Woman’s Hour are a four piece band based in London and formed in 2011. The band consists of siblings Fiona Jane (vocals) and William (guitar), along with Nick (bass) and Josh (keyboards). Their latest single Her Ghost is out now via Secretly Canadian. Their unique sound is enhanced by their interest in visuals and they have worked regularly with artistic duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, allowing them to collaborate on videos and artwork. We speak to vocalist Fiona Burgess about August Sander and the band’s search for inspiration.
A: The band’s name is taken from a Radio 4 show and your art employs influences from old texts and images. Is there something about borrowing from other sources, especially from the past, that feeds your own creativity?
FB: Yes, absolutely. I don’t believe that anything can be entirely original anymore, everything is regurgitated and re-cycled and re-used and it’s empowering to recognise that and actually directly reference and borrow from readymade material that already exists in the world. We have also been working closely with artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin on all our releases and their preoccupation with found photography has been a big influence.
A: How do you decide where to look for this inspiration?
FB: Often it’s when you’re not actively looking for something that it appears. All our artwork is from old manuals which we found in second hand bookstores, so that’s the result of many hours of trawling through heaps of old books! But other influences are from artists or writers we like, such as August Sander and Vito Acconci.
A: Creating art work in response to music must require some level of translation between the two mediums. How did you go about maintaining the integrity of your message and was this difficult?
FB: It’s a constant challenge which is absolutely integral to our creative process. I’m always looking, observing and thinking about what connections can be made between our music and the visual art work which accompanies it. For our first release we used an image from the 1983 Women’s Code for Self Defence. We thought that the concept of physical self-defence paired with the music, which at times refers to a kind of emotional self-defence and vulnerability, was a nice way to juxtapose the two. This made us realise that ambiguity is very important to us. In all our artwork we strive to complicate the reading of the image by de-contextualising it. In most aspects this happens by zooming in on one aspect of an image and re-appropriating it. For example, the image for Darkest Place shows a man looking away from the camera, with someone’s hand pressing against his throat. When first looking at the image, you associate it with an act of violence. This was evidenced when we first displayed this image on our Facebook page where it received mixed responses. One person commented that it was “the reverse Saatchi”, another described it as “unsavoury”. In both cases, they read the image as an abusive action. The original image, however, is taken from an old first aid manual we picked up at a book market and is designed to show how to stop bleeding from a main artery. The radically different reading of the image in these contexts reflects something about the way we want people to engage with our music. In the same way an image can be understood differently depending on the context in which it is encountered, a song’s meaning can also change depending on who is listening and how they choose to interpret it.
A: You cite the work of August Sander as an influence. What is it about his photographs that you found to be particularly relevant to this project?
FB: We were introduced to August Sander by Broomberg and Chanarin. They have been obsessed with his practice since the beginning of their collaboration. You can see that in their early books, such as Ghetto, and in fact in their most recent project Two Eyes Above a Nose Above a Mouth, a series of portraits taken in Russia with a 3D camera which is also a kind of re-reading of Sander. As a band it’s always a struggle to capture ourselves as a group, and we fell in love with the simplicity of Sander’s group portraits of musicians. He captures the natural awkwardness. We referenced his Artists’ portfolio in our self portraits and video for Our Love Has No Rhythm. As a group we are not necessarily comfortable in front of a camera and we liked the idea of displaying this self-consciousness and allowing it to exist.
A: You use stills and poses from “a mid-1970s edition of the The Encyclopedia of British Sign Language”. Certainly the theme of communication and vocalisation seems to be present in your work. Was this a conscious concern in your collaboration?
FB: We are interested in visual language; how images and gestures can communicate. How a photograph can be read and mis-read. The image on the cover of Her Ghost is the sign for she/her/girl which is a photograph of a young woman pressing her index finger against her mouth. This image is also a portrait of Helen Todhunter – a woman now in her sixties who we spoke to when researching the copyright of the image. What interested us about this type of image is that although it is purely instructional, almost pedagogic, it cannot help also being a portrait of somebody and a record of a moment in history. It is also strangely and unintentionally beautiful.
1. Video courtesy of YouTube.