the big moon on echo chambers and gender inequality in music
As their debut album is nominated for the Mercury Prize, get to know the London four-piece making nostalgic indie for a new generation.
"Being in a recording studio," producer Catherine Marks declared on Laura Marling's Reversal of the Muse podcast, "is like a relationship -- not only with the music that you're making, but with the people that you're making it with." Six months on from that conversation, The Big Moon's Jules Jackson is kneeling on the floor of London's Play Deep Studios, asking herself aloud, "What would Catherine do?"
It's a question she asks a lot, she explains, as the band tune up their guitars and adjust their drum snares ready to record a brand new song, The Bomb. Marks co-produced their debut album, Love in the 4th Dimension, alongside Jackson - today, they're on their own. After a moment's deliberation, she comes to a conclusion: "She'd make you do the guitar in four different places, at four different times."
Marks was anxious, initially, to work with The Big Moon, because she'd grown accustomed to the usually male-dominated environment of a studio. "I was really nervous about it," she says, "because I've been so used to working with guys the whole time. I know how to manage them, it's very simple, it's like a couple of buttons. With women, it's so much more complex." That's not quite how the band see it. In fact, they're wary of letting their gender become too much of a talking point. Or Marks' either -- particularly as their decision to work with her, after trying out a few different producers, was simply because "she was the one who made us sound like us."
"Also I'm really conscious of not wanting to put off young girls who are considering being in a band," says bassist Celia Archer. "I don't want them to read things and think, 'It sounds awful, I don't want to do it.' So it's important to talk about gender inequality, but we also want to make it no big deal that we're women in a band. It's a tricky balance to strike."
Back to the song at hand then, and to getting final preparations underway. "We need to work out the tempo of this recording," Jackson tells the room, before drummer Fern Ford, between bites of ratatouille from a Tupperware container, casually informs her that it's 170. "Did you already work it out?!" beams Jackson. "You clever bean!" It's obvious, though the process is collaborative, that she's the one in charge. She is, after all, the lead singer, songwriter, and the person who put the band together a couple of years ago after posting on Facebook, "Anyone know anyone who might want to be in a band? With me? If I write some songs?"
It proved fruitful, this 21st century version of pasting 'bandmates wanted' posters around town. Before long, Jackson had formed a bona fide band with Archer, Ford and guitarist Soph Nathan. The music they made combined rugged guitar rock with a joyous pop sensibility, helmed by Jackson's low-pitched, viscous vocals and wry lyricism. "Yeah, baby, take my wallet, my round," she sings in Cupid, taking on the persona of a man unsubtly hitting on someone, "See my Johnny artfully tucked out." There's vulnerability in their music too. Today, killing time while the sound engineer runs between rooms trying to fix a technical issue, Jackson starts singing Cupid's B-side, Something Beautiful, under her breath -- "Raging doubt bereavement / For every song I've ever killed" -- before Nathan joins in on a raggedy piano in the corner. "And I don't wanna be that way / I just wanna make you something beautiful."
That poignancy lurks in the shadows of today's song too, though on the surface it's a biting indictment, inspired by the election of Donald Trump at the end of last year. I hear the demo version first, and then -- because they prefer it -- the more raucous rehearsal version on Archer's phone. "This is for you," she says, plonking her severely battered iPhone into my hands before disappearing for a cigarette. Even through the tinny speakers of a phone, it's an insistent, ferocious number, with snarling guitars and a thumping bass line. "I fell asleep watching the news," sings Jackson, "and woke up in a bad dream."
It's how many people in the UK felt the morning after the election, having gone to sleep convinced that Clinton had it in the bag. This sense of disbelief, fuelled by a refusal ahead of the election to accept Trump's victory as a possibility, was much dissected in the weeks and months to come, held up as evidence of a liberal bubble. "I've been thinking about the 'echo chamber'," muses Archer, "and there are definitely problems with it, in a circle-jerky kinda way, but on the other hand, imagine if you're a young trans kid living in a small town in the middle of nowhere -- it might be really helpful to have this virtual space that you can go to, where you can see lots of other people who are like you, who are on your side and who are fighting for you."
Jackson wrote a handful of "really angry" songs before The Bomb came about, "then loads of really sad songs… but it all just felt kind of useless." Eventually, she decided that there was more potency in a message of unity. "Some people want to change the world for the worse," she sings in one of the song's quieter moments, "But as long as we have love we have the power / And I've never loved you more than I do now."
"I wanted to write something more galvanising and positive," she explains. "It's about the power of protest and our strength in numbers. It's about how important it is to come together in opposition. The powers that be can do whatever they like, but we're the people on the ground living our lives, and the actions that we take, even just locally, are everything. When you're powerless, the best thing you can do is be good to the people around you and stand up for those who need it."
"When something doesn't necessarily directly affect you," says Archer, "it's easy to be complacent -- but if you have a voice, it's important to use it." And today, The Big Moon are using theirs, with all the force and rousing exuberance this studio's soundproofed walls can stand.
Text Alexandra Pollard
Photography Sarah Lou Beasley