Jun 30, 2021
By Andy Von Pip
UK artist Beth Jeans Houghton’s fantastic third album Homecoming under her Du Blonde moniker was released in April 2021 (read our glowing review here). This time around Houghton went it alone and as well as writing the album she produced it designed all the artwork and released it via her own brand new label Daemon T.V.
Under the Radar caught up with Houghton to discuss her album, her dissatisfaction with how large swathes of the record industry gaslight young artists, and how by taking control of the entire creative process she rediscovered the joy of making music again. She also reflects on her own recent diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome and how the music industry needs to get its house in order and stop exploiting artists.
Andy Von Pip (Under the Radar): Was there any one thing that made you decide to go it alone and self-release Homecoming or was it a cumulative thing?
Beth Jeans Houghton: It was a cumulative thing, but also conversely one thing. The one thing being the way the entire industry works as a whole which is bullshit. Another part of it is that I just really enjoy being involved in everything from recording the music to designing the packaging and mailing it out. I’m made for self-realizing. A lot of musicians I know would love to self-release but don’t want to get involved in boxing it up and mailing it all out. But what a lot of people don’t realize, and I didn’t initially, is that you can actually access everything you need, everything that a label would use. For example, I’m using a label services company to sort out my distribution and manufacturing, and online marketing, you know, the things I’m not 100% up to speed on. I’ve always had my own press guy who I’ve used since I was 15 and I’ve always paid him separately from labels anyway.
Basically, a label outsources all of these things anyway. So essentially, you’re paying a middleman who gets the rights to your songs just to go to the same people who you can go to directly yourself. It was certainly an eye-opening experience when I discovered this. I’d just finished a record deal and thought, if I continue to work with labels, I would just stop making music. I think there’s a fear with artists that if they self-release they won’t be able to pay the rent. And I was like, hang on a minute, I haven’t been able to pay the rent in 15 years. It dawned on me, that for me at least there was no upside at all being on a record label. I thought, “Okay, I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain and I can fall back in love with making music.” That was the turning point and the pandemic was a catalyst—like if I couldn’t go in a studio for a year anyway well, I’ll just make it at home.
How about the album title? Was that a reference to going back to your roots in a sense?
There’s an American writer called Barbara Kingsolver and I really got into her books. I remember there was one sentence that had “homecoming” in it, and that resonated for some reason and I thought, “That’s the title for the album.” Of course, in retrospect, it was exactly that, it did become a homecoming. I ended up back in the UK in my childhood home and going back to my DIY roots in terms of self-releasing and just doing what I want, although I wasn’t clever enough to name it Homecoming for that reason in advance. [Laughs]
What sort of artistic disagreements /discussions would you have with record labels?
Where to start? So for example on Welcome Back to Milk [Houghton’s second studio album and her first as Du Blonde] with me wearing the merkin on the cover, I had a manager who had begun sexually harassing me and there’s like stretch marks on my thigh on the cover photo and he said, “You need to blur them out,” and I was like, “Fuck you.” So, the problems I’d experienced were an array of things such as the aforementioned sexual harassment and then when I asked people at the company for help, I wasn’t believed or taken seriously. The response ranged from “no one else has come forward,” because the view was if it’s just one person it can’t be true, to attempting to excuse his toxic behavior with stuff like “oh he’s just old school.”
There was this dawning realization that I just wasn’t safe in that environment and that the people who were supposed to be helping me, weren’t. One of them got so angry that he shoved a chair across the room and walked out. That was his reaction when I said, “Look I’m at the hands of a predator here, I’m on my own and I really need help.” Another example of the attitude toward young women—one person told me I should never talk about feminism in interviews so as not to make people feel uncomfortable, and she was a woman!
There was also the money side of things, like when you’re young and sign a deal it’s like, “here’s a 20 grand advance” and you’re like, “OMG that’s amazing!” But then you think about it and it’s less than a lot of people’s annual wage and that has to last you a really long time. Then they delay your record and in the background, they’ve spent like 100 grand on recordings which you didn’t know about. Now you owe them that money which meant I was in debt and struggling to pay my rent. The fact that I’ve made the money back on Homecoming already and I only spent about seven grand on it proves that’s it’s just plain stupid to spend 200 grand on a record, which is essentially a loan. You won’t get paid a penny yourself until that’s paid back. Young people go into these situations with little experience, I mean I was 18 when I signed a deal, okay I was legally an adult, but I didn’t know fucking anything. There was always this prevailing vibe from the company of “you’re so lucky to have us but put a foot wrong and we’ll drop you” and I was like, “oh pleeease just drop me.” [Laughs]
Was there was ever an option to buy yourself out?
