“People have this impression that I’m in a really dark place in my life, and I’m not,” says Carla Bozulich.
Whether solo or in bands Ethyl Meatplow, Geraldine Fibbers and Evangelista, Bozulich has always made fiercely intense, individualistic music, but she is keen to emphasises that Boy, her latest solo album and arguably her most fully realised work yet, is not only a “pop record”, but one borne out of love and compassion. Its songs, from the “statement of hope and gratitude” ‘Number X’ to the powerful ‘Ain’t No Grave That Can Hold Me Down’, speak of a personal struggle against the world, but from a different place from earlier songs such as Evangelista’s ‘I Lay There In Front Of Me Covered In Ice’, which we touch on in our conversation.
Delivered in her characteristic raw timbre, that Evangelista song’s lyrics, “This is a knife / And I don’t choose life… Can I drop this world / Just where it shines in my hand” may no longer reflect Bozulich’s current state, but even having hauled herself out of the darkness, she still has plenty to be angry about.
You’ve described Boy as your pop record. I suppose it’s more song-oriented than a lot of things you’ve done.
From my perspective, it’s pop music. I listen to a lot of instrumental music, African music, experimental abstract music – things that are not quite as song-structured – so I did actually set out to make an album of songs. I normally don’t put restrictions on myself, or try to put something within certain boundaries, but I wanted to do that as a fun challenge, and so in doing that I was exploring the pop format from my point of view. I still hear Boy as a pop record, though I understand that that’s funny, and to me that’s kind of a joke as well. You have a song like ‘Drowned To The Light’, which starts with a heavy drone and is so dark and eerie and murky and not the kind of thing you are necessarily going to associate with pop. And you eventually realise is in a pop song structure – it’s got three choruses, a bridge, and verses that are melodically exactly the same. It has drums, bass, guitar – it’s a pop song!
So when you put a restriction on one aspect of the music, such as a structural one, do you find that other aspects are freed up?
It’s fun for me as an exercise to try and stay within boundaries, because I’m so loose. I’m loose as a person. I’m a sort of amorphous blob, just kind of holding myself into shape if I feel like it! I’ve been so fortunate to have a life that allows me to do that, with the exceptions of certain extremes. But to have some rules, maybe even to be given a project that you don’t 100 per cent love – the challenge is to make it good, make it kick ass.
Was it your intention to reflect that innate amorphousness with the cover, with all those churning elements?
The horse on the cover of Boy is one of a series that I did during a period when I wasn’t able to tour a number of years back, and I was just really creatively frustrated. I had never done this kind of thing, but I decided that I was going to do all horses, all on the exact same kind of paper in the same size, all in oil pastels and pencils, and none of them would be similar to one another. It was like a game, and in a way making this album was kind of a game too, to keep the songs within a corral.
People have this impression that I’m in a really dark place in my life, and I’m not. The original album cover, which was a photo of me that Dominic Cramp from Evangelista took, really reflected that. But it wasn’t really in line with the Constellation aesthetic, and the label suggested that I use an artwork of my own. So I looked into my portfolio, and found this one. So when I came up with the horse, I spent about a month trying to think of a title that I thought went really well with it. Eventually I got to the point from looking at that horse, and it really represented Boy, and where I came from when I named the record Boy.
Where did the title come from?
It has to do with a lot of boys that I’ve known that were real ragers and real fun people, young kids in LA who were part of the punk and really heavy gay scene. And a lot of these boys, because it was the ’90s and they didn’t really have the drugs we have now for HIV, didn’t make it. These boys that I knew and I loved – and unfortunately there were several of them – carried a strength and a fire and a sense of fun, like a belligerent irreverence. With the album, I felt like I wanted to reach out to these boys and carry my love and appreciation to them, and to people that survived all that, and to gay kids in general. But it’s funny, because people think it’s so dark and morose, and it is in a way, because I’ve been through fucking hell, but mostly it’s just coming from love and appreciation, and just reflection on these kids and the art that was so heavy and strong and amazing, and the punk rock. I just fucking love punk rock!
The overriding perception of your music isn’t of fun, like you say, but that it comes from a dark place. Boy seems to come from somewhere more positive.
I haven’t sat idle through my grief and anger, and let the shitty things eat holes in me and ruin me for the rest of my life. My whole adult life I’ve taken a really aggressive attack against falling prey to my own experiences, and to my own reaction to things, and I feel like it’s paying off. I’m really into the macabre, so it’s a bit obscure for me to ask other people to see the fun in something. I’m not expecting people to see my work the way that I do at all, but for me it is about fun.
I write a lot of things based on the gritty life that I understand and street life that I understand. I was a child of the streets, I’m self-educated and I didn’t really go to school. I find murder and death and the most heinous and the blackest of thoughts to be funny sometimes. Ian Svenonius [of The Make-Up and Nation of Ulysses] is one of my favourite musicians, and I can quote him as saying that rock’n’roll is supposed to be fun, and I agree with him, but my definition of fun is simply not the same as his.
