Brighton rockers Black Honey are a band of dandy dreamers living the DIY dream on a shoestring – but the album they’re working on, with strings and horns and ‘Parisian noir’ inspiration – sees them reaching for the sky. As they play NME’s Girls To The Front, Elizabeth Aubrey meets them to hear how ADHD, Billie Eilish and a hatred of the pop world forged their sound and fuels their work. PICTURES: Chloe Hashemi
“FEMALE IS NOT A FUCKING GENRE!”
Izzy Baxter-Phillips is shouting in the basement of London’s Shacklewell Arms, an hour before she’s due to headline NME’s Girls to the Front night where, as it’s a series of gigs designed to show the industry there’s plenty of women out there making excellent music, conversation has turned to the Brighton group’s own experiences.
“We get labelled a ‘female-fronted band’ as if that’s a genre,” guitarist Chris Ostler says, wearily. “What is a female-fronted band? Fuck off! It’s a band. You don’t have a ‘male-fronted band’, do you? You just have a band.”
Izzy has just explained that she is often refused entry into her own gigs because security staff are sceptical she’s a member of the Brighton four-piece, even when carrying her backstage pass and guitar. “I guess I must look like a really fucking eccentrically dressed groupie,” she deadpans, before her black humour turns quickly to exasperation. “It’s just really patronising, not being able to get in. Usually I’m having to scream at some security guy: ‘You fucking sexist!’ before I can get in to play at my own fucking gig.”
Her experiences have left a mark. Later, on stage in the packed-out venue, Izzy delivers a message to her audience. “To every girl in the fucking world: you are more strange and perfect than you’ll ever fucking know. If anyone ever tries to tell you differently – walk away.”
She pauses before jumping off stage and into the crowd, the moment feeling like a cathartic release. Izzy later explains it was important for her to say it, having found herself in situations where she too has needed to walk away from negative influences. “Now, I’ll just tell such people to go fuck themselves. I’m very determined on that.”
It wasn’t always that way. Shortly after arriving at the venue, Izzy recalls how she was terrified of starting a band in her teens because she had no idea if it was something girls did. “I was so shit scared of starting a band with all boys,” Izzy says, while setting up equipment ready for their performance.
“I was like ‘are pedals things that just guys use? Are my hands too small to hold a guitar? Can I do this if I’m a woman?’ With more girls in bands, it will breed a whole new generation of confident women coming through – I can’t wait for that day.” Her experiences, she says, have left her with a clear message for young women starting out in the industry.
“Don’t pretend that you’re more stupid than you are to make men feel better. You know about gear, you know about how something sounds, you know how to EQ something, you know reverb, you know how a pedal fucking works – you just press buttons! You don’t have to have a dick to do that. You can be whoever you want to be.” In Black Honey, gender is nothing when it comes to band dynamics. “They don’t see me as a girl and I don’t see them as guys; we’re all just people and we’re in a band together. Gender doesn’t come into it at all.”
Tommy, Chris and Tom all echo Izzy’s sentiment. Having been friends for a decade before forming a band – Moon Kill first, then Black Honey – their closeness as a unit is palpable. “The safest place for creativity is in this band,” Izzy explains. “I’ve never been in a safer situation.”
Prior to starting a band with Chris when they studied music together at university (Tom and Tommy joined from other bands later on), Izzy hadn’t received much in the way of creative support – especially at school.
“Creativity is really weird: I remember being in school doing songwriting lessons and I wrote a lyric about feeling numb. This girl at school ripped into me and said it was shit. She didn’t hear anything about me feeling numb, about it being a relatable thing: she just scathed me for having an emo perspective and tried to destroy me for it. It actually really traumatised me for ages and I wish I could just go back in time and tell her to go fuck herself. That girl was trying to bully me.”
The experience still stings, but has made Izzy more appreciative of the support she has now –though it wasn’t always easy in the band’s formative days. “We had every fight under the sun before we started Black Honey and got it out of our system, so it was easy days once we started properly. I’d have hated to have had all those teething problems out on the road,” Izzy says.
Chris and Izzy were friends for over 10 years before the band. When I ask how they met, Izzy starts telling a fantastical tale about being bitten by a shark and Tommy and Chris saving her. Actually, says Tommy, “We were all living together in a squat in Dalston.” Flights of fancy are a common thing for Black Honey, who often forge imaginary, escapist worlds in their songwriting. “I have to live in a sort of fantasy to cope with reality. There’s a real escapism in that,” Izzy replies.
