More than “just” a singer

The human voice has always been an enthralling and powerful instrument to me. The sound that escapes through parted lips can tell the deepest truths in a world where honesty is sorely needed. It can also open up the singer to a world of criticism when the truth becomes too much for the listener.

The insidious trope of a band of average white dudes fronted by a prop-like, traditionally pretty, female singer pervades the music industry. Despite the many calls for the music industry to take female musicians seriously, old-fashioned ideas about female performers, such as them lacking in technical skill, still persist in every crack and crease of this business.

So many female artists have experienced this demoralising treatment that it has almost become a grotesque routine. Former Joanna Gruesome vocalist, Alanna McArdle, wrote a brilliant article on the perils of being “just” a female vocalist in a world that lessens the validity of your role. Vocalists rarely get the full praise they deserve. The power and pressure that comes with being “the singer” is something Raphaelle Standell, from Montreal-based band Braids, knows all too well.

Since the band burst onto my radar, Braids have continued to weave their complex web of droning bass lines, sculptural rhythms and cutting lyrics. Composed of Raphaelle (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Austin Tufts (drums, vocals) and Taylor Smith (bass, guitar, percussion, vocals), the bands’ forthright approach has only increased with the release of their third album Deep in the Iris, a record that has received a wealth of praise for its strident, female centric lyrics discussing everything from pornography to slut shaming and experiences of abuse.

I chatted with Standell by email about why she wants listeners to hear every syllable of her lyrics, the double standards in the music industry and her radical feminist mother.

I read that the recording session for your second album, Flourish//Perish (2013) was a difficult one. How was Deep in the Iris different?

The recording process for Deep in the Iris was a direct response to that of Flourish//Perish, our second record. We did have a difficult recording process during Flourish//Perish – we parted ways with a member, we recorded during the dead of winter in a garage with no windows and no heat, and though we like the album, we didn’t enjoy the process. We decided with our next record that we wanted to go somewhere warm, somewhere with a lot of sun and a great expanse of space, so we saved up some money and drove to Prescott, Arizona, to begin recording Deep in the Iris. This time around we focused a lot more on process than end result. It was important for us to enjoy the process and enjoy the journey of making the songs, rather than worrying or judging what we were creating in the moment. Instrumentation was also a big change for us on this record – acoustic piano, acoustic guitar; the sounds of the rooms we were recording in were all new territory for us.

“We were late-comers into discovering Joni Mitchell. Listening to records like Blue or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours had a huge impact on us”

What were your influences during the making of Deep in the Iris?
Definitely Joni Mitchell. We were late-comers into discovering Joni Mitchell. We had all heard her but had never given her a significant amount of time. On the drive to Prescott we listened to Blue and were floored, just so amazed. In particular I was so inspired by how raw she is, how she just lays everything out, her poetry, her voice, her arrangement, her honesty. We all were. On our pilgrimage to the desert we spoke in length about how we wanted to, like I said before, put process before anything else. So often the journey of doing something is forgotten, and we just think about its completion; like putting one’s head down and doing it. The beauties pass you by because you’re so focused on something so far away, and then when you get there, it doesn’t really have quite the impact that you’d imagined. We tried to be present in the song writing, in the day to day. To focus on now and not so much, “well it’s going to be good soon, so let’s just push through”. We wanted it to feel good then and there in that moment.

Your vocals stand out more on this record compared to your previous releases. Was that a conscious effort and, if so, why?
Again, listening to records like Blue or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours had a huge impact on us. We loved how you could hear every word. I felt confident in the lyrics I was writing, so we didn’t want to drench them in reverb. We strove to write songs that were [more] potent than our previous work; [songs] where the focus was more obvious and the voice is often that centrepiece. Also, Damian Taylor, a good friend of ours and extremely talented mix engineer, helped us with the final mix and boosted the vocals loads. I was really uncomfortable at first; it felt like my vocals were screaming at me. He was really adamant and over the course of our time with him, we all grew to love it. It was something different, so we thought we’d try it. I’m happy that you can hear every word; especially on ‘Miniskirt’. We boosted individual syllables so that you could hear exactly what I was saying, so that the intent was never lost.

The rhythm sections of your songs really stand out to me. Did you consciously focus on rhythms?

Yeah, we definitely focus on rhythms. The drums and rhythmic element of a song is often the cradle in which everything is held. We try to be conscious of using the drums in a unique and exciting way, always finding ways to play them melodically. We listen to a lot of IDM like Autechre and Aphex Twin, and 1990s drum and bass like Goldie. Their sense of rhythm has given us insight on how drumming can be used in a melodic sense and not just as a foundational element.

This album is slightly more similar to your first album Native Speaker (2011), rather than your more electronic sophomore release. Do you think you have gone back to your roots as a band or are going down another path?

