Q&A | Elle Mary doesn’t want your baby, she just wants you to behave

It’s been four years in the making, but Elle Mary & the Bad Men’s debut album is finally seeing the light of day. Constant Unfailing Night captures frontwoman Elin Rossiter’s journey through heartbreak – struck via failed romance, and losing her dad to cancer – made bright with a dose of the Welsh-born Mancunian’s characteristically wry humour. Sarah checked in with Elin ahead of the band’s first Italian tour, which begins on November 21 in Perugia.

Constant Unfailing Night‘s due out any day now! Who did you record it with?
We recorded at Queens Ark Audio in Levenshulme, with Karl Sveinsson – we did a couple of songs with him at 80 Hertz too. I guess it’s self-produced; we didn’t have a producer. Why would I do that? Although now I’m like, maybe it’d be great to have a producer.

I’ve heard they fill a role.
Can hear things I won’t. Everything we do is really minimal and simple though, that’s the way I like it. So the recording process is pretty easy too.

You’ve been making music in Manchester for quite a while now –
Yeah, I started off doing folky stuff, and I was called Folkin’ El, because I really like a pun. And before that, with my friend Jack, and we were called Jackel – cos he’s Jack, and I’m Elle.

Classic.
But it was never anything I took very seriously – it was never, I’m gonna tour the world and change the face of music. I just did it because I liked it, and it was fun. I love singing, it’s a release. It’s like yoga or something – you feel something when you sing. So, lots of singing in my room, along to Aretha Franklin, Macy Gray –

Show tunes…
I love a show tune. Shh don’t tell anyone!

I know you do. But yeah, you taught yourself to sing essentially, right?
Yeah, I guess so – I just like doing it, so I did it. I had some lessons when I was 16, but I was so shy, and I found the warm-ups really embarrassing. I was just like, I’m not doing that. ‘But it’s a warm-up.’ ‘I’m not doing it. I’ll sing the song, that’s it.’ Now I wouldn’t mind, it’s fine.

So I did that, and I ran a night called the Folk Cellar for a couple of years down at the Gaslamp, and that helped introduce me to lots of local Manchester musicians. Like Hawker Reunion, and The Bear Around Your Neck, and I became more familiar with songwriting myself. Even then, I don’t think I took it too seriously. I’d made an album as Folkin’ El, but very DIY – so DIY, no one even knew about it.

Totally under the radar, super-underground.
But I still like those songs. I guess, because I wasn’t trying to impress anyone or anything, I was just doing it because I liked it, they were easier to write or something. Maybe I was just younger, I dunno.

Not in your head about it.
Yeah, not concerned about, is this current? Are people going to like this? I think I got more conscious of what I was doing doing Elle Mary, and then almost had to unlearn that and go back.

What encouraged you to make an album as Elle Mary?
It was a break-up, which I feel really lame about saying: Oh my god someone had a break-up and they wrote an album about it, can you believe it?

It’s never happened before! Very important to have a point of difference.
But it did. They were a musician too, and I think it was almost like, well I’m gonna write an album – and fuck you! And I’m gonna be more famous than you! I’m not. They’re still famous. But I don’t mind anymore. It was very cathartic and necessary as well – for a couple of weeks after the break-up I didn’t sing, and I know I’m really sad when I don’t sing. I didn’t eat either – but not singing means I’m really, really sad.

When I started going through the emotions, just processing them – initially songwriting was just a way of analysing what had happened. I was in a pretty bad place with that, it was not very nice. Then eventually, although it was still very much in my mind, the songs started to be more about reflection in general – about anything, and everything.

And about the song itself –
Yeah, the song itself. And then you find song meanings can change, depending on your experiences or your mood. You can be like, I wrote this about this, but now it’s about this. Or somebody else will tell you, oh, is this about this? And you’re like, yes, yes it is.

I guess it’s a document of your life at a point in time, but it can take on a different meaning, or develop a meaning.
Yeah, and sometimes you can write a couple of lines that are just meaningless, and eventually you’re like, oh, that’s what I meant – now. There might be an overarching theme, but the lines themselves are about different things. So actually, in reality, there’s only a couple of songs on the album, maybe three, that are specifically about the break-up itself.

“Eventually, the songs started to be more about reflection in general – about anything, and everything.”

