Monday, 5 September 2016

IN CONVERSATION WITH BLACK CAT WHITE CAT'S ANGELA BASSON




I first saw Black Cat White Cat perform at The Shakespeare as part of Sheffield Tramlines 2013. I loved vocalist Angela Basson's raw animal magnetism and visceral passion, backed by a band so tight and accomplished and I determined to see the band’s live performances whenever possible thereafter.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m invited round to Black Cat White Cat HQ where on a dreamy terrace swing seat under a bead-fringed garden umbrella on a warm early summer’s afternoon, aforementioned vocalist Angela Basson talks about Janis Joplin, Strummer’s The Mescaleros, Katie Perry, women in music and the puff of green smoke in the Wizard of Oz...

***

On the history of Black Cat White Cat...

Angela Basson: Black Cat White Cat have been going about five and a half years. We’ve all got jobs and lives so we’ve just dipped in and out and it’s taken us ages to get to this point and record. We all write together, that’s important as we all own our own stuff.

I met our drummer Simon Stafford through going down to a gig night at Sheffield’s Club 60 - an underground studio a bit like Liverpool’s Tavern. I’d just played with my electro outfit from the town I was living in at the time, Goole. When I was sixteen I used to sing jazz, some guys were jamming and I was just sat there, feeling a bit shy, and I thought, “What am I doing? Why am I sat here in my own prison? Why don’t I just get up and sing some blues?”

So I got up and sang and then a stranger came over and talked to me. Turned out to be Simon Stafford and the first few things he said were just really supportive, I can’t remember his exact words, but it was something like “I think it’s a real shame that there aren’t more female musicians, that was great, it’s really nice to meet you.” And never, in all the time I’d been doing music, had anyone said anything so supportive because most blokes are so apologetic of themselves, aren’t they? They feel a bit awkward around woman in music. It’s too much of a rarity I think.

Simon’s a multi-instrumentalist who’s worked with many musicians in the past including Jarvis Cocker (who does a good radio show and likes his corduroy suits.) Simon was in the Longpigs too, and Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros – I know that when he played for two weeks in Brooklyn New York, that was the best time in his life, as a musician.

He loved Joe; he says Joe was nice to everybody and spent hours after the gig talking to fans. I liked the sound of Strummer before I met Simon, it’s clear he walked the walk. 

I bet his children missed their dad, I know from having my own child that juggling parenthood and music isn’t always easy. I plan to buy a really good ‘home on wheels’ so my daughter can come along on tour sometimes, if things go to plan. I’m qualified to teach so hopefully this will all be manageable during festival season.  

When I saw Chris Saunders play guitar in Shakespeares I didn’t know him, so I threw peanuts at him until I got his attention. I love the way that Chris plays – he’s captured something in between the cinematic and pure rock. Chris is a portrait photographer; he’s taken photos of hundreds of subjects including David Lynch who’s had a big influence on Chris artistically - Lynch is a fan of Chris’s work too, it’s all good company.


 “Whatever a woman does in the industry she will be judged – the platform comes with teeth and claws.”

***


On women in rock and pop...

AB: Women in rock tend to represent themselves in one of three ways: sexual, vulnerable or political. Whatever a woman does in the industry she will be judged – the platform comes with teeth and claws.

When I think of really famous women, Katie Perry, for example, strikes me as someone whose goal was to be powerful in pop and she decided to go in the direction of what the industry funds –attractiveness – and she’s tried to set herself apart by being not only sexual but kitsch and it’s obviously worked because she’s had a big team of PR, costume etc to enable it all. She looks good, she looks fun and it’s all very cheesy, a bit like a Carry On Film. My daughter loves her, she writes from the heart like most people. I don’t mind a few of her tracks. 'Birthday' sounds like classic Prince to me.

It’s interesting that she married Russell Brand, they seem like completely different creatures – she seems to support the development of self image and the feelings of the individual, which is good, Russell has very universal global concerns, he gets stick for it as much as support. Same as Sting who got so much stick for buying rainforests - I’ve never understood why some people get so angry when others, on getting a bit of money behind them, try to do the right thing. It's better than keeping your money hidden away. Best thing a person can do if it make people’s lives better, if they have that opportunity. I think the world might be changing in this way. I hope so. 

