Eve Rakow :: Delicate Snarling Artfag Beasty [JHB]
Eve Rakow is not as scary in person as I thought she would be. I meet her in a sleazy pink-lit Chinese restaurant in Emmarentia, shielded by my Alice notebook from the feisty subject I think I’ll meet. Instead she smiles and embraces me as if we were old friends from way-back adventures in the sandpit.
Peruse images of her and you will find deserted expressions, growls, contortionist poses, a hooded fiend, a capped punk yelling into a microphone, a blonde-haired mod wrapped in a fire hose – a forlorn, aggressive, enigmatic sprite.
But far from the snarling artfag crazy-eyed beasty I’ve come to know in her many stage personas that I expect to be leaning all non-chalantly up against the wall with a cigarette hanging from her lips, Rakow is slight and fragile in person. Though delicate, she can rip out a lurking beast when the need arises.
In spite of forays in androgyny, obscure videos on Youtube, bizarre costumes and whack personas, rising to the elite of Jo’burg artistic mastery and chilly trysts on roofs in the inner-city, Eve Rakow is rather down-to-earth.
To my disappointment, she tells no tales of sex, drugs or general artistic madness, but rather paints for me a shambolic mix of her personal passion and lusty desire for creative accomplishment, while ideas that she has no means of taming spout through her teeth in short orgasmic bursts.
You may recognize Rakow from Jo’burg bowling alleys circa-2008, from her stint in the neon-loving party band – “my band – what a big word for that thing that we did in varsity” – Love on Rollerskates. The band turned spandex and disco into cool before the rest of us even knew how to say “shuttershades”.
Then, in the Kolo Novo Balkonology era came the gypsy-nouveu-on-acid Frown Family Caravan with Gustavo Fasani. “When the Frown Family Caravan dissolved I was a little bit terrified. Through that I realized that music was what I wanted to do with my life, but it never felt like that was the project.”
When Waddy Jones saw a video of one of her self-made tracks, Rakow says, “he was like ‘this is next level shit – you must come open for me’.” Shortly after that she was opening for Die Antwoord in Cape Town.
“It was only my second show. I knew then that I needed to fatten up my beats, and the only person I thought could do it was Tim Apter.” The Frown, as we know it, was born.
Rakow has since become a mythical beast, owing partly to a series of stories spun around her eccentricities on Mahala and partly to the oblique, love-them-or-hate-them personas flaunted by the Frown on stage.
But cut back to living-room matinees to old records for her mom who was a “little bit of a Liz Taylor with the men”, pan over a childhood in Alberton, where as she puts it, “I was this very strange, strange girl,” and stick that image into a montage of her not quite fitting in in the sticks of southern Jo’burg, and there you have a familiar fable of small-town girl hits the big time. But it wasn’t always easy.
“I always felt I was a weirdo for liking the things I liked, listening to the music I listened to, for dressing like I did. School was hard for me. I had a strong personality but I felt very isolated from people, and there was nothing I could relate to.”
Fast forward over a Drama degree at Wits, where “what a cliché – I found myself at arts school”, and we get the gist of how Rakow discovered herself. It opened her mind, she confesses: “It was the first time I was accepted by a community of people, the first time people were listening to me. My ideas weren’t absurd, I had something to offer.”
Rakow always saw herself as an actress. But music was something that popped up and hijacked her fate – just in time. “As an actress you’re not really in charge of your destiny – you’re a hanger for other people’s ideas. At a certain point it didn’t feel right.”
Rakow knew that she was meant to be a performer, but it was only later on that she realized it would be as a musician.
“My mom was never one of those moms who made me take piano lessons.” But when Rakow met her best friend Melody – the irony is not lost on her – she fell in love with music.
“I would go on drives with her and her brother and father and they would break out into three-part harmony. But music was always this unobtainable thing. People often get indoctrinated to stick to what they’re good at instead of trying to be good at what you really love.”
With her abstract vocal style and forays into difficult genres, music was not something that just fell into her lap.
She professes to being influenced by many of those artists to whom she is often compared. But the addition of her mix of genres and musical ideologies separates her timbre of squeaking and booming from that comparison.
“I was definitely influenced musically by all the girls that taught me how to sing, and that it’s okay to have a strange voice: Bjork, Joanna Newsom, Coco Rosie, Fiona Apple. And – yes – Lady Gaga – I don’t care. But there are so many ideals that we share – the idea of anti-beauty.”
Though she pictures herself as an asexual beast, she can’t help but be as sexy as hell.
Like Gaga, she has switched between androgyny and overt sexuality at the flip of a hat, from wearing paper ball gowns with tuxedo shirts to being completely invisible to the crowd, cutting off her wild hair and wearing trousers that let her ankles stick out above a pair of – well are they Doc Martens or Vellies? I can’t really tell. Rakow attributes her stage garb to her love for revolting vintage clothing “that looks like it has a seedy story”.
In her spare time she has turned the place formerly known as Bob Rocks into the flagship for the dispossesed indie kids of the Tokyo Star days, driving retro/indie/suicide parties on week nights and weekends.
