The songs off Weird Sister—Joanna Gruesome’s full-length debut—imitate a kind of conversation. With Alanna McArdle and Owen Williams often pairing their respective lyrics, harmonies link two halves of inner dialogue over a dissonant danceability that veers toward pop-punk without getting too tender.
After parting ways with the band in 2015, McArdle continued to carry on her side of the conversation independently. Having written about music, mental health, and her experiences in Joanna Gruesome, Evans of Death, and Ides for Talkhouse and Noisey, she’s back in school pursuing her current craft of choice: poetry. McArdle is currently earning her Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing from University of Oxford, periodically publishing work through the likes of Shabby Doll House and The Chapess Zine. Last year, her poem “Close Enough To Animal As I Could Be,” accompanied an instrumental track by MKSEARCH, the solo moniker of Perfect Pussy veteran Ray McAndrew.
We spoke about her recent work, in which she considers a phenomenon that she detected while watching and rewatching nature documentaries: the tendency to assign language and behaviors specific to the human condition to animality. In dissecting the sinister element of likening animals to human beings, which arguably reduces the complex hardships of humanity, McArdle chips away at the serene, stoner appeal of programs like Planet Earth. Disclaimer: David Attenborough’s voice will never sound the same. —Cory Lomberg
How did you develop an interest in writing poetry? Did that precede you making music or did it follow?
Alanna McArdle:I started writing poetry definitely a really long time ago, but it was bad. When I was in my first band, which was when I was 16, I started writing lyrics by basically going through poems that I had written and turning them into lyrics. When music became more serious and more of a time-consuming part of my life, writing poetry drifted away from my list of priorities, I guess. It was only when I’d stopped being in bands that I started writing and writing more seriously and seeing it as something that I could do. Being in a band became very overwhelming and my time was basically fully taken up by either working or touring.
Do you have distinctive processes for writing poetry and writing lyrics now?
Alanna McArdle:I feel like, for me, writing lyrics and writing poetry are entirely different processes. They occupy the most distant and separate spaces in my brain. These are just my personal thoughts, but with writing lyrics, you’ve basically given yourself a form within which you write, especially because I tend to start with music rather than the lyrics. So I’m fitting things in, which is kind of constricting.
Then when you’re writing lyrics within a specific genre, there’s definitely expectations around the kind of things you’ll be writing about the structure of it, and obviously choruses are repeated—there’s all these little rules. And there’s loads of that in poetry as well, but I guess I consider form last when I’m writing poetry. Language comes first. Writing lyrics is basically the complete inverse of that for me. Poetry is a lot freer. My notes app on my phone is just filled with random bits of things that I feel could at one point turn into poems.
I think it’s really interesting that for you, poetry and lyricism occupy two different places in your brain or serve two different functions because when I sit down to write a poem, I end up writing a song, and when I sit down to write a song, I end up writing a poem. It’s not always that neat, but I definitely have a lot of difficulty distinguishing which should be which.
Alanna McArdle:Because I’ve been trying to write music more, I’ve recently noticed that I am super constricted in how I write songs, especially because I’m not technically proficient at any one instrument, so that’s a limitation as well. So you’re like, ‘Okay, what can I do with the tools that I have?’
In the poetry course I’m in at the moment, we have this hilarious, not-intentionally-hilarious workshop with this guy who basically named the workshop How To Be Creative, which we all thought was a joke. But he was completely serious! He thought he made a step-by-step process that leads to feeling creative, and obviously since it works for him it must work for other people, right? But he basically made us do this brainstorm that started with, ‘When you start writing something, what gets you going? How do you start writing?’ And everyone was like, ‘Oh you know, I’m walking the dog and then I have an idea,’ or ‘I listen to something that sounds cool,’ and he was like, ‘No! How do you make yourself creative?’ So we all started thinking, what are our creative processes? What is that? And I feel so much further from finding that out now having been told by a guy for three hours that you need to like, draw a graph, and then it’ll come.
Is the program you’re in very regimented?
Alanna McArdle:I’ve dropped out of university a few times, so this is the higher education program I’ve stuck in the longest. And obviously they have to have some kind of structure, and that can feel a bit limiting. But whatever you’re being taught and whatever your assignments may be, the most valuable thing I’m finding is having a group of people to talk about work with.
I don’t think doing a creative course is going to guarantee your improvement at all. It’s just giving you a space to talk about your work and be critical in a constructive way, which is something that I definitely didn’t have for poetry for a really long time because I’m not part of a scene, which is obviously the most organic and cheapest and most accessible way of developing as an artist. But it’s also difficult to break into that. With music, it all just kind of happened and then I was in this scene, but looking at it from the outside [with poetry], it’s like, where do I start? How do I even begin?
Is the course you’re in specifically poetry students or all creative writing students together?
Alanna McArdle:It’s creative writing as a whole. So we’re doing basically everything. We were all accepted on the basis of a portfolio in one type of writing, so everyone is freaking out because we’re doing stuff that no one has done before. So I was really happy when we were doing the poetry module, and most people were like, ‘I hate this!’ And now we’re doing screenwriting and no one has ever considered writing a script for TV so it’s absolutely terrifying, but really cool.
You said that the lyrics accompanying the MKSEARCH song, “Close Enough To Animal As I Could Be,” and “Daughters” both belong to a broader project, and I’m wondering what the nature of that is.
Alanna McArdle:The lyrics for the MKSEARCH song I wrote a long time ago and recorded for Ray [McAndrew]. That poem is actually the like, tenth draft of one of the first ever poems I wrote. When I started taking poetry more seriously, one of the first things I was doing was—I’m obsessed with nature documentaries. I’ve watched every single one that’s on the BBC and I watch them over and over again. I’m really interested in the way that in the narration, animals are presented in sort of human ways so people watching will engage more. But it can be very exploitative, not just of animals but of humans and genuine human interactions. Based on the way that certain human societies and norms are upheld, I feel like it’s unfair to be ascribing those to animals who don’t have to live in a human world that is super fucked up.
