Duncan Greive interviews Emily Edrosa as Street Chant’s long-delayed second album Hauora is released, and discusses the often-grim realities of life as a woman in the New Zealand music industry. Content warning: contains discussion of sexual assault.
I met with Emily Edrosa twice in April. We went to a pub near my office, and each time she was wearing a Street Chant t-shirt. This seemed to me analogous to the way founders of tech startups wear the company’s logo on shirts at all times. Startup founders never know when they might be around a potential client or investor; Edrosa never knows when she might be around a potential fan. She’s also got that startup mentality of living on bad food and sleeping on couches – a deep commitment to the project, to sacrificing comfort for a dream of something bigger.
Where she and startup founders differ is in pace. Hauora was released a full six years after Means, and she did the first pre-release interviews, with the writing and recording essentially complete over three years ago. She wrote affectingly about the yawning delay for The Pantograph Punch: “I can’t express what a struggle this album was to write and complete. Writer’s block, poor band dynamics, substance abuse problems… you name it.” That was in September of last year – the album was still seven months away from its release.
Still, despite the darkness of that list of delaying factors, there’s a persistent black comedy to Street Chant – both lyrically and in the vaguely radical sharing of their social media presence. It’s a way of experiencing the band which is as valid and enjoyable as listening to their music (and probably as profitable).
A typical example is a photo posted in mid-April of Edrosa embracing Billie Rogers, the only remaining founding member of the band (they’re on their third drummer). Edrosa had a row of stitches along her chin, and the text told of a theft of a show’s takings and the quasi-home invasion required to get them back.
We met on either side of our publishing “I Will Come Forward”. She had messaged me as soon as the first tweets emerged, and spoke privately about some of her experiences as a woman in what she would characterise as “a man’s world, the music industry”. That formed the backdrop to our conversations, which are condensed and edited below.
What were your first experiences of sexism in the music industry?
When I was really young we went on tour with The Datsuns. Their guitar tech – who’s probably one of the more famous guitar techs in New Zealand – he was just giving me shit the whole time and Billie as well. About using too many pedals, telling us about the sound, which I’m used to – like sound dudes literally walking onstage and changing my EQ on my amp.
I remember once a guy asked me for my autograph and [the tech] came up to me and was like “is that your daddy, is it?” in a real creepy voice. And I was 22, it was probably one of my first tours. I was just like, “is this what the music industry is like?”.
It got to the point where Alex, our drummer, went up to him and said “hey man, you’re gonna have to chill out. You’re making some really inappropriate comments” and he goes “why, are they bleeding?” And then Alex was like “what are you talking about, man?” and he was like “well that’s what they do, don’t they, women? They bleed.”
We told The Datsuns and they were shocked. I think we didn’t have to be in the same space as him again.
There’s this weird thing with New Zealand where one strand of its musical history venerates a kind of primitivism with guitar. But then at the same time even within that scene, you definitely get the sense that there’s a particular way to do that and when women come into it they were being scrutinised extra hard about how they play.
It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve wanted to even express femininity in my music. And I was thinking that with this album I really hoped that people wouldn’t use the same adjectives as they did last time to describe us, which was “bratty”. Which to me is like a gendered thing. They wouldn’t have done that to two dudes, I don’t think, unless they were a lot younger than we were. We were in our early twenties.
I was thinking about it – I’m pretty good at the guitar, but I worked to get there because I was aware of that scrutiny and I didn’t want to be compared to Le Tigre or Sleater Kinney. Because I felt like if we sounded like a girl band, we’d be marginalised because people see it as a genre. But I’m actually kind of ashamed of that thinking, because that’s me buying into it as well. And I’d watch my friends on stage and dudes in the crowd would go “they’re not even that good at guitar” and then some dumb garage rock band would come on after them who cannot play and everyone would be like “yeah!”
There’s this whole extra layer of distance that you must cross before you’re allowed into the “real musician’s club”.
I had to fake it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had to walk in there and be like “this is what’s happening” – but if I do that then I’m a bitch. You can’t win. I wanna make music for girls to feel comfortable to go to the shows and to feel like they want to dance to. Not for dudes in Flying Nun shirts to stroke their chins or young dudes to brood to or anything like that. But then also I’m ashamed that I thought to express femininity was some kind of weakness.
There’s that reflexive thing, particularly with men of a certain generation, have about pop music. The same kind of reaction as when Kanye started using Auto-Tune. If you’re trying to make a pop-rock record, do you find that you have to almost chase voices out of your head that are trying to tell you that writing a huge hook is betraying some kind of sacred text?
