In this series of interviews, LOUD WOMEN has interviewed a small cross-section of the many fiercely-politicised, committed activists on the DIY music scene, with an emphasis on lead singer-songwriters. We didn't get to speak to everyone that we wanted to, but we always intended to end the series with a bang by talking to new band on the feminist punk rock block, The Menstrual Cramps.
LOUD WOMEN were first to book the 'Menstruals for a live show and first to review their debut album, so it seems fitting for us to be the first to publish a full interview with the group; and appropriate to their libertarian-socialist leanings, we've addressed the questions to all three band members equally. [At the time of interview they were still looking for a fourth member for drummer.]
What made you decide to use your songwriting to express political viewpoints?
Emilia: Growing up I wrote poetry as a way to express my political viewpoint and attended rallies and protests, so I think songwriting was just a natural progression from this. When we wrote our first song, ‘My Bush Ain’t Ur Business’, I lived with Cooper at the time, who was a full-time musician, and I was just ranting about the world and she just threw her lyric notepad at me and said write a song about it, so I wrote the lyrics while she wrote the music, then we recorded it on the spot and a couple of hours later The Menstrual Cramps was born and then I channelled my political writing into more songs than poetry.
Cooper: Well I’ve been playing and writing music since I was a kid and as I got older it was annoying to realise how meaningless the majority of popular music was in terms of message. When I met Emilia we just combined my love for writing catchy hooks and her love for shouting angrily about political stuff to create something meaningful!
Robyn: My mum used to write a lot of really great poetry and she influenced me a lot as a kid but I mostly used to write a lot of songs about love when I was younger, I didn’t really start getting political until I met Emilia and Coop, they definitely opened my eyes to more important issues in the world.
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?
Emilia: I think we’re just generally political people, we get angry about unjust things happening in the world and discuss and debate them. For us music is just a self-expression of how we’re feeling at that time, which most of the time is political and not happy with the status quo. And to be honest just living our lives as openly queer, outspoken, feminist women makes our daily existence political.
Cooper: I definitely self-express in general through music, I’m in a couple of bands and everything I do revolves around music. I write all kinds of stuff, but my interest in politics is a very large part of me so I find in one way another it comes out in the majority of songs I write.
Robyn: I’d say I’ve always expressed myself through music, it’s only after being in the band that I’ve started expressing myself politically.
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?
Emilia: I think it’s both. We love playing gigs with similar bands to us, and enjoy being part of such a supportive and inclusive scene. It helps with our self-care as activists, as women, as queer people, as feminists, which is super important. But I think our music also helps open up a conversation with people who may not be otherwise be subjected to our views or political standpoint. It’s important to challenge people through music and it’s also important to have a community where you know you are supported.
Cooper: Totes both!! What she said.
Robyn: Definitely both!
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?
Emilia: Yes, I’m very conscious of it. A lot of people lead a privileged life wherein they have no need to talk about politics or get involved in activism or standing up for what is right or wrong in the world. Also, some artists and musicians may feel like they can’t voice their opinions due to their management, or record company, or fan base etc. I think it is extremely important that more artists and musicians stand up and speak up through their music. I think it’s especially disheartening when punk bands don’t explicitly discuss politics or current affairs or injustice in their work. Punk is about going against the grain, standing up against the hierarchy and trying to change things; anarchy should run through our punk veins, and it is a huge shame and discredit to the rest of the punk and DIY scene who are fighting and shouting every day.
Cooper: Aye I’m conscious of it, and like Mila said a lot of people in the big time aren’t actually technically allowed to be political, so I really respect the artists who voice their political stance to the public. Mila said it all really, woo anarchy!
Robyn: Yeah I’m conscious of it, I think it’s important for more musicians to voice their views on politics.
Do you see yourself as part of, and drawing influence from, a tradition of politicised music/art?
Emilia: I think in our band’s case we are literally just singing and shouting about what fucks us off, what we think needs to change and what we want to comment and open a conversation about. Of course we draw influence from the original punk and riot grrrl music/art scenes, and we are proud to do so, however we aren’t interested in looking so much back into the past but rather how the new punk and DIY scene can push forward and change things for the better.
Cooper: I think Mila was definitely more into some sorta scene than I ever was. I listened to punk music quite a bit when I was younger, but if it was political it went right over my head. She was the person that introduced me to Pussy Riot and other bands that have made political impact and as I got older and started to get involved with politics that’s when punk music really lit a fire in my tum. I dunno why I never thought of writing music to fit alongside my political views but I just never did, until suddenly we were doing it, and now I can’t write love.
