One of the first rock bands Chrissie Hynde saw live was Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels at a fairground in Akron, Ohio, perhaps in 1965 or maybe 66.
It was an afternoon show – she was only 14 – and she remembers being mesmerised by Ryder's howling vocals (which would later similarly inspire a vernal Bruce Springsteen) and by the ferocious guitar wrangling of Jimmy McCarty. The set, however, ended abruptly when a fight broke out on stage between the Detroit Wheels: fists were thrown, equipment trashed. "It was the most exciting thing I'd ever seen in my life," Hynde recalls, nearly 50 years on, "so I begged my mates to stay for the evening show."
That performance was even better. "The Ferris wheel is going round, the sun drops down behind the stage, the fairground lights are on: that's when it really happens," Hynde says. "So they came on and halfway through the show, there was the exact same punch-up. I thought, 'That's got to be the life!'"
Theatrical con or not, Hynde had a pair of life-changing realisations at that moment: first, she had to be in a band; and second, that "rock guitar-playing was one of the high points of the culture I was in". And, now 62, she has pursued those notions as commandments ever since. Always a devoted anglophile, for reasons she finds hard to pinpoint, Hynde left Ohio after art school (and a brief stint in Mark Mothersbaugh's pre-Devo band) and landed in London in the throng of the punk scene. A few years later she formed the Pretenders: their third single, Brass in Pocket went to No 1 and was followed to the top of the charts by a self-titled debut album. Over time, members have come and gone – two, notoriously, died of drug overdoses in the 1980s – but the band have endured.
Hynde, never exactly prolific, always returns just when there is a danger that we might forget about the emphatic impact she has had on the music scene. Hers is a career studded with enduring compositions of her own (Talk of the Town, Back on the Chain Gang, Don't Get Me Wrong, I'll Stand by You among them) and lending her plaintive, impassioned alto to the words of others (I Got You Babe with UB40, Love Can Build a Bridge with Eric Clapton et al and Straight Ahead with Tube & Berger). "My policy is to do the least amount to get by," she admits. "I never want to bore the public."
Still, she never wanted to record under her own name. Bands were more fun; lone singer-songwriters too egotistical. Hynde may have written the songs, sung the vocals and played the guitar in the Pretenders, but it always felt to her like a collective endeavour. She was, though it's hard to believe, too shy to perform solo. And she never has – until now. On 9 June she releases Stockholm, her debut album; you may have already heard the boisterous, cowbell-tingling first single, Dark Sunglasses. The photograph of herself alone on the album cover, without a cluster of men backing her up, "makes me cringe", and she's clearly nervous about whether she can play live, as she currently intends, without the Pretenders' back catalogue as a safety net.
"For 35 years, I've said, 'I'll never go solo'," says Hynde. She laughs hoarsely, a tobacco-infused rasp. "But after a period of time – and this isn't just for an artist, but for anybody – all the things you never wanted to do eventually become the only things left that you haven't done. So they start looking pretty interesting."
Before you meet Chrissie Hynde, it's hard not to be intimidated by every eccentric rumour you hear about Chrissie Hynde. She doesn't, you'll be told, much enjoy revisiting her past with the Pretenders or talking about her previous relationships and family, and she hates being asked to explain song lyrics. Talking about her upbringing in the midwest or women in rock bores her. A couple of hours in her company suddenly sounds like it could be a test. Just as I'm about to go into the room where she's waiting, her publicist offers one final piece of advice. "Don't shake her hand," he says, portentously. "Give her a fist bump – honestly, she'll love that."
Sceptical, I opt for neither, just a non-committal British half-wave that seems to suit us both. Hynde is trim and athletic enough to get away with her current predilection for wearing a man's waistcoat and tie without a shirt underneath. Her feathered fringe – inspired, she says, by either Jane Asher or the guitarist Jeff Beck, or both – tumbles over generously kohled eyes, as it always has and should. (Hynde has dyed her hair in the past, but quickly decided: "I don't have a blonde personality.") She puts her auspicious health down to being a vegetarian since she was 17 and the fact she has recently given up smoking. "Was it hard?" she ponders. "Well, it took about 40 years thinking about it and one day to do it."
