Interview // Anna Meredith
Rosie Davies talks to Scottish Album Of The Year winner Anna Meredith about her latest project.
People are, apparently, surprised to find out that Anna Meredith’s music has been written by a woman. If her music was, God forbid, marketed by Nestlé she’d be a grab bag of Mexican Chilli McCoys or a Yorkie. NOT FOR GIRLS!!!! Lol.
It feels like a betrayal to something or someone to whisper, “Yeah, I can kind of see what they mean.”
Even the more recent tracks off Varmints, her first and award-winning album, which are softened by her startlingly delicate, endearingly childlike vocals – even these ones still have this feeling of giddy freedom, like you just know that the only thing that mattered was “hey, guys, listen to this cool sound?!” and that’s it, absolutely no Fs being given about anything other than immersive enjoyment in front of a massive sound desk… the very concept of which is so unfeminine.
I don’t mean feminine in a pastel or perfumed way, I mean it in terms of the brash, punky, menstrual-smearing alpha, too, and all shades in between; but I hope you know what I mean when I say that all these modes are defined in some way by being a woman, whether it’s exploring it or embodying its stereotypes or reacting against them or what.
This tinkering around with electronics in a dark basement for hours on end, not replying to texts, trawling the internet and falling into another dimension of time and all the other warning signs of a severe obsession with sound still remain very masculine symptoms. Making music which isn’t obviously about relationships or creating your own brand of yourself as a woman in some way remains a masculine thing. Yes, this is pretty much definitely society’s fault, but that’s another long discussion for another time.
For now, we’re talking harsh facts, and the fact is: thank god for exceptions such as Anna Meredith. One listen to any one of her tracks proves the point – but don’t just go for Nautilus, which is so obviously bombastic to the point that it’s like the track has been written after someone asked her “what do you think ‘bombastic’ sounds like?” at a party. Don’t just go for tracks such as R-Type, or new single The Vapours – both made of layered, full-on, synapse-coating stuff and even containing some right-on rock-out electric guitar – as if she’s making a big smiling dig at all those people sitting at home going “Man? Woman? Man? Man.”
Go for the less obvious proof, such as Taken – the raw, unpasteurised quality of the guitar, the insistent electronic arpeggios underlying the whole thing, threatening to build and grow into something thicker and more viscous (and watch – they do). It’s not as obviously bombastic as the others and yet that platforming of interesting sounds above all else still defines the whole thing. The video is basically people having tons of fun without having sex – a joy in the small things in life, like wearing different hats and tapping your feet and the splat of a fried egg and beans on buttery toast. It is also (I think) the only video in which her face, or bits of it, appear. Significant.
I read in another interview that her ideas come from the sort of images that might pop into your head unannounced on a long train journey – “seals at a disco” was one of my favourites – and then wondering what this might sound like. This is music with no agenda-setting, unless I’m really missing something, and certainly no gendered accoutrements. It’s music that says “let’s enjoy sounds and beans on toast and seals at discos and are there any other weird fun things that pop into your brain?”. It’s brilliant and refreshing and I understand why she is being heralded as this idiosyncratic and unplaceable talent. Let’s continue not to place her.
I think it’s almost come to the point where you can’t imagine anybody not saying they were a feminist any more – it feels like such an important word to reclaim. What seems now the very strange stigma associated with the word 10 odd years ago, when it felt like maybe more of a niche thing… Now it feels very important for women – and men too, for that matter – to be aware of the situation and actively do what they can about it.
The music industry is still often perceived as being quite a harsh, masculine-dominated world. You’ve had experience on both the classical and pop/electronic sides – what do you think? Are women still treated differently?
I’ve definitely noticed differences in the classical world more than the pop/electronic one, I’d say. But at least now in the classical world there is this brilliant generation of female composers in their 40s, and in their 20s as well – and that hopefully seems to be a building thing.
I don’t think I’ve noticed any active discrimination as such, but the thing that’s been quite consistent across all platforms of my music writing has been a kind of surprise that I write the music that I do because I’m female. Like, I’ve read on blogs and stuff, people saying, “Oh, when I heard that track I just assumed it was written by a guy” – because it’s loud, bombastic, y’know. It’s just such a surprising, sweeping statement to make – that women write pretty, delicate things and guys write the big stuff. I think there’s also an assumption sometimes that I’ll be a singer-songwriter, or that someone else might be doing the production. I want to try and make a point of using myself for all aspects, even something I’m not amazing at, like singing. I want to try and be in it all, fully culpable from start to finish in the process.
Interesting – do you think this desire has come from a need to prove yourself, as a woman? Or is it just your personality?
