Joanna Whitehead discusses feminism, riot grrrl and the explosive sound of Du Blonde’s new album
Newcastle born and bred Beth Jeans Houghton began writing music in her teens, releasing her first album with her backing group, The Hooves of Destiny, in 2012. Yours Truly, Cellophane Noise was a glorious collection of baroque chamber pop, complimented by Beth’s beautiful, soaring, falsetto vocals. Wandering through the ‘David Bowie Is…’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013, Beth had an epiphany: to keep moving, keep changing, keep pushing art and sound and to never be pinned down. Spurred on by this childhood promise to herself, Beth decided to rip it up and start again.
Following a move to California, Beth found further inspiration in hard rock and American hardcore, an influence that is evident on her new album Welcome Back to Milk. Heavy riffs, loud drums and kicking attitude characterise the new, stripped back sound, as typified by her latest single ‘Black Flag’. A new sound required a new name, and so Du Blonde was birthed.
Prior to this new incarnation, Beth had struggled to express herself musically. It soon became clear that the anger she was feeling at the time didn’t lend itself to layers of vocal harmonies and orchestral instruments. Du Blonde offered Beth the opportunity for reinvention and rediscovery, enabling her to continue on her journey of musical and artistic evolution. Late last month, I chatted with Beth by telephone to find out more about Du Blonde and her new sound.
Q &A with Du Blonde
Your new sound is a bit of a departure from your work as Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny. In your BBC Radio 6 Mark Riley session of 15 April, you stated that you wanted to sound “ferocious” and not “feminine, like a little girl”. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
I remember saying that and slightly regretting my wording. I think I meant it in terms of how society feels like women should be. I worked with a lot of producers before I found Jim Sclavunos [of Bad Seeds fame], who wanted me to sound “more feminine”. I don’t have a problem with women being feminine, or with little girls, but that isn’t the only option and not quite who I am. So, I wanted to be able to be myself without other people’s ideas of what I should sound like because of my gender.
The new album definitely has that surf vibe and your vocals have got much more grit to them on a lot of the tracks – you don’t sound as polished as you did as Beth Jeans Houghton. Which track from the new album are you most proud of and why?
I like them all for different reasons. I like ‘Mr Hyde’ and ‘Isn’t it Wild’. I don’t like ‘Young Entertainment’ – I was fighting for that not to be on the album, but I didn’t have a choice in the end. The chorus lyrics used to be different, but I changed them because they were too personal and the chorus is about something completely separate from the rest of the song. I’m 99% happy, though [with the album]!
Your press release states that you had a lot of anger to get out. In the list of things that you describe being pissed off about [which includes “the free wheeling judgement of faceless accusers online, every man and his dog giving me advice on how to live my life, what to wear, what not to say, how to write songs…”], you refer to “being asked if I’m on my period in business meetings”. Did that actually happen?
Yeah, yeah – it’s happened twice. I think because it’s such a male-dominated industry, it’s not seen as a serious thing when you’re one of the only girls in the office. I come to the office every day to do my work here and things like that can be said. It’s a very male-dominated place where a lot of the guys can be dismissive and think it’s just normal, but it’s actually really rude and dismisses my opinions as trivial or not worth anything. That makes it really hard to fight your case on serious matters because everything you’re saying is being diminished by one throwaway comment. It’s frustrating. And then, when you get frustrated, you’re called a diva.
That is frustrating. And, there’s not really an equivalent term for men.
They’re just “assertive” and “passionate”.
You also refer to being told “to just deal with misogyny”. Is this within the music industry, in a wider context or both?
I think that it applies to a lot of women, in a lot of jobs and careers. A lot of the time in life it’s dismissed [misogyny] as something you should just get over. I’ve been told when I’ve complained about it that there’s more important things to worry about. Of course there is, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fight for what you believe in. I come across it a lot. It’s quite sad.
You directed the video for your new single ‘Black Flag’. Watching you dance in the gold cape was gorgeous and hypnotic… it reminded me a bit of Kate Bush!
[Laughs] When I was a kid, I used to go on walks with my Mum in the woods. I used to take a bed-sheet with a hole in it and I would put it on and pretend to be Kate Bush in the woods. I think that, subconsciously, had a lot to do with it!
Did you enjoy the creative process of directing?
Definitely. Before I did music, I used to do art and photography a lot and I didn’t expect to get into music. I really love making videos – I’m working on a short film at the moment – just creating in general. I enjoy all of it just as much as music. It’s a nice respite now I’ve been working on that album for months – it’s nice to use another medium to express myself.
I saw on Twitter that you’d ordered Sarah Marcus’ book ‘Girls To The Front’…
I’ve almost finished reading it!
What do you think of it?
I think it’s great! When all of that was happening, I was younger than four – when it started, I didn’t exist! So, I was never really aware of it. To read about it in such great detail was really nice. I think I’d become quite disenchanted with the way politics and feminism is handled nowadays, especially with the younger generation. People don’t get as riled up and protest for their rights – people have other things on their minds – mostly, checking what other people are up to on Facebook. It was really nice to read all about these women who were fighting for their rights. Like with zines and just the way they, sort of, all banded together to fight for something they believed in. It’s really inspiring because it’s helped me realise that that can happen again. Just ’cause it’s not necessarily happening in the mainstream now, doesn’t mean that it can’t [happen].
Would you call yourself a feminist?
What does it mean to you?
I’ve thought about it a lot because I’ve had this conversation with loads of girls – especially recently – girls and women – and men! – and I’ve said: “Are you a feminist?” and, quite often, even though they would say, yes, they want equal rights for women, they’ll either deny being a feminist or they’ll be like: “Oh, yeah, but, y’know, I don’t hate men…”. There’s such a lot of negative connotations with the name, for some reason. It’s such a shame to realise that so many women are scared of taking on that title.
I would definitely say I’m a feminist. For me, the meaning is that I believe in equality and I believe in equality for anything – whether it’s sexual orientation or race or whatever – it’s about being equal, but also about making your own choices. For example, if a girl wants to be a stripper, that’s her choice and her right to do that. It’s not saying you can’t show your body or you can’t do this because you’re ruining everybody else’s feminist ideal – I think everyone gets to choose. And, if a woman wants to spend her life being a stay-at-home mother, that’s her choice. If a woman never wants to have children and wants to have a job in politics, that’s her choice. So, that’s what it is to me, I think.
I really liked your ‘Songs that changed me’ piece for Q magazine. You included Nico and Joni Mitchell. What other female artists inspire you? Have you got an all-time top three or top five?
It’s quite difficult because when I was younger, apart from folk artists, I wasn’t aware of that many female musicians or front women, just because of, y’know, the MTV generation, so most of the female musicians that were in the mainstream at the time were pop and R&B artists which I wasn’t into and which didn’t really represent what my beliefs are, but I would say now: Patti Smith is great. And there are a lot of female fronted bands, new bands at the moment, who have a lot of power behind them and are not scared to be themselves, like Deap Vally and Wolf Alice and a band called Hinds from Madrid. It’s nice to see women taking up that kind of space in music without them seeming like they have to conform to being some guy’s idea of what a “pop princess” should be.
Welcome Back to Milk is released on 18 May 2015. Du Blonde tours the UK in June – more information and dates here.
Image used with kind permission of Prescription PR.