Find me an angsty, sexually confused teenage girl in the 90s who wasn’t in love with Skunk Anansie’s frontwoman, Skin, and I’ll find you a liar. Skin stood out in the 'four white guys and guitars' scene – bald, with thinly-plucked brows, often in black lipstick and camo trousers – from the moment she and her band whirled into London’s music scene like a hurricane in 1994. On their debut album, Paranoid and Sunburnt, Skin sang openly about racism, sexism, love and loss with lyrics that oscillated between being venomous and heart-wrenchingly honest. They were also deemed Britpop outsiders from the very first few lines of early tracks like “Selling Jesus” and “Little Baby Swastikkka.”
But existing outside the status quo creates a kind of freedom, and Skunk Anansie revelled in it. Over 25 years of music, they haven’t looked back, experimenting with genre, writing classics like “Hedonism – Just Because You Feel Good” and Cruel Intentions soundtrack-featuring "Secretly," while gathering a passionate following along the way. And so, 25 years on, I’m speaking to Skin over a crackly phone line, as she sits in Berlin while I’m in Brazil. Ostensibly, she’s promoting Skunk Anansie’s new live album, 25LIVE@25. But there’s so much more to her story. For those who missed Skunk Anansie the first time around, their genre-defying sound is pegged as “rock music.” but it doesn’t take a lot to realise that Skin’s attitude is more punk than a lot of the boys who try to talk over you in pubs by naming albums from the 70s.
Skin – and her signature rasp, as blared out of many a CD player – is punk not only through her words, but in her very presence. As an openly queer black woman heading a band that thrived in the whiteness of the 90s English rock scene, she stirred up a cocktail of vulnerability, anger and a refusal to conform that spoke to her fans across age groups and time zones.
When we chat, Skin sounds just as sharp, informed and open-minded as her songs would suggest, ready to discuss politics one moment and her childhood the next. She speaks softly, but quickly, jumping from one subject to the other seamlessly (which our shoddy phone connection can barely handle). Mostly, I've just got to keep up.
Noisey: Since we’re looking back, do you remember the first piece of music you heard that made you feel like that’s what you wanted to do?
Skin: I remember being six years old, at school, seeing other people singing and thinking very distinctly, ‘I can sing.’ Even though I had absolutely never tried to sing a note before. I just remember having complete confidence that I could do it, I just wasn’t going to tell anyone.
I was one of those kids that would watch any music that was on in any channel at any time – Top of The Pops, that kind of stuff. So I remember Blondie coming on at the TV and thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ I think I picked her because she was still doing music, but it was completely different from anything else I’d seen. I think I always had this desire to do something not typical, and not safe. Because you know – apart from being the same gender, I couldn’t be further away from her.
Blondie was the first thing that inspired me, but from then on, it was just anything to do with music. Being in a choir, playing an instrument... when I got older I went clubbing, all that stuff. Even if it was just like – carol singing at Christmas, I was all up in that shit.
So you used to sing in a choir at church too?
At school, actually! My mum is very religious – we were meant to go to church every Sunday – and I used to love singing hymns. I still love them, actually. In the evenings, we would go to one of these black Pentecostal churches, and... I went to the only Sunday school church that didn’t have a Gospel choir in it. Probably a good thing because otherwise it might’ve changed my trajectory, but, you know.
What’s your relationship with religion now?
It’s weird. I stopped going to church when I was 14 – I was done with that shit. You can’t get into something if you’re forced to do it, if you don’t believe in it, and I never got to that place where I really accepted any of it.
I’m a very logical type of person, skeptical by nature. I’ve never been very convinced by the stories in the Bible and all that. What am I supposed to do, just not question it? I always think it’s suspect when people say “don’t question things”. I just think that’s to hide ignorance.
But… now that I’m an adult I have much more respect for other people’s beliefs. It’s great if you have your belief, that’s totally fine! Because they feel it, and I don’t, and that’s fine. I don’t hate it like I used to.
When you look back at 25 years of Skunk Anansie, which challenges are you most proud of overcoming as a band?
I think that the most challenging thing about being in a band, a rock band in particular, is maintaining it. There are moments when you’re having hit singles, but then when you don’t have an album out you almost disappear to people, you know?
If I stop and think about the most successful thing we’ve done, it would be able to maintain success over a 25-year period, even though we, for eight years, weren’t even on tour. We’re still here! And very few bands from the 90s are still relevant, making music, still liked and all those kind of things. Most British bands that came out in the 90s don’t exist anymore. Or if they do, they exist in a way that I find really cheesy and nostalgic.
You guys have always been focused on moving forward, continuously changing, which you don’t really see with a lot of 90s groups who do revival tours and whatnot.
Everybody has a choice to do whatever the fuck they want – so I shouldn’t say it’s cheesy, really. That’s a little disrespectful. But that’s not what I want to do with my band. If we did a tour without any new songs, I think we’d be really bored. Because it’s just so easy, isn’t it? To just not push yourself, and keep doing the same thing and earning a living, like going to the office and sitting down at the computer. You get in a band because you don’t want to do that – because you want to travel the world and do something that inspires people, and do something that makes people feel something.
We’re never going to be as big as we were in the 90s – it’s a different world – but at the same time that doesn’t mean we should just rest on our laurels and tour a greatest hits thing all the time. If I were to give a definition of success, I’d say it’s making a living doing what you want to do, and not having to do stuff you don’t want to do, just to maintain it.
As a band, you were always placed as outsiders when it came to the 90s scene. What does that definition mean to you?
