[Cover photo credit to Dana Lynn Pleasant]
“Witchy Pop Poetry” is coming our way with Bitchcraft, out on February 4th, 2022 via Kill Rock Stars. The artist Bitch has been crafting these pieces in different modes for a number of years, often taking on new forms and influences through the impact of Bitch’s creative “coven” of musician friends who she brought in to provide feedback on the evolving collection. Since Bitch is approaching her 20th year as a performance artist, it’s only fitting that these songs, which took shape via a collage-like process over time, celebrate both where she’s been and where she finds herself right now, artistically. They take in themes ranging from personal relationships in crisis, to the embattled position of women and anyone considered “other” in society, to the environmental issues on our doorstep.
These songs also provide the inspiration for her upcoming residency performances at The Hotel Cafe in LA, bringing her worlds of Rock and theater closer together for her than they’ve ever been before. I spoke with Bitch about the processes behind creating these intensely musical, multi-layered, and often quite surprising songs, the intense experiences of rewriting some of them, her performance identity, and how a raft of punchy and visually arresting videos came together during the pandemic period.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I heard that after living in New York for a long time, you really left civilization for a while. How long were you more off the grid?
Bitch: Yes, I lived in a little cabin in North Michigan for about three years. But I was still touring and stuff, so I wasn’t just in the woods chopping wood, never seeing people. It was a great place to go home to and decompress, and obviously it was a great place to write. Then, during that time, I started going out to LA and visiting quite to bit, and eventually migrated out that way.
HMS: Have some of those songs been with you through all these shifts and changes?
Bitch: This is my first album in eight years, and for some of these songs, I had little fragments of them years before that. I feel like songs live as these little, unformed things and I carry them around in my head. At some point, I take them out, unpack them, work on them, then put them away again. So they are from all different times in my life.
HMS: How did these songs get attention and development over other ideas?
Bitch: I started releasing what would be some of this new material a few years ago, then Slim from Kill Rock Stars heard it and said, “I’d like you to make a full album.” There’s nothing like hearing that someone wants to hear more to put some gas in your tank. Then I pulled out a bunch of my scraps and songs that didn’t make it onto my last record that I was still in love with. I actually called in my friend Anne Previn, who’s a great Pop Producer, because I knew that I wanted to make a Pop record. She helped me curate and pick songs to develop. That was a really powerful influence.
HMS: It’s so interesting because the art of sound development is almost a science and Producers can really help develop that, taking songs in totally different directions.
Bitch: It’s something I had never been very conscious of before, up until this album. Previously, I didn’t re-form songs much. I love that “craft” is in the title for this album because I definitely “crafted” it.
HMS: I feel like there’s a little bit of a resistance in music fandom to the idea that songs can take a lot of hard work and time. When I hear about these songs having a longer lifespan, I want to raise awareness of this, because this romantic idea that songs always happen overnight isn’t very helpful to creative people.
Bitch: Absolutely, it’s the whole perspiration vs. inspiration thing. Recording songs takes a long time, too. Every time I get to the end of making an album, I feel so exhausted from it, that I think, “I’m never doing that again!” Even the thought of going back in for one single makes me wonder, “Can I do it?”
HMS: That’s so great to know. It reminds me of any time I get a tattoo. I always say, “I’m never doing this again!” Then a couple years later, I start thinking, “I’d really like another one…”
Bitch: Exactly! You start itching for it again. It’s like being some sort of masochist.
HMS: Were these songs all recorded at different stages, or at the same time?
Bitch: They are all from different stages. “Divvy it Up” almost went on my last album, which came out in 2013. Actually, what happened is that I revisited that song, and because it had been so long since I recorded it, I had to rerecord it, including violins, since we only had an MP3 from it. The song “Pages” was rewritten during this period, but the violins were recorded in that little log cabin the year I moved there. There was something so special about the recordings that I kept them.
There have been strands from all of my locations. With the violins on “Easy Target”, I was moving from one apartment to another in LA, and the day I was moving out of my Silver Lake apartment, it was empty and the acoustics were so beautiful that I set up my laptop and one mic to recorded the violins. Then I turned in the keys to the landlord. All the songs have little stories like that. It’s all been very portable!
HMS: That’s so cool that these songs have become collages of your life, and now they will always be with you.
Bitch: Yes, as opposed to an old-school approach where you go to a studio and record for two weeks. Some people even write their songs in the studio. I have made albums more like that, but this album was so special because it was so self-made.
HMS: You mentioned rewriting “Pages”. What was that experience like for you, or what is it typically like to rewrite a song? Depending on your degree of attachment to the original, I imagine it could feel like dismembering something.
