Beth Jeans Houghton on Du Blonde, her nervous breakdown and industry sexism

Published in The Independent on June 6, 2015

“We were on tour, and I had really bad death anxiety for about five days, and I hadn’t slept, and I was just going insane – I felt like my brain was spilling out of my head.” Beth Jeans Houghton pauses, and adds: “It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Houghton made charming folk-pop with her band the Hooves of Destiny; their 2012 record, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, was full the sort of whimsical lyrics you’d expect from album called that. But now the 25-year-old is back, having consigned a whole album to the rubbish bin, ditched the band, and completely changed her sound. To christen this phoenix-like reinvention, she’s going by the alias Du Blonde.

She may be rising up again, but Houghton had hit a very low point indeed. On writing the second album, she says: “I’d lost my confidence, and I started taking on too many other people’s opinions. I listened back to what we’d done, and I couldn’t hear myself in it at all. So I trashed the record. I tried to start again and then I had a total breakdown.”

She’d been suffering anxiety while trying to record with the Hooves of Destiny in LA – but squishing her doubts had made just made them come out in distressingly physical ways. “I got really bad swelling of the joints of the jaw. Every time I sang my voice was cracking and out of tune. It’s your body’s way of making you deal with it – it’s like, ‘right, I’m going to fuck something up and then you’re going to have to face it!’”

Face it she did: Houghton starting seeing a psychiatrist, but also stopped drinking, smoking (“very briefly!”), and drinking coffee. And she took a course in transcendental meditation – which she now thinks should be taught in schools. “In the moment the nervous breakdown was actually happening, I thought, ‘either I’m dying or I’m going to be sectioned for the rest of my life’. To now know confidently I can deal with my anxiety is such a good place to be.”

Houghton also took the time to work out where she wanted to be musically. She ripped aside the poetic lyrics that “danced around subjects”; it was time to stop “trying to be clever” and instead be honest. She ditched her prettily clever musical style too – swapping it for direct, powerful rock, albeit still served up with her rich, sonorous vocals. Now her own manager, she also took control over photoshoots and videos. Houghton’s reliably quirky style is more in-your-face than ever: her album cover sees her posing naked but for trainers, a fluffy coat… and a merkin. Du Blonde had arrived.

Houghton wrote the new album – Welcome Back to Milk – in just two weeks “I realised how easy it is to write songs when you’re just being honest,” she says. “I wanted it to be really simple – songs that were good enough that, even if they were just guitars and drums, it would hold your attention.”

She’d been listening to a lot of American hardcore, and got completely obsessed with AC/DC. “The music I’m making now is the music I always wanted to make – but what I was writing was songs with intricate time signatures and chord changes, I put a distorted guitar on it and it didn’t sound right. Then I listened to AC/DC and I was like: ‘Oh! Three chords! It’s so simple! How did I not know?”

She was aided by new producer Jim Sclavunos, of The Bad Seeds, who also plays drums on the record. “Other people I’d worked with [would] want me to sound nice, which I didn’t want to, because I didn’t feel nice. With Jim, he was really good at bringing out my anger.”

The press release for Du Blonde makes her sound very angry indeed – suggesting her rage at everything from music industry misogyny to badly-behaved boyfriends drives the album. In person, Houghton – smaller and more delicate than you’d expect from her fierce videos – is open and calm; candid without being caustic. So how important was the anger?

“It was not so much anger as aggression, and feeling confident to say whatever I wanted to say,” she says. “It’s just standing up for myself. More harnessing power than spitting crap at people.” Still, the punchy Du Blonde persona was born partly in response to everyone in the industry trying to tell her how to look, sound and behave… Houghton is articulately incensed at the sexism that governs the way people behave towards you if you’re a young, blonde-haired woman.

“It’s really disheartening to be talking seriously to someone and then they come out with something really trivial about the way you look. Or [they tell you that] you’re only saying that because you’re emotional, or because you’re on your period! Then you get angry, and they go, ‘oh you’re a diva’. How do I win this?”

Houghton is finding a fruitful release with her new sound, however; she’s even ditching her guitar for live shows, so she can be more of the rock-god frontwoman. Performing this music is cathartic, she says, and she wants to push herself to the extremes.

“Have you seen the video on YouTube where [punk artist] GG Allin comes on stage naked wearing a dog collar and shits on the floor?” I have not, but I can, er, imagine. “I was saying to my mum, that’s not what I want to do, but I want to have the confidence – and also the option, as a woman – to act that way. If I want to pee on the stage, I want to be able to do that.” Her mum was horrified by the suggestion. But Houghton insists, with a self-possessed serenity, that it’s the principle of the thing. “Guys can act that way, girls can’t, because they’re got to be ‘ladies’… I want to totally be in people’s faces.”

‘Welcome Back to Milk’ is out now on Mute. Du Blonde is on tour in the UK from 7 to 11 June and will appear at Deer Shed Festival on 24 July

Where next?