INTERVIEW

Inspired by the V&A’s retrospective David Bowie exhibition, Beth Jeans Houghton has killed off her old self to become DU BLONDE – an artist battling misogyny with songs written on the back of speeding motorbikes

dublonde

Ice-lolly in one hand and coffee in the other, Beth Jeans Houghton arches her eyebrow and waits to begin. “I hate it when things are assumed in interviews. There was a woman the other day who asked how I felt when I was forced to change my name and I had to tell her it was my decision.” She laughs, slouching back on a sofa at Mute Records headquarters as if it was her own. “I don’t mind these chats though, as long as you ask good questions.”

I start with a bad one – how is she today? “Great thanks! I am much happier now in general. I can be aggressive in my work but in a positive way – nobody in ordinary life gets to release all that pent up anger in a positive fashion; usually it’s in your relationship through arguments with each other, but I get to do it on stage.” She drops half her lolly and creases up laughing.

It’s taken three years for Beth to finally relax. With her new moniker, Du Blonde, the artist formerly known as Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny has transformed into, well, herself really. “I think everyone in life should just do what they want,” she tells me. “With the first record I was put inside this box of, ohhh she’s like a young fairy, nice and whimsical’, and I really didn’t feel whimsical at all, so then I started getting into all sorts of other music and it lit a fire!”

Spurred on by the misogyny she encountered releasing her debut album, Du Blonde is both reactive and proactive – a therapeutic cleanse of the soul. Beth cites ridiculous business meetings where boorish men would blame her opinionated attitude on her monthly cycle as inspiration. “That happened in this room! It’s happened twice actually, with two different people!” she exclaims. “Guys think it’s funny but when you have a working relationship with them it completely belittles the point of view you are trying to make. If a woman gets angry or upset in business it’s seen as she’s a diva or she’s emotional; if a guy does it they are congratulated for their passion. A lot of sexism I think is subconscious, which is the most dangerous thing isn’t it.” Beth stops herself. (Du Blonde might be angry but she’s also considered).

“When I was younger I thought that’s just the way it is or maybe they’re right,” she continues. “Now it pisses me off all the time, especially when you’re a grown woman. Clearly this person has no respect for you so you can’t build a business plan or a future on that. It’s not just at business meetings but on stage and sound checks too – you have people explaining stuff to you that you have known for like ten years.”

It was an exhibition that provided Beth her Eureka moment to become Du Blonde, an afternoon excursion to London’s V&A Museum the catalyst for everything that’s followed and the reason we’re sat here today. She smiles wryly as his name is mentioned. “It was actually a three part epiphany,” she explains. “The first part was the David Bowie exhibition you mention and it was amazing. When I was a kid I really liked people who expressed themselves without judgement or ridicule and also who were prolific and wouldn’t compromise for anyone. I had completely gotten side-tracked and seeing the exhibition made me realise how far away from the point I had gone. I’d just made the record in LA with the Hooves of Destiny that I wasn’t happy with and scrapped, so that was part two… Part three was my breakdown, which was actually before parts one and two.”

Du Blonde ripped it all up and started again then?

“Yeah. Basically it was a year or two of everything going to absolute shit. I’m not bitter about what happened though, this record is me standing up again after everything that’s happened and fallen apart and it’s having that strength.”

We both wonder what David Robert Jones would have made of this shape-shifting new Beth. “Well, the thing about David Bowie was that a lot of people focused on the fact it was him, but it wasn’t, it was someone, anyone, who was being that creative on all fronts, unashamedly, that was the point, not so much him but what he was doing – I wanted my new album to reflect that.”

‘Welcome Back to Milk’ is the resulting riot of a record. Gone is the baroque chamber pop of Beth Jeans Houghton’s debut, in its place a fierce attitude, big riffs and a highly personal nod to American hardcore. “I saw some footage from a gig that Bad Brains did and I thought what the hell is this. I had heard of hardcore before and listening to it with different ears it was just a noise. Then discovering Bad Brains was hearing noise and aggression but also having really interesting and really catchy vocal melodies and guitar lines to it. It’s accessible as well as aggressive and I love it.”

Beth is visibly proud discussing the album and her loyal label Mute. It’s the sound of herself finding her own voice so patience has been required.

“I think anyone else would have dropped me,” she says. “Daniel (Miller, Mute’s founding owner) only got angry once and he’s really accommodating of creative ideas – he tries not to stick his nose into the process and it’s rare for anyone at a label to do that now.”

