Interviewing Louise Distras and Hannah McFaull
by Vanessa Willoughby
Acoustic punk artist Louise Distras is fully aware of the power of her platform. The drive to speak out is in the lifeblood of her music. The Wakefield, England native recently released her debut album, Dreams From the Factory Floor, via Pirate Records. Dreams doesn’t shy away from utilizing music’s ability to function as protest. It’s a bold album of both urgency and resolution, meant to shake the listener’s mind from comfortable, lulling satiety. Since her album’s release, she’s embarked on her first US tour and is scheduled to perform at Outcider Festival in Somerset, UK, in addition to other venues.
The aforementioned LP is a take-no-prisoners, gravelly indictment of capitalism, consumerism, sexual discrimination, and overall malevolent elitism. Although people have compared her to Brody Dalle and Courtney Love, Louise told The Guardian she’d rather consider comparisons to Joe Strummer or Billy Bragg. She’s partnered with the nonprofit organization Justice Now, who work with people in women’s prisons and local communities harmed by policing and imprisonment, in order to challenge violence and human rights abuses. Hannah McFaull, currently the Director of Development and Communications of Justice Now, first met Louise three years ago at a music festival. Hannah’s dad, Colin McFaull, is the singer for UK punk band Cock Sparrer. Being a veteran of this particular festival, Hannah was amazed to meet another woman in the punk world who was not only around her age, but also shared similar values.
“I really respect Louise for really staying true to who she is and what she believes in,” says Hannah.
Winter Tangerine spoke with both women and learned that although music doesn’t always have to be political, common beliefs and morals have a way of magnetizing two music lovers.
Winter Tangerine: What attracted you to punk? How did it first enter your life? And how did it shape it?
Louise Distras: Punk entered my life when I heard Nirvana's debut record Bleach for the first time aged twelve.
It was the first time I ever heard music that gave me the feeling that I wasn't alone, and it empowered me with a sense that another world was possible which I could create for myself, and on my own terms without fear of prejudice.
WT: How old were you when you got your first guitar?
LD: I was around twelve or thirteen. My first guitar was like Kurt Cobain's, some kinda Jaguar.
WT: What’s your favorite song and favorite album, from any genre?
LD: I don't really have a favourite, however right now I'm mostly listening to old classics; Queen, The Beatles, Lou Reed, ELO and Tom Petty. The songwriting is incredible.
WT: Who do you look up to in the music industry?
LD: I don't look up to anyone in the music industry, however there are artists who came before me that I admire and respect very much. In particular, Joan Jett, Dolly Parton, Steve Whale (The Business), Tim Armstrong (Rancid), Lydia Lunch, Freddie Mercury, New Model Army, and John Lydon (PIL), because in my eyes their art represents truth, freedom, integrity and fearlessness.
WT: How do you feel about mainstream media’s sudden fascination with feminism? It seems that magazines, from Vogue to Rolling Stone, make it a point to ask women if they’re feminists. Do you think that feminism can comfortably exist within punk?
LD: What fascination? Vogue and Rolling Stone are two highly influential and powerful magazines that continuously fuel the fire of negative female stereotypes within the mainstream media.
In 2011, Sexuality and Culture Magazine conducted a study of 1000 Rolling Stone front covers to examine whether they equally or unequally sexualised both men and women over a period of time. The results showed that only 2% of men were hypersexualised over the entire data set (43 years) and in contrast 83% of women were hypersexualised.
If 'sex sells' then why do 30% of Rolling Stone's cover features include women?
If Vogue magazine is so fascinated with feminism, why do they publish front covers that promote gender violence (2013)? Instead of asking women if they are feminists, perhaps they should be holding themselves accountable for the toxic messages and images they are sending out, and instead provide some kinda alternative viewpoint by using their power to plant positive seeds in the green minds of their readers.
Sexism isn't a punk issue, it's an inherent human issue and as long as sexism exists, feminism will always be relevant in and outside of the punk scene.
WT: Is there a separation between your activism and your music? Do you make it a point to treat them as two different entities?
LD: I've never once considered myself an activist because I'm not here for political reasons, I'm here for artistic reasons, and like any other artist I am a product of my environment, holding up a mirror to the world around me. Then again some might say, the personal is the political.
WT: What challenges have you faced in your career thus far, and how have you defeated them?
LD: Something only becomes a problem, when you view it as a problem and be the change that you wish to see.
WT: Do you think that the best songs only come from personal, lived experience?
LD: No, I feel that the best songs come straight from the heart.
WT: Do you prefer intimate gigs in small venues or festivals such as Glastonbury? What are the advantages and disadvantages to each?
LD: I feel that shows can be equally as intimate or as disconnected in either environment, both kindsa shows are what the artist and the audience make of it together. The best kind of shows are when everyone is having fun and vibrating on the same frequency, this can happen at small venues, festivals or even in the streets, which is where punk comes from in the first place.
