State of total independence

It’s day three of the She Makes War tour, which means that Laura Kidd and her band are in Manchester this evening. They are due to play a set at the Castle Hotel, a tiny 80-capacity venue notorious locally for its tendency to turn into an absolute sweatbox when at full capacity. Tucked away in Manchester’s hipster district, the Northern Quarter, it feels like a suitable location for Kidd and her band.

I arrive at The Castle to find Kidd (easy to spot thanks to her elaborate eye glitter, ash blonde hair and beautiful tattoos) chatting happily in the pub corridor to two excited gig attendees. As she’s talking and listening, she’s also checking her phone. Kidd promotes most of her gigs herself and, as such, she’s waiting for the door person she’s hired to arrive so that she can leave the venue and grab a bite to eat before the show.

Once this has been sorted out, we adjourn, along with Kidd’s band, to a noisy eatery next door. The band sit at a table next to the bar; Kidd and I take the table next to them. We pause the interview twice, once so that she can order food, secondly so that she can, very quickly, demolish a bagel. Each time I pause the tape she protests mildly, but we’re able to pick up where we left off soon afterwards.

The She Makes War UK tour is in support of Kidd’s fourth album, Brace For Impact. Firmly rooted in a grunge rock aesthetic, with a big guitar sound that belies the sweet melodies lying beneath, it demonstrates that Laura Kidd can roar with the best of them. That’s not the whole story though, and Brace For Impact also reveals that Kidd is equally capable of writing a delicate song about loss and sadness, and that she can sing as well as roar. The songs are complex, autobiographical, emotionally astute and observational. Many of her fans have commented to her that they never know quite what to expect from a She Makes War album, and that this is a good thing.

Of the four albums, Brace For Impact is the third to be crowdfunded. I suggest that this means she must be a dab hand at Kickstarter by now. She smiles wryly at this assertion, explaining that a friend of hers, Kim Boekbinder, has given her some words of caution so far as crowdfunding is concerned.

“She said to me, ‘Laura, you have to remember that the music is the reward.’ So it’s very tempting to put a lot of different things for people to buy [up as rewards], and it’s fun to make stuff,” but she concludes ruefully that “I think I might have gone a bit OTT [over the top] this time.”

On one hand, her creative approach to fundraising rewards has led to her raising more money to finance the album. “Which is what I needed to put it out in this way, but it means that I’ve got a lot of work to do when I get home from the tour. But it’s nice work,” she adds, hastily. One of her post tour projects is to “make a paperback book of cool things and lyrics and stuff”. She just wishes that she could have made the book before the tour started, so that she can concentrate on writing her next album when she gets home.

What else do I need to prove to you? [the music industry]. There is an audience for my music, you would make money by working with me, that’s essentially the whole thing, right?

As a self-made artist, she’s done incredibly well. Each album has built upon the success of the last, leading to a situation where, in the middle of the first week of its release, Brace For Impact was riding in the mid 40s in the album chart. This led to a Twitter campaign to push the album up the charts, or even down them, anything to rescue Brace For Impact from being sandwiched between the latest releases from Noel Gallagher’s Flying Birds and Ed Sheeran. “That felt like the wrong place to be,” she says with classic understatement.

Brace For Impact reached number 15 in the independent album charts in the first week of its release and number three in the album breakers chart. Despite being both “very excited” and “surprised” by this, there’s a slight bitterness when Kidd reflects on it later.

“My reaction to it was ‘Yeah, but still no one’s gonna listen anyway.’ And I don’t mean people in the world, I mean people who could actually help, so, maybe a label one day, or a manager, or an agent.”

From her dealings with the music industry so far, Kidd has formed the opinion that “they have this idea that if it’s not a new thing, in the UK, then there’s no chance of it becoming big.” Kidd’s music is rooted in grunge and guitar rock rather than reflecting current trends for machine-led pop, jazz revival fusions, grime and its offshoots. Or archly ironic names, often involving the replacement of any Ws with two Vs.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for her music, it’s just that the industry can’t see it. She has certainly paid her dues and should be receiving considerably more media, radio and industry attention than she is.

She counts off on her fingers all the things she was told she would have to do to make it as an artist:

“Build an audience” – She’s done that.
“Build an email list”- She’s done that.
“Make really good music” – She feels she’s done that, she’s proud of the music she’s made.
“Get in the album chart” wasn’t specifically on the list, but it’s now a case of “done that” too.

As an exasperated Kidd puts it: “What else do I need to prove to you? [the music industry]. There is an audience for my music, you would make money by working with me, that’s essentially the whole thing, right?” She admits she does find the situation frustrating.

We did a London show last December and there were more women on stage than there were in the audience

But it’s not just that, there are more practical reasons for wanting a bit of help with the She Makes War project.

“It’s exhausting doing it alone,” she confesses. “So it would be really cool if it could scale up at some point, because I can’t manage to do it all alone, it’s too much. And that’s a really lovely problem to have, but it’s still a problem.”

She’s also starting to look beyond the UK to expand her reach as an artist. Germany and the US are both on the horizon.

Prior to seeing She Makes War live, I’d have thought that both she and London riot grrrls Dream Nails (originally scheduled to support Kidd on this tour) would attract a similar audience. In my head, I’ve always envisioned her audience as being both dominated by women and relatively young, perhaps not teenage but 20. and 30-something in demographic. Apparently not, though.

“We did a London show last December and there were more women on stage than there were in the audience,” says Kidd, wincing. “It’s not embarrassing but it’s weird, it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Similarly, when I ask her if she feels her audience has grown up with her she is clearly puzzled: “Most of my fans are older than me,” she says.