At the risk of falling into cliché, so-called dark music can be very cathartic and cleansing, and that’s not necessarily a negative thing.
Any artist can relate to the fact that not everyone gets you when you make your work. It’s a beautiful thing that everyone gets their own deal out of it. Take the last song on the album, ‘Number X’. I have never in my life come anywhere near making such a statement of hope and gratitude as I did on that song. It’s almost embarrassing! It’s not embarrassing, but to me it’s dead clear and I can’t imagine anyone misinterpreting those words because I’m not tripping on them or riddling. It’s one of my strongest blessings that it’s not mine anymore after I write it and give it away. It’s somebody else’s, and they have their own take on it. It’s not really my business anymore. I really am happy that I made a pop record, though!
You say Boy is for all the boys you’ve known. I was wondering about the gospel and country & blues elements. They’re genres that set a lot of store in the importance of stories, and that ties in quite neatly with art you’ve made that emphasises unreality and artifice.
I can’t say that I make country songs, but I love country music. If I may say this, all country music is corny. But because of that, when you hit the blood and guts inside there, and you really get to it, it’s so much more extreme and moving – the artist’s going for the jugular. So when I listen to George Jones, or Willie Nelson, or Dolly Parton, I really feel it. They’re great entertainers, too. That’s one thing about being a country star: being an entertainer is absolutely as important as the music. It’s a tradition, and the word tradition is not taken lightly in country music!
So you can approach something from the place of an entertainer, which already erases everything spontaneous and genuine in a certain way, and come full circle all the way around to ripping the heart out of your subject matter to the point where there’s no bullshit. That’s why I love country music. So I still sing it, but I wouldn’t say I write it. Evangelista really is dark. When people say this album’s dark, I feel like saying, go listen to ‘I Lay There In Front Of Me Covered In Ice’ and then come back to me!
That stuff all really happened. When you hear something sad on my records, I really was there. And I don’t want to be there. When stuff like that happens, I will usually write or play music, but I’d be super happy if I never write another ‘I Lay There In Front Of Me Covered In Ice’ again! Do I want to feel a song where I feel an emotion that strongly again? No. Even ‘Drowned To The Light’, which is really sad, is not about me. I didn’t feel that when I wrote it; I was singing about women in general, and using one specific woman as an example, and singing from her voice. It’s not me – I didn’t feel that pain, and I didn’t feel that anger and aggression.
But was that empathy toward to the character informed by your own experience?
For sure, and the thing about it is that the whole thing is shrouded in poetry – just because that’s the way I wrote it, not on purpose. That’s the way it came out. It’s all about that person, mentally malfunctioning, just in order to survive that situation and the decisions you make in that situation. It’s a woman’s issue, about abortion and illness, and what happens when women have to make a fucking choice like that. Even the word “choice” is thrown around like it’s some kind of political battle, but the reality of that choice is that it’s incomprehensible – it’s beyond politics, beyond religion.
The song is about that, and comes from a compassionate place for sure. My music basically exists to connect with other people, to find the sickness in people and not try to cure it or fix it, but to try and find some kind of bond. I think I relate a lot to a lot of people that are considered to be beyond help, people that have done really bad things, and a lot of men. So it’s hard for me to take that kind of attitude towards men that I find to be popular in feminism. Yet I’m an ardent feminist, and would lay anybody low that tried to fuck with a woman, so it’s like I have both these sides and they fight.
What do you mean when you say you don’t want to take a perspective on men that feminists ordinarily take?
Well, you’re right – there are millions of feminists and no one way that they think. I don’t mean to say that women hate men, more that when a man does something that’s blatantly out of line – that’s a lightweight way to say it – pretty much everyone doesn’t like that. Nobody likes some fucking asshole dude doing something shitty to a woman, even if it’s not a jailable offence, for example. I have a masculine side that’s really big. I become very aggressive, and I have a lot of anger inside of me. I also have a lot of love, tenderness, compassion.
I feel like musically, it’s all swirling together, and a lot of the time on Boy and other records I’m not singing in a woman’s voice, I’m singing from the voice of a man. Sometimes these guys are pretty fucked up. I know that people are not clean and shiny and good, and I don’t think people are able to stay inside the little lines that we draw for ourselves so we can go out in public and try and be normal. Maybe we need to commune around the idea of busting out that shit.
It’s interesting that you say that anger is a masculine trait, because I always thought that women are socialised to believe that anger is masculine, so we see ourselves as atypical of our gender for feeling an emotion we’re as entitled to as any man.
I meant more a tendency towards violence. It’s not a matter of me actually fighting, but I do want to, a lot. Music is like self-conducted anger management. I do know that I’m fucking pissed off, and that everybody should be, and I have a personal reaction that rises up against oppression. I don’t think I say anything that’s particularly different from self-aware people, but truth is, I’m fucking pissed.