“The Music Is The Biography”: Jenn Pelly on Writing About The Raincoats


I’ve enjoyed Jenn Pelly‘s writing about music and pop culture for a while now; when the announcement was first made a few years ago, I was very excited to hear that she’d be writing about The Raincoats as part of the 33 1/3 series. This fall, Pelly’s book on The Raincoats was published, and it was everything I’d hoped for: a solid history of the band’s early days, an insightful look into the band’s creative process, and a book that examined the group’s music in a comprehensive artistic context. Pelly and I spoke about the book and exchanged some emails subsequently, covering everything from her research process to the unexpected artistic legacy of the band.

At the end of this book, you mentioned that you’d had an assignment to write about The Raincoats in 2011. Was there a direct line from writing that piece to proposing this book to writing this book?

In 2011, I interviewed The Raincoats specifically about the reissues of their albums that they put out on their label, We ThRee. I interviewed them at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and I remember walking out of that interview and feeling, very specifically, that I wanted to write a book about this band. Meeting them in person and talking with them for the first time, the absurdity of the fact that no one had really written a book about them hit me. That was the seed of it.

This book covers the first Raincoats album, but it also goes into the members’ musical and personal histories. How did you settle on that approach?

The book that I wrote ended up being so different from the proposal I wrote in 2014. When I started talking to the band and going through their archives, I learned a lot about their lives and upbringings—all of this information that wouldn’t have necessarily been available to me beforehand. And the more I learned about them as people, the more I realized that when you listen to The Raincoats, you’re hearing four distinct personalities at play. Even though the music was collectively composed and is so egalitarian in sound, I could begin to differentiate between them. Obviously, the instruments are coming from four different people, but I could begin to hear what aspects of the record’s overall personality were coming from each one of them.

Learning about them as people taught me a lot about the music. It was interesting to me that there was no Raincoats biography available. In a way, with this record, the music is the biography. So I found that it was important to dive into who they each were as people in writing about this album.

How much time did you spend with the different members?

I took two trips to London. I went to London for the first time in November, 2014. I was in the UK for two weeks, and I spent about a week interviewing them. On that trip, I was interviewing Ana [da Silva], Gina [Birch], Shirley [O’Loughlin], and Vicky Aspinall. It was on that trip that they also showed me all of the stuff they had been collecting–newspaper clippings, zine clippings, reviews… All this archival material that they had amassed and were holding on to. I’m so grateful that they gave me access to that. None of it had ever been digitized before, so on that first trip I got to sit down and scan, like, two hundred pages, all of which was relevant to the first album.

The following summer, in July 2015, my friends drove me to Cape Cod, and I met up with Palmolive at her house and interviewed her for three hours. Those were the two initial trips that I took, but I also interviewed members of the band over Skype pretty frequently. I did dozens and dozens of interviews with them. In November of 2016, I went back to London when they were doing that performance with Angel Olsen, and did some last-minute interviews on that trip, too.

At the end of the book, you write about how you played a part in connecting the band to Angel Olsen. What was it like, realizing that you were becoming part of the story of this band?

I was going back and forth about whether or not to include that. Part of what’s interesting to me about The Raincoats is this exchange between fans. For so long, there wasn’t a lot of information about The Raincoats, and it was hard to find their music. If there was someone you knew who had a Raincoats song—or knew about them—it felt like this powerful, meaningful thing that you had in common. At least, this is what I’ve learned from talking to people. When I put some Angel Olsen songs onto a CD for The Raincoats in 2015, and they liked them, it felt like this meaningful mutual fandom. Their Angel Olsen fandom felt electric to me; they were constantly talking about her.

A lot of people know about The Raincoats because Kurt Cobain was such an enthusiastic fan of their band. In a way, The Raincoats’ fandom of Angel Olsen felt of a piece with all of this. Fans helped keep the story of The Raincoats alive for forty years, so the energy of fandom felt like part of the story that I was working on. To have a bit of that coming from them felt meaningful to me, and kind of full circle, in a way. Angel Olsen is pretty much my favorite contemporary songwriter aside from Fiona Apple, so to watch her perform with my favorite band… they covered Patti Smith together! It was such a dream come true.

Where were you when you first heard The Raincoats?

