For when you can’t make up your mind on whether to listen to Nancy Sinatra or Nirvana: lovechild Black Honey demands to be heard. Known for their retro film-inspired aesthetic, with guitar riffs to stomp to and catchy choruses to sing to, British quartet Black Honey transports you to the movie set of their world.
After the success of their debut album in 2018, they developed a cult fan-following, and the beginning of this year saw the release of their second studio album, Written and Directed, before they embark on a headline UK tour later this year. Written while touring their first album, it holds some of the group’s heaviest songs to date, whilst retaining the classic Black Honey sound we know and love.
FRONTRUNNER spoke to Black Honey front-woman Izzy B. Phillips about Written and Directed, female empowerment, and accepting that not every day is going to be a ‘boss-bitch day’.
What was it like recording Written and Directed compared to your debut album? Did you learn anything the first time around that you took with you into the creation of this album?
I think trusting that we know Black Honey better than anybody else knows Black Honey. I’m always really open to taking direction. I think I’m quite a good person to direct from a producer’s perspective, but also it was really cool to actually take the reins and be like, “This is what we want to do.” Working with really great collaborative people, who understand that they can trust my vision to a certain extent and also bring something new to the table, was awesome. I mean, this producer was so good, I never heard the band sound like how he made Chris and Tommy sound on some of the songs. Just the way that he could make them play in the room was a whole different thing. A completely new thing, which was really exciting for me being like, “Wow I’ve seen these guys play for our whole lives and now you sound like this whole other dimension to it,” which is so cool.
I have to ask – is it true that you put your literal blood, sweat and tears into one of the vinyl editions of your album?
Tell me about that, please!
Basically, we booked a trained phlebotomist. A lot of medical students get trained in it because it’s something that they’ll just have to do all the time. We found someone who was trained and we brought her round to Chris’s house. It was in the gap before lockdown two or lockdown three last year. We took our blood (which was actually quite a simple and straightforward procedure), because trying to do the sweat and the tears was, honestly, a mission! We were like, “We’ll just use some onions, make ourselves cry and then pipette the tears off.” It was awful. It ended up like back-scraping everyone’s sweat in a tube, to catch the sweat. Then it’s just sweat with flecks of skin floating in it. So, it’s blood, sweat and tears, with some skin flakes.
I’m guessing that was symbolic, feeling like you’ve put everything into this album.
I just really like the idea. IDLES did this one where he pressed his mum’s ashes into the record, the record that was about his mum, so it really completes the artistic process to have a little thing at the end of the vinyl that represents what you’ve made. So, the blood, sweat and tears thing felt so like Tarantino’s Grindhouse. It just felt so ridiculous, but something I really just wanted to do.
Speaking of, there’s an obvious nod to Quentin Tarantino with this album that fits with the cinematic aesthetic that you’ve created for yourself through your videos and your album artwork. I was wondering, do you take inspiration from films?
Yeah, 100 percent. I love watching movies and I think that’s something I maybe came to quite late. While I write songs, I often just watch movies in the background. I watch them repeatedly, like in a kind of obsessive way. I can watch one movie all day like seven times over and have it just on and be doing stuff and be like just letting it absorb into me.
What’s the relationship for you between film and music?
I think it’s my imaginary, escapist place that I have. I think music makes your life feel like you’re living in a movie: when you walk down the street, you put AC/DC on and you’re like, “I’m going to kick some ass today.” That’s a film. Every other song in the world is like a different theme of film, in its own right. That’s what connects me with music, because it just brings this cinematic quality to your experience of everyday life.
On that same thread, you’ve created a very distinctive sound that is often described as sounding ‘Black Honey’. Who are your main influences musically?
I love Blondie, I love Nancy Sinatra or the kind of femme-fatales. Then, I like rock music, like Nirvana. 60’s psyche was a really big thing and there was a whole era of neo-psyche that we got into back in the day. It’s quite eclectic and I feel musically, we like to reflect that or pay homage to the artists that we love. We cherry-picked this bassline in Fire that sounds a little bit like a Lou Reed bassline. Those kinds of things make me happy because I reference my heroes, not in a rip-off way, though. I have vague memories of sitting on the school bus as a kid, listening to pop-punk and trying to pick out what a bassline sounded like, and being like, “What is a bassline?” Then being like, “What is a snare? Can I hear the snare? Which one’s the snare?” I just remember doing that quite a lot as a kid. Then I remember I programmed ringtones for my friends in school, that was my thing!