Robyn: Emilia and Coop are a lot more political than I am, I’ve always felt strongly about politics but I guess I just never thought about writing music about those kind of things.
There are various ways that a performer’s politics might not communicate to an audience, but you make a point of speaking between songs to reinforce the message. Did that come naturally, in terms of the confidence needed? Is it to break the ice, to break down barriers with a crowd, or to clarify – or all of those?
Emilia: We didn’t plan to be in a band or plan to gig, so whatever happens on stage is really not rehearsed at all, and we like to keep it that way, we like being honest and raw. Honestly whatever comes in my brain on the night will just fall out my mouth! A lot of songs are about particular topics that we debate and discuss between ourselves and our peers anyway so we have a lot to say about them. I see talking as just as important as the songs we play at a gig, they both are a different way of telling the story or narrative or opinion we have. And to be honest I love ranting about things that I’m passionate about, I could happily fill a 30min set with just me ranting, but I’m sure the people who come to see us for the music wouldn’t be very impressed LOL! I feel completely myself on stage, I don’t get nervous at all, I love performing to people and opening up discussions and getting people angry about what we’re angry about! Also I think that being part of this incredible, inclusive and supportive DIY scene is amazing, I love talking to all the other bands and organisers and audience members, on or off stage!
Cooper: We rehearse for 3 hours before a gig then just get up and hope that people enjoy us! One song we wrote called ‘Lying Cheating Fucking Scumbag’ we knew we were gonna say something before just because it was written about a specific person, but the rest of it I suppose Mila just runs her mouth, it’s amazing. I guess it depends on the crowd too, it’s easier to interact with an interactive loud crowd.
Robyn: I think Emilia just goes with how she’s feeling on the night, she’s pretty good with crowds, it definitely breaks the ice to have a laugh with our audience, we don’t like to take things too seriously when it comes to performing.
The success of someone like Billy Bragg – approachably media-friendly, active in campaigns (albeit mild, non-threatening ones) – might suggest that in terms of politics-in-music the music can actually be of secondary importance; is music just one aspect of what you do?
Emilia: Yeah for sure, I’m not a good singer, I basically shout all my lines and make noises, Cooper and Robyn are the ones who are actually musically talented in the band! But punk and riot grrrl, for us, is all about just giving it a go, being angry, having a voice and being part of a collective and a movement. The music side of what we do is important, we want people to enjoy our songs and listen to them, come see us play, but it’s also important they listen to the lyrics and what we say in our songs, on our social media, at gigs etc., get involved in campaigns and rallies and protests, get angry about things that are wrong in our world, get involved in politics, try to change the world, and also feel as if they have somewhere to go where they are valid and loved, no matter what.
Cooper: Playing with/writing for/mixing The Menstrual Cramps is the best musical thing I do. I love the fact that the music is not the main thing, I love that the mixes don’t have to be perfect, that I can write a messy track send it out and the girls are like ‘yes we love it’. It’s so refreshing when everything else I is do is the opposite. Music to me was always of first importance, and with every other thing I do it still is. When I’m playing with the girls or writing for the girls I am in a stress free, pressure free, expressive heaven and I can just really think about what the message we’re sending is and what I wanna try out on the next track, rather than how well the harmonies fit. Don’t get me wrong, a catchy chorus for me is still a must, while Emilia focuses on the lyrics and message, I always focus on writing a catchy hook – I guess we’re a good team!
Robyn: Emilia and Coop usually write most of the songs, I think I’ve only helped write Tinder Girl, which I think is our only non-political song, it’s also kind of a love song, which sums me up pretty well.
Is there a pressure that comes with being known as political musicians? And is there a balance to strike between work on the one hand, and fun and self-care on the other?
Emilia: I think sometimes I feel a pressure that I always get asked my opinion on everything, some topics I may not be the best person to discuss, some topics I may not have enough knowledge in etc. We’re all learning and becoming more educated every day when surrounding yourselves in politics, so I’m always open to discussion and admitting when I’m wrong or unsure about a particular issue, we’re all here to grow as individuals and as a collective, strong movement that supports each other. Sometimes I struggle with work/life/fun balance, I think anyone involved in politics or activism will do. It’s extremely important to take time out for yourself. I’m still at university so when it’s exam season I have to take time off band stuff and political stuff, especially cus my course is pretty political as well, so sometimes it can all become too much and I need to do some self-care and take some time to recuperate. We have lots of fun being in the band together, we’re three best mates just hanging out, ranting about things we talk about anyway, making music videos and songs which are fun and we get to have a laugh with our best mates whilst being productive! We have a strong network of friends around us who support us everyday, pick us up when we’re down, help us out when we need them, look after our mental health and make sure we’re not overdoing it. So we’re incredibly grateful to have them in our life and that makes the balance of work/life/self-care/fun a little easier!