No chance, I mean I did calculations, but they’d spent so much on the record I could never afford to pay it back, so you just have to let the songs and album go. I’m sure there are good labels out there, but all labels could be good, but they just aren’t. I remember I did one deal where I’d spent seven grand on the making of the album, and the label would put it out and take 50% of my rights, there was no advance and I’d only be paid when they’d recouped. And I asked about the seven grand I’d already spent, and they were like, “Oh well, you know, people just don’t do advances these days,” so I thought, “What am I supposed to be living off here?” But the response is always “that’s just the way it is,” which I actually think is bullshit. I see young artists signing deals and I don’t judge them or say anything as it’s their journey, but my heart breaks as I can see what they are about to walk into. It could be fine of course, but it probably won’t be. It’s so sad. So people now own my music for 10 or 15 years or until it’s paid off, which will be never. Like when you’re an artist, and you realize you won’t make money, the only thing you have left is your music and songs and they are so much a part of you. It feels like someone owns the rights to my childhood diaries and you just feel so stripped of everything. Music should be fun and even in the era of streaming I still believe there are ways artist can make money, but there are all these roadblocks and people in between grabbing the money before it gets to you, and they are like, “Actually you do need us, where would you be without us” and yet where would the entire industry be without music?
When you began to write Homecoming did you have an idea of the sort of sound you wanted to create, or did it reveal itself as you went along?
I did have an idea that was kind of like King Kahn and The Shrines, like ’60s garage, very lo-fi. That was because at the moment I’m into writing simple songs and also, I’d never engineered before and knew fuck all about it or things like EQing. That was until I realized
that all it meant was just move it around until it sounds right [laughs], that’s a peaking bit so take it down, too quiet? Move it up! It was nice being in a situation where I didn’t have to argue all the time about how I want my music to sound. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been made to feel stupid when I’d say, “I think this sounds fine,” and people would patronize me and say, “Ugh, no it sounds terrible.”
So, on this album a lot of it was me having to train myself out of how I was made to feel about my abilities. I worked with one producer previously who hired loads of middle-aged white men, who were lovely, to play the guitars on an album and I was like, “But I want to play the guitar on my own album.” And I was told, “No, no we need professionals.” So, I’d say, “Well at least can I play the piano?” And the producer asked, “Can you even play the piano?” “Erm yeah, I played it when I wrote the actual song and made the demos.” And then I got locked out of the mixing sessions because the label said I was being difficult! So, doing Homecoming was a lot of fun and I also got to embrace the fact that I love pop music too.
Although it’s you flying solo on Homecoming you do have a few guests, like Ezra Furman and Shirley Manson from Garbage. Did you write both of those songs with them in mind?
I didn’t write “I’m Glad That We Broke Up” with Ezra in mind but when I finished it, I thought, “Okay she has to be on it.” And Ezra and I have the same sort of musical taste, we both love ’60s girl groups and punk. When I first wrote it, it was a lot less punky, it had more of a ’60s girl group vibe, and Ezra has this amazing scratchy raucous voice, especially when she screams things. And I thought, “That’s what’s going to give this song the edge and take it away from being just a nice ’60s pop song.” So, she recorded her vocals and it was a case of matching the fuzz on her vocals. Also, on that song is Ben Corrigan from Hard Skin, who are fucking great, he did the guitar line in that. It was so much fun having friends play on it and not being overprotective of my songs because of being made to feel that was all I had.
Shirley [Manson] and I have known each other for over five years she’s a good friend who has always been supportive and we have a similar dark sense of humor. We had been talking about doing things for a while and when I wrote “Medicate” I thought, “This would be good for Shirley.” It all felt so relaxed and we didn’t have to worry about logistics like “can you fly to LA on Friday?” She recorded it in their studio, it was nice because everybody just recorded their bits where they were.
