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White Lung: In pursuit of paradise

Tuesday 02nd, August 2016 / 20:45
By Trent Warner
White Lung's Mish Barber-Way gives a look inside her songwriting method. Photo: Rick Rodney

White Lung’s Mish Barber-Way gives a look inside her songwriting method.
Photo: Rick Rodney

CALGARY — Phoning from the road en route to Austin and in the midst of their current North American tour, White Lung’s vocalist Mish Barber-Way sounds hoarse and torrid. The desert air might not be doing her any favours, but I’m also aware of vocal issues she’s had in the past.

When asked about this, she’s quick to point out that Pitchfork reported incorrectly; she had vocal surgery before the Deep Fantasy tour and sought a vocal coach to help her deal with the issue. Now, she’s got a system of controls to prevent sonant disaster.

“I have to deal with it; I do my tricks and my warm-ups and pull a Céline Dion if I need to,” says Barber-Way casually.

It’s that sort of characterization that made White Lung’s latest, Paradise, such a strong album. Throughout it, she embraces feminized characters of a polarizing makeup; a woman in love outside of her social class (“Kiss Me When I Bleed”) to Karla Homolka, the notorious Canadian serial rapist and killer (“Sister”). Onstage, Barber-Way embodies her conceptions – “Sister” is also her favourite song to perform. These characters help explore a wide range of issues affecting women, but their conflicting emotions create women who are so multifaceted, White Lung can never be relegated or pinned as solely a feminist punk band. As Homolka she sings, “We will cement you into garbage/ I swear I miss all of you.” The contradiction of writing about murdering for someone you love showcases Barber-Way’s journalist background.

She’s only thought seriously about quitting the band once, after their second record Sorry came out. She wanted to shift her focus back to writing (she writes regularly for Broadly and VICE). She was exhausted by life as a touring punk band. Of booking gigs and lugging instruments. Fortunately, Sorry blew up and things changed. The band signed to Domino, and they suddenly had a great team supporting them.

“I’ve never had an aversion to getting bigger and that’s the thing that drives me nuts – when people talk about that as though it’s a negative thing,” says Barber-Way.

Everything about the rollout of Paradise felt calculated, highlighting the band’s ambitions. Lead single ‘Hungry’ had enough pop melody to guarantee radio success, while the second “Kiss Me When I bleed” was a return to the band’s gnarled guitars and Barber-Way’s raspy wail. The fact that they can appeal, at least in some small way, to the mainstream while maintaining their original fanbase is impressive.

“We found that thing that made us feel powerful and it’s blown up. We’re not being robbed and punk has always been appropriated in everything from fashion to… whatever… We wrote two radio singles – BIG DEAL.”

Barber-Way lambasts those who think it detracts from the band’s artistic output. For her, working with a brand in some way is a means to getting what the band needs – whether that’s a van to tour in or food for on the road. People don’t care when pop stars or rappers do it, so why should she?

She’s more excited by the challenge. The band started out scrappy, and so she moved on to write catchier hooks and lyrics drenched with narrative. Her characters help her explore any emotions she’s having subconsciously, and as our interview ends she sounds like she’s just now had an epiphany: “It’s like, you’re able to explore deeper parts of yourself without feeling the barrier of knowing it’s you.”

It’s this sort of realization that gets someone struggling closer to Paradise.

White Lung plays The Good Will in Winnipeg on August 8th, Commonwealth in Calgary on Wednesday, August 10, and will return to Western Canada in October for Edmonton’s UP+DT Music Festival.

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