Photographer and writer Ali Smith is the author of The Ballad of Speedball Baby, her memoir about New York City’s underground music scene in the notorious 90s. On the eve of its publication, she shares her story – and explains why she’s on a whole new adventure, living in Norwich
I’ve been a professional photographer for over 20 years, based out of my home town of New York City until last December when I moved to Norwich. I’m also a writer, having written several articles for papers like The Guardian, The New York Times and others, largely about women’s issues and the environment. I’ve released two photo books – Laws of the Bandit Queens and Momma Love; How the Mother Half Lives. The second won two international book awards and Gloria Steinem called it a gift to moms. The Ballad of Speedball Baby is my literary debut.
If you had to describe your life up until now in one paragraph, what would you say?
My life has been…one hell of a ride! I’ve danced with Nureyev at Lincoln Center; I’ve toured the world playing in a punk band (hence the memoir); I’ve lived in NYC my whole life – which takes a lot out of a girl; I’ve been a stepmother and a bio-mother and I met and married an amazing partner. Now I’ve begun a whole new adventure living in Norwich. Photography, writing and music have taken me into extraordinary situations I’d never have seen otherwise, from humble to aggrandized (hello, photographing King Charles) and everything in between.
What was it like being a bass player and part of the alternative music scene in the 90s – as a woman?
In some ways, isolating. Looking back, I had to twist and turn myself inside out to make a lot of things in my environment ok when they weren’t ok in my heart. A lot of sexism. But in many, many ways, empowering and thrilling! New York was a place you could invent a whole life for yourself under the radar of authority, live quite cheaply if you were up for the challenge, and be left alone to make art and music. New York is a boiling cauldron of diversity and intense experiences and that enhanced my life greatly.
Who were your major influences at that time?
For sure, Debbie Harry! She was the coolest. She was so stone-cold, traditionally beautiful she could have just left it at that. But instead, she subverted that, wearing garbage bags as dresses and being confrontational and that was so much more exciting; Iggy Pop, for his boldness and faith in himself; Siouxsie Sioux, whose makeup look and apathetic, half-lidded stare I emulated; Exene Cervenka, a living, breathing, screaming work of art in herself.
What brought you from New York to Norwich?
My husband is from Norwich. He’s lived in the States since his late teens and I was very much a NY girl, born and bred. So, it took me a long time to come around to the change. But post-pandemic, the city is just falling apart in many ways. I could have stayed put and fought for it like I have through the decades. But this time, I just thought “life has been an adventure here. Let’s go and have another one now somewhere else. I’m ready.” Plus, it was getting very dangerous, and I wanted my son to have more freedom and I wanted myself to have less stress. Plus, guns. America and its guns. Plus, we were moving towards family here. So, it’s worked out great!
Why did you decide to write your memoir? And why now?
I think we all get to an age when we wonder “did I do anything of any consequence?” and “why am I the way I am?” My friend loved hearing my wild, funny, scary stories from the time and encouraged me to write a few down. Once I started, I couldn’t stop and, with her encouragement, I finished the book. It’s been fascinating, affirming, exciting, sad, cathartic.
How would you describe it as a read? Your life has at times been a ‘harrowing ride’?
When I read the book aloud to record the audio version, I was shocked at how harrowing it was, but by that I just mean I’ve been through a lot. I guess I used to think we all have. And of course, we all HAVE! but I didn’t give myself credit for getting through some very wild, very challenging things. And now I think I have given myself that credit. As we all should. That said, I was also happy to re-discover how much fun I had! I saw the world with my friends just by strapping a bass to the front of myself and hurling myself at the world. It was very exciting and fun and I’m so glad I did it then! I’m so glad I don’t have to wonder now what it would have been like if I’d tried. I did try. And now I can calm down.
How different is your life now, compared to then? You’re a photographer and writer?
It’s very different. mostly because I’ve made friends with myself if that makes sense. I’m much more confident now, even though outwardly I seemed very confident then. But that’s youth for you. I also have a strong relationship with my partner which is not something I could have mustered back then. Especially in New York where everyone was scrambling to “make it” and pushing each other out of the way to get to a better opportunity – a better job, band, partner. But I guess at my core, I’m the same person. I always felt things deeply. I always felt I had a big, sloppy, vulnerable heart. I always wanted to care for people – especially the women around me. There’s a story in the book about my trying to take a little girl away from her drug dealing mom who was ferociously beating her in a park when I was an 18-year-old punk. It wasn’t because I was tough. It was because all I wanted to do was help girls and women. Naturally, that was so that I could help the little girl inside me who had been so hurt. But hey, that statement comes years of therapy later, so…
Are you involved with the music scene in Norwich at all?
I play music with a great friend called Adam Clark. He sets up shows around town under the name Corncutter Promotions. I did not expect this wonderful gift of a great musical partner to be given to me in Norwich where I didn’t know many people. But in many ways, this is the most purely enjoyable time of my life playing music only for the joy of it without a compulsion to make it amount to anything. That said, we recorded an original song together for the audiobook that I wrote about life on the road. So, we are being productive too.
How can people get hold of The Ballad of Speedball Baby?
Speedball Baby will be released January 16, 2024. It’s naturally on Amazon. I like to direct people to indie stores though, so bookshop.org for that. And of course, you can ask your local store to order it in, but hopefully it will magically appear in all stores in January.
Featured image photo credit: ©Ali Smith