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Alison Mosshart: Rise up and rock

She is best known as one half of The Kills with guitarist Jamie Hince and vocalist for the Dead Weather under the moniker Baby Ruthless. Alison Mosshart has struck out solo on ‘Rise’, the first single released under her own name. Here, she talks to Cat Woods about creating non-stop during lockdown, 20 years of The Kills and her natural inclination towards collaboration and teamwork in music.

Alison Mosshart’s cut-glass cheekbones, nonchalant way with a fur coat, leather pants and vintage band tees have made her a fashion icon. As one half of cult rock band The Kills, her vocal prowess – both seductively husky or plaintive by measure – and her wild, involuntary Jagger-esque stage energy have made her a music icon.

Her new single ‘Rise’, a rare solo release, secures her music icon status. This is fortuitous, since Vogue may not come calling for fashion advice right now, as the United States remains under COVID-19 lockdown.

“I can sum up my current approach to fashion in three words,” says Mosshart. “Wore It Yesterday.”

The morning we speak, Mosshart is at home in Nashville where she’s been prolific in her creative endeavours. For fans of The Kills, progress on their new album is underway and rest assured, physical distance is no barrier. While Jamie Hince is in LA, the duo are used to working collaboratively from great distances, as Mosshart reveals in our interview. An artist, an author and a musician, she has no shortage of ideas nor the skills to bring them to fruition. Her photography and paintings have been exhibited and celebrated internationally.

During the Stay Home restrictions imposed by COVID-19, she can add a new skill to her arsenal: video production. She took footage recorded in LA prior to the pandemic and chopped it up with footage recorded at home to accompany her latest release, a taster for fans hungry to hear the new Kills album. Her single, ‘Rise’, is a solo affair. As Mosshart reveals, she is not new to working solo and certainly, she spends a lot of time in her home studio both in her Nashville and Los Angeles homes experimenting and adventuring. She’s written music for TV and movies, though she hasn’t promoted her own solo work, since her natural habitat is co-existing creatively with collaborators.

Like Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux and Nico, there’s an enigmatic and ferociously intelligent mind behind the almost gothic, magnetic allure of Mosshart’s lithe, peroxide-blonde image. Am I a little in love with her? Sure. Isn’t that the inevitable power of rock gods and goddesses past and future?

“There’s more time for deeper thought, to really read and listen, to take things in more than usual.”

The Kills have been in sonic synergy for 20 years now,  though Mosshart says of their inception, “It feels like yesterday. We just have so much fun together that it doesn’t feel like a long time.”

It was 20 years ago that Mosshart was touring with her punk band, Discount, in London and fortuitously, the upstairs resident turned out to be her future creative conspirator. “We were staying in the flat below and I could always hear him playing in the flat upstairs. Since he was friends with the people staying there, he was always around so that’s how we met.”

Mosshart ended up moving to London, but the pair had already begun their collaboration via the shared language of cassette tapes and handwritten lyrics.

“We started working together a year and a half before I moved there,” recalls Mosshart. “Jamie lent me a 4-track cassette recorder to take with me when I was on tour and encouraged me to write and record things. So, I’d stay up all night working with that thing, no matter where I was, and I’d come back with all these recordings and play them to him, saying ‘What do you think about this?’ You know? Our earliest communication was through music.”

Hince would take the tapes, add and subtract things, sending them back for Mosshart’s review and return. This was how their earliest work was born.

“We’ve always worked like that,” says Mosshart. “I moved to Nashville a while ago, but he stayed in London and later moved to LA so there’s just this back -and-forth constantly. We’re both private writers, so both of us come up with things on our own then deliver them to each other like presents. That’s how we work. It all starts someplace: either a melody or a lyric, a drumbeat or a guitar part and we build off that.”

Perfectly prepared for the imposition of COVID-19 social distancing restrictions and the Stay Home rules, both Hince and Mosshart have continued to work on the new album. However, the state of the world has affected both personally, if not professionally.

“It’s such a strange time in the world, so if we’re on the phone, most of the time we’re talking about this. It has made me have a lot of patience,” Mosshart says. “It’s also made me extremely creative. Those things don’t usually go together for me.”

Mosshart has been making sculptures, videos, music and paintings “non stop, all day”.

“I still feel there’s not enough time in the day,” she enthuses. “There’s more time for deeper thought, to really read and listen, to take things in more than usual. I wouldn’t have known that unless something like this happened because ‘we are what we’re like’, you know what I mean?”

“I want to go and live in someone else’s song, which is an amazing learning experience. I’m a team player, for sure.”

I do. Habitual behaviour, going through the motions and following routine has been a safety net for many of us but the enforced demands of a new regime requiring more physical distance has – hopefully – stimulated us to be more adventurous and curious via our imaginations.

“I’m quite excited, I really value this experience a lot because with any great change, comes great art,” reflects Mosshart. “But, I have all the emotions about it.”

Speaking of all the emotions, new single ‘Rise’ was a slowburn creation. It began at her desk in 2013, where she sketched out the chorus “When the sky is falling/ and the sun is black/ when the sky is coming down on ya/ baby don’t look back/ we will rise.”

