A Private Life Is A Happy Life? Virginia Wing Interviewed
It’s not always easy to trust in your own process, but four albums in Virginia Wing feel like they’re in their groove. “It didn’t feel as daunting doing it as maybe our others had done” says the group’s vocalist, lyricist and co-arranger Merida Richards of their new album's enchantingly de-linear pop. “Our previous album [2018’s 'Ecstatic Arrow'] felt a bit more like ‘ok! We’re gearing up for something!’ But it ended up being our easiest record to make and so for this one there wasn’t all the apprehension and fear that I felt before.”
“At this point, we know what’s involved in making the music we want to make, so we were able to throw ourselves into the record without having to think about it as much” agrees bandmate and partner Sam Pillay, “which is just as well, because personally we were way more fucked.”
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On its release, 'Ecstatic Arrow' marked a thrilling emergence from a transitional four-year period for a group who’d initially immersed themselves in the early 2010s kosmiche-inspired psychedelic guitar music revival. Comparisons to Broadcast and Stereolab have, to increasing inaccuracy and some minor frustration, never left them; but 'Ecstatic Arrow' was a bold new world. Richards and Pillay – alongside then-guest saxophonist Chris Duffin and other collaborators – purposefully advanced ideas planted on 2016’s predecessor 'Forward Constant Motion'. It was a playful listen in the way it clustered competing sampled percussive and synthesized elements around skewed melodic hooks. Richards’ lyrical and vocal performance found a new level, bristling and defiant as she scythed down everyday inequality and misogyny, while promoting a utopia where The Female Genius was given the platform it deserved.
To that end, the album cover depicted a flag staking a claim to these new horizons, while live they performed in front of a graphic displaying the slogan End Rape Culture – the latter which, Richards says, was met with defensiveness by many of their male audience, some of whom seemed to be reading it as personally as “End rape culture, you standing in the third row with the red cap on”.
Virginia Wing’s output has, for me, always been a form of protest music. Whereas other mainstream politicised music that you’d also hear on 6music, though, has largely been distilled into 2D anger and capitalised Tweets re-hashed as lyrical sloganeering. In contrast, Virginia Wing offer solutions; they’re analytical, self-aware and keen to exist as part of the dialogue rather than trying to shout over it. In that respect, 2018 felt like an apex of sorts.
'private LIFE' comes from an altogether different place, though. The band’s confidence in their own artistry has never been greater; in the record’s beats you can hear the stated influence of the likes of Jay Electronica’s subtle grandeur, overlayed with the kind of wonky sampled sounds and plug-ins you’d hear crackle through tape label tunes nestled amidst forward-thinking community radio playlists. It’s all spun through bold, absurdist pop production and, while the group’s go-to touchstones like Laurie Anderson and Yellow Magic Orchestra are there, they feel more residual at this point.
The album’s personality, though, is altogether more fragile. Some of that is, as you’d expect, due to the pressures of the pandemic. Richards and Pillay talk to me from the south Manchester flat they share that ended up doubling as the record’s studio. Duffin – now a permanent member and offering additional synths as well as saxophone – joins in from his own studio in Yorkshire, where he worked in solace on his own parts before emailing over the stems. However, more specific events have led to the album’s themes of trauma and the mechanisms we as humans use to cope with it.
“It’s more like Claire Fischer’s arrangements on 'Parade' by Prince” says Duffin. “It’s that discordant kind of joyous yet sinister cartoony kind of sound, which definitely relates to what our situation was and how we were feeling. It feels a bit like a forced grin: ‘yeah this is fine, because there’s an orchestra going on.’”
During our conversation, all three band members refer to personal mental breakdowns either before or during the making of the record, which came together throughout last year. Pillay says his mental health was the worst it had ever been, the result of long-seated family issues he’d sought to partition away, only to realise the futility in denying their part in his make-up. Processing that came out in some weird and often self-flagellating ways, but he says “all the time my head was just going ‘this is about something else isn’t it?’”
