White Lung's fourth album Paradise is a bracing rock record: a bloody knife-swath through a world of killers, body horror, ambivalent relationships, desire, death and a straightforward love story or two. It takes 2014's searing Deep Fantasy, which was received with rapturous, if often one-dimensional, praise for its political and feminist slant, and scales it up an order of magnitude and assurance. Between records, frontwoman Mish Barber-Way has gotten married, battled vocal nodules and grappled with the idea of female artists as purely confessional. Fittingly, Paradise tackles White Lung's most far-flung subject matter yet.
2014's Deep Fantasy was pigeonholed in the press, and Paradise seems like an attempt to step away from that a bit.
People read in a lot of their own politics or lumped me in with this whole "Year of Women 2014." Get real! It's always that year. So on this record, I didn't want to have my opinions and my politics dictated for me. I wanted to step away from the constant politicizing of the song.
Especially with something that's so often labeled as "feminist punk" — it's easy for that to become the sole focus.
I understand why it happened, of course, but I didn't want to pander to that audience. Joan Rivers said you should never pander to your audience, and I completely agree.
What approach were you going for when writing lyrics for Paradise?
While doing the record, I was listening to nothing but country and blues. I really wanted to do storytelling the ways those great performers did: Tell it like it is, with the message very clear.
Any artists in particular?
I was listening to a lot of Hank Snow and David Allen Coe — his first record, Penitentiary Blues, a beautiful record about love and drugs and being in jail at age 21 and that's your life. I also listened to a lot of these compilations called Twisted Tales From the Vinyl Wastelands, from a record label called Trailer Park Records. Each album is themed. The first one is about UFOs, the second record's all prison songs, the third record is about strippers. There's a song [by Troy Hess] called "Please Don't Go Topless, Mother," sang by a seven-year-old whose mother is a topless dancer, then a song by Katie Lee called "Insane," about seeing her husband cheating and singing from the mental health ward about not being able to remember the exact moment that got her there. I was just obsessed with this aspect of very straightforward Americana storytelling.
There's a lot of the same sort of specific, visceral imagery on the record.
I always hid behind language and metaphor and being able to create something that's very easy to project on and derive your own meanings from, but here I did really want to not leave a lot of interpretation to the listeners as far as lyrics go. It's scarier to do that, and more bold.
On Paradise you write from the perspective of fallen starlets, murder victims and serial killers like Rosemary and Frank West and the Ken and Barbie Killers. What about these stories attracted you?
I'm always drawn to dissidents and deviants — how they're viewed and belittled by the public and the things they can get away with. It works both ways, and men and women get off on a lot of it. There's a sense of balance — it's not totally uneven. And I really like the idea of taking on characters and writing from that perspective, because you can say things and explore ideas that you can't explore as yourself.
The subject matter almost sneaks up on you.
Yeah – it's more about exploring human relationships. On "Sister," I was thinking about what [Karla Homolka] would say to her dead sister, whom she helped kill, and if she was possibly sorry.
How did you get there?
I was doing a study for Broadly about the psychology behind female serial killers, specifically women who assist their husbands in serial murder. We don't want to believe that women are capable of those acts, and they often get lighter sentences as a result. But the Ken and Barbie Killers were huge in Canada, a very wide cultural thing. We were doing CBC Radio, and the host said to me, "You know, you can't do a song about Karla Homolka…?" I didn't even think about how that would come off in Canada! She's like an evil beast to Canadians. People of my parents' generation or slightly younger hear that name and are disgusted.
What else inspired you while writing the record?
I was writing a lot about motherhood and family. Once you get married and find the person you actually imagine procreating with, you start to think about those things in a different way. On the song "Dead Weight," I was imagining what it would be like to want to have a baby so badly, a woman who kept continually miscarrying, that frustration of your biology working against you.
You've written about about undergoing therapy for vocal nodules and having your voice give out on you.
With the vocals, I've said this before, but a lot of artists go into the studio and want complete control. They don't need help. But I don't come from that mindset. I grew up a competitive figure skater and dancer. I like being coached, and [producer Lars Stalfors] pushed me to succeed.... Lars helped me explore new techniques that I would have been too afraid to try. Especially on songs like "Below" and "Hungry," it was slowed down and I had so much room to sing, just big, bellowing, held notes. And these tracks ended up being radio singles.
There's definitely a sense of assurance there.
I'm so proud that we managed to write two radio singles and stay true to our band's style. We never thought we could do that.