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As one-half of the Raincoats’ core duo since 1977, Gina Birch is a punk icon with a pop sensibility, an art-schooled adventurer who has painted, filmed, and performed by her own rules for over 45 years—using her visual art to tell stories, charging raw recordings with concepts. Her history converges onto her first solo album, I Play My Bass Loud, its title evoking her singular approach to her instrument as well as an ethos. She won’t hang back, or play a supporting role. She is now taking centre stage.
This all befits the feminism and idiosyncrasy of Birch, who witnessed the first Sex Pistols show just before setting her creative foundation at Hornsey College of Art in the 70s, studying the radical logic of conceptual art, performance art, and land art. Seeing the incendiary Slits in London, Birch was changed. She formed the Raincoats with fellow art student Ana da Silva, offering a melodic counterpoint to da Silva’s darker undertow, developing her style under the influence of reggae and the Ronettes as much as Subway Sect and Lou Reed. The Raincoats, still active today, became one of the first bands on Rough Trade, typifying the timeless idea of punk as raw expression, not one sound.
Birch amassed the songs on I Play My Bass Loud over the past two decades. Having taught herself the recording program Logic in the 2000s, she’d write to process the world. “I’ve been working on songs on and off forever because I can’t not,” she says. “I’ve got troves of songs I’ve been making for years. It’s a bit like a diary of my own obsessions and interests.”
The dubby, righteous anthem “Feminist Song” became the seed of I Play My Bass Loud when it was released as a Third Man single in 2021 (surrounding the opening of the label’s London store). Both “Feminist Song” and “Pussy Riot,” an ode to the Russian revolutionary art troupe penned around the time of their 2012 arrest, have been a part of the Raincoats’ set list for many years (an early performance of “Feminist Song” took place at MoMA in 2010). “I Will Never Wear Stilettos” underscores Birch’s unwavering streak of humor; the concept has also served as the basis of a Birch painting and short film, screened at the Kitchen in 2017. “If people want to wear them that’s fine,” she elaborates, “but it does seem like a hindrance to running away. I never learned to be that kind of woman. The idea of wearing them seems so absurd.”
The title track was originally created as a fundraiser single for Birch and Helen McCookerybook’s 2016 documentary Stories from the She Punks, and it features five women bassists, including the Modettes’ Jane Crockford and Emily Elhaj, bassist for Angel Olsen (with whom the Raincoats collaborated in 2016). Not unlike the Raincoats’ own “No Side to Fall In,” it’s an opener about the spark of a song entering the world. “I always thought: if I open my big bay window upstairs and play my bass, I’m not some groovy young rapper. I’m this old white woman playing my bass guitar out of my window. I just want to stick my head out and yell down the street: HELL, I’M HERE, AND I’M PLAYING MY BASS LOUD!”
The title also has a feminist resonance, a rebuke to how women can be diminutively typecast and ignored: “There’s the whole thing about women playing their music and wanting to be heard, wanting acknowledgment or the space to do it,” she says. “The bass is sometimes assigned as a lesser instrument, and yet because of reggae and the creativity of a lot of women players, it has always been a creative and phenomenal instrument.” It’s a potent concept of refusal and agency: staking out space as a woman in her 60s in the music culture she helped shape, defining for herself what it means now to move forward as an artist.
The songs of I Play My Bass Loud were largely finished before Birch brought them to co-producer Youth, of Killing Joke, who has developed an impressive pedigree collaborating with legendary punk women like Poly Styrene and Viv Albertine, and brought in things like middle eights and choruses. But there were also some moments of spontaneity in assembling a handful of tracks from almost-scratch. In the studio, Birch and Youth built “I Am Rage” into a pop song from its beginning as “a whispered poem.” Together, they wrote a bonafide alt-rock anthem, “Wish I Was You,” and its preceding tone poem, “And Then It Happened,” which Birch called “a letter to myself.” The pair of songs collectively narrate a shift in perception—a woman stepping ever-further into her power and thriving—propelled by a much-deserved wind. Birch said “Wish I Was You” was a joke at first—“I used to wish I was you,” she sings, “But now you wish you were me”—though she also admits, “in every joke, there’s some truth.”
The record’s various collaborators illuminate Birch’s orbit of influence as well as her community. The video for the title track was created by Raincoats touring drummer Vice Cooler with multidisciplinary artist Brontez Purnell; another was created by one of Birch’s two children, Honey. Thurston Moore added guitar to “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Wish I Was You.” And, in a wonderful turn, the Raincoats’ Ana da Silva remixed “Pussy Riot,” restructuring it and adding a bit of brilliant kitchen-sink clatter.
In recent years, Birch has committed herself to painting, with her first solo show staged in London in fall 2022; she also recently illustrated a book of Sharon Van Etten’s lyrics. But Birch never stopped making art. While in the Raincoats, she was a member of Mayo Thompson’s band the Red Krayola, and in the 80s, she also formed the pop project Dorothy with Raincoats violinist Vicki Aspinall. She was just beginning her career as a filmmaker, creating music videos for the likes of New Order, when a resurgence of Raincoats interest, sparked by Nirvana and riot grrrl, found the band reconvening in the 90s—and cited as an influence by Bikini Kill, Sonic Youth, Beat Happening, and many others. Kurt Cobain loved the Raincoats so much that he wrote extensively about them in the Incesticide liner notes and even asked the band to open for Nirvana in 1994 (he died shortly before the scheduled dates). During that first period of revived “Raincoats-mania,” as one DJ called it, Birch also brought her filmmaking talents into the band’s orbit, making videos for “Fairytale in the Supermarket” and “Don’t Be Mean.” She then formed the Hangovers before playing solo. Birch’s continued partnership with Third Man emerged naturally after the release of “Feminist Song”: “We just got on really well, and David Buick said, ‘Why don't we do some more recording?’”
With I Play My Bass Loud and her recent paintings, Birch keeps discovering her singular voice. “I was in control, and I had such fun,” Birch says of the recording process, during which she thought, “I know what I want. What’s not to like? Why not now? I was so liberated.”