Where Beth’s first album, ‘Yours Truly Cellophane Nose’ (an eccentric pop record forever described as ‘wonky’ and largely lost in the hubbub of early-day Florence And The Machine), felt full to the brim, Du Blonde gives you room for manoeuvre. It’s stripped back to bass, guitar, drums and more drums. “They’re great aren’t they,” she enthuses. “It’s Jim Scavlunos [Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds] who produced the record and he is an amazing drummer. We had a month to do it in and he was producing and drumming so he would do a track and then run upstairs to do his part. I had six trials with other producers and they were trying to make me a pop girl and I just wanted to rock… dude!” She leans forward and hand salutes before continuing with a giggle. “He knew all my references, too. It was great for the time constraints – I could say, ‘oh you know, like the guitar part on this track by the Lemon Pipers’, or whatever, and he would be, ‘OK I know it…’ whereas other people would be like, ‘who, whaaa, are they from the nineties?’”

Scavlunos’ no-nonsense producing style has brought the best out of Beth; a rawness captured in her work not seen before, likening tracks to those of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and accessible PJ Harvey. “Other people were trying to make me more feminine, or sweet or soulful,” she says. “Jim was just more anger and more power! He knew what he wanted, I knew what I wanted and we could butt heads no problem. It wasn’t a case of moulding me into his idea of what a young girl should be, it was just a case of harnessing who I am, which is not that feminine.”

Du Blonde seems like the kind of artist to write a song on the back of a motorbike – a song like ‘Mind Is On My Mind’.

“Yeah, thanks for noticing,” she says. “You read that on the press release didn’t you! It was on a motorbike and the guy had these ridiculous speakers on and he was listening to Aretha Franklin or something so it’s a completely different song and the volume had to be on so loud to get over the engine, completely ostentatious, I know. I had to remember the lyrics all the way from Topanga to Malibu.”

Sam T Herring of Future Islands guests on the track, an artist Beth deeply admires. She’s said before: “I remember the first time I saw him live back in 2012, I said I’m either going to work with him or marry him.”

I presume she’s come to terms with not marrying him then.

“Oh I am more than happy about that,” she says. “I don’t think that would be the best marriage of sorts, but he’s one of my true friends. Musically it’s a good marriage. I played him the song like four times, and he said OK I think I am ready and he went into the booth and all I could see because of the way the studio was built was his legs going from side to side and his hand going like this [she waves her hand around] at the top above the door, he came out and said how was that… I said that’s fine! He’s like a religious preacher man. That was really inspiring working with him, as this was someone who doesn’t give a shit at all – it is just pure emotion on stage.”

Which is kinda like you, right?

“To be honest, you know the knee thing he does… I’ve been doing that for years. If you have a look at my Jools Holland performance from 2010 or whenever it was… I have got that down. I move around a lot more on stage now. I am not 100% comfortable with it yet but I am getting there.”

Du Blonde also sees Beth ditch the guitar. “But that wasn’t a difficult thing to adjust to on stage. The music lends itself to a performance so it’s a lot easier just to go for it. Whereas before I couldn’t perform the way I am now. I can’t imagine playing those Hooves of Destiny songs ever again, unless maybe I am dying… actually no, if I was dying I’d just want to go on holiday.”

Beth brings us neatly round to the subject of death. “This has been heavier than I imagined,” she tells me, as her head lolls back on the sofa.

For an artist still in her mid-twenties she’s wise beyond her years and album closer ‘Isn’t it Wild’ deals with some big questions, taking in a moving sample from her dear Grandad. “He was 93 and my Grandma was 87 and I knew that they wouldn’t have long… they were both healthy and their minds were sharp but me and Mum were talking one day and we decided to interview them both for four days and we filmed it. I got all of their stories – they sailed around the world, built a house in New Zealand out of wood from scratch, when they left they sold it back to the Maori’s because nobody else would, just stuff like that as they had such great lives and they weren’t judgmental; they knew who they were and they stuck by their beliefs. That sample is from my mum and gran leaving the room and I wanted to ask him what he thought would happen after he died, as my family never talked about religion, politics or money so I asked him and that was his answer. He had a stroke a month later and lost the ability to talk so that was meant to be. I wrote the song 5 minutes after he died.”

Beth stands up, dusts herself down and says her goodbyes. I ask her what she wants listeners to think when that final track fades out on her new album. “Well, I was thinking about all the other people who go through life pretending to be something they’re not for the benefit of people they don’t necessarily like and then they die and they never got to know what it’s like to be accepted as themselves, so that’s that.”

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