DIY in London – An Interview With Punk Legend, Gina Birch
Renown post-punk musician, artist, and filmmaker Gina Birch has recently released her debut solo album, I Play My Bass Loud, available on Third Man Records. The album has already received significant praise from The Quietus, The New York Times and Mojo, to name a few respected publications. Birch is widely known for not only co-founding the iconic British post-punk band, The Raincoats, but for forging a wildly diverse artistic career. A punk icon, a painter, an artist making films, creating music – all her way and by her own rules, she has a UK/Ireland tour to complete from March 21st and an art show due in the autumn.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Birch during her two exclusive London gigs, just before the launch of her album. Given her thirst for creating and constant song-writing, I wondered why now for her debut album?
“Good question!! That’s what I ask myself!! It has been a surprise to me too. I have been writing songs, making films, painting. Painting had kind of taken over and I was pursuing exhibitions with my work. Success beckoned and I had my first solo painting show last November. The opening of the first Third Man shop and label in London was the catalyst for my music to be unleashed. A series of 7 inch singles from UK bands such as Cornershop and Jesus and Mary Chain were highlighted for the opening and I had chosen ‘Feminist Song’ to be my choice of my work. After chatting with Dave Buick from Third Man, it was suggested I make a whole album. I had so many songs that the idea was very appealing. The songs could have stayed on my computer til the hard drives died but instead I took them to Youth’s studio, and with the help of Michael Rendall the engineer, Youth and I co-produced this album’s worth of lively defiant songs”
The record has a liberation feeling to it with several different styles – spoken word, dub, beats, has she always been influenced by different styles?
“Yes I think my tastes are fairly eclectic… there’s not much music I don’t like.. maybe some types of MOR jazz and supermarket muzak!! From dub to vocal pitch-shifting (which I knew would annoy some people intensely!!), to strumming guitar and feedback guitar, vocal harmonies, loops, bells and whistles… they all appeal to me!”
In recent years, Birch has committed herself to painting, creating a growing body of work that saw her illustrate a recent book of Sharon Van Etten’s lyrics. She staged her first solo painting show earlier this year at Gallery 46 in Whitechapel, London. The cover of I Play My Bass Loud – features her striking artwork for which features a powerful Birch painting entitled “Loneliness”. Does she approach making art and music in a similar way?
“Yes I suppose I do. Something clicks with me, makes me laugh, chuckle inside, or maybe I feel my heckles rise and. ….oooh i could do something with that. I was interested in conceptual art and minimalist art when I was at art school and I am still moved by the idea. then it can either be a song or a painting. They do have different scope. A painting can be a whole world within the canvas, a song is more linear and time based with repeated sections.”
The Raincoats were formed in 1977 when Birch and Ana Da Silva (vocals, guitar) were both students at Hornsey College of Art, inspired after seeing The Slits perform live. One of the first bands signed to the Rough Trade label, the band released three albums in 1979, 1981 and 1984 before reforming in the 90s. What did Birch’s time in the 70’s and 80’s music scene teach her, and how does it differ from today? Has she seen positive changes?
“I’m certainly much less naïve than I was when I first started making work. then I was extremely shy, had no idea where my imagination was, was unconfident and often uncomfortable but strangely moved by the ideas of punk that anyone could have a go. I think this idea attracted a lot of so called ‘misfits’! I think keeping doing it, keeping engaged in pursuing a creative life makes you stronger and clearer about where your interests and intentions i.e.. With regard to change etc, don’t know much about the music scene now. I’ve never been an insider then or now.I know Geoff Travis at Rough Trade was always keen to have women working in the label, in the shop and in the bands as he thought it was important for there to be a gender balance. He asked Ana to work in the shop (in 1977), because he thought it was good that boys/young men knew that girls/young women also knew about music and records and had opinions and appreciated music too. That was from the very start of Rough Trade shop. There are always pockets of good stuff, and usually a large crop of bad stuff!!”
The performances at Third Man Records and Rough Trade East recently were both so engaging, performing live is such a vital part of music, does she still enjoy it?
“I’ve very much enjoyed performing live recently… it’s funny though, sometimes I feel very much ‘in the zone’ and other times not at all. I have to learn to get in that zone….. I enjoy the shows so much more when I am transported to a seemingly other planet!!! I am doing some touring this year and playing a few festivals which will be great especially with my new band, Jenny Green and Marie Merlet.”
As we near the end of an interview with Gina Birch, I’m always interested in who musicians are listening to themselves, who they’re inspired by.
“I have been listening to Bob Dylan a great deal. More recently I have expanded my listening to a broader range of Bob Dylan!”
Bob Dylan, he gets everywhere. Gina Birch continues with her UK tour from March 21st in Brighton, at the Hope and Ruin. I Play My Bass Loud is available to purchase/listen to here: https://orcd.co/iplaymybassloud, and you can connect with the artist via her website here: