Peaches: 'We smoked a joint, started screaming and suddenly had some songs'

In 2000, recovering from cancer and heartbreak, Merrill Nisker bought a synth, renamed herself Peaches and made a scorching album that became a feminist classic. In this extract from our Start podcast, she relives the sex, pain and pillow talk that fuelled The Teaches of Peaches

I had no idea I would become a musician; I fell into it. First, I had a band called Fancypants Hoodlum. It was quite expressive in terms of how I performed. I had good musicians with me and was learning to play electric guitar – to nobody other than myself.

I didn’t feel there was a community of people that I related to musically. I felt a kinship with a band called Spin the Susan. They reminded me of the band in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. They had two female singers and I wanted to start a band with one of the girls. She had a next-door neighbour with a basement jam room. There was another guy she had a crush on, who was in a band, so she suggested the four of us work together. Immediately I was like: “I want an all-girl band, this is not what I’m looking for.” But I went anyway.

I had the biggest attitude: I stared at them, I don’t even think I said hi. But they were super nice. There were keyboards, drums, an electric guitar, and mics for everyone. I pulled out my electric guitar and we started playing. Maybe it was because we had got super high – we’d smoked a huge joint – but we just started screaming stuff and jamming. All of a sudden, we started to write songs.

‘Sure, I was sexual’ … Peaches in Warsaw around the time of recording The Teaches.
‘Sure, I was sexual’ … Peaches in Warsaw around the time of recording The Teaches. Photograph: Schaub Stierli/Courtesy of La Queef

Then we switched instruments and I played the keyboard and was wowed by all these weird sounds I could make. Then I got on the drums, which I’d never done before, and nobody was telling me that I was bad at it. We screamed about whatever we were frustrated with – there was a lot of sexual frustration and flirting with each other. Afterwards, we all went to McDonald’s for a coffee. All of us had had this “wow” moment, so we formed a band. We needed a name. We came up with the Shit, so when we’d play gigs we could say: “We are the Shit.” And we really felt like we were.

I wanted to call myself Peaches because I wanted Nina Simone to be singing the last line in the song Four Women to me [“My name is Peaches”]. I want to emphasise that I don’t feel that I was a part of any of the struggles that these four women faced. It was just the last line – I don’t think she ever would have sang, “They call me Merrill” – my real name. So that started me on the path to Peaches.

The Shit worked for around a year and then everybody went their own way. I was left alone. I went into a music shop and saw this Roland keyboard on display. I put the headphones on and started playing. I realised that with this machine, I could be every instrument I wanted to be. So I bought it.

Watch the video for Lovertits

After I had already jammed and worked with the Shit, but before I bought the Roland, I had thyroid cancer. I had a big lump in my throat, I could see it and I didn’t do anything about it. Eventually, I went to the doctor. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to have any chemotherapy – it was a quite contained type of cancer. It made me think a lot about what I wanted out of life. And at the time I was in a long, very intense relationship, and I realised I really needed to make music. I didn’t think, “I have to break up with this person,” it was more that music became my drive and that started to pull us apart.

I started writing my first album, The Teaches of Peaches, when I was 33. I had a very small studio that I would write and record in – that’s where I developed the song Lovertits. Lovertits really embodies what I was going through, and the struggle through the pain. At first, I was just singing out: “I’m your lovertits.” I put on a beat and started to play guitar to it. I would record everything that I was doing. There was no home computer, there was no Ableton software, nothing like that. I would sing my guts out in this raw sense and then listen back. Whatever stuck, I would keep.

I was very aware when when I was writing it that The Teaches of Peaches was a really heavy breakup album. In the wake of a breakup, there’s always anger and sadness. I would use the Roland to make myself feel better. I felt like I had a hole in my heart and a big emptiness.

It sounds fun when I sing Fuck the Pain Away, but it also has that obvious pain. Lovertits is a breakup song – hoping that there will be reconciliation. The term “Lovertits” was me trying to create a new cliche for the kinds of names lovers have for each other – like “googoo baby” or something. Many times on the album, I tried to focus on a woman doing the objectifying – as in the song Diddle My Skittle – because there are so many words for a guy’s genitalia.

It was very important to me when I was writing Teaches of Peaches that I didn’t mention I was going through a bad breakup, or that I had had cancer. I didn’t want the album to be seen as being made by a survivor who’d broken away from this heteronormative relationship. I didn’t want that to preface the actual power of the music. I wanted it to stand on its own. Doing it like that was a great way for me to get out all my anger and sadness, but not feel sorry for myself. I could also feel like I was moving on in a really tangible way. Because these feelings were so real, I think they really came through in the music. Even though I was using a very cold machine and computer, I brought a warmth to it and a relatability.

When I performed live on stage, sure I was sexual. I would put the microphone in between my legs, I would throw it around and whip it, I’d swallow it – not unlike many other performers I’d seen. So it surprised me when people said: “Peaches is so sexual on stage.” Of course I was saying sexual things, but I’d seen my rock’n’roll predecessors, who were male, perform and people said: “They’re so rock’n’roll,” not: “They’re so sexual.” It was interesting to me that they could just see sex; that they couldn’t see that it was also 500% of my energy that I was putting into it, that it was all-encompassing.

Lovertits was one of the first songs that I wrote for my album that I felt: “Wow, I like this music that I’m making.” It achieved things I didn’t even know I wanted to achieve. It’s got this soul punk singing with these very cold electronic beats. I love the dynamics of it and I’m super proud of it.

• This is an edited extract from The Start, the Guardian’s culture podcast, in which famous artists talk about pivotal early work. Produced by Eva Krysiak, the series includes Damien Hirst, Abi Morgan and Ai Weiwei. Go to theguardian.com/podcasts or search The Start on any podcast app.

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