Twenty years ago, White Town’s ‘Your Woman’ became the first bedroom chart-topper, turning its creator – a straight-edge communist from Derby – into an unlikely pop star
Listening back to White Town’s “Your Woman”, it’s easy to see why it topped the UK charts 20 years ago. Its electro-funk groove and cryptic lyrics are enough to satisfy both dancers and thinkers alike, while its infectious hook – a trumpet line sampled from a 1932 record by crooner Al Bowlly – is the sort of thing that worms its way into your head and stays there for days on end. How it made it to #1 is a different matter entirely – the unconventional story behind both the song’s creation and the man who created it makes it one of the more unlikely successes in British pop history.
White Town formed in 1989 as a conventional guitar band but quickly shed members over the following year. By the end of 1991, they were down to just one member – singer, keyboardist, and founder Jyoti Mishra. Mishra was born in India but moved to the UK as a young child, with his band’s unusual name referring to the predominantly white town of Derby that he grew up in. He certainly didn’t fit the image of a typical popstar: he wasn’t white, he came up through the decidedly un-commercial twee pop scene, he’d been straight edge since he was 16, and he was a radical Marxist.
His >Abort, Retry, Fail? EP, released by the relatively unknown indie label Parasol in 1996, could have easily have drifted into obscurity. Mishra made it entirely on his own with a zero budget – he used a cheap sampler bought with money borrowed from his girlfriend, and he sequenced it on a program given away for free on the cover of a magazine. Despite this, the EP managed to end up in the hands of radio presenter Mark Radcliffe, who gave “Your Woman” – its opening track – a spin on BBC Radio 1’s flagship breakfast show while he was covering for Chris Evans. From there it blew up, hitting #1 at the end of January 1997. It was one of, if not the first bedroom-produced pop song to claim the honour.
Mishra ended up signing to Chrysalis, a sublabel of EMI, and releasing the album Women In Technology through the imprint. Yet unsurprisingly the major label system didn’t know what to do with a Marxist bedroom pop musician, and subsequent follow-up singles failed to chart. Today, it remains a cult hit, sampled on Wiley and Emili Sandé’s “Never Be Your Woman” and lending itself to the title of the 2007 Michelle Pfeiffer film I Could Never Be Your Woman. Mishra looks back on his short-lived fame as a bizarre blip in his career. Despite the song’s success, things are pretty similar to how they’ve always been: he’s still unable to find a female singer for a synth pop project (he’s been looking since the 90s), he still lives in Derby, still produces music in a home studio, he’s still active as White Town, and he’s still just as radical in his political beliefs (“We should be out on the streets punching Nazis every day,” he laughs over the phone). We caught up with him to celebrate song’s legacy.
‘Your Woman’ was a massive hit, but it was made in your bedroom.
White Town: If I remember right, it was the first bedroom number one – unless you include Prince’s bedroom or Paul McCartney’s bedroom, which isn’t really the same.
Your background is more in lo-fi and indie music, isn’t it?
White Town: Kind of jangly indie pop, really – but before I started White Town, I was doing synthesizer stuff. The first things I liked were Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, and Heaven 17. I got into guitar stuff from the (record) labels it was on. In the early 80s, you’d have a band like The Passage who’d be on Cherry Red, and then you’d look at Cherry Red and the rest of the bands on there would be like Felt and The Monochrome Set and you’d think, ‘Well, even though these are guitar bands, I’ll give them a listen.’ Or Mute Records, whose sublabel in the 1980s was Blast First, who put out Sonic Youth. It’s a different thing now because everything is very niche, but back then, ‘alternative music’ just meant anything that wasn’t in the charts. So originally it was all electronic stuff, then I went guitar. White Town formed as a guitar band.
What happened to the other band members?
White Town: I had a drummer, bassist, guitarist, and me on lead vocals. And everybody just left, basically – first the guitarist and drummer left, and me and the bassist kept going with a drum machine. Then I turned up for a gig one day and the bassist wasn’t there. So it ended up being me and machines again. Machines can’t leave you!
“I love pop music. If I had (to choose) three things that make the perfect pop song, it would make you dance, make you sing along, and make you think” – Jyoti Mishra, White Town
Why did you decide you should just continue as a one-man band?