Jude Calvert-Toulmin:  I guess some people are critical of others' philanthropy because it makes them question their own lack of generosity.

AB: I don’t know, perhaps people think it’s because it would interrupt their career and make them become something else? Because what’s really huge in terms of entertainment on that level is not really thinking about the concerns of the world, and we bury ourselves from these issues, so to engage with serious complicated issues would be detrimental... there is a definite division between responsibility and entertainment. Greed rules everywhere.

JCT:  It’s contravening the escapist...

AB: Exactly. Katie Perry’s mostly about escapism. And I suppose that’s an art form in itself...

JCT:  Doesn’t really marry with what Russell Brand’s about, does it?


“And I suppose that’s how I survive, just go the opposite direction to where people try to position me.”



People have gone off Madonna, she was queen in the 80’s, she was subject to growing older as a pop artist and being cash rich and successful enough to continue, plus the perception of her seeming to have a large ego made her hard to swallow. I would not want to be that popular - why would anybody need so much? If things take off I’m hoping my make-up and costume enable me to unnoticed on the street. 

The main reason I formed a band is because I want to sing and perform, I simply enjoy it but I don’t want to bore people who have taken time out to come and see us so I give it my all.  

Power can be misused. Thatcher’s best quality was that she was a woman in power, she betrayed us by destroying communities and under-minding equality.

The public adore Adele but the main point of discussion beyond her singing ability is her dress size, so she comes under sexual and vulnerable I’d say - there are schools of thought debating whether her dress size affects how entertaining she is. It’s a patronising, “Hey she’s on the large size but wow she can sing.” Why wouldn’t she be able to sing? What does size have to do with it?

AB: For someone of my age you have to be on the ball and do it with passion and heart. I have to be as on top of the game as I can be so it has to be a show and it has to be energetic. I feel like there isn’t space for average female singers so I cannot be one. I sing with character. I had a few opera singing lessons years ago but I'm self-directed. When I perform my aim is to be full on, give it a full percentage and I don’t see how I could do it any other way, I don’t think there’s another avenue. At sixteen I couldn’t sing how I sing now. I was so shy back then, plus I think it’s rarer to have a woman rather than a bloke fronting a rock band so I think it’s a responsibility to do it as well as I can.

My advice to single young girls starting out in the industry if they're in a band with a few blokes is to be aware that the blokes will be quite flirtatious and often want something more out of you. It's human nature but it can be irritating. When you were in a band was it all male musicians?

JCT:  No, in Venus Tree we had three women and one bloke and I was pregnant as well with my third child when we did most of our gigs so the dynamic was completely different – actually for the last few gigs my stomach was really protruding making my guitar sit at an angle...

AB: I got sacked from a band for wearing too tight jeans. This guy...I was singing a bit of blues and he said “It’s doing funny things to t’lads in t’band. I don’t know what you’re trying to do there.” And I was quite a bit older then so I was thinking “What?” so I was sacked for wearing tight jeans .

JCT:  Unbelievable...everyday sexism...

AB: Then after I’d left I was talking to one of the lads in the band in the pub and I said, “So what really went on?  Why was I asked to leave?” and he said, really bitchily “Coz. You really aren’t good enough” and I said “Fuck you, one day, I’m gonna fucking write some stuff that’s gonna be fucking brilliant. Don’t you fucking tell me I’m not good enough.”

And I suppose that’s how I survive, just go the opposite direction to where people try to position me. What he could have said was “Angela, it’s a setback, keep going with it, bands move on all the time.” It bugged me. Even if he thought it, it was a mean response to actually voice. 

***


On making the debut album 9 Wild Lovers...

AB: We’re going to put out a couple of singles including the single ‘Fat Bitch’, and in early autumn put our first album 9 Wild Lovers online & CD hopefully on vinyl which you’ll be able to buy from Bandcamp here.

