Gina Birch Lives Her Life Loud
The painter and former Raincoats' singer/bassist has a new solo album.Photo courtesy of the artist Music Features Gina Birch
“Nice Work If You Can Get It” started out as a classic 1937 tune by George Gershwin. But over the years, the phrase grew into a much larger idiom or metaphor describing just how lucky an individual was to be doing a job—or jobs—that they truly loved. And British Renaissance woman Gina Birch can definitely relate.
Ever since she broke out of art school back in 1977 with her seminal post-punk outfit The Raincoats— a path that’s serpentined into her kinetic new Youth-co produced solo album, I Play My Bass Loud—the Nottingham-born auteur has had the good fortune to wake each morning and wonder exactly which one of her many artistic outlets she might pursue that particular day. She could compose more new material, direct videos for other artists, write and direct her own films, or just disappear into her home studio and spend the time painting in a myriad of intriguing styles. And yes, The Raincoats just happened to be one of the favorite groups of the late Kurt Cobain, who invited them to tour with Nirvana and helped land them a contract with DGC Records. But she could just as easily form an impulsive spinoff combo (Dorothy, The Gluts) or join edgy outfits like Red Crayola. In fact, it’s difficult to believe that it took the busy singer/bassist until 2021 to issue her first solo single, the spoken-word-meets-Phil-Spector experiment “Feminist Song,” included on the album.
“It wasn’t quite like that today when I got up, because I had a couple of meetings, and I had to work out what I might do for my merchandise,” Birch says, contentedly. “And I’m making some very cool socks, and a nice T-shirt, but no tote bags. If I see another tote bag, I’ll probably vomit in it. I think there are just too many tote bags in the world.” The previous 24 hours, she adds, were just as jam-packed—she was rehearsing all day for her upcoming tour, working out exactly what road gear she’d require, and also nailing down the most comfortable, affordable means of transportation. “Around this record release and the live shows, there’s a lot of logistics, actually, a lot of hard work. It’s not the dreamy day of the artist, like, ‘Shall I paint or shall I write a song?’ But I’ll get back there soon, at the end of March—I’ll be back writing songs and making paintings.”
I Play My Bass Loud was worth the wait. It’s got a jagged, old-school punk swagger to it (in pounding rockers like “Wish I Was You,” “Dance Like a Demon,” and the funk-sweltering title track, wherein she semi-seriously reflects, “Sometimes I wake up and I wonder / What is my job?”), a fun trailblazing edge (the distorted vocals and echoed dub/reggae of “Digging Down” and “Pussy Riot,” a tribute to Russia’s renegade rockers), and a delicate, refined undertone, enhanced by ex-Killing Joke anchor Youth’s keen production ear (“I Am Rage,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and a self-explanatory “I Will Never Wear Stilettos”). Birch’s mouth-open self-portrait on the cover accentuates the eclectic music—is she screaming at you, or just suddenly overcome with existential ennui? Or maybe a bit of both? The disc also boasts cameos from Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, plus five other female bassists, including The Mo-Dettes’ Jane Crockford. The set is also released on Jack White’s ultra-hip imprint Third Man Records, about as classy a connection as you can get these days—nice work if you can get it, indeed. Birch hit ‘Pause’ on her chaotic existence to expound on her remarkable longevity and continued relevance….
Paste: To take you back a bit, what was art school like? And what did you learn there? I’m always curious how that shapes someone…
Gina Birch: Art school was a great liberation to me, because I had come from quite a straight education, where modern art was probably the Impressionists. And suddenly, I tumbled into a Foundation Course, where I learned all about performance art and land art and conceptual art, and the art school was just full of interesting, weird people. And I found my people, you know? So I found a home, and I found liberation, and I found excitement. And it kind of unleashed something in me that no longer needed to connect to the kind of mischievous teenage years I’d had, trying to find adventure in other slightly less-healthy ways. Suddenly, in art school, I could grow into myself as a human being. So it taught me to think, it taught me to look—it taught me a few skills, but it wasn’t highly skills-based. It was all about teaching yourself, like, “Oh, we don’t want to interfere with your untapped creativity” or whatever. So it was very cool, and that was Foundation. Then when I came to London to do Fine Art, it was slightly different. I probably didn’t choose the right college, in terms of having a great career in art. But I chose the right college in terms of finding Ana Da Silva, to be in The Raincoats, and Neil Brown, to move into a great house in Notting Hill, and punk was just beginning to happen, so art school was kind of an appendage to my life then, and buying a bass and all the rest. And I loved all the work from the ‘60s and ‘70s, conceptual art, land art, performance art—all those things that I didn’t know existed. I mean, it seems absurd now, and I probably would find it laughable if I saw it. But at the time, it was like, “Whoa! That’s art! And it’s great!” So when I went to art school, I’d seen Derek Jarman’s Super 8 films—he’d come to my college and shown his work on Super 8. So I did get into some minimalist stuff—I just screamed for the duration of a three-minute cartridge, and I had these giant sheets of newsprint, and I’d run and jump at them, jump through them, then sew them up again. I did a lot rolling around on the floor with video cameras and that kind of stuff.