Totally. And voices that aren’t in my head too. Voices that are in the room. Maybe it’s a New Zealand thing? To me there’s nothing wrong with ambition and there’s nothing wrong with trying to write a pop song. Some people like to turn the vocals down and put heaps of reverb on the terrible lyrics.
That always seemed like a cop-out to me. It said “this is the ceiling, be stoked with a gig at King’s Arms” you know? I don’t think that that was in you guys. I felt that there was more.
I think so too – but then I thought about it too much and fucked it up. I just did an interview with the Herald earlier today and I just found myself saying like “I don’t care, I reckon that I am one of New Zealand’s best songwriters.”
And for me to even say that as a woman, and maybe even as a New Zealander, is like a political act. People want to play to nobody. People want things to be average so then they can’t be disappointed. I don’t know what it is in me, maybe it’s arrogance but I don’t know, maybe I don’t have anything to lose. Who doesn’t want their music to reach as far as possible?
Do you feel that way about Hauora?
I think one of the things is doing it at home and I didn’t have anybody on my back, I didn’t have the record label saying “this is the date”. I think that would’ve helped because otherwise I’m just gonna do mixes forever, try plug out plug-ins forever, try harmonies forever.
Obviously you do have a record label but the involvement wasn’t in that way. Was that you resisting that kind of input or was the input just not being there?
We’d send Ben [Howe, head of Arch Hill] mixes and he’d give his opinion but I just don’t think he wants to be that kind of label. Honestly, I don’t know if I want that kind of label – but I think I need that kind of label. For it to take so long I think was maybe a self destructive move on my part because, more than anything, I want to be able to pay my rent by making music.
Why did you stop being interested in guitar music?
I think it’s boring and I think it became resigned to averageness. If Pavement is your benchmark, you know, like I love Pavement – but they never tried.
But not trying was kind of a revolutionary act, when they didn’t try. But then everything that came since was…
People like mumble, people don’t care about lyrics, people don’t care. I dunno, maybe it’s a real white person thing.
Like a disease of irony.
I don’t fucking sit around watching cooking shows or shows about how to build a house. I’m sorry I know you probably do.
It’s my job.
I think it’s because rock music is basically being led by, and maybe I need to be opened up to some new stuff, but by white men, mostly middle class. And what have they got to prove? That’s why all they do is stand on stage and stare at their shoes and mumble some words. Not even just people from New Zealand but worldwide, that’s the thing.
Hip hop music is far more interesting because you’re coming from a different space. They don’t have time to go stand around a half-filled bar and play to their mates. Somebody said to me the other day, “you need to come from a certain privilege to follow your dreams.” Rock music: I don’t know what’s wrong with it.
What is it about hip hop that you found so much more attractive?
It’s actually far more interesting music to me. All the references you can look up on Rap Genius. I want to do that with my lyrics. I did do that with this album. Nobody fucking does that with rock music. I dunno, I like hip hop because it makes me feel strong and like I don’t feel strong all of the time. I’ve got bad hauora, what can I say. I just reckon that people aren’t trying. People just aren’t trying with rock music. But even if a dude comes out with rock music right now and he’s trying – a white dude, it’s not gonna be enough for me.
When a Kanye record comes out – and we’re speaking in a post Life of Pablo, post-“Famous” situation – it feels like it’s got risk hardwired into it lyrically. And look at Young Thug who’s just vomiting out releases and works like an absolute dog. It feels like a relentlessness to how they’re committing themselves to their art which is just different.
I would like to be more like that. Maybe that’s it as well, why rock music is boring. Where are the collaborations? It’s just one voice all the time. People who do rock music have a weird kind of idea, I guess maybe financially it’s easier to do your UMO, your Tame Impala nowadays, and play everything yourself. Financially it probably makes sense, but I also reckon like the idea behind it is they want it to be like a single genius. Like a Brian Wilson-type. Hip hop is just full of collaboration and it just makes it so much more interesting.
Interview part two: conducted on Wednesday April 20. We start off talking about ‘I Will Come Forward’
There were all the quotes [in response to Tidball’s original statement] which were like “I don’t know what this is about but I support you.” Like what the fuck kind of way is that to treat anything? Especially that kind of thing. You arrive at my house with blood all over your clothes, “hey I don’t know what this is about but I support you.”
But I feel like the music industry itself needs to take responsibility. I mean, I got into an argument on Facebook the other week about how much of a responsibility it is for the promoter to show diversity in the lineup. Because otherwise why are women, why are trans people, why are people of colour gonna feel comfortable coming to a show when there’s no fucking visibility? It’s hard to even think about now but it’s a man’s world, the music industry.
