Each week, “A Change of Tune” host Joni Deutsch chats with up-and-coming artists and gives Spotify-like music recommendations in a feature called “Recommended If You Like.” This week, Joni interviews London-based ethereal pop group Woman's Hour's Fiona Jane Burgess (vocals) about the songwriting process, 90's musicians, and the band’s new record, Conversations. If you like the swoon-worthy melodies of Beach House, this band and interview are recommended for you.
Joni: It seems like it’s been a long, interesting music process for you all.
Fiona: Yeah, in some ways, it feels like it took us a very long time. In other ways, it feels like it’s all happened quite quickly. Time is quite strange in that sense. We were definitely lucky enough to release some of the singles through some of the smaller labels first of all, which was really nice for us because it allowed us to begin to connect with people and share our music before we released the album.
Joni: From what I read of you all, it sounds like you released some music a little while ago and after getting some hype for it, you decided to fall back and retool your sound and image. That seems like such a unique strategy, moving away from the hype rather than towards it.
Fiona: I think it was because we just released one single, and it wasn’t actually planned to be released as a single. We were approached by a small label in London, and we were completely flattered, but also we were quite overwhelmed, so we just said yes to everything without even thinking about. We weren’t involved in the artwork or the video, and it happened quickly and out of our own control in many ways. It wasn’t that we were kind of bullied into it. We were very much welcoming of that. But as soon as the single was released and out there, we certainly were able to look at it with fresh eyes. We all felt similarly that it was still a work in progress, and although people were talking about it and showing interest, we just weren’t ready to receive that kind of attention. We all felt that if this was going to happen, we wanted to be more in control and we wanted to make sure that what we were releasing was a really good reflection of who we were as musicians and the type of music we wanted to move forward with. We just didn’t feel that we were there yet because even since we first recorded the demos, all of the music we were making had changed so much and developed so much. So we all decided, for the foreseeable future, to remove ourselves from the Internet and have any kind of presence, so we stopped playing any live shows and begun to say no for the first time. It was completely liberating, and we actually felt a sense of freedom and self-confidence that we hadn’t had.
J: It sounds so empowering that you were able to pause and refresh rather than rushing through a process half-heartedly. And now you can show your ideas in their full form on social media.
F: I’m sure there will be moments where we’ll retreat again because it feels healthy to have a bit of distance from the craziness and kind of instantness of social media. Although it’s great, it can be quite unproductive if your focus is on the instant. Sometimes you need a bit of time to reflect without the pressure of always having to be present. But at the moment, we’re really enjoying being able to connect with people. It’s so exciting for people to have a way to communicate with us, and I think that’s one of the brilliant things about social media now because it does allow for a personal engagement with fans that I don’t think you would have had in the same way in previous generations. I feel really fortunate to be able to do that.
J: How’s the last year been for you all with the new release and tour?
F: It’s been phenomenal and really, totally unexpected. We’ve been blown away by the opportunities that have been offered to us. If you had asked any of us a year ago where we thought we might be in a year’s time, we’re ambitious people but we’re quite realistic as well, and I think none of us would have thought it possible. Even just going to America and playing South by Southwest, I mean that was like a dream come true since it’s something all of us have always wanted to do. To actually be fortunate enough to go there and play that was mind-blowing. This time last year we were still working on our first record and even just finishing that and mapping the record. Then about three days later, we went on tour with Anna Calvi, then we went to America, and then we went on tour with Metronomy. We even just started working with a drummer, up until that point we had a drum machine, so it’s been a really nice development to work with a live drummer and develop our live show more, which I think has had a huge impact on all of us. It’s just been a constant kind of traveling, whether physical traveling or journeying in terms of being offered new opportunities, meeting amazing people, or just being able to play to new audiences, it’s been the biggest achievement.
J: I thought it made perfect sense for you all to tour with Metronomy. I would assume they would make for a great mentor and a great complement to your indie pop sound.
F: Yeah, and they are totally like mentors. They are just the nicest people. It was really incredible because you might think people of that status wouldn’t be, who have really earned their credibility as musicians, and they were just so welcoming and really made us feel like we deserved to be there and we were welcome. We definitely learned a lot from watching them night after night and their energy and passion and amazing atmosphere they created at their shows. It was really, really amazing to see.
