Mish Way: ‘Being embarrassed about anything is ridiculous’

White Lung's uncompromising frontwoman speaks out with face-melting honesty on sex, speed and having no shame

Music Q+A
White Lung Announcement - Photo Credit Piper Fergu

When she was a toddler, one of Mish Way’s favourite activities was to park herself in front of a mirror at her grandmother’s house and while away hours staring at her own reflection. “So disgusting!” she laughs now between drags on chain-smoked cigarettes. “Don’t let a child be that vain. Come on.” Now that she's the vocalist in searing punk-rock outfit White Lung, such youthful mirror-gazing seems less like nascent self-regard than a seedling of the no-holds-barred discourse with herself she has developed in her art, which is showcased on the band’s third album, Deep Fantasyin roaring poetic form. The reflection-gazing may have looked odd to her folks, but she was probably already trying to figure life out with herself.

Way, a philosophy grad, has been writing forever. Her teen diaries evolved into confessional blogs, which segued into whipsmart, expository columns, essays and features for the likes of Self-Titled and Salon, that often explored music and sex. Article titles include “Britney Spears: Capitalism’s Last Stand” and “I Dated a Cuckold”. Alongside the prose, lyrics began to coalesce. She was also playing guitar in crappy punk bands – having jettisoned her childhood dreams of figure-skating – and became emboldened in her predilection for really loud music by the likes of L7, Babes in Toyland and Hole. 

White Lung – guitarist Kenny Williams, drummer Ann-Marie Vassiliou and singer Mish – paid their dues pinballing around the Vancouver hardcore scene's merry-go-round of illegal party spaces, including the converted meat-locker venue The Emergency Room, which first brought them together. Their second record, Sorry, for hardcore label Deranged, reaped them a wider audience, catching the eye of their new label, Domino Records.

We’re crouched on a fire escape behind London’s 100 Club, mid-way through the Canadian band's current tour to blast out their new album around the globe. Tonight, the band – playing as a quartet with the addition of bassist Hether Fortune of Wax Idols – will unleash a torrid, consuming feast of twisted, coruscating guitars, visceral drumming, and Mish’s ravenous, conspiratorial vocals. She makes for an electrifying prescence: a ferocity of intellect and well-practiced lungs that are fully under her command. In fact, her screams came before she learned words. As a baby, Way suffered from colic, howling painfully amongst her teething squeaks. We speak together while the support band rip through their pummelling soundcheck.

I read that you wanted Deep Fantasy to be more universal in its subject matter: sexuality, addiction, body dysmorphia, feminism. Was that because you knew it was going to potentially reach more people?

I knew that with the distribution of Domino more people were going to hear this record, so I wanted to really take time to say something. With Sorry I was just writing what I felt like writing, so I wanted to take everything I’d been thinking about, everything I’d been writing about in my written work for the past two years, and translate it into intelligent melodies. The guitar parts Kenny was writing were lending themselves to really strong, very streamlined vocal lines, so it was like, this is how much space I have to make sure I’m saying exactly what I want to say.

“(Performing is) like sex. If you’re not going to fuck me back, how the fuck am I supposed to fuck you right?”

What I like about your writing is that it seems like you have a wholly free discourse with yourself. Is that something it took a while to cultivate?

The kind of writing that I like to read is writing that… I’ll describe it this way: you know, when you meet someone for the first time and you’re having a discussion and right away they tell you something super personal about themselves that humbles them, and then you’re like, okay, well now I can reveal something to you. It’s that human connection and closeness, and I realised that embarrassment, being embarrassed about anything, is ridiculous. Maybe in a way it was selfish, as it was always me just trying to make myself talk about things like it’s okay. But it just normalises things. When people are weirded out by certain things everything just separates, and what are you going to learn from that? And also I have no problem throwing myself under the bus. You have to be able to laugh at yourself and at things that are happening to you, otherwise how are you supposed to live your life and not go completely insane? Especially when I started writing about the sex stuff, it helped me a lot personally and people seemed to relate to it. I don’t get being a prude. I don’t get tightly wound. 

I caught you battling sound issues but still pulling off a pretty awesome set at The Great Escape in Brighton. How’s the tour been since then?

Vienna was great. We played this weird compound called Arena, and our show was insane, totally sold out. It seems everyone in Europe does speed, and I was like, ‘I want to do some weird euro-speed.’ I felt like I was going to die the next day, but it was fun. That was our only party night – for the most part we’re pretty mellow.

Is that a recent change?

Last March and April were a mess. I partied too much and paid for it. My voice sucked. I would just do no warm-ups and screaming. I’ve always had a raspy voice, and I had to learn to accept that I could do a lot with what I had instead of trying to force it outward and making it worse. The great contrast of our band is that Kenny is playing these completely frantic, insane guitar parts that are constantly changing and really anxiety-ridden, and the way I deliver vocals is very straightforward, melodic, and powerful. I really tried to command that on this record, and not just go for screeching. 

Does it feel really different performing in this more deliberate way?

The songs feel less chaotic – it’s more an ‘I want to assert this to you really clearly’ sort of thing. Also now that Hether is in the band and we can sing together, I’ve got to think a bit more. I can’t roll around on the floor. Well, I can…

Has this caused a change in the energy you get back from the crowd? 

I’m still figuring it out. That show in Vienna was super great, but no one there moves. It’s like in Japan, where they clap for two seconds and it’s like, ‘Do you hate us?!’ I also realised that if the audience isn’t giving me anything then I just start to shut off. Some performers can play to ten people or 10,000, but I can’t do that. It’s like sex. If you’re not going to fuck me back, how the fuck am I supposed to fuck you right? It doesn’t make any sense, man, it’s not going to be good for either of us. There has to be some rhythm to it.

Well, your attitude to life seems to be working out alright.

Yeah, I’m just waiting for it to explode, for someone to drain my bank account or something. It’s the luckiest thing in the world to be able to play music every day. I just thought I’d have fun with it and pursue writing at the same time. It's funny – this French journalist was like, ‘You picked the two careers that make the least money.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I would much rather be semi-broke and scrambling for the rest of my life than be stuck doing something for money and unhappy.’

More Music