Bitch: Yes, that’s how it felt! It’s currently my favorite track on the album. As I mentioned, I was really leaning on Anne Previn, but I also really leaned on my friend God-des, who is a rapper. For years, she’s been saying that she wanted me to write in more of a Pop structure, so she became part of what I call my “coven”, the people I was bouncing stuff off while making this album. God-des was always in love with the chorus on “Pages”, so when I was choosing which songs to work on, both Anne and God-des chose that. But God-des thought I should rewrite the verses.
My classic writing style is to spit things out, not really knowing what it means, and not care if people know what it’s about or not. “Pages” was a kind of esoteric poem about writing originally. I let God-des take the reins in terms of directing me and I was willing to try her vision. I was repeating the poetry back to her and she was pulling my leg saying, “What the hell does this mean??” [Laughs] She wanted it to be clear. Basically, I had gone through a really big break up while making this album, with my partner of 11 years, and she said, “Write this [song] about that.” It was the assignment she gave to me and I wrote it. Every time I rewrote it, she’d send it back to me and ask me to shave things off. She was really, really strict about the structure.
HMS: It sounds like a full-on workshop!
Bitch: It was! And it would make me so mad, but I knew she was right. I would hear it as it was progressing. When I’d come back to the song, I’d get it. Simplifying the ideas was important. It was so painful and so rewarding. I’d love to work this way again.
HMS: It’s a wonderful song. Was it difficult to be so personal with that song?
Bitch: Talking about it was actually really good for me. Because so many songs on the album were from older times in my life, it was good to have the challenge of writing about my life from where I am right here, right now. The other song I wrote that way was “Another Wound”, which was about the same relationship and I wrote it right before I sent all my ideas to Anne. I think it was easier for me to be super-personal because it was such a raw feeling, rather than trying to rewrite a feeling from years ago.
HMS: How does performance fit into your musical life? It seems like it’s quite important to you, and I know you were still performing throughout the period between your last album and this one.
Bitch: I have a pretty big back catalog at this point, so I was performing that, and early versions of this new material. I would work that out and test it out. I actually consider myself a performance artist, even more than a musician, because it is such an important part of what I do. My mom is a theater person, and I grew up in the theater. I’ve always had the shy, quiet part of myself that is a violinist. I’ve been playing the violin since I was four and learned classical music. I feel like that gave me a ton of skills.
Then I have always had a second aspect of myself, the performer side, and the musician side has always been very different from the performer side. When I went to college, a lot of people in my life thought I’d go to music school, but I actually went to acting school. That’s where I met my first bandmate, Animal. For us, we were making theater, that’s what we thought of it. When we were making songs and putting on shows, it was feminist theater that we were missing in our acting school training. It was only after we started making albums, and Ani Di Franco took us on tour, and people started calling us musicians, that we even thought of ourselves as musicians. We were theater nerds! It’s all coming full-circle now, since I’m developing a show that’s a little more theatrical, with storytelling. It feels like a merging of those two sides.
HMS: I’m so happy to hear that. Will this be the closest together that you’ve been able to bring those things?
Bitch: Yes! It’s the first time that I’ve thought of it not just as a rock show, but something that brings in the theatrical.
HMS: The videos that have come out so far for this album really suggest your theater background too. Was the process of making the videos impacted by the pandemic?
Bitch: Big time. “Easy Target” was made during the pandemic in June of 2020. Everyone had been quarantining and we were podded together. It was very nerve-wracking creating a set and getting tested, which at the time felt abnormal but now feels normal. We made it outside to be safe. For “Hello Meadow!”, I had already been working with the artist, T Marsh, on “Hello Meadow”, and they hand-made a bunch of the set pieces. We were going to have a shoot where they welded me some kind of tent-dress. I would be like Mother Nature. Then life happened. We did the rest of it long distance and I arranged a separate shoot for all of my parts. We married the different parts long distance.
HMS: When you hear that a song is going to have some environmentalism to it, this is not the song you expect to hear. It’s driving, electronic, in your face, Punk. Do you have thoughts about why those things went together with environmental themes for you?
Bitch: It was very unconscious. I wrote that song as I was leaving New York and heading to this little log cabin. It was the exact feeling of leaving the city in winter where things were grey sludge. It felt like I was leaving this capitalist, gross, human hell and ending up in this beautiful “Hello Meadow!” [Laughs] It was unconscious, but I could hear that it was going to be a four on the floor, club banger when I was writing it.
2/2: San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar
2/4: Los Angeles, CA @ Hotel Cafe
2/11: Albany, CA @ Ivy Room
2/18: Los Angeles, CA @ Hotel Cafe
3/4: Los Angeles, CA @ Hotel Cafe
4/6: New York, NY @ Rockwood Music Hall
4/13: New York, NY @ Rockwood Music Hall
4/20: New York, NY @ Rockwood Music Hall