Everyone has their own version of Lauren Laverne. The spiky, confident singer who powered her way through punk with the band Kenickie in the 1990s. The witty, sharp and confident panelist on shows like Have I Got News for You. The culture maven who brought the arts to a new audience with The Culture Show. Not forgetting the voice. Presenter of BBC6 Music every weekday morning and of the edgy Late Night Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4.
At 38, Lauren Laverne denies being anything like role model for women, but take in the above and it’s there for all to see.
She is adding her formidable voice her hometown’s Sunderland City of Culture Bid for 2021, with the shortlist announced in late spring.
Her own version of culture started in Sunderland as a child: “My brother sometimes jokingly refers to our childhood home as the Culture Tardis and it really was. It was a house full of music, books and ideas. At the time, though (in the 1980s) that didn’t feel unusual, or if it was I didn’t know it was.
“I’m from a big extended family and almost everyone in it was into music. Almost everyone sang or danced or just dressed like a pop star. It had always been that way – my Granda was one of 13 and was in a band with his brothers that sang in working men’s clubs. My Dad has always played guitar – he was a regular on the blues and folk scene and played gigs with Jimi Hendrix, Geno Washington and loads of the stalwarts of the 60s folk scene. So it was very natural for my brother and I to carry on with our own version of that. It was also wrapped up in my love of nightclubs and the North East’s ritualistic devotion to a good night out, which I think had a big influence on the way I feel about music.
The power of culture and the way you can change your life by looking at it through a different lens were all lessons I learned from my family and their love of music.”
Today Lauren is surely one of Sunderland’s best-known exports. Though home with husband and two boys is in London, she returns as much as she can.
“I love coming home. I always go for a run on the beach first and see friends and family. I also love checking out exhibitions at the Glass Centre, Winter Gardens and other local museums. I’ve seen some brilliant shows at The Empire and we always visit for big events like the Air Show and the Illuminations (I switched them on the other year, which was hilarious!)
“My kids like to go and say hello to Wallace the Lion and the walruses in Mowbray Park when we’re up, just like I did when I was little. Of course the North East music scene is really vibrant, and it’s so lovely to get the chance to plug into that a bit whenever I can.
Talking of culture Lauren believes her Sunderland inheritance is something of a mix.
“I suppose I grew up with a regional identity that sat above any awareness of my national identity. I learned the importance of having a sense of humour and inherited a belief that culture is powerful. That what you know and believe, or what you love can count more than your circumstances.
“On paper my Granda was a miner but who he really was was also about his interior life – a Nat King Cole soundtrack, a laconic sense of humour, Bogart and cowboy films – tons of cool and style. And all that stuff is just as real, just as much a part of who he was as the flesh and blood parts of his life. I think that’s the case for all of us, and that we should all have access to those sorts of riches. I inherited the belief that culture should be available to everyone.”
Lauren has made her home in London and those bright lights always beckon for other young people.
Sunderland’s Brexit moment, of which she says. “I was sad to see the division that it created, for sure”, might well have created reason to leave for many young people Would something like a cultural shift, make people stay?
“Of course there needs to be a strong economy, but it’s also about your life outside of work. I read a survey recently that said kids in the North East have the best access to the natural environment (the coast) in the country, and how important that is for their wellbeing. It’s great that we’ve already got that. And of course there need to be a rich cultural scene – places to go out, see people and experience whatever it is you’re into, whether that’s hardcore metal or musical theatre.
“I see an optimism and creativity in my younger cousins and my older cousins’ kids and it’s wonderful.”
Home life for Lauren doesn’t mean a 9-5 by any means.
“My 6 Music show is the consistent part of my day, we’re live 10-1 every weekday morning. Beyond that it really is a mix. From shooting for The Pool (the online magazine or co-launched), working with the AV team over there on upcoming ideas to voiceovers (I’m just about to go into the studio to start working on the next series of the CBeebies series Tee and Mo, which is such a lovely job!) to writing and TV work (I’m presenting Film 2017 next week). It’s a real mix, which is wonderful.