White Town: Because I could never find the staff! I’ve been literally searching for a female singer for a synth pop project since 1999. Literally, since last fucking century! I’ve been through about six or seven singers who will do it for two days, then they’ll take a shitload of ketamine so they don’t feel like doing it, or they’ll get a boyfriend or girlfriend, or they’ll decide to move to the Algarve. It’s like the thing about exploding drummers in Spinal Tap, but with singers. I’d rather sing my own songs because if I tried to find somebody to work with, I would never have released anything. I’m this weird mix of tyrant musician but also a communist, so there’s very few people I would choose to be in a band with. A lot of musicians, if they’re male, are weird sexists. That’s okay if you’re meeting somebody for 15 minutes, but if you have to listen to the same jokes over and over again, or the same terrible opinions, you end up in a fist fight.
So with ‘Your Woman’, how did your interest in synthesizers move to sampling and building the song around a sample?
White Town: That was pioneered, basically, by late period rave – things like The Prodigy’s ‘Charly’, where you’d make the sample a hook. You’d have samples adorning things before, but it wouldn’t really mean much in the context of the song. Then you’d have things like Malcolm X ‘No Sell Out’, and that’s a song where it’s not a melodic element, but without the sample, the song means nothing. It’s technology-based – the first samplers you could get hold of were terrible, you stored things to Quick Disk and had one megabyte to sample, and it would rarely work. Once technology caught up, people could time-shift a bit and maybe get a song in a key where you could sing over it.
The lyrics of ‘Your Woman’ take on different voices and different perspectives, and I think you’ve talked about cultural theory informing its lyrics before…
White Town: Yes, I was at university then, so I was writing a lot of stuff that was trying to deconstruct conventional narratives and linear narratives. I’ve always been a fan of overly wordy, overly ambitious songwriting – people like Scritti Politti or Martin Gore, who could do multi-layered songs. I love pop music. If I had (to choose) three things that make the perfect pop song, it would make you dance, make you sing along, and make you think. You can have plenty of wordy, political pop songs, but they’re boring. And you can have plenty of great things to sing along to, but they mean fuck all. A pop song should be like when you go to the cinema and you come out and you’re a different person. It should actually change your perspective on things. So when I heard the riff of ‘Your Woman’, I thought, ‘Oh, I could really do some shit here!’ Because it’s so catchy, I could make the actual content really un-catchy and make it really confusing, and people would still listen to it.
“I thought a major label would be full of fat, cigar-puffing men trying to scheme how to make money off me... instead, it’s just the most inept collection of bumbling fools you’ll ever meet” – Jyoti Mishra, White Town
How did you come up with the idea of using different perspectives on the song?
White Town: I hate most male songwriting. A lot of it falls into two camps: it’s either twee indie songwriting where it’s about some girl who’s perfect and runs through fucking flowery fields, or it’s like, ‘She done me wrong, she’s a bitch-whore.’ It’s basically the paradigm of virgin or whore made into male songwriting. And I’m like, ‘I want to write songs about what it’s really like in a relationship.’ If you’re in a relationship, it doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality you are, you’re going to hurt people. That’s just love, that’s the nature of human relationships. So can’t we talk honestly about love and sex?
A lot of the stuff I made on my first album was trying to write about sex, actual sex, from an indie/guitar perspective. And it’s very difficult, because the way pop music is phrased, people appropriate African-American vernacular and try to do that. White people put on a fake black voice when they’re trying to be sexy. You kind of think, ‘This is just carrying on from something that’s really quite offensive, when you get down to it.’ It bewilders me, especially because of all the Black Lives Matter stuff, how much America loves black culture but hates black people.
And appropriation is still an issue people are talking about today.
White Town: Yeah. Obviously growing up Asian in all-white towns has always been big on my brain. And for me, I’d meet Asians and I wouldn’t be Asian enough, and I’d meet whites and I wouldn’t be white enough, so it’s like, ‘Well, what is my actual identity? What’s my narrative?’ When I started writing ‘Your Woman’, I was thinking that I need to open myself up to try and see things from as many different perspectives as possible. Can I write this song so it’s one thing, but it’s not one thing? And if you look at it another way, it’s confusing? And if it’s about me, why am I singing, ‘I could never be your woman,’ as a man? And if it were written from a female point of view, why are there a few other lines that don’t actually fit?
The song came out in the era of Blur vs. Oasis-style tabloid Britpop. How did it feel being a straight edge Marxist in the major label system at that time?
