Ugly Portraits: An Interview With Backxwash

Photo by Mechant Vaporwave

Jesse Taconelli debuts at No Bells with an interview with Montreal rap sorceress Backxwash. He’s the only writer I know who has a Neocities portfolio.

In my hour-plus conversation with Backxwash, the rapper-producer often reflects on presenting more as a contorted form of an Impressionism-era painter than as a musician. “The idea of a song can be, ‘Wow I am really depressed,’ and when you write about it, you don’t wanna just start to say that–you have to begin to make a whole picture instead,” she says. 

Throughout her catalog, Backxwash digs deeper than doom, channeling comedy, tragedy and history through her brand of hip-hop that samples everything from metal to African tribal chants.  Growing up in Zambia, the artist born Ashanti Mutinta was equally immersed in the music of her Tumbuka tribe, the metal in her uncle’s thumb drive and the Notorious B.I.G. her siblings listened to.  She has since relocated to Montreal, where her charismatic presence, brilliant creative direction provided by the artist Mechant Vaporwave, and dedication to an expansive online underground garnered attention in an age when extreme music may be more comforting than ever.

Her newest album, I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES, adds a new dimension to her world. Here, we often witness the painter paint herself painting, or the moments that brought her to pick up an easel and brush in the first place. She constantly blurs the line between fantasy and reality. The grotesque characters that walk amongst her on this album feel just as real as the moments ripped right from her own flesh, her own stories laid bare and bloody. This is the second effort in a trilogy haunted by the lurches of Streetcleaner-era Godflesh, the madcap deliveries of industrial hip-hop’s best MCs, and an apocalyptic march into the avant-garde that is entirely her own. 


Jesse Taconelli: I want to get right into the machinations of the record, because I can’t stop listening to it. Something I noticed off the bat was that on the track “SONGS OF SINNERS,” you begin with, “I feel love, I feel god…” It’s an interesting lyrical juxtaposition to the album’s metal and trap metal. I was curious to know what brought that about.

Backxwash: Yes! So I believe I made that beat after God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It was taken down, and I wanted to try something with no samples. So I started making that, and I had this concept album about a burning church, but I still really liked the beat. I started writing to it and, you know, the first verse has that remanence because it paints a weird, fanatical culty pastor. You’re stuck in there, and you don’t really want to trust him but you have to–otherwise your faith is going to be in question. I guess that the duality of what you mentioned came about [from] this vision of being stuck in two places at once. You have “I feel love, I feel god” and the song coming together because what the song is talking about is definitely not that. I thought it’d be a nice way to start that would be to illustrate, “Oh yeah that’s something totally different from what the intro is trying to say.”

I think that’s brilliant. How else on the album do you go about exploring emotional nuance in your work beyond what may fall under the “doom and gloom umbrella”–anger, depression, existentialism, frustration–while still working within metal?

Someone said to me, “You are really good at painting with your words,” and that kind of stuck to me. The idea of a song can be “wow I am really depressed,” and when you write about it, you don’t wanna just start to say that, you have to begin to make a whole picture instead. So based on the emotions I am feeling, I like to approach it by painting these ugly portraits of mankind and state of being. 

And beyond that I was enamoured with your feature choices falling into place beyond what you presented yourself that way. I wanted to quickly touch on a few of these, like how did the Lauren Bousfield [of Nero’s Day At Disneyland] collaboration come together?

Oh yeah, I had this idea to get a sound bite from Lauren and tack it on. I asked Lauren if she could get me some stuff, and she sent me this free-jazz and noise set. It was completely ridiculous, like nothing I had ever heard in my life. So when I was coming up with the beat, I was trying to tack that onto the beginning but the more I made the beat, the more I felt as if it was becoming increasingly unstable. I was like, perfect, I can move this part to the end because that’s the apex of the unstable-ness. It’s all this chaos around you. I always wanted to work with Lauren, I think she’s so talented and it was a no-brainer to be like, “Hey would you like to write together?” and I was so stoked that she said yeah. 

Yeah, it’s so out of left-field from the circle that the Backxwash project struck me as working within. Similarly, there’s also a clipping. beat on “BLOOD IN THE WATER?”

Yeah! That just came up on Twitter. clipping. were like, “Sure we’d love to do that!”

Oh no way!

They gave me the beat, and I was like, this is it, and they asked me if I wanted to change it. The thing is, when somebody sends me something, I never want to change it. Never. I want to get whatever they have. If they’re happy with it, then I am happy with it, because this is an exchange of ideas and I want your free expression to come to me in it’s most natural and pure form. So when it came in I knew this is the one, but I couldn’t just jump on it like a regular song. I had to paint a really abstract yet vivid picture. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but that is what I was going for. I am really happy that they’d come onto the project. 

