‘People actually thought hairy legs were scary!’ Gina Birch on punk, the Raincoats and comfortable footwear

On the eve of her debut solo album, the founder of the feminist punk band explains why she never wore stilettos (you couldn’t run away from Teds in them) and how she fell in love with painting

I Play My Bass Loud, the debut solo record by film-maker, painter and punk musician Gina Birch, is an album of manifestos. The title track is a Walk on the Wild Side-esque ode to taking up space with an instrument usually seen as auxiliary. There are songs raging against injustice and about proudly branding yourself a feminist. And then there’s I Will Never Wear Stilettos, an anarchic, tongue-in-cheek dub song about the virtues of comfortable footwear. “In punk, shoes seemed to be quite important. We wore brothel creepers and the Teds didn’t like that – they used to chase the punks,” says Birch, laughing. A founder of seminal feminist punk band the Raincoats, much of her youth was spent running from undesirables – hence the no stilettos rule. “At least you could run in brothel creepers!”

Today, 67-year-old Birch has gone sans footwear. We’re sitting on blue couches in her chaotic and charming north London home, Birch resting her tea on an amp as she discusses why, 44 years after she laid a DIY rock blueprint with the Raincoats’ eponymous 1979 debut, she is finally releasing a solo record. In the early 2000s, Birch got the music production software Logic Pro 9, thought “Oh, I’ll give that a crack”, and over the next two decades built up a catalogue of demos filled with samples and AutoTune and allusions to political flashpoints such as Occupy and Pussy Riot.

In 2021, Jack White’s Third Man Records asked if she had any material to put on a one-off 7-inch single, to celebrate the opening of their London store. Emboldened by the process, she enlisted the producer Youth, AKA Martin Glover, to help her put together an entire album. “I was just being playful. I put in a bit of politics, a bit of humour, a bit of autobiog, and let the world seep in.”

‘I put in a bit of politics, a bit of humour, a bit of autobiog’ … Birch playing with the Raincoats in London in 2019.
‘I put in a bit of politics, a bit of humour, a bit of autobiog’ … Birch playing with the Raincoats in London in 2019. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

Those qualities have long animated Birch’s work. Born in Nottingham, she moved to London in the late 1970s to study at the Hornsey College of Art. She fell in love with Super 8 film-making, inspired by Derek Jarman, as well as “all sorts of mad things” like jumping through paper screens and “rolling around with video cameras”. In 1977, she met Ana Da Silva and the pair were inspired to start a band after seeing a performance by the Slits. Birch hardly knew how to play her bass but she and her bandmates persisted. Their debut album, 1979’s The Raincoats, remains a landmark of DIY music and feminist punk, and was later name-checked as a formative blueprint by Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Bikini Kill.

Birch was introduced to feminism by Vicky Aspinall, the Raincoats’ violin player; her work ever since – whether as a painter, film-maker or musician – has been suffused with that ideology. Feminist Song, a highlight of I Play My Bass Loud, is a joyous ode to her lifelong activism: “I’m a city girl, I’m a warrior, the city made me this way,” she sings. It’s a counterpoint to the feminism she and her friends lived in the 70s, which she says “didn’t embrace a lot of the joy” and was “filled with indignity and rage”.

‘Feminism in the 70s didn’t embrace a lot of the joy’ … Ana Da Silva and Birch playing with the Raincoats at Alexandra Palace, London, in 1980.
‘Feminism in the 70s didn’t embrace a lot of the joy’ … Ana Da Silva and Birch playing with the Raincoats at Alexandra Palace, London, in 1980. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

“Feminism was so depressing at that time and, in fact, feminism was made depressing – I do believe it was a bit of a patriarchal plot to undermine the progress of women’s liberation,” she says. “What women had to go through in the 70s was quite phenomenal. Really, it was very different times. Small things freaked boys out: the Young Marble Giants or Swell Maps, I can’t remember who, one of them noticed we had hairy legs and they thought that was so scary!”

Over subsequent decades, Birch continued to play music and make films – including music videos for New Order and the Libertines – even as London’s liberating punk scene began to dissipate. “I was madly disillusioned with the 80s because punk was something to me – something very special and revolutionary, and kind of anti the things that didn’t seem to matter. I mean, we didn’t give a shit about money in the 70s,” she says. “The 80s seemed so much about money and power, and I made the mistake of thinking that the new romantics were in bed with that, so I missed out on a lot of joy. My best friend was on the door at Leigh Bowery’s club, Taboo, and she kept saying, ‘Come down, you’ll love it.’ I was like ‘Nah,’ then years later I shared a dressing room with Leigh and was like, ‘Fuck, he’s amazing – what a fool I am!’”

Birch became a painter, too. In the early 2010s, she “fell in love with paint” after taking a course on a whim because she “wanted to learn how to paint a lemon”. Now she makes large, bright paintings about abuse and objectification, themes that have long run through her music. “When you’re in the National Gallery, you see these big paintings of women being raped or abused, and that’s what our high culture is – the Rape of the Sabine Women, or whatever,” she says. “I thought about all the times that me and my friends were messed about with by people in positions of power and started making paintings about contemporary issues of abuse.” A friend asked her why she was doing it … “Then #MeToo happened and she said: ‘You were a bit ahead of the curve there.’ Sometimes I’m speaking for myself but sometimes I’m speaking for my peers; things that happened to us when we were 15, things that shouldn’t have happened to us.”

Birch held her first solo painting show last October, at London’s 46 Gallery, another remarkable entry in a storied career that has zig-zagged through decades of upheaval in music and art. “I kind of fell into music by accident, really,” she says. “I wanted to be an artist – I’m now an artist.”

• I Play My Bass Loud by Gina Birch is out now on Third Man Records


Shaad D'Souza

The GuardianTramp

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