Courtney Love: "Artists can self-destruct so easily. I nearly did." Photo: Chris Nicholls/Contour By Getty Images
She's a punk-rock survivor and one of its most controversial figures, having spent much of her life in the headlines for issues including her relationship with her late husband Kurt Cobain, drug overdoses and rehab, not to mention sensational court cases involving fraud, libel and royalties. But Courtney Love will turn 50 next week and this has provoked a degree of self-reflection and a calm not normally associated with the feisty singer.
In an exclusive interview with Sunday Life, she says she's dancing to the beat of a new tune and there's no pressing the rewind button. "I'm done with controversy," says a husky-sounding Love as she tucks into a warm burrito in New York, where she has been filming five episodes of a popular TV series she can't name. "I'm a pretty boring person just going about my business."
Love wants to start again, and she's doing all she can to make it happen. She's chasing an old dream on new terms: she wants another shot at acting.
Calm before the storm: Love with her late husband Kurt Cobain and daughter Frances Bean in 1993. Photo: Getty Images
In the 1980s she appeared in the movie Sid and Nancy, and in the mid-1990s she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as stripper Althea Flynt in The People vs. Larry Flynt, then starred alongside Elvis Costello and Ben Affleck in the comedy 200 Cigarettes. But she was more skilled at getting on the wrong side of the law than holding down a movie career, quitting the business a decade ago. Now she's on the hunt for an agent who can make her a star again. "I want an agent who is unstoppable and believes in me," says Love. "I have paid my dues in terms of my reputation and my history. I am reliable now, whereas there was a time in my past where I wasn't at all."
Love married troubled Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in 1992, with the pair becoming famous as much for their rows and drug abuse as their music. She recalls sticking pins in his balls to revive him, and administering shots of Narcan, and has said Cobain overdosed five times before ending his life in their Seattle home in April 1994 with a gunshot wound to the head.
The singer and actor now calls LA home and chose the West Coast to be closer to her 21-year-old daughter Frances Bean Cobain, who works as a graphic artist and was only 18 months when her father took his life. "I am so glad I have a daughter," says Love, who was accused by Vanity Fair of using heroin during her pregnancy. "I don't know what I would have done with a son. He would have gone completely bonkers and probably be gay right now."
Live through this: Love on stage with Hole in 1995. Photo: Getty Images
But motherhood has not always been smooth: in 2009, Frances was under the guardianship of Kurt Cobain's mother and aunt. "With Frances, sure we had estrangement for a while, but that was mostly through lawyers who were after our money," Love says. "It's water under the bridge now. It is important to remain unconditional and neutral when it comes to your [children]; if not they'll blame you for everything. I have always been very maternal."
Courtney Michelle Love was born in San Francisco on July 9, 1964. Her mum, Linda Carroll, was a psychotherapist and her dad, Hank Harrison, was a writer and former manager of the Grateful Dead. Her parents divorced when she was six and she moved to a commune in rural Portland, Oregon, with her mother. There Carroll met Frank Rodriguez, who legally adopted Love.
When the couple split, eight-year-old Love moved to New Zealand with her mother. She attended Nelson Girls College, a boarding school she now describes as a highlight of her childhood. "I always wished I had sent Frances to an all-girl boarding school," she says. "It was a good education and it kept me more into pop stars and horses than other stuff. It was a different time – it was the '70s I suppose – but I think essentially these institutions are good."
"Born into fame": Frances Bean attends the opening of an art show in Los Angeles in May this year. Photo: Getty Images
But she was expelled and sent back to Oregon to live with her stepdad. There she found hope in the bleak poems of Sylvia Plath and got turned on to music via Patti Smith and Fleetwood Mac. But she had difficulty settling, was in and out of juvenile detention centres from the age of 13, and later worked as a stripper.
In the 1990s, Love became the poster girl for grunge with her signature smeared-red lipstick, baby-doll lace frocks and lyrics that channelled angst, toyed with feminist theory and emancipation, and swam in a pit of self-loathing. It looked effortless, but it took its toll. Her band Hole released their second studio album, Live Through This, in 1994, just four days after Cobain's death. Nirvana had put grunge on the global map; Hole pushed onwards with a visceral dose of nihilism and existential lust.
