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The new radical: the small and big questions of being a musician in today’s Europe

by Teresa Havlicek
30 October 2018
The new radical: the small and big questions of being a musician in today’s Europe

Mira Lu Kovacs(Schmied Puls) and Yasmin Hafdeh (Yasmo & die Klangkantine) are both strong parts of Austria’s contribution to Europavox. Yasmin and her band, Yasmo & die Klangkantine, will headline Europavox Vienna on November 2nd, and Mira’s band, 5KHD, is part of Europavox’ Coaching Export Programme. They are also equally strongly opinionated when it comes to politics and Europe. So, on the occasion of Europavox Vienna, the two met for a joint interview and talked about everything: Europe, financial ethics as a musician, feminism and their mutual childhood heroines, the Spice Girls. And, in case you are wondering, Mira wanted to be Mel C and Yasmo was on the Victoria-front.

Guilty pleasure: confident enough to just like what you like.

Can you tell us about your early musical influences?

Yasmo: As a teenager, I considered myself punk because I had black nails. But I really loved the Spice Girls, and I was a Beyoncé-fan early on. My love goes back to the second Destiny’s Child album, The Writings on the Wall. But, back then, those were kind of guilty pleasures, because I had to keep my punk-facade up.
Mira: Does anyone know the Spice Girl song “Bumper to Bumper“? It was a b-side to the “Wannabe” single. I recently listened to it again and I only now understood the lyrics! “It’s a bumpy road”… I get it! I had the same experience with Paula Cole, who sang the theme song of Dawson’s Creek. She had a song called “Mississippi”, and one of the lyrics goes: “I like it from behind”. And I sang that as an 11-year-old!

What is your approach to the term guilty pleasure — do you still feel guilty for your taste as you grow older?

Yasmo: No, at a certain point you are confident enough to just like what you like. I love Dan Brown books, for example. I know that’s not high-class literature, but it’s just one thing out of many literary interests. So I guess that makes it okay.
Mira: In contrast to me, who only ever reads Harry Potter, haha. But I have a lot of guilty pleasures with TV shows. Usually, I only watch political late night shows: Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver and that kind of stuff. And then, I got totally hooked on Jane The Virgin. I thought it would be complete trash, but it turns out to be very smart and well-made!

The idea behind showcase festivals

You just mentioned late night shows. It seems that US politics and pop are much closer than what we can see in Europe. Why do you think that is?

Yasmo: Yeah, I think it’s because we have such a different definition of what art is. Our definition of high culture – which is very academic – doesn’t really leave much space for pop. Or anything funny, or closely connected to people.
Mira: This kind of high culture is what we market our country with – Mozart, Opera, the philharmonics. A lot of money is made with that. Apart from classical music, Austria is only associated with Falco, and it’s hard to let go of such deeply engrained traditions.
Yasmo: I am not an expert in the European TV landscape, but I have the feeling this is similar in all of Europe. Except for the UK, and they don’t even belong to the EU anymore. They have some of the same TV-formats, but they don’t just put old white men on TV that make one sexist joke after the other.

Although I do want to mention one positive example: Birgit Denk, who has a talk show in the public broadcasting culture channel. Good hosts make such a difference, because she doesn’t only ask the same old questions: “Hey Yasmo, how did you come up with the name Yasmo and what’s the deal with feminism?”

At least Austria has the radio channel FM4, which plays mostly local and indie music. It is a unique format in Europe. Do you ever talk about this in an international context?

Yasmo: When we play in Germany or Switzerland, some of the bands ask us, “how did you make it onto FM4?”
Mira: FM4 is definitely a priceless institution in Austria, but I do wonder about the relevance of radio in times of streaming, playlists and synching.

Mira Lu Kovacs (Schmied Puls, 5KHD)

There is an entire industry focused on finding out what channels are the right ones to promote music at the moment. How important is it for you to have a team around you?

Mira: Yasmo and I are with the same agency, and I am very happy with them, just because basic things like communication work. But, to a certain degree, you have to stay up-to-date yourself. Being a musician, you have to build a network on and off the stage. Balancing your energy between your artistic and your business obligations can be hard. Especially since artistically, you want to stay vulnerable and open while, in the music business, you have to shut outside energy a bit. Otherwise, you let your value as a human being be defined by how successful or trendy you are.
Yasmo: Before I had my own management team, I had a male pseudonym. Arthur Liter, like “literature”. He answered my e-mails, because he could be much more determined without being labelled as aggressive. If I wrote those e-mail as myself, everyone would be like, “why is she so arrogant? Who does she think she is?” Mira is right — you cannot let all of these influences in the business get to you.

For many people it’s quite shocking when they find out musicians don’t get paid at showcase festivals. How do you see that?

