KatieJane Garside has been making music since the early nineties. Her career has moved, screaming and crooning, from her collaborations with Crispin Gray in the grunge-adjacent Daisy Chainsaw and charged horror aesthetic Queen Adreena, to the more laidback, acoustic sounds of Ruby Throat with her partner Chris Whittingham, taking in solo and side projects along the way. Now her work with Whittingham has taken on a new form, as Liar, Flower. Throughout, there have been periods spent in retreat – including years at sea. Wes White spoke to her about the extraordinary creative process that has led her to these many musical places.
“The lyric is, ‘I love you, cold fish, in your sundress’, and it goes, ‘I love you sunfish, in your sundress’ – she actually makes it up to the surface! I was really pleased for her!”
KatieJane Garside is telling me about ‘Cold Fish’ – the same ‘Cold Fish’ identified in the track that opened her former band Queen Adreena’s debut album over twenty years ago – and ‘Cold Fish’, she is explaining, has undergone a transformation.
“I think there are quite a few things – characters – from past songs actually. Madraykin came in, as well, later on. They are fleshed-out identities in themselves; and they… ‘Cold Fish’ actually transforms into a sunfish.”
‘Madraykin’ is another character from that first Queen Adreena album, ‘Taxidermy’. On the new record, ‘Geiger Counter’, Madraykin appears in the track ‘Baby Teeth’ – we hear, “I believe / She’ll be healed on Hampstead Heath / Madraykin is on her knees.” This mode of talking about figures from her songs as personas, with their own identities and independent narratives, pervades Garside’s conversation about her work. When Liar, Flower was first introduced as a new project with her partner Chris Whittingham, distinct from the Ruby Throat identity the two have been working with since 2007, it was with these words:
“in these luminously uncertain times
it seems that liar, flower ‘geiger counter’ will step out into the world
she asked that of us so that is what we shall do
she likes to make noise…”
So the obvious question is – why change the name? What’s the difference between Garside/Whittingham as Ruby Throat and Garside/Whittingham as Liar, Flower? (And why does Garside refer to Liar, Flower in the third person?)
“I will try and make some sense of the arrival of Liar, Flower. Put simply, I found Liar, Flower written in one of my notebooks, repeatedly, as ‘liar, flower, liar, flower…’ – and I realised that there was a power there, an invocation, and an invitation – and that that she was going to be the next part of the story. And with that, Ruby Throat was not an alternative. It’s very strong. There was a moment of – not very much, but, of the record company suggesting, ‘is that a good idea? You’ve got a toe-hold with Ruby Throat…’ – but no, it’s very clear that this is Liar, Flower. And that’s marked by a very distinct shift in energy again, so it becomes non-negotiable. And, I step up to that responsibility. If that’s what’s been given to me, by the great mystery: I go this way. Also, there were associations with Ruby Throat that I’d moved through. That was done. And Liar, Flower insisted on removal of all restriction. So we just showed up for anything and everything that was downloading.”
Garside talks about these characters, which she encounters through a process she compares to automatic writing after bouts of meditation, as if they are autonomous entities. I ask her about ‘Elijah’, whom she addresses in one of ‘Geiger Counter’s standout tracks, ‘My Brain Is Lit Like An Airport’.
“Many, many years ago… [she trails off immediately and takes a different tack]… My whole process, if that’s the right word, is to get myself out of the way. It always has been that. There is a no-man’s-land of being on stage. Partly because of my personality and the fact I’m probably not supposed to be on it – and the pure terror that goes hand-in-hand with it. So it almost gives me an absence of self – an out-of-body, or altered state. I find that a really gratifying place to be, and over the years, I’ve worked on that. I meditate for an hour, and then I write as I come out of the meditation before my brain realises who I am again. So I’m writing with a removal of self, to a degree. Going back to Elijah, I was really just having fun playing around with the idea of automatic writing, just asking it to write through me. And I asked the name of the writer – and that was Elijah, and that was many years ago. I wrote with Elijah for a long time, and then Elijah faded for a while and then just re-emerged quite spontaneously through my writing coming out of meditation. Elijah arrived again.”
She touches on the the process of recording ‘My Brain is Lit Like An Airport’, which we’ll return to:
“That song that you’re talking about is an improvised song. We recorded the whole improvisation – it was about an hour and a half long – and then Chris edited it into place. So Elijah arrived in there, but played a different role. Elijah isn’t speaking through me! I’m asking for Elijah to come with my tongue quite firmly pressed into my cheek.”
