Virginia Astley emerged as one of the UK’s unique singer/songwriter talents throughout a productive career covering the 1980s onwards. From her many collaborations with a variety of notable names in the music industry, through to her own solo career, Virginia has managed to carve out her own particular niche.
Having developed an interest in music from an early age, it was somewhat inevitable that Virginia would embark on a musical career. Taking up piano at the age of 6 and flute at 14, Virginia also had the bonus of having composer and musician Edwin Astley as a father.
While studying at the Guildhall School of Music in London she joined the vibrant post-punk music scene of the time, playing keyboard for Victims of Pleasure. She also worked with former Skids frontman Richard Jobson, contributed to various releases on the Crépuscule label, and was part of an ensemble called The Dream Makers.
Signing with indie label Why-Fi in 1981, she recruited old friends Nicky Holland and Kate St John to perform as the Ravishing Beauties as the support act for on a Teardrop Explodes tour. This exposure helped Why-Fi release Virginia’s debut solo release, the 10″ EP A Bao A Qu.
In 1983 she had some mainstream success with a new single release, ‘Love’s a Lonely Place To Be’, after which she founded her own label, Happy Valley, and joined forces with Rough Trade to release an instrumental album recorded earlier, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. Her debut album won fresh acclaim from the music press, but Virginia was keen to return to more traditional music composition for future releases. Then Why-Fi released Promise Nothing, a compilation album of songs she had recorded for them.
Meanwhile, Virginia had been working on new material and assembled a loose working band around her. This included Anne Stephenson, Jo Wells and Audrey Riley. Among many songs to emerge during this period were ‘I Live In Dreams’ and ‘Tree Top Club’ as well as the haunting ‘Waiting To Fall’ – later to feature on the Some Bizarre compilation If You Can’t Please Yourself You Can’t Please Your Soul.
In 1985, Virginia released the Melt The Snow EP. The delicate strings-driven pop of the title track attracted the interest of the Elektra label, which resulted in the release in 1985 of euphoric pop tune ‘Tender’. A follow-up single, ‘Darkness Has Reached Its End’, saw Virginia switch to parent label WEA when it was released in November the same year.
Her 1986 album, Hope in a Darkened Heart, was produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto (founder-member of Japanese electropop outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra), and included songs such as ‘Some Small Hope’, featuring a duet with former Japan frontman David Sylvian.
Virginia, meanwhile, had spent the post-Hope years focused on raising her daughter Florence, although she returned to songwriting in the 1990s with the release of the All Shall Be Well album in 1992. She also worked with Japanese artists, including electronic trip-hop duo Silent Poets, contributing guest vocals on a few tracks, notably 1997’s ‘Don’t Break The Silence’.
During this period, Virginia had also been keen to divide her time between both music and writing. One of the projects she was exploring then was a musical based on the Thomas Hardy novel The Woodlanders. Some of these ideas later surfaced in song form on her 1996 album Had I The Heavens. She later worked on self-produced CD releases with her daughter, combining spoken narrative pieces by Virginia with harp performances by Florence, and they have recently been performing together at festivals.
She also started publishing her poetry in magazines and winning prizes in poetry competitions. Her pamphlet The Curative Harp won Ireland’s Fool for Poetry chapbook competition in 2015 and was published by Southwords. Her first book-length collection, The English River: a journey down the Thames in poems and photographs, is published by Bloodaxe in June 2018.
In 2017 she was writer-in-residence at Thomas Hardy’s Cottage in Dorset, and is currently working on Keeping The River, a non-fiction book exploring the River Thames and the lives of those who work and live on the river.
Books by Virginia Astley