INTERVIEW

Daisy Jones speaks with Jam Rostron about gender, freedom in Berlin and accepting feminism

plannintorock

Think of the name Planningtorock – with or without spaces – and your mind doesn’t immediately go to gender boundary-smashing electronic music and experimentation. It sounds like a rip-off version of ‘Rocksmith’, a learn-how-to-play-guitar Xbox game, but it’s not – it’s the stage name of Berlin-based Brit musician Jam Rostron, who last month released her third solo album, ‘All Love’s Legal’. Her musical back catalogue is exciting and increasingly politically charged; her sound draping between danceable house beats and a brilliantly nightmarish concoction of key-shifting and voice-warping that is as comical as it is intriguing.

With song titles such as ‘Misogyny Drop Dead’ and ‘Patriarchy (Over and Out)’ one might expect Rostron to be as earnest as her lyrics or as obscure as some of her more bizarre music visuals. After a few days of trying to get hold of her over Skype, her icon finally appears on the screen (a photograph of the back of her head) and a friendly northern accent filters through the speakers.

Born Janine Rostron, it was only recently that Jam changed her name to something outwardly androgynous. “I mean, I’ve been called Jam for a long time in my private life,” she explains, “but then it came to releasing the album. A lot of the motivation to change my name to ‘Jam’ is to have a name that’s not gender-defined and that’s linked so solidly to lots of things off the album. I thought that this is the perfect time to make that announcement and to make it clear. It really is part of it and it feels good.”

This change of name makes perfect sense when considering her songs are packed with lyrics that reject the binary nature of genders and sexuality, a segregation that generally works in favour of ‘straight’ white men. Her lyrics are refreshingly and potently direct  (“patriarchal life, you’re out of date”), a fact that has drawn criticism for resembling a feminist seminar in its plainness, or for being too simplistic. But it makes you wonder why people are so afraid of using certain words – ‘feminist’, for example. “There are many reasons, but we can pick a few,” considers Jam. “White men are generally the more dominant in our society. So of course when they dominate a section of society they want to hold onto that space, they’re not going to want to give that up so anybody that is going to challenge that is going to have a hard time. The easiest thing to do if anybody is going to challenge that is to make them feel isolated so women are deliberately made to feel uncomfortable by thinking about or saying that they’re feminists because it threatens another persons claim to space.”

Rostron’s lyrics didn’t used to be so unswerving but something changed after the first Planningtorock album (2006’s ‘Have It All’) and the creative crisis that followed it. “I thought to myself, why am I afraid to say what I’m really thinking?” she says. “And that in itself is worth questioning. What are the risks? That people disagree that misogyny should drop dead? Well, if people disagree with that then that should be talked about.”

Somehow we get onto the subject of Lady Gaga. “It’s quite weird, actually – the other day a friend posted an interview with Lady Gaga back in 2009 and in one sentence she criticises the interviewer for judging her for being sexual on stage in a way that she wouldn’t if she was a man. It was a really interesting point she was making and it was really articulate and it was bob on. And in the next line he asked whether she would consider herself a feminist and she was like ‘no, no, no I’m not a feminist’ and she was so nervous about it and your heart sinks. But really, there are a lot of reasons why people in society don’t want women to get their equality because they feel like it takes their privileges away.”

Jam’s lived in Berlin for 13 years, but she was born and raised in Bolton. Her introduction to music was one that musicians seem to unanimously share. “I got into music because of my mum,” she says resolutely. “She had and still has a really great record collection and is one of these people that starts the day with loud music, so she would always put on a different record in the morning.

“My first interest [in making music] was in the sounds of strings and orchestras, so I started to learn violin. That was my first instrument, which is a nightmare and the worst instrument to start playing because it takes ages to sound half decent. But I stuck by it and I played that for ten years or so. I still use a lot of strings. I find they have a great melodrama and they’re very powerful.”

It is this same preoccupation with the powerful and melodramatic that makes Planningtorock’s music visuals as much a form of art as the music itself. Rostron recently released the video to ‘Human Drama’, a synth-heavy, shape-shifting electro anthem that is the conceptual embodiment of ‘All Love’s Legal’. Donning glasses imposed with psychedelic blood-red swirls and wearing 1950’s bowl-style wigs, Jam Rostron and her friend and collaborator Hermione Frank (AKA Roxymore) mouth the song’s words whilst their androgynous forms blend amongst dripping, lava-like globules of colour.

“For me, imagery and sound or music together is the best, most beautiful, addictive language around. I’ve been making videos for so long and when I first started out I’d be writing shot lists and concepts and stuff like that, but to be honest, whenever I get on the set and I start shooting, just fun things happen and I try to feed off the moment. With ‘Human Drama’, it was quite a tricky video to make because it was extremely personal and was referring to my own sexuality. It’s really an amalgamation of many feelings but I also wanted it to be very funny.”

She says she thinks about making a feature length film all the time. “I love film!” she tells me. “I also really like TV, though. I sometimes think it would be fun to make a funny TV series or something because I watch a lot of TV Series online and all kinds of shit.

“I’ve got loads of scenes in my head, almost little comedy scenes.  Maybe that’s how I’d have to start, like shoot a load of scenes and glue them together.”

But it’s not just Rostron’s experiments with aesthetics that are striking; she explores the verges of her own voice by warping the sound of her vocals to a low, throaty tenor, the kind you might find on an old house track. It’s a simple move, but one that is playful in its lack of gender specificity. “If you’re a musician, your voice is a really instant instrument and if you’re on your own and nobody’s listening you can do really amazing stuff with it.”

What sort of amazing stuff?

“The technique I do is that I’ll have a track and then I’ll pitch it up a few percent and then I’ll sing it high, which is difficult for me because I have a very low voice. Then when I pitch the whole thing down I get a certain presence in the voice, which is an over-emotion I feel, and you can’t place it, you can’t place the gender or anything else. I like the sound of it, I like the way it makes me feel.”

After moving from her hometown in Bolton, Jam went to Art school in Sheffield before naturally gravitating towards Berlin in the early noughties, where she has lived ever since (an experience she describes as “very liberating”). It was Berlin, in fact, that compelled her to perform. “It wasn’t that living in England wasn’t enjoyable,” she says, “but it just suddenly freed a lot of space up in my head. I was making music in England but it was a secret thing and I wasn’t playing to anybody. But when I came to Berlin I quite quickly built a makeshift studio and started to record quite seriously and I also started to perform here so I think it gave me this opportunity. I guess I just didn’t feel inhibited about making mistakes or trying things out.”

As the interview draws to a close, I ask Jam to map out a vision for her perfect world. She seems like the kind of person who might have imagined it before.

“If we didn’t have this social idea of gender and it was more personal and less binary, I feel that would make such a difference,” she says. “You wouldn’t have half of society discriminated against and the other half privileged. In a way, what stops that from becoming a reality is capitalism because capitalism really thrives off the binary genders; ideals for men, ideals for women. If it was more of a playful thing in terms of identity I feel like that would really make a difference to the world.”

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