Pixie Geldof: 'I needed to learn how to breathe'
As she releases her debut album, Pixie Geldof talks to Eva Wiseman about grief, music - and why she wants to freedive with sharks
There were no paparazzi-long lenses focused on the lake in Bath this summer when Pixie Geldof sank into the dark green water and held her breath. A minute passed. Earlier in the year she had recorded her first solo album, a bruisy collection of love songs called I'm Yours.
Another minute passed. The water was extremely cold and extremely deep. Now 26, she's been writing songs since she was 18, releasing records with a band called Violet, but as her debut album neared release she started to panic - that people would think of the songs in terms of, "things they know happened in my life".
Just before she reached three minutes underwater, she raised her head, gasping.
Pixie decided to learn to freedive one holiday, swimming with whale sharks. She had seen freedivers who could go right up close to the sharks, "and I was so jealous. I wanted to go down, and stay down."
Completists will find that paparazzi were watching on that occasion: "PICTURE EXCLUSIVE: Alexa Chung goes topless as she enjoys a sailing boat trip with bikini-clad pal Pixie Geldof."
Back home in London at the house she shares with her boyfriend, musician George Barnett, she tells me she's already done the written exam; the "static breath hold" in the Somerset lake was part two and was followed by a duration test.
Next is depth. "The surprise," she says with a chuckle, "was that I didn't need to learn how to hold my breath. I needed to learn how to breathe."
Pixie was born in 1990, the third daughter of Bob Geldof and TV presenter Paula Yates, after Fifi Trixibelle and Peaches, and grew up in the glare of photographers' flashes.
Paparazzi pictures from the early 90s show her looking into the lens with pigtails and a weary grimace as she trails behind Yates, who was pregnant with her little sister Tiger Lily and wearing a silk slip and lipstick. It was on Pixie's 10th birthday that her mother was found dead of an accidental heroin overdose. Bob Geldof adopted Tiger Lily, whose own father INXS singer Michael Hutchence had committed suicide three years earlier.
In 2014, at 25, her older sister Peaches was also found dead. The funeral took place in the same church in Kent where Peaches had been married, where her parents had also married, and where her mother was buried. Pixie's favourite things are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sharks, music and pasta, but the order changes. On Instagram she mainly follows ocean accounts. Pictures of water.
She talks with deep romance about her friends. She says things are "sick", or "groovy". Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that despite the paragraph of tragedy that each profile of her requires, in person, Pixie is giggly, open, content. It's a warm afternoon in London when we meet and her living room curtains are drawn; the effect is cosy, rather than bleak.
Pixie's white chihuahua Buster moults joyfully on the sofa and a Townes Van Zandt record plays in the next room. She is embarrassed by her tattoos. On her right forearm in wide ornate script is the phrase, ''What will survive of us is love"; she is having removed.
"But it's the worst pain in the world, like the sun has heated an elastic band and is whacking you with it, again and again," she laughs. "They should change the legal age of tattoos to 25.
''You don't know what you want on your body for life at 16! I'm a different person now." This is a theme she returns to - memories of moving through life as if stepping on stage, and then realising she's "not that girl".
Pixie used to find all the press interest in her family confusing. Often, Bob Geldof recently recalled, there would be 40 photographers walking backwards in front of them on the way to school.
"When you're trying to build who you are as a person and the Daily Mail are telling you you're something else, it's quite ... odd. At a point it gets to you, when you realise you're walking into adulthood being seen as a person who really doesn't exist." How was she seen? "As a crazy party girl. This mad wild child. They made it sound like I was doing something wrong."
She fell into modelling, which is where she met the people (including Radio One DJ Nick Grimshaw and model Alexa Chung) who became her best friends. She was 14. "They joke that they saw my boobs come in," she guffaws. "But I was focused on music from 18, and I didn't want to be a 'slashy' (model/musician). God knows I'm still avoiding it.''
Pixie doesn't like "fame", she says. "But I watch soaps, and I get it's the same thing - people like to follow a storyline. I don't want one thing to overshadow the other. I'm doing something that is real and it would be a shame if people just thought it was because I was famous. It's more in spite of that, to be honest."
When she invited Grimshaw to listen to her album for the first time, he tells me over the phone, he drove to meet her feeling, "very stressed. What if it was horrible? If it had no heart, or purpose?" He sighs, a heavy relief. "Luckily it's amazing. It sounds like 'her'."
