Filled with intense riffs, bellowing howls, and brutal tales of battered corpses, sex, and misogyny, the music of Vancouver-born punk band White Lung might best be described as deeply angry. Offstage, too, frontwoman Mish Barber-Way confronts the fucked-up state of the world with intimidatingly personal aggression in her writing. At the moment, though, she's feeling just peachy — which might pose a slight problem. “I’m in this great place where I’m married, I’m living in Los Angeles, and I’m really happy,” she says. “But that doesn’t make for the best songwriting.”
For White Lung's fourth album, Paradise, out this Friday, she sidestepped that challenge by looking outward to serial killers and to Hollywood starlets. It's a wild joyride through cautionary tales of beauty, fame, and deathly love; the demented punk sound is still unmistakably White Lung, just catchier, offering a blood-soaked hand of friendship with radio-ready alt-rock on songs like “Hungry” and "Paradise." Lyrically, Barber-Way explores America’s obsession with women’s bodies, from famous murder victims to her own experience as a female musician in the public eye. “You know this means nothing if you go die alone / They'll bury your beauty, transient living stone,” she sings on “Below." “Sometimes when you’re a woman, your whole merit is your beauty, so when you die it must kind of feel like this rest,” Barber-Way tells me. “You’re dead, preserved in that beautiful photograph that a very famous photographer took of you, and now you never have to worry about these things anymore.”
Since moving to L.A. in late 2013, the 30-year-old singer has married, gotten acquainted with the local flora (“I’m from Canada," she says. "Succulents are fucking alien shit to me”), and found out what it's like to live out a lifelong dream. “I didn’t start this band thinking that it would ever be my main thing in life,” she says. “Of course I always loved and wanted to play music, but I just never believed that it would be this way because of improbability. Do the fucking math: Everyone wants to be a rock star, and what percentage get to do it? Like, 5 percent.”
Barber-Way and I spoke at MTV's offices about Paradise, the never-ending prison of female beauty, and getting older.
Paradise feels like a leap forward for White Lung. How did you push yourself to make it?
Mish Barber-Way: I wanted to prove I could sing, so that was a goal for me, and to do stuff that was out of our comfort zone. The whole point of this record, especially from [guitarist Kenneth William's] perspective, was to take the outlets of rock — guitar, drums, bass, vocals — and record them naturally in the studio, [but] to almost treat it like an electronic record. We did tons of fucking around, and everything was cut and pasted in the studio.
Our producer, Lars Stalfors, really helped me focus on writing the best [vocal] melodies. Especially in punk and rock, I feel like the vocals are this afterthought. Everyone can toil away at their guitar, get that right sound at the beginning, and then the vocals are just the fluff on top. This time it was like, No, we really have to make this something that’s a standout. You need that kick in the butt.
I get the sense from your last two albums that you’re not very interested in staying in the punk trenches, that you want to make music that many people can enjoy. Would you say you're actively trying to reach a wider audience with Paradise?
Barber-Way: I mean, the more the merrier, right? I don’t see the point in the snobbery of not wanting a certain crowd. If you don’t want everyone to hear your music, then why are you playing it in a public place? Go play it in your room, show it to your spouse. You’re standing on stage, you’re performing, and there’s a showboat in every performer. We also have two radio singles on this record ["Hungry" and "Below"], and we’ve never done that before. But my lyrical content is also never accessible. I don’t know how to write any other way. Having the backbone of pop sensibility in the songwriting helps, but I am not going to change the way I write.
You've described the writing process for this album as “schizophrenic” — how did you end up writing from different characters and stories?
Barber-Way: When we were writing this record, I was working on a lot of different studies for my writing outside of music. I was doing a piece about women who help their husbands rape and murder people, and I had these two prominent serial killer females that I was really obsessing over. I wrote two songs from their perspectives. “Sister” is about Karla Homolka, who was married to a man named Paul Bernardo, and they were known as the “Ken and Barbie Killers.” They were a young, beautiful couple, but they were both totally deranged. “Sister” is written in the voice of Karla apologizing to her [murdered] sister Tammy, whose virginity Karla offered to Paul as a Christmas present. The other is “Demented,” which is Rosemary and Fred West fighting back and forth in their two voices.
I think I started writing from these perspectives because what am I going to do, write 10 love songs about my husband? That’s fucking boring. I gave him three really good ones, [and then] I just started thinking and making these songs in my head using the voices of people who already existed. It’s fun to write that way too, because you get to say things you wouldn’t normally say.
When you’re a writer who writes about your personal life, I know that sometimes you can risk exhaustion. Was writing from those other perspectives an escape in a way?
Barber-Way: I do feel really tapped out. I was writing all year, and I was writing a lot of personal essays, to the point where I was like, “I don’t have any more to share, or nothing more that I care to share.” There’s plenty more stuff, but that’s for me. It’s freeing because there’s a lot less pressure when you're not writing from yourself. It’s like, read into it, motherfucker, it’s not me! It’s like a play that you're putting on in your subconscious.
You said you didn't want to write a whole record of love songs to your husband, but I was struck by this one line in the chorus of the song “Paradise”: “I’m all about you, and you’re all about me too.” It’s maybe the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard on a White Lung song.
