David Holzer catches up with Iyengar teacher Frances McKee, owner of The Yoga Extension studio in Glasgow, and occasional vocalist of the band, The Vaselines By David Holzer
It started when I spotted a photograph of Frances McKee of Scottish band The Vaselines taking a yoga class on the Boaty Weekender, a cruise organised by the band Belle and Sebastian in August of last year.
The Vaselines were and are Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly. First time round, they existed from when McKee was 18 to 21. After that, she formed the band Painkillers who became Suckle and released an album called Against Nurture on Chemikal Underground Records in 2000. She released a solo album, Sunny Moon on Analogue Catalogue Records in 2006. The Vaselines reformed again in 2008 and have performed around the world sporadically since then. In 2014, they released the album V for Vaselines.
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was a huge fan. He described them as his “favourite songwriters in the whole world”. Nirvana covered their songs ‘Molly’s Lips’ and ‘Son of a Gun’ on their album Insecticide and ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam’ on MTV Unplugged in New York which has sold almost 10 million copies to date. Breaking up in 1989 after the release of their first album Dum-Dum, The Vaselines briefly reformed in October 1990 to support Nirvana in Edinburgh before breaking up again.
After The Vaselines split for the first time, McKee trained as a school teacher. She discovered yoga, decided the education system wasn’t for her and, starting in 1995, began Iyengar teacher training. Qualifying at introductory level in 1997, she went to Pune, India that year to study directly with the Iyengar family. Today, she holds a senior level one certificate in Iyengar Yoga. In 2006, McKee founded The Yoga Extension, her own studio in Glasgow.
Reading about her on the studio’s website, you’d never know she had another life in music.
I caught up with her by phone when she was between classes. She comes across as friendly, utterly down to earth, not remotely rock and roll and still somewhat bemused by her fame, such as it is. Her opening line, when I asked my first question about her musical life was “You know that feeling, the past coming back to haunt you?”
That girl in that band
“After Kurt Cobain died in 1994,” McKee told me, “people started getting a lot more interested in our music. I’d write songs, but I spent much more time practicing yoga. I found it beneficial on so many levels.”
Music was never really a career for McKee. “It’s not a career trajectory I’d wish on anyone,” she said. “But I like the way I can dip in and out. Now I think unless you’re Beyonce or someone like that, it’s not an industry in which you’re going to dowell, financially or otherwise. I’m glad I’ve got a perspective on it, three children and my yoga. We’ve just finished a wee run of shows and have no plans for a new album or to tour. But never say never.”
Do the worlds of yoga and music overlap for McKee? “Students and teachers occasionally realise that I’m that girl in that band and then the cat’s out of the bag. I have taught musicians, including Bobby Kildea, Stevie Jackson and Chris Geddes from Belle and Sebastian. When we went back on the road and did our first tour, I taught our road manager yoga. He was very good.”
The number of well-known musicians who do yoga is growing all the time. Does she ever come across closet yogis or yoginis in the music world? “Oh lots, but the only one I can think of right now is Mark Arm, singer in Mudhoney, the grunge band from Seattle. From watching how he moved onstage, I knew he did yoga.”
And how has yoga helped McKee handle her occasional other job in music. “When I was younger, I got stage fright. It was so bad I was glad when the band folded. I don’t get it anymore and I think that’s because of yoga. I feel like I’m fully in command of my own body now. You see that with people who do yoga. When they go on stage, they can hold themselves. For me, as a singer, having that connection with the breath really helps me. Now, if I go on tour, I practice every day. That’s what got me through touring after we reformed. I don’t know how people do all that wild partying stuff. Once I’ve played the show I want to go home because I want to practice the next day.”
What about the creative process? “Yoga helps with song writing, yes. It gets the ideas flowing. My ideal day when I was writing my solo album Sunny Moon — this is BC, before children — was to get up, practice, write and then practice guitar. I always do my practice first and my creative process is definitely heightened afterwards.”
