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How alternative pop is embracing the surreal
Alternative pop is embracing the surrealCollage Mikey Womack

How alternative pop is embracing the surreal

From Cate Le Bon to Weyes Blood, a clutch of female musicians are ‘trawling the secrets of the psyche’ to create some of the year’s best albums

Cate Le Bon is two coffees deep at the Tate Modern gallery, and her nerves are starting to jangle. “This one scares me a bit,” she says, cautiously eyeing one portrait of the artist stood with a winged monkey-looking creature, a series of doors receding off into the distance behind her. “It’s the doors! Though I don’t think the coffee is helping.”

I’ve come to meet Le Bon, one of modern indie-rock’s more surreally inclined talents, on London’s South Bank for the Tate’s career-spanning exhibition on Dorothea Tanning, a capital ‘S’ surrealist. Tanning, an American painter, sculptor, and poet known for her haunting scenes of absurdist horror and latent eroticism, has been enjoying renewed popularity of late. She’s in good company: Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Leonor Fini are among the female surrealist painters to score major retrospectives over the past few years; in 2018, Artsy declared that the market for these artists had reached a tipping point. Nearly 100 years after André Breton published his surrealist manifesto, the movement’s women are, it would seem, finally emerging from the shadow of their male contemporaries (Tanning passed away in 2012, at the age of 101).

“I think I’d be angry,” says Le Bon, citing Dorothy Iannone as another favourite artist to receive belated recognition for her work. “You would be angry, if all of a sudden when you’re in your late 70s people are going, ‘This is amazing!’ It’s like, ‘Yes, it always has been!’” 10 years into her career as a recording artist, Le Bon’s music seems to have reached a tipping point of its own. Her five albums to date span darkly humorous folk, sing-song psychedelia and sui-generis post-punk, each one weirder and more assured than the last. What unites them, perhaps, is their intuitive ear for the nonsensical: “Love is not love / when it’s a coathanger,” she sings on “Love Is Not Love”, a song from 2016 album Crab Day, conjuring an outlandish (and oddly perfect) image of love as an emotional crutch. But it’s Reward, recently released on Mexican Summer, that’s garnered the best reviews of her career, cementing her rise as one of the UK’s most slyly original songwriters.

At the Tate, Le Bon is quick to latch on to a morbid streak in many of the works we encounter. “It’s like she’s right on the edge of something awful happening,” she says, contemplating one portrait of the artist with her back turned to the observer, peering out on to an eerie landscape with a distant, craggy peak rearing up on the horizon. Moving swiftly on, we see how Tanning’s work progressed from early, recognisably surrealist works through an impressive range of styles and media. “I think she started doing a lot of quite abstract female nudes later in her career,” I offer, trying to inject a little art history into the proceedings. “What makes you say that?” says Le Bon, as we look at an abstract painting of a female nude. The exhibition ends on a video of Tanning at home, showing off some of her paintings to the camera. “Please don’t ask me to explain them,” she says, before summing up the slippery relationship between meaning and art: “Behind the door, always another door...”

It’s a sentiment that Le Bon echoes as we sit down to talk about her work in the gallery cafe afterwards. “Someone asked me to explain my album the other day,” she says, referring to a recent round of interviews ahead of Reward’s release. “I was like, ‘No! I’ve done my bit.’” The surrealists tried to free themselves from the prevailing morality of the day by plugging into the subconscious mind, swayed by the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud and disillusioned by the horrors that ‘rational modernity’ had brought in the shape of the first world war. It’s art that is supposed to bypass the conscious brain, in other words – so asking what it means seems like a terribly gauche thing to do.

Le Bon’s work has always been at home with such ideas. Her songs are spiky, playful, prone to wandering off-script; one song off the new record, “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines”, sounds deep in conversation with itself. “I was born with no lips / drip, drip, drips,” she sings on “Magnificent Gestures”, a wild image of bodily transformation straight out of the surrealists’ playbook. But Le Bon’s brand of surrealism is not the all-singing, all-dancing variety Dalí envisaged. It's more grounded than that – especially on her new record, a slightly dazed, lovelorn affair conceived during a stay in the Lake District where the musician was enrolled on a furniture making-course. Call it kitchen-sink surrealism, perhaps – just as likely to tell you to “pick up the phone, take the call from your mother” as it is to sigh cryptically of “half-draped eyes in a liquid night” (“Here It Comes Again”).

“Where the surreal and direct meet and qualify one another is where the magic lies for me” – Cate Le Bon

Aldous Harding is another artist whose work shades naturally into the surreal. Her music is less quixotic than Le Bon’s, harking back to the classic folk-rock of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, but her off-kilter lyrics frequently run to the bizarre. Take “The Barrel”, for instance, the first single to be taken from new album Designer. “The wave of love is a transient hunt / water’s the shell and we are the nut,” Harding sings on the track, imparting an almost mystical charge to her Hieronymus Bosch-like imagery of ferrets, eggs and barrels.

