Searching for Utopia: An Interview with KatieJane Garside
After retreating from the music industry for a decade and sailing around the world, the Daisy Chainsaw and QueenAdreena front person is returning to public life... kind of.
There’s something spectral about Falmouth that makes it difficult to pin down. Hanging on the southernmost tip of the UK, gesturing towards the distant North Atlantic, it feels oddly disconnected. In season it’s just like any other British coastal town; a postcard scene of chip shops, brightly painted B&Bs and an abundance of tropical plants. Out of season the docks, pubs and university campuses exist in a state of suspension. Tourists and students come and go. In and out, like the tide. Catch it on an off day and it feels like wandering inside a Turner painting.
It’s on one of those days, in early September, when I visit to meet the English singer, songwriter, poet and visual artist, KatieJane Garside – best known as the front person of the cult noise rock bands Daisy Chainsaw and QueenAdreena. The town harbour is packed with boats but people are scarce. Two or three fishermen stand silently stationed by the water; a few others sit parked up in cars nearby to wait for them, look at the ocean, or both. A fog has rolled in and completely obscured the horizon so you can’t tell where the sky ends, the water begins, or what’s on other side – if anything. It feels like if you leaned too far over the railings, you’d tip off the edge of the world.
It’s fitting that this is where KatieJane, who turned 50 in July, has come to reconnect with the music industry for the first time in a decade. Despite being a fixture of underground music in the UK since the 80s, you won’t find much about her online – or anywhere, save for a handful of filmed interviews on YouTube and a smattering of Q&As with blogs around the early 2010s. KatieJane had no interest in the public persona demanded by fame – still doesn’t – so while her live performances were wild and uninhibited, she was otherwise reserved and private. Her time in the music industry reveals a pattern of album releases and tours followed by a lengthy disappearance as the pressures of media attention proved too much to bear. Now, her neo-folk outfit Ruby Throat – whose “ethereal make-out albums” have garnered comparisons to PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star and Cocteau Twins – are preparing to release their first album through a label after eleven years of working quietly on their own, marking a tentative return to the stage. This will be the first face-to-face interview she’s done in years.
In a tea room in Falmouth town – the kind with illustrations of cats in blue ribbons on the menus and jazz wafting from the overhead stereo – I’m drinking gin infused with blood orange, and KatieJane is asking if I know about magic. It’s less of a question and more of a statement, really. “You know about magic,” she says, wide-eyed and smiling. She’s wearing a straw hat and a light cardigan pulled over a sundress. Even though it’s drizzling out, she walked into the room with a large pair of sunglasses on – a fixture from QueenAdreena’s latter days.
She continues: “I think for people who don’t have much sense of themselves there is lots of magic, because you can pick up on the wiring underneath everything.” KatieJane refers to a general kind of magic, but she’s also talking specifically about meeting Chris Whittingham – Ruby Throat's guitarist, and KatieJane's partner. He’d moved to London with band at the time, and she heard his guitar echoing through the tunnels of the Underground as he busked in a tube station in 2008. She couldn’t see him, though. A few weeks later she went back specifically find him, asked if he wanted to collaborate on a musical project and, in KatieJane's words – "after many adventures and misadventures we went off sailing around the world and having babies."
QueenAdreena had been taking a toll on her at the time. On top of being a notably loud band – decibel-wise, not just stylistically – KatieJane's role within it was emotionally and physically laborious. She’d already recoiled from fame once before. After forming Daisy Chainsaw in 1989 aged 18, with guitarist Crispin Gray, KatieJane found herself hurdling from their industry-lampooning breakout single “Love Your Money” and its surprise success, to Radio 1 playlisting to signing to One Little Indian (longtime home of Bjork and the first label to pick up Alabama 3, Skunk Anansie and the Sugarcubes). In 1993 she quit the band, struggling to deal with the spotlight. Five years later, KatieJane and Crispin reunited to form the blues-influenced but even harsher sounding QueenAdreena.
