This is your first time at Ladyfest. Can you tell us why you got involved and who you are looking forward to seeing the most?
I had heard about it in previous years and then Ruth Barnes contacted me about playing and I really liked the idea of a bill dedicated to all the amazing female talent that is out there. I’m really looking forward to seeing Mary Epworth play and seeing Viv Albertine (who I’m also playing with in January). Also, She Makes War (who won the competition to play on the bill) is amazing – she plays her set entirely by looping herself on a pedal and it’s really incredible to watch.
What would you say to someone who argued that Ladyfest is irrelevant these days?
I would say that it is more relevant than ever at a time when the idea of the “female musician” is being reduced to a genre or suggested, by some parts of the media, to be a passing phase or trend that we “have enough of”. I sat in a meeting with a publisher not that long ago who said he had signed one female act that year so he wouldn’t be signing anymore – as if an electronic pop artist and a folk musician could tick the same box because of their vaginas. It’s just another version of the eternal Kate Bush question that all lazy journalists ask female artists…
I’d love to believe that we could get to a place where gender is irrelevant when you make music, but there’s such a small corner of the music world in which women are allowed to operate comparatively to men so it is important to celebrate the full spectrum of music being created out there. For example, I really don’t feel that the recent wave of female singers experiencing commercial success have an awful lot to do with the musicians and artists I know who are women who are creating their own music, playing their own instruments, creating their own mixed media worlds, and writing their own songs in a huge variety of genres.
There has been a clear re-emergence of a lot of obviously riot grrrl-influenced music over the past couple of years. What do you think are the reasons behind this, and who do you think is doing it well?
I think maybe it’s connected to the aforementioned “rise” of the female artist in the mainstream over the past few years – a reaction to a reaction. A lot of people have heralded this as a new age for the female artist but I know that myself and a lot of other female musicians didn’t feel like this has anything to do with the kind of music we’re making. It’s a bit of a pyrrhic victory when the acceptable face of a wave of female artists is a singer who has little to do with the writing of the songs or the playing of the instruments. It’s just pop by another name, dressed up to appeal to the alternative – a slightly more “kooky” version (another word I hate because of its connotations of female hysteria) of the hit factories of yesteryear. At the other extreme, you’ve got those things that are intentionally shambolic or ramshackle that are celebrated rather tokenistically because it’s not another bunch of guys with guitars. I don’t think that’s particularly good for women making music either. There has to be some middle ground here somewhere.
In terms of using riot grrrl as an influence, I love the way that Kate Nash’s second album did something that people weren’t expecting and flagged up a whole bunch of bands for a new generation of people to discover, including myself, who weren’t around the first time. I think there will be a whole new set of girls picking up instruments and taking the message and making it their own.
How much has riot grrrl influenced your own music? In terms of style, aesthetics and/or principles?
I guess I only really caught the commercialised tail end of riot grrrl as a pre-teen. Musically and attitude wise, I completely adored Live Through This by Hole. Finally getting to see Courtney Love play last year (albeit with an rather anaemic all-male backing band) was the culmination of years sitting in the school stairwells singing harmony to ‘Miss World’ and ‘Doll Parts’ while I figured out the chords on a guitar with too small fingers. She’s still a force of nature even though there are many things that she’s associated herself with that I don’t necessarily agree with. I think the principles of riot grrrl are the most important things to take forwards and you can do that whether you are playing a guitar or plucking a harp – it’s not about the style of music. riot grrrl is also a great reason to not replace your tights when they get laddered (hazard of the job when shifting hefty stage pianos)!
Ladyfest isn’t just about music but about celebrating all forms of female creativity. Do you have any other creative talents?
I painted a lot up until I went to university – huge oil canvases of magnified nudes – all very Lucien Freud / Jenny Saville / Francis Bacon. I still have periods of time where I sketch and draw but I believe in committing yourself wholly to whatever creative endeavour you set your sights on. I’m not really one for half measures, so now it all goes into the music.
If you could curate your dream Ladyfest lineup, who would you include?
Patti Smith, Polly Jean Harvey, Stevie Nicks, Anita O’Day, Laura Nyro, Juliana Hatfield, Diamanda Galás, Aimee Mann and Jennifer Terran (an incredibly underrated artist from Santa Barbara who I tell everyone I meet about).
Do you have any general thoughts or issues regarding feminism in 2010? What do you think are the most pressing feminist issues at the moment?
I think we are at a very strange moment in history where there is an incorrect consensus that woman have achieved equal standing and that there is nothing left to fight for. On the other hand, we live in a celebrity-obsessed society where women are told (via all forms of media – music videos, magazines etc.) that the way that they look is their currency. I think Natasha Walter puts it really well when she says that “while the opportunities available to women may have expanded…the ambitions of many young girls are, in reality, limited by a culture that asks them to see consumerism and self-decoration as their only proper occupations, and their bodies as their only passport to success.”
I find this the most horrifying reality of modern life. After everything we’ve achieved, that a woman with a PhD or a mother looking after her children, or a teenager working hard at school to get good grades, can have all their accomplishments devalued and be made to feel unworthy because of some unrealistic ideal. It’s especially difficult in an industry that takes appearance very seriously. Do you reject it all and go around wearing a bin bag and forfeit the opportunity to be in a position to highlight and change things? The best we can hope for is for a few role models to swim against the tide and provide an alternative vision of what it means to be a successful women that doesn’t involve being famous or mutilating your body in the name of “beauty”. There are many other more important things to be valued; wisdom, education, humour, kindness and creativity.
Another huge issue that I think will be a real problem for the coming generation is the current ubiquity of porn and pornographic images that young boys and teenagers are being exposed to and able to access in a way that was previously unthought of. I think this is formative in a growing culture of violence and abuse against women, where rape is normalised and attitudes are unconsciously formed at a very young age that will have a knock-on effect for generations in terms of how women are objectified.
What does 2011 have in store for you?
Hopefully finding the resources to finally finish up the album which is currently in limbo. It’s been a long haul trying to piece it together in tiny bits without the support of a label or management but without compromising my vision for how it should sound. I’ve been working hard on it every opportunity I can but I don’t want to put something out there that I don’t feel 100% happy with, which in hindsight is sort of what I did with Skeleton Songs [the EP Catherine put out in June], which was a compromised version of how I wanted the songs to sound due to economics. In the meantime there will be a live strings recording, hopefully funded by all the wonderful people who’ve continued to support me and come to shows and buy the EPs! We plan to record it all in just one day. I’m also plotting something with all the covers/reinterpretations that I’ve done as everyone seems really keen to be able to buy them. I also really want to start playing the harp and I’ve just ordered a musical saw, so you’re probably going to hear an entire album of saw solos!
Catherine plays the Sunday at Ladyfest, an all-day feast of music kicking off at 3pm at The Relentless Garage. The Sunday lineup also includes: Trash Kit, Wetdog, Viv Albertine, Tender Trap, Peepholes, La La Vasquez, Madam, Jane Weaver, Mary Epworth and Marianne Lee.
A Sunday ticket will set you back a very reasonable £15, or you can get a full weekend music pass for a mere £10 extra. All tickets available here.