I’ve been thinking about it and writing about it all the time, and I don’t really have an answer for it, because on that one hand, it’s good to try and get people to empathize with animals on a more serious basis than, ‘It’s so cute and I like it a lot.’ That’s my perspective as a vegetarian and as someone who’s interested in animal rights. But on the other hand, I do think there’s a limit. That’s the main thing I think about all the time when I watch these documentaries. Like when they show animal mating rituals, some of which are super violent and already distressing to watch, and then they’re given this kind of human quality. It’s kind of putting forward a rape narrative, which can be really traumatizing to watch.
I just remember watching these Cactus bees. They have this absolutely horrible, violent mating season where basically the female bees have been burrowing underground and then they come out to mate and there are so many male bees trying to mate, that they end up often killing the females because they’re fighting over them. The way it was narrated was so fucking distressing, and I think when we’re talking about animals—especially insects—you’re walking a very, very thin line.
I basically have just been thinking about whether it’s fair to label and ascribe these human behaviors and identities to animals. I think about it with bees and ants a lot because they’ve been defined in human terms already. You’ve got the queen, and then you’ve got the worker ants who are sometimes called slave ants. This doesn’t have to be the way it is: labeled in a very evocative way that can also belittle what it’s been named after. It all seems very overboard to me. It’s also a very human thing to do, to try and name and categorize things. I’m very preoccupied with that idea when it’s from a perspective of control rather than an attempt to identify.
There’s a scene in “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler that I’ve personally interpreted as a sexual assault, but that’s never been a given, because the characters in the story are not explicitly human and we don’t tend to think that consent is applicable to other life forms. But it’s still distressing to read.
Alanna McArdle:I think about this so much and I’m still not anywhere near knowing how I actually feel about it.
Writing poetry probably won’t get you the answer.
Alanna McArdle:I don’t think writing poetry is getting me any answers at all.
I don’t know if I’ve ever written a poem and expected it to give me an answer, or really even make me feel better. Does writing poetry make you feel better?
Alanna McArdle:I don’t think so. But it’s been interesting tracking what writing has meant to me over the years. When I was writing a lot—the most music I have ever written—I was like, 18 and I was very, very mentally unwell and not having any treatment. I wasn’t on any meds or having any therapy or anything like that. And I was super, super creative, but I don’t think that would ever happen for me again. I do think that writing was a cathartic experience at that time, but now, every time I write something, there’s never an answer and it just creates more questions and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Actually, I think it’s a fantastic thing. But it can be destructive if you’re not in a good space. It was an automatic impulse when I was younger, to write. I wasn’t very good at editing either. I didn’t read over my stuff or listen to my songs and then do anything else with them. I was like, ‘Oh, I made it, it’s done.’ Now that I do that, I don’t think you can ever really feel done with anything. You can never feel any sort of relief because there’s always more work to do, more to discuss.
If you ever go back and listen to music that you made, maybe during that point in your life when you were writing a lot, how does it feel to hear it?
Alanna McArdle:I did actually listen to one of the first songs I ever wrote the other day, because I haven’t written music in a long time and I’m really struggling. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this song was a fucking banger! Let’s listen to this song,’ and then I was like, ‘Wow, this sucks. This is so bad.’ But it was my starting point and I did believe at the time that it was a banger. If I didn’t, I probably would have just quit right then.
In a way, it was kind of good to be like, ‘This actually isn’t very good,’ because it means that I am progressing and everyone is. But I think as time has gone on, I’ve found—with music and poetry and anything I write—there are things that I used to write about a lot and think they were important enough for me to write about that now I think are basically pointless. That’s just to do with the changing political world and my becoming more politically aware as I get older, basically.
I don’t have a ton of time for writing or reading that doesn’t seem to be pertinent or urgent. Obviously sometimes I just need to distract myself and I don’t always want to be thinking about this shit, but I went to Alice Oswald’s reading for her new collection, Falling Awake, and I realized like, halfway through the reading that I cannot care about nature poetry at all anymore. To hear about the way that a bean grows is not helping me or anyone else right now. If the nature poetry is just about how lovely nature is, it’s not the right kind of nature poetry for right now. That’s how I feel.
That’s definitely something I’m aware of when I look back at stuff that I’ve done before. I’m like, ‘Wow, I would never write about this right now.’ I don’t have time to write about my breakup. There’s shit to do. I don’t meant to be judgmental of anyone else’s content, but this is how I’m feeling personally at the moment.
Recently someone told me about writing music when they were 21 versus when they were in their mid-20s, and they just said your world starts to feel lot bigger and the things that occupy your tiny world don’t seem to be so consuming that you need to write about them constantly. And I was like, ‘I’m not really there yet personally, but can’t wait!
Alanna McArdle:It’s funny because yesterday, I picked up my guitar to write a song and it was going well, but then it got to the point where I needed to write some lyrics. But I still have this weird automatic response when it comes to writing songs where I just start fitting things in sonically. I’ve never spent too much time on lyrics, so I feel like I shouldn’t.
When I was in Joanna Gruesome, me and the other main songwriter, Owen [Williams], had such differing views on the use of lyrics. He wanted something like the Pavement style: just words and words and words. But at that point, I was like, I’m really pissed. I’m really pissed at some shit going on and I need to write about it. It was such a strange dissonance, because we’d put my lyrics and his lyrics side-by-side in a song and there would be no connection, whatsoever. Having been writing next to that opinion has made me try harder, I think, to convey meaning rather than just make stuff sound good—which is again, not a bad thing. I’m not trying to neg anyone’s style.