I think it has gotten a lot better in maybe the last three years. I don’t what that reason is and the cynic in me actually says that it’s like the rise of the ‘90s being in fashion. Tumblr ‘90s. And people have taken the good bits. And I think obviously they’ll stay because people are woke now or whatever.
It’s not surprising. I’m just trying to imagine how that would feel because as a white dude, you know, things have always been relatively sweet and easy for me. So it’s just not something I immediately think about. Then suddenly, you’re right, it’s like a post-Tumblr realisation that it’s been easy for a reason and it’s really fucking hard for everyone else – but for exactly the same reason.
It is and I constantly, constantly feel like, with regards to my place in the music industry, I’m dealing with men but most of the time – and to be honest this includes you when you guys were managing us – I’m being surrounded by like older dudes who are whispering in my ear what I should do. And it’s fucking confusing because everyone’s saying different things and it’s like everyone’s speaking at you with a real authoritative tone. And I kind of feel like no one’s ever actually said to me like “what do you wanna do?” I can’t remember specifically if you did or not…
I almost certainly wouldn’t have.
It was you but then on the other side it was Bob Frisbee, John Baker. I think now that I’m older I’m less of an idiot. I know why people were interested in Street Chant then. I know why we were on the news or whatever. It wasn’t because of the decisions that all you guys were making, it was because of me. It was because of the spontaneous decisions that I was making – but society, man. I didn’t even trust myself.
So how have you been management-wise since?
We’ve just been self-managed. I think there were like a couple of moments where we’ve had people but they’ve acted more like booking agents. Because I dunno, on our level, can we really afford to have somebody taking 20 per cent? No.
If the person taking 20 per cent was doubling your revenues, then sure.
Exactly, but there’s no way. Even from promoting this album now, I’m trying to think about how we’re going to promote it. There’s no RipItUp, really. Is there a Groove Guide? I dunno who’s gonna publish us. There’s no Real Groove. There’s no print press, there’s no music channels. I kinda feel like I can just do everything myself, really.
You said before [we started recording] that the Tidball thing isn’t just some isolated situation. That you’ve been sexually assaulted more than once…
By like dudes in local bands as well. When people think of someone that’s going to be a sexual assaulter, they don’t think that they’ll like The Smiths. “That’s not what I imagined. I didn’t imagine that person when I learned about what a rapist was.” It’s not like that and people need to get that idea out of their head.
Do you feel like your experience is particularly divergent?
Honestly, I find it hard to find – and I don’t know if this is just from the music industry or just being a woman in the world – more of my friends have been sexually assaulted than not. It’s because of a number of things. It’s because everyone in New Zealand walks home, everyone knows each other, and everyone is wasted the whole time. People just don’t understand that there is no grey area. People thought that a world of grey existed before the last two or three years, I think. And people do victim blame. I victim blame myself, saying “aw I shouldn’t have drunk that much” – but fuck that attitude. It’s only that I’m a bit older, in my late twenties, that I can even be aware of it and claim it or whatever.
It’s weird because, like you say, separating the music industry from society is kind of impossible to do. It’s a child of it, even if it’s got more extreme elements of it. Do you feel like there are things that could be done?
I have a huge alcohol problem. But I’ve never, ever sexually assaulted anybody. And I’m a lesbian. I dunno, same rule should fucking apply. Like, I get blackout drunk all the fucking time. Just because you’ve got some sort of Babyshambles complex or whatever – people need to be held accountable. And also, when you hear something – I was fucking telling my friend at a party the other week, we were high as shit but I was like “aw you’re still friends with that person because I know that that person is a rapist, is a sexual assaulter.” And it’s someone that we all know.
And when you hear this stuff and you go “aw sorry yeah I’d heard that.” I’m like “well why they fuck are you still mates with him?” Then they go “yeah but it’s like those girls…” and it’s like “but what?” It’s like it’s awkward for them to talk about.
Which in the scheme of societal niceties, surely it doesn’t outweigh sexual violence. And they’re just always there. Fuck, I’m guilty of that. I’ve probably forgotten more stories like that than I can recall, just like you.
I know one dude who is a literal rapist and every party I go to my friends are hanging around him – and I’m like “nah that guy’s a literal rapist and you all know this. Go to fucking hell.” But nobody will do anything about it because it might be an awkward convo. Never mind anyone else.
Before we were talking about your tour with The Kills – it sounds like it has been hard for you with women who have achieved a certain level of status within the industry.
Our first big tour was with The Dead Weather and that was Jack White’s band with Alison [Mossheart] from The Kills, and she did not give one fuck about us. It was an all male band, all male crew, everyone was yelling at us the whole time. I stood on one of fucking Jack White’s leads or something and everyone’s screaming at me. I feel like “just remember!”