“The beauty of Bob Rocks is that it’s absolutely revolting. It’s this really ugly dog that I’ve fallen in love with,” she says.
She is generally cool and calm, but the tortured artist rears its head when she contemplates the inspiration for her songs. For Rakow, Robyn is one of those tracks that tears at her insides.
“I have the strangest relationship with the track Robyn. She was just the person who, no matter how hard I tried, just wouldn’t love me. She just couldn’t see the soft side of me, she would always sees the things she didn’t like and it just killed me.” All of her songs are metaphors for life, but Rakow rarely uses actual characters in these.
Her ballad to Robyn became Apter’s masterpiece. “It was the simplest song, and Tim took it and made it into his opus with a hundred different time signatures in it. The only person who can sing it perfectly is Tim. That’s our relationship in a song – taking an idea I have and running with it in the opposite direction, and me running after him going ‘what are you doing!?’ It’s this delicate little journey of finding balance and not compromising too much.”
“The Frown is defined by how different our musical tastes are. There are very few things that we see eye to eye on in the music world- but that’s what makes it so interesting. My songs always start out as Folk. And then Tim takes them to some other place.”
It’s in the musical relationship between Apter’s wild heavy beats and Rakow’s tender lyrical imaginings where the magic of the Frown’s live performances is made.
But when fans started agitating for music to take home after shows, they realised the need for an album. “It was stupid that the only way people could hear our music was at a live show. So the plan was to record a little five-track demo and do free digital downloads – albums feel a bit archaic.” But down in Illovo, Shane Durrant had a little pot of Howl brewing.
“He wanted to start an independent record – and it’s just the kind of music he wanted to put out there.” And so, A-men became the first album to be released on Howl records.
Rakow swears by collaborations like these that move in and out of the Frown’s orbit. “I’m always making sure that somebody else somewhere is thinking of the Frown or working for the Frown”.
From printmaker Niall Bingham who did the linocut artwork for the album, to Jean-Michel Wickli who allows the mad imaginings of Eve Rakow’s mind to materialise in set design for performances, to photographers Liam Lynch, Chris Saunders and Justin Mcgee – three photographers with “three completely different energies” – who through their works have conceptualized different personas of the Frown, there are always creatives helping to mould the Frown’s identity.
Fans and haters alike can look forward to a graphic novel in the works by Derrick Pitts which conjures up the dark fantastical mythology behind the Frown as a post-apocalyptic band, playing on the collective ominous mood derived from fears of Armageddon and capturing the tragedy in the Frown’s sound.
Their recent cover of N.E.R.D.’s Rockstar has sparked interest in cover lovers around the globe.
The cover went international as sites around the globe picked up on their viscerous interpretation. “N.E.R.D.’s Rockstar is such a killer track. And I thought it would be interesting to turn something so misogynistic and brash and verbose into something really small and sad.”
But she hasn’t grown that thick layer of skin to deflect the shit that hundred of self-proclaimed critics hurl at her via the Mahala comment feeds. “I’ve actually banned myself from reading that – I’m such a softie and everything penetrates – if it didn’t I wouldn’t be able to make music,” she says.
“I’ve always said I want to make the kind of music that affects. We definitely don’t make the kind of music that’s for everyone. But for every bad comment there’s someone who’s defending us. I often wish I could make music with mass appeal because life would be much easier. But I make this music because this is the kind of music that I make – this is the music that comes out.”
At least, for now – we can expect a lot more of that coming out. “This is it. I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.”
“In Cape Town they’ve got the mountain, the sea, this landscape, this amazing nightlife – there’s no desperation to interact with other people. It’s really easy to explain to people why you love Cape Town. It’s right there. Johannesburg, however – there’s something deeper. I love it here. There’s something in the air, a strange energy that makes Jo’burg…. There’s something… you know…”
“In Johannesburg it’ s all about our interaction with other people, our relationships – that’s what all the collaborations are about. It’s all we really have here in Jo’burg. It’s the people here that matter.”
“There are so many new spots that the city is so open to embracing. There are always new things popping up all over the place. Jo’burg takes these places, like Arts on Main, that no-one was coming to, and gives them a second chance. That’s the beautiful thing about Jo’burg in general. It doesn’t matter what you like – I promise you there is someone here and some little scene that’s there for you. If a weirdo like me can find a little niche… There’s so much here. No matter who you are.”
Eve’s Jo’burgers to watch:
“There are a lot of amazing things happening here. Shane [Durrant] and Angie [Durrant Batis] at Wolves have created a whole industry out of something that they love. Even Tim is incredible – he’s not just in The Frown. He has Double Adapter, he owns a post-production company, he is just everywhere. And people like Russell Grant, who does the Bioscope.”
A lot of people that are in the music industry at the moment are from Pretoria. Does that count? Aren’t the like the same thing? Us Kids Know and Shortstraw are awesome. A Skyline On Fire just blew my mind the other night. Of course, always Joao Orrecchia.