As the interview unfolds and even more after her set later in the evening, I realise the truth: She Makes War, a youngish white woman playing assertive guitar rock, has an audience of mainly middle-aged white men.

I remember that I’ve seen something similar, yet slightly less stark, with Honeyblood last year: middle-aged white men dominating the pogoing and the mosh pit. It felt weird then; it feels even weirder tonight.

After eight years of gigging, Kidd has sought to address the issue of her audience’s gender breakdown directly. A week before her tour started, she put out a statement across her social media platforms and via her mailing list, titled ‘You Are Welcome Here’.

While Kidd deeply appreciates the support she receives from the men in her audience, she’s also acutely aware that “there’s people missing.”

“Clearly, because men are coming to my shows, my shows aren’t just for women,” she says, “but they’re not not for women, I would think, so I find it really curious and I just wanted to ask a question: why?” She genuinely wants to know why more women aren’t coming to her gigs.

As she promotes a lot of her own shows, there are a lot of things about them that are within her power to change.

“A couple of themes are coming up,” she says, regarding the feedback she’s had, “the danger of getting home afterwards” being one of the main ones. “Things finish late, if it’s in a strange part of town – which often small venues are – getting back can be tricky.”

When it’s my fucking tour, I make the rules. I will put whatever poster I want on that wall

The issue of women travelling home late at night, fearing for their safety, isn’t one that Kidd can tackle alone. A seismic change in attitudes and behaviour needs to take place on an individual and collective level in order to change this. As well as a major shift in consciousness (something #MeToo seems to be fervently hoping for, but which currently appears to be as far away as ever), it would also require a shitload of investment from UK councils and central government to provide safer, more reliable public transport. At a local level this may be starting to happen in some places, but in general it isn’t. In an increasingly angry and aggressive UK that is still firmly under the cosh of austerity, such changes feel a very, very long way off.

As to what Kidd can do herself, perhaps after school and daytime gigs might help to vary her audience a bit.

On this tour, she has tried to signal a form of gig etiquette to her audience, and has a series of posters that she is putting up at each gig, politely explaining that she would appreciate it if her audience refrain from talking through sets, taking pictures, and acting in a way that would be regarded as disrespectful to other members of the audience.

This doesn’t stop the man behind me from deliberately flicking beer over me repeatedly, a situation resolved serendipitously when Kidd, who isn’t aware of the man’s behaviour but has noticed that the audience are standing too far away from her, asks us to move forward.

By the time she does this I’ve disregarded any ideas of punching him (disproportionately violent, would upset the gig), and am instead considering deliberately standing on his foot repeatedly instead. By moving closer to the stage, I am now out of his range, and he stops flicking beer over me. Other audience members, moving forward, leave a noticeable gap around him. Despite Kidd’s best efforts, there’s still the occasional arsehole attending her gigs.

Kidd is a feminist, but she doesn’t explicitly write feminist material: “People love closing their ears when they hear a word they don’t like. And I just thought ‘Let’s get to them first, then talk about things.’” I’m familiar with this approach to feminism by some performers, so I don’t question it, even though it saddens me.

Experience as a fan and as a music writer has shown me that, while some performers are happy making explicitly feminist material, and statements, there are many artists who, for a variety of reasons to do with record labels, management, and their own personalities and feelings, are not confident to make feminist statements, or indeed political statements, while working in an industry that famously misunderstands and, at times, exploits women. Many performers keep quiet, either out of personal preference or out of a desire not to have their career ruined. Some of them would rather wait until they are in a position of (relative) power and do not have to risk the wrath of record labels, managers and the media, before speaking out. It is possible that this is changing, but it’s still a truism by and large.

She Makes War’s statement and gig etiquette poster have emerged from a moment in her career where she’s “just had enough”, specifically “of turning up and it’s only guys. I’ve had enough of turning up to a sea of mobile phones. I’ve had enough of turning up to play support slots where people talk all over me because they’re waiting for the main act to come [onto the stage].”

She admits, in the latter case, that this is part and parcel of being a support band. However, when on her own tour “I make the rules. I’m hiring venues, and paying staff, and paying my band, and paying support acts out of my own money. I will put whatever poster I want on that wall.”

As she says: “We’re talking about venues 50-150 capacity here, and that ‘sh sh’ noise, you can hear it. And you can hear people talking.” Even at bigger venues, it’s still a problem. “150-250 people silently watching and loving it and there’s 30 people at the side, being loud, and that ruins everyone’s night.”

As she says, “it’s not She Makes Nice”.

Arsehole beer flicker aside, Kidd’s set is well worth waiting for. She runs through a tight set of new and old material, alternately rocking out with songs such as the grungey ‘Devastate Me’, charming with quieter tracks such as the poignant ‘Miles Away’, startling with the brutally honest and stark electronica of ‘Delete’. She is a sparkling, friendly performer, open and honest, who can clearly deliver the goods.

After the gig, Kidd decamps to the merchandise stall and a queue forms. It’s not just a case of buying vinyl, CDs, badges and t-shirts. She likes to talk to her fans and get to know them. Similarly, they like to chat and get to know her. It’s a really heartwarming thing to watch, and I’m sad to leave.

Earlier in the evening, Kidd says that, with the album and tour, she is letting her songs “fly into the world”. She will continue to support them by playing them, but she wants to make more now.

After the tour, after she’s sorted all her pledge projects, it’ll be back to her writing room and album number five will be in progress. You will hear more from She Makes War, mark my words.

Images of Laura Kidd by Ania Shrimpton. Provided by She Makes War and used with permission

Image one shows Laura Kidd crouching on the floor. The image is taken from above and Laura is holding a silver sparkly cloak to herself while wearing silver sparkly eyeshadow

Image two is a live shot of Laura Kidd. She is playing guitar and singing