Cooper: I definitely feel pressure when it comes to my other music stuff. Not everyone is politically outspoken or wants their views out in the open, which I’ve gotta respect and so other than The Menstrual Cramps I am ‘politically neutral’ in all my other projects. I don’t feel like I’m cheating myself though because The Menstrual Cramps are outspoken and I’m obviously a part of that so if people wanted to know my political views it’s still easy to find them!! I also still write all my other music about politics, it’s just very subtle so shhh don’t tell them! In terms of fun and self-care, I have a small friends group and these two gals make up a little under half of it! So I’m always surrounded by the most fun, like-minded people. I do go through trying times with my mental health, and in those times I do have to take a step back from everyday world politics, but I’ve always got time for these girls and the band.
Robyn: There is a lot of pressure that comes with having such strong views but at the end of the day you gotta stand for what you believe in! I do get nervous sometimes because of where I work and what I do when I’m not with the band, which is probably why I’m the more reserved quiet one out of all of us, but I’ll always be there supporting my girls, I got their backs.
As with most traditions, what we think of as political or “protest” music has previously been white/male dominated. Have things changed?
Emilia: I think in the mainstream media not much has changed, they continue to only have the rhetoric of white/male bands and musicians speaking up (often quite mildly as well). However, we’ve found being involved in the DIY and punk scene that a lot more women, queer people, and people of colour are at the forefront of the underground movement. I think these political or protest music voices need to be heard on a more mainstream level, and also given a fair hearing in the press/media. I feel when I watch interviews with political musicians, who aren’t white males, the presenter often attacks them or questions them or puts them into a corner and presents their music and views as ‘out there’, ‘radical’, ‘extreme’ etc.
Cooper: It may have changed the tiniest bit, but hardly. Mila’s right about non-white, non-males being attacked with dumb questions, it’s ridiculous. ‘Wait you’re ALL girls and you’re ALL queer’…. apparently that’s an extreme concept! But the point is there is loaaaaddds of POC/ female/queer bands but like Mila said they’re not in the mainstream so when people come across them it’s like a crazy concept.
Robyn: I think we always think things have changed more than they have, I think it’s getting there slowly though.
One interesting aspect of your politics is that they encompass an attack on the Tories and on Austerity-as-class-war. In contrast it can appear that class and ideology are missing from the worldview of contemporary musicians. Are people wary of speaking overtly on the subject, or are we going through a period of reaction to Left politics being all about class to the detriment of anything else?
Emilia: I think a lot of musicians don’t want to speak overtly about class war, austerity and left-leaning political ideology. It can stop you gaining radio play, interviews, can stop your music from getting out there in the public sphere. For example the BBC would never play our songs because we swear so much in them and because they’re all inherently and explicitly political, the BBC have to be unbiased and I’m pretty sure they would receive a few complaints if they ever aired us on radio or interviewed us on TV for example.
Cooper: We’ve actually tried to keep swear words out of a couple of our tracks on our new album because of what Mila just said, it was hard. The ‘lefties’ are getting branded with a bad brush by the mainstream media for sure. I think that people with left politics, views and morals are 100% more wary about speaking up about their views now, especially online, because they don’t want to be painted with this brush. I’ve seen it with the term feminist a lot recently, people say things like ‘I’m not a feminist now, or at least I am but the ‘old term’ of feminism’. They’ll say they like Jeremy Corbyn and vote for Labour/Green but they won’t say they support all left wing politics fully. I think people are just scared of the online backlash and trolls, they’re scared of being branded as a millennial (which has become a term that means lazy, entitled, selfish), or a ‘snowflake’ and I still have no idea what that means but we’ve been called it a lot, it’s really sad to see.
Robyn: People are very wary when it comes to these things, which is understandable.
Can we make any distinction between big-P and small-P politics – e.g. perhaps state Austerity cf. intersectionality – or is it inseparable, on the principle that the personal is political?