How quickly people forget. Just remember how fucking hard it is to be a woman in this industry. I would’ve appreciated a hand. I actually don’t think she said one word to us. She just sat in the corner smoking Marlboro Lights.
People fall in love with this vision of how a ‘rocker’ should look and act.
It’s so fucking done. It’s so outdated.
The worst one I saw was this guy and he was like “well that’s what rock’n’roll is”, and he was like referring to David Bowie and the underage groupie scene and stuff like that. And being like “well that’s what everyone signed up for.” The whole thing to me was just particularly disgusting. And I think this is where a lot of people get it wrong or wouldn’t have expected – it’s meant to be a place for the misfits to escape that.
And for me it was because I thought if I was going to get sexually harassed it would be by jocks – not, as I said before, by someone who likes The Smiths. But then Andrew, he used his mana in that world to assault people so it’s kinda more disgusting. I feel like he’s a bit of the boogeyman for this whole kind of thing.
It’s very easy for people to go “oh I won’t work with him.” Cheese on Toast, in my opinion, hasn’t been that relevant in years. He’s not that attractive, he’s not in your friend circle. People need to think about rumours that they hear about people that play in bands, or their flatmates, or their friends’ boyfriends, and have the same standards.
You’ve just got back from the South island leg of your tour – it sounded pretty chaotic.
After the Dunedin show we just went to sleep in our friend’s lounge – we’d stayed there last time and some cash had gotten stolen, but it was only like $40 and some ciggies I think. We thought that was pretty weird. But then we woke up this time and all this money was stolen. We could tell that bags had been rifled through. And we looked at who was there, cos they were sort of partying afterwards. I was asleep cos I was so tired, but yeah, it was like a fan of Street Chant who had messaged me asking me for my lyrics and who was there last time as well. We just immediately knew because everybody else who was there was basically like extended family.
So you went and got it back?
We went round to their flat and they were coming back from town and had obviously been spending it up. I was, like, in shock and I was very calm – I was just like “look, we’ve all done stuff that we regret when we’re drunk. Can you just give it back? Otherwise… that’s fucked, why would you do that?
“And I’d probably ruin your life on social media, let’s be honest.” They just wouldn’t admit it for ages. Then our friend, who we were staying with, just started screaming. They just went and got all the cash out of their room and handed it to us.
It’s such a brutal fiscal exercise, touring in this country in the first place. Then someone steals your cash. How’d you get the stitches?
None of us know how to drive either so then we had rush and try eat some food before we got on the Intercity bus to Christchurch, which was like hell. It was filled with teenagers. Then the bus driver was screaming at us like she was our mum. It’s a long drive, longer than in the car. Maybe like seven hours. Then we arrived and didn’t have a soundcheck and played again, straight away. Afterwards we were loading the gear out and I was just running and then I hit this sign, this low sign. There were many streetlights – it’s Christchurch so probably not – but I dunno, obviously I was pretty tired and not in the best frame of mind. And then I just fell on my chin.
Because it was the last night of the tour we were just happy and excited and we were just like ‘let’s keep partying’. Billie just taped a sanitary pad to my chin and we tried to keep partying. Then I actually went and looked in the mirror finally and it was this gaping hole in my chin. I was just like “take me to fucking A&E.” It was like 4.30am, which was good because it meant there was no queue. I had to get five stitches.
Do you find as you get older that all of the different things you just described, which sound insane but also some variety of normal for doing that kind of thing – do they get harder to take?
I feel like that’s what being on tour is. It’s just constant problem solving, whether it’s like you’re at the venue and your fucking lead won’t reach the amp to any number of things. Just problem solving constantly. Yeah I think I am finding it harder as I get older, just because we arrive at the venue and then we have to do the door, and then I get exhausted from being nice to people and I’ve got social anxiety so I wanna drink during that time. So I’m drinking and then I’m onstage probably a little bit more pissed than I should be. Or I’m just so tired that I have to drink to stay awake. Every city you go to everyone’s like “tonight you’re in town so we’re gonna party!” And when you’re staying on people’s couches you’ve gotta party by obligation. And I don’t want to, well, sometimes.
But then you can’t afford hotels. And if you can’t afford hotels then basically you exist in public spaces.
Yeah I can’t deal with that, I’m a shy person. And also I’m just fucking tired, I would like to lie down. But then we want to do the door because we don’t want to pay a door person cos we’re fucking broke. But then we’re very happy and lucky to be doing this. Because I know that there’s a lot of bands out there that people don’t fucking wanna go and see.