You’ve always been very open and honest about mental health and there are several songs on Homecoming, which despite the upbeat melodies, have some pretty dark lyrics. This has been a theme throughout your career, are there any you find upsetting or difficult to perform live due to the subject matter or memories they bring back?
That’s me—I’m smiling on the outside but I’m dead on the inside. [Laughs] I’ve always liked that sort of thing, I’m not sure if dichotomy is quite the right word. Like in films when someone’s being beaten up and there’s a nursery rhyme playing, or in Clockwork Orange where all the bad stuff is happening but there’s a nice song playing in the background. I’m not sure why I’m drawn to that sort of thing, but I employ it a lot. Like “Take One For the Team” sounds kind of joyful but it’s about a stalker and abuse. But I do tend to deliver things with a dark sense of humor.
If I were to overthink the subjects I address I could get upset, But when I’m singing I can put it to one side, and also writing about things like that is sort of therapy and kind of makes it more digestible for me. I think the thing about suicidal thoughts and mental health that helped me was hearing other people talk about it. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I really learned about anxiety. I mean growing up I’d felt horrible for years and I didn’t know why, and you can feel really isolated. I think there’s much more recognition now, but you still can feel alone, so for me if it’s uncomfortable to write about these issues, if it makes one person in their bedroom feel less alone then it’s worth putting myself through that.
And you’ve recently been diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome?
Yeah, I think I’ve always had it but super mild, like slight ticks where maybe I would raise my eyebrow or look over my shoulder and it was easy to hide but a few months ago I had a really bad panic attack, like a nervous breakdown type panic attack and my arm started swinging and then within two weeks it was full-on swearing. But I was diagnosed three days ago so I’m really lucky because it can take years to get diagnosed. So, it’s a relief as it was stopping me from doing anything really. For me a diagnosis means I get a little card that says, “this person officially has Tourettes.” So, if I shout at a random stranger in the street and they come at me to hit me I can say—I have a disability and this is what it is and show them this card.
It’s changed my life immensely because now I can consider touring again. I can get on a plane because if you have Tourette’s and are getting on a plane the likelihood is you’ll say you have a gun. If you don’t have anything from a doctor saying you’re disabled, you certainly won’t be allowed to get on the plane. So, without the diagnosis, I wouldn’t have been able to do my job and it was fairly depressing for a while. So, diagnoses are actually great! [Laughs]
Have you been given any techniques in how to deal with it?
Well, one of the things I’ve discovered is to avoid coffee. I used to drink like an eight-person French press of coffee every morning and then wonder why I was shaking. And anxiety makes it worse too, on the day of the diagnosis I was so nervous and was ticking all day which can be exhausting. So, avoiding stress does make it better and also accepting it. I do want to publicly talk about it more because I think the more people see and hear people explaining what it’s like there’ll be more understanding, which will help people with Tourette’s to exist in the world. So when you see someone you may think, “Ah they probably have Tourette’s,” rather than assuming they are on drugs or crazy. So maybe that’s what I’m here to do now too.
You’ve got a fantastic fanzine called “Fuck You” for sale on your website which is described as “a small window into how far sexism and sexual harassment stretches throughout the industry and how prevalent and widely accepted it is for those who aren’t perpetrators to normalize these abuses.”
Sadly, it’s super common. In the music industry and record labels, there’s no Human Resources department to go to for help, literally no support if the head of the company doesn’t give a shit. There have been people at labels I’ve been signed to who are lovely, really good people who knew what had happened with me and have taken me aside and said, “we know this is true, and it’s fucking awful,” but they can’t afford to lose their jobs. So, when I complained about that ex-manager sexually harassing me and they took that line “well, nobody else has come forward,” it was happening to pretty much all the women at the company. This is a person who already had a history, I mean I saw him being sexually inappropriate with a 19-year-old intern. Surrounded by men who said fuck all. It’s scary to speak out—I get that there are valid human reasons why people don’t get involved. But the more people who do speak out and challenge these attitudes and say “it’s not okay for you to talk to her like that,” or “you can’t just touch her arse,” then the more it’s going to normalize that this behavior is unacceptable. You do think, “It’s 2021, how the fuck is this shit still going on?” It could be because nothing’s really been challenged for years. In the ’90s we had riot grrrl, which was an amazing movement and there was some incredible music, and it was all about the empowerment of women not the suppression of abuse by men, we really need to keep that going. #MeToo will hopefully prove to be a defining moment too.