JCT:  What was it like working with producer Ross Orton who mixed 9 Wild Lovers?

AB: It was brilliant. It’s no secret that Ross is world class. He’s super professional and a great character, it was loads of fun. He got his head down, he worked hard and I really admire him. He’s built his own studio with bare hands, no tools (laughs.) It was a great experience, if he doesn’t really like the music he won’t work with it and I respect that. Ross is really into rock so I knew we’d get great results.

I love the Arctic Monkeys track ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ which Ross produced – he co-produced the whole album in L.A., he’s got a platinum for that hung up, he deserves it, really talented bloke.
Dave Sanderson, who recorded the album, was really understanding of the fact we were skint and had to spread the cost over time. We could only do a day here and a day there when we could afford it. So it’s taken two years to record the album.

We recorded the album at 2 Fly, where the Arctic Monkeys recorded their demos (now quite a historic thing musically). There’s a much bigger vibe around music and possibility and energy amongst Sheffield bands because of the Arctic Monkeys, they went so massive that people felt it could happen to them. I think the music industry, the infrastructure and the vibe for making something happen has grown on the back of their productivity.

Dave’s produced some fantastic music, Hey Sholay, 69 Days of Static, The Payroll Union and currently Faerground Accidents who are doing OK, so he’s working on some really good material. In terms of our producers we’re really lucky. Both Ross and Dave apart from being great producers are really good company as well.


“I’m gonna make one of my dreams come true, make some muppets and be in my own muppet show.”


***

On gigging...

So far we’ve never tried to promote the band. We made a single, Fridge a couple of years ago and Paul Blakeman really wanted to put it out on the Club 60 label on vinyl and Helene Michaelides really wanted to do the video for the single, which you can see on YouTube. I’m a big Jim Henson fan so I just thought “I’m gonna make one of my dreams come true, make some muppets and be in my own muppet show.”  I wanted it to have a message too so it had a ‘Give Blood’ theme and everyone did it for free. 

There are two more videos in the pipeline. Bands need videos nowadays, everything is centred on the internet.

We’ve done about 30 gigs around Sheffield over the past few years but never asked for a gig. We just play gigs if someone asks and we can play them. We played Newcastle and everyone thought we were great, amazing and one guy said “If you’re not on Jools Holland by next year I’m gonna kill myself.” Simon says he is probably dead now, ha!

That’s the thing I’m looking forward to, I’m looking forward to playing more out of town, and I think it’ll be vibey.

JCT:  What about London?

AB: We've not played London yet but we're planning a tour in the future...


“If you’re not on Jools Holland by next year I’m gonna kill myself.”



***

On musical influences...

AB: ScottWalker melted my soul. Shirley Bassey, she’s an against the odds singer. Kate Bush, she’s intriguing, she does it in her own individual style. Jim Jones, I’d love to support him, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, TheDetroit Cobras, Gold Blade, Joan Jett, Billy Holiday because again she’s an against the odds singer where despite racism in America, they just had to have her, her voice was so beautiful. I like lots of music, the list is endless.

Billy Holiday is the woman who enticed me to sing through just listening and thinkingWow, that’s amazing, I wish I could do something like that.” I was stuck in a small town, there was nothing else to do so I might as well sing along to Billy Holiday records.

And Suzi Quatro in the 70's, I was a really young girl when she came on the scene, I just loved her vibe but Siouxie Sioux – although I really like her now – was still a fledgling, underground punky act, something you wouldn’t have watched on Swap Shop. So whilst Siouxie Sioux was writing her first few albums I would have been listening to Prince, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Wham and Madonna cause that was blaring out the telly.

I’m originally from the vinyl record era – it’s the difference between an old book and Kindle – vinyl records hold memories better than downloads somehow.


“Billy Holiday is the woman who enticed me to sing.”


Prince was a bit of a sexual awakening. When he wrote Purple Rain I was probably developing so watching the movie was “Oooo...what’s this funny feeling? Prince is nice!”