Black Honey songs are vignettes of pulp fictions, art house movies and spaghetti westerns where the dark parts of human nature are explored. Link Wray, Nancy Sinatra, The Contours, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas and Ennio Morricone are all cited as influences, so too are Nirvana, Amy Winehouse and The Jesus and Mary Chain, and the films they watch together, a student-friendly mix of Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch and Wes Anderson.
Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in her teenage years, dealing with her many ideas and inspirations can often feel like an avalanche in her mind. She says it feels like torrents of thoughts fall quickly before being swept up and whirled around in her head, gaining more speed and destructive power the longer the process goes on.
Learning how to filter them took time but has ultimately now brought her to her strongest place as a writer. “It would be really bad if you had a disorder that makes you lethargic all the time,” Izzy smiles. “I think the trouble is knowing when to stop and knowing when to not fuck yourself up because I can go and go. I still feel like I’m lazy and unproductive though; I always feel like I’m not doing enough.”
It’s a week after the Shacklewell Arms gig and we’re sat in a tiny rehearsal room in West London. Izzy is scrolling through her phone and laptop as she explains what it’s like creating with ADHD. She reveals hundreds of mood boards and collages made up of sounds, images and videos, each helping with the immediacy at which she must document her ideas. Each board essentially forms the basis of a song; she has dozens of notebooks, too. “My ADHD is kind of explosive,” Izzy says.
Despite having hundreds of ideas, formulating them into workable songs proved harder. A breakthrough, Izzy explains, came whilst supporting Royal Blood on tour and working with the band’s Mike Kerr. Whereas Izzy had previously liked to work quite formulaically by sitting for hours at a desk and writing until ideas emerged, she thinks observing Kerr’s more spontaneous style of songwriting helped to change her own style for the better.
“He stays up late all night drinking red wine at a piano and writes as and when the ideas come. Whereas I’d drink lots of coffee whilst sat at a desk in the day writing for a rigid, set amount of time. Now I have a weird mix of the two, of some order and some spontaneity. I’ve got to a point now where I’m writing really quickly which is such a huge breakthrough for me because I’m such a slow writer: it’s taken my whole life to get out of that. Someone said to me the other day ‘it’s like you’re just getting started’ and it really does feel like that. I know we’ve put out an album already but it feels like we’re at the beginning of something.”
The band released their self-titled debut last September to widespread acclaim. Choosing not to release earlier, to play the long game, to wait until it felt right, paid off, in Izzy’s opinion. Now, riding this new wave of creativity, they’ve already begun work on album two – and the first single, ‘I Don’t Ever Want to Love’ is coming this summer.
In the studio, Izzy excitedly plays a selection of the new songs, talking through the ideas behind each in detail. “It’s very Parisian noir, very sulky,” she says. It’s a good description until, moments later, another new song filters the noir through a technicolour lens, bringing joy and light to their otherwise darker leanings.
“This is the most daytime song I’ve ever written,” she says, before hand-jiving to its upbeat, sound, like David Lynch taking the characters of Twin Peaks to the beach. “I’ve loved, loved, writing it,” Izzy says. “I think we were always leaning towards doing this. It suits me. I feel like I’m myself in it, like this is me. It’s a bit more like a take on a caricature of myself but everything in the songwriting is legit. It’s desperation from my inner soul. That’s not fake: you can’t fake that shit.”
The lyrics are personal and more autobiographical (“I’m only happy when you’re sad / I’m only falling when I’m falling bad”) which Izzy thinks has come from a newfound confidence. Whereas their debut toyed with a shuffle-culture like array of styles and sounds, their second largely follows a more singular vision – and incorporates grandiose-sounding strings and brass. “It feels like where we are now is where we’ve always wanted to be in our heads,” says Tommy.
Izzy agrees: “Everything we’re doing is like one thing now rather than lots of different things. This next album is my best friend, my obsession.”
Black Honey aren’t just making music: they’re also the creative force behind their own art-house videos, images, style and look, thanks to still being an unsigned, DIY band. Forming their own label, Fox Five, the band grew a following with an unorthodox approach to marketing. Their first single release wasn’t accompanied by a press release but by a direct hotline to the band. They still meet their fans in person and have creative control over almost every aspect of their artistry. “I just don’t think I will ever do stuff in the traditional way that other artists do them,” Izzy says. “We’re very self-sufficient. If someone gave us a fuck load of money I’d be like ‘yeah, maybe’, but we’d still have to be in creative control and we would still have to walk our own path.”
