Over the phone on her way to the WAYHOME festival in Ontario, White Lung’s Mish Barber-Way is every bit the punk band frontwoman that one would hope. “That it’s professionally backlined and my bandmates don’t have to drag their own gear out,” she said, deadpan, when asked what she liked about performing at festivals. “Artist-catering is usually excellent.”
After releasing her fourth studio album, “Paradise,” in May, with bandmates guitarist Kenneth William and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou, the group is touring throughout the summer and into the fall. Over the weekend, they performed at the inaugural Panorama Music Festival.
Dubbed a feminist punk band, Barber-Way admitted that White Lung’s latest skews more pop – albeit with songs written from the perspective of rather harsh historical characters, including the female serial killer Karla Homolka. ” I’m older now and I don’t really feel like revealing some parts of myself – and yet I still do,” she said. “So the best way to do that is through these characters, through other people’s stories. Because it’s very obvious, by the default of the things I’m choosing to write about, what to me personally matters.”
Are you looking forward to the inaugural Panorama? It’s nice to be part of the beginning, when it’s all still scrambling and craziness. I really don’t know what to expect. But I’m looking forward to it. It will be fun.
Do you spend much time in New York? My bandmates live in Vancouver, and I live in Los Angeles but I am from Vancouver. I’m a West coast person at heart. I appreciate going to New York for five days, but that’s the maximum. It’s too much for me. I’m also not 22 years old. If I was 22, I’d think New York’s great. That’s what happens when you get older, you don’t need the constant attention of other people’s presence to make you feel stimulated. You’re much more content on your own.
Your fourth album, “Paradise,” came out not too long ago to glowing reviews (Pitchfork gave it an 8.4). What have you made of the reception? It’s been overwhelmingly great. I haven’t seen much negativity. Then again I’m not going to out looking for something negatively said! We made a few changes, which could have been perceived in very different way. I think we were able to be smart and also sustain what our fans like about us in the first place, while also going above that, so I’m happy.
What were some of those changes? Personally I wanted to focus on melody and song structure and really push where I could go with my voice without being confined by my own self-consciousness. [Instead of] singing what was natural and easy and what I knew could be successful, I wanted to push myself beyond that and try something a little more pop, a little more polished. I know as a group we all really looked at the album as a collage, we wrote the whole thing in the studio practically. It wasn’t like we’d go in with 10 songs ready to roll and record them, we were writing them all there, so we’d take little pieces and work things out and play with the structure. Treating it not like a rock record, but an almost like an electronic record in a weird way. And I think it produced a really interesting piece of work.
Something that’s interesting about this album, is that you’re writing from the perspective of characters that aren’t you. I decided to do that for many reasons, but number one being that I didn’t really feel like revealing that much stuff about myself anymore. And I think this comes back to something that we were just talking about: when you’re younger you want to be surrounded by people, you need your friends around you, you need all this. I’m older now and I don’t really feel like revealing some parts of myself – and yet I still do. So the best way to do that is through these characters, through other people’s stories. Because it’s very obvious, by the default of the things I’m choosing to write about, what to me personally matters. It’s the freedom of fiction; you can say things that you wouldn’t otherwise say as yourself. People assume that mostly it’s still autobiographical but I think a lot of lyricists go outside their head — I mean why not? Unless you’re a really big persona or something like that. I mean, half of the pop artists on the radio don’t even write their own songs. So those are characters to them—they didn’t write those words, they’re just reading off a page. But I did it purposefully, and I pick certain stories that appeal to me and I felt like I was expressing how I would feel being put in that position, [even though] that didn’t actually happen in my own real life. It was a fictional writing exercise really.
Did you ever study creative writing? When I first went into university I got into a really great writing program in Detroit and I did that for a year, but I had these horrible teachers. So I started taking philosophy, and then gender studies, and I got really into those, so I kind of switched over from creative writing and did that. But I always was a writer, I loved writing and journalism. I wish I loved neuroscience, then I’d be rich, but you know…
How did you land on these particular characters, like the serial killer Karla Homolka, for example? A mix of a lot of things. It had to do with a lot of the research I was doing for Broadly last year, which is one of the Vice sites I write for, so I was writing a lot about different forms of crime and murder. Also the books I was reading were influencing the lyrics, as well as songs I was listening to – country and blues music, which is a very specific style of storytelling, that’s dramatic as it is blunt and straightforward and very image-heavy. And I wanted to duplicate that in a few of the songs. So it was a combination, but I’ve always been someone that’s drawn most of my lyrics from books, songs, essays [that] I’m reading. I read a lot. There will be songs where I’m referencing 12 different things, and there’s another song where it’s a very clear linear story.
You’ve been pegged as a feminist punk group – do you think that’s accurate? I have my degree in gender studies, I spent a lot of money and seven years of my life studying feminism. I feel like now this new generation, the social media generation of feminism, has taken what it was, and absolutely misunderstood what’s happening. It’s turned gender into a zero sum game, it’s created a greater divide between people. I don’t like the rhetoric that’s happening now. You see so many misconstrued messages being sent across on social media and it makes me sad. The meaning has really been lost. But then again, that’s just the thing about the social media generation: making reactionary comments to things before actually having time to digest them. So I can’t expect everyones comments to be fully intelligible when they’ve rattled them off in five seconds without thinking about if they make sense. It’s kind of disappointing, but it will come back around.