I got into Janis Joplin when my friend Mike bought me an album and said “You need some Janis in your life.” Quite often people will say “You’re like Janis Joplin”. I must look a bit like her or it’s just a few things that make people think that. What are the elements about her?

JCT:  You’ve got a wild, independent freedom in your stage presence that is reminiscent of Janis. With artists like Siouxie Sioux and Suzie Quatro it’s more contrived and staged, they’ve got a really boxed-in image, whereas yours is so organic and natural. The name of the band is Black Cat White Cat, obviously, but you’ve got a feline presence onstage.

AB: When I watch videos I just think I look terrible but that’s not what other people say.

JCT:  You look absolutely amazing on stage. Every woman thinks they look terrible, that’s just part of being a woman. You’ve got an incredible stage presence. It’s cat-like, the way you move, it’s got a freedom and an uncontrivedness about it that’s very reminiscent of Janis.

AB: Thank you very kind words. Yeah Janis...I think people are really cruel about the way that she looked. Sometimes I see photographs of Janis and she looks really nice. Obviously she’s singing and when you’re singing your face is contorted.

So even when you make an effort with your togs, move around, sound brilliant, your face gets contorted, someone takes a snap and then all hell breaks loose.  We’re not allowed to be natural. We’re not allowed to contort our faces but they still wanna hear the sound so because she sang so well – and it’s a really physical thing, singing – she had to be that way, but what they wanna see is a really evenly shaped face with a mouth that opens up not so much and that’s OK, and that’s why nowadays people make all those videos but Janis was from the pre-music video era, she sang live and you get loads of live footage. End of.  

Now it’s all manipulated, you’re a product of the time. And because she never got to live her life and settle down with one guy she went down in history as a woman who was lost and promiscuous and everybody was experimenting back then but she got pulled up for it.

“...even when you make an effort with your togs, move around, sound brilliant, your face gets contorted, someone takes a snap and then all hell breaks loose.  We’re not allowed to be natural.”


***

On perseverance...

AB: There’s always been things trying to hold us back from being a band but we just carry on.
Driving to the practice room once the car got stuck and we spent three hours jumping on top of the car trying to move it an inch...at one point we thought we’d lost all our recordings (we found them on a hard drive in the end)...I was supposed to go down and sing some vocals at the tail end of things and I walked into a lamp post and had to cancel, it’s been like that all the time but it’s all just typical...we just kept going despite all these things. In 2015 Simon Stafford was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which put the album on hold for another year. After successful surgery Simon is doing really well, he's escaped death with amazing results, thanks to the NHS. 

JCT:  Yeah, some of these are huge hurdles you’ve had to overcome, especially Simon's brain cancer...

AB: Yeah. You think you’re in control and you’re not. But we're going to keep going, the reaction when we play live is always so positive. I’ve been in other bands and I’ve never had reactions like when Black Cat White Cat play - you know when people are faking it or not – at the end of the gig we often get ten or fifteen people coming over and saying “That was amazing”, “That was fucking brilliant” and “That was awesome – have you got something I can buy?”  

We didn’t know we were good or not until we played our first gig at the first ever Tramlines up near the Uni, it was a really packed gig. Someone told me that this bloke had gone to the bar to buy a pint and said “Fuck ‘avin’ a pint, this band’s too good I’m just gonna watch the band I don’t care about me pint.” That kind of reaction is inspiring - you're only as good as the reaction.

That’s when I knew. It’s basically up to the audience. It’s always up to the audience. Playing to the wrong audience feels like feeling-up somebody who you really don’t fancy. The trick is to play the right places on the right night to the right people.

JCT:  The first Tramlines when it was pissing down and Reverend and the Makers played on Devonshire Green? I was dancing in the audience with my brolly to that gig.

AB: Yeah that one. I’ve been told that the Reverends said we’re one of the best bands in Sheffield. 
Russell Senior from Pulp wrote a really lovely piece about us. He said he was really worried about going to see us in case it was rubbish and then it’s really embarrassing but then the opposite happened and he loved us. He thinks I sing a bit like Grace Slick.
I know Richard Hawley thinks our stuff’s good. Well he’s in our first video, isn’t he? 


