Chrissie Hynde and JP Jones are slumped in a suite at Chicago's Dana Hotel, utterly discombobulated. Granted, these are rock stars, and it's mid-morning, but Jones -- a feline Welshman, neatly groomed but, he admits, hungover -- and Hynde wear the vacant, resigned stares of natural disaster refugees.
"I don't know what the f---'s going on," Hynde says, running a hand through her trademark black mane. "Every day I look around and go, f---, what is going on? We came over to spend two weeks here, now we're living here. I've never had anything catch fire like this in my career."
She's referring to some intense media and fan interest in her first-ever side project, a rootsy new band called JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys. It's a departure from Hynde's three decades leading rock's defiant Pretenders, a moniker that still exists solely because of Hynde's stubbornness and determination in the face of personal tragedy and commercial whim. Last May, without a record even being finished -- the CD "Fidelity!" is finally released this Tuesday -- she and Jones were trotting across the country, including a stop in Chicago, teasing fans with short sets of the new songs.
But the whirlwind promotional tour was even getting to a seasoned road warrior and expatriate like Hynde.
"I'm totally displaced," she says. "I don't know where I am most of the time, or where I'm supposed to be. I don't know if I'm man or woman. I don't know if I'm American or British. I don't know where I live. ... Men think I'm a man. The guys treat me like one of the guys."
"I treat you like a woman, don't I?" Jones asks.
"I don't know," Hynde replies.
The silence that follows that exchange is beyond awkward, but very telling. Everything there is to know about the mournful music and sighed laments on this record is communicated just as effectively in those several seconds of uncomfortable staring at boots. The union of Hynde and Jones is a dynamic musical partnership, but it's based on a star-crossed, May-December romance.
Jones, 31, met Hynde, 58, in a bar in late 2008. (Yes, gents, you can still meet people like Chrissie Hynde in a bar. Still wanna call it a night?) There was chemistry, then there were text messages. There was a spur-of-the-moment getaway to Havana, where their personal relationship flamed and fizzled. But it fueled a musical collaboration, and they wrote the 11 songs for "Fidelity!," each of them a naked confessional of an irresistible romance that they say could never really be.
"We made a record that is, yes, very honest. It's some pretty gut-wrenching stuff," Hynde says. "All the songs are written to each other, about each other. ... You know, a lot of people fall in love with people they can't be with. That's what this record is about. It's about falling in love with someone and realizing you can't be with him. He wants kids and a family. I'm too old. It's too late for me."
Right away, over the lilting, sad guitar of the opening song, "Perfect Lover," Hynde and Jones get to explaining what Hynde calls their "unrealistic" love:
Hynde: I smoke and drink and eat too much and other things I shouldn't
(JP: That's why I love you, baby)
I'd like to think I'd never touch what other women wouldn't
(You're not like the others)
I'm a hotbed of addictions, contradictions rule my day
(You're just like me)
I know it's wrong, but the pull's too strong, Lord, help me walk away
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
"Music is a distillation of love and pain," Hynde adds. "Everyone's suffering something. I was crying when I wrote some of this stuff. I mean, it's not that serious. The nature of rock -- if you're watching a rock band, you should be laughing at least half the time. We didn't make an album to depress people."
The thoughtful Jones pauses, mulling that over during another strange silence. Finally, he wonders aloud, genuinely worried, "F---, maybe we have."
A little 'fairground luck'
Hynde, Jones and a supporting guitarist, Patrick Murdoch from one of Jones' former bands, trotted into the Near North studios of JBTV last May, hitting the stage before a small audience of maybe 50 fans. But the instant Hynde appeared under the lights, someone shouted a request for the Pretenders' hit ballad "Night in My Veins."
Hynde's face fell. She hadn't even sat down yet. With a little of the sneer that's endeared her to rock fans for 30 years, she laid down the law for the evening: "Anyone else who says something like that tonight will be ejected from the premises."
Not that the song would have been inappropriate for this pair ("He's got his hands in my hair and his lips everywhere / It feels good, it's all right / even if it's just the night in my veins"), but Hynde is determined to prevent her rock star status from overshadowing her new project with Jones. She was insistent about the billing: JP first, no Hynde.