Sure! In your eyes, what has changed about Backxwash as an artistic vehicle for you since the last album? 

I think just exploring more in terms of my production; I am trying more things and experimenting more. With my vocals, I am just doing more stuff with them this time, and iterating over the idea that you have. I iterate and loop it until I get tired of it and move to something else. 

I think there’s a lot of production variance but a pretty clear throughline to what you put together. I don’t necessarily think that the “BLOOD IN THE WATER” beat sticks out in a way like, when you listen to an album or mixtape and you know who made which beat because you are familiar with the scene.

Oh yeah definitely.

It flowed seamlessly with the sonic palette on the rest of the record for sure. 

Oh thank you, thank you! That’s what clipping. and Code Orange were perfect for here. I had told myself, “Oh I guess I am just going to produce everything myself again,” then those two were like, “Oh we will do it.” I couldn’t not do it. I had to do it justice, and I was really excited!

Following up on that, what was it like to work with Code Orange? 

Jami and Shade sent me a few beats, and there was one called “Turbulence” and I liked it because it sounds Nine Inch Nails-ish. It’s so groovy. It pulls you in but it’s so devilish. Working with them was a pleasure. I am so honoured because Underneath was one of my favorite projects of 2020. 

I guess Code Orange has just meant a lot to me being from Philadelphia, but I agree with all of that and I love the album before Underneath especially. I am in a city where the more extreme side of music hasn’t been at our scene’s forefront for a while, as opposed to house-show oriented indie rock. Them and now Lingua Ignota being based here is special.

Oh she’s amazing.

I actually really wanted to talk to you about her! Do you have any plans to collaborate with Lingua?

Hell yeah! I think I really want to get her for the next project. I admire everything she does. I never heard anything as terrifying as Caligula, maybe comparable to only a Diamanda Galás? The album is horrifying and remarkable, she is as well.

When I first heard her, I had a very similar thought, that this is a throughline to what Diamanda was laying down in the 20th century, and also in a way Meredith Monk.

Absolutely!

Damn, I don’t think I have ever spoken Diamanda’s name out loud or had a conversation about the music either!

Oh I love her! She’s so spooky and weird, inspiring.

I wanted to touch on one other voice on the album that isn’t yours. What is the significance of the Angela Davis speech on “TERROR PACKETS” to the flow and dialogue of the album?

I have always wanted to use that speech, and I never found the right track for it. I was going to put it on Stigmata, but Stigmata so much sounded like a fantasy movie that it just didn’t fit. When I was coming with “TERROR PACKETS,” I said, “Oh I like this” making the beat, but then the next week I wasn’t thinking it would make the album. I was back and forth, and the day before recording it, I wanted to find a way to end it and have a breakdown. I added some guitar VST with some drums, and when I added the speech it just stood perfectly, and I said, “This is the one.” It means so much, because you have a sense of dialogue and with myself you have two black trans women rapping our asses off. Ok, I was trying to at least! It fit also because of how the content was talking about these environments that we’re in, and the stuff that we do is a product of that. Angela Davis brings it together by illustrating how people in the environment mentioned are oppressed by an unjust system. 

Then, there’s a vocal snippet on the track “IN THY HOLY NAME” that is quite the opposite of the Angela Davis speech!

Yeah! I love homophobic pastors [laughs]. They make the best samples. Each time I hear a sound bite of a pastor being homophobic, I am like, “Yeah that’s going in a song somewhere!” I I love the irony of how stupid they are. 

It has a dark sense of humor when sampled, in context with the person the sample is coming from. Coming from you, it creates such a jarring moment to a first-listen outsider though.

It’s turning it on its head and stripping the power from it, empowering the self in a way. Instead of an endorsement, it becomes a critique.

I was absolutely floored by “666 IN LUXAXA,” could you talk to us about the genre blend on this track? 

This was me trying to mix tribal music, with some industrial at the beginning and hip-hop as well. When I was first making it, I was like, “I really don’t know what this is” because I started arranging it. I was thinking it could be an interlude that ends on the one minute mark, but when I put drums and 808s on it, I said, “wait a second!” and I wrote to it, and then let the sample ride out. I was happy with how it came out. 

Now I want to touch on the lyrical end of the record. I have seen you discuss this album a lot on Twitter and elsewhere, but, are there any parallels between some of the words on this album and your enjoyment of [Danny Brown’s] Atrocity Exhibition? There’s a way you both address the effect of drugs in a way that makes it feel larger than life.

