Witches, like Joan Jett, famously have a bad reputation. It’s an ill-founded reputation, of course, and basically a lingering vestige of 700-year-old male terrors run amok in the face of women who dared behave in manners that transgressed a very narrow conception of womanhood. Those same male terrors, mercifully, tend not to end in water torture and stake burnings nowadays. Witches still get a rough ride, though, be they actual witches (who do exist and, for the record, tend to be far more accepting and open-minded folk than people who sit around all day fretting about witches) or simply women who get tagged as “witches” or some variant thereof because – you got it – they dare behave in manners that transgress a very narrow conception of womanhood.
The three young ladies of Magneta Lane are not, as far as we know, actual witches. They have, however, titled their spirited new EP Witchrock in tacit acknowledgement of what might be considered, at least in some fickle indie-rock and record-label circles, a bad reputation. They also have a habit of rocking out in a most unladylike fashion that, by times, brings to mind a host of other punkish female trailblazers from Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry to Cub, Juliana Hatfield and Veruca Salt in addition to the aforementioned Joan Jett. And, like Jett, they don’t give a damn about their bad reputation.
“Any person who says now we haven’t paid our dues don’t know what they’re talking about,” says frontwoman, guitarist and principal songwriter Lexi Valentine. “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
Magneta Lane – formed in suburban Toronto by Valentine, her sister/drummer Nadia King and one-named bassist French in 2003 – was celebrated on delivery by numerous pundits on both sides of the Canada/U.S. divide as an uncannily pop-savvy trio of teenage ingénues when Paper Bag Records issued its debut EP, The Constant Lover, in 2004. Months and months of hard touring at home and in the States ensued, hardening the band into the notably less naïve outfit that was steered towards a more tantalizingly aggressive sound by producer Jesse Keeler (of Death From Above 1979/MSTRKRFT infamy) on its debut full-length, Dancing With Daggers, in 2006. Magneta Lane’s promise appeared endless. And then … pause. Too much, too young. Burnout. Hipster backlash. Label woes. You name it, Magneta Lane had it.
“We were really young when we started. The media thought we were 19, but we were really 17,” confesses Lexi, while sister Nadia sheepishly admits she was 15 years old when the band started playing clubs around Toronto. “In all honesty, we lied because if you’re not 19 almost no clubs here will let you play their stage.”
“Also, people wouldn’t take us seriously,” adds Nadia. “Not that they took us seriously, but imagine if they’d known we were 15 or 17.”
It was, after all, already – as Lexi puts it – “a thing” that Magneta Lane was a band composed of three young women. And while the band had collectively matured enough to seek legal extrication from its first recording contract (“We were really young, and at the time we were just excited to be signed so we really didn’t ask a lot of questions”) in search of a better deal for 2009’s Gambling With God LP, it still didn’t feel like it was being taken seriously. Whenever Lexi dared speak up and ask questions of her new handlers about what was going on with the album’s release, “it was immediately kind of like they were talking to me as if ‘Lexi just put her big-girl shoes on,’ and that really got me upset. And as soon as that happened, I was like: ‘You know what? I’m out of here.’”
Cue a brief break from Magneta Lane for all involved. No thought was ever given to ending the band, but it was some time before Lexi felt compelled to return to songwriting again. And then “it was me in the basement on this really awful recording program by myself with a guitar and a bass, just trying to write songs that would make me feel better about what was going on.”
A new manager and a chance link-up at a party with Rick Jackett and James Black of Toronto modern-rock hitmakers Finger Eleven added further focus to Lexi’s renewed creative energies. Jackett and Black, she was surprised to learn, shared a great deal of Magneta Lane’s musical tastes and subsequently became fast friends – friends soon to be entrusted with the task of producing Magneta Lane’s next recording.
“Those guys are really, really cool,” says Lexi. “I know a lot of people will be, like: ‘What does Magneta Lane have to do with Finger Eleven. How is there a connect there?’ But they’re fans of exactly the same music that we all love. It was so refreshing, too, to meet musicians who were good people, especially coming from an indie scene where it can be really cutthroat and where once everybody thinks you’re the ‘buzz band’ so many people choose just not to like you because they think it’s cool not to like you.
“They were very encouraging. They never said: ‘This is the way the song should sound. Let’s turn this into a brand-new song.’ They were always, like: ‘Lex, this is really good. Now you’ve gotta go back and try again and make it better.’ I needed that kind of encouragement.”
The collaboration catalyzed the intriguing new phase of Magneta Lane’s career heralded by Witchrock. “Burn” plays up the tougher rhythmic intensity hinted at on Dancing With Daggers and introduces a huskier, more mature iteration of Lexi Valentine, the vocalist, whose alto now channels seminal proto-punk forebears as Hynde and Harry with much more bite and confidence. “Good For” chugs forth with newfound drama reminiscent of Shirley Manson and Garbage, while “Leave the Light On” – with its barbed assertions that “strange girls need strange things to keep them awake” – genuinely qualifies as anthemic. “Lucky,” meanwhile, revisits what the Magneta Lane of old did with a more refined command of what it is Magneta Lane does.
The Witchrock title comes from the band’s inability to find an accurate genre classification for its sound while recording.
“What do we even call this? What genre is this? Is it rock? Is it alternative? Is it pop?” laughs Lexi, who decided to embrace her “inner villain” and air all her grievances about the past few years’ trials in the Witchrock lyric sheet. “We decided to make our own genre because we couldn’t figure out where we fit. We decided it sounds kind of witchy. People have said that to us before. Maybe it’s because we’re three girls. Maybe it’s something worse, I don’t know. Or care at this point.”
In any case, Magneta Lane is moving upward and onward again. Lexi Valentine doesn’t feel she has a choice in the matter. Indeed, she’s recently found renewed inspiration to keep soldiering on despite everything in Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids.
“I love it. It’s a beautiful book. I love it so much,” she says. “There’s this one part where she’s talking about how she went to see Jim Morrison and the Doors. She loved Jim Morrison, obviously, and he was a big inspiration to her, but when she saw him onstage, instead of having the thoughts that every other person would have – ‘Oh my god, this is the greatest performer I’ve ever seen’ she was like: ‘I can do that.’
“That thought goes back to why we started the band. I really feel that way and I encourage every girl or boy who feels that way to do it because, to be honest, if WE can be in a band, any person who has the passion enough can do it. There was something really inspiring in knowing that Patti Smith felt the same way. I didn’t have to feel guilty about the fact that I was never that girl who would look at a male rock star and think ‘I wanna be with him.’ For me, it was always ‘I want that for myself.’”