It’s early afternoon in Highgate and somehow I’ve wandered into Jane Eyre territory. In the classic Victorian novel, Charlotte Brontë communicates her heroine’s internal conflicts through the landscape and its Gothic inspired weather, and the early evening’s decidedly bipolar elements are reflecting my own fluctuating excitements. Dazzling sun and torrential rains are taking abrupt turns to confuse the high street travellers into a permanent flux between sunglasses and umbrellas, and it’s in the middle of this unpredictable tempest that KatieJane Garside arrives, like an orphan of the storm; I can’t help but smile at the synchronicity of it.
She pushes through the door with wide eyes and pink-streaked blonde locks swinging beneath a broad, leather cowboy hat, shorter than I’d anticipated, with a petite yet determined gait. But it’s her sturdy lace-up boots that I notice before anything else. Infamous for her fey appearance, she virtually always performs barefooted, crooning and shrieking with an otherworldly delirium, so it seems almost inversely anachronistic to see her wearing something as mundane as hiking shoes.
Shooting to prominence like a wildflower during the ’90s, KatieJane gave the UK a distinctive voice when US grunge outfits were dominating the market. Dirty knees and banshee screams distinguished her noisecore quartet Daisy Chainsaw, a refined abrasiveness that continued into the still-recording outfit Queen Adreena. Her current role in the folk-noir duo Ruby Throat has slowed things down somewhat, favouring melody and mood over volume and distortion. “In the velocity of something like Queen Adreena I have to fight for my hairline crack of space. The animal is the same, but with Ruby Throat there’s much more space to run in,” she reasons on the differences between them.
I imagine she must feel a little exposed with everything so stripped back. “The space can be terrifying and liberating in equal measures,” she nods. “But the one consistent thing in all the work I do is having the sense of self and no self. Paradoxically. To be able to maintain the focus that shuts down all peripheral vision, which is when you can attempt to grasp the perfect note, the perfect moment. That is the only reason I do this.”
It becomes rapidly clear that KatieJane is incapable of ‘easy’ answers. She stalls continuously and mumbles frequently, but when she does discharge a reply they are nothing short of missiles – complex yet lucid paradigms that, even with brevity, require a sagacious attention. For the record, they don’t translate well into the humble Q&A format.
While the upcoming reissue of Ruby Throat’s debut The Ventriloquist and its new material is quickly brushed away (“It’s such a boring story, I wont go into it”), she does mention a dormant project still close to her heart. Her collaboration with graphic novelist Dan Schaffer on Indigo Vertigo, a much coveted out-of-print rarity that came out of a prolific writing period for KatieJane and is perhaps as close to a memoir as she would allow. “We wrote a letter to each other every day for a year, and they’ve stood the test of time for me. We’ve been meaning to put them out as a book for ages.”
With this reflective nostalgia in mind, I wonder how the childlike characteristics she’s become infamous for – the waif-like dresses, unshod feet, lullaby wailings, and as one legend goes, drinking juice out of a baby bottle on stage – have evolved into her adult life. “I don’t see my life on a linear timeline. I feel massively old at times…” She says, trailing off, searching for the right words. “There’s something clown-like about being an old woman; it’s sort of absurd, like putting dresses on kittens. Age is just another mask of identity, and I’m always trying to find the voice behind the mask.” But if identity is constantly changing, how can one ever define it? She smiles. “I suppose I’m looking for something primordial; that first shriek, that first howl.”
This yearning for natal connection seems to have its roots in her childhood and school years. “I went to about 13 different schools so…” After a long silence, I ask if she’d like to skip the question. “No, no, I will go back to school,” she mutters, nodding her head violently over the subtle blurring of figurative/literal language. “I found stability in instability, because there was never any consistency – I was making it up as I went along.” Rather than benefiting from the temporary popularity that comes with a ‘new girl’ mystique, she says that changing schools and always appearing in the middle of a term made her “extremely unpopular”. “At 11 I was sent to boarding school. Boarding school makes everyone desperately territorial; it’s like child prison. I’m not a fan of childhood. I think it’s a terribly barbaric time.”
She refers to her parents as “the people who gave birth to us”, a tragically divorced term. “The few magical years we spent living on a boat were the only time all of us were together.” By ‘us’, she includes her younger sister and fellow musician Melanie Garside, whose briefly commercial spell in the mid-’90s gave way to her own alter ego, Maplebee, and several other projects, including a stint in Queen Adreena. “Mel is four years younger than me, so we have different memories of [our childhood],” KatieJane explains. Are they still close? “Mel’s the only person I talk to,” she shoots back with a razor sharp laugh.
While her academic years were marred by unwanted attention, fans feel that her artistic achievements are often overlooked. Despite a large cult following and praise from icons like Courtney Love, KatieJane’s work rarely makes mainstream press, relegated instead to the alternative fringe. When I ask her why this is, she answers with a serene dignity: “There’s not much I can do about that, so I suppose I’m not really in a position to make any comment on it.”
Is she just as tranquil about the frequent allusions to her teetering sanity? “I’m reminded of a gimble sometimes,” she states. Apparently, this gyroscopic mechanism is used at sea, keeping things like gas lamps remaining upright, even when the boat is keeling over. “Sometimes I watch videos of my performances and I’m always shocked that what I see is not someone I’m aware of being, because I’m always still within all the chaos, the calm centre of the storm.” She ponders somewhat subjectively. “I’m almost beyond analysis at this point. I’m happy to try, but I don’t know what the fuck’s going on. And neither does anyone else; that’s the only truism.”
