas carol sound. The song would later form part of the 1986 LP Hope in a Darkened Heart. In 1982 Virginia also played piano on her brother-in-law Pete Townshend's album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.
The album From Gardens Where We Feel Secure was released in August 1983 and was recorded on Astley's own label Happy Valley and distributed by Rough Trade, which has since reissued it. The album achieved a place in the top 5 of the indie chart (#4), but neither single nor album was listed in the mainstream charts.
In 1984, Astley played keyboards on tour with Prefab Sprout around the time of their first album, and she also did sessions for their Kitchenware Records labelmates Martin Stephenson and the Daintees.
In 1984 Virginia signed to Arista but left to join Elektra Records UK. "Darkness Has Reached its End" and "Tender" were both recorded at this time. When Elektra UK folded she went to WEA where she subsequently recorded the album Hope in A Darkened Heart with Ryuichi Sakamoto producing in 1986. The success of this album in Japan meant that Virginia was asked to sign to Nippon Columbia with whom she recorded a further two albums, All Shall Be Well in 1992 and Had I The Heavens in 1996. The following year, the first track from the album, "Some Small Hope" was released, a collaboration with David Sylvian.
Since then, Astley has guested on CDs by both Hideaki Matsuoka and the Silent Poets. Rough Trade re-issued From Gardens Where We Feel Secure with a new cover in 2003, and in 2006 she released her first album of new material in ten years. Entitled The Words Between Our Words. This mini album features Astley reciting her own poetry to a backing of harp music. In 2007, she premiered a long poem "Ecliptic", with flute, harp and birdsong.
Once Virginia Astley emerged into the music mainstream, the music press published a number of articles about her. She named her influences as poetry and classical music and paid only lip service to rock. She was also interested in synthesisers as her father had introduced her to them. Though her music was original, one can hear strands of Debussy, Satie and Vaughan Williams in there. Benjamin Britten was another influence, especially his use of the War Poets.
With Victims of Pleasure
- "When You're Young" (1980), P.A.M. - 7"
- "Slave to Fashion" (1981), Rialto - 7"
- "Jack and Jill" (1982), Rialto - 7"
- She Stood Up and Cried (1981), Crépuscule — withdrawn before commercial release, issued in 1984 as Promise Nothing.
- From Gardens Where We Feel Secure (1983), Rough Trade - UK Indie #4
- Hope in a Darkened Heart (1986), WEA
- All Shall Be Well (1992), Nippon Columbia
- Had I The Heavens (1996), Nippon Columbia
- The Words Between Our Words (2006) - online release credited to Virginia and her daughter Florence Astley
- Maiden Newton Ecliptic (2007), Artension
- 4 Bao A Qu (1982), Why-Fi - 10-inch EP
- "Love's a Lonely Place to Be" (1983), Why-Fi — UK Indie #8
- "Melt The Snow" (1985), Rough Trade — UK Indie #27
- "Tender" (1985), Elektra
- "Darkness Has Reached Its End" (1985), WEA
- "Le Song" (1986)
- "Charm" (1986), WEA Japan
- "Some Small Hope" (1987), WEA — with David Sylvian
- Strong, Martin C. (2003) The Great Indie Discography, Canongate, ISBN 1-84195-335-0 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] , p. 207-8
- bbc.co.uk John Peel session "Ravishing Beauties"
- Lazell, Barry (1998) Indie Hits 1980-1989, Cherry Red Books, ISBN 0-9517206-9-4 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], p. 12