We speak to the ‘fairy rock’ artist about her debut EP, Toxic Femininity – the first release on Jam City’s new label Earthly
The three tracks on Fauness’s debut EP, Toxic Femininity, explore a different phase in the emerging London songwriter’s life: childhood in “Beauty is Like a Thing”, teenage years in “Sixteen”, and the present-day in “Street Song”. The songs are all quite different – one song might make you think of new wave groups like The Passions or Strawberry Switchblade, another the dance-rock hybrids of Shirley Manson and Butch Vig, then the whole thing might flip into a lo-fi rap beat – but Fauness says that there are “pastel-coloured threads” running throughout the whole record.
Toxic Femininity is the not only the first release from Fauness, but the first on Earthly, a new record label set up by iconoclastic UK producer Jam City. Its title, Fauness explains, refers to “the chemical reaction that occurs when society tells you that it’s more worthwhile to be valued for the way you look than practice your instrument or cultivate any other passion/talent/interest”. “Or that, as a woman, you must sacrifice your interior life to please others,” she adds. “I’m very toxic in this respect, but I try and subvert it by turning it into art.”
She describes the music as “fairy rock”, a phrase coined by Jam City that combines the ethereal sweetness of fairies with the forcefulness and hardness often associated with the rock genre. It’s an appropriate description for her subversive songs: “Sixteen” is a sugar-coated pill, its lush and nostalgic sound hiding lyrics that are quite the opposite. “I don’t wanna be 16 / When I was 16 I was so fragile and so lonely,” she sings.
“I’m fascinated by sweetness as an aesthetic category,” says Fauness. “We think of the sweet as anodyne, sentimental, predictable, un-interesting – but it’s often the veil concealing things too disturbing and sinister to be confronted as they are.”
What is a ‘fauness’, and why did you take it as a name?
Fauness: A fauness – also known as a ‘satyress’ – is a fake mythological creature. Fake in the sense that she doesn’t actually feature in ancient mythology, but was created by artists in the 18th century, so is proto-postmodern, in a way. Technically she’s the female version of the faun or satyr, the sexually charged goat-legged man who terrorises nymphs and takes part in Bacchanalian rites. But the fauness is more complex and tender than her male counterpart. The fact that she is both beast and beauty compels me to her.
How did the place you grew up influence your relationship with art and music?
Fauness: When I was growing up, Finsbury Park was a lot more chaotic and intense than it is today. It was terrifying but also magical for a child. It felt like the whole world was there and that anything could happen. The idea of a melting pot is cliché, but that aspect of London had a huge impact on my formation and my exposure to different people, sights, and sounds.
What sort of music would play around the house while you were growing up?
Fauness: A dizzying array of musical genres were played in our household growing up. I was always drawn to the more accessible sounds – rock’n’roll, hip hop and R&B, folk – rather than the kind of music centred on technical virtuosity, although I appreciate things like noodling jazz more as I get older. Music was just a big part of life. When my parents would have parties and blast Soul II Soul, I would be in bed. The music leaked into my room, so I made up scenarios around the songs until I fell asleep. I also thought Bonnie Raitt was a goddess, I’m still obsessed with the texture of her voice.
Were you a good kid in school?
Fauness: No, I didn’t like school. Luckily I had an active fantasy life that sustained me until I was old enough to make decisions for myself.
How did you start making music yourself?
Fauness: In primary school, my best friend and I made up a song about a maple leaf – it was the time of year when there were piles of damp leaves on the ground. We’d absorbed the logic of love songs, even though we were too little for those experiences, so it was a sort of metaphorical thing – but really all about the leaf. We made up a dance routine to go with it. Years later, I started making stuff on Logic, but it’s just not for me. My studio is a guitar, a looper pedal, an effects pedal, a microphone, and a digital recorder. Before that, it was just a guitar and four-track app on my phone.
Where do you get your creative ideas from?
Fauness: Public transport is not where I get my ideas from, but it is where I come up with most of my lyrics, particularly on the Tube. Then I work out the chords at home. I think of the different Tube lines as creatures with their own characters that have different moods depending on the day and time of day. When writing on the Tube, the creature of the day/hour will condition the kind of song it ends up being. I also find that ideas come at train stations, either waiting or traversing to the platform, and often on the escalator. I rarely have headphones on because I like that forced interiority and silence. And just walking around, running errands.
“We think of the sweet as anodyne, sentimental, predictable, un-interesting – but it’s often the veil concealing things too disturbing and sinister to be confronted as they are” – Fauness
How did you link up with Jam City and Earthly for the release?
Fauness: Jam City and I bonded over a mutual love of the Judds. He was a fan of Wynonna’s solo stuff and I got him into the early mother-daughter material. The first time we hung out, we watched their farewell concert – the most viewed musical event in cable TV history when it originally aired in 1991. I love their look, their presence on stage and their ability to translate their trauma into these meandering ballads. Jam City and I also both love Martin guitars.
Tell us about your “Street Song” video, which you made with Irina Alexiu. Obviously it’s called “Street Song”, but it’s shot in the countryside. And then there are all the horses…
Fauness: The ‘street’ was always a malleable space, open to interpretation. A big inspiration for us was the work of Rose English, a radical feminist performance artist who did a series called Quadrille in 1975, where she put horses’ tails on female performers and sent them into the dressage arena at an English country fair. Emulation is the crux of all art, and Rose is someone I really look up to, so much so that I can’t put it into words. We met up and she gave me her blessing. Irina is an incredible artist, filmmaker, and collaborator. She brings cinematic expertise to my often woolly thoughts. We’re currently at work on a video for my song “Sixteen” with the cinematographer Alexandra Boanta, who shot “Street Song”.
What do you think your music would best soundtrack?
Fauness: A penetrating and poetic documentary about a former Victoria’s Secret Angel fallen on hard times, living in squalor yet emboldened by a new sense of freedom and possibility. She identifies with the seagulls that gather at her window.
What was the last song that made you cry?
Fauness: The other day I was cleaning and put on Karine Polwart’s A Pocket of Wind Resistance. It’s a narrative album that uses traditional music, original songs, and spoken word to weave in and out of different temporalities while telling a love story. There’s a part where a swallow’s nest falls to the ground and the eggs break, the would-be hatchlings all dead in an instant. When she transitions from that moment into her song “Faultlines”, I found myself crying. The whole record is so sad and so beautiful.
Where is your favourite place on Earth?
Fauness: My aunt Lidia’s flat in Monte di Dio, Naples. She was born in the same neighbourhood and lives in an apartment that used to be a convent. You can see Vesuvius from her bathroom window, sometimes bathed in clouds and glittering with artificial lights after sunset. Nothing brings me as much calm as being there and spending time with her, although I’m not able to visit as much as I’d like to.
What else are you planning?
Fauness: I love performing, and I can’t wait to bring Fauness to a live audience. There’s so much music that I’ve been writing since I finished the EP that I want to share, as well as stuff that’s not on the EP but that I wrote before. I’ve begun the process of adapting the songs into a performance format.
I’m working towards an album, but will most definitely be releasing another EP before that’s finished. I have an archive of things that I’ve sampled from TV shows and recorded from conversations with my friends that I want to incorporate into skits and interludes, and albums provide the space for that kind of play.