Have you followed the debate in the UK centered around male-dominated festival lines ups, featuring the same old dreary artists and the lack of gender parity?
Yeah, I’ve heard all the excuses from festival owners saying “there aren’t that many female bands.” Erm yes, yes there are, there are fucking loads of them, you could fill any festival with really great female artists. But maybe there is a discrepancy in the number of female bands the festival organizers know about because they aren’t being pushed at them by the industry or gotten press or encouraged. It’s no excuse though.
When I was in school, I wasn’t encouraged, in fact, I was told I’d never be a musician, because I once wrote a song that grew quieter in the chorus and apparently that just wasn’t the done thing. I used to wear a yellow cardigan to school and was once stood up in front of the class and my tutor said, “stop trying to be different Beth, it will get you nowhere.” I actually saw him the day I signed my first publishing deal and I was like, “Fuck You, Mr. Taylor.” [Laughs]
But it’s exactly that sort of attitude and lack of encouragement that’s the problem and discourages women in getting involved. I mean the option of actually being a sound engineer or a producer or a mixer or a tour manager, these were never presented as a pathway to me when I was young. If I’d have known there was an option for me to become a sound engineer or learn production I would have done it a lot sooner.
So, no there are no excuses for excluding female artists from these line ups, I mean there aren’t any differences between a man and a woman’s brain, which gives an advantage over how we can wiggle these fingers and play this guitar. But men in the industry have been privileged for so long and it’s a human thing to fear change, and have that power challenged, but really would you want a job for example in production simply because you are a white man, or would you want it because you’re the best at your job. Is it something to be proud of that you got the job because say a Black woman was pushed aside? To me, that isn’t any barometer of success at all.
So how could the music industry reinvent itself as a genuinely safe space for all? What could be put in place to better look after young artists?
It’s like an abusive relationship, the industry can beat you down and gaslight you into thinking you are nothing without them and you eventually don’t have the confidence to go it alone. Which is bullshit. Because there are people out there who can help you take that step.
How artists are compensated really needs addressing too, there should be complete financial clarity and transparency on what is being spent on someone’s album because it is a loan. I said to my mum the other day it’s like getting a loan for a car and then them insisting you buy a Ferrari when you might have actually gone for a Kia. Which means you owe them so much more money. So make sure you can see the spreadsheets. I mean I didn’t know the label was spending so much. You could argue these are “reasonable costs,” but you could do up a house and everything might appear to be a “reasonable cost.” But did I really need a million-dollar house? The accounts should be sent to the artist quarterly so they can see how the money, which is ultimately their money, is being spent. I mean I had a lawyer look at mine but it was so confusing and you’re not told how it will affect you in 10 year’s time.
There should be something like an HR type person at every record label, somewhere you can go, and you can say “this fucking old man is giving me massages in his office and I’m terrified” and they’ll sort it out. There should be more support for mental health. I don’t know the stats, but I do know that musicians and creative people do suffer greatly from depression and from anxiety especially in high-stress situations.
And surely the labels should trust and put more faith in an artist’s vision? After all, you’d think that was the reason why they signed them in the first place?
Yes definitely, I mean I had to fight for years to produce my music and musicians know what they are doing and know how they want their music to sound. As an aside, I was never keen on the label getting other male musicians to play on my albums before because for a cis white woman if you have a guy beside you there’s always this outdated assumption that they wrote the song. Even recently there was a review, which wasn’t a bad review, but they said something like it’s quite an upbeat album but Andy Bell playing on “All the Way” brought a whole new level of cool and set the pace for the rest of the album. I was like—hang on I wrote that fucking song produced it and sent it to Andy to play the bass, which is, of course, a beautiful bass line. But you know, it’s my song and this review gives him credit for setting the pace for the whole album? It drives me fucking nuts.
But we have these ingrained societal assumptions, it’s not even people’s fault, it’s the society we have been raised in that creates this internalized misogyny. People shouldn’t feel bad about being called out on it because it then gives you the chance to undo that learning. I don’t think anybody is born sexist or racist or homophobic, it’s learned behavior. I mean I’ve had moments of internalized misogyny and I’m like, “Argh, that’s so fucked up, why on earth did I think that?” And that’s okay, so long as you can recognize it when it happens, challenge it and change it.