Duffin’s, in contrast, is described as more self-destructive and terrifying to witness (“I thought he might die” says Pillay with chilling matter-of-factness) and, although thankfully he’s now in a much better place, the wounds from it were still healing when recording began. “Recovery can feel a bit like there’s a train going along and you’re carrying this crap behind you, then suddenly it stops and all the carriages go ‘boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!’” Duffin reflects. “It was a bit like that on the record, like, ‘no! I am allowed to have an opinion! I can change that! No, this is right!’”
“It came out in such a maximalist way in the music. Anthony Braxton talks about three points in music: re-structuralism, stylism and traditionalism. I got the idea in my head that I wanted to be a re- structuralist, I kept being like ‘no! We’re changing things, we’re doing things differently!’ and I definitely became a bit of a cartoon of who I wanted to be for a bit.”
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That cartoonish embellishment permeates 'private LIFE' and it’s something that comes from the whole band. At the beginning of second track 'Moon Turns Tides', for instance, as Richards’ sets up a tense scene at a party with the warning “it’s important that you don’t touch anything, it’s all very, very expensive”, her severity is undermined with a volley of sounds like party streamers (“they’re actually recordings of seagulls” she smiles, adding possibly tongue-in-cheek “to reflect my seaside upbringing”).
Elsewhere, OBW Saints’ feverish dream-pop contrasts the desperate struggle of words like “my body’s ruined but I’m moving past the urge” by finishing with a recording of local primary school kids singing When The Saints Go Marching In. Pillay also gleefully tells me that the album’s sombre finale I Know About These Things features a sample of someone ripping on a bong that’s used throughout.
“What we’re trying to get at in the record is that it can be the darkest shit ever” Pillay adds, “but that although it can be traumatic, it’s trauma wearing a really good outfit.”
“It’s just how you get along, isn’t it?” furthers Richards. “I can be feeling really horrible, but also I work with kids, so at the same time I’ll be playing them pop songs and laughing, or I’ll be teaching them how to use clay - and that’s just a reality of life. You have to pretend a lot of the time. Being depressed isn’t crying every second of the day.”
Richards was suffering from intense periods of anxiety during the making of 'private LIFE', which physically manifested in an uncomfortable relationship with eating. Her internal thought processes and emotional battles during this period are writ large across the album even, if specific events are not. Vocal call and responses are constantly circling each other; at times she acts as her own hype woman and rallies around in support; at others, though, her nagging doubts asphyxiate her attempts to escape from her headspace. That 'I’m Holding Out For Something' was chosen as the record’s opening track is fitting, it’s refrain of “I’m reaching! I’m holding out for something!” is a cry of desperation that the proceeding eleven songs battle to climb down from.
“There’s a certain trajectory where the first track is bombastic, but it’s in a way where you’re just grasping at straws, and then the last track’s a more realistic representation of where you are” she says. Was, I ask, 'private LIFE' a place of sanctuary for the three for them then?
“Well, we did start making the album at the same time I stopped being able to afford therapy” she jokes.
“But it’d be a simplistic thing to say we found solace in this record and now everything’s fine” chips in Pillay. “You’re just setting yourself up for failure with that way of thinking.”
He is, though, incredibly proud of both 'private LIFE' and his bandmates for putting it together, stating “no one’s making music that sounds like us currently, no one’s going to put out a record this year that sounds like ours – good or bad, people might hate it!”
But he adds: “I’m thankful every day that I have the situation I have with music. None of us are in opposition to each other, we all get on, I’m making music with my best friends, it’s as cliché but it’s the best.”
That’s because it’s the creative process that’s enough for the trio. Get that right and it unlocks the kind of long-lasting fulfilment that stretches beyond fleeting brushes with social media virality, impressive streaming stats or critical acclaim. “We’ve been on bills with acts and when you talk to them it’s like the work of actually doing the music and expanding on your craft and doing your job is right at the bottom of their priorities” Pillay says. “I don’t want to be in that band world where it’s about ego fulfilment a lot of the time. It’s not interesting.”
Be thankful, then, that Virginia Wing offer an alternative.
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'private LIFE' is out now.
Words: Simon Jay Catling
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