Confronting truths and finishing the job
It’s rare that we get to hear bands talk about their own demise and break-up because, well, they break up. They stop releasing music and stop doing interviews and they disappear from public view. Maybe we hear about the sour implosion of a previous band when one member goes onto a new and successful project, or we get to see the fraught, niggling, palpable tensions and egos of a monster band in turmoil like Metallica via a warts and all documentary. But the reality is, most bands don’t have the money and luxury of time that Metallica do to work shit out. When they disappear, they often do so quietly in a toxic meld of burn out, disappointment, resentment, low finances, broken dreams and cracked friendships.
For a period this story could have almost applied to Woman’s Hour, the London via Kendall three- (previously four-) piece. They combined an essence of dream pop with pristine electronics, sensory grooves and a whisper-in-your-ear intimacy that during the early 2010s led to a string of successful singles that created a notable buzz around them before they signed to Secretly Canadian and released a debut album in 2014. They then collapsed during the making of their second album in 2016 and broke up. However, after an absence from making music – and one another – they started to think about the unfinished album that had caused them to part. “The thought of it just sitting in someone’s hard drive was heartbreaking,” says singer Fiona Burgess. “It needed to be out there.” So, after scrubbing up the unfinished tracks, the band (or ex-band, as is still the case) are now finally releasing ‘Ephyra’ and healing old wounds in the process.
We’re sitting in a London pub mid afternoon and Fiona is joined by her bandmates, brother William Burgess and Josh Hunnisett. The atmosphere is as much counselling session as it is interview. It’s the first time they have spoken collectively to anyone else about this and it’s still close enough in everyone’s minds to be fresh. They are careful not to step on each others’ toes whilst speaking, apologising for perceived interruptions in a clear attempt to make sure everyone’s voice is heard and understood. This is crucial because a fundamental communication breakdown in the first place was a contributing factor. “Everything was getting misheard or misinterpreted,” Fiona says.
Things being misinterpreted was deeply exacerbated by the situation they found themselves in after their debut album came out. The buzz had quietened; the album didn’t sell as well as hoped, the tour dates weren’t there and a lingering sense of failure permeated in the heads of each member. The early interest had built up a sense of hope. “There was a sense of momentum around us,” Fiona says. “That contributed to a bigger feeling of a comedown once the record was released.” Josh remembers a conversation with the record label after their debut came out that stuck with him and seemed to cement any feelings of disenchantment. “I’ll never forget being told ‘your second record has to be exponentially better than your first record.’” He still sounds mildly wounded from the comment.
The band found themselves having to work on their follow up quicker than planned. “I wanted to be touring for two years after that first record,” Fiona says. “It was an unrealistic expectation but I expected to be doing the festival circuit, not writing a second record.” The band then began the process of making a new record with the vexations of their first still red raw, which led to not only more pressure but also falling into the trap of losing sight of who they were making the record for. “There was part of us wanting to create something different and challenge ourselves, about doing things for us,” says Will, “but there was also a part of me that was having struggles and asking, ‘why are we making this?’ and ‘how do you measure success?’ Because of the reputation we had prior to that first record, unless it reached these pretty high goals that we all set for it, it suddenly became a failure. I felt so conflicted because in a rational way I step back and I don’t judge it as a failure but at the time it really felt like one.”
By this stage Woman’s Hour had been sucked into the music world and were being spun around the churning guts of industry mechanisms – years of commitment and creative input spent, a taste of success, an audience, a record label, and a need for it to be financially beneficial. Artistic impulses were being eclipsed by a creeping careerist mentality. “There were definitely thoughts running through my head, like: how is this going to sound to an audience? Is this going to take us to the next level as a band? Are we going to move up that festival line-up poster?” admits Will. “I didn’t realise at the time but I felt like a bit of a fraud. I’m really fucking happy with the second album and I don’t think it’s fraudulent in any way but some of the thoughts I had whilst making it, I look back and they were the wrong ones.” Fiona too recalls trying to turn songs into hits.
Their situation is not uncommon. When a passion turns into a profession it can often create situations of compromise, second-guessing, aiming to please and confusion. Priorities get disturbed and mixed up and this impacts on motive. The reason so many second albums can be prone to disaster is because debut albums are born from desire and a need to document a band’s fledgling path to date. Second albums are just what is expected next.
The sessions for Woman’s Hour’s second album became intense and obsessive with that weight of expectation hovering over them like an apparition. “We wrote so much material, oh my God,” says Fiona. “We made, like, fifty songs, often with about ten versions of each one. It was quite overwhelming.”