In Believer, one of the first singles released from the album, you sing, “I was born right here on the outside looking in.” Do you consider yourself an outsider?
One hundred percent, stoked that you picked up on that lyric. I like that phrase because it reminds me of the song “First Day of My Life” by Conor Oberst. He’s like, “I was born right here in this doorway.” I love the idea that the way that you’re born is just what you are. Me and my friends always talk about nature versus nurture, and I think that nature plays a way bigger component in things than we give it credit for. We don’t like to think that. We like to think that we can outgrow ourselves in the way that we are harvested. But in reality, biologically, these things are like, “I was born right here, on the outside looking in.” Literally, I’m here and I have moved and I’m still that, I think I’ll always be that. It’s also about owning it and being comfortable with that space, because anyone that can identify with loner-ism or outsider-ness really feels a sense of isolation. So, I really wanted to bring that outsider feeling into a bit more of a empowering perspective.
How have you found lockdown?
Honestly, up and down. I’m housesitting in London at the moment. I don’t live here normally, I live in my mum’s house. I just spent the first half of the year gardening and the second half I spent between here and my cousin’s house in London. Just ended up basically writing a bit for other people, doing creative consultancy and then having some holidays where I just stayed in bed watching Netflix. I just cannot function at the same creative rate that I used to, it’s only just now that I’ve started to feel like that’s OK. For ages, I was really punishing myself about it and now I’m like, “OK, you’re not always going to have a boss-bitch day, every day.” Accepting that is a good step. I think that’s why the album’s been such a blessing, because I’ve had something to do. To the outside world, it looks like I’m putting out all this stuff. It looks like I’m really busy, but in reality I’ve had the lowest, questions and not being creative and been really down. I’ve got a dog, so that really helped!
Alongside your new album, you’ve just announced a tour for later this year. I imagine this past year it must have been difficult not being able to tour, as that’s such a huge part of what you do.
Yeah, it feels like it’s happening to somebody else a bit, still. I’m firstly excited just to see my band and get together with them. We’re going to go around all the record shops and do some signings, have some photos, just hang out and have a glass of beer together, do you know what I mean? What we like doing and that’ll be great and to start with that. After that, I’ll be really looking forward to getting them in the rehearsal studio and making things sound good, which is what we do. Then seeing how I feel about touring after that, ’cause now I’m just like, “It’s happening, it’s not happening.” I can’t even get my head around it right now.
I actually saw you play live when you were supporting Catfish and the Bottlemen back in 2016. That’s how I became a fan of yours.
And I know you’ve also toured with bands like Royal Blood and Queens of the Stone Age, so I was wondering if you have any favourite anecdotes from touring or any show rituals?
Our pre-show ritual’s always been a shot of tequila before we go on. We have a band hug where we do a prayer to Bowie for some reason, and then sometimes and then after that we used to kiss our drummer’s head, that was just a weird thing that we used to do.
My favourite tour anecdote, there’s so many and it’s really hard to pick one out, but I did have a flashback the other day to this day that we were in Barcelona when we’d just played a 10,000-capacity arena with Royal Blood. It was Halloween, so the whole crew, everyone was dressed up as robots and cats and God-knows-what. All the crew came into our tour bus, I was painting everyone’s make-up and I was just like, “This is the life. I’ve literally made it, getting the whole crew in drag!” Then we went out on a big bender. But everyone got so wasted, I had to put Tom in a taxi, then I had to put Tommy in a taxi five minutes later. Tom gets back to the bus without any cash and somehow lost his wallet in the transition. Our tour manager has to come out, collect him (as he’s about to be arrested), then paid off the taxi and talked the police down. She puts him in the van – for whatever reason he gets completely naked – and starts running up and down the tour bus, after which he cuts his shin open, starts bleeding everywhere. We had to go to hospital the next day and get a tetanus jab for him. Meanwhile, us at the club, we come back at 5am, it’s pouring rain and we’ve been completely locked out of the entire arena. This is me with Mike from Royal Blood, and Sam (our videographer, who’s dressed as a spaceman.) We had to army-roll in this mud pile underneath the fences, then climb over these huge six-foot fences. I’m standing on Mike’s shoulders, we’re building stacks of people to climb over and break in. Obviously, we get shut down by security once we get in, who just did not believe that it was us that had just played the show that night. We had to get all our tour managers out of bed to come and prove that it was us.
