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Lesley Chow is an Australian writer focused on music and film, and author of the new book You're History: The 12 Strangest Women in Music. She is also associate editor of Bright Lights and freelances regularly at The Monthly, Quietus, and more.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
Ever since university, my background was in film criticism—writing reviews, travelling for film festival juries, recommending work to festivals—but I’d always had this strong desire to write about music. In particular, I wanted to write about pop and funk, as I find it incredibly challenging to find language to describe this music, especially the “oohs” and the emotional affect of the singers. You have to try and convey the immediacy and the plunge of the sound.
I didn’t have any connections at all in the music world, so it was really a matter of starting from scratch again, writing to editors out of the blue and offering them my articles, initially for free, then building up a body of work until I felt ready to start a book. I’m still freelancing today, writing long-form pieces on current and past music.
Can you please briefly describe the book?
It’s a look at twelve groundbreaking female artists who remain criminally underappreciated, including Neneh Cherry, Janet Jackson, Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks. There’s also a fresh take on established icons such as Kate Bush and Chaka Khan, and some of the less-celebrated aspects of their music. And a version of pop history that brings all these disparate women together!
How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?
Historically, the bulk of what tends to be regarded as great music consists of guitar-based rock with conventionally articulate lyrics, either serious or obviously sardonic. We hear the same names again and again—Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, you get the picture. The canon seems much harder to shift than in, say, film or visual art. I’m not denying the worth of that type of music, but what about all the other kinds? The ones that break the boundaries of good taste, that rely more on a singer’s enunciation of “oooh” or “uhh” than a clever, quotable line. I wanted to come up with a different value system, celebrating music which has a hot, immediate effect on your body—seizing your impulses as much as your conscious mind.
Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.
I spent six years writing the manuscript without showing it to anyone outside of a few close friends—I didn’t want anyone telling me that the subjects weren’t commercial enough, or that I should write about, say, Madonna or Lana Del Rey to attract more readers or controversy. When it came to choosing a publisher, it was important to me that the editors wouldn’t try to standardise the writing by making it more scholarly or impersonal. I decided to try submitting to Repeater Books online—the founders are authors themselves, with fiercely independent visions. Luckily I heard back from them fairly quickly, and it was a no-brainer to sign with them straight away—they have such a history of publishing great, idiosyncratic writers such as Mark Fisher.
What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?
Watch the video for “I Feel For You” by Chaka Khan and feel all the sensations as Chaka simply plunges her hands through the air and sings “Whoa, whoa, whoa, oooh!” You get the sensual, haptic effects of music at its best.
On a completely unrelated note, I’d recommend the Edna Ferber novel Saratoga Trunk, which is about being born and created out of another generation’s nostalgia. It captures that incredible sense of longing for times you haven’t actually inhabited, which is sometimes how I feel when it comes to films and music.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
The film writer Jake Wilson has been hugely influential in terms of being attentive to what an artist has to offer without resorting to a slick sentence. Two of my great mentors at university were Lorna Sage, the brilliant novelist and teacher, and Robin Grove, the dance critic and Shakespearean scholar. They both adored energy and surprise and movement in writing.
What's one tip that you'd give someone looking to write a music book right now?
I’d say: what’s the one artist or subject you can keep listening to and talking about and never get tired of? There’s no point trying to chase trends since they’ll probably have moved on by the time you finish writing. The topic needs to be something that you have an inexhaustible passion for—where you keep finding new angles and don’t feel like you’ll ever get to the end of it. A subject that holds mystery rather than certainty for you.
What's next for you?
I’d definitely like to write a second book—the question is whether it should be on music or film. In terms of music, I’d love to cover artists who released outstanding work after I’d already finished the manuscript, such as Róisín Murphy and Tkay Maidza. But I’m also yearning to write a book about movies and actresses: the women who have redefined what acting, charisma and stardom look like.
Anything you want to plug?
My debut book You’re History: The 12 Strangest Women in Music, and its essays on Kate Bush, Shakespears Sister, Janet Jackson, Sade, TLC, and how pop works.
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