Garside is laughing at this point, at the idea of Elijah speaking through her, and it’s worth saying that there is laughter and joy both in her speech and in the new material. She has reflected elsewhere recently on how much pain there was in her earlier songs, which she doesn’t feel entirely happy about – although it’s worth saying that there was a comic aspect there, too. The name Daisy Chainsaw was a pun, after all. Even in Queen Adreena, Garside’s most abrasive incarnation, there was a kind of twisted, taunting humour to be found. I tell her that a line on ‘Geiger Counter’ made me laugh out loud, and wonder if I should apologise for that (“No! It’s meant to make you laugh!”) – and whether she feels that sometimes the humour in her music is overlooked in favour of the tragic aspects. She is enthusiastic in response:
“It’s all just a bit of fun, really! What a riot! Really! And it’s just such a privilege to be conscious, to be alive, in the whole show, in its insanity, playing out. I’m fortunate, I get to see it from the mountaintop. I did have my little note-to-self – on the boat, just to remember to laugh, because the visceralness of living on a boat, and the imminent demise… I had a note, to remind myself to laugh, because that’s such a treat.”
So about this boat. After Queen Adreena, Garside spent years at sea, along with Whittingham and their daughter, and she regularly refers back to this voyage, and beyond that to the time her family spent at sea when she was herself a child. Asked about her influences, this is her reply:
“It all goes back to sea. I lived on a boat with my family, and sailed around the world, when I was 11 to 14. My sister and I had so much time in nothing, and we had to fill that time. We did that with our imaginations, and I made ragdolls. We had hours, weeks on end, being at sea for maybe thirty days with nothing other than books. We had a cassette player, and we used to listen to lots of musicals. We listened over and over again to battered cassettes, wobbly cassettes, broken cassettes of My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Oklahoma!, Carousel, Sound of Music – and all these things that my grandfather had taped for us in the early eighties. One of my favourite people in the world, Ken Thomas, said that I sounded like Julie Andrews”
To fans of Garside’s best-known music, this can seem like a curious non-sequitur. The bright world of the musicals feels a million miles from the harsh rock sound of her hits. And, while she will also reel off artists that her mother and father played – (“Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Helen Reddy, Donna Summer, Cat Stevens, lots of dancing, lots of ABBA, Steve Forbert – who my sister came to really love, actually”) – she’s careful to say she doesn’t regard these as direct influences, unlike those musicals. But, dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that this influence might not be so much about the sound as the process it led her to:
“On that journey we didn’t even have a VHF radio, so there was no ship-to-shore, there was no ship-to-ship, there was no communication of any kind with the outside world. We would be possibly bunk-bound for thirty days on a very stormy passage and just have ourselves and those soundtracks to listen to, playing with the handmade ragdolls that I’d made. And therein was birthed the method, if you like. That’s where the stories landed – we hadn’t seen the films to the movie soundtracks of those musicals, so we made up our stories, and our world was very much populated by these dolls and their characters. And it takes no great leap to slip the doll persona – and to be catching personas in the void.”
What I take from this is that when Garside interacts with these characters in her creative process, she is still using the storytelling techniques that she learned with those handmade ragdolls at sea, when she was making up her own stories and casting “the fishing hook of persona in the void” to populate the songs of the musicals – it’s just she did away with the dolls along the way.
Although the tracks on ‘Geiger Counter’ are recorded as a duo, many of them have a full band sound. Can they have much sense of that final sound when they’re recording? Presuming that she can’t hear all of the instruments together?
“No, no! Well I told you about ‘My Brain is Lit Like an Airport’, that’s improvised. Chris programmed some drums, and then he’s just playing away, and I’m chewing the carpet(!) And, we do that for a long time, and he edits and he builds the tracks. Overdubbing is my no-can-do land. I just can’t overdub? I resist it with every bit of me. Because then I’m in my frontal cortex… I’m in this brain, and I’m so conscious of everything. And I can hear it on this record. The only song on ‘Geiger Counter’ that I ended up overdubbing is ‘Even though the Darkest Clouds’. He started building [the song] and I was like, “whoa.. Oh god, yknow, this has really gone too far… it’s too formed, I can’t find my way inside there.” But I also thought it sounded really good, and so I didn’t want to throw it away. So I went and sat there and I did that thing of listening with headphones and writing. Ugh, I hate doing that! But I made myself do it. So, that’s the only overdubbed one. ‘Blood Berries’ – that’s just me, and the autoharp, that’s how that starts, and we built the track around that. ‘A Hole in My Hand’, that was a breakfast improvisation caught on phone, and I just knew the whole song had landed, everything came out in that song – the arrangement, everything. The lyric – everything was there. But it was on a phone, and so the quality wasn’t good enough to use. So we had to learn that improvisation note by note. I’m not a musician so it turned out quite hard for me because a lot of the timing on that is quite jazz. The ins and outs, the vocal line, doesn’t happen where you think it’s going to happen, so that was a real challenge. That song went down just vocals and guitar, after learning that improvisation for weeks and weeks and weeks – but we managed to get it, which I was so pleased with, because once we’d just improvised that onto the phone I just knew something had happened. These events are extremely important to me [she’s laughing again] and I know they don’t mean anything to anyone else, but for me in my cosmic world, they’re extremely important events, when this song lands.”