Seemingly oblivious to injury, she would throw herself around in stilettos – clothing torn and wine-stained, make-up smeared, swagger landing somewhere between masculine rock posturing and burlesque. QueenAdreena took Daisy Chainsaw’s chaotic “Kinderwhore” aesthetic – which led Courtney Love to praise KatieJane as “one of the first true riot grrrls” after Hole toured with them in the UK – and pushed it to a more uncompromising plane. Aggression and vulnerability emanated from her in shockwaves, which is cathartic if you’re the sort of person who turns to that sort of thing as an outlet, but perhaps alarming if not. KatieJane didn’t just front the bands, she was an instrument in and of herself. A proto Alice Glass.
Operating to the left of the spotlight, Ruby Throat has been a fully DIY operation – writing and selling music directly to fans through their own label, Sleep Like Wolves. Partially to maintain the relationship with fans (as is often the case with cult legends, KatieJane’s fanbase has its fair share of obsessives) and partially to make-up for the loss of revenue without touring, their store also has drawings and handwritten poems for sale for those willing to pay a bit extra for something more intimate. In that time they have lived minimally and self-sufficiently – first on canal boats in north London and then, after a tragedy in their extended family group, uprooting to Falmouth. From there they bought a boat on the internet and left the UK, setting off when their daughter, Leilani (a Hawaiian word meaning “heavenly flowers”), was just one year old.
Their journey lasted four years, taking them from Falmouth to the Canary Islands, the Caribbean to the Galapagos, the Marquesas to the Tuamotus, then Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Cocoa (Keeling), Rodrigues, Mauritius, South Africa, Santolina, back to the Caribbean and on to the Azores, with much more in between. It’s only when One Little Indian got in touch about releasing Ruby Throat material that they returned to England. They’re here to finalise a forthcoming compilation of Ruby Throat material called Stone Dress, and deal with the practicalities of releasing an album through a label, but that’s it. It’s tempting to romanticise the return to Falmouth as a return to origin, but its role is more functional than anything else. A hard surface to push off from.
Their sailboat, Iona, is now anchored in Helford Passage, 20 minutes south of Falmouth town. To get there you have to drive through miles of National Trust coastline that makes Richmond Park look like a landfill site, until you come to a tiny village mostly comprised of a few houses, shower services, a 16th-century pub called The Ferryboat Inn and a ferry service that’s been running continuously since the Middle Ages. While rowing us out to Iona in a dinghy, Chris nods towards Frenchman’s Creek – a part of the Helford river immortalised by Daphne du Maurier in her 1941 historical romance of the same name. The novel follows a wealthy woman who, finding London insufferable and her husband insipid, flees to Cornwall with their kids and shacks up with a pirate. Inspired by her own honeymoon there, du Maurier spends the opening pages painting a picture of an area whose past has left little trace on the present, save for a sense of “strange enchantment” – which is true of most remote places, really, and anyone who chooses to spend most of their time in them.
While much has been said recently about mystery as a marketing tactic – pop stars like Harry Styles and Beyoncé use tightly controlled near-silence to cultivate a craving – the era of the mysterious artist is a faded one. You have to wonder if, now, an artist of Kate Bush’s standing could get away with retiring from public view for 12 years – even on a financial level – and still return to relevance, or whether the “normal guys doing their thing” line used to explain Jai Paul or Burial’s secrecy would sit as satisfactorily if they were female-presenting. When creative success can rest on #branding and the loudest command the most attention, what happens to the quieter voices subverting all that with their far more honest claim of – ‘I’m really not sure who I am tbh’?
KatieJane is careful with her words, taking long pauses to find the ones she wants before they’re allowed to come out. Her voice, as it always has sounded in interviews, is quiet but emphatic. “I felt very emolliated by QueenAdreena,” she explains, “There were so many elements to it. Everything was tied together and I couldn’t find my way out. So I prayed and I prayed – as a non-religious person – and I’ve seen the results of intention. Really focussed intention gets reflected back by the universe, so if you really need the key or the way out, you’ll find it.” The same day she started praying, she found Chris. You could call that a result of circumstance or coincidence, but in KatieJane’s world it’s called magic. A year or so later, she walked away from QueenAdreena.
“In the end, that noise and that violence had to end,” she says, “I couldn’t sustain it. And by violence I don’t mean it in a bad way. It was a beautiful thing to be in that… but ten years is a long time. There’s so much passion involved. It was going to be me or it and I decided it was better for me to survive.”