You must be exhausted when you come home from tour!
I am, but at the same time, I think I’m one of those people that always function with a manic-on and manic-off switch. It’s only now in lockdown that I’m realising that the level and the pace, the sprinting, manic level I used to do things – I had to get a weird kick out of playing a show in a random country. Getting a flight back, then going straight into the studio the next day and writing a song when I’m delirious and not even thinking about it. That, for me, is actually quite creative. Whereas doing nothing is super uncreative for me, so that’s something that’s going to have to have a readjustment to, for sure. I reckon I would like to take a bit more of a measured approach to what I do with my time and my downtime. I think everyone’s going to be like that, and people are going to be more accommodating when they’re like, “I need a day, just to wind down”, or whatever.
You’ve said before that you’ve often struggled to get into your own gigs because they don’t believe that you are part of the band. Tell me about that.
I think it literally happened on the same Royal Blood tour. Yeah, I’ve been kicked out. I always think if I was going to be a groupie – I hate the word groupie anyway, but that’s how they see me – they’re just like, “You’re someone that’s sleeping with the band”, or “You’re a psycho fan.” I would be the most eccentrically-dressed person to be trying to get into the show! But, I think it’s not uncommon. If you ask any other women in bands – I mean, you can have a full backstage triple pass on you or whatever, and I still had to get my crew to come and help me get into the show.
How do you react to that?
I think that’s the trouble, isn’t it? It’s really easy to fall into that, you’re the “psycho girl,” just going mental and validating your angry, man-hating feelings. I definitely did do that. I think I didn’t give myself much glory in those situations. I probably went a bit low, and was like, “Fuck you! You’re a fucking misogynist!” I remember just shouting before and just being angry, and it’s not a good look is it? It’s really hard to compose yourself in those situations. Things to work on though, I feel like I’m getting better at it. One of the big things to do is call on your allies in those situations and get your allies to help you to those conversations. Listening to a man say, “Hey, it’s not appropriate to do this – it’s wrong,” but also, they will hear it more than if a woman is saying it to a man. So, I think that’s my next going forward approach. But yeah, I did lose my rag, sometimes.
I read that you’ve said you want this album to make young women feel powerful. Is that a message that you intentionally set out to convey or did it just so happen that that kept coming up?
For Fire, I knew that I was going to do something for women, that’s the only one where I was like, “I need to summarise this, somehow.” I still don’t know if I’ve fully done that with this song, but I think it’s the closest I’ve come; the whole idea of actions speak louder than words. I feel like the action of making the record with the ferocity that I feel like I have does the job, it’s the messaging. I don’t want to preach. I hate people who are preachy in songs. No one wants to be U2. It’s a hopeful thing. If they can take that from it then I’m like, fuck yeah! That’s my dream, that someone will be like, “I told my buddy to stand down because of this song.” That would be the absolute peak, wouldn’t it? That’s why I love shows. People tell you all their stories and their relationships that they have with your songs, which usually you’re just like, “Oh, cool, you’re a Spotify number,” but now you’re a real person and that’s really awesome.
I saw your tweet on International Women’s Day quoting Kurt Cobain, “I love the comfort in knowing that women are the future of rock and roll.” Do you have any advice for young women starting out in the industry?
I’d change my advice a lot. I don’t have one thing that I say. But today I feel like, you’ve got this amazing female intuition – you’ve got to value that and honour that. You are worthy, you deserve everything. You deserve to be on that stage just as much as a fucking white dude surrounded by white dudes in skinny jeans. This is your stage and it’s yours for the taking, so go and fucking take it.
Finally, are there any bands or artists that you think more people should know about?
I was going to say Arlo Parks, but I feel like she’s very known now! I’m obsessed with her, literally heard her record and was like, “Oh God, I’ve got to quit music now, that’s ended the game.” I feel so spoken to in such an intimate way in her songs. I also think Nova Twins are shit-hot. We took them on tour a while back and I’m a huge fan of theirs. I just remember the first day I saw them play and was just like, “Oh my God, this is mind-blowingly good. This is surely going to explode!” And I think it’s going to. I think it will.