Only a few musicians seem to have the bravery these days to go for a radical change. Quite often a lack of financial safety and the wheels of the industry prevent many musicians these days to step out of the comfort zone. Beth Jeans Houghton did it anyway. She was on the rise, delivered a critically praised debut album in 2012, played multiple shows and was on her way to record a follow-up in Los Angeles. But then she decided to get out of the daily race, broke with her past and decided to re-invent herself, her music and the art surrounding it. DU BLONDE was born and her new album Welcome Back To Milk is the result of that. Furious, crazy loud and one hundred percent dedicated to her own artistic ambitions.
DU BLONDE is the forthright new moniker of a lady in charge. And for NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION it was time to ask Beth Jeans Houghton about how much of herself is part of DU BLONDE and what we can expect from her in the future. It feels as if her guitar is lying in several pieces at the side of a new stage on which the foul mouthed and abstractly gendered ghosts of the American Hardcore scene are vying for space. We chatted to her at her label offices about stretch marks, auto-tune and eating your own shit at a gig because you can.
Hi Beth. What’s everyone else been asking you then?
Everyone asks why I changed the name. I had gotten to a point where I didn’t feel like myself anymore, so I stopped everything. I had a look at all the reasons why that was. I stopped doing those things, or stopped seeing the people that were making me feel that way. I felt like I was not a whole new person, but me again. Musically my name was attached to a person that I am not anymore.
I figured the name would be one thing that would be asked about, and secondly the album cover? How photoshopped is it?
Not at all. I decided early on I wasn’t photoshopping anything. Someone I work with was like ‘so are you going to touch up your stretch marks?’ I was liked fuck off. That has to stop. People have to stop doing that. Everything is so photoshopped that nothing is really beautiful anymore. I just thought that when I was young, when use of Photoshop was becoming relentless, it would have helped me with how I felt about my body to see people who weren’t doing it.
It’s a very strong statement that’s being made, but simultaneously to acknowledge the more human aspects of aren’t is needed, no?
Definitely. I’m not perfect in anyway, but I’m totally fine with that! The actual image was me and photographer that I’ve known since I was 13, and my friend Nisha who was styling it – we all used to live together. In between the photo shoot, we did these other pictures – some funny pictures just for us. Afterwards I said to them, that’s the album cover. It wasn’t a considered thing. I wasn’t like “I’m going to wear a merkin”. It was accidental. It’s good. It represents me more as I am when I’m comfortable.
Assuming that you’ve got a ‘split personality over time’ going on here, can you see yourself doing this again? Which of these monikers is more faithful? And where was the point where it became the wrong thing?
Probably during the touring for the last record. The last album (Yours truly, Cellophane Nose – Beth Jean Horton) came out three years after it was finished, so I was already so over it. And then I had to tour it for two years. I had so much fun touring it, that was great, but I was playing music that, while I liked it, it wasn’t the music I wanted to play. I wanted to be aggressive. I wanted to be powerful. The music didn’t lend itself to that kind of performance. It was really difficult playing to crowds of people standing still and drinking pints. I wanted people to let go. That was the beginning of it.
I went to make another record with my old band in LA. We only had a month to do it in and, because we only had that time, I was focussing so much on how they were doing it, and what they were doing, by the end I realised I hadn’t played an instrument on the record. I hadn’t even sung on anything. It was a collaborative effort, but it wasn’t how I would have had it sound if it was just me. It was funny – it was meant to be my project. And it just wasn’t.
‘I’d lost all control over what it was I was doing’
What was the moment when that threshold was crossed?
There were three. The first being when I decided to trash the old record. I went back into the studio with the same producer in LA to start again the week after, and the day I got there he was like ‘you know, I think you should take another 6 months on these songs’. I write songs in minutes and if I don’t get them down within a month, I’m over them. He suggested I work with another songwriter. That was devastating. The only thing I know I can do is write songs. To have someone say that I needed a shadow writer… I was like ‘fuck.’
The second thing was that I had a nervous breakdown. It changed everything. It put me on a good path. At the point when it happened I was in Zurich in a hotel and brain felt like it had turned into mashed potato. I was so stressed by everything that I called my tour manager, and by the time he got to my room, I was trying to say ‘get me to hospital’, but as I tried to say it, it wasn’t even words coming out of my mouth. He’s the calmest person I know but I could see it in his eyes; he was terrified. Afterwards he said he was worried he was going to have to call my mum and tell her I’d died. It was good though. It set me on a path of trying to be balanced mentally. The final was going to see the DAVID BOWIE exhibition at the V&A Museum. Seeing all the aspect of his career, all the changes he’s made, all the artwork and the fashion. Everything that’s involved makes him, him. I realised I hadn’t made an outfit in two years. I’d lost all control over what it was I was doing. I’d given a lot of the control over my art, my music, my videos to whole group of people who weren’t involved with me, apart from professionally.
Did you make your team smaller then?