Josh says he struggled to shake the pressure around this time. “All those things are simmering away under the surface, so it’s not like you’re thinking about them directly, like, we definitely need to make stuff that is going to be more financially viable. Yet at the same time, it is kind of in your every waking thought. That this needs to work.” Blame began to surface too, both towards other people and themselves. “As soon as one area becomes a failure, you start to question things in other areas,” says Will. “My first reaction was to look for other people to blame: label, management, bandmates. Then you start to blame yourself and it becomes this cycle. Something as fucking beautiful and brilliant as making your first record becomes this really horrible thing. Looking back now, I wonder how we let it get like that. It’s nuts. Lack of self worth became a massive thing for all of us.”
The more they threw themselves into the album, the more difficult the situation became. “Making stuff was hard,” Fiona says. “One person would like one part of a song, the other person would like the other bit and then a third maybe wouldn’t like the song at all. I think we’d drained our resources too, it felt like we’d been spun in a drying machine for too long.” Josh adds: “We thought the path after the first album would be a little smoother but it wasn’t, so we just ended up burying ourselves in work and losing all perspective of what we were doing.”
At this point the cracks weren’t so much starting to appear as much as they were giant gaping holes that were swallowing the band whole. “It was taking so long and it was so draining,” says Will. “It was fucking horrible, to be honest with you.” Fiona adds: “There’s nothing more heartbreaking than working with people who you love but you know that your affect on them is such a negative one. There was so much blame and so much hostility and weirdly underneath it all there was so much love, but we just couldn’t seem to tap into that.”
The impact of all the tension soon manifested itself physically, as Fiona recalls. “One time my back went as a physical reaction to all the stress. Then another time I had a panic attack as we were having a band conversation. I had this episode where I couldn’t breath and I was on my hands on knees and I was paralysed. I felt awful because I knew Will would feel awful but I just didn’t want to look at him, I wanted to walk out that room and cry my eyes out and then this outpouring came when I did. It was all this pent up emotion.”
However, they carried on in the hope that the end was in sight and the second album would be finished and they could revert back to some semblance of normality. “I was desperate to get to the end of it but it was just like we were spiralling in circles,” says Fiona. “You felt like you were damaging relationships. I didn’t even know what our relationships were going to be like after it all. We’d all compromised so much and then you begin to ask yourself if that compromise has been worth it.”
Josh recalls years earlier proudly telling people at the deli he was working in that he was in a band, but later this became a constant reminder of the bleakness of his situation. “It was part of the ego at the time when we were ascending, you know – ‘actually, I’m in a band and I’m going to America next week.’ Then that question of, ‘how’s the record coming?’ It made me fucking miserable to be asked about it all the time. It was relentless.” Fiona is quick to share the pain. “Nobody could ask me a worse question. I hated people asking me that question. It was humiliating.”
Soon a pub meeting was called, with Will and Josh arriving first. “We had the weirdest and most basic conversation that we’ve ever had whilst waiting for Fiona to turn up,” recalls Josh. “I knew that something more evil was afoot.” Will announced that he couldn’t do it anymore and the band was effectively over, unless they chose to carry on without him. Josh says he was “completely destroyed” and Fiona was heartbroken. “It wasn’t a decision that I would have made at that time,” she says, “and it felt like someone had pulled the rug from under my feet. I was…”
“This is really difficult to hear,” Will confesses.
“It’s okay, man. We’ve talked about all this stuff, it’s fine,” says Josh.
“I’d be lying if I was saying anything else,” says Fiona. “I knew it was shit, I knew it, but I clung onto it. The six months after that were hard. There was an element of relief that I didn’t have to spend every day with these guys, although there was a sense of grief because we were so close and I couldn’t let go of that for quite a while.”
The pain and anguish around that period aside, the break has done them all wonders. “It felt more like an admission as well,” says Fiona. “Accepting that things were shit. At least the break up was honest, it was sincere and it was the right thing. When it comes down to well-being and happiness and putting yourself first, it was a brave thing to do. I’m grateful you [Will] made that decision because I wouldn’t have. It was only when the band ended that I had to look at myself. I did nothing other than the band; the band was my everything, it was my trajectory. When that wasn’t there any more, I realised there was too much pressure on it because it was everything. It made me freer because there was this financial element of having to make money from it, and you are looking for radio play and touring and generating income. As soon as you take the heat off that, I realised it was the right decision because it brings it back around to the music.”
And the music is a success. The mixing that Josh spent a year on has resulted in a record that sounds as crisp as it does glowing. The band’s trademark closeness and glistening synth work remains but a more ambitious, and often electronic, scope feels present: a more panoramic intimacy. The band are contemplating a few shows but in what set-up and capacity remains to be seen. Likewise, they are unsure about their future at present; instead they are focusing on the joy and camaraderie that has returned from simply enjoying the music they have created together again. “It’s not about the ego anymore,” says Josh. “It’s just nice to have the music out there and to be heard after it was so insular for so long.”
For Fiona, the break up has been necessary in order for her to see what the strengths and priorities of a band should be. “We write the best music when it’s not about trying to please someone. It’s got to be something that wholeheartedly feels right and is an expression we want to make, a feeling that releases something. It has to be a selfish endeavour.”
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