Then a couple about my dad passing – and then in some, now I realise I was giving myself advice. That’s happened a lot actually, where I’m like, oh, some part of me knew what to do, and I just wasn’t listening. I guess as well, being written over such a long period of time, it’s not about one thing.

Did your dad pass during the time that you were writing the album?
Yeah he did. I don’t think we’d even recorded at that point. With him – I think after doing so much crying over my break-up, I was just like, I’m not crying again. And seeing members of my family, who I considered to be really tough, just completely break down, I was like, well somebody needs to not cry, and it’s going to be me. Especially my little sister, I hated seeing her so sad, and I was like, if she’s crying then I have to not cry, because normally it’s the other way ‘round.

I repressed a lot of the feelings of grief, and then one day I took myself on a walk and told myself, this’ll all be over soon, this death. He’ll be over it, and we can go back to normal. Then I realised, oh yeah, he can’t get over that, there is no getting over it. That’s when it really hit me, so I wrote ‘Undead’ for him. Oh god, I’m going to cry now.

We don’t have to keep talking about it.
Again, it was a necessary thing to write, because I wasn’t talking about it.

What are some of the other themes you reference on the album, apart from break-ups and death?
Well, there’s ‘Behave’, a video just came out for that which is amazing. Jim Oliver, who directed the video for ‘Pretend’, where I shave my hair off, did the video for ‘Behave’ and it’s also in a film noir style. He’s doing a trilogy, one for ‘Falling’ as well.

‘Behave’ is – after feeling all that pain and everything, comes anger. It was actually from an experience with a new partner after the ‘big’ break up, of finding some self-respect. After second-guessing yourself all the time, you finally stand your ground. So yeah, this is a bit of an ‘I Will Survive’ song, but it’s also meant to be funny. It’s meant to make you laugh.

People can associate it with what they would really love to say but maybe won’t. On a side note, I didn’t actually tell this guy to go fuck himself. He’d sent me an email and I let him know I didn’t want to see him and signed it off, “All the best.”

Well wishes, here’s to a bright and healthy future. Let me, make you, feel ok.
Yeah, it was a very snide, office talk, ‘All the best, really mean it, take care.’

Sincerely yours, no longer.
It kind of gives you strength, but you can also have a bit of a laugh with it as well.

It’s hard to be a strong, independent woman! And still have feelings.
It’s hard to know which feelings are ok to have – are they all ok, or are none of them ok? I can’t tell. Shall we all think like men? Maybe if I just suppress all the feelings…

So there’s that: telling people to go fuck themselves. Then I have an odd song, ‘No Baby’. It was a collection of stories, where I wasn’t really sure what I was saying till later. I think there are feminist themes running through each line. People telling you to smile, waiting for a man to make you complete. The last line ‘I don’t want a baby/I just need some answers’, I wrote that when I was 25. I was feeling very lost, didn’t know what to do with my life, where to go, to quit my job or not, so many questions. Then for a flash I thought ‘I know, I’ll just have a baby.’

And it’s like, ‘No, no! That’s not the way I’m supposed to decide that!’
It crosses your mind and you kind of laugh it off. I’m aware it’s right for some people, but I don’t think you should do it to give yourself direction.

The music industry’s changed a lot, but it’s still pretty male-dominated, and I imagine it can be quite hard to be a woman doing her own thing. How have you found it?
I think it’s definitely improving. There’s this awesome magazine I get called She Shreds, and it’s just about women guitarists, and it’s so wonderful and I wish it was there when I was 20. Women talking about women, which is great. But yeah, you definitely still see it, where all the headline acts are men – even fairly progressive festivals are still male-dominated – and it’s like, ‘well we shouldn’t just let women do it just because they’re women. If a man’s better a man should play.’ Nah – the only way you can improve something is by –

Having the opportunity to do it.
Yeah, so the more we let women play – or any kind of minority – the more they will improve, the more talent will come through.

Just even through being made to feel psychologically safe in that. There’s a place for you here – you’re as valid and welcome as anybody else. It’s amazing what that can do towards making you feel like you’re talented and able.
Exactly. I remember as a kid or teenager thinking that women were pop stars, and they didn’t write their own songs – they weren’t capable of it. And I never saw any girls in my school playing music in that way – there were singers, and that was it. I just thought, that’s not something women do, even though I’m doing it now. I think I felt like that for ages, to be honest.