The two see each other daily - yesterday she helped him assemble his new bed; they spent the evening watching Bake Off, her boyfriend in the armchair, Grimshaw spooning Pixie on the sofa. It was his dad who gave her a nickname that stuck, complaining Nick was "running around town after that Pepsi Geldof". He giggles. "Can't blame him, his confusion at those stupid Geldof names." And it was Nick who worked hard to distract her from the horror of Peaches' death, settling in to watch the Kardashians in the days before the funeral, feeding her pizza.
That was what she needed, she says, pointing to the spot on the sofa where she had sat, while her friends streamed in and out, "talking about nonsense. I live for annoying girl chat." Even in those gaping moments of grief, she wanted her friends to tell her about the guys who hadn't texted, the parties, the hangovers? "There was a moment when nobody came to me with their tiny tragedies, sure," she narrows her eyes, "but their stories are how I made the record. It's not easy to write a heartbreak record when you've been with someone for six years. You need tales. Lovely laments and ideas. Little things people said about their exes became storylines behind songs."
In April, Peaches' widowed husband Thomas Cohen released an album called Bloom Forever, in which he described returning home to find their son Phaedra playing by himself, and her body in the bedroom. "Longing I know, to find you alone / At the top of the stairs in your wedding dress." Pixie's album I'm Yours is more elliptical, though no less mournful. Her only allusion to her sister's death is a song called Twin Thing - "Wish I'd known you like my own skin, so I could feel the hurt you were in. Wish we had that twin thing."
"People put a lot of emphasis on the idea of music as therapy," Pixie says, carefully. "It does help you explain how you're feeling." Buster yaps at a noise in the garden - recently, she tells me, he's reinvented himself as a guard dog, despite being the size of a bagel. "What it did, though, was give me something to focus on. It was the best thing for me.
''Not the music itself so much, but the doing something, something that wasn't sitting in my house staring in the corners."
When Peaches died, their dad received thousands of letters from strangers. One New York cab driver told him he'd had to pull over to steady himself when he heard the news.
"It's beautiful that someone can live a life so short and yet make such an impact," Pixie says, staccato, rubbing at an invisible mark on her jeans. "Things stop for a second with people like her. She changed worlds, both when she was alive and when she wasn't." She looks up, and I ask her how she is. "Oh!" she says. "How am I?" There's a long, toffee-chewing pause. "I am ... OK. There's no recovery from it. There's no therapy for it. I mean, there's no one day when it won't be bad."
She describes waking up, opening her eyes and every morning having to figure out how to get up, how to live. "I have a very lovely life. Except there will always be something missing." She takes a breath. "You don't want to be the kind of person who knows how this feels, but unfortunately, I am." A camp shrug, a grim smile. "I realise now that everyone is just trying to live, as well as they can. And some people can't."
Spending time with Pixie, drinking her coffee, it's easy to see why her friends feel protective. Why her dog has taken to barking at the door.
As someone who works with pop stars every day, does Nick secretly wish his best friend had chosen a career away from cameras? Pixie's life, he says, "happened the wrong way round. She was a celebrity before she was born. Now she's making choices. If there's publicity, there's a point to it. Finally."
Picking through tabloid photos of Pixie's life online, from baby pictures to funerals, what remains is a quizzical, disdainful look at the camera, a weary, "Really?"
"Isn't it mad that paps still exist in an age of Instagram?" she asks. "The only reason I can think is for the bad angles. For a picture up a girl's ass."
I wonder if being photographed like that for so many years has politicised her.
"No, but I am sick of a lot of stuff, through things I've experienced as a ... as a 'lady'.
The music industry is a weird place and even though I know I have to make myself heard over all the men, I still apologise for it. I'm now at the point where I'll say what I think. But then I will text an apology: 'Sorry for being a nightmare today.' That's not something related to me being in the public eye, is it? That's all women. We start and end with 'sorry'."
She is excited about returning to the studio. She's excited about the idea that, one day, a girl might sing one of her songs at karaoke. She's excited about returning to the lake for her final depth test.
"Now I realise why people call second albums difficult. You've had an entire life for the first one." Or two lives, or three. "I wonder if the next one will sound completely different. I wonder if it will be happier?"
Pixie Geldof's debut album I'm Yours is released on Stranger Records
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