Emilia: The personal is definitely political. I don’t think we can really separate political issues as they intertwine so much, for example when talking about austerity you have to talk about feminism, because women are at the brunt of the majority of cuts, austerity disproportionately affects women, and even further disproportionately affects women of colour. We can talk in general about how sexual misconduct is a huge issue parliament needs to address right now, but that conversation will also fall into power at play, how society views men and women, the proportion of women CEOs compared to men named John, etc. Every political issue is multi-dimensional and needs to be discussed on a basic level and then further on a specific level. The whole system we live in needs to change, not just individual policies that are wrong or unjust.
Cooper: I agree that its inseparable, it’s a cause and effect thing, I also believe strongly that fixing the ‘smaller’ problems will begin to fix the larger ones.
Robyn: Like Emilia said we can’t really separate the two, and like Coop said by fixing small issues the larger ones will fall into place with them.
How do you view the contemporary music industry as a whole?
Emilia: To be honest I’m not really interested in the industry side of contemporary music, all I know is that I’m part of a great DIY scene, where we all help each other out, share our skills and knowledge, and just have fun and put on great nights. I don’t think it’s the same vibe in the contemporary music INDUSTRY, so wouldn’t really be something we would be interested in finding out haha!
Cooper: Well nowadays, like everything else, it’s all controlled by a few big companies and its alot harder for anyone to get anywhere in it. Bands used to be able to get picked up by A&R’s at gigs and indie labels would have a bit of money behind them, whereas now everything’s being bought out by the few big daddy labels who now control almost all the mainstream charts. More bands are going independent now because of this, and to do that it’s all about having a social following and letting the fans pay for your projects. It’s sad but all the contemporary music scene is nowadays is just about profit and any of the people I’ve met or spoke to in the industry don’t seem to have too much of a passion for music at all, or have told me their passion has died because it’s not enough to just believe in an artist’s work anymore it’s about how many sales they can make. For us, it’s important to stay independent, we don’t want to be a part of that scene, and we don’t want to ever be in a place where we are guided or directed or even told how our stuff should be written or presented. I think it’s also in our political interests to never feed into a corrupt system like that.
Robyn: I think it’s fake and probably controlled by the Illuminati or something…
What are the primary political issues we face, now, in the UK and globally?
Emilia: So many! We need a complete rehaul of the systems we live in to be honest! Capitalism is not the answer to a successful world, we need to fight for a new, more socialist, way of living and thinking, that would improve some things. A huge issue at the moment is of course the issue of sexual harassment, misconduct, abuse etc. I’m glad the western media are listening to the victims/survivors of this and are finally reporting on this huge issue we have always had, but I feel as if they may use certain figureheads as bad examples for a few months and then everything will be swept under the rug and the status quo will return. We need proper policies in place to deal with sexual harassment, we need politicians who don’t sexually harass their staff or other members of the public (I mean seriously is that too much to ask for?!), and people need to be held accountable for their actions. We need more education surrounding sexual health and consent, and basically for society to change its perceptions on women, and how we should be treated. There’s so many huge political issues we face at the moment, in the UK and globally. I think ousting world leaders such as Donald Trump, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin etc. would be a great (if slightly impossible) start…
Cooper: Well Mila covered a lot, but hey there’s a million so I’ll add a few! For me personally, I’ve tried to educate myself over the past couple years on black issues and I feel globally it’s a massive problem. White people need to so do much better in recognising their privilege and understanding the realities of today, which is still very much that black people are marginalised and oppressed. Gender has obviously been a huge talking point recently and I feel strongly that we all need to be fighting for equal rights in regards to this. Transgender issues as well – to think that just last year there was that whole thing with Trump trying to ban trans people from the military ….. it just shows how although the topic is more talked about there is still a huge threat. The housing crisis, employment crisis, the stigma and lack of help for people with mental health issues, the nhs crisis, the list goes on! But like I said in the answer a couple questions ago I think fighting for what most people would say were ‘smaller political problems’ will be the answer to solving the larger global crisis we’re in. Don’t wanna sound like a millennial leftie snowflake, but if we started listening to each other’s experiences & respecting each other then there’s more than enough of us to take down them cunts at the top!
Robyn: Just trying to think of something the guys haven’t covered! One that really springs to mind for me is gay rights, because we’re all queer in the band and have all been affected by this ongoing equality issue.
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and of course catch them live at show of the year, LOUD WOMEN FEST – 15 Sept at The Dome!