Before a question can be asked, she's off. Despite the packaging, Stockholm is not the first Chrissie Hynde record, not in any meaningful sense anyway. "It's perceived as a solo project, because it's just my name, but it's more a collaboration probably than any Pretenders album. Because normally, in the Pretenders, I'd write the songs and take them to the band. That's how it was with the last Pretenders' album [2008's Break Up the Concrete]. I just took the songs to the band and said, 'Here, let's go.'"
So, why not just call it a Pretenders record then? "I don't think the Pretenders would have felt too comfortable with that," she replies. "Anyway, after years of saying 'It's not me, it's a band' I've discovered that it doesn't even matter any more. Who else cares? Nobody."
Hynde's main collaborator on the new album was the producer Björn Yttling from the Swedish popsters Peter Björn and John. She would go to Stockholm, wait for a gap in Yttling's schedule and they'd work together in frenzied bursts. It was both the fastest record (songs were scribbled down in minutes) and the slowest (the whole process took two years) that Hynde has ever made. Instead of polishing the vocals, picking the best sections from several recordings, she often declined to improve the original guide track, full of errant notes and raw inconsistencies. It sounds like the album should be a mess, but instead it is energetic and consistently surprising – exactly what you'd least expect from a sixtysomething artist you've listened to for ever.
When Hynde wanted company she called a friend: so it is that Neil Young guests on Down the Wrong Way and tennis great John McEnroe plays guitar on A Plan Too Far. She has known McEnroe – whose music teachers have included Eddie Van Halen and Eric Clapton, and who was serious enough to almost complete an album of his own – since the 1980s and they have been having a version of the same argument for 30 years. "I say to him, 'Don't do any more exhibition matches. If you want to play in a band, just play in some shitty little band in a little club if that's what you want to do.' Of course, he doesn't do it."
Hynde continues, "And he always says, 'I want to meet your accountant: how much are you getting paid?' I don't know, so that winds him up. As far as success goes, I've never really got too excited about losing or winning. I don't have whatever the gene is you need for that. Whatever the gene John McEnroe has, I don't have that. I don't care."
In truth, Hynde is nothing like as fearsome as the reputation that precedes her. The Sex Pistols' John Lydon described her as "a tough old bird" and Morrissey writes in his Autobiography that she is "the funniest person I have ever met" – both ring true. The respect for Hynde from her contemporaries is essentially universal. In Viv Albertine's new memoir, Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, the guitarist of the punk band the Slits recalls a moment in 1977 when they were both looking for groups to play with. "No one wants to be in a band with her," Albertine notes, "she's too talented."
Hynde doesn't entirely buy that. The prevailing view might regard her as one of the era's truly great songwriters, who combined raw emotion and an ear for idiomatic language to create immaculate rock anthems. Hynde, however, disagrees. "I don't know if I ever got good at it," she says. "People talk about songwriting clinics and how to construct a song and I'm sitting there thinking, 'I didn't know that!' I listen to some of my early songs and think, 'I didn't even have a fucking chorus in it!'"
She's equally sceptical of the idea that a lack of female pioneers held women back in the music scene in the 1970s. "I just didn't have the confidence," she says. "There's always been women doing this, just not that many. I don't know what the feminists have to say about it. Over the years, you'd hear, 'We weren't encouraged.' Well, I don't think Jeff Beck's mother was saying, 'Jeffrey! What are you doing up in your room? Are you rehearsing up there?' No one was ever encouraged to play guitar in a band. But I never found it harder because I'm a woman. If anything I've been treated better. Guys will carry my guitars and stuff – who's going to say no? Guys always tune my guitars, too."
And Hynde is fine with that? "If they want to tune it, go ahead, I don't care. They probably think they can do it better than me. They probably can. I always surround myself with people who are better than I am, so I've no doubt they can. That's how, having primitive skills, I got away with it."
This self-deprecating streak is unexpected. When Hynde first arrived in London in the 1970s, she took odd jobs: she sold handbags on a market, worked for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in Sex, their shop in Chelsea, and wrote articles for the NME. Her breakthrough came in 1978, when she met Pete Farndon, a bass player from Hereford, and then a guitarist called James Honeyman-Scott. With the addition of a drummer (most enduringly Martin Chambers) they became the Pretenders. "The band made my songs sound good," she says. "I was just the ringleader."
