On an oppressively humid evening in May, Pretenders frontwoman/vegan restaurant proprietor Chrissie Hynde takes the stage at a cozy SoHo bookstore with 31-year-old singer-songwriter JP Jones. For the first time in three decades, Hynde has formed a new band -- JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys -- and tonight's semisecret charity event is one of a series of U.S. shows to promote their debut album, Fidelity (released this month on La Mina/Rocket Science). "I love you Chrissie!" shouts an apparently inebriated female fan. She receives a smile in response, but then loudly demands that legendarily temperamental Hynde reciprocate. "I said, 'Thank you,'?" Hynde snaps. "What the fuck else am I supposed to say?"
Unbowed, her admirer lets out an encouraging hoot when Hynde arrives at the chorus of their fourth song, "Perfect Lover": "I found my perfect lover but he's only half my age / He was learning how to stand when I was wearing my first wedding band." It's no coincidence that the buff, suntanned, tank-top-sporting Jones would have been toddling around his native Wales in the '80s when Hynde, now 59, was with the Kinks' Ray Davies and then married to Simple Minds' Jim Kerr.
So now you get the joke.
"This album is about something that can't happen," explains Hynde two days later. Dressed in a T-shirt and her signature skinny jeans, she rolls a cigarette on the sofa of her hotel suite, which smells strongly of the incense she was burning earlier. Jones sits beside her, but Hynde makes haste to mention that he has his own room. She continues: "I'm too old to be JP's wife and give him children, and that's basically what he wants. We wrote these songs to get it out of our system."
The unlikely pair met two years ago while boozing it up at an art party in London, where the Ohio native has lived for the past 37 years. She was in the midst of a Pretenders tour for their acclaimed ninth album, Break Up the Concrete. Jones had been playing with brawny British rockers Big Linda (the majority of whom are currently doubling as the Fairground Boys) after his band Grace -- once touted as the next Snow Patrol -- got dropped from EMI. "My management company wanted me to wear vests and dye my hair," says Jones, who now proudly points to the sparse grays gathering around his temples. Hynde interjects: "JP allowed himself to be manipulated because he wants to please all the time. Whereas I'm very ready to say fuck off."
Jones proposed the idea of writing music together, but Hynde was initially skeptical. "My first thought was 'I'm on the way out, I've become nothing,'?" says Hynde. "That wouldn't bode well for a young artist." Jones, who grew up with a poster of his current collaborator circa 1994's Last of the Independents on the wall of his boarding-school dorm, didn't share her concern. He readily admits, "I'm getting brought into this by the fucking queen of rock!"
In April 2009, the two decamped to Havana for a week, but as for what exactly transpired there, it depends on whom you ask. "My sister said I went away a boy and came back a man," says Jones, glancing at a poker-faced Hynde. Her version: "We ate rice and beans, drank wine, and wrote songs on napkins." The official story is Fidelity, a collection of lovesick rock songs, a few of which speed forth with the savvy of early Pretenders hits, though most announce their intensity with fervent pianos and some tambourine rustling. On the sentimental slow-build of "Australia," Hynde, with the fragile arrogance of a 1940s actress, sings, "Mostly, guys like you say goodbye to me." Jones' husky reply comes on the spare, Cohen-esque acoustic number "Leave Me If You Must": "I'm secretly embroiled in a burning hot desire / I wish that you could see me in a future life or in a former time."
"I wouldn't say it's my most personal album," says Hynde. "It's the most graphic. Too graphic. I can tell the audience is looking at us like: Are we going to kiss? Are we going to go home together? You can come to the show, but you're not getting in a cab with me."
Since questions about their relationship tend to strike Hynde as invasive, I ask her why she embarked on this project at all. "I've been so faithful to the Pretenders ethic, probably above and beyond the call of duty, because I lost two members in one year, and as a tribute to them I wanted to keep the music alive," she explains, referring to the 1982 overdoses of founding members James Honey-man Scott and Pete Farndon. "I dare say the Pretenders got too polite at moments. I never thought I'd be in a collaborative thing with another singer, but now I can come back with a whole new band and not be pigeonholed in the thing people expect me to do."
Though she says this is in no way the end of her main gig, Hynde has found a future partner in Jones. They formed the record label La Mina ("animal" spelled backwards) and plan to launch a vegan clothing line in the fall. "We'll be together forever in some way or another," says Jones.
Hynde smiles, but adds, "Well, you can't have the same muse all your life. Usually, it's a finite period."