I got into The Raincoats initially when one of my friends put them on a mix he sent me. By this point it was the Mediafire link-sharing age of mixes. It’s funny, because for the longest time, I couldn’t remember anything else that was on this mix. It had Black Sabbath and the Blood Brothers and Saetia; stuff that had nothing to do with The Raincoats. I remember the Silver Jews were on it, too, which I thought was cool. The Raincoats were unusual on this mix.

I didn’t find out about The Raincoats from Kurt Cobain mentioning them, but my friend who made this mix is an enormous Nirvana fan. I’m fairly positive that that’s how he found out about them. There is a trickle-down effect. I was doing college radio at NYU at the time, and I remember going through the WNYU music library and pulling their CDs off the shelves. It was only a year or two after that The Raincoats played at MoMA and I went to that. I remember so many people that I know and respect were at that show. I can remember my Raincoats fandom solidifying there.

In terms of writing about a record by The Raincoats, did you always have the first one in mind?

I’d say that I’ve listened to Odyshape just as much as I’ve listened to the first one. I pretty much like them equally. Doing a 33 1/3 about the first record sounded appealing to me because it would also naturally include the genesis story of the band. I am typically interested in the stories of how bands form, particularly when they involve people who didn’t previously play music finding the confidence to express themselves for the first time. And where musical genesis stories are concerned, I think that’s partially why a book like Our Band Could Be Your Life was so powerful for me when I first got it. I was in high school at the time and it really opened me up to a lot of ways of thinking about music and being an artist.

Over the course of the book, you invoke the work of a lot of writers, like Virginia Woolf and Hélène Cixous. It seems like a very literary analysis of the band’s music. What would you say about the band lends itself to that approach?

I always felt an instinctual, visceral connection to their music. For me, part of writing the book was trying to understand why I felt so connected to it in this heavy, intuitive way—to investigate that. I wanted to create this map of the world of the album, and I wanted to draw on things that made me feel the same way that listening to The Raincoats makes me feel. Their music also comes across very much like a collage of personalities and sounds and different influences. I wanted to do something similar with the book, to make it collage-like and draw on things that spoke to it.

Did writing this book change the way that you listen to this album?

I love listening to it even more now. I talk a lot about the meaning of democracy to them, and why this collective approach to composition was so important for The Raincoats. Hearing their stories about where they were coming from—Ana and Palmolive particularly, coming from fascist countries and wanting to experience the freedom that punk allowed—that was new to me. When I listen to the record now, it’s more intense. The first Raincoats song I ever heard was their cover of “Lola.” It’s probably my least favorite song on the album now, after going through the process of learning about all of the other ones.

Is there a band that you’d say is doing now what The Raincoats were doing in the late 1970s?

It’s hard to trace the influence of a band like The Raincoats, since their legacy is more to do with inspiring musicians to find their own voices, rather than to sound like The Raincoats. It’s also hard to trace because it’s so omnipresent in popular and unpopular music culture now. The Raincoats inspired movements like riot grrrl and indie pop, for example, and they also inspired Kurt Cobain. They inspired people to find their own languages, to use minimal parts and not worry about virtuosity and to embrace a raw vulnerability. To quote Green Gartside, they represented “the disunified self” and challenged notions of perfection in the world. Maybe that’s why The Raincoats seem to reflect an entire way of being, rather than just a style of music.

Today a band like Girlpool exists in a lineage with these artists while doing something that sounds new. Bands like Priests and Shopping (two bands that are incredibly exciting to me) have also been inspired by The Raincoats. But apart from that I can hear echoes of The Raincoats all over pop culture. I remember when Blonde by Frank Ocean came out, I thought it sounded like The Raincoats’ Odyshape. It had this fragmented, nonlinear feel and it was kind of quiet. It was atmospheric and vulnerable and it felt like it was about being alone. When The Life of Pablo came out, at times it felt like Kanye was making it about the seams of the project, about the process, which also reminded me of The Raincoats and punk in general. Lorde also reminds me of The Raincoats—the unusual minimal structures of her songs, her sharp feminist consciousness. It really feels like she has created her own pop language. In the preface to my book I quote the writer Graham Locke in the NME in 1979, writing about The Raincoats, which he calls “the first signs, perhaps, of a convergence of new wave musical adventurousness and feminist-inspired political awareness that could revolutionize popular music in the next decade.” He was right.


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