Radioactive Girl: Monkoora interview
We sit down with Monkoora to chat about the imminent release of her new EP, nuclear proliferation and 50s exotica
Julie Fern Crawford has been making steady waves under the Monkoora moniker since the release of her debut mini-LP, Pale Slopes, last year. She made her well-received live debut in June at The Old Hairdresser's and was also hand-picked by Anna Meredith for an artist's residency, culminating in a performance at the Manchester Science Museum. “It was only my second live performance, playing in a science museum,” recalls Crawford. “It was massive.”
Capturing the eclecticism of her sound is something that can be tricky at times, as well as having to deal with other issues that live performances can bring. “To get my head around my way of performing live took a lot of preparation to begin with, [but] I quite like being thrown into the flames. After my first gig I started to suffer from tinnitus – my very first gig! Repelling Radios is my song about dealing with that. Music is my main passion in life, even though it's killing me,” she jokes, “it's either music or nothing.”
Signed to independent Glasgow-based label Hot Gem, Monkoora is gearing up for the release of her latest batch of tunes – Nuclear BB, due out on 21 April. The EP is informed by Crawford's hometown of Helensburgh, growing up in the shadow of the Faslane naval base, home to the UK's nuclear weapons. “I come from a nuclear family but also, y'know... radioactive!” she quips, alluding to the double entendre of the title.
With a very DIY ethic, the artwork for Nuclear BB was also created by Crawford, featuring a blurry, surreal self-portrait, walled on each side in the barbed confines of Faslane. “It's a little cartoon me with gross, drippy lettering,” she explains. However, it doesn't look like she's physically present; rather a facsimile of something approximating her physical sense has been planted there, lingering indefinitely, while the focus is elsewhere. This sense of identifying with a place, or lack thereof, is something all too familiar for Crawford. “I love Glasgow, but I'm yet to find my tribe. I'm just lost in little old Scotland. I need to meet some characters, we need to turn shit around, flip it all over."
Crawford's alias Monkoora comes from the misremembered title of a Martin Denny song (itself a re-imagining of an old standard), The Moon of Manakoora, about a fantasy land. It's almost proto-psychedelic in nature, blending exotica and jazz, conjuring otherworldly images in the style of the now largely forgotten or maligned 'lounge music'. Viewed through this anachronistic prism the name makes sense as the vehicle through which Crawford operates; her music takes in a whole assortment of instruments, genres and influences, shuffles them around and spits them back out. “I want to keep my music a surprise, I love surprising people, even just something minor like a chord change or a lyric that no-one suspects.
“Sometimes I have an idea of how I want [a song] to start, how I want it to sound, but then it'll be turned upside down from what I originally wanted. Sometimes the song doesn't give you what you want,” Crawford reflects. “I start off with the highest possible aspirations, and I work down from that, keeping the essentials, constantly refining.”
Using your platform as an artist to say something valuable to the world is something that Crawford believes vehemently in. 'I was born to be a cyst on the side of the geopolitical divide,' she sings on Giant White H's, a lyric that demonstrates her willingness to oppose social ills and injustice. “I've been trying to say what I really feel and not be scared of it and not obscure it under some poetic lyric – I think it's important to be direct.
“It's really important for musicians to talk about things like this," Crawford continues. "Music is the art form for me, and for everyone really – it's in the air. You need to get your opinions out. Music is so direct; people get it right away.”
Within Monkoora's music, there are elements of electro-pop and bubbles of ambience, but also the forthright lyricism usually found in hip-hop or folk, alongside the ambitious auteurism of Tom Waits or John Darnielle. This obviously makes the music difficult to pin down, but the outsiderism is shrouded by the delectable pop hooks and unpretentious subject matter. “Tom Waits is like my father of music. I like his dark and gross narratives, I'm much less into the narratives of pretty people these days – the Beyoncés and Solanges – couldn't give a shit!”
Comparisons abound, from Kate Bush to Bat For Lashes, with Grimes and Björk thrown in for good measure. These artists give an idea of what you can expect from Monkoora, but from an artist with such boundless ambition and a desire to subvert and challenge, it's ironically an old cliché that provides the best advice: expect the unexpected.