i-D throwback: we meet gender-subverting icon susanne oberbeck
As she walks in the Hood by Air spring/summer 17 show at New York Fashion Week, we throwback to The Wild Women Do Issue, when the No Bra singer and rock'n'roll rebel was on the pages of i-D.
Susanne Oberbeck is a random queer. An offbeat individual who's built an image so anti- establishment she turns heads wherever she rolls. She's a pornographic priestess and a naughty girl, re-naming herself 'No Bra' after a shock tabloid expose on former S Clubber Rachel Stevens — 'Rachel Stevens With No Bra!' Often seen out and about haunting every darkened nook and cobwebbed cranny round London's East End, this lanky bird with boyish physique and bum length hair is pushing the boundaries of both taste and music by confounding gender stereotypes, questioning preconceived notions of beauty and producing a body of work that refuses to conform to any commercial requirements.
Whilst Shoreditch is being hailed as the musical port of the moment (shipping out a lot of promising bands that have a habit of drifting off into nowhere), it still seems to have remained under the control of the mainstream labels and press. So to this end, the very clever Miss O records and releases her own work as a self-release. She's an only child, and you know what they say about only children? They tend to be very focused individuals.
Born in Germany, Susanne came to England in pursuit of all things English — kebabs, cups of tea, pie and mash, witty banter and the Daily Sport (for its plethora of bare-breasted totty), but her first creative output was via film after enrolling on a course in Camberwell. "I went to film school and made short movies, mainly comedies and dramas." Did they contain any nudity? "No." Post graduation, she continued her studies in New York before returning to London where her passion in music was first aroused. She joined a band as the lead singer — a bold move that initially put the willies up her. "I've always been into music but I didn't consider it as an option for me." So when the opportunity came a knock, knock, knocking, she grabbed it with both hands. When the band split, she began to write her own material and took it on the road as only she knows how; a one-man band armed with a backing track, droopy tits, and a hairy mustache.
Reluctant to talk of the past, the clues to her current life and psyche are there in her humorous and sexualized lyrics. "I'm interested in sex," she says in her manly voice, and suddenly I'm hearing her with new ears. Her voice takes on an alluring 'come hither and fuck me' tone. When I ask her what perfume she wears, predictably she replies "Boudoir". Susanne loves to play on words. Her song "No Woman, No Crime" being her irreverent take on Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry." "I thought," she explains laughing, "He was saying if there were no women we wouldn't cry. This then morphed into the joke 'no woman no crime' meaning if there were no women there would be no crime." Equally, "Fags On My Floor" is not about gay men or cigarettes per se; it's a song about romance — now there's a surprise. There is no warmth to Susanne's words and her singing voice is haunting. She's meandering down her own musical autobahn, cold, dispassionate, German, and purposefully obtuse. It borders on the industrial, removed, and aloof, deadpan and detached.
Debut album Dance and Walk is all her own material and contains the popular, brilliantly conceived "Munchausen." It has been said that musicians have at least one potential crossover hit within them. If true then "Munchausen" is No Bra's unique stab at producing a timeless classic; the track runs as a witty duet that sends up the ridiculousness of club conversations that goes a little something like this.
"I used to share a squat with Nina Hagen in Camden, she used to make pizza out of dead cats."
"Really? I met David Blaine in Kokon To Zai the other day..."
"Really? I was cremated once."
"Really? Well I was born with only one leg."
"Really? I think I fancy you."
"So do I."
A competent piano player, the keyboards and programming are down to Susanne's dextrous fingers. She uses a computer and champions this advancement in technology as it gives her autonomy. She almost speaks her distinctive singing style; like Nico her voice lacks range yet is strangely melodic. She sinks her personality into her songs, like a dog sinking its teeth into a juicy steak — she HAS to sing and perform live: music is her medium, as she attests. "I couldn't get a job, this is what I do. I want to make my music and films. When I've shown up for work in the past people have thought 'oh what a fucking weirdo'. If they can hardly bear my presence, I'll never get promoted. In my last job the guys in the office would check my ass every time I got up from my seat!" Hardly surprising as Susanne has the most amazingly pert bum and extra long slim legs. I've caught myself checking her out too! Naturally slender, I wonder does she ever go to the gym? "Going to the gym? I don't think that's terribly interesting."
Bordering on performance rather than a gig, to witness No Bra live is like an excursion to a gallery, confirmed by the original fanbase coming from an elite art crowd, but it's a comparison she's quick to defuse. "I wouldn't class what I do as art performance. I'm just singing to a backing track." Her live performance contains no driving excitement — she stands still center stage staring at some vision only she can see, she wears no make-up and her long hair is swept over one shoulder like a hanging curtain. Waist down she adopts a cliché of a sexualized womanhood, passive in high heels, stockings, and knicker revealing fluoro lycra mini skirt (courtesy of Carri Cassette Playa). But belly button up, her image is abrasive, unsettling and purposefully confrontational. The appearance of her low hanging naked breasts, and penchant for donning a full hair mustache startles all on first inspection, but she claims such shock tactics are more than just a cheap marketing ploy. "It feels totally natural to me," she says citing Iggy Pop as a perfect example of one who prefers to perform semi-naked. The audience is presented with a strong image, which in turns complements the strong emotions laid bare in her songs. Baring her torso, with its two shapely curves, is not a shock tactic. The message is clear from this uber cool chick: she's establishing her own identity. Just when you think every possible outré act has been committed on stage, along comes Susanne with her half-man/half-woman persona singing songs of love and romance in her dry Lilli Von Schtup voice.
At last year's party of the year, The Masked Ball, (held in honor of legendary photographer Nick Knight and his contribution to fashion), Susanne was personally invited to perform to a mixed crowd of models, celebrity, fashion folks, and the arty elite. "It was good," she says with a smirk, "the models looked at me with their mouths open and said 'she looks like a woman and sounds like a man' that made me laugh."
And what of her personal life? There's a lot of speculation about her sexuality. It's very ambiguous in the same way that previous transexuality rockers flirted with this theme. I almost expect her to say 'I am what I am, I am my own special creation!' but alas she doesn't, preferring to remain ambiguous. When I ask her if she does anything as ordinary as housework she replies, "No, I hate it. I rise late, because quite often I awake during the night to work on ideas — sometimes right through." The rest of the day is taken up with boring things like admin, leaving her free to explore London's nightlife in the evening. Out five nights a week, she's a popular face on the scene due to her extended network of friends that allows her to roam freely through all the best parties and gigs.
Susanne is very precise with regards to her craft. With no PR company or any label support behind her all the publicity that she attracts she does so on her own merit. I cannot deny her charm; her pretty but masculine good looks coupled with her music will all pay off eventually. She's blossoming as a unique personality. Her self-awareness is so strong; she knows exactly what she's got going for her and how to work it. A social misfit, she's a true rock'n'roll rebel who rocks n' revolts. There's no doubt about Susanne's impact and her consistent bookings are a testimony to that. As they say in Germany: Vorchsprung durch tache! — Progress through mustaches!
Text Tessa Christian
Photography Rebecca Thomas