The relationship began, after all, musically. "I just liked his songs," Hynde says, a little sheepishly, which is saying something for this typically brassy woman. They originally bonded over a discussion of fairgrounds. Hynde has a lifelong love of them, and Jones grew up on the one his parents owned in Wales.
One night, Jones texted Hynde to wish her well before a Pretenders show, on tour supporting the band's last album, the country-rock set "Break Up the Concrete." He said he was sending her some "fairground luck." Hynde liked that phrase and replied, instructing him to write a song called "Fairground Luck." Two days later, it was in her in-box.
"I sent her the song, and she liked it," Jones says. "When she got off the tour, she said, 'Hey, you wanna go to Cuba?' We took guitars to Havana and wrote the basics for the album."
"Fairgrounds just always meant freedom to me," Hynde says, recalling her youth in Akron, Ohio. She's lived primarily in London since the early 1980s. "I loved these fairs that would show up, like, in a strip mall parking lot. I loved that. I loved the gypsy nature of it. The way these people showed up and then moved on to -- somewhere else. It was very romantic. And I knew I had to keep moving like that. I left when I was 22 and moved to London. I just left. I feel like I'm still doing that."
Jones had been in a band called Grace, once groomed by EMI as a next-big-thing. It fell apart after two years, and when he met Hynde he'd been fronting a band called Big Linda. Many of those players are now rechristened as the Fairground Boys.
"I was offered a development deal through Universal before all this came about," Jones says. "They were going to put me with, like, 10 big-name songwriters. When a record label wants to put you with 10 different songwriters, how can any truth come out of that? How can you communicate who you are? I felt very pushed, pulled and manipulated. They wanted me to wear certain things, dye my hair. Chrissie and I got together and wrote our album, and it felt so much more natural. I found myself musically through her. She's my muse. I just walked away from it all."
"I didn't encourage that," Hynde interjects. "I didn't want to be that guy."
Jones laughs. "That guy!"
'The kids are safe'
Hynde and Jones returned to Chicago early this month for a 20-minute set at Lollapalooza -- on the children's stage, following Dan Zanes. With old fans and tiny tots watching them play their naked songs about cross-generational lust, Hynde was open about the pair's difficult dynamic. She explained the new album was about "when a woman meets a much younger man and they realize they don't have a future together."
"But don't worry," she added, "the kids are safe as long as I'm on this stage."
The frustrated desire plays out across the span of "Fidelity!" In the first single, "If You Let Me," Jones' coarse, scoured voice warns, "If you don't want me to come in, you'd better lock this door." Hynde describes their first encounter in "Australia," her amazement ("I was propping up the bar on my own / Mostly, guys like you say goodbye to me") as clear as her submission ("OK, pal, take me outta here"). The songs are tuneful, built on guitars and a more pleasing variation of the Americana leanings Hynde explored on "Break Up the Concrete."
That album, she says, didn't get the grassroots interest this one has. But while the promotional efforts have been exhausting, she finds the response exciting. She's especially glad they came to America.
"There's nothing happening in music over there right now," Hynde says. "It's all pop crap. ... We came over here five weeks ago looking for interest. People don't do it like this anymore. There's still all this waiting and planning a strategy. I just wanna get on with it. Why not? I mean, we met in a bar.
"When the Pretenders started, we were in the '70s, coming out of that dreadful prog-rock period. And then punk happened, which was so refreshing in so many ways. It was like bands started being taken seriously without all this posing and styling. They were just themselves. I mean, later today we have to go to some photo shoot for Women's Wear Daily, and they told me to bring four different 'looks.' You know, that is just so not me. This is my look." She gestures to her high, black boots, jeans and black T-shirt. "There's just one, really. But even with that, it just feels fresh now. We've been taken seriously based on our music ever since we came ashore six weeks ago. The whole industry has collapsed, and people are finding an audience without all the trappings and the corporate strategies. Today feels more like 1977 than ever."
But after the flush of new romance is gone, both personally and commercially speaking, what will happen next? Hynde says she and Jones have enough material for a second album, but she hedges.
"A second album would be of a different nature," she says. "We were each other's muse on this album. The next one -- I dunno." A beat. "Things have changed."
And they both fidget through another lengthy silence.
JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys are scheduled to perform Oct. 10 at Chicago's Park West, with Amy Correia. Tickets, $25.