A feminist call for response
CocoRosie have been touring Europe this year. Joanna Allan follows up on Ania Ostrowska's review of their fifth album, Tales of a GrassWidow, with a visit to a dramatic and message-driven performance in Gateshead
CocoRosie, the sister duo made up of Bianca and Sierra Casady, seem to defy all musical labels. (Freak folk? Pop? Eerily ethereal? Witchy? Odd and rowdily changeable? Perhaps the vague but flexible "cross-disciplinary" is best?) They also consistently polarise critics. Over their 10 years in the music business, the duo have received lashings of praise and lauding of their talent but, equally, accusations of pretension, along with concerns about problematic language. Now, the band are back with a tour that launches not only their fifth album, Tales of a GrassWidow, but also, arguably, a feminist fightback.
CocoRosie's two-hour set at The Sage, Gateshead, on 1 October is the penultimate date in the band's latest month-long European tour. The show has a sombre opening with the harrowing 'Child Bride' where Bianca, in her characteristically childlike voice, gives an imagined first person testimony of a five-year-old girl preparing for her wedding night. The lyrics tell us of her loneliness and apprehension, finding solace only in nature, which is embodied by a friendly sparrow (a stuffed [taxidermy] version of which sits on stage) that brings the girl news and flutters on a video screen above the singers' heads. The story behind the song is a true one inspired by a newspaper article read by Bianca concerning the marriage of a five year old Afghani girl to a man 85 years her senior. However, the listener needn't know this to be moved to tears: classically-trained Sierra's operatic calls will see to that. Her otherworldly and trembling voice seems to bounce off the walls of the concert hall, encircling the audience and blowing through the raised hairs on our arms, like wind through grass.
CocoRosie's heroine, the GrassWidow, seeks support from the elder Gravediggress, a mother-earth character embodying nature
According to Girls Not Brides, an estimated 14 million girls every year are married before they turn 18. But child marriage is far from the only unsettling issue CocoRosie tackle during their set: there is another moving first person testimony. This time it is the imagined voice of Lana al-Ghamdi, reflecting - from beyond the grave - on her rape, torture and murder at the hands of her father, a Saudi celebrity cleric. Incest, rape, the mass slaughter of girl children in China, environmental destruction and sexism within organised religion are all themes that emerge repeatedly throughout the set.
Despite the multiple horrors told with poetic power in the song lyrics, the overall effect of the concert is far from depressing. There is not a single member of the audience who is not on their feet rocking out to Bianca's raps and swaggering melodies, the incredible human beat-boxing of CocoRosie's long term collaborator Tez or mimicking Sierra's euphoric dancing. Synths, keyboard, piano and trumpet are used to great, upbeat effect, introducing a variety of styles: from hip-hop and reggae to jazz and folk, while Sierra's harp-playing and Bianca's use of an array of native American instruments evoke a celebration of the natural world.
Indeed, the natural world is key to the Casady sisters' performance and underlying message. In an interview with FaceCulture, CocoRosie assert that the abuse of women and environmental destruction are intricately linked and caused by misogynistic patriarchal belief systems and values, which despise the feminine earth. This view is backed up by the aims of their Future Feminists project and by Bianca's new feminist arts magazine Girls Against God, which both challenge the idea of the male creator. During the Gateshead set, CocoRosie's heroine, the GrassWidow (Bianca), seeks support from the elder Gravediggress (Sierra), a mother-earth character embodying nature. The sisters direct songs to each other, hug, chase one another and dance together, as if to illustrate the importance of feminine solidarity and bonding with nature as strategies for resistance against patriarchy.
The costume changes and make-up application sessions seem to advocate for the subversion of gender norms in innovative ways
The fiercely exciting visual theatricality of the concert also deserves merit. Imagery such as smoke, mirrors, macabre crows and gothic furniture all seem to be conscious clichés used to create sombre magic, while the costume changes and make-up application sessions seem to advocate for the subversion of gender norms in innovative ways. The sisters pick new outfits (a silk wedding dress, a fishnet onesie, a black tutu, men's hats and a variety of beastlike masks to mention just a few) from a clothesline that spans the stage, subverting the pop-standard of women artists changing into increasingly sexy outfits. They also redo their make up in the on-set mirror, adding rainbow colours to their cheekbones, blacked-out gaps in their front teeth and playing with their performances of gender with drawn-on facial hair. The performers swirl about the stage ecstatically, with Sierra performing the occasional cartwheel and Bianca kneeling down as if to pray, smiling at her sister while doing so.
The climax of the concert is the final song of the encore, a CocoRosie classic, 'Werewolf' from the band's 2007 album The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn. Bianca delivers her song and rap, which both discuss rape, with her trademark extraordinary vocals conveying anger, while Sierra's beautiful, mourning wails express the emotional heft of survivors of trauma. The bass sounds of the human beat box tremble through the floor with audience members moving, howling in admiration and clapping along to the final chorus, which contains lyrics that finely embody the defiance and resistance of survivors:
I'm a shake you off though
Get up on that horse and
Ride into the sunset
Look back with no remorse
Given this bold, inspiring ending to a concert filled with the stories of victims of patriarchy, most of which are songs from an album which the Casady sisters have linked to the feminist mobilisations that are the Future Feminist and Girls Against God projects, it's hard not to conclude that their set itself isn't a call to action.
Leaving the concert, the faces of the audience are smiling and shocked. "That was such an amazing experience," says one person to my right. "That's got to be the cleverest band I've ever seen," says another behind me. A fair proportion of the audience swarms to the stage door to meet their new heroines. Let's hope they are inspired enough to answer CocoRosie's call for a response to violence against women and the destruction of the planet.
A still from the video for 'Child Bride' showing the young girl in the story looking out of a window, in front of the net curtains, with her arms folded. Press shot by Cinematographer John Brawley.