Du Blonde, a Newcastle-based singer-songwriter formerly known as Beth Jeans Houghton, doesn’t sound like you remember. Just last year, her 2009 track, the plucky “I Will Return,” earned a ubiquitous TV spot in an ad for Hampton Inn & Suites, and her 2012 album with the Hooves of Destiny, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, was an orchestral, pastoral collection of glamorous folk-pop. But when Du Blonde’s sophomore album, Welcome Back to Milk, drops next week, listeners will be treated to a much tougher, punk-influenced sound (not to mention a full-frontal view of her naked breasts).
It starts with the bass-heavy lead single “Black Flag,” which plows into your ears with loaded guitars, hammering drums, and Du Blonde’s full-bodied vocals. The ride slows down on “Raw Honey,” in which her already husky voice cracks like Courtney Love’s in “Doll Parts.” In album highlight “My Mind Is On My Mind,” a bipolar cut that starts quickly with twitchy percussion and a sharp soprano note before settling down with mid-tempo, dissonant piano, she’s joined by Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring, who tries his hand at rapping — and succeeds.
You can hear the entire album above (grab it when it drops on May 19 via Mute), and read our email interview with Du Blonde below, who describes her sonic transition from chamber folkie to badass, vaguely exhibitionist rock’n’roll queen.
What prevented you from playing louder on Yours Truly, Cellophane Noise?
I think a lot of it had to do with the way I learnt how to write and play guitar. I taught myself, and therefore had no concept of time signatures and keys, so often my songs would turn out pretty experimental because, well, they were experiments. I’ve always loved punk, but at the time of recording my first album I was predominantly into psych and garage. Due to the complex or odd nature of the songs I was writing, putting distortion on things just didn’t work. To make the best of a raw, overdriven sound, I needed to keep it simple, which is only something I learned once I had a better grasp on chord progressions and rhythms. I also started playing lead guitar and using that to write riffs rather than straight rhythm progressions and I found that opened up a lot of space for a more aggressive vocal approach.
What has the reaction been to your open-coat record cover?
The reaction has been more positive than I was expecting. It was a castoff from a shoot I did with my friends. These are people I’ve known since I was in my mid-teens, we’ve always dressed up and made things together, so the picture was a product of that.
This album is a very honest one, and one on which I decided to be unashamedly myself and the picture represents that really well. It was a moment when I had no concept of other people seeing it, so I’m relaxed and I think a lot of my humor comes through. The intention was not a sexual one. I was trying to pose like the captain of a football team and the back of the merkin was tucked up into my ass crack.
It was also important to me not to Photoshop it. I spent so many of my younger years worried about stretch marks and cellulite that it felt good to finally be in a position to say, “I don’t care,” and I think it’s crucial that young girls see other girls not only showing what society and the media would deem as flaws, but being confident that these things are natural.
You’ve alluded to the fact that Welcome Back to Milk’s tougher, more propulsive sound is your way of letting off steam. What other songs on the record exemplify that feeling?
In terms of physical exertion, “Chips To Go” is a real good one for letting go and really expelling any negative energy. It’s a more preemptive song, and screaming the “I got a bet on us that our two heads will breed a hurricane” line always feels like a good psychological spring cleaning. “Mr Hyde” is a song that’s been a long time coming, addressing feelings I’d never really tried to quantify over the past decade. It felt good to finally write about things other than just romantic relationships.
“Hard To Please” came from the pits of frustration I found myself in trying to keep someone happy who has a tendency to see only the negative in those around them, to focus on what they’re not getting as opposed to what they have. It’s a tough road to travel when you spend time with someone whose expectations of you are born of their mind and not the truth of who you are.
You’ve spoken about getting into West Coast hardcore / punk — what was your first memory of getting into that, and what led you to incorporate it more in this release?
I started listening to hardcore on and off in my early teens, but got into it in a big way about three years ago. I went to see FEAR and Agent Orange play a show in L.A., and it reminded me how much power and expression goes into those songs. I started listening to a lot of GG Allin, Bad Brains, Germs, and Circle Jerks. I love Bad Brains for their ability to utilize other genres — you can be listening to something like “Banned in D.C.,” and it’s chugging along viciously and then out of nowhere comes this screaming metal lick that makes no sense at all, yet it somehow makes the whole experience that much more glorious.
What was it like recording “My Mind Is On My Mind” with Samuel T. Herring?
Sam is great. It was the first time I’d truly worked with someone else on a track, so I had no idea what the process would be. By the time he got there, the song was already recorded. I had this long eight-bar outro, so Phillip Broussard (the producer) and I played it to him. I was like, “You think you could do something on this?”
He sat with it for 10 minutes and was like, “I’m ready!” So we set up a mic, and he ad-libbed his lyrics. After the first take, Phillip and I looked at each other and said, “OK, you’re done!” He’s a force of nature. He’s really into hip-hop and has been rapping for years. Whereas I have to write lyrics down and think about them, his words just spill out and rhyme and make sense like some woman giving birth to an adult baby.
How did you two initially hook up?
I was out in L.A. recording an album at a studio called the Boat with Phillip Broussard Jr. We were almost done, and he said, “Is there anything else you want on this record?” I have a mental checklist of people I’ve seen play, or people whose records I love and want to work with, and I remembered Sam from a show he played in Newcastle back in 2011. I was like, “There is this one guy…” Phillip and I figured out a way to get in touch with him, and I sent him a note with a couple of songs saying, “I’d like you to sing on one of my tracks.” I thought at best he’d send a recording of his vocal and we’d do it that way, but he was like, “Sure! I’ll come out to L.A.!” So a month later he flew from Baltimore. We took a trip around the West Coast in a rental car and had a lot of life talks and music-sharing sessions (and one paranormal experience), then headed back to Silverlake where we recorded some songs.
You’ve said that Du Blonde — as opposed to Beth Jeans Houghton — is “one step closer to assuming my ultimate form.” What do you envision being your ultimate form?
That was said in jest. I was thinking about that video online of the woman ordering fried chicken through the window of a drive thru, and she’s hitting the glass and someone’s overdubbed a voice screaming, “DON’T MAKE ME ASSUME MY ULTIMATE FORM.” I related to that though in a serious way. I’ve wanted that fried chicken for years, and people keep getting my order wrong and saying things like, “She loves hamburgers,” and I put up with it for a while. But eventually I was just like, “Fuck you, I want chicken.” I finally felt like I was in a place within myself and in my career where I could be honest and say, “I have the tools now, I wanna make this kind of music.” For the most part, every person is in a constant state of flux, and I am no different. So right now, this is who I am. Next year I might be someone different. I think no one makes it to their ultimate form, in life or creatively, but you can get close for a time.