Yoga and the endless search
McKee teaches five days a week and there are three other teachers at The Yoga Extension. I was curious to find out what she thought about the business of running a yoga studio. “Students come and go,” she explained. “I can’t ever predict traffic, although numbers do begin to go up around the autumn equinox. All of which makes it hard to plan a business.”
Has she considered offering online courses, as so many studios are doing now? “Without any disrespect to online courses, yoga is a practical subject. I have a teacher I practice with physically because I want them to see how I practice and help me. I need to connect with a guru or teacher or have someone I respect to oversee what
I do. If I don’t have a teacher, I feel like I’m saying I know it all which I don’t. One of the fascinating things about yoga for me is that it’s open-ended. There’s always something else to learn. A good teacher will constantly move you out of your comfort zone and make you question things. I’m always asking questions and getting more answers from classes and workshops.”
What questions does she ask herself? “Why do I find some things so simple and others so complicated? That’s a big one. I know our bodies are all different and I can see that students respond to my instructions differently but that doesn’t quite explain it.”
McKee started with Iyengar, a style of yoga that emphasises precision, back in the mid-90s and has stuck with it. Why was that? “It’s the first practice I came across when I was in my 20s and I fell in love with it, although I did dabble in Ashtanga when I was younger. It was fast and exhilarating but you have to be fit to be able to do it. When I was pregnant, I couldn’t sustain practicing Ashtanga, so I went back to Iyengar. It’s a clever system that pays such close attention to detail and alignment. Also, you can go fast or slow, which means you can practice Iyengar whatever your age, ability and health. And because there’s no set sequence, you can really be creative and finetune a practice to get specific results. Iyengar embodies everything for me.”
Mentioning Ashtanga made me wonder what McKee, who’d swum with the sharks of the notoriously sexist music industry, thought of the MeToo movement in relation to yoga. “First of all, we’re all human and make mistakes. It’s up to all of us and our conscience to know the right way to behave. I’ve never felt threatened in any field I’ve worked in,” she said. “If something bothers me, I say it at the time. But I am glad women are speaking out about inappropriate behaviour, that they have a voice, because I feel that things are messed up. In yoga, there are power hungry people just as there are everywhere. Being a teacher puts us in a position of power that we might feel tempted to abuse. MeToo has made me think about my position as a teacher. People who come to yoga classes can be very vulnerable and now I’m much more likely to ask myself if I’ve said something hurtful or negative to someone accidentally. Having said that, I am sad that my male colleagues have become wary of hands-on correction, which Iyengar calls for a lot. Some even say they don’t want to do that anymore.”
It was time to ask a couple of lighter questions. First of all, I wanted to know what McKee’s go-to yoga pose was (my equivalent of what’s your favourite colour?). “I have so many. It just depends on what mood I’m in. When I was younger, it would have been back arch, Urdhva Dhanurasana. But then I realised everything I knew about this pose was wrong, had to unlearn it and begin all over. I’ve started to make friends with it again. Now, especially when I’m travelling and life is frenzied and chaotic, I go for standing poses that ground and earth me.”
Last question, and I can’t not ask it. What was Kurt Cobain like? “For some reason, when we supported Nirvana back in 1990, we only had one rehearsal in my living room. I knew I hadn’t rehearsed enough and got very nervous, so I did the obvious thing and got really drunk. We spoke after the show. He was really sweet but very shy, as I was. He and I were also drunk. Had I been the person I am now I would have spoken to him before the show.”
Courtney Love, Cobain’s former girlfriend and also a rock and roller is a keen yogini too. Did McKee think yoga would have helped Cobain overcome his addictions? “I can’t say whether it would have helped him or not. I would say that you do get pretty much the same effect from doing yoga as taking drugs, only it doesn’t blow your mind. The yoga high is powerful but it’s calm. All I know is yoga is my best friend and it guides me through all the madness