Shaking up the conventions of what it means to be a band, the new generation of the UK’s underground musicians are combining their craft with poetry and performance. Unashamedly wearing their political consciousness on their sleeve – whether that’s making music for queer communities in the North of England or changing the narrative of the heteronormative male gaze that still defines popular music – the new crop of artists are taking inspiration from their backgrounds to create a genre-defying sound.
Keeping the spirit of DIY alive while reaching for the mainstream are no longer mutually exclusive: the new generation of artists are changing the narrative of popular music, and doing it on their own terms. “I never want Queen Zee to be something that’s just a queer band,” says singer Zena Davine. “My whole philosophy was to take the politics that I love from the queer scene and reach that to a mainstream because people need to hear it.”
Queen Zee came about as an accident. Guitarist Jason Taylor-Brown messaged frontwoman Zena Davine saying their songs were, well, shit, then asked whether they wanted to create a band together, and alongside bassist Frankie Wortho, drummer Dave Bloom and keyboardist Ash Summers, Queen Zee was born. They weren’t supposed to be playing stages at Reading and Leeds, releasing a debut album and starting conversations – their first single was a bedroom demo that was played on BBC Radio 1. With no major label behind them, Queen Zee get to create the art that they want, in the way that they want it. Brazen, bold and filled with attitude, their music has the kind of freedom afforded to those without constraints. “I think people are responding to the fact that we are imperfect,” frontwoman Zena Davine says. “We are just normal people, trying to show queer people as normal people”.
But with their politics and music so closely intertwined, Queen Zee are conscious of being pigeonholed. “I never want Queen Zee to be something that’s just a queer band,” Zena says. “My whole philosophy was to take the politics that I love from the queer scene and reach that to a mainstream, because people need to hear it.” Using their newly found platform for “good reasons”, Zee want to spotlight the life they knew growing up in “working class, queer communities in the North of England” – and the best way to do that is “with a fucking megaphone on the Glastonbury main-stage.”
Abisha was at a pub with her friends having just finished her exams at Goldsmiths when, unbeknownst to her, legendary British producer Mike Chapman remarked that she reminded him of FKA twigs, who he’d previously worked with. Abisha didn’t think of pursuing music as a viable career option before meeting Chapman. “(Growing up in Devon) I didn’t have anybody around me that looked like me,” she recalls. “I wasn’t really focusing on music at all. It was something that I thought was a dream, something to give up when you get to a certain age to do something that’s normal.”
She worked with Chapman to develop her alt-R&B sound – with dreamy lyrics that are at once introspective and distinctive, Abisha’s voice sits rhythmically on top of lush, moody melodies. “I want to make music that I can resonate to and that’s timeless,” she says. “I understand that I’m not going to sit down and write a song that is amazing straight away. I just have to learn as I go.”
“We make music without choruses,” says Jorinde Croese, singer and one half of hear. You have to listen to the genre-defying duo’s music to understand what she means: Croese, originally from the Netherlands and Australia-born lead guitarist Natalie Connolly subvert expectations of what it means to be a band, making music that’s “kind of like a journey – a story rather than a song.” Croese and Connolly met a year and a half ago, following their “intuitive connection” to what eventually became hear. They’ve been described as post-punk and lo-fi darkwave, but they are most comfortable sitting outside of genres, finding it “a bit harsh, defining ourselves.”
Working on a project they are reluctant to define as an album, hear’s approach to writing and art feeds on the idea that “music has become quite disposable”, and is driven by a need for a more authentic output, that breaks through the “dominant mode of thinking and seeing.” Or, as Croese puts it: “a heteronormative male gaze on how we function and operate, how power works and how we, as people, as musicians and as creatives operate within that.”
Astrid Gnosis is a hybrid of her environment: the cultures she was brought up in, the Colombian-Spanish heritage she proudly wears on her sleeve and the city where she currently lives: London. As though mirroring her kaleidoscopic influences, her musical style too, is an amalgamation of genres, influenced by her background in performance, video and sound art. With themes of violence and urgency coursing through her videos, Gnosis’ “visual side contextualises the music” and her lyrics double as a political statement. Her work cuts through the noise of the musical landscape with a singular purpose: to connect with her audience or at least, herself. She compares her sound to an industrial site: “(it’s) like the sounds of capitalism and its machinery of structural violence.”
“I love poetry because I love performing it,” explains artist and poet, Lily Ashley. She first discovered her love for the stage while doing school plays, but has come a long way since, performing stream of consciousness poetry with her collective Little Grape Jelly. Made up of fellow poets James Massiah and Grace Pilkington, the trio recently collated their combined works into a book, Hell-P Me.
Poetry is also Ashley’s way to connect with herself and others. “Life changing things have happened through this stream of poetry. When Grace got pregnant I found out through a poem,” she recalls. Recently though, Ashley’s latest project with partner Hugo Hamlet has taken centre-stage. Realising that Hugo is a “musical genius” and combining it with Ashley’s comedic sense, the two created Voo Le Voo, a cabaret of sorts that she describes as a “disco exploration.” Ashley and Hamlet met at Philippe Gaulier’s theatre school in Paris on a Sunday, “and by Friday, we were deeply in love, never to be apart and have spent the last year and a half inseparable.” Using action and movement to bring joy, spirit and beauty to audiences, the duo have performed everywhere from chapels to theatres, the V&A and Brasserie Zedel.
“Music to me, is therapy,” explains model and musician Yvon. “It’s me being who I am – it’s the way that I can survive, and live and express myself.” Creating a genre-blending mix of R&B, soul and gospel with a “jazzy kind of vibe”, Yvon’s been writing songs as an outlet for her grief and frustrations since the age of seven. “I’m an introvert with my feelings,” she explains. Music is still the only way I can actually express myself and empty the bottle or whatever I’m feeling.” Now, she wants to make sure that whatever she makes has a positive impact. “I’ve been through a lot,” she says. “My music needs to say something that impacts people in some sort of way. I would love to push that as far as I can because it means everything to me.”
Hair Matt Mulhall at Streeters, make-up Laura Dominique at Streeters, talent Abisha at WMA, Lily Ashley at Storm, Yvon at Established Models, Dave Bloom, Jason Taylor-Brown, Zena Davine, Astrid Gnosis, Natalie Connolly, Jorinde Croese, photography assistant Ben Breading, styling assistants Jordan Duddy, Isabella Kavanagh, hair assistant Liam Russell, make-up assistant Manabu Nobuoka, production Artistry London, casting Noah Shelley at Streeters