Barber-Way: When I wrote that, I thought, this is something straight from a teenager’s diary, and that’s what makes it good! I was like, fuck it, I’m going to say it.
Did you hesitate before singing something so romantic?
Barber-Way: That song came really fast in the studio. Kenny wrote it on the guitar, and I knew it was a classic White Lung song. I jumped in the booth and I just knew I could do it in two seconds. It’s just this song about wanting to move to a farm in the South with my husband and never talk to anyone again. I was a little hesitant when I wrote that line — I had never been that plain and teenage, you know? But it’s a great line! It’s so much easier to hide behind snark and cynicism. And when you have this past catalogue of being that way, it’s harder to be sincere and earnest without sounding like you're writing bad poetry.
How would you say your marriage has affected your writing life — as a musician, but also as a journalist who writes a lot about her personal life?
Barber-Way: I remember when [editor Tracie Egan Morrissey] hired me at Broadly, she wanted me to do a sex column, and she was like, “Oh, you just got married, are you sure you want to do it?” And I thought, Well, I won’t write about myself, I’ll do more reporting and research. The writing about having sex with random people, that’s out the window. But it’s still me just looking at different things, writing about things in my life that aren’t a part of your young twenties. Certain things matter now, as I get older, that didn’t matter before. I never thought about motherhood; now that’s something I’m seriously thinking about. I probably never thought about it because I hadn't met the person I wanted to have kids with, simple as that! And once you do, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, maybe that’s something.”
There are a lot of songs on this record that explore ideas about beauty and fame, and then the death or decay of both of those things — I hear it especially in songs like “Vegas” and “Below.” Where did those themes come in for you?
Barber-Way: Los Angeles kind of forces you to think about those things, because it's so much a part of the culture. I feel like when you're in this huge middle class of musicians, where no one is Anthony Kiedis but no one is starving, there’s always this weird act of having to promote yourself. I have this real love-hate feeling with it. I did a lot of fashion last year, like I did Vogue, which also makes you think about these things — especially now at my age. I’m not 21. I don’t get to roll out of bed and just look perfect. I can’t eat McDonalds and fall asleep at 5 a.m. and wake up at 7 a.m. and go to work.
“Hungry” and “Below” are absolutely about beauty. I think certain brands of feminism are so quick to write off the beautiful woman as just that, and [suggest] that beauty in and of itself is not an achievement — but I think it can be and it is. That’s what I was talking about in “Below,” imagining all these beautiful women preserved in these crystal carcasses in the ground, and they are just beautiful, shining, always. I also think you start to think about those things as a woman [when] you do fashion or beauty, and it plays with your own insecurities and your own narcissism. Sometimes beauty can be unpleasant, and sometimes it’s really satisfying.
I think older songs like 2014's “Snake Jaw” spoke to a lot of women on that subject, but also felt a little more personal than the ideas you’re wrestling with here. You’re talking about the ways people consume women’s bodies in much broader terms.
Barber-Way: “Snake Jaw” was me getting over my own body dysmorphia, and that kind of stuck. I grew up as an athlete — I was a figure skater and a ballerina, and your body is part of your grade — so I’m always going to have that consciousness. Some days I wake up and feel like Fuck it, I don’t care, and other days it destroys my brain.
Courtney Barnett is a genius to me because clearly she doesn’t have to talk about clothing, style, nothing like that, that’s not a part of her. She wears a fucking t-shirt and jeans, and no one bothers her about any of that shit. My whole thing is, if you’re going to dress up, put on lipstick, and look beautiful, people are going to ask you about style and you can’t get pissed about that. If you don’t want to be questioned about it, do what Barnett does: jeans and a t-shirt. No one will ever ask you again. If you peacock a little, people are going to ask you about your feathers.
You’ve spoken before about how with Deep Fantasy, since you were on a bigger label with Domino, you wanted to take the time to say something important. Would you say the same for Paradise?
Barber-Way: Half of Deep Fantasy was written with me being severely unhappy. I also felt like all the bands around me were playing great songs but not saying anything true. I wanted to be dark and gross. Even with a song like “Snake Jaw,” where I’m singing, “If I get fat will you run away," that’s an honest thing that a lot of girls think — if I get ugly will you leave me? No one wants to admit that you think like that, but everyone thinks like that at some point. With Paradise I’m not doing a “Here’s my message!” It’s a record of me wanting to focus more on melody, on singing, and also just writing on something that amused me. Obviously I’m still talking about things I deem important, but I wasn’t on my fucking crusade like last time. Paradise is a lot more about creating great sentences that sound great together and weird stories.
Do you feel like Paradise is a happier record for White Lung?
Barber-Way: I don’t think our band can ever be happy. I just don’t think we even write those kinds of chords. But I feel like it’s more, like, this glittering mess. It’s not angry, that’s for sure. It’s just more accepting. In “Hungry” I’m talking about ridiculous vanity, but I’m accepting of it. That’s another thing that happens when you get older: There’s less of a point to being mad. I was very angry when I was young, and that’s great to have, because it fuels your fire, it keeps your passion alive. But as you get older, you become more accepting of the dynamics of the world, and you realize you can’t change everything with just your voice. But that’s OK. If everything was the exact utopia of the world you imagined in your head, I’m sure you wouldn’t be happy. There would be no challenge.