Every White Lung album is a sonic gut punch, a visceral experience that surges through your ears and body in an unbelievably short period of time (no White Lung album has ever surpassed 30 minutes).
On their latest album, Paradise, singer Mish Barber-Way, guitarist Kenneth William and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou charge ahead with a new set of songs that are apologetically brash while dissecting the ideas of beauty and love from a defiantly female perspective.
CBC Music recently talked to Barber-Way and William about Paradise, the musical challenges and experimentations that went into these new songs and the inspirations behind Barber-Way’s songwriting this time around.
When Paradise was first announced, it seemed like there was this emphasis on the fact that this album featured more “pop sensibility.” Do you feel like people reacted to it in a weird way because we have this preconceived notion of what “pop” means?
Kenneth William: I think it’s getting overblown a bit! [Laughs] It’s a catchy record, at least that’s what we tried to do.
Mish Barber-Way: We just wanted to write great songs and that was the extent of it, you know? Not being afraid to make the production really clear, not like this muddled mess mixed together into this one kind of noise. We wanted everything to be very distinct from each other and concise. I get what makes it pop, that shiny brightness and the attention to melody but, I mean, it’s still not pop. Only two of those songs can go on the radio.
The first single you put out was “Hungry,” which is a bit of a departure from your previous work, so was that a conscious decision to release something a little different?
Barber-Way: Well we thought that — well, I didn’t really find it that way — but yeah, “Hungry” was a radio single so they wanted it. This is the whole approach: we can put out a song that sounds exactly like White Lung when we first came out or we can put out a song that is a little bit of a departure from that but still makes sense to what we sound like and give people something to talk about. Then, put out the next single that sounds like us and prove like, hey we can do this thing now but we can also do that thing that we’re great at. I think that was the idea.
Did you approach songwriting any differently on this record?
William: I think it’s different every time we’ve written a record. Mish lives in L.A. now and Anne-Marie and I live in Vancouver so it was different because of that. We were never really hanging out or running through songs together. We did a lot of writing in the studio, which we’ve never really done to this extent. It was cool. I like being able to just come up with stuff, record it, move it around and have creativity happening in there instead of going in and capturing a live performance that we basically rehearsed.
Barber-Way: Everything came to life in the studio. Obviously, I had the lyrics and I knew what I wanted to sing about and I kind of had the melodies in my head but nothing was finalized and I couldn’t have possibly finalized it until we got into the studio. Because we don’t have a permanent bass player, it’s not like it’s the four of us writing songs, start to finish, in a room any more. It has to be done in this cut-and-paste, collage kind of format because it lacks the one member. Kenny plays bass on the record. So, I came up to Vancouver to work on stuff and I’d sit there and play bass parts and we’d try and work things out, but it’s not quite the same as when we get into the studio.
Has this strengthened your trust in one another as musicians?
Barber-Way: Yeah, I think Kenny’s one of the best musicians in the world and I couldn’t write songs like this without him and I hope he doesn’t think that I would screw up my vocal parts … right, Kenny?
William: Yeah, I just think like, kind of the point of being in a band is having different people all contributing different things. I think it’s almost kind of better that we worked completely separately just because we could all accomplish exactly everything we wanted without having a bunch of suggestions thrown at us. I know Mish doesn’t like it when I tell her what to do and I don’t like it when she tells me what to do.
Do you think working separately somehow contributed to that cleaner sound you had mentioned earlier?
William: Definitely. We did work a little more closely together on the last records, but the vocals and the guitars kind of played off each other a lot more this time. They’re completely separate, basically, and I think that kind of lets both of them cut through the mix better.
Mish, you have described this album as “schizophrenic” in the sense that you write from a number of different perspectives on Paradise. What drew you to that style of writing?
Barber-Way: It’s a lot more freeing. I write for my other job and I’m constantly writing and giving away little pieces of myself so I mean, you do that all the time and you run out of stories to tell. I didn’t have anything else in me that I really wanted to share in a very public way. Also from the perspective of other people, especially when I did certain serial killers, creating these fantastical stories, it gives you a lot more freedom to say things that you wouldn’t necessarily say. I wanted to write really direct, very obvious, very strong images so the listener couldn’t really take what they wanted from it. They just kind of have to accept exactly what I was saying and be forced to see the thing that I was seeing. It was an experiment and I liked it. I’ve done it before but not as obviously so it was a good thing to do.
What is it about serial killers that fascinates you the most?
Barber-Way: I’ve always been fascinated with crime, especially women who commit crime. We don’t necessarily see women in that same way. I was writing a report for Broadly about infamous females who helped either their boyfriends or husbands rape and murder other women and so I was looking at the psychology behind that. I got a little obsessed with these two stories and ended up using those people’s voices in those songs just because I was so obsessed with it. I was writing about this constantly and that was the time when songs were being developed in my head. You know how records are like, here’s what happened in the last two years or here’s what I’ve been thinking about in the last two years? Whether that’s something that has to pertain to my own personal life or things I’ve been studying, then so be it.
It’s interesting you focus on female killers because the general phenomenon around crime stories is almost always about men.
Barber-Way: Well yeah, as Camille Paglia says, women sit in this medial range of genius. We’re never great geniuses or great morons whereas men have this different thing…. When a female commits those types of heinous crimes, especially that of rape to another woman, and not by force of her partner but in willing partnership with him, it’s really interesting. I’m still obsessed with Karla Homolka. I always will be. She would be my number one person to interview; I would love to hear her talk.
“Below” is perhaps the biggest departure from White Lung’s signature sound on Paradise, how did that song come together?
William: That was kind of sitting around for a while and I think I remember trying to work on it with Anne-Marie ages ago and it never really clicked. It came up again when we were in the studio. We went into the studio with four songs that we had basically finished and then the rest we worked on there. After hearing the four songs, we were discussing where we wanted the record to go from there. We decided to do something completely different, just break up the monotony, and we just kind of put that together. I was sitting in my apartment in L.A., just playing guitar and just wanted to come up with something pretty so we threw that together in the studio, made most of it up right in there and Mish’s vocals came later.
Barber-Way: That song, without the vocal melody, is so wide open. I remember that being kind of scary because I could go anywhere with this. Usually Kenny’s guitar parts are so fast and crazy, there’s only certain spaces where I can fit in. It’s just like placing a Lego piece; I know where I’m supposed to put the next piece. That was really challenging but I worked really hard, getting the best vocal melody that I could and not being afraid to keep it simple and repetitive. It’s so much more intimidating to do that because there’s so much more room for failure when people can actually hear what you’re doing. It’s a lot easier to judge something that doesn’t fly by in one second because you can see it for what it is. It’s one of my favourites on the record.
Is that a direction you can see yourselves going towards in the future?
Barber-Way: Maybe a little more like that, but we’re never going to lose being fast because that’s what we like to do and that’s what we do best. We can do both.
Right, and at the end of the day, the record is still 28 minutes long so you’ve definitely maintained a style that seems like it’ll always be quick and fast.
Barber-Way: That’s a new world record for us! Last time it was 19 minutes. We are proud of 28, that’s like an hour for everyone else.