“Fuck ‘avin’ a pint, this band’s too good I’m just gonna watch the band I don’t care about me pint.”


***

On ‘Fat Bitch’...

AB: We’re releasing ‘Fat Bitch’ as a single at some point. I’m saying it to myself, ‘Fat Bitch’ - it’s about me. I own it. If somebody uses this term towards somebody else they are being abusive, don’t tolerate it, they have the problem. I’m saying I have my own problem, and part of that problem is the way people struggle with humanity wanting to be accepted and loved and we all mess up at one point. It’s a plea to find a soul mate, the ultimate preoccupation is to be loved and love back.

Gentle language is very important and the actual content of the song is completely diametrically opposed to its title – I sing of acceptance, classic romance but I’ve set it within the context of postmodern anxiety, with a flash back to Led Zep.

I wrote ‘Fat Bitch’ on an acoustic guitar. I was single and I’d been seeing this lad who was messing me around and it just came from that, feeling fed up with looking for love and feeling I wasn’t getting anywhere, so it’s a song about wanting to meet someone who was worth their weight - it was never fully constructed as a song, it was a scrappy half-written idea but it was one of the songs that helped me recruit musicians. Simon, Chris and Ross played a big part in completing it as a full-blown track.

“It’s basically up to the audience. It’s always up to the audience.”

‘Fat Bitch’ refers to how to we, men as well as women, can pull ourselves down and look for reasons as to why things aren’t working out and then look to themselves...you want to just meet someone who’s genuine and accepts you for who you are and loves you inside and out and the feeling that sometimes we’re really meticulous and ridiculous about this, there can be nothing wrong with somebody and they can have all sorts of hang-ups about their shape and who they are and it really is about just meeting that right person, there’s probably nothing wrong so with you that most people go through one way or another. But we do these things to ourselves to make sense of the world.

JCT:  Do you think women do this more than men?

AB: No I think men do it as well but there’s definitely more pressure on women to look more polished than there is on men, and it’s really time consuming to achieve that polished look so there’s more leisure time spent on that so maybe they feel when they are out and about if they’re not presented in a certain way they’ll be seen as not making an effort whereas for a man it doesn’t even cross their mind, they’ll just fling on a t-shirt...

JCT:  Well have you noticed how women in the public eye from TV presenters to MPs, the first things that are commented upon are their weight and clothes? Remember the presenter David Frost? In his late seventies, old and doddery, fronting national mainstream TV shows. You wouldn’t get an woman in her late seventies looking like that presenting daytime television, it wouldn’t happen.

AB: I remember when Blondie came back on the scene with Maria and Debbie Harry got pulled up and she was fabulous! People were really hung up about whether she was young enough to keep doing it but good on her, because I wonder whether TheRolling Stones would have headlined if she’d not done that before them, whether they’d have felt self-conscious. I really felt for her.

JCT:  Well, I love Keith Richards but who’s ever criticised him in the press for his looks? Nobody. Ever.

AB: Yeah. It’s just cool. End of. Debbie Harry talks about that a lot, how her image has been a huge part of her career and it has, she was a stunning young girl, but for a while the public couldn’t accept her as an older woman yet if you saw her without knowing she was famous you’d just think she was a stunning older woman. It’s an impossibility to stay the same age.

JCT:  The problem is that because polished air-brushed photographs of women in the public eye are foisted on us it’s what we as the general public now expect. How do you feel about this as a female performer?

AB:  I’m normal and I will adhere to some of it. I’m as vulnerable as any other person, I’m not separate from it, I’m gonna go out in togs, and although I’m not going to be separate from it, I’m really aware of it.
 My make up and costume mean when I am on stage I’m working, and when I’m off … I’m off, just me ‘Angela’ hippy and mum.

JCT:  Good point...why do you normally wear black when performing by the way?

AB: Coz I’m 60% Goth.


