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Escape Velocity

Anger Management: Du Blonde Interviewed
John Freeman , June 2nd, 2015 12:16

Beth Jeans Houghton has left behind her old persona for new project Du Blonde. She tells John Freeman why it allowed her to "explode" on her incendiary new album Welcome Back To Milk

Photograph courtesy of Alice Baxley

Within approximately two thundering bars of lead single 'Black Flag', it's very, very apparent that Du Blonde is a throat-clearing, slate-wiping reboot of the artist formerly known as Beth Jeans Houghton. Previously - and lazily - pigeonholed as either a folk artist or a Laura Marling acolyte (she was never either), 'Black Flag' channels the fury of American hardcore (Houghton cites Bad Brains as an influence) and much of Du Blonde's shock-and-awe album Welcome Back To Milk seethes with unrepentant rage.

Personally, the anger that drives Welcome Back To Milk comes as little surprise. I first interviewed Beth in 2009 when she was 19. She was on top form and regaled me with tall tales about being related to Billy the Kid. Two years later we spoke again: we spent almost three hours on the phone and all was not well. Beth had spent time in L.A., and spoke of her anger and sadness about dishonesty and sexism she'd encountered within the music industry. She also revealed that her newer songs were a lot more "vicious" than anything she'd written for her debut album.

In 2012, I visited Beth in her hometown of Newcastle for a Quietus interview. She had just released, after numerous delays, the aforementioned debut album - the wonderfully baroque pop of "Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose" - recorded with her backing band, The Hooves Of Destiny. But, as we sat in a coffee shop in the city's student-land, Beth didn't seem overjoyed at the prospect of her first-born long player finally seeing the light of airplay. For her, the songs were old news.

Beth would then spend more time in L.A., where she would record a second album with The Hooves, before canning the record and disbanding them. She also suffered temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) that left her unable to sing, before a mix of transcendental meditation, a chunk of time spent away from music and inspiration from seeing David Bowie's chameleonic V&A exhibition catalysed the creation of Du Blonde.

So, when Beth and I speak for a fourth time, I'm thrilled at how relaxed and happy she seems. She remembers our epic phone conversation of 2011 ("I remember drinking quite a lot of wine") and seems genuinely delighted when I tell her how much I'm enjoying the new album. Du Blonde is more than a creative rebirth - it has given Houghton the opportunity to make her music her way.

Indeed, quite simply, Welcome Back To Milk is a triumph. Du Blonde is the sound of Beth Jeans Houghton unleashed and revelling in artistic freedom. Moreover, while tracks like 'Black Flag', 'Mr. Hyde' and the riotous 'Chips To Go' allow Houghton to vent and snarl, Welcome Back To Milk is much more than a primal noise-fest. 'Hunter' is a giant pop ballad, 'Raw Honey' is sun-kissed L.A. surf rock and the closing 'Isn't It Wild' - replete with a spoken-word intro courtesy of her 93-year-old grandfather - is a gorgeous requiem to eternal hope.

By the time Future Islands' Samuel T Herring pops up on the rousing psych pop of 'Mind Is On My Mind' all is perfectly clear - Du Blonde is the real Beth Jeans Houghton. Hear her roar.

Is Du Blonde about wiping the slate clean and starting again?

Beth Jeans Houghton: Absolutely. I went to L.A. to make a record at the end of 2012 with The Hooves Of Destiny. We made that and I wasn't happy with it. It didn't feel like it was me. It felt like it was a group effort, which was never my intention at all. I think I reached some kind of climax - and I'm struggling to word this - about how much input I could take from other people and how much I was willing to compromise. It got to the point where I couldn't even compromise even a tiny bit. So, I stopped and I began again. The change of name helped me do that because it makes it obvious to myself and everyone else that this is a different project. I won't be playing the old songs.

How hard was it to can the album you made with The Hooves and break up the band?

BJH: It was difficult and easy for different reasons. It's difficult when you have put that much work into something to then can it - as it's not even like it is going to come out in the future. That's difficult. As is saying goodbye to five guys I had been working with for eight years. They had become my family. But at the same time the decision was easy as soon as I realised that was what I had to do. I would have just been prolonging the inevitable if I had carried on working with them. It wasn't even so much about them as people, or not wanting to work with them specifically, it was about starting again. It was tough and they were my best friends - but I know I've made the right decision.

Your previous album was released under your real name. What is your relationship with Du Blonde - is it an alter ego or a different persona?

BJH: Well, by the time I had done all the touring for the [debut] record that had been so delayed, I had become someone who felt completely unlike myself. I started making decisions that I wouldn't make and would listen to people's opinions about what I was doing and thinking they were valid when they were just bullshit. When I stopped and rebuilt everything and looked at what I wanted to do in my life - where I want to go and what music I want to make - I came out feeling much more like myself, for the first time in years. Even though Beth Jeans Houghton is my real name, for me to put another name on the project let me escape the person I had become and who I didn't agree with. So, if anything, I would say Du Blonde is more me that I have ever been.

In many ways, Welcome Back To Milk sounds angry. Where does this anger originate from?