There’s a slow-burning strangeness at work here that’s even more in evidence in her videos and live performances, which brim with odd vocal emphases, visual tics and interpretive dancing. In the video for “Fixture Picture”, Harding and her band play in front of a dazzling chalk cliff-face, clad in wide-brimmed hats that recall the surrealist spaghetti westerns of Alejandro Jodorowsky. “Honey, your face is folding up as the memory kisses you goodbye,” she sings on the opening line, a moment of borderline-body horror to match Le Bon’s.

If Le Bon is reluctant to offer up the secrets of her craft in interview, Harding is straight-up not having it. “I think you have me confused with some sort of intellectual,” she offers, when asked about her connection to the surreal. She concedes her work may share surrealism’s fascination with the “strange and unexpected”, but asking an artist to describe their process is, Harding protests, like “asking me to describe description”. To illustrate her point, she talks about the invariably dull experience of having someone recount a dream they had to you at length: the magic is in the thing itself.

The logic of dreams, where people, places and things are intuitively not always what they seem, is hardwired into the DNA of Mega Bog, the band led by Seattle-based musician Erin Birgy. Birgy recalls feeling a sense of confusion between waking and unconscious reality from an early age. “This (confusion) has obviously been very difficult at times, for myself and for others, but I’ve also been able to feel like I have seen beyond my own organs, beyond the fire in my own brain,” she explains. “If I’m grateful for anything in the life I’m experiencing now, it’s dreaming.”

“Music is a way to start a conversation on many realities” – Erin Birgy, Mega Bog

On new album Dolphine, Mega Bog’s music inhabits this strange liminal zone between waking and dreaming life, a place where “the language erodes and unearths me more”. For Birgy, the allure of the surreal is “the question without an obvious question, or an unanswerable desire, an image that seers back at you through unexpected senses”. Posing these questions through her work has, she suggests, been a liberating experience, perhaps even a necessary one. “These are all things I’m drawn to and can’t help but project into the arts I’m practising. Part of crafting, for me, is practising in the unknown until I’m comfortable enough to accept the angel I am in this moment.”

If Mega Bog harness the power of the surreal for deeply personal ends, Natalie Mering AKA Weyes Blood projects it out on to the world. Titanic Rising, released in April, turns on an image of the Titanic brought back from the deep to anchor its themes of impending social and ecological disaster. “I do think it’s a very surreal moment we’re in,” says Mering, whose album takes the common longing for a world of vanished childhood certainty and repurposes it as a metaphor for the free-floating anxiety of the era. (The sleeve, incidentally, looks like something Tanning might have painted.) “In a lot of ways things are changing faster than we can really process. And I think there is a dissociative feeling (that comes) with that, like being suspended in space… There’s no stable reference for how we should be experiencing reality, how things should pan out for us.”

This instability translates on record to a kind of tonal ambiguity, songs that reference the sunny optimism of 70s FM rock tinged with a creeping note of dread. To achieve the effect, Mering drew upon techniques that mirror the surrealists’ own methods for accessing the subconscious – in place of André Masson’s automatic drawing techniques, substitute Robert Fripp’s ‘frippertronics’ tape looping system and Brian Eno’s oblique strategies card deck, used to encourage musicians to think laterally in the studio.

Breton’s surrealism, too, was intended as a freeing exercise, undermining our left-brain assumptions about the world by “trawling the psyche to find its secrets”, in Tanning’s own words. So it’s a grim irony, notes Le Bon, that the early 20th-century surrealists wound up reflecting those very same prejudices in relegating women to a footnote in its history. (Touchingly, Tanning told the Guardian in 2004 that her husband, Max Ernst, never referred to her as “my wife”, but always as “Dorothea Tanning”.) Le Bon cites Yoko Ono, Lee Krasner and Sophie Taeuber-Arp (wife of dada pioneer Jean Arp) as evidence that behind every great male surrealist is a great female surrealist. Ono and Krasner, she adds, were treated appallingly by the public as artistic ‘wreckers’ of their husbands’ legacies.

Several decades separate the early work of Tanning from trailblazing figures of surrealist pop like Ono, Kate Bush, and Björk. But how often have these artists been written off in the past as eccentric or peculiar, rather than praised for the quality of their imagination? “I laugh sometimes when I hear someone described as surrealist when it’s just a well-to-do boy typically milking a jam in possibly flashy patterns,” says Birgy. “And often there is a femme figure tied into the community or band, who’s undeniably attuned and necessary to make any of this hodgepodge art even believable.”

For Le Bon, the difference between a song that sticks and surrealist posturing can be as simple as trying it on for size. “I often write things off the cuff. Some of it doesn’t feel right and some of it I know I can wear,” she explains. “This album is more direct lyrically because that’s what the songs demanded – trying to deny that would have been obtuse rather than surreal. Where the surreal and direct meet and qualify one another is where the magic lies for me.” After all, says Birgy, musing on the mysterious connection between music and life, “Music is a way to start a conversation on many realities.”