Paste: It sounds like your career was kind of running parallel to Lydia Lunch’s, over in New York. I’m surprised you don’t have your own podcast like she does now.
Birch: I have no idea what Lydia Lunch was doing, and Lydia Lunch had no idea what I was doing. And a podcast? Oh, God! I like to do. I’ve done enough talking, actually. I like to paint, I like to make films, I like to write songs, I like to…knit! Ha! I like to do everything I can with my hands. On my first tour, I knitted a jumper, and it was so long, it came down to my knees, and I wore it at one of the last shows of The Raincoat’s first tour. So yeah, I still do knit. But now I’ve discovered that if I put it in the washing machine at high temperature I can make it all come out right. I make a lot of felted bags for Raincoats merch, and I applique them. And I have sold them, but I don’t sell them on Etsy.
Paste: Out of curiosity, what was the last film you did? And what was the subject matter?
Birch: I made this film that had a weird soundtrack in it, and it was called To Our So-Called Culture, which was all about the classical paintings that kind of objectified women. I repainted them, then I put people saving them in them, and told stories over the top and yelled. So it was as much of a soundtrack as anything.
Paste: And you just had your first solo art exhibition at a gallery in Whitechapel?
Birch: Yes, and it closed on November 5, actually. It was on for a month, and it was my first proper solo show, and it was curated by three guys, actually, and they came into my studio and they just chose the pieces they wanted. And I was very impressed, actually, with the way that they curated it—I hadn’t thought that they could make so much sense out of what I was doing, but they did, and it was really inspiring, actually. Because curation now has become known as a bit of an art form, and I always thought that was a bit laughable. But when I saw what they did, I thought, “I was wrong. When it’s done well, it bloody well is a fine art, you know?
Paste: Oils or acrylic?
Birch: I start with acrylic. Sometimes I do oil glazes. I sometimes use collage or appliqué, and stick other bits of canvas on, or sometimes I sew bits of canvas together. I’m not in awe of the medium—I do whatever I feel like with it. Sometimes I just use bits of charcoal, and then I paint into the charcoal, and the yellow turns green. I do what I feel like, but I do like oil glazes at the end, because that can give depth and real interest. But sometimes I’m quite impatient—I like things to happen fast. And oil painters have to really plot and plan, and for me that takes a lot of the energy out of what I’m doing.
Paste: Obviously, we’ll definitely get to your music, too. But looking at your work, one painting resembles Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and in your Keith-Haring-primitive album cover work, I can’t tell if the girl is screaming or just yawning.
Birch: That was from the Super 8 film I made, of me screaming for three minutes. So yes, my paintings have been through all sorts of different phases, and it depends on what’s interesting me at that particular moment. And I have copies of lots of classical paintings, and, as I say, when I’ve copied classical paintings, then sometimes I also dare to make an intervention into it, and then I’ll do more primitive types of painting when I feel like it, or more Expressionist or whatever. Because I’m not kind of in that world where everyone’s going to say, “Oh! That’s a bit out of sorts with your painting style!” So it’s become whatever it is at this point.
Paste: When the pandemic hit, were you grateful to have all this art to fall back on?
Birch: Well, I also have a family—I have two daughters and a husband, and a dog and a cat, and a big house with an art studio. So it did not make too much difference to me. I mean, I didn’t see my mom as much, and she was in her nineties, so that was a bit sad. But then with all this doom, gloom and Zoom, suddenly you’re talking to people on the other side of the world that you probably haven’t talked to for ages, so there was closeness, in a weird way. And my daughter was having lessons on Zoom, and we were all Zooming all over the place. And some people didn’t like it, but I find it quite fine, you know. Zooming is fine. So the pandemic was very heartwarming, wasn’t it? To look at what was happening to the planet—we seemed to kind of be recovering, slightly, when we stopped polluting it with cars and planes and trains and things. So that was quite inspiring, and people were cycling around and going for walks, and it was nice, not seeing loads of traffic jams and people rushing off to work. It was like a breath of air, wasn’t it? But of course, there was so much terror, as well.
