Woman's Hour

Woman’s Hour on Creative Ambiguity and Provocative Performance Art

Annie Zaleski

By Annie Zaleski

on 07.15.14 in Features

File under: Manicured synthpop packaged with striking visuals
For fans of: The xx, Purity Ring, Kate Bush
From: London-via-Kendal, U.K.
Personae: Fiona Jane Burgess (vocals), William Burgess (guitar), Nicolas Graves (bass), Josh Hunnisett (keyboards)

It’s almost disingenuous to simply call Woman’s Hour a band. The U.K. quartet considers its meticulous synthpop just a jumping-off point for larger discussions about visual and performance art. Vocalist Fiona Jane Burgess — who has an academic background in drama, theater and performance — started Woman’s Hour almost on a lark with her brother Will in 2011. “He was a good friend as well as my brother, and we got on, and always really liked the music that he made previously,” she says. “So I thought it could be quite interesting and fun. When it started, neither of us ever thought that it would escalate into anything more than just hanging out with each other and making a bit of music for fun. For me, it was a complete experiment. It could’ve just, you know, not turned into anything.”

But after their debut single, “Jenni/Human,” quickly garnered acclaim, Burgess and the rest of Woman’s Hour decided to take a step back from the spotlight and reassess their entire approach. The resulting retreat was productive: When the group re-emerged in 2013 with the single “Our Love Has No Rhythm,” they had a newfound creative focus.

Working closely with Tate- and MoMA-certified fine artists Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg, the band cultivated a striking visual presence; its stark, black-and-white photos and provocative artwork begged close examination. This aesthetic extended to its videos — in fact, the recent clip for their debut LP Conversations‘ title track features graceful but enigmatic choreography — and music. Conversations is redolent of retro ’80s synthpop and modern indie-pop at once, with warm programmed beats, soft-glow keyboards and Burgess’s measured, taffy-pulled voice, carefully murmuring lyrics that are at once provocative and obtuse.

I spoke with Burgess about creative ambiguity, the role of performance and visual art in the band, and why being deliberate is so important to their creative process.

On her ever-evolving relationship with her brother Will:

When we were kids kids, it wasn’t like me and Will hung out all the time. We were siblings; we’d play-fight. It was only really when we became a bit older, sort of [during the] teenage years, that we actually started hanging out more, and hung out with each other’s friends and stuff. We were both interested in similar things in terms of music and socializing and dancing and partying, all those things that you do when you’re a teenager.

Obviously, I think being siblings, there’s a kind of honesty you get from each other that you don’t perhaps get from other people. Also, there aren’t the same barriers you have with other friends. What’s kind of healthy about the relationship is that we’re honest with each other — and then [we] also have the power to hurt each other. I guess that’s not really surprising. I guess it’s quite a normal dysfunctional relationship [laughs].

On her passion for performance art:

My interest in performance art and performance history is probably firmly rooted in my desire to want to be involved in really, I suppose, anything that has an element of performance in it. Which I think is one of the reasons I was eager to try and do something with my brother, because I felt like maybe I could bring another element to the mix.

I did a degree in drama. [It was] very much a broad, almost foundation degree, which offered a chance to perform, but also to facilitate — so we’d run workshops and things as well. It [covered] a broad, sweeping history of drama, theater and performance over the 20th and early 21st century. I finished that degree and wanted to delve a little bit deeper into certain areas of performance.

Then I decided I wanted to do a master’s, and I finished that in September of last year. The period I really focused on was the early 20th century up to the post-war, pre-internet performance of the ’70s. I’m particularly fascinated with New York at that time, and what was happening there. I feel like it was this really exciting moment of artists discovering the power of performance in new contexts. In the visual art world, the artists were engaging with performance for the first time really, and it was beginning to be accepted in this very visual culture. And humanness and human interaction was beginning to take quite an important role.

On not rushing their career:

We released our first single ["Jenni"/"Human"], and it was at a time when we decided to take about a year [off] — not putting anything online, not gigging. [We were] just literally writing, recording and being in the studio. We had this experience when our single was released that we were very flattered and shocked that anybody would want to release anything that we’d made. We basically recorded two demos; they weren’t even designed to be released. But when somebody approached us, we were like, “Oh we’ve got these demos, you can release them.”

And what we realized shortly after that is we’d given our music away quite carelessly. We hadn’t really thought through anything. We hadn’t thought through any of the artistic decisions, like the artwork or the video — and, to be honest, we weren’t even happy with the recordings. But we just did it in this quick, nonchalant way because we never ever thought we were going create anything that ever even left our bedrooms. It was flattery that made us do it. And so we decided to take this time out and really make sure that anything we released from this point onwards was going to be deliberate and something that we all had put considerable thought and effort into, and it wasn’t just a careless decision.

‘We definitely are attempting to think through every aspect of what we create. I think the reason we’ve attempted to do that is because when we were looking around, there was a lack of artist involvement in anything other than the music.’