In the months that followed her husband's death, Love struggled with addiction to heroin and buprenorphine, an opiate painkiller also used to treat addicts. There were also reckless concert performances that told the story of a sad woman on the brink of insanity.
Love is still a punk at heart, but these days there are a lot more pretty dresses and beauty regimens, and she uses fitness workouts to keep temptation at bay. "The only bad thing I do now is smoke cigarettes," says Love. "As I approach 50 I am definitely thinking about giving up cigarettes. I recently gave up caffeine, but I have been smoking since I was 12. I got addicted when I went to school in New Zealand."
Next month, Love will tour Australia for the first time in 15 years. This time it won't be with her band, but as a solo artist with a double A-side single You Know My Name/Wedding Day as her modern-day punk pitch.
"You know, I am not PJ Harvey, I don't change it up musically every few years," says Love of her signature sound. "I am a stayer. I play punk rock and always write about some sort of tragedy, heartbreak or self-loathing. I had dinner with my friend Michael Stipe [lead vocalist of REM] a few nights ago. I love him dearly, but I could never write Shiny Happy People. I just couldn't."
Love says she likes herself more on stage than in real life – even as a sober artist, she still prefers her musical persona to the private one. "Artists are sensitive people and a lot feel like that," she says. "As I get older, I ask myself if I am still relevant to modern music; do I have something to say that people want to hear? I'm not going to play pop music because that's what people want. There is not much rock'n'roll on the radio any more. I still write great songs, but they won't get heard like they once did."
While Love chases the limelight, her daughter prefers a quieter life. "I admire her integrity; if that was me I'd take the money and run with it," says Love, referring to the Chanel ad campaigns and acting roles in Twilight and Alice in Wonderland Frances has turned down. "She was born into fame and is a very intelligent girl. It's a very delicate situation and she's a delicate girl who needs delicate handling. What saddens me most is Frances has no memory of her father."
If this interview had taken place 10 years ago, a very different Love would have joined the conversation. On her 40th birthday in New York, she made headlines when ambulance officers took her away on a stretcher while insensitive paparazzi sang Happy Birthday to her. There was the suggestion she had tried to take her own life.
"I have a capacity to survive," says Love of that time. "I'd probably trace that back to my German and Jewish blood – it has kept me here. I have learnt to strategise and surround myself with good people and it helps. Artists can self-destruct so easily. I nearly did. When I see everybody torturing girls like Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan, I think, 'What's happening to our society when we get to this point?'
"They can't do it to me because I'm too smart. I am not tormented every single day. I'm not criticising anyone particularly, but I am saying if you are a role model, then behave like one. That came to me pretty late in my career, but that realisation did occur and I realise I am somebody young girls look up to. I didn't know that in the first part of my career, I was too punk rock. But now I know and I am different."
In May, Love attended the Life Ball in London with Vivienne Westwood's husband, Andreas Kronthaler, and her choice of a revealing gown by Westwood made headlines. "I got my waist into a 23-inch [58cm] dress – it was worth it just for that," she says.
Back in 1998, Love became the first punk rocker to be the face of a fashion house when she starred in a Versace ad campaign. And last year she featured in an Yves Saint Laurent campaign alongside Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth (who produced Hole's debut album in 1991). But she says she can now take or leave fashion.
Just as Love's image has altered, so too has her songwriting. Where older songs show the scars of grunge's darkest hours, Love's recent work is more about rage that finds resolution, and disorder without anarchy. In the clip for her new song You Know My Name, Love trashes a hotel room, throwing handfuls of glitter in the air while wearing a vintage-inspired gown she made herself. The video is dreamy – punk without the fury.
Despite all the lessons learnt over the past 20 years, Love says constant scrutiny is still hard to deal with. "You can't Google yourself - it would make me mentally ill to read the comments going around about me," she says. "But seriously, the gossip that impacts me the most is in my personal life, because dating me is like dating a big red fire truck. I come with scandal, history and controversy. And even though I take good care of myself and keep my life to myself, it would be nice to have a boyfriend I could go out some place to dine with, rather than have to hide."
Courtney Love plays Melbourne (August 16), Canberra (August 23) and Sydney (August 24).
Lead-in image: Chris Nicholls/Contour By Getty Images.