BJH: I think a lot of my anger was to do with suppression and feeling caged. Whether it was musically, or within business relationships, there was a sense of not being able to communicate how I felt, which was incredibly frustrating and my anger came out in different forms over the years. But, the album is not so much about anger as finally sticking up for myself. It was about having confidence to say to someone, 'It wasn't right that you treated me this way' or 'I am not the terrible person you made me believe I am'. The album is aggressive, but I wouldn't say it is solely about anger - it's more about saying: 'I have had enough.'

We've talked before about your anger towards the sexism you've experienced within the music industry. How do you deal with that on a day-to-day basis?

BJH: I know some people get annoyed by the whole 'feminism' thing and think women are treated equally to men. We are really not and I wish we were. If someone is an ignorant cunt and says something really disgusting that puts you down as a women, that is terrible, but in some ways the more annoying stuff is the really blasé, off-hand comments that you have to deal with every day and that you are supposed to 'get over because it doesn't really matter'. For example, I constantly get asked who wrote my songs for me and I don't think a guy would get asked that question. That sort of stuff builds up.

I believe when you were at your lowest you went through a period where you couldn't sing in tune. That must have been terrifying.

BJH: It was a psychological thing where I couldn't sing. The Hooves had done all their instrumentation and I had to go back in and do vocals. We spent about a month trying and I couldn't do it. I had TMJ, which is a jaw condition stemming from teeth grinding or stress. You can get lockjaw and the joints in your jaw can swell up. I couldn't open my mouth properly for a week and when I sorted that out I couldn't sing in tune or project my voice. I was so stressed and my body was kind of shutting down. That was really frustrating.

How did you get better?

BJH: I trashed the record and did something else for six months. And dealt with my psychological issues.

The Du Blonde sound is a lot harder than your previous work. What sort of music inspired the new songs?

BJH: Stuff like Bad Brains and Black Flag - even though the track 'Black Flag' has nothing to do with the band. I really liked the energy and the simplicity of the songs. It is people venting and I was attracted to that. It was less about the musicality of it. It was more about people releasing whatever is inside of them in such an immediate, positive way. That worked for me as I just wanted to explode.

But Welcome Back To Milk is not all American hardcore. A song like 'Hunter' is a brilliantly confident pop ballad. What do you think connects the songs?

BJH: Even a song like 'Hunter' is still retrospective thoughtfulness that comes from hitting rock bottom. You have no choice but to build yourself back up, which is quite a nice place to be as you build yourself back exactly how you want to do it. I just decided that I didn't want to take any shit anymore. That's the general vibe.

I once met Jim Sclavunos and he was exceedingly tall. Jim produced your new album - why him and what did he bring to proceedings?

BJH: Jim is very tall. He was maybe the sixth producer I spoke to while making this album. I wanted it to be guitar music that sounded like it was being played live and not about me being a girl. I would reference all these bands and these producers were all, 'Sure, we can do that', but then they would send me the track after they'd finished with it and I would sound like Britney Spears. Then I came across Jim and I said to him, 'I just want to be like GG Allin' and he was like [drawls] 'sure'. He knew all of my references and I could see that he was the kind of guy who could push me in the direction I wanted to go in. While I knew that direction, I definitely needed someone behind me, pushing me as far as I could go, both vocally and emotionally. Jim was good at dragging out my anger and you can hear that on the record. I am very grateful to him for that.

For Du Blonde shows you won't be playing guitar or other instruments. What was behind that decision?

BJH: I want to be powerful and hold an audience. Sometimes going to a gig is like going to church. If you think about a preacher, it is just them and a microphone. Their words are very direct and if they were walking around playing an instrument it would be distracting. I am not saying I am a preacher, by the way, nor am I religious. It's just an analogy. Nevertheless, that's what I wanted to do - to speak directly people and stop being so self-conscious about certain things. I loved playing guitar but part of that was not having to worry about where I was walking or whether I should be dancing. I wanted a place of discomfort as the more uncomfortable you can make yourself, the more you can grow.

Having interviewed you over the last few years and sensed your anger, I am not surprised by the direction you have taken with Du Blonde. However, for the fans of your Beth Jeans Houghton album, do you think this new 'version' of you will be a challenge to accept?

BJH: This is the discussion I had with my label. For you, as you have seen my previous sadness and anger, it's not as big a surprise, but for the people who bought the record and haven't heard from me in three years the new stuff might be more shocking. There will be people who bought the first record and liked the music as it was and might not like Du Blonde. But, I cannot stay the same for that reason - those people would have the old record and will have that forever, which is really nice and I appreciate them buying it. However, I have to change personally and when the record comes out I might lose some of those fans but hopefully I will gain some who like the new songs. Everything is transient and I would be doing myself a great disservice if I stayed the same.

What do you think would have happened if you had stayed the same?

BJH: I would have probably ended up in hospital. Now things don't bother me that shouldn't bother me and I can deal with stuff a lot better. I have a lot better hold on my emotions and the way I let myself be treated. I am definitely happier.

Welcome Back To Milk is out now on Mute. Du Blonde starts a UK tour at the Green Door Store in Brighton tomorrow, June 3; for full details and tickets, head to her Facebook page