INTERVIEW: NO BRA
No Bra. That’s right, she really does let those puppies free. The weird and wonderful alternative-techno singer catches up with Gabriella Swerling to talk digital revolutions, narcissism and sexual fantasies.
“On a date with the devil, the devil asked me ‘sing me one of your songs’, I said ‘well they’re not really songs, more like shouting’, the devil said ‘never mind, I’ll fuck you anyway.”
Perhaps a little more out-there than your other female soloists No Bra throws caution to the wind, sticks a metaphorical finger up to your Beyonce’s, your Joni Mitchell’s and your Lady Gaga’s, and relishes in performing a Virginia Woolf-esque stream of consciousness that flits from various musings to general sounds and groans. ‘Speak-singing’ is, I think, the technical term.
Her new album Candy, the long-awaited follow-up from 2007’s Dance and Walk, was released last month to much indie-hipster magazine acclaim. With track names such as ‘Do the dog’, ‘Don’t rip my Ozzy shirt’ and ‘Magic c*********g fairy’, it is quite possibly the most confusing and interesting album I have ever listened to. The only comparison being Brian Wilson’s Smile, which, in his post-Beach Boys days, seemed somewhat passed its sell-by-date to say the least. Although, my dad would disagree, citing the strange farm animal noises and inharmonious warbling as ‘real bloody craftsmanship’.
What influences her odd choice of song titles? “It’s just whatever title springs to mind instantly, I don’t spend too much time thinking about it. They are quite pragmatic, I think.”
No Bra aka Susanne Oberbeck, is both a recording and performance artist. Not least because she wears her hair as a bra but because she’s so underground she’s practically subterranean. She chants her monosyballic mantras to repetitive, rhythmic bass flaunting her bad-taste obscenities that could easily rival the 1972 exploitation film and transgressive black comedy, Pink Flamingo. (The one where the protagonist drag-queen eats dog-shit).
Her video for ‘Candy’ is artistic. Well, I’m not quite sure how else to describe a little bit of dildo-licking and someone semi-naked in a bath eating cake. It’s art? It’s art!
She explains that friends, acquaintances, observations and theories inspire her work, along with a large dose of fantasy – “by that I don’t mean necessarily all rosy and lovely.” She’s quite right. Oberbeck is creepy, confusing and compelling. She looks like a woman and talks like a man – but in a cool, sinister, electro-minimalist kind of way.
Candy is the result of her four-year stint touring, recording and New Yorking in which she added live musicians to her act. Overseas she also set up weekly club night Gay Vinyl that attracted DJ sets and performances from the likes of The Horrors and Peaches and Julian Casablancas, cementing her place on the hipster music scene.
The inability to relate seems to be a running theme through a lot of the songs. (Not least my inability to relate to anything she says!)
“A lot of the songs are about failed relationships, not just my own.”
“Or how relationships are influenced by late capitalism, as they say, hence the title “Candy” – I usually try to bring out a humorous side to that though.”
I don’t quite get the link between capitalism and candy, but, feeling revoltingly uncool, I press on regardless…
The album is reminiscent of a rambling dinner-party guest who has drunk too much wine, is verging on groping the host and will not stop going on about, ‘you know what I’ve always wanted to do…” Oberbeck rambles, but she does it oh so well. Candy may appear on the surface to be a spontaneous outburst of sordid musings, but in reality, it has the control and depth of a complete work of art – whilst simultaneously providing the glorious soundtrack to a k-hole.
The title track is about treating love and sex just like candy – Grindr style. The dildo-licking video certainly does its job then.
Ranging from the cold, nightmarish soundscapes of Jhonnhh – Oberbeck’s tribute to Coil frontman John Balance, to the downright randomness of Minger and hilarious ‘diva-clash’ of Date with the devil, Candy is a humorous collection of obscure, organic and orgasmic musings.
For example, Construction Worker was “originally a gay male fantasy about having sex with random construction workers in random suburbs of London, but the protagonist switches from male to female so it gets complicated. Upon moving to New York a kind of feminist angle was added, turning the tables on lewd construction workers.”
Intrigued, I ask her to expand.
“I want to come on to them, like it says in the song. Any fit ones really.”
Oberbeck is an old-school artist torn between connecting with her fans and bowing the capitalist wills and ways of the digital music industry.
“I am concerned with online marketing because besides playing shows it’s really the only way I can promote my music. But I also find it slightly dubious the way online promotion seems to go.
“I am not on a label or rich.” Underneath all the pizzazz, Oberbeck is a traditional bohemian. Instead of spending thousands of pounds on a kick-ass marketing campaign, “I depend on friends doing favours and fans passing the word around.”
But word-of-mouth isn’t such a bad thing. The internet is the only way Oberbeck can market her music besides playing her stunning live shows. “The pace at which the music industry operates right now mainly serves the interests of the industry, not necessarily the artists” she explains, “but the internet has helped me tremendously in becoming known internationally without being on a label.”
The digitalisation of No Bra is quite an interesting concept, particularly since she is renowned for being a live performer. She works hard at subverting expectation and completely flabbergasting the well-meaning gig-goer with confrontational and fascinating performances and musical experimentation.
“From listening to no bra recorded you would probably have little idea of what the shows are like.”
Despite all this, online exposure to her music and performances is growing, in its own artsy way. But Oberbeck wonders if the stigma of her stage-name has prevented her from connecting with more fans:
“Because it’s slightly awkward, and because of the implications of equality implied in it and some of the songs. People are maybe more comfortable with things like ‘Pussy Riot’ and ‘Riot Girl’ because even though they are rebellious, they still portray women as victims.”
Feminist empowerment may not be the main theme of Candy, but nevertheless Oberbeck is always conscious of putting men and women on the same level.
She is an artist who manages to make time for her fans, even befriending some of them. “But I wouldn’t call them fans, they are mostly like-minded artists – so it’s more like mutual fans.”
She relies on the opinions of such ‘mutual fans’ for personal music recommendations, rather than checking blogs. “I rarely get blown away by anything on any of these sites.”
“Music should speak for itself, but that can be hard if people don’t pay attention to it because they are more interested in these internet personas and the media-friendly scandals or “politics” surrounding them.
“I really don’t have that marketing mentality; I’m more interested in making music and playing shows. But maybe I will change my stance… it could be fun to do something that is a little bit different!”
She refers to a study she read recently explaining that people with the highest level of compulsive narcissism get an according number of followers on social networks. “Well, it’s kind of obvious… which is scary but I think these numbers are also kind of irrelevant. Maybe a form of social sado-masochism or class system for the internet age.”
Pussy Riot and Riot Girl may generate more exposure but No Bra’s Facebook page receives a hell of a lot of traffic from India and Indonesia. She suspects a polarisation of intent – “either people are looking for nudie pics or maybe women are looking for information about female liberation?”
Oberbeck is outrageous, deliberately provocative and tenacious in her quest to form her electro-rebellion against the status quo.
She is currently listening to a range of eclectic art-school hipster tunes including the likes of Mike Q, House of Ladosha and Twigs, Tigga Calore, Arca and Winnie the Poof. I’m too embarrassed to explain I’ve never heard of any of them.
Despite feeling revoltingly unhip when interviewing No Bra, she has fans including REM’s Michael Stipe, The XX and Mykki Blanco. She seems sure to be making alternative mainstream sooner rather than later.
As she repetitively chants her “don’t cross the line” mantra in ‘Candy’, a relentless sequencer hammers out bass after bass after bass, syncopating with her observational fantasies as she crosses every line ever drawn.
Check out Gabriella Swerling’s Blog