“I remember as a kid thinking that women were pop stars, and they didn’t write their own songs – they weren’t capable of it.”

Then things changed – but it was because I just didn’t see it, didn’t see girls forming bands or anything. I also grew up on an army base, my dad was a dentist in the army. Riot grrrl, not a thing that happened. Wasn’t aware of that at all. I think that’s quite hard for people to understand.

I mean, I’ve been lucky, and maybe it’s because I’ve got guys in the band, but I haven’t had too much trouble. There have been a couple of things – like someone made a really inappropriate joke when I was in London, one of the sound guys or the lighting guy. He made a sexual joke about the way I was playing guitar, or something like that, and I was just like, “What?” You wouldn’t do that to a guy you just met, you just wouldn’t. Things like that are frustrating, or sound engineers – sorry, I shouldn’t single them out, but assuming you don’t know what you’re doing with your equipment. Little things.

Do you feel that in Manchester generally the music scene is pretty conducive to independent artists making music and doing new things? Is there a lot of support for that? People seem to play a lot.
Yeah, I have a really nice community of friends who play music, and for me that’s my world. But I’m aware that there must be even more pockets of little gangs of musicians like that about. The ones I know, they’re all just super nice and help each other out. I’ve done backing singing for a few different people – there’s always someone to chat to, and we support each other. It’s really nice. Everyone’s pretty good to each other, that’s my experience so far.

Elin in her side project with Nick Ainsworth (Former Bullies, Secret Admirer, Dinner Party), Leantime.

As your day job you work at a trade union. Is it just a day job to you?
It is just a day job, but there are things about it that are very important and speak to me – employment law and people’s rights. Stuff I had no idea about really until I started working there myself. Now I’m like, wow, why doesn’t everyone join a trade union? Everyone really should. The idea of people coming together in solidarity, to make things right – I really think it can work, but it does require everybody coming together. Don’t just say you’ll get ’round to it, do it.

It’s also that thing of knowing the questions to ask. I mean, as a freelancer, I’ve never had that sense of job security or known what my rights are. You just get used to it.
Most people in employment – in permanent, full time positions – don’t know their employment rights. There’s a reason. It’s a way to control people. Especially if you don’t know. And when you start looking into it you’re like, Oh! I can have sick pay? Things like this, you are allowed to ask. And if you get fired for asking, that’s illegal – you can take it up.

“The idea of people coming together in solidarity, to make things right – I really think it can work, but it does require everybody coming together.”

Obviously, the government try and make it hard with tribunal fees, but then Unison have recently turned that over, which means a huge bunch of trials to come through now. But the only way to fight that kind of oppression is to come together. So, join a union today! The information is out there, but it does take work – and obviously if you join a union it’s easier to get that information.

We went to a Manchester People’s Assembly march recently, and it seemed like a lot of unions were out. But, in terms of where the UK’s at at the moment, there seem to be a lot of people wanting a fairer deal, but not really knowing what they’re entitled to and how they can grasp at it. So, marching seems like a good thing to do, but also –
Marching shows a physical presence, that people are upset. And the bigger and bigger these marches get – possibly one massive positive of social media, generally it’s full of tripe, but one positive is you can actually find out about these marches, and you can actually see people on them. Because they’re so often not televised, and it seems like no one cares, and everyone’s happy with the way things are. You can actually see now, there’s no denying it.

Well was it you who was telling me that the last couple of years the BBC –
They were told not to film, and it was a huge demonstration. The police told them not to film it. A few years before that, I’m sure the same happened in London, at a pro-Corbyn thing. Again, not televised, but you could find it on social media. It’s just another way to try and suppress people, by making them think that they’re divided, when they’re not.

Or that the collective voice is quieter than it actually is.
Then I suppose you’ve got the negative of social media, the echo chamber and people not listening. I don’t really see the point in starting a discussion with someone if you just want to shout them down – no, you need to think like me! That’s not a discussion, so why even start it, if you’re not open to hearing what the other side has to say? And not take any of the good points, that’s silly. You’re just making yourself angry on the internet. What’s the point?

Elin Rossiter is a Welsh-born, Manchester-based artist, and frontwoman for Elle Mary & the Bad Men. Find her at www.ellemarymusic.com.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.