One thing I will say about festivals though, is that there is usually catering and catering is good.
WT: What are five things you must always have while you’re out on the road?
LD: In order of importance: guitar, guitar strings, transport, something to eat, something to sleep on.
WT: How did you choose the title for your LP 'Dreams from the Factory Floor'?
LD: There are a million reasons to feel divided whether it be race, gender, class, but the one thing that unites us together as one human consciousness is that we all have the same hopes and dreams for a better life and a better future.
WT: What song best embodies your artistic motivations?
LD: My debut single 'The Hand You Hold.'
WT: What was the best part about recording your debut?
LD: The best part about recording Dreams from the Factory Floor was that I learned a lot about making an album and I'm forever grateful for the opportunity to grow and receive an incredible wealth of knowledge passed down to me from everyone that was involved throughout the whole process.
WT: Where is the strangest or most unexpected place that you found inspiration for Dreams from the Factory Floor?
LD: I remember one particular day when producer Steve and myself were working on some pre-production for the song 'Love Me the Way I Am', Steve suggested that we should add some kind of subliminal African sounding drums. We roughly demo'd the idea using a plugin and the sound felt good, but we had no idea where we would find someone who could play these elusive African style drums on the studio recording.
Anyway, we wrapped up for the day and went to the pub. We walked through the door, and low and behold there was a guy playing African drums. His name was Dave, and a few weeks later he joined us in the studio. Some folks call it a coincidence but I'm a big believer in synchronicity and that things always happen in the exact moment and in the exact way that they are supposed to.
WT: How did you get involved with Justice Now? How do your beliefs align with the organization?
LD: I had the pleasure of meeting Hannah from Justice Now at Rebellion Festival in (I think) 2012, where she gave me an insight into the prison system and life on the inside for mothers, sisters, and their families and communities. Our partnership came together under the shared vision of sisterhood, and social, political and economic equality for all women.
Pirates Press Records have also been extremely supportive and even donated ten test pressings of my debut record, that we have made available for auction over the course of my USA tour, with all funds from each auction being donated to Justice Now. For more information on Justice Now and how you can get involved, check out www.justicenow.org.
WT: How has social media played a part in social justice issues such as the arrest of Pussy Riot, police brutality, etc.?
LD: I suppose on the face of it you could say that 'social media' brings people together and plays a huge role in spreading messages of social and political justice to wider worldwide audiences, this is a positive thing of course. However, I remain wary sometimes because there are a lot of invisible toxic forces at play within the mainstream media, so some might say the best option is to dig deeper for the third, fourth or even fifth story in order to realise what it is that's really going on.
WT: Now that your album is out, what’s next?
LD: Right now I'm about halfway through my first ever tour of the USA. I'm having an absolute blast playing to lots of people who are hearing my music for the first time, but also overwhelmed by the fact that there are so many people coming out to the shows who already have my record, going crazy, and singing along to all the songs. I am very happy and grateful for this amazing opportunity to be in this wonderful country, and also to share the stage with Bryan McPherson on all of these shows. He's an incredible punk poet, and I highly recommend anyone reading this to check out his music.
Right now we are wrapping up the east coast shows and tomorrow we start travelling west, towards our final destination Los Angeles, where we will be bringing the noise to Boardners on 9 July.
Upon returning to the UK I'll be joining The Buzzcocks for a couple of solo shows, followed by a return to the 'Dreams' studio to work with producer Steve Whale and engineer Pat Collier on some brand new tracks. After the studio, it's Rebellion Festival in Blackpool where I'll be joined by my new badass backing band (Jamie Oliver of UK SUBS on drums and Chema Zurita of UK SUBS/Texas Terri Bomb/Love Zombies on bass), followed by a full band UK/mainland Europe tour this fall and there's even stuff in the works for my first ever SE Asian tour later on this Winter. It's all go go go and I couldn't be happier and more grateful for the opportunities to spread this music and message as far as possible. Thanks so much for interviewing me today, it's been cool!
Winter Tangerine: How long have you been involved with Justice Now?
Hannah McFaull: I moved to the Bay Area about 5 years ago, and started as an intern with Justice Now at the start of 2013. Being part of the JNow intern program was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had - particularly during the last leg of the fight against illegal sterilization abuse in CA women’s prisons.
WT: When was the organization established and how long has it been operating?
HM: Justice Now was founded in 2000 with the vision of building a world where people can live without fear and violence in thriving communities, where the human rights of all people are honored and true gender justice is realized. To achieve this, we partner with people most oppressed and invisibilized in the prison system - people in women’s prisons. We work with people in women’s prisons as they understand both interpersonal and state violence, often being survivors of both. We are the first teaching law clinic in the country focusing on working with people in women’s prisons, and the only organization with a majority of Board Members currently in or recently released from prison.
