by Kris Smith
The media regularly bemoan a lack of politics in music, compared to a mythic 60s/70s/80s ‘good old days’ – only to salute as an exception the occasional gobby indie-boy band trying to kickstart their career with some token rebellious rhetoric. Meanwhile, every year there are more fiercely-politicised, intelligent and committed activists working hard to build the DIY feminist punk scene, far from the plaudits and pitfalls of the spotlight. In this new series of interviews, LOUD WOMEN meets them and asks them some of the questions that the music industry won’t.
#4 Jen Doveton (Colour Me Wednesday)
What made you decide to use (some of) your songwriting to express political viewpoints?
I’m not sure whether all political musicians think in this way but I think it’s because it feels like it’s something that isn’t being said, so it’s something I feel like I want to rant about. And it feels like a topic that is important enough to play to people over and over.
Do you use songs as tools to put across prefigured messages – or is it more that you self-express in general through music, with politics just one aspect of that?
I am always going on political rants anyway, but to be a song something has to have an emotional core, to me. That’s why it’s going in a song rather than an essay or something else.
Is the function of politics in music to affirm views within a reciprocal social group, or convert – or at least converse with – a wider public?
We hope we’re saying something people haven’t heard before but actually, when we started the band we were a group of fairly isolated left wing kids in a tory London borough and it came as a surprise to be preaching to the converted (once we found our crowd). I think hearing someone confirm or express how you already feel is really good for your mental health so it’s just as worthy to speak to people who share your views as it is to present a persuasive argument to people who might not agree in the wider public.
Explicit or ideological politics is a rarity in music, even most punk/DIY scenes: is that something you’re conscious of, and does it matter?
I am conscious that it makes some people bristle. Either they don’t like [us talking about] politics or they don’t like the over-earnestness of political music. People are much more comfortable with political satire (i.e. topical panel shows and sketch shows) than with political music. But that might have something to do with most satire being a bit toothless, does it really challenge people’s beliefs? Does music? I don’t know.
Do you see yourself as part of, and drawing influence from, a tradition of politicised music/art?
Yes I suppose I do, but I don’t know what names I am supposed to drop here. I studied fine art and political art felt deeply unfashionable at the time. So I felt like I would never fit in to that scene, cos I saw political issues everywhere. That’s why I turned to DIY punk, and zines. I definitely see myself as part of the radical crafts movement, if that’s the right term. I was made to make zines/handmade cd covers. Being a politicised artist for me means, obviously, being broadly left wing but also having a community-based consciousness. So you’re creating stuff that can be really personal, because of who you are, the personal is political but you’re also aware of the larger community. I’m aware of the space I’m taking up, aware of how it impacts the scene and aware of how I can collaborate with others. In a way this seems incompatible with what we’re being told about being an artist. We’re brought up thinking being an artist is very individualistic and naval gazing. We’re taught about larger than life icons without learning properly about the complexities of the community that built them, who influenced them. I feel like I learn more about being a DIY musician from activist traditions and community-building than from any artistic or business tradition. I guess my head is more in the process than the output when I’m thinking about your question.
Is there a pressure that comes with being known as a political musician? And is there a balance to strike between work on the one hand, and fun and self-care on the other?
I feel like men have it easier when it comes to politics, they’re less likely to be told to ‘stay out of politics’ for a start. Being a woman and being read as quite young, it’s really intimidating to express a political opinion, particularly online where a man, usually from an older generation, is always ready to pop up to tell you to ‘stay out of politics’, or to try to correct or “mansplain”. And going ahead with writing now, I do feel like there’s a pressure to be able to encapsulate a lot of the political issues going on right now in my music. But sometimes I just feel like writing song after song about how fucking suffocating winter is. All I really want to do is watch netflix and eat pasta. Harriet and I are the types of people who are very task-oriented. We don’t set aside time to socialise and you have to force Harriet to relax. I’ve lost friends, I think, because I don’t make time to invite them round or do relationship maintenance. I have to tell people now, if you want to be my friend you just have to invite yourself round. I’ll cook for you, and I’ll probably give you some merch to package up or you’ll have to sit there while I make CD covers. Being in a DIY band, there’s no line to tell you to stop working, cos you’re working at what you are passionate about and it’s entirely self-propelled. There’s also a huge burnout cycle where you push yourself too hard on tour, have to be ‘on’ in terms of socialising every night and come home and get ill and beat yourself up for not being able to bounce straight back into work or into a social life. I’m not sure how to remedy this because most of my friends are exactly the same, they’re in bands and we only really see each other ‘at work’.
As with most traditions, what we think of as political or “protest” music has previously been white-male dominated. Have things changed?
The pocket that I’ve found myself in definitely doesn’t feel male centred. But it has to be said, that is not a very profitable or high-status pocket. It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I felt that I would never feel at home in the punk or rock or indie scene because I could or we could never compete with the ideal of what a band should look like. A bunch of white men, anything else would be an exception, novelty, or a bad emulation of what people expected to see. I’m not sure how much society has progressed, but I know we’ve moved out of that crowd so we’re not exposed to it as much. There has been more criticism of white-male dominated music scenes in the mainstream press – like in the case of calling out male-dominated festival lineups – which is promising. If you’re asking whether political and protest music in particular is white-male dominated in its own right, aside from the fact that most of the arts are – I don’t know. Anecdotally, white men seem to get more praise for what I see as fairly obvious political statements and mediocre creative output than people in other demographics. People aren’t always aware of their prejudices and give more time and consideration to white men in general in all fields, it seems. I think in terms of activism, some people think that being a good left wing activist is about being passionate, loud and angry. Maybe that idea does stem from the same ideas that make toxic masculinity so toxic. Most long term political activists aren’t fuelled by anger – I don’t think anger is a sustainable state of being.
How do you view the contemporary music industry as a whole?
I see it as very streamlined to create the most amount of profit for the smallest amount of effort. The radio stations, magazines, TV shows, festival bookers are all told who to play/promote/book by the handful of major labels and their subsidiaries. No one else gets a look in apart from this small top tier. The talent-show TV format (which I love, don’t get me wrong) gives us the vague, background idea that it’s a meritocratic lottery – that deserving young kids are plucked out of obscurity and it’s a beautiful thing. In the real world, anyone who isn’t in this top tier – getting regular radio play etc. – is forced to undersell themselves and work for basically nothing. There’s no one to regulate for when they are short changed or fucked over and they have to rely on the personal, individual patronage of their fans to survive and succeed. The internet has made it infinitely more possible to reach fans and cut out this middle man of mainstream media promo, which has guaranteed its own obsolescence by being such a gated industry.
What are the primary political issues we face, in the UK and globally?
The normalisation of fascism? Maybe everyone took for granted that nazi=bad and forgot to keep hammering that point home. Or maybe it was hammered home too narrowly? Because people are failing to recognise nazis when they are out of the context of grainy footage of 1940s Germany? Or they don’t understand what’s wrong with platforming fascists because they’ve been placed on an arbitrary/bogus spectrum which makes them the equal and opposite number of the only people willing to oppose them, the ‘far-left’? I dunno.
Colour Me Wednesday's second album is available now to pre-order from their own Dovetown label: http://www.dovetownrecords.com/ https://colourmewednesday.bandcamp.com/ https://www.facebook.com/colourmewednesday/