You guys are a successful band. Imagine if all that were true and you get 12 people in. For most bands, that’s what happens.
Or the venue won’t even book them. So yeah, we’re pretty fucking lucky. People come up after the show and they’re like “I love you. I think that you’ve got the best voice in New Zealand music. You’re an amazing guitarist.” Say all this shit to me and quote lyrics from my song and [a friend] will be like “you know that person snuck in.”
That still goes on? What are you charging now?
For this tour we wanted to do presales just because it’s like more pro or whatever. So we did $10 presales and then we wanted to do $15 on the door but it just like seems so much. People still want $5 shows. People still think $10 is too expensive. Because they think if you have passion you should want to do it for free.
I read that Pantograph Punch piece you wrote which was really cool. It had this honesty about a lot of the stuff we’ve talked about. Where did that come from?
I can’t bring myself to lie. And plus I feel like the truth is more interesting. I don’t know what excuse I would give as to why our record took so long. What’s more interesting than the truth? That I had a fucking mental breakdown and had dreams about having a baby every night. I dunno, I feel like it’s so interesting it sounds made up.
Can you talk about the breakdown?
I probably shouldn’t use that word but I kind of did, a bit. I mean, I alienated myself so much. I was just in the bedroom of that house, that’s the one on the cover. And so I didn’t really talk to anybody except for my girlfriend, and she would have to come around to my house. We were recording in my room with Bob and Alex and I was so chronically sick at the time.
It’s such a damp house. Such a damp house and I’d probably just spend two or three days in bed a week cos I’m like allergic to most things. Well I’m really only allergic to dust and cats but I drink a lot and I’m allergic to like pesticides and cleaning stuff but I can’t afford good stuff or organic food. So it’s like I’m fucked. And I drink so much that my liver’s already processing that. Then living in a damp house and not getting enough sunlight.
But even in 2013 Hauora had a name. It had all the stuff it has now. Yet it was over three years away from coming out.
Yeah it was basically the same record. I guess recording this album has essentially destroyed my relationship with Alex, the drummer. Because he was there a lot, he basically was pressing record for me to do all my vocal takes and I could tell that he wasn’t into it, but I was too scared to confront him. So that’s basically the whole of 2014. At the end he finally quit. But anytime I wanted to play a show or do anything, he was just kinda, he was just passive-aggressively not wanting to be in the band.
I think I just didn’t want to listen to it, because it represented that part of my life. And then finally the whole of last year Ben was waiting for the artwork but I couldn’t think of something – I just wanted something that represented what it was about.
It’s perfect because a house should be what provides you with those four elements but that one sucked it from you, right?
Exactly. That’s the one that didn’t. It kind of was perfect. And I recorded it in that house. It’s just kind of like – I mean, most people have lived in a shitty Grey Lynn flat like that.
Does the process of actually having gotten it out, do you feel somehow changed by it?
No. I thought when I held it – I haven’t even gotten around to listening to it on vinyl and I don’t really care. I don’t really get into vinyl. I can’t afford vinyl. I have a record player and it was taking up too much room on my desk so I just put it in my cupboard. Because if I want to listen to something it’s way easier for me to plug in my computer.
In that Timaru Herald interview for Laneway in 2013 you say, paraphrased, “You expect to have a better job or life than your parents had but it’s not gonna happen.” I feel like three more years of Auckland house prices rising and the internet taking jobs and the music industry, year on year, just shrinking.
Also like protecting itself.
In what way?
I dunno, I feel like I don’t really need a record label but – I feel like that’s a hard statement to quantify. But people want jobs, dinosaurs want jobs. So much so that maybe, because there’s old people in charge of the music industry, that’s why it’s so shit. Because they don’t understand. They don’t understand what people want and they don’t understand how newer generations think and how they think about music.
I guess they come from an era with very different audience behaviour and different financial realities.
To make any money in the last few years we’ve had to sell out to Becks, which makes everyone think that we’re sellouts.
A writer I know once hit me up, furious, about Becks sponsoring Music Month, and I’m just like: anything to get a musician a meal, you know?
That’s how I think. He’s probably more furious because for one of the Becks things we got our lyrics on the Becks bottles – but John Reynolds is the artist who did it. And the amount of money we got for that is laughable.
I honestly can’t remember but –
In the hundreds, not the thousands?
Then John is friends with Billie and told us how much he got for that. I mean, if I had that amount of money you’d never see me again. I will never, ever see that amount of money. I don’t fucking know if we even got our money, because it just went down our publishing recuperable hole that will never be fucking filled – because who wants to hear a whiney grown woman on an ad, ever, playing rock music. Maybe on like a 90s tampon ad? But not today.