Alice Glass: No one can tell me what to do anymore
As the former frontwoman for Crystal Castles, and now as a solo artist, Alice Glass has always struck a mix of snarling sensitivity. Only recently, however, has that duality made so much sense. Born Margaret Osborn in Toronto, Glass immersed herself in the city’s music scene, forming the all-female goth-punk band Fetus Fatale in 2003, when she was 15. Around that time, she met local musician Ethan Kath at one of his shows and they created Crystal Castles, combining her vocals and his lo-fi synths to make the melancholic electroclash that would come to define the band’s sound.
Glass and Kath released the EP Alice Practice in 2006, and by the time they came out with their self-titled debut LP two years later, they were already stars of the underground. They put out two additional albums, in 2010 and 2012, and—with a pummeling live show that added to their intense, mysterious allure—amassed a rabid following. It was a shock, then, when Glass announced her departure from the band in 2014. (The following year she provided a clue as to why by donating the proceeds from her debut solo single, “Stillbirth,” to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.)
Last fall, following the public dismantling of Harvey Weinstein, Glass bravely came forward with her story. She posted a statement on her website accusing Kath of sexual and emotional abuse, which she tweeted with the #MeToo hashtag—and in doing so became another important voice in a necessary global conversation. When she released her first few songs as a solo artist last year, we were treated to a glimpse of Glass, now 29, in full creative control. Co-produced by former Health member Jupiter Keyes, her vocals are no longer distorted and submerged in the mix. Her fluctuations between vulnerability and aggression are now layered with meaning and agency. Earlier this year, Glass spoke to the singer-songwriter Nika Roza Danilova, better known as Zola Jesus, about what she gained as an artist by confronting her past.
ALICE GLASS: Hi, Nika! Nice to meet you.
ZOLA JESUS: Nice to meet you, too. It’s crazy that we don’t already know each other.
GLASS: I know. Are you living in Los Angeles?
JESUS: No, I live in Wisconsin. I built a house near where I grew up. I lived in L.A. for a couple of years, but that was a while ago. Do you live there?
GLASS: I’ve been here for, like, five years. I like it, but I miss seasons as a passage of time.
JESUS: I needed snow, which you must have seen a lot of growing up in Toronto. You were in a punk band from the age of, like, 13?
GLASS: The first band I was in was almost a Green Day cover band. [laughs] I was always writing music and trying to start a girl band like Bratmobile or Sleater Kinney. But it was hard to put together; we didn’t really have a place to practice. We’d practice at this place called Cactus. The guy who ran it was sort of creepy, but he would let us play there for free. I was into late- ’70s punk rock bands—female-fronted bands like LiLiPUT. I’d save up money to buy new releases on Kill Rock Stars and stuff like that.
JESUS: I was the same in my early teens—super into punk, especially riot grrrl.
GLASS: Either you could go with the more riot grrrl scene or the hardcore or metal scenes. But it all felt kind of homogenized and macho, and I’m not good at air-punching.
JESUS: [laughs] Were you the singer or guitarist?
GLASS: I always played guitar and wrote songs. I never thought that I would be a singer. I was insecure about my voice.
JESUS: It wasn’t until Crystal Castles that you began singing?
GLASS: Well, a band I was in played for a pitcher of beer at this place that would serve us when we were underage. My friend who was the singer was embarrassed and left the stage, so I was forced to sing.
JESUS: After that, were you like, “Oh, I can do this”?
GLASS: I was living on my own around then; it was hard to go to school regularly. I wrote poetry, and I was trying to write guitar songs and record them on a little tape recorder. Then I was asked to write for Crystal Castles. I remember being insecure about it. I remember reading out my lyrics to Care Failure, who was in an all-girl punk band called Bloody Mannequin at the time. She was incredible— powerful, sort of like Courtney Love. I was too nervous to sing in front of her. And she was like, “You write great melodies.” She was the most talented person I’d ever seen, so it was really nice to get her support.
JESUS: Talent is subjective, in a way. Maybe your idea of what a good singer was had been narrow, and opening that up made you realize that you do have a great voice—which you do.
GLASS: Thanks. With somebody like her, who can belt and whose pitch was perfect, her talent was so undeniable. And she could play guitar and sing, and look totally comfortable. I just don’t look cool playing guitar.
JESUS: I actually can’t play and sing at the same time, and if I try to, something is compromised. I remember loving Alice Practice when it came out and playing it all the time. I felt like it was the perfect collision of electronic music and all this punk music that I listened to growing up.
GLASS: I didn’t listen to a lot of electronic music other than Xiu Xiu, so I was feeling a little out of my element. But I knew that I liked it.
JESUS: That’s what made that project so special. It felt discordant, in a good way. It felt like two very different influences coming together. Other than maybe Atari Teenage Riot, there aren’t many people who do that in a way that’s like, “Oh, the fact that these things don’t really know how to go together makes it work so well.” It’s better to be green, because things go together un-self-consciously. I love your new EP. I’ve listened to it a bunch of times. I listened to it while I was weight lifting.
GLASS: Oh, cool! Does it get the blood flowing?
JESUS: Yeah! It reminds me of two very different things, or maybe similar things: the band t.A.T.u., which I love.
GLASS: I love them.
JESUS: I love t.A.T.u. so fucking much. And then the movie Lilya 4-Ever , which is one of my favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it, you should, because you’d love it.
