Photo by Rick Rodney
Mish Barber-Way is best known as the vocalist and lyricist for Vancouver-bred punks White Lung, but she has many talents beyond the music. Barber-Way is also an accomplished columnist for various publications (including well, VICE, Noisey and Broadly), a reviewer for Talkhouse, and a sex advisor, among other things. But nothing quite surpasses her accomplishments as an Avril Lavigne fan-fiction author. Few can wax as well about the 31-year- old pop-punk princess as Barber-Way, and when it’s suggested to make the entire interview a strictly Avril affair, she exclaimed, “Fuck yeah! Let’s talk about Avril!”
After a few minutes of complying and shooting the shit about Av (“I wanted Chavril to have a baby! I would have done anything to go to their wedding. Imagine the people there. My god. You would have just been pissing your pants laughing.”), it was time to confront this idea that White Lung are leaning towards the same teen-friendly, commercial pop-punk that Barber-Way’s heroes – which includes Hayley Williams and Paramore – have. The band’s recently released fourth album, Paradise, has received glowing reviews, almost all of which have praised the band’s sharpened melodies and less grimy production. Considering guitarist Kenneth “Kenny” William’s fondness for Top 40 pop music, are White Lung looking to follow in Avril’s bedazzled Chucks? Barber-Way practically snarls at the half-serious question.
“First of all, I’m 30 years old. So is Avril, and she needs to stop with the cartwheels. Just no,” she says. “This whole pop thing has gotten blown out of proportion. There are two radio singles on the album, big whoop. And they still sound like White Lung songs. We didn’t do a complete 180 where we popped in a keyboard and had Kenny strum along on the acoustic to come up with some Lumineers song. This is the problem with doing nine million interviews and one thing being the focus: that was the pop thing. But no, I have no interest in pop. I want to write rock songs.”
One listen to Paradise and it’s pretty easy to hear the sizeable progress White Lung have made since their early days as a gnarly hardcore band that helped establish Vancouver’s “weird punk” scene. Even the growth from 2014’s breakthrough Deep Fantasy, their first album for indie giant Domino Records, is immediately audible. But even if William’s guitar is churning out tuneful riffs and Barber-Way is softer in her strident choruses, underneath the more polished production of Lars Stalfors (Matt & Kim, HEALTH) lurks a seedy, netherworld Barber-Way has extracted from her twisted imagination. Simply put, Paradise is far too fucked up to exist in the same pop universe as Avril Lavigne or Paramore.
In writing Paradise, Barber-Way found that her work as a journalist often shaped her work as a lyricist. And more often than not, the uglier the story was, the better the lyric was. “A lot of the topics I pitch to my editors all remain in that same vein of deviants, particularly women deviating. And if it’s sexual that’s even better,” she explains. “I’m just into that stuff, especially with this record. A lot of the things I was writing about last year, I get very obsessive and fixated on certain stories. Like when I did the one on bestiality I was just completely obsessed with that. So a lot of those things bled into the lyrics because there were stories I read about, or even something as small as a news story that affected me and I wanted to talk about it more.
It should be pointed out that Paradise contains no lyrics about bestiality. “No, no, no,” she clarifies. “I accomplished all of that in the Broadly piece I wrote. Once I was done then it was on to the next one.” However, Barber-Way did explore much darker avenues of depravity for her lyrical content. One of the more disconcerting themes on the record came from a piece she wrote for Broadly called Partners In Sex Crimes, exploring cases where wives assisted their husbands in the rape and murder of victims. “The stories just weighed on my mind so I wanted to explore them in a different way,” Barber-Way says. “Because when you’re writing an article there is a formula you have to follow. But with lyrics I can put myself in the head of a Rosemary West and I can write the pantomime of her and Fred fighting, and that suffices as a piece of work. Whereas I can’t really do that and ask VICE to pay me. So it’s just a completely different way of interacting with a story that obviously affected me.”
On the track “Demented,” Barber-Way inhabited the mind of English serial killer Rosemary West, who collaborated with her late husband Fred in the torture and murder of at least ten women. For Canadians though, one particular track called “Sister” will remind many people of a grisly crime the country will never forget: the murder of three teenage girls by lovers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, aka the Ken & Barbie Killers. Barber-Way immediately realized the impact “Sister” would have on some listeners from her home country.
“This is bad of me because in the States not a lot of people know who Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo are, unless they are true crime fanatics,” she admits. “When we were doing the record, I kind of forgot how much of a big deal this case was in my home country. Karla changed the game. No longer did you have to just be weary of men, because here comes this female monster and now you had to watch out for everyone. I don’t know… And she’s still around. My girl, she’s back. She moved to the suburbs and now there is all this hysteria of her being back. Clearly things have changed. She married her trial lawyer’s brother and now has three kids. What’s going to happen when her children Google her name and realize their mom isn’t who they think she is?” For “Sister,” Barber-Way focused specifically on the demise of Homolka’s younger sister, Tammy, who died from choking on her own vomit after being drugged by Karla and raped by Bernado. The track is haunting and violent in its own right, but it picks up added solemnity when Barber-Way murmurs, “We were from the same womb / We were from the same good start / And I know is I'll drag you all apart.”
“What was most compelling about her whole trajectory to me, was not only did she assist Bernardo in all of the sexual acts done to each girl, but the fact that she gave her own little sister’s virginity to him as a Christmas present,” she explains. “That was the plan. [Karla] worked at the veterinary clinic and stole that drug, then they drugged her sister together in her parents’ basement on Christmas Eve. It all went awry, and the sister died. I have two little sisters and I am like the big mama bear. I can’t imagine doing anything to hurt or violate them, and if anyone tried I would murder them. So I was just so fascinated by her as an accomplice, and someone who was clearly willing to do this and where that willingness came from. Whether she would have done this without meeting him. I wonder if she would have even committed crimes. That was the big fascination for me. There was just so much in there.”
As a true crime junkie, Barber-Way says it’s hard for her to ever really get too creeped out by all of the gory details she uncovers. “I read about true crime so much that I feel like I’ve become desensitized to most of it,” she says. “There are a few stories that are exceptions, but I wasn’t thinking that way. I was thinking about writing the song from Karla’s perspective, and what she would say if she was sorry. And then there is the other part where she is talking to her sister. It’s more about that weird bond of coming from the same womb and ending up drastically different. It’s endless with Karla for me.”
Barber-Way’s original lyrical vision was far closer to paradise itself and could very well have steered White Lung closer to the pop direction many critics feel they’ve headed. Before she began to channel serial killers–which aren’t the only source for the album’s perverse narratives–Barber-Way, who was newly wed, almost wrote an album about marital bliss. Although that plan was scrapped, some tracks like “Paradise” and “Kiss Me When I Bleed” made the cut to add some balance.“For me I thought this content was really happy, and I was just basing that on the three love songs about my husband,” she says. “But the rest of the content is quite dark. That’s how I’ve always written, and I think it’s a great juxtaposition when things become a lot more clear and a little more bright and produced.”
For now, though, Barber-Way is trying to keep her private life as much as she can to herself. And as far as the bliss influencing her craft, she says she doesn’t think marriage has changed her as a songwriter yet, but one day it might. And should it, don’t expect it to come in the form of either a White Lung or a pop record. “If I did want to write more it would be as a weird country record with [my husband], and we’d sing together. It would be really awful.”
Cam Lindsay is a writer from Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.