Interview: Rose McDowall on punk, prejudice and polka dots
The former Strawberry Switchblade frontwoman looks to future projects
Rose McDowall is enshrined in the popular imagination – the one that stretches back to the mid-80s at any rate – as the petite, raven-haired goth girl with the polka dot mini-dresses who sang with one-hit wonders Strawberry Switchblade. Inevitably there is much more to her story than that, although MacDowall is quick to acknowledge that she is not the most prolific of artistes, her creativity inversely linked to bouts of depression.
These days she leads a quiet life in rural Oxfordshire. ‘I really have isolated myself a lot, but that’s deliberate because I don’t really like people,’ she says with a wry laugh. ‘I haven’t really stopped, I’m always jotting things down, but sometimes depression is really disabling. I went through a period where I couldn’t even take my guitar out of its case.’
She is preparing to stick her head above the parapet again, just as a major retrospective of her recording career is planned by Night School Records. She was recently invited to support the Jesus & Mary Chain at their Psychocandy dates, will headline in Monorail with a rare show of her own on Record Store Day, followed by a date in London at the end of May. She was also among the talking heads bearing witness to Glasgow’s post-punk / indie flourishing of the early 80s in music doc The Outsiders, while her former Switchblade bandmate Jill Bryson covers similar ground in the documentary feature Big Gold Dream, rumoured to screen at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June.
McDowall and Bryson were familiar, striking figures around Glasgow after punk broke, taking the anything goes ethos to sartorial extremes with their homemade outfits. ‘When punk happened the gates of the universe opened for me,’ says McDowall. ‘I was always the outsider little kid anyway, quite shy and a bit of a loner most of the time. I just liked to draw and listen to music, and then when punk came along, it absolutely validated who I was. I didn’t have to be the only weirdo in town. Not that I really minded being different. It was a time of freedom. Everybody accepted everybody. There was no judgement apart from outside the scene where everybody wanted to kill the punks. You had to be a fast runner … ’
While many Scottish musicians cite the Clash’s White Riot tour at the Edinburgh Playhouse as their epiphany moment, for McDowall, seeing the Ramones at the Glasgow Apollo was the spur to form a band, the Poems, with her then husband Drew McDowall, before hooking up with Bryson (and, briefly, another couple of friends) as Strawberry Switchblade.
Although close contemporaries with the floppy fringed, guitar jangling boys on Postcard Records, Strawberry Switchblade stood apart from their peers, musically and visually. Their name, adopted from an unpublished Orange Juice fanzine, captured the contrast between their sunny, sugary lo-fi indie pop and their melancholic lyrics, influenced by Bryson’s agoraphobia and McDowall’s depression. However, by the time they hit the top ten with the bittersweet, Sibelius-sampling ‘Since Yesterday’, the focus was more often on their idiosyncratic goth geisha look and accompanying sea of polka dots.
‘A lot of people didn’t take us as seriously as they should have because they just thought we were two twee girls,’ says McDowall. ‘A band like Pixies could call themselves that. If I’d wanted to call my band the Pixies I’d just be that twee wee girl. Any woman in music at that time suffered the same thing, but it’s horrible when you have to have these arguments about album covers. The record company wanted to tame us a bit.’
In the end, Strawberry Switchblade’s moment in the chart sun was brief. They released one self-titled album and had a minor hit with their cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ (more perky sadness) before the duo split on bad terms in 1986. McDowall disappeared from the pop spotlight but carried on cultivating her love of psychedelia and pagan folk. Her pure, plaintive guest vocals for industrial and doom folk groups Coil, Current 93 and Death in June and a handful of releases by her post-Switchblade bands Spell and Sorrow have garnered her a cult following.
Michael Kasparis of Night School Records is one of those acolytes, reckoning McDowall’s music career to be worthy of formal reappraisal, starting with a June reissue [date tbc] of her solo album Cut with the Cake Knife. ‘I don't care about the 25th Bob Dylan box set or the umpteenth repackaging of some rich man's seminal mega-bucks album but the first time I heard ‘Tibet’ from Cut With the Cake Knife I felt like I could fly,’ he rhapsodises.
As for McDowall, she is far from finished. ‘It’s my job to bring misery to the world,’ she says breezily. ‘Even my happy songs have got sad lyrics.’
More details of Night School and Rose McDowall's archival project will be announced shortly. Sat 18 Apr – Record Store Day 2015 – sees the first fruit of this collaboration, an official release of the unapproved 12” single, a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s 'Don’t Fear The Reaper'. To celebrate its release, Rose will be headlining Monorail’s RSD celebrations in Glasgow.