It may only have been four years since the release of Beth Jeans Houghton’s - more commonly known as Du Blonde - brilliant second album Welcome Back To Milk, but her latest outing, the spellbinding Lung Bread For Daddy, feels as though it’s been a lifetime in the making. Though its predecessor may have exhibited all the signs of an artistic rebirth - the adoption of the Du Blonde moniker and the overhauling of the clean, folk inflected sound of her 2012 debut Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose into something dirtier and gnarlier - her latest collection of songs arguably represents an even greater creative leap. A deeply personal affair that documents Houghton’s experiences of depression and anxiety, it’s a record that lays the soul of its maker bare, not just through candid lyrical content but also via Houghton’s exquisite production.
Rather than cloaking these potentially challenging vignettes in darkness, Houghton’s deft hand parts the curtains to allow just enough daylight in, exposing their sharpest hooks and warming their chilliest corners. The album's spacious instrumentation also coaxes her vocals to the fore, allowing melodies to soar without ever compromising the grit that underlies much of the record's 12 tracks.
“I’ve always wanted to produce my records but was never allowed to,” Houghton tells PSNEurope as we take our seats in a Stoke Newington coffee shop just around the corner from her current abode. “This album has given me the confidence to go it alone without listening to people who were very adamant I shouldn’t and couldn’t do it.”
As disarmingly open in person as she is on record, Houghton is immediately engaging, happy to discuss not only the personal challenges she has faced in the years leading up to the record, but also those imposed by elements of a music industry that have yet to fully emerge from the dark ages.
“After the last album I re-evaluated everything, she notes. “I got a new management team who have been brilliant because they let me be myself. I’ve had six or seven managers, and I understand that they need to make you profitable, but there is a huge lack of awareness that people can be very profitable being themselves. I’ve tried to self-produce before, but I was working in a room with two male engineers who didn’t consider me a producer - they saw me as an absence of a producer - and thought it was their job to take over. The track came out really badly, and it was then considered that I had done a bad job.
"A huge part of the problem is education. When I was a kid and people viewed me as a cis girl, the guys in my music class were shown how to engineer a record, and for the girls it was just ‘sing this song’. So from a young age you’re not given the option. I didn’t know it was an option for me until I was in my teens, and even then I didn’t think it was an option, I just knew I wanted to do it. There are so many amazing female-identifying producers getting started now, but to build up that repertoire… men still have a huge head start and therefore the world still views it as a man’s job.”
Recorded between Oakland, California, and London (Stoke Newington’s Total Refreshment Centre), Houghton took the opportunity to dive head first into the role of producer, cultivating a sonic identity that perfectly mirrors the album's central themes.
“It was a great experience,” she beams, “but I’ve produced music at home since I was 16, so it wasn’t a totally new concept for me. I was able to make the record I wanted with the sounds I wanted. So if I have a vocal that is really overdriven and you can barely hear the lyrics, it’d be hard to find someone else to say ‘Yeah, do that’!
“Since I was a kid I've been into the west coast psych scene, as well as the more popular stuff like The Mamas and the Papas and Neil Young. I also like homemade, garage music that might be shit quality but sounds great and has soul. My last record was very angry, and I still like it, but I missed the more songwriter-y aspects of the first record, so I wanted to mix the two. I love guitar solos so I wanted to have elements of that, but I also love songs that tell stories. I hope I managed to make the whole album cohesive, but there are different genres in there - ‘RBY’, with all of the strings, is very different to ‘Holiday Resort’. I think the production has helped unify it into one thing. There are guitar sounds and solos that stitch everything together.”
With our conversation firmly fixed on the artists and producers who have made a lasting impression on her approach in the studio (Frank Zappa, The Lemon Pipers, The Beach Boys, Sophie and her friend Ezra Furman are all namechecked), Houghton reveals how legendary producer and long-time Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks almost wound up on her last album.
“I emailed him before the last record asking if he would produce it,” she recalls. “He said ‘No, but I’ll arrange it’. I told him I was arranging it, so we didn’t come to an agreement. His production and his work with The Beach Boys was incredible. He has such a joyful musicality about him. He was a big influence when I was younger. It was a really hard decision to say no to working with him. But being viewed as a cis women, whoever I have working on my record that is male will get the credit - that doesn’t mean they are trying to take it. I have people come up to my male session musicians and tell them they like the record they made. I don’t even know what to think about it anymore...”
Earlier this year, Houghton came out as non-binary, something that those close to her had always known but that she hadn’t previously discussed publicly. According to her, the sexist discrimination she has faced throughout her career has been further compounded by a less than nuanced approach to the discussion of gender in certain quarters of the industry and the media.
“For a long time it was really difficult because I would often be asked the question ‘What’s it like to be a woman in the music industry’? And I only came out as non-binary a couple of months ago,” she explains. “That question pisses me off, not just because I don’t identify that way, but first and foremost it should be ‘What’s your experience as you’ in the music industry. Not everyone has an experience based on their gender. It reduces people to a group they just so happen to belong to, or in my case, don’t belong to. For a long time I didn't want to come out to some random journalist, but then I was also technically speaking for this group of people I don’t belong to and feeling ashamed in some way. And I’m not at all ashamed, but I would come away feeling nauseous, like, why can’t I just say it. You never know how anyone identifies.
"The rules should be, if you wouldn’t ask a cis man a question, don’t ask it of anybody else... I’ve been in meetings where I’ve said, in a very emotionally stable way, I want to produce this myself and I’m really going to fight for it, and someone has said, ‘Are you on your period?' Then when I’ve complained, I’ve been told I shouldn’t be so sensitive.”
With a run of live dates across the UK scheduled over the coming months, Houghton is also dividing her time across a number of extra-curricular projects. Her creative drive, it seems, expands far beyond the confines of the recording studio - although she does hint that we might not have to wait too long for Lung Bread For Daddy’s follow up - with a film and video game release already in the pipeline.
“I’m making a short film with Barry Mendel and we’ve got Selma Blair to be in it,” she says. “It’s this weird silent movie that’s very psychedelic. And I’ve been working on a video game called GardenBoy that should be out in the next month or two. It’s a 3D CGI game where there is an avatar of me that you fly around an island. You can experience the new album and view my artwork. I make a lot of art and have never figured out how to put on an exhibition, so I thought I’d do it here in a CGI art gallery. I’ve been having so much fun making it.”
As we prepare to leave the comfort of the cafe for the grey skies encroaching over Stoke Newington high road, Houghton reflects on the new album and the importance of balancing the darkness of the subject matter with a sense of optimism.
“I’m just really into people having fun with music,” she smiles. “I have had a terrible time with mental health and depression, and my brother and I are the same in that we regurgitate that with humour. You take control almost by making fun of it. When I see that in music I think it’s great.”