Each member still balances making music with day jobs; all want to be able to do the former without the latter. Izzy works in a vintage clothes and record shop, which explains her never-ending supply of cool vintage looks. All the profits from live shows goes back into production and sound. “In a weird way, sometimes doing a crap job behind a desk actually makes you value this so much more,” Tom says. “When you’re in a mind-numbingly boring day job it actually makes you want to splurge more creatively when you get to work on music,” Chris adds.
They’re keenly aware that young musicians are finding it hard to break even in the current climate, but refuse to be held back by it. “I think there’s so many more things to campaign about alongside saying ‘fuck the government’ for not investing in music stuff, because at the end of the day music is a luxury,” Izzy says. “People need to pay rent and survive, it’s a very indulgent job to have and there’s so many more problems that need to be sorted out before me being too concerned with how hard done-by musicians are in the world. But then, music keeps people alive doesn’t it? It gives them hope where there is maybe none.”
Whose music do they find hope in? “I’m obsessed with Billie Eilish,” Chris says. Izzy reckons they don’t really listen to other musicians: they study them. “The thing we find interesting about Billie Eilish’s work is that it’s sparse but also very relatable and modern. As an outsider and someone that feels like I can’t relate to anyone most of the time, it’s quite a good study on what people really feel like: I can kind of understand people through her a bit better.”
Most “ordinary pop” is still a turn off. “Nothing offends me more than a safe, middle of the road, on-the-fence conception of a band,” says Izzy. “And I fucking hate beige pop. We naturally stand for something, but the pop world is just vapid. People from that world often jump on the feminist cause too whilst doing the actual opposite thing to what it’s about.” Pop’s emphasis on image has inadvertently affected what a “frontwoman” can be, she believes. “The role of the ‘frontwoman’ is still a really small box that is confusing for people if you don’t fit the prototypes. You cannot be both romantic and powerful, you have to be angry and shouty or an oozy, sexy heartthrob – to be both of these things is confusing for people because of the stereotypes. I think I’d be really successful if I just did the whole monosyllabic narrative of what people think women should be, but I won’t do that.”
What can the music industry do to better shatter the ceilings? “To the music industry I would say employ female CEOs of corporations and major labels,” Izzy begins. The heads of the companies, the people calling the shots, the people objectifying women in this industry is still coming from the Billy Big Bollocks up at the top. So let’s fire those guys, get some young girls in and then we’ll actually have an industry that might even pay its artists equally.”
Izzy is angry but less at the music industry and more at a society that allows such systems to perpetuate. “I don’t feel angry because of this stuff, I feel like it’s more of a reflection of a bigger cultural shift that needs to happen: music is just a microcosm of a bigger narrative. You can be really angry at festival bookers and shake your fists in the air but six million women worldwide are experiencing FGM. We’re not suffering; it’s menial shit in comparison.”
And what about the future? The band are excited for their new album, which could be released as early as this year. “We try not to think about the future too much,” Tommy says. “I think you’re in danger of letting yourself go through the motions, thinking about what boxes you need to tick to get to Brixton Academy,” he says.
Stepping up to play venues like the Electric Ballroom and Manchester Academy last year meant the band finally started to believe some of their successes, having been almost afraid to previously. “We did a lot of our biggest ever headline shows and sold out rooms all over the country; it felt like such an honour,” Chris says, describing the experience as “overwhelming…humbling.”
“It’s an exciting time,” he adds. “I think we’ve really enjoyed pulling ourselves out of our comfort zone and pushing ourselves in a weird direction and just seeing where it went. Exploring the weirdness has been fun.” Before Izzy hits play on the most out there track from their latest album in the studio, it’s clear the weirdness is suiting them well. “I feel like the best bit is yet to come,” Izzy smiles. “I think that’s what is most exciting.”
Back at the Shacklewell Arms, Izzy invited all the girls to the front before joining them on the dancefloor, thrashing wildly to the chorus of ‘Corinne.’ “We’re all in this together,” she told them, as hands raised in unison. Later, Izzy shares a photograph capturing the moment: she’s knelt down on the dancefloor, dishevelled post-mosh. Her accompanying caption feels like a manifesto: “Ladylike can go fuck itself!”