During the politically charged 1980s it was fairly standard practice for indie and punk artists to accompany their releases with passionate essays decrying the state of the world. To take an obvious example, Crass LP sleeves would unfold to reveal themselves as multi-panelled collages, violently cut up artwork interspersed with anti-establishment polemic. It seems curious that in our current politically turbulent days, even as musicians have more avenues than ever to express their viewpoint on the world, this tendency of teaming music with explicitly stated ideas has largely drained away.
Mary Ocher, however, is bucking this trend. Her recently released fifth album The West Against the People comes with an essay of the same name, covering immigration, intersectionality, and the fear of the unknown. Much as its namesake album, the essay combines wit, thoughtfulness and anger as it comes to grips with the hypocrisies of the age -
“Interestingly,” she writes “it is often not the threat of the newcomer that is the cause of the rise in xenophobia, but rather the insecurities and paranoia ingrained in the host society itself…”
This essay provides some context for an album that slips and shifts from genre to genre, jumping between lo-fi post punk, stuttering, unsteady electro, and barely-there ambience. Ocher’s vocal delivery incorporates spoken word poetry, and moments of near operatic melody. It’s a record as schizophrenic and dramatic as the times it was produced in, shamelessly political and endlessly surprising.
It comes as little surprise that Ocher is similarly outspoken in conversation. When we caught up on Skype she was as happy talking about immigration policy in Germany as she was discussing her vision of working with an orchestra – it was a refreshing change from artists who are terrified of saying a thing for fear of offense, but as she pointed out midway through our chat – “The stuff that I grew up listening to as a teenager was pretty explicit and pretty violent and not self-censored at all…”
The album comes with an essay on personal and global politics - how easy it is to translate these cerebral ideas into pop songs?
Well, most of the songs are quite lyrical, so you can analyse the texts of all of the songs. I didn’t actually have the concept of the album while I was writing the songs, I just put them all together and realised there was this common thread. That turned into the essay and the album title. It was in reverse – the songs led to the concept.
Stylistically the record is quite all over the place-
That’s just the way I function in general – all of my recordings are a bit all over the place, I get bored going in one direction. But most of the songs contain lyrics, and the lyrics are this guiding element.
Having covered so many bases, is there anything further you’d like to explore musically?
I’d really like to do something orchestrated, but in reality I couldn’t afford it. I did it once when I was part of a bigger show, with a string quartet and that was just wonderful. I’d like to do that but in reality I don’t have 40 grand to spend on it… It’s a very old fashioned thing I guess. I have a soft spot for Scott Walker’s Jacques Brel album. It’s very powerful. I’d like to do something very much not tacky, but expressive. Right now I’m just in this limbo of coming out of recording. I’m waiting for things to calm down a little. This album was commissioned. I was told I had to write, record and release it before the end of the year. Usually I would write an album, then try and figure out how to record it and shop around for a label – and this part of the process can take up to two years, it feels like such a waste of time. It was a luxury to have that weight lifted and just focus on the writing. So at the moment I’m trying to just go back to playing shows and taking it step by step. I suppose the writing will just come up whenever.
How do you perform something so disparate live?
Well some of the tracks weren’t made to be played live, they were created entirely in the studio. And I’m going to be playing some solo shows for the others – the tour in the UK is going to be solo. I hope that at one point I’ll be able to bring the band over, it’s just so expensive.
I think it’s fairly non-controversial to say we live in interesting times. Is it odd that being an artist with a strong political outlook is the exception rather than the norm?
Well gosh, I would think that every artist in these times should have some sort of political outlook, otherwise you’re just giving away your voice. I see the people around are waking up. There’s a lot of warning signs and people are realising that they could be next, they could be hurt by what is going on around us.
But we’re living in a time when everybody is extremely aware of every single word that comes out of their mouth. The stuff that I grew up listening to as a teenager was pretty explicit and pretty violent and not self-censored at all. A lot of the stuff I grew up listening to was very wordy. It feels like it’s not so used anymore. People are kind of.. I don’t know if it’s because we’re trying to be more sophisticated or elegant, but it seems like we’re in some strange post-political correctness stage where everything we say can be taken as something completely different and we’re so aware of that. I think it’s a shame, people are not using any swear words, at least not in the genres I listen to.