I did, yes. I parted ways with the band. I manage myself now. I just started again. After trashing the record, I went to see a friend in Malibu and I said ‘Why doesn’t it sound the way I want it to sound?’ She made a really good point. All the songs weren’t honest. They weren’t lies but I’d tried to shroud everything in mystery. It’s really difficult knowing that everyone is going to know your personal life through song, so I had tried to keep it under wraps. But if that’s how you feel, then what are you doing it for? I didn’t make music to have a career. It’s a release. If I don’t make it in that way then it becomes redundant.
The production on the record… Lets talk about that. Is it a pop record?
No. I listen to American Hardcore.
But there are massive pop influences in it. Is that deliberate? What’s the angle here?
I understand why people used to say my music was ‘folky’. I hate the word folk, because it reminds me of traditional folk. Whereas Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, whilst technically folk, is just great music. I love pop music, but for that’s just music that is catchy and accessible. But you mention that to some people, and they instantly think of synths and auto tune.
And is there any auto tune on this record?
None. Wait. There might be a couple of tweaks. I’m against auto tune completely, which is why I ended up working with Jim Sclavunos, the drummer from NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS and GRINDERMAN. We had such a small amount of time to do things in and we only had a limited amount of vocal takes. There’s no major auto tune but there’s a probably a couple of bits where, if I went flat, they nudged it a semitone. (laughs)
Ok. So being constructive with the process. Helping your voice to sound as good as it can naturally, not making it sound unnaturally good?
Yes. But I mean, there’s probably like three notes that are auto-tuned. I would prefer there were none. The thing is, so many people use it that [audiences] believe there is a natural standard of singing, something that no-one can reach. If you don’t use it then you automatically are at a lower point to everyone else. Just like Photoshop. I have stretch marks so I automatically look worse. Not, because I do look worse, but because the idea that everyone has about these things is based on Photoshopped Victoria’s Secret models. They think that that is the standard.
‘It’s a more primal version of myself.’
How did the relationship work with Jim then?
I mean, the record is Jim, sure, but we had an amazing guy mix the record. I’ve never heard such a difference when it’s come back from mixing. Normally mixing changes a few things, or just enhances what’s there. It came back and I was just like ‘Fuck, what did you do!?’ His name is Adrian Hall. I picked him because of the drum sound. There were a few people to pick from, all of whom had done really great mixes – clean and clear. But Adrian’s had some kind of animalistic thing. I just never wanted this to be perfect.
I went to watch FUTURE ISLANDS. It’s been so long in new music that I have been aware of anyone giving that much on stage, being that powerful. I got really into American Hardcore. CIRCLE JERKS. GG ALLIN. Oh my god. There’s a video a song of his called Bite It You Scum – he comes on stage, he’s completely naked but wearing a dog collar, and he jumps into the audience and takes a shit on the floor and then he puts in his mouth and sprays it over everyone. There was a moment, I was losing it. My mum was cradling me like a baby. I was crying saying that it’s so difficult to be a woman and do what I want to do. I want to piss on stage, and be allowed to do that. It’s not the act, but the freedom of being able to do that in relation to how society sees that. I want to be in a place where I can do that and not feel bad. I don’t want people saying ‘She can’t do that… She’s a woman…’ All of that music, while often completely unlistenable, at least those people are so free from their own demons in that moment. That’s what I want to feel myself in any aspect of life. Realising that to be aggressive in a constructive way is a positive thing. You don’t want to be putting all this negativity into your relationships or your work. Instead it’s like going to church. It’s releasing. It’s constructive.
So, DU BLONDE is your character then? Your stage persona?
It’s not a character. It’s a vessel for me to say this is not what I was before. I’m more me than I was before. It’s easier for me to go on stage under a different name, and then go home and be Beth. It’s not a character, it’s me. It’s a more primal version of myself.
That’s different from Bowie then. Bowie was actively pursuing characters? But you’ve got a vessel to pursue these aggressive, masculine acts. Is the vessel female?
It’s difficult. I would say definitely yes. Gender is a tough one. I spent a lot of my life, not wishing I was a boy, but doing what others saw as more masculine acts. I can be gross. I can be disgusting. I’m not worried about not changing my clothes for a week. I find disgusting things hilarious. I like making people feel uncomfortable. I’m not a huge fan of going to the mall or whatever.
Yet, I am also really feminine in some ways. Really happy to be. Tough question. Good question. You know, when I was young I used to sit in front of the TV and wish I was the male lead singer of a rock band. That was the space I wanted to inhabit. It’s purely based on the fact that, when I was that age, there was no-one [female] that I was aware of who could inhabit that space. It was all men. Sure they were singers in rock bands, but they’re female. They’re doing it in a very feminine way. I’ve never felt that feminine. It’s a shame I felt that way. I think therefore I want to inhabit that space as a girl myself, as a girl. It’s not genderless. It’s female. Just my own version of it.
And as a special giveaway today we’re giving away two cassettes of the new DU BLONDE album Welcome Back To Milk away. Yes, that’s right – good old fashioned MC’s because anything else would be a bit too ordinary for Mrs. Jeans Houghton. Just send us a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, including the subect ‘Du Blonde,’ your full name and of course the post address. Good luck!