Interview: Madame So.
"I played an Indie Rock all-dayer gig the other day and as expected I was the only woman and Black person on the line-up, and of course I had to open, just like girls are expected to, I suppose..."
A while ago I was reviewing the compilation album Loud Women Vol.1 when I got to Track 15 by someone called Madame So, the song was ‘Black Is Beautiful’, and having listened to it a few times I wrote “this is really very good indeed! Multi layered pop rock, great languid vocals, chiming guitar, inventive, captivating”. Other people have written equally complimentary, though far more insightful, things about Madame So’s contribution. Checking out her music online it turns out that track is the tip of an iceberg which includes her recent release, a mesmerising version of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’
A while later at a social centre in North London I caught her live, performing as a two piece with drummer Giova, and again the quality of her song writing stood out in a set of scuzzy guitar rock/pop. Afterwards we chatted about punk, cultural expectations, The Tomboys and getting an interview together, which we then did!
(((o))): Could you give us the backstory on Madame So? How long have you been making music? When did you ‘become’ Madame So?
Well, I used to write for various magazines, reviewing gigs and interviewing musicians…I thought that was the closest outlet there was for me to get exposed to as much music as possible. During that time, I got to hang out with some buzzing bands on the London scene at the time and I kind of developed an itch for performing my own stuff. I played my first ever gig circa 2011 and have played ever since. I recorded my first demos in the summer of 2012, then they developed into The Sell-by Date EP which I put out in 2013 under the stage name of Madame So, even though, this is not so much a stage name as such as my parents have called me that since I was about three years old.
(((o))): Who would you list as musical influences?
Foundations in my musical make-up include Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Garland Jeffreys, Patti Smith , Billie Holliday, Fats Domino and all that cool indie stuff like The Replacements, Liz Phair, The Lemonheads, L7 and Hole, as well as some French music (Serge Gainsbourg, Renaud, Christophe Miossec)
(((o))): Did you have a fairly clear idea of the sound you were aiming for from the start or has it evolved?
Not really. When I was performing the acoustic circuit in London, my stuff was already branded “punk” by promoters and other bands who associate acoustic guitar solely with the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Nick Drake… While when writing a song I never had “punk” in mind: for me it was just me writing a song on the guitar. I like guitars. I did not have any particular “sound” in mind, I just wanted to flesh my songs out into a full -band performance, and I got to work with musicians (of the band Paintings of Ships) who got my vibe and with whom I recorded The Sell-by Date EP. On It’s Not Even A Colour, my second EP, I had the likes of Gang Four and Lush in mind.
(((o))): Starting with The Sell-By Date EP in 2013 you’ve had about 10 tracks out in various forms, what sort of subject matter do you explore in your music?
The narrative of my songs tend to revolve around the themes of alienation, addiction and the war on conformity.
(((o))): What inspires and influences your lyric writing? Books, films, your own experiences?
A mixture of these three. I’m a big daydreamer with a keen interest in words and poetry , so lyrics are something I give high importance to in a song. I like to dig out the poetry in/from the grit, and a genius at that was my favourite-ever author, Charles Bukowski. I have just finished his book of poetry, ‘On Love’: it’s brilliant.
(((o))): Your song ‘Black is Beautiful’ seems to explore the pressures to conform with expected cultural norms-is that what it’s about?
Yes, that’s one way of seeing it. Ultimately, it’s a big shout out about the fact that being black doesn’t have to be one-dimensional. Not every Black person is brought into this world as an all Beyonce/Rihanna/Tyler Perry’s films loving package just because they are born Black. And that it’s OK to be Black and choose guitars over beats and spits . As we speak, a pillar in Rock Music has died (Chuck Berry) and fair to say a lot of melanin ran in his blood!
(((o))): Did you have to fight hard to resist those pressures? The conflating of culture and skin colour…!?
I don’t see the combination of being Black and liking guitars as a pressure or a contradiction per se at all – that again, is a mainstream concept . Yes, when it comes to being a musician today, I could have, like I have been suggested to by Black and White friends and acquaintances alike, have gone the easy, predictable and expected R’n’B/Hip Hop route; but I am a musician, not a poseur, so best make music I can genuinely express myself through instead of being a fraud to my own self. The only pressure, if we want to call it that, is being faced with people’s narrow-mindedness and simplism.
(((o))): Earlier this year you released a very interesting rearrangement of Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. How did you decide on that reinterpretation? Was your decision to release it as a single a kind of homage?
I was playing a couple of shows in Paris in 2015, and wanted to stretch my set a little. I’ve always loved this song ever since I was little, and for me the best covers are the ones that go in opposite directions from the originals (a band like Nouvelle Vague is a master at that so much so they based their entire career on making covers) . For me, it would have been way too predictable to have recreated the saxophones and kept the song “danceable”. I just wanted to focus on the brilliance and purity of Bowie’s songwriting less the flashy production however great it is. When I recorded this cover in spring 2015, I had no idea what he was going through but my own mother was undergoing chemotherapy… She passed four months before him. So it’s an homage to both of them, really.
(((o))): Originally Riot Grrrl was a reaction to the US punk scene being predominantly straight white male, with all the attendant problems that brings. How have you experienced the UK DIY/punk scene, is it an easy space to be a (black) women?
Well, from my perspective the scene still is very white and very male. I played an Indie Rock all-dayer gig the other day and as expected I was the only woman and Black person on the line-up, and of course I had to open, just like girls are expected to, I suppose… I do indeed still occasionally, get the looks of surprise, intrigue and even discomfort from white boys territory pissing, but it still hasn’t fazed me.
(((o))): A lot of female musicians seem to experience a degree of sexism, an essentialist assumption that because they are a woman their musicianship will be less than a man’s! What’s your experience as a musician in the grassroots DIY scene been like?
Yes, like I hinted earlier, it does still feel that being a female musician means that you’re only owed to perform support slots, open for supposedly more worthy male acts. Plus, there always seems to be this air of surprise every time a female musician is actually proficient at their instrument… this ancient idea that musicianship is the territory of the alpha-male …. Or the patronising comments about my music being “sunny” just because it is melodic … the usual nonsense.
(((o))): It seems to me that there has been a real upsurge in feminist punk bands and Riot Grrrl over the last couple of years-is that true or was I just missing it!?
Yes, possibly. While it’s great to see people being interested in seeing more women on stages, I feel these two terms are being overused, engraved in nostalgia and somewhat redundant, every time women pick up guitars and have something to say through songs they actually do write. As an artist, I do not feel the need to brand myself as a feminist or a punk or a riot grrrl, really: I make music for people to listen to if they are so inclined-full stop, without the need to justify myself for it.
(((o))): What are your plans for 2017 -are you going to be out playing live, what plans do you have for releases..an album?
Yes, I’ll keep on performing live, currently with my drummer, Giova, and then we’ll expand the line-up into a four piece for bigger gigs, hopefully festivals, and aim to have recorded that long-overdue debut album by the end of the year.
Photo by Crawford Blair.