Mira: The benefit of showcase festivals is an interested audience. The idea behind these festivals is praiseworthy. But, often, bands play at showcase festivals, and it doesn’t necessarily help their careers. In that case, the band is actually investing in the industry, and not the other way around.
Yasmo: We were invited to play at Reeperbahn Festival, which didn’t happen for other reasons in the end. But it would have been very costly for our band’s budget, and we usually aspire to pay everyone a small sum for any gig. So that makes it kind of problematic.

On the other hand, there are well-funded events like the Red Bull Music Festival, which pay musicians well. In Austria, there was a controversy around this topic when the musician DJ Resista wrote an open letter to the music industry, criticizing artists who claim to be anti-fascist and against right-wing politics, but will perform for a brand whose founder (Didi Mateschitz) is part of a populist fake news narrative, openly supports Trump and Putin and funds a right-wing nationalist TV channel.

Yasmin Hafdeh (Yasmo & die Klangkantine)

What is your attitude towards playing at events which are corporately-funded or funded by private patrons with questionable political attitudes?

Yasmo: It’s obviously a fine line, because you always struggle financially as an artist, and then well-paid gigs happen under questionable political circumstances. But there is a good way of dealing with this, the band Schapka did a great job at Popfest. They did perform at the Red Bull stage, but, on stage, made an opening statement against the corporation.
Mira: I was in a similarly difficult situation at the Red Bull Music Academy 2016. It’s problematic to whitewash brands like Red Bull with events like these, but, for me personally, it was a really great experience. I heard Chilly Gonzales speak, I met Björk. Outside of Austria people aren’t really aware of who is behind Red Bull.
Yasmo: And I guess it’s a difference if you perform once on a branded stage or if you let them buy you.
Mira: Well, I have been thinking a lot about this lately. And as long as I can afford it, I don’t really want to perform on Red Bull stages anymore. But it’s definitely a tricky situation, because who else has the money to do such experimental and creative programmes?

Is it a solution to discuss publicly about where the money comes from?

Yasmo: Yeah, I think so. That’s what I did at local party for the conservative people’s party. They organized a poetry slam and I was the first slammer. I performed a critical text about the conservative party. It was very uncomfortable for them.
Mira: It’s great opportunity when you’re really eloquent and well spoken, then you can make use of those kind of situations. But sometimes words fail me. I know that when I am too angry to speak in a situation, I probably shouldn’t do the gig.
Yasmo: I know what you mean, I was invited to do a double-interview for an Austrian daily newspaper with the Minister of Women’s affairs. I declined, because I knew it wouldn’t make sense. I studied Gender Studies, but I think her blatant hypocrisy would have just made me speechless.
Mira: Yeah, I get that. If there is no common ground, where do you even start?

Both of you made strong political statements at the Amadeus Austrian Music Awards show. Mira wore a shirt that said “make feminism a threat again” on the red carpet; and Yasmo introduced a large crowd of Austrian female artists on stage during the performance of her political anthem “Girls Wanna Have Fun” in criticism of the low female ratio among nominees and winners of the music awards. Can you describe the reactions?

Yasmo: Funny you should ask. The Amadeus Austrian Music Awards asked me perform “Girls Wanna Have Fun” at this year’s award show. I was like, “I see what you’re doing, you want the feminist message for your show, but you don’t really want to change the power structures of the system”. So, I decided that if they want my political message, they’re going to have to do what I want. I called all the women related to music I could think of to join me on stage.
The director was like, “yeah, cool, feminist statement, but please don’t be as radical as Schmieds Puls last year”. That’s pretty hilarious, because her “radicalism” was literally a t-shirt.
Mira: Hahaha, yeah, now everyone thinks “She is so radical. She’s wild, she probably eats men.”

It’s pretty obvious you don’t hate men. Both of your bands are made up of men.

Mira: But I hate them.
Yasmo: They’re just an accessory to give us more energy on stage.

Mira, your last album was called I Care a Little Less About Everything Now. What changed since your last album? Now you sing a very powerful “Fuck you!” to the world.

Mira: It feels amazing. It’s supposed to be liberating for anyone who sometimes feels stuck in their anger. Most of the time there is a reason for anger. You’re not crazy, it’s really happening and you are allowed to feel angry.

So it’s not really about denunciating something or someone, but about letting anger out to feel good about yourself. Yasmo, your theme “1000 Love” is also somewhat positive.

Yasmo: It’s the recurring theme in all of my music, sometimes more sometimes less. With our last album, I was trying so hard to only put out positively framed messages, because it was during the election for our federal president. I literally thought everyone will vote for the liberal candidate if we just spread the message of love. Since then, the political situation turned even darker, but I still believe in positive energy and the feeling of being part of something. In the past 27 years, I learned that people who build a community can make incredible things happen.
Mira: I think that, a lot of the time, it’s not about the dichotomy of positive versus negative words, but about feeling understood. Anyone who felt threatened by my t-shirt didn’t get it. It doesn’t threaten you if the current climate concerns you, it made you feel understood and part of something. Making space for our feelings – even if they’re anger – and sharing them, can be a cathartic and liberating experience.

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