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A Technical Knock Out: Miss Red Interviewed
Jonny Maybury , July 10th, 2018 11:07

This week sees the release of the debut album by Moroccan-Polish-Israeli acid ragga dancehall star, Miss Red. She talks to Jonny Maybury who declares the sleng peng

Miss Red Portrait by Kasia Zacharko

Miss Red’s debut album K.O. is a unique and extraordinary listen. Rooted in dancehall, bashment and reggae and subsequently mutated into something wholly alien, it’s easy to vision as the live onslaught that is inevitably on the horizon but the reason it succeeds so admirably as a complete artistic vision is that it’s a perfect long-player that you can crash out to on your living room floor.

K.O. is a production by Kevin ‘The Bug’ Martin so as you might expect you’re going to feel the bass weight, feel the noise but, as well as this being the peak realisation of his Acid Ragga concept, for me the album represents another career highpoint alongside non-Bug transmissions like God’s Anatomy Of Addiction and Techno Animal’s Re-Entry. The surprise here is that is such a controlled album. The dancefloor apocalypse is there sure, but sculpted, contained, precisely focussed. This is a maximal sound from a minimal approach. I don’t know how either parties would feel about this but to me this is a pop album. I mean sure it’s a batshit crazy, battered psychedelic sci-fi sleng from Mars hybrid but the melodies, the precision – the sheer listenability of it all… yeah this is pop music.

And so, the reason for this sensual bastard sublime? Well that would be one Sharon Stern otherwise known as Miss Red who, after one mixtape overseen by Martin with a multitude of producers, working with Gaika, collaborating with Israeli band 3421, is already feeling like a kind of 21st century Yoko Ono. Miss Red deploys an arsenal of voices and styles and usually across the same tune. She can and does bring the rub-a-dub and the chat (albeit already wildly mangled via her Moroccan-Polish-Israeli roots) but then she can shoot off into cracked fragility or sinister raspiness or billowing gaseous texture that wouldn’t be out of place on a Cocteau Twins album. Except it’s not a Cocteau Twins album it’s a fucking bashment album and so that is just not something anybody has ever heard before. And whilst it can visit some dark places (often as desolate as they are fiery) K.O. is emboldened by an almost effervescent harmonious energy, generating it’s own yin and yang wanting to build as much as it wants to tear down.

You spent some time in London before settling in Berlin right?

Miss Red: When I left Israel I came straight to Finsbury Park. I had a friend and I used to hang out in her place until I moved to the west side and then to the east side and then to the south and then to the suburbs and then to Berlin. I was just trying to get along, I didn’t have a visa or money so I was just asking whoever I could.

Kevin had already moved and I still wanted to enjoy London, it was all about the culture, the Caribbean culture, I was living in Brixton having lots of fun and just enjoying the jerk sauce. I didn’t want to leave as every day I was getting this great food and great people and culture stuff that I had never had in Israel… this was like a dream cos I was all my life there and I was dealing with this culture but never meeting it until London. I didn’t want to leave so quick and then I realised I wasn’t going to get any more visa as I was poor and Israeli.

Yeah, we’re not really great on that front are we?

MR: Hahaha it’s not you darling don’t worry. It’s other people making your life hard so they can keep their own influence in place. So I moved to Berlin which gave me a visa, gave me funding but it did take me a long time to get used to the idea. My granny and my father they both lost all their families in the holocaust so they are still old-school in the brain and they were saying, ‘You have to get out of Germany’ and I had to say, ‘No I’m having a career move on’. They really wanted me to come back but I had to show them that Berlin is not what they had in their minds – not what was to do with the trauma from the past. You know, it’s time to move on, it was 80 years ago, it’s history.

So originally you were from Haifa and you're of Polish and Moroccan heritage, right?

MR: Yeah, but that is quite common in Israel. In the Jewish society - as everyone is Jewish - there is no real reason not to be mixed. There are still vibes of in-between the societies so you have the Jews from Europe and the Jews from North Africa and that would always be with some tension but it's considered very old school these days. In the past there would be inequalities between these societies, but today you won't notice them too much.

Was reggae / dancehall your first love in music and how did you first encounter it?

