I wrote this, in response to Chuck Klosterman's beatdown of Tune Yards and their Pazz and Jop win. Seems like a pertinent time to post some of my Feb 2011 conversation with Merrill that didn't get published in the final interview, mostly the parts concerned with age, beauty/gender standards, feminism, facial-hair and finding freedom in queer/androgynous voices.
ME: You said in a previous interview that, “in my experience that its really good for women of all ages to see other women being weird and bizarre and loud, so I wondered if we could talk about what weird, bizarre loud women have inspired you, and also I would add to that that your dad pointed out earlier that a lot of the work you put in (to Tune Yards) was during your 20s and that you didn't really start feeling like you were successful until after 30s, which is really empowering considering that the majority of successful pop women tend to be under 30.
MERRILL: Isn’t it weird? Which unfortunately also connects with what physical image they’re able to convey at that age. I mean they’re beautiful, model-ish, but - and I’ve talked to other women musicians about this - its hard to be un-groomed, no make up - as a woman
ME: Anywhere, let alone on stage.
MERRILL: Exactly. Its been really hard for me, even in pictures of myself that I think are great - they don't always get a good reaction from people because I don't….maybe I have…I don't, an atypical image for a woman to present.
ME: Just the fact that you even have to be aware of that is upsetting.
MERRILL: I know. Men have a lot of pressure, but they have a way wider range, they can be a really doofus-looking dude, like real pot belly, and still get respect for what they’re are. Even stuff like…having hair on a woman’s upper lip….I’ve noticed….and that was a huge deal for me growing up. All these things that keep coming up are like teenage things for me, like shaving every hair on your body. When people see pictures of a woman with hair on her upper lip, its like - she has a mustache and that makes her too masculine for what is considered beautiful.
ME: It's the gender binary.
MERRILL: Mmm hmm. And every woman I know has hair on their upper lip, and most of them shave that shit, or wax it. If I were ten years old right now, I wouldn't know that. I wouldn't have any examples of women with facial hair in the imagery I see. And so to be a woman with hair on her upper lip….I don't wanna be "the girl with mustache", necessarily, but I do wanna provide…and that's with everything, I mean, that's one example.
ME: Do you feel like your always having to navigate whether you stay true to what you believe in or do you compromise who you are?
MERRILL: Totally. And I usually chose not to compromise who I am.
ME: I wax, and every time I do it I feel like I kinda betray some of the things I believe in, but I had a conversation with my mum, and she said the things is, as women, there are already so many obstacles laid out in front of us, so you have to pick your battles. As an artist, you’re allowed to fuck things up a little, there’s more of a space for you to do that.
MERRILL: I know. Its true. I may, at some point, say I can’t stand this anymore. On the comment boards, every comment is about my facial hair, more than it is about my music. It hasn't really been like that - that's more like the nightmare in my head. But I think, unfortunately, that's so in this culture, involved with image, that’s the first thing that happens; Its not about the music, its about what the picture is…and I don't wanna be the poster child for this one thing, I wanna be my artist self. And there are enough hurdles, so at some point, there are these things I have to give myself permission for, and that means, you know, the way I dress and things. Its constant; like, do I wanna fight this battle? I just wanna do something where I don't have to explain myself.
ME: Kathleen Hanna said she had very few women to emulate when she was growing up, and had to be the idol that she wished she’d had. I can think of many women in pop who had facial - not that that's your defining feature, of course…
MERRILL: I mean Patti has always been someone who embraced the masculine image, and…not embraced, took it! Like, “this is MINE now”. She appropriated it. And I appreciated that. I mean Ani DiFranco, I always say although with her…I was a freak for her when she first came out because who else was doing what she was doing when she came out…her voice, it was gnarly at the edges, and she was all about not being pretty and conventional, and being fiery, and while I don't connect with the music as much any more, it was so important for me to have that. She was the like the primary female icon in a world of….I mean even like, I can love Tori Amos at times, but there was a femininity with her that I didn't connect with. And then there’s thee women like Miriam Makeba, who come form different cultures, who’s voices are allowed to take on this different character. People ask me sometimes if I’m ever compared to Nina Simone and I’m like….yes, but no, that's not like…her voice is so epic, and so her own, that I hate to make that comparison, but she has that “what gender is she?”
ME: I remember asking my mum the first time she played me a Nina record - “is this a man or a woman?”
MERRILL: Totally. Listening to her, I realised that in music, there is this ability to shake off those stifling ideas about what women are 'meant' to be.