It wasn’t until Mosshart was asked to deliver a song for FacebookWatch drama, Sacred Lies, that she recognised how the song could develop and perfectly fit the bill. Together with producer Lawrence Rothman, the song was recorded in LA at the end of last year.

“I called in Jamie to put in some crazy guitar on top of it,” says Mossman. “I was in the studio for an hour or two, it was fast. Lawrence put some drums, bass and organ on it and voila! That was the song. It was such an easy experience.”

Until ‘Rise’ was released under her own moniker, Mosshart had kept her TV and film work largely under the radar, never releasing a single nor promoting her role. Certainly, as a collaborator, she is unmissable, but even fans of The Kills may not be aware of the breadth of her collaborations over the decades. Under the pseudonym Baby Ruthless, she was lead vocalist for blues punk band Dead Weather alongside bandmate Jack White. She’s also worked with the Arctic Monkeys, Primal Scream, Gang Of Four, Cage The Elephant, Foo Fighters, James Williamson and Mini Mansions.

Is collaboration your nature, I ask, or is this the beginning of heading out solo more?

“No, collaboration is my ultimate favourite thing,” Mosshart responds. “I love being in bands. I love singing on other people’s records too, because it’s so interesting to me to crawl inside someone else’s world. Everyone works in a different way and everyone gets ideas and inspiration in a different fashion. I want to go and live in someone else’s song, which is an amazing learning experience. I’m a team player, for sure.”

Working with Jack White, best known for being one half of mysterious duo The White Stripes (and who better to collaborate than two halves of a mysterious, ‘are they lovers, or siblings, or what’ duo?), was “one of the biggest learning experiences of my life,” says Mosshart.

“It was incredible working with him. He’s lightning fast, he listens to everyone else’s ideas and he’s so open to what anyone else wants to try. It’s a freeing experience. The Dead Weather band was, really, four people contributing equally and that’s pretty unusual. We were only in the studio for two weeks, and in that time we’d write a record and record it. We’d walk in with nothing, not even working long days, and have an album in two weeks. It was definitely a different experience to working with Jamie. With Jamie, we have to work out so much stuff individually before we can come together because we can’t just walk into a studio and jam. We’ve got no bass player, no drummer. It’s completely different, but one that I love so much.”

Mosshart says she feels “really good” about where the new Kills album is at, but says she doesn’t want to tell me anything.

“I would say something and then it could all change!” she admits. “It was so exciting being in LA to work on this before all this happened. I really hope we can record this year, though we didn’t have a recording date set. Until we have our writing done, we won’t go into a studio because it’s stressful and we end up basically living in the studio.”

Hince is hard at work in his home studio, which Mosshart says is “pretty pro”, whereas hers has “a mic, me, Garage Band and a guitar.”

It does the trick.

“Being an artist who can sit around and paint all day because I’m self employed and thankfully, I have the space to do it, is not something I take for granted.”

“I’ve got the same studio set up both in Nashville and LA,” she says. “I write every day and if something I write feels like a Kills song I send it to Jamie, but I’ve got piles of songs because I let myself write whatever I want. It’s more honest. To make up for that, I write every day because I’m looking for something I don’t know how to find. I have to stumble upon it.”

Mosshart refuses to take my bait when I ask for her favourite songs or experiences over the past 20 years, playing the diplomat perfectly.

“I have great feelings about all of them because they reflect where we were at in our lives,” she says. “The first record we made was the most exciting thing in the world. Jamie and I were just looking at each other, going ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this, this is just so cool and crazy’. It’s the one I listen to and I just feel the most nostalgia. Being in London…listening to it, I can smell the room we were in, and the places that we lived.”

Mosshart, a true punk rock queen at heart, says the duo would never relinquish any creative control and never have. “We’ve never negotiated with any labels throughout the course of our whole career,” she says. “We’re just not that kinda band. We wouldn’t sign a deal like that. Art is the most important thing.”

One of the few lucky artists not to have lost tours or promotional events as a result of lockdown. “I’m very grateful for that. It’s very complex and stressful for a lot of people I know, right now. I have a lot of friends who make films and act in LA and we’re really in the wild west. Being an artist who can sit around and paint all day because I’m self employed and thankfully, I have the space to do it, is not something I take for granted. All we can do is make the most and the best of this situation.”

Not one to make plans, nor dwell in the past, Mosshart’s focus is on the here and now.

“I’ve been doing the same thing since I was a kid,” she says. “I never decided I wanted to make music or paint, I just always did it and loved it. I’m so thankful to have been able to have a career this long that relies on a lot of people being supportive. I didn’t think twenty years ago about where I would be now, like I didn’t think about it at 14 or today. I’ve always just kept going. I love what I do so much so I suppose if I keep on doing it, things might just be alright.”

Having thoroughly talked music, I feel it’s my duty as a fashion lover, covetous of Mosshart’s glam grunge aesthetic, to ask about her look.

“I still have the same t-shirts I had in high school,” she says with a laugh. “The only difference between the beginning of The Kills and now is that I can actually go to a store and buy something, whereas before I would go to thrift stores and buy something to sew and change. I still do fuck with my clothes all the time, drawing on them. At the moment, I’m wearing the same outfit for days. Basically, I can keep a pair of jeans going for a long ass time.”

And with that, Mosshart is back to the interview round and I am digging out my vintage band tees to fuck up and draw on.