MR: I always loved roots and I was always bumping Bob Marley and my sister said [laughs], 'It’s like you’ve just found Bob Marley' and I said, 'Well I just did!' I loved Don Carlos, The Congos and all this really empowering spiritual music. I found it amazing, it made me feel higher and more loving cos it’s so powerful. But I always did my own thing and I continued listening to everything, I started playing metal guitar and violin and I would write folk songs and punk songs and it all felt very natural. And then my brother would be working on his DJ skills and he would be saying, ‘Yo, Sharon sing over this’ and so this line of communication is clear for me also.

But that was when I really got into collecting records and being nerdy about it and... WOW. I wanna know more and ask, 'Where is all this coming from?' It was blending with my lifestyle just going to the countryside or going to be beach and just chilling and smoking weed. You just wanna feel love. It was cheap there and people just wanted to live and have life and suddenly I found a friend who was doing a soundsystem thing, they were called Easy Riders. And we were all just being nerdy about it and as a group it was so much fun and I’d never done that before. I was a bit shy and I was the youngest in the crew and the only girl in the crew and it took me time to get above all this. Eventually I got to the stage where I was able to do this and everyone was like, ‘Fuuuck, Sharon you’re really good’ and I was like, 'Really?’

So everyone was really encouraging, so we would all hang and write lyrics together and we had friends who would explain the patios to us – we all learnt English this way – through hip hop and Sleng [Teng]. Even my Hebrew wasn’t proper Hebrew – it was more earthy and current and I suddenly realised that I was translating Hebrew into Patois and balalala everything got smashed up. It was all collapsing into this music. I’d never been to Jamaica so I couldn’t pretend to be Jamaican so I had to focus on things that were bothering me that were true to me, that were triggering me and then you take things out of context and you have this new thing. It became a real mish-mash.

And then in 2011 you met the king of mish-mash?

MR: Hahahaha yeah! I had heard Kevin’s music, London Zoo and I loved Warrior Queen – she was a huge influence but I’d not heard the term Acid Ragga but these people – it didn’t resonate in terms of it being so far away from my reality – they were like superstars around the world. At that time I was a soldier – I hated it was disgusted by it and I was trying to get out of there. Two years for girls, three years for boys it’s just a pain in everybody’s ass. I wish I could get that time back, losing those beautiful years when you’re 18 to 20. I was so sad and just drinking all the time and trying to get money and just trying to survive.

So then Kevin came and performed at a party that nobody knew about until half an hour before and I only found out cos some guy was screaming about it in the street like, ‘Hey, The Bug is playing’ [Sharon’s frequent excursions into other people’s voices at this point remind me of no less than Richard Pryor – in a parallel universe I think she would make a fantastic voice actor]. I’d just finished a ten hour waitressing shift and I was fucked up as shit but I thought right I’m going to get my bicycle and drag my ass to this party. I got there and the whole crew was there and my sister was there and it was a tiny club like for 50 people and yeah he cracked the mirror [laughs]. He cracked the mirror in the club with the sound!

And you got up on stage?

MR: I wanted to grab the mic but I didn’t and I was thinking should I? But why aren’t I? This is CALLING me. None of my crew are grabbing the fucking mic but I’m not a diva and I’m usually coming later on. I’m not like the guys who are all fighting... battling to get the mic - that’s not me. And then that was it: 'The. Time. Has. Come.’ I ran over and he was about to finish the set and I said, 'Can you get me a mic?' and he was like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ The other DJ knew me and he was like, ‘Yeah, get her a mic.’ So Kevin and him switched places and I grabbed the mic but then as soon as Kevin heard me he took the deck back and started spinning some acid ragga tunes.

Miss Red portrait by Nick Sayers

That must have been pretty intense?

MR: I was just vibing, my nerves had gone. I wasn’t worried about whether anybody was enjoying it or not all I could think was, 'This music is fuccckkkking doooope.’ He called me back three times that night and everything finished at six in the morning. Kevin said, 'I’m leaving at 5pm tomorrow so let’s meet at 12 in the studio and record something!' Well I’d never been in a fucking studio before! When I got there he put down a rhythm – he said, ‘I played this last night’ and I remembered what I had been saying like dissing the army so I remembered that and wrote a couple of extra verses. We recorded it and both loved it and he said, 'Yo I’ve got a gig in London in two weeks and you should come and grab the mic.'