While her existential perspectives are open to debate, she seems surer of the decision to face her long-term reclusive disposition. “It’s got much more intense the last few years, but I’m far too inward looking,” she says, an ambivalent acknowledgment for an artist whose work has always been born directly from the internal. She makes a giggling stab at using an “ingrown toenail” for analogy purposes but soon sobers, eventually confessing, “I’m all for the perverse but I think there is something really wrong with feeding on oneself continuously. As for external influences, I’ve done my best to avoid the outside at all costs. It’s a crude solipsism, but I do question whether anything really exists, other than me…I created you!” she laughs, pointing at me with a slender finger, “And God!”
She’s not serious of course, but she is aware of where indulgent self-obsession can lead. “I think when you become the centre of your own universe, it can be the beginnings of schizophrenia. I’m not schizophrenic, I hasten to add, but I am aware that my root bulb has become entrenched and needs to be dug up and spread out. It needs some air.” Is it a scary thought? “No, I have nothing to lose at this point,” she retorts. Surely the pseudo comfort of safety is what you lose when you leave self-imposed isolation? “Well!” she laughs, “I suppose it’s like Stockholm syndrome – I’m in love with my captor.”
In between Queen Adreena albums, KatieJane went solo for the first time, producing Lalleshwari: Lullabies In A Glasswilderness. To date, it’s been the only solo musical work in her arsenal. She may admit to being reclusive but her projects seem to flourish with company. “Working with someone else gets me out of bad habits,” she explains. “It’s the best way for me.” She met her Ruby Throat cohort Chris Whittingham through a series of strange, romantic coincidences. Hearing him busking on the underground was an almost spiritual epiphany for her, she says: “I can’t overstate the significance of it, really.”
Hesitant to use the word ‘prayer’, she edges towards the idea of the universe answering a deep-rooted call for artistic companionship. “Funnily enough, I’d been out once in the previous three years and he’d happened to be there. His friend had pointed me out saying, ‘That’s the girl for you’.” Tugging on her wide cowboy brim, she explains that they were both donning headgear. “It was only after we had begun Ruby Throat that his friend, who was also a friend of mine, pointed out I was the same girl from the party.”
Garside frequently lays herself bare in her work, whether it’s a stray nipple on stage or sharing personal horrors in her lyrics. Is her personal life as intense as her work? “There’s been no gap between them,” she says flatly. Her face glazes over and she lowers her voice to a wisp of sound. “So much happened last year. I went to the Himalayas and I was supposed to climb a mountain but I got altitude sickness. It took me three days to walk down the mountain and when I got to the bottom I walked straight into a plane crash. It missed the runway and everyone burnt to death, except the pilot who my friend pulled out. Since then, I haven’t stopped working.”
She relays the story with almost no verbal punctuation, a nightmare told in stream of consciousness rhythm. “I have to work, just like anybody else, if only to eat, but everything I’ve done since has been infused with that experience. I’m trying to work with it; it’s given me a sense of urgency that I haven’t had for a long time.”
This post-traumatic stress and her underlying shut-in tendencies imply that there is little room for emotional connections with others. It’s also very hard to imagine someone compatible with an artist as singular as KatieJane, but she’s happy to dispute this. “I’m not living on my own at the moment, and I’m happy about that. Since the crash, I can’t be on my own the way I always have been. It’s all very incestuous really. My only lovers are the people I work with. I’m a bit of a vampire like that…I draw them in and take what I need,” she crows.
“Actually, that’s not true, but there is truth in it,” she readjusts. User/used dichotomies rely on mutual consent, a fact that makes guilt kind of invalid, and I imagine that KatieJane has attracted a vampire or two of her own. “I’m always startled by the amount of love people are prepared to give each other. I’m not envious, but I am startled. Why would you do that?” she laughs, frowning.
Trying to divert from the gloom, however frivolously, I ask what brings her joy, in a “these are a few of my favourite things” kind of way. “I’m going to be so horribly dark now,” she bursts out with a faux-Goth snigger. “I was reading something about NLP [neurolinguistic programming]; it’s just another form of self-hypnosis with a fancy name,” she dismisses, “but the task was to imagine a place or situation that made you unhappy and overlay it with a place or situation where you felt good – and I couldn’t remember one time or place where I felt that.”
She relates this with a casual smile and shrugging of shoulders, happy to mockingly acknowledge her own bleakness. “I do love swimming in open water though,” she acquiesces. “That has to be my passion. Especially at night; I highly recommend it.” I won’t divulge where she dips her toes because KatieJane’s more hardcore fans can border on the obsessive, and it would be a shame to have this pagan pleasure invaded by giggling stalkers desperate for a glimpse of Garside in her water nymph aspect.
Speaking of fans, KatieJane has always explicitly denied any responsibility as a role model, and gathers little validation from fans or critics alike. While this stance allows her to retain independent, self-validation, it also insulates her from the rewards. Isn’t it a little tragic that she doesn’t know the impact of her works and the love (or hate) they inspire?
“I don’t need to know,” she shrugs. ”I think it’s like trying to creep up on your muse and put a lasso round its neck, or pin it down and ask its name. If I indulge in that, it’s all lost. I’m horrifically human, and I’m extremely weak as well; I don’t need any help at fucking this up. It’s freeing to put my work out there and then disconnect from it. The part of me that creates it has to remain pristine, otherwise my lifeline is gone. I’m dead.”
Much like the evening’s indefinite weather, KatieJane both legitimises and destabilises her own clichés. She’s admirably honest about her complexities, which are formed out of a sharp, sound intelligence rather than the lost-girl neurosis she is often attributed with. And though there are certain freedoms to living on the fringe, solipsism seems a lonely terrain. I hope she does take those tentative steps outside of herself, and that those big ol’ hiking boots take her to some wonderful, worthwhile places.
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The Ventriloquist is reissued on October 12 through Weatherbox Records.