By comparison, Ruby Throat is less physical but no less intense. Though most songs lean towards minimal folk or blues, with KatieJane’s voice crooning over a hypnotic guitar line, the music has an affecting quality that feels almost like being put under a spell. A part of that is the space KatieJane goes into when she sings, which is so mesmerising it’s almost impossible not to get pulled into it with her. With Daisy Chainsaw and QueenAdreena her high-pitched childlike singing would often erupt into a bloodcurdling scream that, out of context, would be cause to call the police. Add that to her physical presence and you get a front person that makes the liberal use of the word “visceral” to describe south London’s many Post-Punk Bands Fronted By A Bloke With His Top Off seem trite. But whether she’s yelling and chucking herself about or sitting down singing, KatieJane says that when she performs she feels absent.
“I’m always very shocked by what happens on stage, if I happen to watch something. It doesn’t really seem to be anything that I know or recognise, and that’s maybe making a bit too much of it. I know I’m there… Am I?,” she bursts out laughing, “I don’t know! I’m playing the game of being there, anyway, but I mostly don’t recognise that little person [on stage].”
“Sometimes I want to do that again,” she continues, “Find the staircase in that wall of noise and climb it. Because the adrenaline in that is transcendent, I know that much. I’m aware of what it is to be unaware, if you like. But there are other ways to do that.”
In a way, sailing offers a similar sort of transcendence borne from extremes. It’s one of those things that seems idyllic at face value – being rootless and having to entertain yourself in a vast expanse of nothing – but it’s living on a knife edge. On separate occasions, both KatieJane and Chris describe it as “extreme periods of silence punctuated by sheer terror”. Because everything is under pressure, things break on boats all the time. The engine, the self-steering, the drinking water; and it’s not like you can call someone to fix it when you’re 2000 miles from land. During their four years at sea the family were almost killed twice: Once when they hit a massive gale off the coast of Portugal within the first two weeks, which broke everything and left Chris helming for 24 hours straight. The second came a few years later when they hit a whale in the Pacific, either because it was sleeping near the surface or protecting its calf. The dent it made would have sunk a smaller ship. For a few minutes, Chris thought it was all over – “but then it was fine.”
“You have to be able to adapt to every situation extremely quickly because – I don’t want to over-dramatise it, but – it is life or death,” KatieJane says, “It’s a great way to be, to live on that knife edge. The ocean takes no prisoners. It doesn’t matter how much you love her, she’s not going to let you off. But if you get more metaphysical about it, maybe the dolphins will come to your rescue.”
Spending any meaningful length of time at sea puts you in a vulnerable position. Not just because of the possibility of real danger, but on a personal level too. A friend of mine went on a silent retreat recently, and when she got back she said – “it was wonderful, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone”. KatieJane says it’s a similar thing with sailing. The reasons people do it have more in common with the reason some people make art than any sort of lifestyle choice or interest – you do it because you have to.
“‘Enjoy’ is a strange word to use because it is so exposing on all levels, you know?” KatieJane begins. “You have no reference points, so everything you know ceases, including time on the long passages. It’s the same thing every day, relentlessly. There’s nothing to see, there’s no one to talk to. Which is… terrifying. You’ve got nowhere to hide, you’re literally so exposed. But it’s also very beautiful because all distraction falls away.”
An army child who spent her formative years sailing around with her family on a boat even smaller than the one she shares with Chris and Leilani now, this is what KatieJane knows best. With no internet or technology back then, she and her younger sister, Melanie, had to make their own entertainment, spending their days reading, writing and playing with ragdolls they sewed themselves. Two little girls growing up in essentially one room for years, their upbringing was so immeshed they would even dream the same. Although the their family wasn’t a particularly musical one, both KatieJane and Melanie grew into incredibly creative people as a result. For KatieJane, music is purely instinctive.
KatieJane found her voice during those early years on the boat. “I used to take immense comfort from singing in a really high voice, really quietly,” she says, “The act of singing has been so important to me, to my survival, for as long as I can remember being here, because it’s a way of getting around the terrific wall of noise that is the mind. I spend hours agonising over the words in songs, but in a way they’re not very important. It’s the act of singing, of air going across your vocal cords, being present... I’m trying not to use the word meditation but it’s that kind of thing, and it saves me every time.”