WT: What made you want to become involved with this organization?
HM: Growing up in a working class community in East London, my eyes were opened at a young age to the harms that violence, racism and sexism do to individuals, families and communities. A very perceptive kid, I knew when adults said someone we knew had ‘gone away’, it meant they were in prison.
And the kids who were ending up in the prisons were not the white, rich kids that were turning bits of East London into a hipster paradise, but the kids of color who saw their communities gentrified, their peers murdered on the streets and their families ripped apart by the criminal legal system. Growing up in the punk community, I also met people happy to talk to me about their experiences with the prison system. I started to see a disconnect between what I was learning about prisons and what mass media was telling me.
I began to see the prison system as an interwoven web of proof of the different ways we fail each other, and the myriad of ways society fails us. I also saw it as a way of controlling communities of people that didn’t fit into the accepted ideal of what makes a ‘good person’; targeted and criminalized for being poor, for being black, for being trans or gender non-conforming, for having “too many” kids, for needing mental health support. Prisons started to look like warehouses to me. Violent and oppressive warehouses.
Then I moved to America and the whole issue took a very extreme refocus. I found Justice Now by asking someone about a bumper sticker they had that said ‘Ask Me About Prison Abolition’. After talking, I realized that the way I felt about the prison system had a name - I was a prison abolitionist. I applied to the Justice Now internship program the next day and have never left.
WT: How does Justice Now provide aid to women prisoners beyond legal representation?
HM: Justice Now mobilizes a movement and transforms lives within California’s women’s prisons and youth targeted for imprisonment through innovative programs that build civic power among people in women’s prisons and our communities. Our programs are led by people in prison working in collaboration with our interns, who are chosen from communities targeted for imprisonment. We provide direct legal services to help people access basic healthcare, to document and protect their human rights, and to challenge the ways the prison system disrupts people’s human right to family. We advocate for people who are terminally ill to be released so they can die with dignity and be with their loved ones.
Our media and communication policy centers the voices and stories of people in women’s prisons. They are our spokespeople, our mentors and our family. Our campaign work is led by Co-Director Misty Rojo, who first started working with Justice Now during her ten-year sentence at the world’s biggest women’s prison, in Chowchilla, CA. We are working towards bringing staff to the team who have direct lived experience of surviving the violence of prison. Justice Now has the country’s first Legal Advocacy and Social Justice Fellowship, supporting people coming home from prison to get training and develop skills to lead our movement on the outside of prison walls.
WT: What are the alternatives to the prison industrial complex? How can they be implemented? How does individual accountability factor into this?
HM: I could write pages and pages in response to this question - but I won’t. Instead this awesome analysis from our allies at Critical Resistance answers it succinctly:
“The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.”
WT: How does systematic and institutionalized racism and discrimination factor into the prison industrial complex?
HM: Again, I’d rather share the words of Critical Resistance:
“Through its reach and impact, the Prison Industrial Complex helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant. This power is also maintained by earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces; helping earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; and eliminating social and political dissent by oppressed communities that make demands for self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.”
WT: What is your biggest individual accomplishment within the organization, to date? What is Justice Now’s biggest success, as a whole, thus far?
HM: Through our partnerships and our participatory human rights research, Justice Now documented a disturbing trend in coercive sterilization of women of color and masculine identified people in California’s women’s prisons, including an ongoing and illegal policy to sterilize people during labor and delivery and multiple incidences of people being sterilized without knowledge during unrelated abdominal surgeries. Justice Now was central in exposing over 100 documented instances of sterilization abuse in California prisons in recent years, and worked with legislators to pass a bill making this abuse illegal. This significant success marked the culmination of years of work documenting sterilization abuse and working to end all the ways California’s prison system stands in the way of genuine gender, racial, and economic justice. The fact that certain pieces of the law, including access to a second opinion by a doctor who doesn’t work for the prison, were written by people currently imprisoned is an additional success!
WT: What other organizations does Justice Now work with?
HM: We are part of a growing global movement against imprisonment and violence, and work closely with some inspirational and amazing organizations across the social justice, human rights, reproductive justice and anti-violence movements. We are a proud member of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a coalition of over 70 organizations who campaign against prison expansion and to direct funding into communities instead. We also work closely with the Transgender, Gender-variant, Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) who are doing incredible work for trans liberation and partner with trans and gender nonconforming people in prisons and jails.
We also regularly partner with local artists through our Art and Activism program, using poetry, music, theatre, comedy and other art forms, to share our message. We are thrilled to be partnering with Louise Distras to celebrate her album release and promote our shared vision for the world we want to live in. Her music embodies the fight and drive of so many of the badass activists we work with inside. We took copies of her lyrics for ‘The Hand You Hold’ and ‘Love Me The Way I Am’ into prison and people have used them as inspiration for other pieces of art - they have even been translated into other languages so more people can get involved!