Kate Zezulka meets up with Charlotte Hatherley to counteract the Spice Girls’ comeback by spreading a little real girl power...
Uh-oh. I can guess where this is going - either there's an audience out there that I've lost already on the basis that this is a "girls with guitars" path or those that have thought a step further and realised most articles waging the 'feminism war' end up reinforcing the stereotypes in a terrific bigotry fest. Luckily enough, Charlotte Hatherley effortlessly fills the shoes of a strong female role-model, preferring rather to talk earnestly about her music than make a big to-do about being a female musician.
From the outset, she's talking music more ardently than most of your average male musicians.
"I've been doing a lot of acoustic gigs but mostly in London and it's usually just me and Jen [Fuse]. For this tour I thought 'I'll get my friend Charley [Stone]' so it's 3 girls, two acoustic guitars, one 12 string and three part harmonies and it's really fun. The album's massively layered so it's just really nice for all the people who know the songs to hear them completely stripped down and sounding a bit more vulnerable."
So does she think it's very important to make live completely different from the record?
"Well if I had it my way I'd play with a 6/7 piece and have it exactly like the record, I'd love to do that but I really can't. Even as a four-piece live, all electric, it sounds totally different - much funkier. You just have to accept that it's never going to be like the record and I can't have, like, 10 backing vocalists on stage!"
Anyone acquainted with any of her previous albums - solo and with bands Ash and Nightnurse - will know 'stripped down acoustic' is quite a big step away from anything Charlotte's really done before, even something she explains she was initially wary of:
"I really didn't want to do a boring 'girls with acoustic guitars' generic thing, but I wrote most of the songs on acoustic guitar anyway and now I'm really into it. Even songs like 'Behave' - on the record 'Behave' is completely detuned, very Bowie/Talking Heads sort of riff - totally work acoustically. All the songs are very melodic and that always comes through when you do it acoustically. And some of the songs I even prefer it, songs like Siberia it's like 'God, I wish I thought to do it in that style' because it's much more beautiful. On the record sometimes I think there's so many ideas going on you don't really focus on the melody so much whereas acoustically that's the main thing you hang on to."
Musically there has obviously been a substantial change in Hatherley's output, and she also describes how she has found working as a solo artist.
"Being in Ash was arrested development really. I joined them when I was 18. I've never had a job, I've never had to worry about the future; I was very secure with Ash. Ash was such a massive touring band, I knew exactly what my life was going to be like for the next 2 or 3 years. It's like joining the circus; I went to Australia, Japan, Thailand and Singapore when I was 19. You travel the world but you don't really see any of it, you're just in this bizarre bubble of hotels, gigs, cars, planes, hotels, gigs cars, planes! We had a tour manager who looked after me and because everyone was so young, all the roadies were very protective. It was like a family and as soon as you're out of that, it's a real shock, as is the case with anything you leave, initially; you think 'how on earth am I going to cope?' but now, I couldn't ever imagine going back to that situation. I'm so completely happy where I am."
She says this with such conviction and so naturally it's very hard to imagine she's anything other than just enjoying the experience. Even during the gig this idea is very much emphasised, as she jokes with her two accompanying guitarists and banters freely with the audience. I ask if she thinks there's particular type of Leeds crowd:
"We always have really good gigs in Leeds. The first two gigs I have this tour have been Stoke and York and yesterday I was thinking 'God I can't wait until Leeds' because the crowds are just much vibier. In Stoke and York they were in to it but they were quite quiet and reserved."
Asking about what plans she has for after the tour, it becomes blindingly clear that her solo projects aren't going to be stopped just yet - rather that she's only starting to get the hang of exactly what she can do post-Ash.
"I sort of feel like I've got two lives to lead: the solo album and then playing with lots of different bands. Because it's come to the end of this album's lifespan, I'm beginning to start writing new songs and getting really into the idea of doing another album but a few months ago I was just really in to being a guitar player, playing with other people. It's very difficult to write on the road, though, especially on tours like this, when it's so low-budget and you're sorting out your own merch, tour managing yourself, driving the van, having to get yourself in to hotels every night, it's exhausting. There's no time to be a musician at the end of it!"
This, inevitably, leads to the question of whether she also finds it tough to be a female musician in such a male dominated industry.
"Actually, it's a blessing being a female guitarist because there aren't that many! I think, aesthetically, people want that look. I've been playing guitar with Bryan Ferry on tour, and he wants to put together a sort of Robert Palmer 'Addicted to Love'-style female band but there aren't that many female guitarists. As soon as you walk in and can play really well it's quite good."
Nonetheless, it hasn't always been quite so rosy, as she recounts the original reaction to her joining Ash:
"They wanted to get away from that 'teenage boy' thing. It was a massive part of their image and I suppose it made it more interesting than just another 4-piece boy rock band. In my first band no one ever made a big deal out of the fact that I was a girl, it was more about the fact that I was so young - I was 15 when I joined. When I joined Ash, the NME headline was like 'It's a girl!' and it was like such a big deal. A lot of female fans really didn't like me and thought I was there because I was shagging Tim or something like that so it was weird but I wasn't ever on stage to take the limelight away from Tim or the boys. I was just doing my own thing, with my hair over my face and I was just playing. I didn't really want to get in there in any way so people warmed to me after that, I think."
Taking Charley Stone and Jen Fuse on this tour must be a bit of a statement, a one-in-the-eye to the type of people who jumped to conclusions when she joined Ash, then?
"Definitely, and we're all fucking good players. I don't think people want to see girls play that way, often. Acoustically it's a different thing, as well, as you can really take notice. We're sitting down - we're not on stage, far away, rocking out - you can really see what we're playing I want people to come to this tour and see me Jen and Charley playing guitar really fucking well and see that there are lots of girls out there who can do it. I really hope people and even girls in the audience can get inspired by that."
And Hatherley and her girls go on that evening to play a breathtaking set; feminism indeed.