I interject – ‘of course it is!’ – and she comes back emboldened:
“When it comes FULLY FORMED, yknow. It sounds to me like I’m singing in tongues, like nothing [she vocalises – arruhhahh] – but when I listened to it I was just like, ‘the whole lyric is there! It’s all there! The whole thing is there!’ And I’ve spent a lifetime working for that. That’s been my commitment, to be available for that, so when it comes, I’m allowed to be happy… It is a lifetime commitment. You know, I don’t expect anyone to like it but for me [laughing] it’s very gratifying.”
She does ‘sing in tongues’ elsewhere on the album though. I ask her what language she’s using at the beginning of ‘I am sundress...’:
“It is that! My friend Howard told me that it’s called glossolalia. Yeah, it’s speaking in tongues. We do that, around here, my daughter and I do that a lot. I just find this tongue, the one that we speak in now, really laborious? It feels so premeditated. It feels like I’m reading a script. And I find it very hard to find anything in it.”
Taking together the elimination of the dolls from her storytelling process, the references to stage performance as a gratifying altered state, and this resistance to her own consciousness in the recording process – as well as the writing when ‘her brain doesn’t know who she is yet’ (at the back of her poetry volume, ‘A Whispering Frayed Edge’, Garside has written, “I’m told these poems were conceived during the dawn watch across the pacific, indian and atlantic oceans”, as if she wasn’t present for it) – there’s a sense that she’s stripping away as many barriers as possible between the songs and the imaginative personas they are speaking for and of. She will say this explicitly:
“Those songs are conceived through a strategic removal of self. Not that I have much self to hold onto – which at times has been problematic – but being an ‘absent artist’ is very useful. And we have to play to our strengths, don’t we, in this life? Yeah – I could have had so many different jobs! [She’s performing at this point, and sounds not unlike a character in one of those musicals] But I couldn’t, you know. This is all I can do, so it’s fortunate for me I have just enough of what I need, to be able to do it. I make no claim to understand or interpret it further than that. It’s a narrative that has supported me through all the different windows of life and I owe my life to ‘the Muse’. She holds me through everything.”
So what about getting back to that altered state on stage, which she finds so gratifying? Their last gig was as Ruby Throat at Hackney’s Folklore in 2018. The live music scene is perilous at the time of writing. KatieJane is already thinking about what that might mean for her as a performer:
“That very peculiar time was the greatest thing my mum and dad gave to us. Because, on the one hand you’re periodically in utopia. Utterly free children. And [on the other hand] much of that time was in incarceration – not being able to get out … dropping off thirty-foot waves… it’s an extraordinary life of contrasts. I do crave it so, and I’m possessed by it enough to impose it on my own girl. So we are getting ready to go and do that again. We’re going to go in September. But, like everyone, we need to find a way to feed ourselves. And I think maybe what we’re going to do is to sail to Portugal. And could we become buskers in Portugal? I’ve always wanted to be a busker. Maybe the festivals will go ahead! Maybe they will start running in the next couple of years – but, I think we’ll just go busking. In Portugal, or anywhere coastal.”
“I do miss [playing live]. I like the idea of busking. What I don’t like about playing live is the set-up and the pre-meditation – and the expectation. I find that a real burden. If I knew I had a date next Summer, I’d already be unable to sleep. When it just happens, it’s a lot easier. Busking, there is no expectation. That feels like a much more honest exchange. I met Christopher that way. He was busking.”
At the time, Garside says she was literally praying for a way out of the situation she found herself in in Queen Adreena:
“I met him after being on my knees on the floor, praying for an intervention, because everything becomes so fused and knotted. And I needed a cosmic intervention – but it happened, in fact, that day. I found him, and he’s so extraordinary at everything, as well as playing the guitar, and making movies, and sailing…”
Asked if she’s touch with any of her past bandmates, she tells me there is still an exchange with Crispin, who is now playing with the band Starsha Lee:
“Everyone’s happy, it’s all beautiful, and I have a good dialogue within that band. It’s sweet and I enjoy it”
Between prayers, and speaking in tongues, and invoking Elijah, there are a lot of religious references cropping up here. Might there be more to these ‘story personas’ than just imagination?
“You know, I can get more dramatic about it, and give them celestial powers… but I’m not sure it’s helpful, anyway. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they tell me that. But it’s all just a story, isn’t it? Consciousness. It’s all just a story. A collective story made up by these million minds. But sometimes something shifts in the collective and something else – a new story – gets told.”
‘Geiger Counter’ by Liar, Flower’ is out now on One Little Independent.
Image by garside-whittingham