Ha, I don’t know… I’ve always been someone who really pushed myself with everything, and I like to take on new challenges, and I take the hard route every time… But I don’t know whether that’s about proving people wrong. I definitely get satisfaction about defying people’s expectations – but it’s hard to tell whether that’s come from a perceived expectation of what people think I should be doing. It’s probably a combination of both, but yeah, it’s definitely a part of my personality to want to keep pushing and do stuff that feels tricky just because it’s always a good idea to give things a go.
Having said that, and I don’t know if this is so much again about being a woman or a man, but there was definitely a feeling for a long time that I wasn’t “qualified” to say that I did electronics – and I mean “qualified”, in quotes – but I just felt like a bit of a fraud. I wasn’t making anything like that sort of early-2000s Warp stuff, and that’s what a lot of people, especially from that classical background, were writing. And I thought, I’ll just never be able to do that. It’s just not the kind of stuff I want to be doing. I guess it took me a really long time to recognise that, as with classical, any industry has its own niches and cliques and expectations and that I had to stand by the belief that what might be good for a group of people won’t necessarily be good for someone else.
So, yeah, it took me a really long time to be able to stand up and say, yes, I write electronics, yes, I do my own production, and to not be embarrassed. In fact, it took someone else offering to do production and for them to start talking about their ideas for me to think, “hang on, that’s not right at all…” and recognising that actually I did have the knowledge, I just didn’t have the confidence. It was about actually realising that what I’d already done was ok – just because someone else is maybe older, or more experienced, or more “qualified”, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re right.
As well as your profile rising, you went from being a fairly behind-the-scenes figure in the role of composer to being a live performer, with all that comes with it: people watching you on stage, music videos, photo shoots. Did you experience any pressure to do with the way you looked or dressed?
Hmm. I mean, I feel your standard, normal insecurities, feeling paranoid about the way you look, but nothing too bad. I think there’s actually more interest around my age, though. Nobody would care if I was a 38-year-old guy doing what I did – there are all kinds of guys in their 40s and 50s doing music – but with women, you’ve got Bjork and PJ Harvey, and then… It’s not exactly crawling. It’s different in the different musical worlds too – in the classical sphere I’m a young composer whereas I’m considered a “mature woman” in pop!
I try not to worry about any of it, because that’s a rabbit hole. I’m fully aware that I’m not a gorgeous 22-year-old; I am who I am, and that becomes a part of the whole presentation of yourself. What works for me is when we’re all on stage enjoying ourselves, all having a good time and people can see that joy in the performance. And that means trying to remove as many worries as I can – including worrying about how sexy I am.
Ha, actually, someone came up to me after a show in Spain – she was so nice – but she said: “I love that you are a normal woman! You’re not trying to look sexy, you’re so normal! You’re so down to earth and not trying to look attractive!” I wasn’t offended at all, I knew exactly what she meant and was trying to help her explain it, but she just kept saying, “You’re so ordinary!”
Do you think it also works the other way – that women who do enjoy dressing in a traditionally glamorous way then feel that people don’t pay attention to any other element of their act?
It’s just about whatever works for you. If I was someone who was massively glamorous the rest of the time, then it would be really important as I’d be creating a look that was true to the style and person that I was. If any woman – or guy – wants to try and create that kind of look that’s great. If I were to try and dress like a, like a… sexy tinfoil robot… maybe that would be something to think about. But people have actually said they like the juxtaposition in the live shows of these super bombastic loud sounds and then someone quite friendly and refreshing chatting away between tracks.
You’ve mentioned Bjork and PJ Harvey… Are there any women working in music – classical, pop, whatever – who you completely admire?
Bjork. I went and saw the VR exhibition just recently. What I love about her is that she keeps pushing. She does new collaborations, new takes on fashion, new takes on her own sound, who she’s going to perform with – with her holding the keys of production the whole way through. She goes from external influences to the last album which was so internal. She just seems very rigorous. That seems a bit of an academic word, I know, but I mean that she questions and pushes and wants to understand new technology.
It was amazing to grow up with someone a bit older who wasn’t part of a brand or fashion – she made her own brand. You buy into it, rather than it buying into fashion. It has its own landscape and its own culture. As a part of the exhibition they showed really early videos and it was amazing to see her at different ages and stages.
Encouraging young women matters to me a huge amount, especially when I’m teaching teenage girls – showing them that it’s OK to give stuff a go and experiment a bit. It could be so easy to go through your music education and never learn about any female composers, or most of the women you learning about being opera singers. I want to make sure they know about the women doing production, the ones playing other instruments in bands…It’s so important to know that you can give things a go and not feel limited by it being a failure or not being perfect, not to be scared of that. But that requires confidence. It’s about giving them permission to make something that isn’t perfect and just give something a go.