GLASS: I actually saw your tweet about that, and I watched the trailer a million times. I kind of feel like, I don’t know, I can just tell when something’s going to—
JESUS: It’s going to ruin you.
GLASS: Yeah, but it’s good to be emotional and raw.
JESUS: I have a tendency to want to watch the bleakest movies for some reason, and I always regret it afterward. But it’s a beautiful movie and your music reminds me of it, because it brings together so many disparate elements—it feels hopeful and innocent, but at the same time so strange and traumatic. The collision of those things is really interesting in your solo work. Was that a conscious thing?
GLASS: I definitely wanted to make myself more vulnerable. There’s a lot of metaphor in the songs, because I was almost afraid to put myself out there as an individual. But once you make yourself vulnerable, you realize that maybe it isn’t as painful as you thought it would be. That’s what makes it rewarding.
JESUS: Do you feel like you did that with the EP? Do you feel like you were rewarded?
GLASS: Yeah. When I listen to each song, I can still feel how I was feeling when I wrote it. While working on “Stillbirth,” I had a lot of rage. It’s so cliché to say that it was a cathartic experience, but it really was. I’ve learned a lot about myself these past couple of years. With therapy and even talking to Jupiter, who I write with. He majored in psychology, and at one point he worked at an orphanage for traumatized girls for almost two years.
JESUS: So he helped you open up a bit?
GLASS: Yeah. There were just so many restrictions that I felt before. I put up a side of myself that was callous and tough, at least that’s what I was trying to put on. It was almost like a security blanket. But all my favorite songs are vulnerable. People who put themselves out there, no matter the genre, inspire me. So I wanted to do that.
JESUS: Making the EP was probably a huge step forward for you in claiming your own ground as a solo artist. And emotionally, you have full control over this. The statement you’re making is even more vulnerable because of this decision you made to open up. Was that a difficult process? Or did you feel like you had finally opened the gate and let the flood come?
GLASS: It was an opening of the floodgates. To get to those six songs, we wrote probably 30 songs. I love writing melodies, so that’s always easy, but trying to connect the emotions lyrically while fitting all the syllables was something I had to sit with.
JESUS: That’s the problem sometimes with lyrics—the things that you want to say don’t necessarily sound good. The melody of the music versus the intent of the lyrics can be kind of tricky. Did your songwriting process change?
GLASS: Definitely. I’m not thinking in riddles and metaphors, and am more confident with my vocals and capabilities. There’s no one to tell me what I can and can’t do anymore. I know that this is all on me.
JESUS: Would you be okay talking about the situation with Ethan, or would you rather not cover that?
GLASS: I definitely want to speak about the #MeToo movement and what’s been going on and why I wanted to come forward with everything. I feel like who the victimizer is doesn’t even matter. I would personally rather hear about the victims than the victimizers. All the women who have found the courage to come forward are inspiring. I really wanted to be a part of that conversation. Abuse lives in silence, and I don’t want to be a part of that silence anymore. It felt like, at some point, my silence was doing nothing but creating a climate for other people to be taken advantage of.
JESUS: It’s empowering for you and so many other victims to stand up and go, “Look, this happened to me. It’s not only my burden.” It’s almost like you’re releasing the burden, and we’re all taking it on with you. I really respect that, and I’m glad you did that. What has the response been like?
GLASS: From my fans and other people who have reached out, it’s been way more positive than I would have anticipated. I tried to stay offline and not read too much about what people think because it’s easy for people to make statements when they don’t know all the pieces of what’s been going on for over a decade of my life. I didn’t want to be influenced by strangers’ perceptions. That’s part of why I didn’t do interviews, because I was afraid of what people would think about me. I put way too much emphasis on people’s interpretations of me and what I say. That’s completely draining and depressing.
JESUS: It’s definitely poisonous to have that constant feedback on everything you do and say and make. There’s an entitlement that people have, where they can give the artist direct feedback about everything. It can be really toxic to the artist. So props, stay away from that. Are you working on a full-length?
GLASS: Yes. A lot of the songs on the EP will be on the record. I have a handful of other songs that I’ve been working on for a while. I’m excited about getting them out there.
JESUS: Are you working with the same people?
GLASS: Jupiter and I collaborated on a song with Illangelo that we might use. We did a song with Dreamcrusher, who’s my favorite noise-punk musician. We also went to Atticus Ross’s space; he has all these cool modular synths. Part of the appeal of modular synths is that you can never replicate the sounds that you make. If you have it in the moment, you better record it because otherwise it’s gone forever.
JESUS: Do you do production as well?
GLASS: I’m definitely a part of the production, but I’m not fluent in it. I’ve been focused on songwriting and chords and melodies.
JESUS: Producing is a different muscle from writing, and it’s so easy to get them confused. I feel like when I’m producing, my songwriting skills weaken. And when I’m songwriting, my producing skills weaken. At some point, I feel like you need to choose one or the other.
GLASS: I would like to tap into that other side at some point.
JESUS: But even if Jupiter is moving the mouse or whatever, it still sounds like your music. It sounds like it could have only been made by you. You’re using your collaborators as a vehicle. So I don’t think you have anything to worry about.
ZOLA JESUS, NÉE NIKA ROZA DANILOVA, IS A WISCONSIN-BASED SINGER-SONGWRITER AND PRODUCER. HER FIFTH STUDIO ALBUM, OKOVI, WAS RELEASED IN SEPTEMBER.