“I don’t think images of nearly naked woman in six inch heels is a balanced world view and I don’t think women are getting a fair representation.”


***

On women in the industry...

AB: Many people feel that women in the music industry are over-sexualised, dancing provocatively and performing almost naked. The industry is funding this and the pressure on young girls to do the same is very real – I don’t mind it massively, but I don’t subject my daughter to these over-sexualised images, they’re not educational or particularly entertaining, In fact I think it desensitises sensuality, they are culturally irrelevant but somehow addictive to people, in fact I’m not sure how a woman doesn’t have sexuality. I don’t think images of nearly naked woman in six inch heels is a balanced worldview and I don’t think women are getting a fair representation.   

When I was a girl I remember women saying that feminism had made things worse, well it didn’t, what it did and still does is challenge the status quo and that frightens people. Feminism became very academic and when people struggle to understand something, it can become repellent. Of course there are different points of view but I think unfortunately many people feel feminism stands for ‘female supremacy’ and of course it doesn’t.

A man can be a feminist in my book; I think it’s a word that describes the desire for equality. We cannot ban words, they are out there. Like ‘Fat Bitch’ we have to change the negative into the positive, it’s about vernacular. We can’t just eliminate words from history, it wouldn’t work. Feminism has been used more for good causes than bad.

I’m for being supportive of people in whatever they want to do as long as it’s isn’t hurting anybody else. I think it’s that simple.


“I’m the witch you never see under the shed when Dorothy first lands in Oz.”




***

On The Wizard of Oz...


AB: Dorothy clicks her heels to escape and return home so I have this thing about wanting to escape the place I grew up in – Goole – I always had this instinctive feeling that there was more to life and that people could be a lot kinder than they really are, because of course there’s the witch who’s being really mean to Toto in her black and white world and the witch is the landowner, ‘the Conservative or Top Down Authority’ if you like and then Dorothy goes into the magical world where’s the crossroads of good and evil and you have good witches and bad witches  and on your journey you make friends with these unusual characters.

I cite some of Wizard of Oz in my lyrics, and there’s a tale of a green ghost a childhood friend told me about when we were twagging (skipping school) one day on the Monkey Bridge (I mention the Monkey Bridge in one of my songs.) There’s these great water towers called The Salt and Pepper Pots, a feat of engineering -  there’s lots of engineering feats in Goole, it’s an important port but a small town - and there’s some lovely footage of the water towers, you can find it on YouTube where the men are rigging to build it and they’re sliding up and down, there’s no hard hats, nothing, and when they opened it in 1915 they had amazing green fireworks during the opening ceremony and there was an explosion in which someone died.

In the Wizard of Oz the witches appear in a green puff of smoke and my friend had this thing about ghosts – I never did, never believed in this tale and then I discovered that there was some truth in it, someone did die in a green puff of smoke...

Growing up in eighties Thatcher’s Britain was quite a brutal period for a child - not that other periods before it weren’t difficult – we still had corporate stuff going on so I empathise with Dorothy’s journey on a road of discovery to get back to whatever true love is or to find something meaningful and find a righteous path or one of humanity and she mistakenly burns the witch, she doesn’t do it on purpose, she doesn’t realise that pouring water on the witch is going to kill her off, she feels quite guilty about it. 

I fancied making some ruby slippers so I performed with powder blue socks and ruby slippers so I wasn’t just completely dressed in black. Now I’m true to the L. Frank Baum books and I wear silver slippers.

***

After an enchanting and thought-provoking afternoon talking to Angela I’m left with the striking impression of how challenging it is to be a female artist loyal to your principles in what is still, essentially a patriarchal world, especially the world of music. How many festival line-ups comprise all male bands for example?

Considering Angela’s fascination with The Wizard of Oz, it’s interesting to note that its aforementioned author, L.Frank Baum, was very close to his mother-in-law, the noted suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and edited a newspaper focused around women’s rights, as well as being the secretary of his local women’s suffrage club...

The magic, and messages of his Oz books live on...




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