Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Buzz of Transgression: Viv Albertine

Sometimes the fact that more people don't know about the Slits seems like a crime.

The late 1970s in Europe (mostly England) practically were a girls’ rock camp. In the pared-down blur of punk and its aftermath, girls picked up instruments, formed bands, wrote songs, recorded, and played – regardless of their levels of musical skill or experience. What's interesting and exciting is that these girls often didn't aspire to play like boys, or at least like the famous ones; they ignored the rules of classic rock (of which the rules of punk rock were often a simpler, but no less constricting, form), taking new and weird approaches to almost every aspect of rock music, including song structures, chord progressions, scales, melodies, and instrumentation.

Even as they grew more experienced, bands like the Slits, the Raincoats, X-Ray-Spex, the Au Pairs, and Kleenex continued to push the boundaries of rock and pop. Most also embraced some form of feminism (as well as other political positions), but their approach was personal, their outrage and refusal based on their experiences as young women and girls rebelling at expectations about what kinds of lives they were supposed to lead. To some, the resulting music was unbearable; others felt like it was something they'd been waiting all their lives to hear.

If the Slits were one of the most raucous and unschooled of what are sometimes called "post-punk" bands, they also seemed to have be having the most fun, possibly because they didn’t seem worried about being chaotic, caustic, or obnoxious. Viv Albertine was already a fixture of the London’s punk scene when she joined vocalist Ari Up (then 15 years old), drummer Palmolive, and bassist Tessa Pollitt in the Slits in 1977. Albertine, then a novice guitarist, credits her friend Keith Levene (of PiL) for teaching her that “any sounds can go together,” among other things; her sound has always been and remains distinctive, sometimes challenging, and the opposite of predictable.

After the Slits broke up in 1983, Albertine went film school and became a director as well as a mother. She didn’t play a guitar again until she was asked to join in a Slits reunion in 2008. Practicing for that event, she found herself writing new songs. She played a few shows with the reunited Slits, then left to perform and record solo. (Somewhere in there, she also started making ceramics.) She recently opened for the (also) reunited Raincoats on tour, and her Flesh EP was released this week.

Winging her way toward SXSW, Albertine graciously answered a few questions for the Girls Rock Austin blog via e-mail:

It seems like there's a through line from the politics of the time you started playing music and your new work, but this time it's expressed more emotionally, unguardedly. How has your view of the expectations of women and girls changed as you've experienced some of the traditional milestones of womanhood?

Expectations of girls and women are the same as they were in Victorian times! I know this now. From being a mother and a daughter and a wife and a girlfriend.

The thing is that motherhood and child-rearing are either undervalued or deified. Neither is right. It's a hard, lonely slog. Yes, there are good bits, beautiful bits. But to do it right – something so important – it's very, very hard. If you don't work so you can give your children the love and attention that they would like from you, you lose status in the eyes of your partner, your peers, and your children.

Let's be honest about this: If you want to do it right, you'll sacrifice a lot. Too much, I think. You have to do it not so well and be a bit of a disappointment. Tough. They'll get over it. You have a duty to live your life.

The song "Confessions of a MILF" reminds me of a documentary a friend of mine worked on called Who Does She Think She Is?, in which female artists talk about having to make a choice between being all-out artists and having children. Do you think women have to choose, in a way that men don't?

Guilt guilt guilt coming your way if you are an artist and a mother. Everything I've read on the subject, every woman feels she's let her kids down – from Yoko Ono to Louise Bourgeois and Niki De Saint Phalle.

If you have a partner who does not support you in your work, it is impossible. You cannot function as either an artist or a mother. You have to get out.

What is your songwriting process?

I write songs in different ways. Sometimes they slide out ready done. Two drafts and they are there. This type of song comes from the unconscious. I didn't know it was there. It's bizarre. Like someone else wrote it. It will start with words, a flow of thoughts that I don't analyze or edit. Every bit of rubbish, I write down. No judging. I will have a pain or burning feeling in my chest. Or a flutter of excitement or buzz of transgression. I won't look at it again for a couple days. It's too embarrassing, I think. Then, when I go back, I take out the bits that repeat or pad. It has to be succinct. This can be painful – losing sections that are heartfelt – but you have to be brutal. That is the legacy of the Seventies for me: strictness, directness, honesty, and meaning. I still find the song embarrassing, but i have learnt to live with this feeling. These are often the songs that touch people most.

Do you have any advice for girls in the arts?

Find out if you really are compelled to do it. To express yourself creatively.

If you are this sort of person and you deny it – by trying to conform, trying to fit in, trying to please, trying to impress, trying to be rich. By being too scared to fail, to look stupid, to make mistakes, to be criticised, to be ridiculed, to look ugly, to look unfeminine, to be lonely ... you will live a long, slow, and painful death of a life. Good luck with that!

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