I totally think that’s the greatest album ever created. When I first heard it, I realized I never experienced someone take you through such a path, you know? People always talk about the theme “descent of a man,” and Atrocity is a perfect example of a descent of a person into darkness. It’s got some storytelling, but the main thing that grabs you is the journey through all of these songs. You feel as if you are in those places with Danny, and him being such a huge inspiration, that definitely reflected in the work, absolutely.

Do you feel more comfortable being open about your experiences on this album?

Yeah. Going into it was different, because on God Has Nothing To Do With This… there are lines about suicide, but it’d be just a few bars. On this one I was like, “Oh shit, I am writing a whole song about this feeling,” and the first song I wrote was “WAIL OF THE BANSHEE,” and just being able to dive into that was a bit difficult, but it gets therapeutic and then you just continue. Spitting out what you feel comes out as authentic as you want it to be.

I felt like this album was the meta-cognition of Stigmata and the previous album, where you painted dark pictures before, but now you’ve given context on how and why they were made that way.

Yeah I like that! It’s also going to be a trilogy series, with God Has…, then this, and the third one will come next year. 

What should we expect for the end of the trilogy?

I am still figuring it out! [laughs] There’s so many ways this can go.

Would you say this is an angrier album than the one before it?

Oh yeah! I was actually comparing the delivery, and the previous album had softer moments like “Redemption,” but this one is trying to match up the distortions all over the album, so it’s more harsh.

We were talking about “TERROR PACKETS”–what is a terror packet to you? What’s the concept? 

A terror packet is mostly just talking about drugs, and the fear of being involved in drugs as well. It’s mostly like, how drugs come in all sorts of packets, and how scary it is when you’re dependent on it. The hook comes in describing being in that state especially. 

There’s that one moment at the end of the album, where you talk about the pandemic, which also feels very meta. Was this a moment of stark confession, or were you trying to take people’s attention out of a sense of timelessness? You really attach a specific moment to the music here.

First off, thank you so much to Godspeed You! Black Emperor for clearing the sample for me. “BURN TO ASHES” is essentially a song that talks about, if you’re faced with death, you’re not going to… Ok, wait so the last album ends with “Redemption,” which leaves you with this weird optimistic note, and I was like, “I really can’t end like that again, this is the sequel that’s much harsher, you don’t leave people with the happy ending.” I’d rather suspend belief and leave it with how it’s much more terrible than it was last year. So with the last verse, I am talking about how being faced with death and not even fighting, just letting it happen because it’s been really hard for you and you’d rather just wither away. When the pandemic bar came up, it was one of the things that I was thinking about a lot, how it changed everybody’s lives and how maybe somebody else also might be thinking about that as well. I thought it’d be good to have it there for that. 

I really hear that in retrospect. I think on this record, you explore more songs that’d also appeal to people coming from a very classically hip-hop listening background as well. Is that something we can expect more from you in the future, either for yourself or producing for others? More trap beats? I love the way they play out because they uphold the dark veneer but there’s moments that are tastefully less metallic than others. 

Yeah! I had “BANSHEE” which has got that metal influence to it, and the title track is very industrial metal. When the third track came through, the listener can figure that it’d just go straight metal, but I want to show my diversity and the different songs that I can attack with. More genres in the future, there’s a build to everything on this. 

Are there any genres you’d specifically like to explore next, or touch down on for a moment?

Yeah, one of the revelations that I came across during the making of this album was that my engineer and I found a sidechain for my scream. We were able to make the screams sound how I want now, so that gives me more confidence in doing more scream vocals on the EP that I do at the tail end of this year. So maybe more of a noise and screaming project. 

I noticed just by following each other on social media that you are very in touch with the music world, and I wanted to know if there are any artists you’d like to discuss. Anybody that we should look out for moving forward?

CENSORED Dialogue, I love her. She’s featured on “TERROR PACKETS” and she is phenomenal. There’s also Chloe Hotline, a really talented girl, very young and her production skills and vocal skills are extremely dope. Then you have Deathirl, a rapper who reminds me of an early El-P in terms of their tone, and it’s pretty amazing to hear that. 

Do you have any albums this year you have been enjoying?

There’s this Black Midi joint… 

That’s my favorite album of the year, at least so far! Unbelievable performances. 

If they can give me an album full of John L’s, that’d be a 10/10. It’s fucking great. I have also been listening to the Armand Hammer project that came out this year, fucking fantastic. Rainbow Bridge 3 too, gotta shout out Sematary. The Black Dresses joint that came out this year. 

Thoughts? Let us know

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