White Town: It was horrendous. Until last year when my father died, it was the most depressing time of my life that I’d experienced. As a Marxist, I thought a major label would be full of fat, cigar-puffing men trying to scheme how to make money off me. If only it were! Instead, it’s just the most inept collection of bumbling fools you’ll ever meet. You have to remember that nine out of ten acts signed by major labels fail, because they’re that bad at their job. If they were venture capitalists, they’d be shut down. EMI signed me after I’d already been on Radio 1, so there was no A&R who’d mentored me or had any stake in me. No one gave a shit about me, because I couldn’t make anybody’s personal career advance, so I was just kind of lost in the system.
“I’ve always been unattractive, I’ve always been fat, I’m never gonna be a Smash Hits star” – Jyoti Mishra, White Town
How did it go wrong for you?
White Town: When ‘Your Woman’ came out, being as naive as I was back then, I made sure it said on the contract that I had complete artistic control – I could get that because it was (already) on Radio 1, nobody else could. So while ‘Your Woman’ was doing well, we were beginning to think about the next single. I already had a track on the album called ‘Undressed’, which was a nice ballad in (the sort of style) that would in four years become ‘indietronica’, like The Postal Service. I was like, let’s go with that – it’s a different style, it’s quite catchy. Immediately, EMI were like, ‘no’. They picked a different track. I said, ‘I respect your opinion, but it’s my choice, I want my track to be the follow-up single and I want it to come out in February or March.’
I got a call from my then-manager at the time, who was about as useful as a chocolate teapot, and he was like, ‘Yes, you can have your single, they’ll release it – but not for another 26 months.’ That’s how they do it. It’s still within contract, but they just make you know that you’re fucked, and they own you. Their job is to deal with egomaniacs who believe they have creative control. So they did the other track and Radio 1 refused to playlist it, and everyone else refused to play it because Radio 1 had refused. So then they go with my original track, start scrambling around making a video for it, and by the time it comes out it’s April or May and it goes into the charts at something like #57. By that time, it had just been too long. A week really is a long time in pop music.
Did they have any idea how to market you?
White Town: (laughs) I mean, for fuck’s sake! Major labels are great at machine pop music – and I’m not knocking machine pop music, but it’s not me. I’ve always been unattractive, I’ve always been fat, I’m never gonna be a Smash Hits star. They don’t know how to deal with that properly, that’s what indie labels deal with. There was a story going around at the time that they were hiding me because they were ashamed of me. The truth was that I was refusing to do all television. They wanted me to do a big interview with fucking Loaded, which for me was the Der Stürmer of Britpop.
I read that Madonna was interested in signing you for a publishing deal too?
White Town: That was true. I didn’t get to meet her sadly. Apparently she really liked the song and wanted to sign me to Maverick Publishing, which was her company. I was being pursued by Sony, EMI, Universal, and Maverick. I went over (to LA) to meet them. In the end, I sadly signed to Universal – and I say ‘sadly’ because for two decades they’ve done nothing but sit on the money. So this year I’m renegotiating publishing and trying to find a publisher that actually does what they say.
Does the tune still make any money?
White Town: Yes it does, but part of the reason I’m looking for new publishers is because it’s a big tune, but you don’t see it in many films or TV shows. It’s kind of disappeared, because I don’t think the publisher worked it enough. Most of the people that email me about it are about the age of 18-20 now, so they weren’t even born or were just being born (when it came out). Most of the comments (on YouTube) are like, ‘I thought it was from now,’ whereas I think it sounds quite old. And some say, ‘They should do a grime remix.’ Well, I did that years ago… It’s weird, it has been out of circulation, it’s not been hammered to death like something else from that time, like No Doubt – ‘Don’t Speak’ has been in loads of films, but mine hasn’t. Which I guess is good – but in terms of money, it hasn’t been good.
You’re still making music as White Town today, aren’t you?
White Town: Yes. If you go to (iTunes or Spotify) to look at it, you see something from 1997 but then stuff from 2010 and 2015. Only a few people are going to see that, but every year people see more stuff – and people are buying it, it’s working! Bizarrely, as a Marxist, I run quite a profitable label, because I put it out myself, there’s no recording charges, no costs, and because I’m straight edge I don’t spend four grand a week on cocaine.