J: So South by Southwest was your first stateside tour. How’d it feel having a new audience in the states?
F: American audiences are great. They are so much more vocal than European audiences, particularly UK audiences. I mean, I love playing in the UK, but you really have to work the audiences to get them to communicate. In America, the first thing I noticed was how friendly and welcoming the American audiences were. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was an energy that was there. People weren’t afraid to come up to us afterwards and talk to us and tell us they enjoyed the show, which was really new. People in the UK are really shy and very polite and don’t really come up to you, but it’s so nice for people to come up, say they enjoy it, and want to have a conversation with you. We really came away buzzing, and we’re really looking for coming back there as well.
J: Was there any kind of food or particular place in America that you enjoyed?
F: We experienced breakfast tacos in Austin, which was quite amazing. [Laughing] We had them every morning, I think. When we were in New York, we did fairly touristy things: we went to Central Park, we went along the High Line, we went to visit some art museums like the Whitney. Oh, and we went to Katz’s and got a pastrami sandwich, which was amazing. [Laughing] Everything tastes better when you’re on holiday, and it kind of felt like a holiday because it was like being in the movies or something. It was very fleeting as well, all a bit of a dream, so we’re looking forward to maybe spending a bit more time there and eating a few more different foods.
J: Listening to Conversations, I heard a lot of lyrics about seeing ghosts, slipping away, and letting go. The music’s lyrics are a bit dark but the music itself is soothing. Can you talk about the inspiration for the music?
F: In terms of the lyrics, me and my brother [William Burgess, Woman’s Hour’s guitarist] share writing the lyrics, but sometimes one of us will write all of the lyrics to a song and the other person might look over it. Often our notepads are a way for us to make sense of the world and make sense of events that may have happened or memories that we’ve had or situations that we’ve found ourselves in. We use writing as a way to reflect on those situations. A lot of people ask us about this reflective kind of way of writing, and I just think it’s not something we’ve ever thought about, but now that I’m able to have the habit of hindsight from it, I can see that probably the way we write is us trying to make sense of our own histories in some ways. I think that runs through the record. Also, I suppose that making the record, it was written over the course of two years, and I suppose within that time, we were all living in London, and from a practical perspective, it’s one of the most expensive cities to live in the world. We were all struggling to pay our rent and struggling to survive as a band and questioning whether or not we had made the right decisions. As a result, we had to make a lot of sacrifices in our personal lives and socially and in many perspectives. We were taking a huge risk as well, with a fear of failure and social and cultural success, especially in London since there is such a pressure to be successful. From a practical perspective, I feel like those factors and circumstances surrounding the record are really integral to the way it communicates. I suppose I prefer to not delve too much into the intricacies and very intimate stories or situations behind the songs because I prefer to leave listeners with an opportunity to make what they want of the songs and be able to engage with them in their own personal way. In my experience of having records that I fall in love with in a really intimate way, when I’m suddenly told that my reading of it is wrong and it doesn’t mean this and it should mean that, it can be really damaging as a listener and can take away from the enjoyment of making your own response to a record. I think that’s something I feel quite strongly about.
J: I respect that. Your music has a nice vagueness to it that allows anyone to paint a picture of what they want it to be.
F: I think that actually, subconsciously, there is definitely an element of ambiguity that runs throughout the whole record. It’s this thing that so many people, when they hear the songs, respond to in dramatically different ways. When we first put out “Our Love has No Rhythm” on the Internet, some of the responses were like, “This is the most beautiful love song,” and then another handful of people would say, “This is such a heartbreaking song and so sad.” It was really interesting for us to see how so many people can interpret the songs. I love that, and we love that songs can be so ambiguous and have so many different meanings. I think that’s important to allow those different interpretations to exist in the world and for neither of them to right or wrong.
J: In terms of interpretations, it seems like you’re getting a lot of comparisons to The XX and Beach House. What do you think about people interpreting your music to bands in a similar genre?
