The coronavirus pandemic has reconfigured the home as a site of creativity, one glimpsed through webcams and headphones. The format will surely vanish when arts venues reopen. But for some female musicians in 2020, before and during lockdown, the domestic space has offered artistic liberation at odds with the home’s reputation as a place of constraint for women.
Some have long understood the benefits of recording in isolation, away from an industry that prizes looks over sounds. Lockdown’s most highly rated album is perhaps US songwriter Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. As a 90s teen prodigy, she was dogged by media intrusion, which by her own admission took a lasting toll. But Apple has centred herself by recording in the California home she has seldom left in 20 years. From there, she addressed her past on the album with biting humour and deep feeling.
It might be said that Apple’s case is exceptional. Working from home can provide freedom from corporate oversight, a situation that has plainly suited the experimental British pop star Charli XCX. She has described the process of making an album in lockdown, How I’m Feeling Now, as revelatory. Nobody, the singer said, could turn up unannounced or interfere. Pop’s detractors say its stars are puppets: by documenting the process online, XCX underlined her agency. Her album was recently nominated for the Mercury prize, the shortlist for which now features more female artists and female-fronted bands than men. Creating in a familiar space also offers the opportunity to reconnect to one’s early artistic intentions, and XCX said her experience reminded her of making rave tracks as a teenager – a view echoed by British rapper Little Simz, who produced the introspective and impressive Drop 6 EP in this period.
Several female artists who made their latest albums pre-pandemic have described how they benefited from embracing a solitary calm. Chicago-born R&B producer KeiyaA created the sublime Forever, Ya Girl alone, because, for her, collaboration could easily become a “hostile” environment for art. Los Angeles trio Haim took time off to address their mental health, a period that fed the creation of their third album, Women in Music, Pt III – widely considered their best. Paramore’s Hayley Williams celebrated her home in her solo album, Petals for Armor, and spoke about taking pride in her own space after a chaotic childhood and a difficult divorce.
Another lauded 2020 album, Saint Cloud by Alabama songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee, tackles her newfound sobriety and commitment to stability. Lockdown can be a fruitful time for soul-searching. Taylor Swift’s surprise lockdown album, Folklore, saw her reflecting on old dramas in a new mature voice. Her label allegedly didn’t know it existed until just before its announcement.
Maybe it should be no surprise that women have found safety creating music at home, when the music industry is yet to have the sweeping #MeToo moment that feels inevitable. It is worth noting that none of the aforementioned artists face the demands of parenthood. There is also privilege in having space to create in. No doubt some mentioned here crave expansive forms of creation and release, scale being key to their vision. But a potentially stifling lockdown has given way, for some, to intensely creative art.