Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
Mish Way is a writer whose work can be found in the Guardian, i-D, the Los Angeles Times, and right here on VICE. She is also the frontwoman for the band White Lung, whose fourth album, Paradise, came out last Friday.
Paradise is hot shit—all uptempo restlessness and witchy swagger—full of renewed raw power at every transition. It feels like rock isn't dead, or maybe just other bands' rock is dead. But whereas Mish used to sing with a shredding shriek, here she is a taunting goth domme in total command of herself—still pissed off, but calculated in her lashings.
The first time I saw Mish was backstage at Basilica music festival, where she was performing with White Lung. I envied her for being what appeared to be an impenetrable rock god force: the leader of a pack, skirt to the floor, black lace-y, platinum blonde, raspy voice and red lipstick, the bride of Stevie Nicks gone punk. I felt like a loser, because I was just a poet. I was reading poems, and she was screaming her face off, dominating her audience completely.
Shortly thereafter, I met Mish at a gathering at someone's home, and we hung out and laughed with each other for a while, woman to woman, mostly about sex stuff. I was like, "Whoa, you're a human being." Having penetrated the rocker veil that once seemed so intimidating, I was curious about the dichotomy between her persona and her humanity, so I asked her a few questions.
VICE: Are there differences between the way you feel about yourself when you're onstage/backstage versus at home on an afternoon full of nothingness?
Mish Way: Who I am on stage is the person I wish I was strong enough to be in every hard situation I've ever been in, but if I was, I would be a friendless, loveless mess. My whole thing onstage is being ultra powerful and commanding, like I'm the lead in the school play about Stalin. I'm the charismatic, uncompromising dictator, and the audience is a sea of Russian peasants. Fear me, you fucking peasants! It's fantasy. It's classic "rock star" bullshit (and by no means am I a rock star). I'm playing up a tiny piece of me.
I befriended this woman named Lydia who works at the Bunny Ranch in Las Vegas. She is a pro-dom, so all her clients are lawyers, judges, cops... plenty of cops who just want to be pissed on. Hot piss all over them and then forced to clean it up. If we have to divide the world into alpha and betas, then I am probably considered an alpha by the public, when in truth, I am quite submissive. I just want to be smothered during sex, squished like I'm a crab under a rock. Aren't we all just so predictable?
Look, I was a very timid little kid when it came to physical challenges. I had no interest in the playground or playing with the boys or making a mess. There's a photo of me on one of those dumb kid's rides at a carnival. I'm about five years old with my best friend, Kate Murphy. She is having the time of her life, smiling, her hands all up in the air. I am beside her screaming, bawling my eyes out, tears streaming down my cheeks like I'm being tortured to death by a chimp. I remember being on that ride. I fucking hated it. I just couldn't understand why I was supposed to like feeling as though I was about to be slingshot into oblivion. As a child, I just wanted to do my coloring, read my books, and design bedrooms for my Barbies. I cried when my parents forced me to learn to ride a bike. I also had this showboat side. I liked to sing. I liked to play dress up. I liked to pretend to be a mermaid. I liked to play housewife.
Hot piss sounds really nice, actually. But being smothered during sex is my personal nightmare. As a hypochondriac Jew, I feel like I'm being suffocated every day, so I don't want anyone choking me. Do you have a range of self-esteem, or would you say that your self image is fairly static?
Of course I have a range of self-esteem, and it is based on my surroundings. Some people's greatest fear is standing in front of an audience and singing. This is where I feel confident and happy. I don't know why, but I do. My brain is just wired that way. My greatest fear just happens to be most of the nation's favorite summer pastime. So onstage I take on all those big, bad wolf parts of me I can't exercise anywhere else. And when I'm at home, making my husband his lunch to take to work, I'm fucking Little Red Riding Hood.
Do you ever feel like you're going to lose it—like the ability to channel whatever it is you channel when you get onstage that turns you into a rock god? Or lose the ability to write songs? Or do you feel confident in the flow of your creativity all the time, even when you aren't creating or performing?
Of course. Everyone fears that. I don't expect to be relevant forever. That's the cycle. I'm getting older. I don't know what the kids are doing, nor do I care. The only thing that I can worry about is keeping myself challenged by my work, having money in the bank, and enjoying my life.
I guess I mean beyond public relevance and more about that inner taproot or well of creativity. But for a writer that's perhaps different than for a musician/performer, because the live audience isn't in play. What was the most insecure time of your life?
My insecurities always surround my body, which is why I think I write about this so often in lyrics and my written work. I want to quantify my body dysmorphia. I don't know if I actually have body dysmorphia. I have never been "diagnosed." Quite frankly, I don't need some quack to make up an excuse for me. Some days I wake up and like my body, then I turn to the side, catch a glimpse in the mirror, and want to cut the fat out of my skin with a carving knife. So what? Who doesn't feel this way? No one. Everyone. This is not something to be medicated for.
I get the most insecure packing for tour. But it's like that line from Seinfeld where Elaine says to Jerry, "You know, I really hate all my clothes. I open up my closet, and it's just nothing. I hate everything I have, I really hate it. At this point, it's like I wear something three or four times, and that's it." And this line is hilarious because it's so bourgeois and selfish and stupid, particularly because they are at a funeral service when she says it, but I GET IT. In the grossest way. This is the most I will pity my own ass. I hate my clothes when I hate my body. Any decoration looks stupid when the Christmas tree is all Charlie Brown. THIS IS A BULLSHIT WESTERN PROBLEM. Don't even print this. I mean print it, I'm drunk at the airport, but this is a bullshit complaint. Ooooooh I think I'm fat? Some guy looked at me like he wanted to fuck me? Please. Women in Iraq get stoned to death for THINKING FOR THEMSELVES. Us WASPY ass pseudo-punk white chicks, we don't know "sexual harassment." We don't know torture. We don't know pain. We don't know what it is like to have no freedom. We have it made here! My GOD. And we say "fuck society"? Without society, women would be raped like rabid dogs. Get real. Society saved us. Society gave us place. I am in massive debt to the generations of women before me who fought for the luxury of freedom I have now. Anyone who fought for free speech and human rights. We need to stop complaining about now and start studying the past.
Do you compare the way you feel inside to the way other people appear outside or on the internet?
I suck at social media. I'm bad at click bait. My opinions are unpopular. You get it? Social media is not my game. You are good at it. I told you I thought you were like the female version of Sean from Texas, where it's like, you are just being YOU, but your anxiety is "cool." Your nihilism is "cool" because self-deprivation and anxiety is acceptable now, trendy even. I saw an ad with a boring blond girl proudly wearing an ironic T-shirt that said, "I've got more issues than Vogue." It was an ad on Instagram. My brain shit itself.
You would have to be a complete moron to think that the self one puts forth on social media is an accurate depiction of their complete life. To answer your question, I cannot compare the way I feel inside to the way others appear on the internet. Everything public is curated because humans need privacy. Even as I type this, I am choosing what to admit to you knowing this article will be published. Maybe I would give you a different answer if it was 3 AM, we were on the phone, and I was feeling weak and vulnerable. Even Megyn Kelly cries.
Do you want people from high school to know where you are now and how you turned out?
No, but because of Facebook, now they all can. I don't think it's a secret or a surprise, how I turned out.
Why do you stay alive?
Because what else is there to do? Death seems boring.