I think we went back to our roots of playing instruments together. With Flourish//Perish there was a huge departure from any kind of playing – a lot of it was done on the computer. The focus was production and not so much playing or traditional song writing. We really wanted to go back to a more ‘live’ or ‘organic’ model and expand upon it. We wanted to write songs that didn’t depend so heavily on production or genre, songs that you could play front to back on a guitar or piano.

“As a performer, I try to have the perception of my own sexuality come from within me and not through the ‘male lens’, or through the lens of popular culture. I decide and try to not let societal constructs define my direction as a woman or as a musician”

Lead single ‘Miniskirt’ is about the double standards that women face. Was there a particular incident that inspired the song?
There are a couple things that all came together to form the song. The instrumentation was initially what inspired the intensity behind it – we wrote the instrumentation well before lyrics came about, and it was this extremely intense jam that we had been doing for three weeks. There were moments where we were screaming over our instruments with the PA fully cranked. And one day these lyrics just came out of me, all at once. It was like the song demanded something confrontational or potent, something strong.

Over the last few years I’ve spoken a lot with my mother – who is somewhat of a radical feminist – about the double standards that women face, and the in-depth discussions we’ve had came through in the words. I’ve also experienced very difficult things in my life that were scarring, belittling and painful. Writing ‘Miniskirt’ helped me reclaim strength over those experiences that drained me.

Would you describe yourself as a feminist? If so, how else does a feminist viewpoint play out in Braids, both in song writing and the band itself?
Absolutely. We are a collaborative and egalitarian band; I think that in itself falls into the gender equality aspect of feminism. As a performer, I try to have the perception of my own sexuality come from within me and not through the ‘male lens’, or through the lens of popular culture. I think as soon as you start evaluating yourself through either of those lenses, you begin a reversal of female empowerment. I’m conscious of owning what it is I do as an artist, and how I behave on stage, or in interviews, or while recording. I decide and try to not let societal constructs define my direction as a woman or as a musician. The female is entirely individual – feminism to me is about allowing that space for the female to be herself in a strengthened way, and Braids is most certainly a creative avenue in which I feel unhindered in that empowerment.

What other feminist issues and causes would you say that you are also concerned about?
I’m certainly concerned with women having the opportunity to [access] education. Knowledge is power. It’s a huge variable in women overcoming difficult situations. There’s an amazing organisation that I would suggest getting behind called Global Fund For Women. I’ve [started] donating to them for Xmas presents. They have all kinds of scenarios that they fund to ensure the health, safety and growth of women around the world.

“There has been abuse in my life, and I needed to regain strength from it, to rise above it. I am proud to have given a voice to issues of abuse as no-one should be made to feel quiet about anything that has hurt them”

Many female artists have decried the sexism and double standards of the music industry. How do you feel about the industry’s attitude to women?

Sometimes people in the audience will say gross and demeaning things to me. It hasn’t happened in a long time; I shut it down pretty fast. I think the fans that we have now are pretty much on the same page with us in terms of gender equality and respect for women. If you heard ‘Miniskirt’ and then decided to still like Braids, you’re probably not going to be too close-minded.

In the music world, one thing that makes me mad is how women are not given the credit that they deserve or, rather, we have it wired into us to think that women don’t do much other than sing – “the singing beauty”. Like Bjork, for instance – I just learnt that she composes the majority of the beats on her records. Our first perception is to think that a male produced it, or that some team of producers must have helped her out. I really respect how artists like Bjork, Grimes or Empress Of are very adamant in making people aware of their own artistic agency, and breaking the misconceptions or assumptions that just because they are women, they are unable to produce their own songs, or write more than a vocal melody.

Could you talk us through the lyrics to ‘Blondie’? While the music is joyful the lyrics have a certain darkness in them.
There has been abuse in my life, and I needed to regain strength from it, to rise above it, so we made two really awesome songs that helped in that. I’m not ashamed at all. I am proud to have given a voice to issues of abuse as no-one should be made to feel quiet about anything that has hurt them.

You met the rest of the members of Braids at school. How does that history affect your connection as a band and how have you changed over the years?

Yes. I’ve known Austin since I was 12. And he has been my best friend through absolutely everything. We met Taylor when we were 16. A lot is still the same. We still have a lot of fun together; we sometimes play video games together and eat candy. I guess now we go out really late and dance. We didn’t do that when we were 16. We all joke about how we are kind of married, in the sense that we see each other more than our significant others, and have a lot more on the line. Like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend would be way easier than stopping the band. Quitting the band would be like going through a divorce with kids. Now, more than ever, we focus on making sure we stay close and connected – when we aren’t in a good place we don’t write very good music or play very good shows and both those things are the most important to us. Today we have a day off so we went to the beach. Band building stuff.

Deep in the Iris is out now on Arbutus/Flemish Eye