Well, this was over the limit of what my mind could cope with. That was it. It was so inspiring. You have to go right? I didn’t care. I just had to go.

The thing is I was never comfortable singing in Hebrew and English always felt a little stiff but patois… that was my thing. But I never would have thought that this was the area of music that would happen for me.

So I went to London and I recorded some stuff and then I went to Brighton too with them. I went to Brighton with Flowdan and I had a friend with me. We didn’t have anywhere to sleep. I just thought there’s a beach, so we can sleep there [laughs]. And it all just started rolling from there and now we’re here.

And that is how your life can change in one drunken knackered moment. But honestly, it’s hard to imagine a more fortuitous meeting. Martin’s drive towards extreme genre-bending and Miss Red’s crazy chat mutation – it makes complete sense – they’re wholly made for each other. But Stern’s vocal stylings are way more than just this enticing mutation of Jamaica via Israel. It is this abundance of voices, styles and delivery that already marks her out as such a distinct artist.

With every listen of K.O. I hear more and more voices. What’s happening there?

MR: Well that’s because I have so many voices. I like stretching my mind, body and voice. I don’t like limits, I want endless possibilities. Of course I love dancehall - I’m not going to lie, but I have music from all over the world, music that resonates with me. I like to sing in Portuguese and I like to sing in Arabic and in Hebrew. All of these languages they all resonate – they all remind me of something and they give me some sort of truth.

So 'War' which one might expect to come out of the gate as an aggressive spit is much more vulnerable and quiet. It is almost held reserved.

MR: You know how sometimes things never change and you are so tired of fighting that all that is left is a kind of numbness. So with this tune, I felt like I have become lost in this war. It keeps on rolling and there is nothing I can change. All I can hear is the voices of politicians shouting and babababa. Well I didn’t want the harshness of the outside only the softness of the inside. I didn’t want those voices coming in.

'Clouds' is one of a couple of songs on K.O. that have an ambient, practically wordless delivery It’s all tone and texture and a very sensual reconfiguration of the limits of dancehall. Why this approach here?

MR: Well I don’t need much to be honest. I feel like if I really put my head right and I’m on the right path with myself then all I need is clouds. I don’t need anything, I don’t even need a floor – everything is just beautiful. What I wanted to bring in was a flow and an attitude – we can’t always see the sky and we’re all in clouds. I wanted to bring a sensation of flying and I didn’t want anything attached to me – nothing to ground me. So I’m rolling in a cloud.

'Slay' probably has the most unexpected and disarming vocal manifestation – with a variety of other voices running in the background, the word slay is delivered so upfront strongly softly and with little trace of patois or accent of any kind. Featuring towards the end of K.O. I tell Sharon that it’s incredible that this long in to an album that you can still be surprised. The first few times (of the thousand times I’ve now listened to it) I wasn’t even sure that it was her.

MR: The tunes I was making before, were just for fun you know. I was trying to find myself. But with this album, each tune is showing another part of me and getting something that I had to do out. Especially in 'Slay' I wanted to project a dominating vibe but also a very, very gentle one. Sometimes in this world - especially the music world - people are just wanting to put out this vibe, ‘Scream it out - put yourself out there’ and they’re posing the fuck out and I just think, 'Oh, come on!' I wanted to do this my way I wanted to slay but not in a way that anybody would expect. It's not in a showing off way. This will resonate with you and will reach people. To slay effortlessly.

So we come to a close and afterwards I spend a lot of time thinking about technology, about Sinatra and the microphone and about how a soft voice can ride a torrent of noise. And so here is a perfect storm – hardcore rhythm, bass weight and mutant dub noise married to a restless relentless vocalist taking apart the parameters of genres that are sorely lacking in female representation and prone to high levels of unchecked machismo.

And those final words keep resonating with me, the effortless slay.

A magnificent debut, a career high from a producer who never stops seeking and the arrival of idiosyncratic new vision finding her true voice(s) for the first time.

The effortless slay indeed.

Miss Red ft. The Bug play at Corsica Studios on Thursday July 19. They will also play at Amsterdam's Dekmantel festival which takes place from August 1-5. K.O. is out this Thursday