Sunday 21 January 2018

Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches talks sexism and being a woman in the music industry

Lead singer of Chvrches Lauren Mayberry talks sexism and being a woman in the music industry

Modern woman: Lauren Mayberry with Chvrches bandmates Martin Doherty and Iain Cook.
Modern woman: Lauren Mayberry with Chvrches bandmates Martin Doherty and Iain Cook.
Ed Power

Ed Power

I'm in a teepee with Lauren Mayberry of the pop group Chvrches, and even in the gloom of an Irish autumn afternoon, her star wattage is unmistakable. She has vast doe eyes, smushed with mascara for added drama, while her pale complexion is almost luminescent. Off-duty pop stars rarely look anywhere near as glamorous as in their photoshoots and videos. Mayberry might be the exception.

We're backstage at Electric Picnic festival, at which Chvrches (pronounced "Churches") will later debut songs from their new album, Every Open Eye, to a packed marquee. But conversation quickly strays to matters non-musical.

In 2013 Mayberry was elevated to internet cause celebre when she penned an essay for the Guardian newspaper decrying the misogyny to which she has been subjected by online trolls. Overnight, the former law student and documentary production assistant became a lightning rod in the debate around internet bullying.

"During this past tour, I am embarrassed to admit that I have had more than one prolonged toilet cry," Mayberry said, outlining the depth of the vitriol. "After all the sniffling had ceased, I asked myself: 'why should I cry about this? Why should I feel violated, uncomfortable and demeaned? Why should we all keep quiet?'"

Two years later, the argument about internet abuse and the complicated business of being a female musician in the social media era fizzles on, no matter that Mayberry would rather focus on music. The latest flare-up centered on Chvrch's new video, the first to feature Mayberry (27) without her two bandmates (both burly blokes in early middle age).

In it, the camera pushes up close, luxuriating in Mayberry's pixie features and shampoo-commercial hair. For her troubles she's been branded a "slut", with pictures of her boyfriend widely circulated on the 4chan discussion forum, a digital swamp popular with keyboard haters.

"You can be a singer in a project without being the only person in that project. We spent a long time making sure everyone understood that," she shrugs, seated opposite me in a quilted tent in a quiet corner of the VIP area.

"If we're talking about the video - nobody had a hard time when Thom Yorke was in a video by himself. Nobody said 'oh, does this mean Radiohead aren't not a band?' Arctic Monkeys videos have more of [singer] Alex Turner than the rest of the group. Well yes - he's the singer.

"Though you are aware that people are going to comment, you can't sit there thinking about it, because it will drive you nuts. It would be wrong to pay too much attention to what others say."

Chvrches' debut album, The Bones Of What You Believe, has sold over a million copies (it went top 10 in Ireland) and the group has graced the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.

Still, among the wider public, it is arguable that Mayberry is better know for her stand against the faceless miscreants who have threatened her with sexual assault and worse (several bottom-dwellers got in touch to say they had tracked down her address and would be paying a call). Needless to say, no man in the history of popular music has had to weather this level of vitriol.

"It's not the thing we want to talk about the most," she sighs, acknowledging the sexism debate has perhaps overshadowed the release of Every Open Eye.

"We have a stance. People want to discuss it. To me, there's a difference between people criticising one of our videos, saying they do or don't like a song, and the threatening and aggressive stuff that happens to a lot of women online - and to a lot of women in real life. If we are going to do this job, it will be in a way that feels genuine to ourselves."

Speaking to me in 2014, she went further, revealing that, while she used to be hands on about the group's online interactions - personally responding Facebook posts and so forth - she had taken a step back. The malevolence was just too much.

"This is the major bummer about the internet," she explains. "It can be a very negative place. For us, it's proved a poisoned chalice - it's allowed us reach an audience, the majority of whom are smart, cool people. There are a lot of negatives as well. You have to either try not to deal with it or go in head first, come what may.

"I don't look at the internet to feel good about myself, that's for sure. It's emotional self-harm. I choose the strongest moment of the day to do my social networking. I've learned to never look at the YouTube comments. It's a den of trolls out there.

"It's not about winning - it's about whether we choose to let ourselves be beaten," she elaborated in a subsequent interview.

"You see stories on the news about teenage girls who kill themselves because they were slut-shamed on the internet, then people turn around and say it's not real, that we should just ignore it."

Because there's an age gap of roughly a decade or so between Mayberry and her bandmates, she was initially wary of signing up to what would eventually become Chvrches. Invited to join as vocalist, she insisted on a one-third stake in the endeavor. Mayberry was determined not to be anyone's pawn.

She quickly discovered music industry sexism has many guises. Backstage at an early Chvrches gig a record label talent scout cornered the singer and advised her to ditch her bandmates. Do that, he promised, and she could be "the next Pixie Lott".

"I was sort of honoured that he we would direct the comment at me," was her response. "He could have said it behind my back. As soon as we heard him we were like 'get that dude out of here'. He was definitely sleeping with the fishes from then on."

Success has taken some getting used to. Chvrches have spent much of the past three years touring and are shortly to announce a run of gigs that will see them booked up all the way into 2017. Given that Mayberry was only faintly acquainted with her bandmates at the project's beginning, it has been a fiery baptism.

"There wasn't a grand plan. If someone had asked - do I want to be in this electronic pop group and tour the world, I might have said 'thanks, you're alright'. Things have turned out better than we could ever have imagined. None of us ever set out to conquer the world."

'Every Open Eye' is out now

Irish Independent

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