Gina Birch of post-punk pioneers The Raincoats has spoken to NME about the release of her long-awaited debut solo album ‘I Play My Bass Loud’, and what to expect from her upcoming live shows.
The musician, visual artist and filmmaker released her solo debut last month via Third Man Records and is set to kick off some UK live dates later this month. “It’s thrilling – it’s nothing I thought I’d be doing this time last year,” Birch told NME of going it alone.
She compared the feeling to a point in the early 1990s, when she had thought she had turned her back on performing in order to focus on her work directing music videos for other bands (she would go on to work with The Libertines, New Order, Beth Orton and more).
“I was in the edit suite, I think I was working on a video for The Pogues, and the phone rang,” she recalled. “It was [music agent] Russell Warby, who asked, ‘Would The Raincoats like to go on tour with Nirvana?’ It seemed mad, like ‘I’m making films, what the fuck?’ But it also seemed mad not to do it. In a way I feel a bit like this with the album. I’ve got a fantastic painting studio that I haven’t been to for about three months!”
Although he died before the tour could take place, Kurt Cobain was one of the most notable fans of Birch’s now-legendary trio, and wrote about his love for them on the sleeve notes of 1992’s ‘Incesticide’ compilation.
Though she had been writing and home recording the material that would become her new album for some time, it would be another encounter with a high-profile fan – this time David Buick of Jack White’s Third Man Records – that led to her return to music.
“I was making songs on my computer, and every now and then it would cross my mind that it would be nice to do something with them, but it was a chance meeting with Dave that prompted it,” she said. Third Man Records were looking to release a one-off seven inch release, “and I was like ‘yeah, I’ve got this material, let’s do it!’ Then we talked about doing more stuff, and Bob’s your uncle!”
That single, the meditative ‘Feminist Song’, appears on the album, and reflects one of the enduring themes not only of the record, but Birch’s career. Across tracks like ‘I Am Rage’ and ‘Pussy Riot’ – written in tribute to the Russian punk collective – gender politics are also highly prevalent.
“There’s a level of defiance [on the album], about what [women] have to wear, or how we have to be,” Birch said. “For young women, particularly when I was growing up, there was this idea that you had to keep your mouth shut, not upset the apple cart. Obviously there’s a lot going on in different parts of the world, and my concerns seem very small by comparison, but small things can be interesting too.”
Birch enlisted five different female bassists to perform on the record’s title track, including Jane Crockford of post-punk band The Mo-dettes, and Angel Olsen band member Emily Elhaj. “So much of their personalities came out on that song.” Birch explained that the song is not only intended to platform her fellow musicians, but also as a comment on the relationship between women and the bass guitar.
“I feel like at first I played bass in The Raincoats because it meant I wouldn’t have to be the central focus, but then I in fact realised that I loved playing melody, not just the anchoring notes,” she said. “I think for a lot of women, there may be a slight self esteem issue there. So for [the lyrics] of that song, I imagined myself playing my bass loud, raising the window high and yelling across the street.”
Mutual support among female musicians is important to Birch. In the 1990s, The Raincoats were often cited as an influence for riot grrrl bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill – artists who have inspired Birch again in turn.
“Young women musicians, if they went back to 1977, might be surprised at how odd people would find them if they wanted to play guitar,” said Birch. “That’s why The Raincoats was great for us, because we were part of little tribes of women who understood each other.
“We weren’t the best musicians, but we were going to do it our own way, and that was really powerful for us. In a way that’s what’s enabled us to have this kind of longevity, because what we made was a bit off the beaten track.”
The album also delves into personal territory. On ‘Wish I Was You,’ for instance, Birch writes about imposter syndrome, while on ‘And Then It Happened’, she addresses feelings of almost losing purpose following recent brushes with cancer, and then finding it again through her art.
In general, she said that she finds the best way to react creatively is with a sense of playfulness. “That’s kind of my personality,” admitted Birch. “Often I’m quite motivated by humour and silliness. The last painting I did was about this melanoma I had removed from my right leg. When the surgeon said I was going to have a big scar, I laughed because it was going to match the scar I had on the left that I got when I was a baby. I think humour can be a catalyst for bigger or more serious things.”
The album’s sense of fun manifests itself in a playful disregard for genre, jumping from dub reggae to punk and electronica. This was partly thanks to the production work of Martin Glover, aka Youth, who also co-wrote some of the album’s instrumentals. “Youth really encouraged me to be me,” Birch said. “He’s a very enthusiastic person about other people’s creativity, and he boosted me up to feel that what I was doing was valuable.”
She continued: “He always said he liked my bad guitar playing, and I’m very fond of imperfections myself, but at first it was daunting. We recorded in one room with the microphone in the middle, stood and played guitar and sang. I was like, ‘Oh my god, can I do this? Can I sing In tune? Why have I got five sausages on my hand instead of nimble fingers?’ But as we progressed I got more and more comfortable. It was good having Youth there, because if I’d been doing it on my own I’d have filled my head with too many choices.
“We were just moving forward all the time. We made the record quite quickly because we weren’t clutching and wondering what to do. But then, I’ve learned from many years of experience, that sometimes you’ve got to just get over yourself to jump off the cliff and see what happens.”
Earlier this year, Birch contributed illustrations to a book of lyrics by Sharon Van Etten, while last October she held her first solo painting show at South London’s Gallery 46. Following her forthcoming run of live shows, she said she hopes to return to other art forms. “I’m doing a bit of something with film, and I’ve got a few paintings to do.”
She added: “I’ve also got half a dozen other pieces of music. A lot of them are about moments in time, I’ve got a brilliant epic about the Occupy movement, so there’s a little bit of me that would like to do a ‘slices of history’ style album. What’s great is I’ve got all these different things, and as long as I stay healthy and I’ve got a bit of energy, there’s no rush.”
‘I Play My Bass Loud’ is out now via Third Man Records. Birch’s upcoming run of solo tour dates begins on March 21. See dates below and get tickets here.
21 – Brighton – The Hope & Ruin
22 – London – Oslo
24 – Glasgow – The Hug And Pint
25 – Dublin – Whelan’s
27 – Leeds – Brudenell Social Club