F: I really struggle to describe our music because I’ve never been very good at describing music in general because it’s such an intangible thing that you feel. Whenever people ask me what kind of music we are, I always just describe the instruments that we play as a way of giving them an idea of what kind of sounds those instruments create, but I always try to avoid comparing us to other bands because I feel like it’s not our job. None of us ever sat down at the beginning of this process and thought, “Right, so who do we want to sound like?” In fact, we made a conscious effort to not listen to so much music when making the record because there’s so much pressure to be aware of other contemporary musicians and making sure not to copy anybody and creating something new and authentic and original. We didn’t want to be persuaded by other contemporary music to do not do something or do something, so we deliberately retreated from that a little bit. I feel like people are always going to make comparisons because people like to compartmentalize, put them in a box, and make it easy for people on Spotify to choose a genre and then guide them to other similar-sounding music. That’s the world that we live in, there’s no stopping that, but I guess as an artist, I don’t see it as my role to describe our music. I leave that for other people.
J: Now that the record is out, are you listening to other contemporary musicians?
F: I can’t stop listening to The War on Drugs. Their new record [Lost in the Dream] blows my mind, and I think all of us in the band are obsessed with it. I’ve been listening to Nils Frahm, he’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s essentially piano music but electronic as well. He creates these incredibly dynamic, atmospheric sounds that are just mind-blowing. I would really recommend it.
J: You’re the first female musician I’ve talked to in a while. I’d love to hear your experiences as a young, female artist in the music industry.
F: It is a very male-dominated industry, and although time’s are changing and there are more women involved in all aspects of the industry, I would say that it’s like most industries in the world by still being dominated by men. Often, the woman is either the lead singer or she’s invisible. As a woman, you can’t help but feel self-conscious to some extent, and because you’re part of the minority, it feels like there’s more pressure. As a feminist, I think that it’s really important that more women are inspired to be involved in the music industry, and I think that the women who are working in different areas of the music industry are very inspiring people. In fact, we’ve made quite a conscious decision to have a female tour manager, female sound engineer, two female managers, and a female representative at the label. That decision was obviously due to their immense talent, but I think there’s something quite inspiring to be surrounded by so many passionate and talented women in an industry saturated by men. And I think it’s really important for women in the industry to talk about their experiences because often I feel like it’s not something that women feel is appreciated by the wider public. Artists like Grimes and the lead singer of Chvrches wrote articles last year that spoke out about being women in the industry and the abuses they received from a lot of male fans. I found it really, really sad and kind of horrifying to read, but I also found it really important that they were able to speak out and give their perspectives of what it’s like to be women in the industry. I have no idea if I’ll ever receive the kind of abuses they've received, but it’s important that our voices are heard. In future years, it’ll equal itself out a bit, but at the moment, I definitely feel aware of the fact that there aren’t many women.
J: Do you have anything you’d like to say about your band or music that people may not know about?
F: Yeah, I am very involved in the artwork and videos that we make. I’ve co-directed both of our music videos, and as a band, it’s really quite important for us to be involved in every aspect of what we do, and the visual aspect of our work is important to us. It’s been amazing to do that. So our videos, check them out! Hopefully you’ll enjoy them and be able to learn something about us as people. Since we are so involved with that side of our work, it’s hopefully a reflection of who we are in the style and the kind of way we’ve create the visual accompaniment to our music.
J: And the final question: if you could pick a boy band or pop singer from the 90’s, which one would you side with and why? I’ll be up-front and say I’m an ‘N SYNC fan.
F: I used to love ‘N SYNC! I used to listen to “Bye, Bye, Bye” on repeat as a teenager. Oh gosh, I don’t know though. I think I would go with Christina Aguilera because she’s slightly outrageous and dares to be a bit different. Watching her videos as a teenager and seeing this kind of feistiness at the time, I quite liked to see it in a female singer. Although I’d probably choose Blur as a 90’s boy band, actually. I was obsessed with Damon Albarn. My brother Will [Burgess] introduced me to them, and I fell head over heels in love. So Blur would probably be my dream band.
Woman's Hour will soon embark on their fall tour. You can follow their musical adventures on www.womanshourband.co.uk/. To hear a selection from their new record, tune in to Joni Deutsch’s “A Change of Tune” this Saturday at 10 PM EST on West Virginia Public Radio.