Although it has virtues that sound especially appealing to overstimulated city-dwellers (me), the silence impressed upon you by the endless nothing of ocean can make even the most stoic of heads go to strange places. After describing the beauty of Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne du Maurier writes that mariners “they found the place lonely and austere, a little terrifying because of the silence.”
I ask KatieJane what it is, as an adult, that’s brought her back to the knife edge. “I’m always searching for that lost utopia,” she says, “Doing it as a child is different to doing it as a so-called adult. I’ll never subscribe to being an adult, but I do have a child and I owe it to her to be somewhat... I was going to say in control but that’s not the right word either. Somewhat there for her, anyway.”
Utopia is subjective. It’s a self-created concept that looks different for everyone, but is ultimately a space that allows you to live in your own reality without interruption. Sailing around the world on a boat, being a dot on an endless landscape, is a very tangible version of that, but like all utopia’s it’s still defined in relation to what it isn’t. The thing about surrounding yourself with nothing is that, at some point, you have to return to something.
Iona is by no means a large boat. It’s not small, either, but certainly not the kind of vessel you picture when someone tells you they hit a whale with it in the middle of the Pacific. Appearances take on a different meaning when it comes to boats, though. Size doesn’t equal strength, and ten feet suddenly feels like an incredible amount of space. From the outside, Iona is one little boat among many, but once you’re inside it seems to open up until it feels like the only place on earth. I imagine it’s how rabbits feel in their warrens.
The first thing you notice when you hop down into the cabin are the books – fairy tales; poetry by Dylan Thomas, T.S. Elliot, Sylvia Plath; practical guides to fishing (you have to eat somehow). They’re everywhere. The walls are covered with paintings, most of them done by KatieJane and Leilani. A pair of old, worn heels that KatieJane used to perform in hang from a nail in the wall. While KatieJane makes us a “lunch of champions” (sparkling wine and crisps), Chris gives us a book of family photos taken on the first two years of their travels. A photographer and videographer by trade, Chris has thousands of photos shot on mostly his phone from the whole trip, but this book he made for KatieJane.
“It’s just for us to keep it real, you know?” she says, “When you come home it fades really quickly, so it’s to remind us that this is also our real life. It’s easy to forget the real stuff.”
Ruby Throat is, in many ways, a private project. Although KatieJane and Chris performed together here and their on their travels, they’re mostly used to writing and performing for themselves. Working within the limitations of what’s available to them on the boat, they usually write with an acoustic guitar and vocals with no amplification. Their last album, Darling Toporo, was all written entirely on a miniature guitar (which looks like a ukulele but has five strings). Ruby Throat last toured before Leilani was born (she’s now seven), so most of their four albums to date have been intimate exchanges between themselves and their fans. Spanning 11 years of work, Stone Dress is collected songs from four albums and a touring piece. For their next album though, she says they’re going to “start plugging in and getting noisy”.
The common denominator of KatieJane’s retreat from Daisy Chainsaw, from QueenAdreena, from traditional society in general – both online and off – is what she refers to as a “psychic overload”. When she performs, she says she goes into other people – mirroring them back to themselves in a way that is both liberating and unpredictable. When she’s in a space, whether it’s on stage, off stage or simply online, she takes everything in to an extreme degree.
“I absorb the room. There’s so little of me that actually exists, that I fill up and then none of me exists. We all do, but I believe I do to a very great degree and I have to protect myself, if that’s the right word. I become incredibly impoverished. I can’t find my way back, because there isn’t much holding my own identity together.”
For KatieJane, dipping a toe back into the music industry is a massive risk, but it’s one she has to take. “Honestly, I feel absolutely terrified. It’s not my world and I question myself for doing it at all,” she says. Even so, there are flashes of optimism – or at least open-mindedness – about the whole thing. A throwing of caution to the wind, like any other voyage into the unknown.
“It’ll be OK. I’ve had a baby and hit whales and seen very big waves,” she says. “It’ll still be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done though.”