Are you saying you would you like to swear more?
I think when it’s necessary it’s really important. When you listen to old Lou Reed lyrics, Andy Warhol told him to keep all the bad words in hahahah
Maybe this directness is what has given Trump his appeal?
I wonder if… Maybe it has some sort of commercial value, but we mostly see it as something very cheap. Whatever words you’re saying you really have to stand behind them. I can’t give Trump credit for even that. I find the man so ridiculous.
I think he’s got a fascinating speaking style though – it’s clearly worked wonders for him.
Well… It’s worked. It definitely sells. All the various countries who made videos asking to be second after America, they all copied his way of speaking – like ‘this is wonderful, this is amazing. You’re going to love it!” he definitely has that thing that sells, and that is the secret. It’s so sad, we’re selling structures and forms but not content. Like if you have a nice package and you’re really pushy with your package you can get so much further than someone who has something of value but is not as articulate.
Still, there are movements being awakened that might not have been around a couple of years ago. It is a good thing, even if the circumstances around them are unfortunate. In some ways I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a very political environment where you really could not escape it, it was all around you and you could not escape it.
And that’s from growing up in Isreal?
Yes I grew up in Tel Aviv.
And that’s a very different society to where you are in Berlin now. There must be quite a different engagement with the world.
People here feel like this sort of safety is something they’re entitled to. We take a lot of these things for granted – when things are a little less stable, you learn to appreciate that sense of safety and realise you have to fight for it. In a strange way that is a good thing, it makes us appreciate what we actually have.
The tune Arms on the album is relating to life in Israel isn't it?
Yeah, what’s happening in the video is pretty much exactly what the song was written about. There was a specific incident where I was sitting on the bus, and there were soldiers behind me holding guns, and the guns were pointing in my direction. Nobody was paying any attention, it was just like, it’s normal – but I wasn’t used to it anymore, at that point I’d moved to Berlin and I was just visiting, and I felt so … strange. And tense, and uncomfortable. It’s funny how societies have such very different norms.
I thought that tune also had a resonance with American gun rights activists
I hope so. It’s something both societies have in common... I remember when I was on tour a couple of years ago, and I had a conversation with a hippy guy from upstate New York, and he’s been raised by hippies, and everybody is really liberal in this small town, and really educated, and still he felt that the right to bear arms in America is a fundamental right, and the right that every person in the world should have – it’s such a different way of seeing things. It was very shocking to me.
On a slight tangent, I find it interesting that there are people who come from a minority background who can quickly assimilate into a system that abused them, and then join in to abuse the next round of minorities.
That’s sort of happening here in Germany as well. There’s an extreme right party that are gaining momentum, and somehow they manage to pull in first generation immigrants that feel really comfortable in Germany, and they’ve pretty much forgotten that they’re immigrants. There’s a Vietnemese population who are second generation, who’s parents came in the 70s and 80s, and they’re really integrated, they’re part of society, and a lot of them felt that this new party represented them, they vote for them. It seems absurd.
Maybe it’s the desire to be on the side of the winner?
It’s pretty scary. People don’t realise that they’re voting against themselves, and the people they are voting for don’t actually see them as their representatives. I had a phone call with my grandmother – who is an immigrant herself – and I told her about this party, and said, well Grandma, they’re against foreigners. And she said ‘good! I’m against foreigners too!’ and then I told her, but Grandma, we’re foreigners! And she said, no look you’ve been in the country for 10 years… Gosh. It’s pretty complicated…
Mary Ocher's The West Against the People is out now. She will be on tour soon...
05.04.17 - London - The Islington
06.04.17 - Brighton - Hope and Ruin
08.04.17 - Nottingham - JT Soar
07.04.17 - Bristol - Cafe Kino
09.04.17 - Manchester - Aatma Gallery
11.04.17 - Glasgow - The Flying Duck
12.04.17 - Edinburgh - Paradise Palms
13.04.17 - Newcastle - The Old Police House (Gateshead)
14.04.17 - Coventry - The Tin Music and Arts
15.04.17 - London - Resonance.fm's Hello Goodbye show (live/noon)