I think the establishment likes certain things, and they like to keep telling you that you’re not part of it. It’s like growing up in London, in a white country. You’re continuously told that you’re a visitor, that you’re not part of it.
I think there’s a certain part of that with Skunk Anansie – we’re out, doing our own thing, but we’re always reminded that we’re not really part of the establishment, that we’re never going to get the radio play, or the big TV shows, or that kind of stuff. Sometimes that pisses me off, but 95 percent of the time I really welcome it.
I think that we’ve never really been trendy, fashionable, cool in that weird way. And that’s part of why we have been able to maintain our success. Sometimes you feel like radio stations go, “OK, this is the new sound” – it was dubstep, and now it’s EDM, and then it’s tropical house. I think it’s good to just be outside of that shit, and not feel the pressure to add dubstep to our sound if we want to get radio play, you know? I’m not interested in that; I’m interested in making classic, cool music. And the definition of cool is what’s cool to us. Doesn’t have to be cool to everybody.
It could be argued that rock music has been sanitised over the past decade, too.
I think it’s because in England, money towards the arts has really been squeezed by the Tory government: they kind of like the arts, but they don’t really like everybody doing it. No one seems to play instruments at school anymore. Art school, once you get to your teenage years, no one’s doing anymore. It’s become something that, if you really want to do, you have to pay to do it. You have to go to a specialist school. That means money. That means that almost only people who are middle-class can do art, literature, etc.
I think over the past 15 years [the art world] has become more and more middle class. And, you know, middle class people have a lot less to complain about. No criticism - because we all want to have nice lives, but as a consequence, there goes your edge. There goes your angst, there go your working class bands who come up from the streets.
You’ve still got grime, because you’ve got hip-hop, the biggest music in the world. So every country has their version, and in rap, if you want to be cool and be a rapper, you’re coming from the streets. So in that way, that’s kind of the only music really coming out that has any angst or edge, that has any working class sensibilities that come from the kids. But if you’re a young black kid or a young white kid and you don’t want to rap, and you want to have music with angst, what do you do?
There’s been a lot of different labels given to your sexuality over the years. How do you identify?
It moves. Sexuality really moves. At one point I was very bisexual: one minute I was with a guy, the other minute I was with a girl. Now I feel much more lesbian, because I’ve been in a relationship with a woman for two years. But guys are still cute; I still fancy them. I see myself as queer, because I think sexuality is much more fluid. I feel like I don’t need to sexually identify with one thing or the other anymore. The term ‘queer’ is much more honest and gives me some space to manoeuvre. If I say I’m bisexual then that’s me defined. if I’m say I’m a lesbian then, “what are you doing snogging that guy?” I feel like I’m not entrapping myself if I just say I’m queer.
What was it like, as a young singer, dealing with the incongruences of the rock music scene that claims to be rebellious, but is often rife with misogyny, racism and homophobia?
The thing about punk that people don’t really like talking about is that it’s often very sexist and very racist. You know, the Sex Pistols – Sid Vicious had a swastika on his arm because they were being ‘rebellious’ about everything, which also meant not being PC. So in many ways, that made it a very sexist and racist scene. People don’t like talking about that, because they know it’s true and it taints the whole thing.
I’m not saying it’s everybody. But when we were a rock band in America, [there were] these bands that were supposed to be cool, but they had groupies everywhere. Half those bands would get “Me Too”’d in a second with their behaviour with women today. “You have to show your tits to go backstage”, that kind of thing.
How do you feel vulnerability is shown in Skunk Anansie’s songs?
I think vulnerability is key to being real. I do like to say really dark things with really soft melodies, say really vulnerable things almost like a scream. I can say the most cutting things in the most quiet way. But then there’s songs like “Yes It’s Political.”
I get in a lot of romantic trouble for my songs. Girlfriends and boyfriends have been very upset with me because of things I’ve said in songs, but I think that if you try and hide that, you write a shit song. It has to be honest and it has to be open, and then I just weather the storm and get in trouble. I’d rather be honest, and be vulnerable, and get in trouble for it, maybe say something I shouldn’t say in a song, than not say it, and not get in trouble, and feel like I’m not being honest.
What’s your relationship with anger in your music?
Anger is very good for you, it’s a very powerful thing. Aggression isn’t. You can be angry and it can be quite forceful, because we’re living in a world that needs anger to get things done. You need to rile people up and get them angry to get things done. That’s the intellectual use of passion. But when people just get aggressive and violent, I feel like you’ve lost.
I’ve always tried to use anger as a positive force – it gives you a bit of a shiver up your spine when you read certain things and think, ‘That’s not right.’ I never go, ‘That’s not right, I’m going to write a song about it’ – that’s not really how I roll. Things just come out spontaneously, and as a consequence, they come out in your voice, in the right way. When you are truly angry about something and a song comes out of it, it’s really powerful and useful.
Listen – the most difficult song to write on the planet is a political song. Because there are so many pitfalls of clichés. If it’s not authentic, people can feel it, people can see it and you’ve done nothing, you haven’t gotten anything done. You’re just trying to make yourself look good. And even if it is sincere, sometimes you just come off as trying to make yourself look good.That’s why, as a consequence, I’ve never gone out to write a political song; it just pours out at the right time, at the right place.
Horses for courses – some people write really, really beautiful love songs. And if they were to write a political song it would sound horrendous. Just be in touch with what you’re in touch with, and write a song about that topic. I think Oasis would write horrendous political songs, so I’m really glad they didn’t write any. There’s space for everyone to write whatever they want to – you should never dictate what anyone else should write.
You can find Biju on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.