“My definition of home has expanded over the years. Sunderland will always be home but now London is, too. I suppose like most people it’s where the people I love are, and they’re in both places. Aside from them I’m happiest with a sea view. I think that’s got to do with being born a couple of hundred yards from Roker beach.
She brings culture to the lives of her own children, ‘the same way as everyone else does’.
“Through books music and films but also jokes, language. The dictionary definition of culture is “that which is not nature” so it’s literally everywhere – you don’t have to go hunting for it, necessarily. Sometimes it’s about appreciating the richness of the place you are and the moment you’re in.”
Lauren scoffs at the being described as a ‘role model’.
“I wouldn’t describe myself that way! But as far as what role models mean to me I think they’re really important. They’re a bit like the medals of saints that people used to wear years ago – a talisman and a shield against adversity.
“I’ve got through difficult things by imagining how people I admire would handle that situation, and I work out where I want to go next partly by trying to live my own version of somebody else’s story. I’m pretty omnivorous as far as my role models are concerned. I don’t think you necessarily have to be the same gender or background as a person to be inspired by them. I grew up idolising everyone from Iggy Pop to Audrey Hepburn!”
Find out more about Sunderland’s City of Culture Bid
What City of Culture will mean to Sunderland:
People, investment, spectacle, fun, ideas. It depends how you’re measuring it – the economic impact would at be fantastic, but I also love the idea that it would give everyone at home the kind of access to art and culture that people in big cities sometimes take for granted.
It’s easy to live in London and never visit the British Museum even though it’s free, but as we all know one of the great things about Sunderland is that if you put on a do, everyone comes!
I hope it would be an opportunity that people from across the region could enjoy.
I’m not sure Sunderland always gets the credit it deserves but the city’s contribution is too great to erase.
The city has given the world gospels, songs, glass, ships, stories… Maybe that’s why Lewis Carroll named Wonderland just after visiting. Perhaps we don’t shout about it enough – the 2021 bid is a good excuse to do that!
The people of Sunderland are ‘tough, funny with soft hearts’
I think that’s the regional character.
When Grayson Perry came up to make his tapestries he put his finger on the emotional pulse of the city. It was something I’d always known but never seen so clearly articulated (especially by an outsider). I loved the Channel 4 documentary about the making of the tapestries and went to see them at the Winter Gardens exhibition. The character I’m describing was the combination Grayson captured in his The Vanity of Small Differences piece about the club singer – the way a tough exterior or a brusque sense of humour and an industrial setting can belie a very emotional heart. We’re soft as clarts, as they say.
My pride in Sunderland:
Everyone asks me about football – which in all honesty I’m not that knowledgeable about! Then after that they will usually say that they visited, had a great time and talk about how friendly the people are. I love that – our reputation is definitely about fun and kindness.
Older people know more about the industrial and economic background. They might talk about the shipyards or tell you that the Sydney Harbour Bridge was inspired by the one at Monkwearmouth, for example. That kind of thing always makes me very proud!
The cultural year ahead – what’s exciting?
There’s too much music to list but Noth East artists with new records I’m excited about include Jake Houlsby, Nadine Shah, Lanterns on the Lake, Riton and Domzilla. I can’t wait to hear what Field Music do next.
I’m looking forward to David Hockney’s new exhibition at the Tate. I find him really inspiring – the way he has embraced technology and continues to make fantastic work at 79.
I’m about to interview Danny Boyle about T2 Trainspotting, which I loved. It’s an examination of midlife crises and the perils of nostalgia. Dark as anything but funny, too. I’m looking forward to seeing what Simon Rich does next, he’s one of my favourite writers.
Lauren’s favourite Wearside people
Bryan Ferry, James Bolam, Bobby Thompson, Kate Adie, Gina McKee, Dave Stewart… and my mam!