Mish Way may be tipping a lot of glasses of late but, for the very first time, her habit is helping her avoid dysfunction. Less than a year ago, the frontwoman of Vancouver hardcore troop White Lung would party into most mornings’ wee hours. Now she habitually sips water, and frets over consequences that would have made her scoff months ago.
“Nothing feels worse than when you can’t sing because you went out and acted like an idiot the night before,” Way (who will perform with White Lung at Fuji Rock on Saturday, July 26) says with hard-won wisdom, about the synapse-splitting hangovers that stifled her voice one time too many. These days, she’s swapped that debauchery for prudish professionalism: “Singing is the one job I have to do, and I should do it right. So I do a lot of warm ups now, and I drink a lot of water. I take that seriously. But I never used to.”
Way chronicled her worst tussles with addiction on “Drown With The Monster,” the opening track of White Lung’s latest release, Deep Fantasy. Clocking in at just over two minutes, and rife with snarling riffs, the tune also features a nearly audible sneer from Way, as she lashes back at those predatory guitar parts with lines like:
He fills my mouth
Weakens my knees
And I am gutted
Down to the floor
I rode the monster
He wanted more”
On the song, Way’s vocals are audaciously vicious—as if she’s tempting indulgence itself to do her in, daring it to try, utterly assured that she can drink it under the table. When the front woman used to actually think that way, she was eventually devoured by all that she’d consumed.
When asked what ebbed her excess, Way says: “Just growing up, thinking, ‘I mean pull it together.’ You get to a certain point and realize, ‘This is ridiculous. There’s one way, and another. One’s going to leave me a lot more satisfied, and one will leave me in total defeat. So pick one.’”
Critics and fans have praised her candid depiction of that struggle on Deep Fantasy. A reviewer for Line of Best Fit was especially astute when comparing Deep Fantasy to Sorry, its predecessor:
“On Sorry, Way addressed addiction and drugs through songs about a friend of hers, but here she comes roaring out of the blocks with ‘Drown with the Monster,’ singing directly about her own alcohol and drug issues.”
But Way says that supposedly new-found candor was by no means a major departure.
“On Sorry I’m singing about myself too, as well as someone else. I just wasn’t ready to admit that. I was still too scared,” she says of her lyrics on White Lung’s last release. She goes on to describe her shift in approach, both on the band’s follow-up as well as in her own freelance writing for a variety of websites: “Last year I’d do a lot of public writing about those things, about how I abused certain substances. It was a way to deal with it, of keeping myself in check and not lying to myself. Have you ever heard the expression ‘if you write something down, it becomes real?’ I just decided to confront things differently.”
And while she continues to tackle this and many other topics as an essayist for Vice and her own site, Way says that the essay-writing process doesn’t satisfy in the same way that her songwriting does.
“When I sit down with a piece of writing, I pretty much know what I’ll talk about. I’ll have a theory; [the piece] will have a beginning, middle, and end. But songs are not that cut and dry. It doesn’t have to complete itself, it can be an ongoing question that you have. And that’s how songwriting has been for me.”
Despite her banshee shriek vocal delivery, and her bandmates’ relentless (although increasingly nuanced) instrumental approach, Way’s lyrics on Deep Fantasy are often as thematically intricate as any of her essays. “Snake Jaw,” deals with all-too common female body image issues, and “I Believe You” is a hard-rocking ode to victims of sexual assault. For Way and the rest of White Lung, it’s crucial for hardcore to have a message that exceeds its musical muscle.
“The whole point of this is to connect with people, facilitate discussion, and challenge ideas. I have a microphone: I want to use it accordingly, in the way I want to use it,” Way says, before adding: “I wanted to say what I wanted, and not be afraid to say it, and talk about things that some people might not want to hear. Not everyone wants a challenge from their music. Some people just want to escape.”
Way does indeed take joy from offering that catharsis to longing fans. But she admits that their needs aren’t always her top priority.
“It’s also me being selfish. These are the things I want to talk about; getting those things out of me makes me feel better. Songs make me work through things I don’t understand.”
That process can not only be therapeutic, but downright Freudian. “Drown With The Monster,” for instance, couldn’t have been further removed from the deliberate, academic process behind Way’s Vice essays. That particular song was more of a subconscious exercise, an expulsion of her narco-demons—but she wasn’t aware of that theme until she examined the lyrics later.
Way had considerably more time for such analysis while writing and recording Deep Fantasy, compared to the sessions for White Lung’s earlier releases. In the past, Way and her bandmates—guitarist Kenneth William, drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou, and bassist Grady Mackintosh—would meet in a jam space and crank every note out. They deliberately left the end result frayed, organic, and true to their genre’s unpolished ethos. But when it came time to record Deep Fantasy, Way and the others realized it would be even more hardcore to actually add some surgical precision to the songs, instead of just shouldering their way through.
In a way, the time couldn’t have seemed worse for a more exacting approach. White Lung’s members were already strained to the limit by disagreements with Mackintosh. Eventually the bassist—and a founding member of the band—left the group for good, and was replaced by Hether Fortune. Way and her bandmates won’t reveal the specifics of the split, and much has been made in other articles about the challenges that followed Mackintosh’s departure (including William being stuck with both bass and guitar duties for a considerable portion of the studio sessions). Way admits the period was trying, but adds that it pushed her and the rest of White Lung to new creative heights, mainly because it forced them to slow down and regroup.
“Before, it was a lot of flying by the seat of our pants,” Way says of past studio sessions, in comparison to those for Deep Fantasy. “This time we were only bringing material that we wanted to really share with the group. It was so much more careful.”
Critics took notice, praising the band’s denser, more detail-rich instrumentation on Deep Fantasy.
White Lung’s live performances have drawn equal raves, and Way says her stage presence has evolved along with the band’s sound.
“When I was onstage in the beginning, when I didn’t knew who I was, I’d look to bands that I cared about, like, ‘Tonight I’m going to be Liam Gallagher. I’m going to be a total man bitch,’” Way reminisces. “Now I feel competently confident in who I am onstage.”
But all that growth pales in comparison to the maturity White Lung’s members now show each other, especially in the wake of losing their founding bassist. It’s evident in their more measured recording process, in the frontwoman’s newfound dedication, and in each band member’s effort to be supportive—in their own brash, White Lung fashion, of course.
“Kenny has his anxieties, I get crazy about my voice. We’ve all been together long enough to learn how to deal with each other. When one person’s freaking out, we’re good at dealing with it, like this dysfunctional little family,” Way says, before adding with a laugh: “They know when to tell me to shut up, so it works.”
Kyle Mullin is a roaming rock journalist who has contributed to music mags around the world. You can read his interviews with Iggy Pop, David Byrne and St. Vincent, Brian Wilson, Ai Weiwei and others at kylelawrence.wordpress.com. He spoke with The National and Chvrches for Tokyo Weekender in February and November this year.
Image: Way, center, with (from left) Anne-Marie Vassiliou, Kenneth William, and Hether Fortune