The relationship did not last long, just two indelible albums. In 1982, Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure in his sleep after a cocaine blowout. The following year, Farndon injected heroin in the bath, lost consciousness and drowned. Hynde once told Rolling Stone: "We were the genuine article. In fact, we were so genuine we killed ourselves." She now admits that the deaths scarcely even made her assess her own behaviour. She sighs, "Certainly not as much as they should have, considering they both died from drug overdoses."
Later Hynde says, "Mainly I would regret if I've encouraged anyone else to do anything like that. But what can you do about it now? What does Keith Richards call it? 'The price of an education.'"
It was a turbulent time for Hynde. She had a child, Natalie, with the Kinks' Ray Davies. They parted and she married Jim Kerr, lead singer of Simple Minds. There was a second daughter, Yasmin, and then she split with Kerr too. Later she was briefly married to the Colombian sculptor Lucho Brieva. "I've made a career out of being single," she decides. "Maybe that's why I'm such a team player in the band, because I'm such a lone wolf outside of it. I've not had long relationships, maybe three years here and there. I never lose interest, it's just things move. I move and I've never moved anywhere because of someone. I just keep going. There's not a problem. It's not something I want or don't want."
Meanwhile, Hynde always kept writing songs and patching up different incarnations of the Pretenders. They put out albums, but didn't play live for nearly a decade, because she had to be at home with her children. Slowly, however, Hynde's sensibilities started to shift. One day, a little-known punk band gave her their CD and, a year or so later, she finally got round to listening to it. She liked it, and sent them a note to say so. Not long after she got a curt reply: "Your records used to be great before you got domesticated."
Hynde cackles delightedly. "I just thought, 'What a cool thing to say!' I love that. They really nailed it. There are no rules to this but domesticity generally is not the friend of the artist. Anyone will tell you that. Longing. Yearning. Disappointment. All these things can fuel you to try to express yourself. But if you've just had a great night sitting in with your boyfriend holding hands and watching television, the chances are pretty good you're not going to be writing a song about that. No one cares. If you've just had a kid, put it on Facebook, just don't write a song about it."
On a drizzly Wednesday night in April, Hynde makes a gentle return to live performance. A small room is booked in central London and filled with a couple of hundred well-wishers and industry people. It's not the toughest crowd, but from the moment she struts on, Hynde is in her element: her voice strong, her performance compelling. She flirts with the bassist, draws attention to the skilled clattering of the drummer; in short, she pretends she's still in a band even though it's just her name on the tickets now. There are no fights on stage tonight, but there is a minor ruckus at the front when she drops her plectrum.
"That's what I like to see: 55-year-old men on their knees picking up my plectrum," she says, wryly. "It doesn't get better than that – not for me now anyway."
Back in the interview, she offers that these days she feels content though not cosy, which is how she likes it. For a while, she became renowned for her activism, specifically anti-fur campaigns for Peta and opening a vegan restaurant in Akron, Ohio, her childhood home, but she has decided to rein that in a fraction. "If you talk about something that's really important to you and someone doesn't want to know, they won't respond very well to that. So just shut up. Being quiet is important. We could all use more of that. More quiet."
It is hard to be sure how seriously to take her and it's clear that Hynde is proud of her daughter Natalie, who was recently convicted of "besetting" a Sussex drill-site belonging to energy firm Caudrilla (she superglued herself to a fellow protester in a stand against fracking). "Forgetting that I'm her mother, how many people even believe in anything now?" says Hynde. "There's a whole generation of people out there who don't. So I think that's great: to have something you believe is right; to have a sense of morality; to believe that you are answerable to something."
Hynde's own ambitions are a little more modest for Stockholm, in keeping with a debut artist. "What's my goal?" she thinks aloud. "I don't want to conquer the world; I like to keep things in the middle. My goal is that if I was standing at a juice bar in São Paulo, I'd hear one of the songs off this album. That's where I want music to be heard."
Our time is up and I ask Hynde whether she might like a fist bump after all. She offers up a set of right knuckles and explains that she has to do this now, because an overeager fan crushed her fingers with a handshake and she's had problems ever since playing her Telecaster. It's a totally sane and rational justification, which – today at least – is Chrissie Hynde all over.
Stockholm by Chrissie Hynde is out on 9 June on Will Travel/Caroline, and will be streamed exclusively on this website from 2 June. Hynde plays the Meltdown festival on 14 June and Latitude on 20 July.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010