Paste: And we’ve learned nothing….
Birch: No. No. And we all thought we might die. That was the downside, wasn’t it? Because they kept showing people being intubated on telly, and the hospitals all overcrowded. And so there was kind of a doom-y fear which perpetuated, as well, wasn’t there? And my mom’s still here, although I don’t think she’s left the house much in the last five years.
Paste: How and when did these songs start appearing? Some are older chestnuts, but most are new, right?
Birch: Well, I think, in a way, they’re a bit like…you know when you’re making a painting, and then people say, “Well, how do you know when it’s finished?” And some artists say, “When I’ve got to take them to a gallery” or whatever. But it’s the same with the songs. They were all in my computer, and every now and again, I’d switch on the computer, and I’d say, “Oh, I’ll pull up that song,” and then I’d be almost like an observer of the song, and I might interject. I’ll get my microphone out, and I’ll interject with a question, like, “do you like those shoes” Or “Can you run in them?”on!” So things would add to the songs later, because I would look at them and think, “Why the hell are you just being so passive?” And then I found a bit of Patti Smith—I got a great little quote from Patti Smith, which I put in, but I can’t remember what it was now. Maybe it was the one about people having the power. And we’d like to have the power, but sometimes we don’t really grasp it, do we? Occupy tried, and the environmental people are trying, but here they’re getting arrested more and more. They’re trying to ban protests here in this country, and you’re banning abortions—it’s all crazy. But it seems like the world has kind of restarted. And I don’t know if this is really true, but it seems that the world has started over at least once before, so I imagine it’ll all be obliterated, and then we’ll grow up again at some point.
Paste: I keep hearing it’s the Age of Aquarius, and a beautiful new dawning for humanity. But I have yet to even remotely sense it.
Birch: Maybe the ‘Dawning’ will be the end of the world. It’ll be such a beautiful morning, and then we all die. Ha!
Paste: Like your song “And Then It Happened,” wherein you “Just stopped trying.”
Birch: Yeah. It was an abstract thing, but everything just seemed to come together, and it happened—that’s all. What happened? The feeling was right, and I was all in tune, and everything went well.
Paste: Why did you gravitate towards bass in the beginning?
Birch: I think it could have been arbitrary, really. I think at the time, I thought, “Well, I’m not gonna be the singer, I’m not gonna be the guitarist, I’m not gonna be the drummer,” and that left the bass. I came into the band through the back door, through the deep, dark steps of the bass. And I thought four strings could be good, and then I found out that it was harder to play the bass and sing at the same time. But the thing is Ana—who was older than me, and knew a few chords, and had written a few poems—she wanted us all to write songs. She’d kind of grown up with The Beatles, and she liked the fact that, in The Beatles, everyone had an identity, and had an identity through the songs that they sang. And so she was very encouraging about us writing songs. So there I was, learning the bass, and then I had to try and write a song, and then play the bass while singing the song, and that was hard. So in a way, I chose it almost arbitrarily, but then you grow into what you do, don’t you? You find in what you do some strength, and it finds strength in you. So you work with it, and you take it somewhere that interests you, so that’s what I did, really. I was interested in reggae, and there were these double-bass jazz players who I thought had these amazing bass lines, and in reggae and jazz, a lot of the time the bass could be the spine of the song. It wasn’t like when you’re playing in a kind of heavy rock band with guitars crashing all the while, and the bass is kind of “Underpinning the great guitarist.” And we’re just kind of accentuating the root notes with a little skip here and there.
Paste: But you also came along at the perfect time, when Peter Hook and Simon Gallup were reinventing the bass.
Birch: Well, I think Peter Hook learned something from me, because I often played quite high up on the neck, and then when he started, he was playing high up on the neck. But the thing with playing high up on the neck is that you can cut through, you can be heard. Who wants to just stand there, underpinning the bloody deep notes? Well, some people I suppose do. But if I thought that was my job, I would have handed in my notice very quickly!
Paste: “I Am Rage,” conversely, has this huge cushiony Phil Spector mix.
Birch: Yes. And Youth likes the old Spector drums. And I really do like them, but then I think, “Ooh…should we use them?” And they are obviously recreated drums, they’re not life, but Youth and I really worked on the structure, on restructuring “I Am Rage.” And I’d taken it as kind of a long, rambling poem, with a middle eight, I must add. But Youth kind of knocked it into shape. And within The Raincoats, we were always trying to avoid that kind of structure—verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight and all that. But Youth was quite into that, and so some of the songs became more structured in that way, and “I Am Rage” is one of them. It was the first song that Youth and I did in the studio together, and I was quite amazed when I came home. I was like, “Blimey! He’s turned my ramble into a pop song!”