On being creatively deliberate:

We definitely are attempting to think through every aspect of what we create. I think the reason we’ve attempted to do that is because when we were looking around, there was a lack of artist involvement in anything other than the music. And as far as we’re concerned, something that we believe quite strongly — well, [something we] actually want to get across and want to exaggerate — is the fact that we aren’t just musicians. I don’t come from a musical background, but it’s something that I really enjoy, and get immense fulfillment from. But it’s not the only thing in my life that I’m passionate about.

Also, there’s something really nice about the challenge of trying to combine — or find ways of using — a visual language to actually communicate something of our music. There are a lot of artists we admire that, you know, in previous generations, had this big involvement in every aspect of their artwork and their videos. And we wanted to engage with that as well and do the same thing, and not just be seen as musicians.

I think now, for some reason, there’s a lack of willingness by journalists and critics to actually see musicians as anything other than just musicians. It’s quite difficult to be in a band and not just be seen in that very narrowly defined term. And so we just wanted to challenge that a little bit, and be a bit more open-minded.

On using music video to provoke:

I feel like our music videos are actually quite an interesting way of trying to challenge what is a music video, and can it be anything other than a kind of commercial product? Or can it actually be a piece of artwork? And I would hope that it can. But I feel as though now, music videos are seen as very much a commercial thing. So we’re interested in challenging that notion a little bit, and seeing whether it can actually communicate in a different way.

On developing their striking visual aesthetic:

We became friends with Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg and were really interested in their work. They’re basically fine artists who work a lot with photography and a lot with found images. A lot of what they try to do is encourage people to actually question the role of photography, and the power and manipulation and misrepresentation that can happen when an image is presented in a certain way. We were introduced and they said they have a collection of manuals they’d collected over the years. They’ve been working together for about 15 years now and have traveled all over, and everywhere they went they collected manuals — any kind of manual with photographic instructions to go alongside the text. So they had all these manuals: first aid, self-defense, policing manuals, how-to-train-a-dog manuals, ballet manuals, synchronized swimming manuals. Literally everything. And all these manuals had photographic illustrations with them. We were really interested in using some of these images to actually go alongside our music.

When we decided to release [the single] “Our Love Has No Rhythm,” we spoke to them about what image we might use, and we found one from a woman’s book of self-defense from the 1980s. It’s two hands clasping. This particular image, if you zoom out of it, the whole image is actually a woman defending herself from sexual assault; it’s showing you how to defend yourself. [But] we zoomed in on the image — we cropped it basically — and [the cover of the single] is one of the positions of the hands. What we were interested in is the ambiguity that that has — the idea that maybe when you first see the image, it’s this quite strong unifying image of strength and unity. [But] in actual fact, it’s an instructional image which actually was — has — these connotations of really something quite… a kind of desperation, you know. This woman who’s under attack having to defend herself and having a completely different reading of the image. So what we liked about that with the song “Our Love Has No Rhythm” is, like I say, the fact that it can be read in two completely different ways depending upon how you understand the image.

‘I feel like there’s a huge pressure on artists to be this completely new, individual musician who’s going to create a completely new sound and do something that’s never been done before. And maybe it’s slightly narcissistic and cynical, but I do believe actually we’re kind of entering a period where everyone’s basically, in a way, recycling.’

On the importance of ambiguity to their creative output:

Ambiguity is something that came from a conversation we had with [Oliver and Adam], where we realized that in a lot of the songs we were writing, ambiguity was really important to them. When we were writing lyrics and writing these songs on [Conversations], we didn’t want someone to listen and for everybody to get the same feeling from our songs. We hope it’s an album and a collection of songs whereby different people listen to it and actually make completely different associations to the music. It’s not a kind of formula, like you’re all going to get the same meaning from the song.

And “Our Love Has No Rhythm” seemed to summarize that really well. Because that phrase even in itself is a phrase people read in different ways. We have people who write to us and tell us how that song affected them and how they read that song, and it’s so interesting because you never get one same answer. And so that’s really what we try and do in all of our artwork, is try to be ambiguous but also be provocative as well and encourage people to question the image and question what they see.

On taking inspiration from the past:

One thing I really believe now is that nothing is entirely original. I feel like there’s a huge pressure on artists to be this completely new, individual musician who’s going to create a completely new sound and do something that’s never been done before. And maybe it’s slightly narcissistic and cynical, but I do believe actually we’re kind of entering a period where everyone’s basically, in a way, recycling. And that’s really interesting — I’m not saying that’s any less interesting. But maybe one thing that’s beginning to happen, is rather than [trying to] strive to be completely new, it’s almost like [musicians can] take advantage of this huge catalog of history that we have. Take inspiration from all these existing things — things that already exist — instead of try and do something that nobody’s ever done. And then still have comparisons, you know?

That’s one way we’ve gotten around the pressure of being a new artist. The pressure and expectation is because of this newness that people expect. That can be really daunting. As soon as your main goal is to try and solely do something that no one’s ever done, and not reference anything that already exists…I think that it’s quite a naïve stance to take. As soon as you accept the fact that you’re probably going to be — even if it’s subconsciously — referencing music you’ve heard somewhere…It’s quite freeing and liberating to just accept that and then enjoy the process of writing, without necessarily knowing where all these influences come from but knowing that you’re making something that is a reflection of a generation.