And the vocal on “I Am Rage” is just the guide vocal, the very first thing I did in the studio, so it’s quite solid, when you listen to it as a solo track, with just a guitar behind it. And I haven’t known Youth for that long—I knew him for about a year and a half before we worked together.
He’d come with Vivian Goldman to a gig I was playing, because he and Vivian were going to do a set after me. But he really liked what I did, and invited me to his festival in Spain. Then Covid happened, and I got him to do a bit of a mix of “Feminist Song,” for the 7” that I put out on Third Man, when they opened the London shop. And then last February, a year ago almost, we recorded for two or three weeks, working together, and we did the damned record! And I had all that stuff in my Logic, all the little blips and bloops and bass loops and stuff. They were already there, so I took my hard drive down, and we just put them onto Logic 10, and then added some stuff, and there ya go. So it was a definite co production.
Paste: How and when did you meet Jack White?
Birch: I met him at the actual opening of the Third Man shop in London. I hadn’t met Jack White before I’d made the 7”—I met Dave Buick, who works with Jack and has known him for years and years. So Dave and I were working together, and then Jack obviously must have approved it, so he reckons he likes all that I’m doing. So I don’t know him very well, but I hope to get to know him better. I saw him play in London at the Union Chapel recently, and he was so brilliant. And it wasn’t the heavy rock—it was more like the double bass and the standup drum kit. It was so cool.
Paste: How was your show at London’s Blue Basement?
Birch: That was great. That was really fun. Then I did the Hanukkah show in New York with Yo La Tengo, and that was fun, too. Youth played with me at the Blue Basement, but in New York I had my laptop.
Paste: You joke about it in the title track, but have you ever just thrown open your upstairs window and played your bass exceptionally loud?
Birch: I have! I open my window, but it’s a big, wide street, and it’s kind of only filmmakers and journalists who live ‘round here, so they probably like it.
Paste: How did Thurston Moore get involved in the sessions?
Birch: I’ve known Thurston for years, but Youth was very keen that we have some other people on the album, and I had originally asked Keith Levene, the guitarist from PIL, who died recently, but that all went a bit pear-shaped. So I said, “Well, why don’t we ask Thurston?” And Thurston said, “Yay!” And he came down and enjoyed it. But I didn’t realize, naively, when I asked Thurston to be on it, that then it would be like, “Gina’s new single starring Thurston Moore!” Or this and that, featuring Thurston Moore! So I had to write to Thurston and say, “Look, I’m really sorry. I didn’t expect you to be plastered all over my single, and I’m really sorry!” And he said, “It’s a great privilege to be plastered all over your single.”
Paste: How old are your daughters? And are they chasing the Muse, too?
Birch: One is, one isn’t. One’s 20, one’s 22, and the 20 year old (Lei-Lei) is doing medicine at Cambridge, but the other one (Honey) does all things creative. She made my first video for this project, directed it, produced it. She did everything for it—I didn’t interfere at all. And she’s doing a design course, but she writes brilliant songs, she does poetry, she makes things. But both my daughters are amazing.
Paste: I can’t believe you wrangled Jane Crockford from The Mo-Dettes.
Birch: Yeah! I’ve known Jane for years. We used to play in a band called The Tesco Bombers together.
Paste: Obviously, with songs like “I Will Never Wear Stilettos,” you have your own view on the #metoo movement. Has it been backsliding since Roe v Wade was overturned?
Birch: The thing is, there is no one movement, is there? Everyone’s on their own trajectory. And there are terrible, terrible things happening to women. And there are some great things happening to women. There are some terrible women, and there are some great women. And we’re all just flipping humans, and humans can be every damned thing, you know? I mean, for me, I have had a great journey, from living in a very patriarchal family setup to feeling like I’m able to do what I want to and be respected for who I am. I have had an amazing journey of…liberation, if you like, and I see my mother as being still stuck in the ways that she grew up in, and my kids, again, are just like way beyond me, and the whole gender thing is so beyond feminism. So yeah, there’s a lot of backsliding, like the abortion thing in America, the stuff that’s happening in Iran, and then there’s Afghanistan. And I can’t begin to analyze it in a couple of sentences, it’s just too much, isn’t it? So I’ll leave that to others to write the thesis on—it’s just too huge.