As one of the pioneers of the in-your-face electroclash movement, fusing 1980s electro with rowdy pop alongside the likes of Adult and Le Tigre in the late 1990s, Canadian artist Peaches says she’s long been used to the mainstream labelling her “an oddball.” But today, she finds herself in strange new territory. “It’s a good time to be me; I’m important now,” she cracks drily, in an early morning Skype call from her home in Berlin. “That’s what I get told now. I’m important. Maybe I won’t be next year, so I better tour fast.” After years spent making music videos that depict female body hair, calling out sexist language, and generally promoting sex-positive feminism, she now finds herself returning—with her self-released fifth album Rub, out September 25—to a world in which major pop stars like Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé flirt with the same feminist ideas. “[In the past] I said ridiculous things like, ‘I want the mainstream to come closer to me, I’m not getting closer to the mainstream,’” says Peaches (real name Merrill Nisker). “And then it actually happened.”
This “incredible unfolding”—in Nisker’s words—of feminist consciousness in the mainstream took place while she was finding other channels where she could get her creative kicks. After going through a rigorous nine year cycle of back-to-back writing, recording and touring for XL Recordings following the release of her debut Peaches album The Teaches of Peaches in 2000, she “just didn’t feel like—if I did it one more time—I would really have my heart in it.” Hence, since releasing 2009’s I Feel Cream, she’s spent her time exploring other sides of her artistry. She conceived of and toured a one-woman adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar called Peaches Christ Superstar—to reviews that praised her killer vocal range—between 2010 and 2014, and spent six months learning Italian phonetically to play the lead (male) role in an adaptation of Monteverdi’s opera L'Orfeo in 2012.
But eventually she found herself working on another album—one designed to “celebrate...a post-age, post-gender world.” At 46, Nisker writes with the characteristic Peaches straight-talking voice on Rub about loving her body, her mind, and her vagina, and her words feel as important today as they ever did. No matter how old, how young, how sick, I mean something, she insists in a low, scowling voice on the album’s Feist-featuring closer “I Mean Something.” Her message isn’t one of confrontation, but self-love—and it feels vital.
You took part in a panel recently about “Scary Feminists.” People do like to talk about feminism as if it’s totally mainstream now, but we still have some way to go. What do you think still scares people about feminism?
PEACHES: [It’s] people that have the wrong idea—they don’t understand that it’s just about equal pay and equal opportunity. They go, ‘oh my god, women who hate men and want to take over the world.’ People still have that bullshit idea. My friend, she’s an artist in Canada, her name is Allyson Mitchell and she makes this haunted house called Killjoy’s Kastle, a lesbian feminist haunted house. It pokes fun at all that—it has a room where it’s all just strobe lights, and it’s very disorienting, and they play Le Tigre and Peaches; “feminist music that’s scary.” You go in another room and there’s carpet munchers on the carpet. They have faces of Judith Butler, like, look how scary she is!
A lot of younger female artists who come up now, they’re scrutinised for whether they’re feminist or not, and they go through this process of learning publicly. How has your feminism developed and changed over the last 15 years?
Well, it’s constantly changing to be inclusive. So just constantly making sure that you’re in check with everybody’s needs. With allies. But also, it needs to be—I say this all the time—men need to be feminists. If we want to move on from feminism to humanism—which is, to me, the goal: humanism, balance—I want to hear men talking about it. Like, two men, no women around. The male sexual revolution needs to happen.
“The pop world...it goes in waves. So, we progress—but didn’t we think we’d progressed with riot grrrl? And then it was gone.”—Peaches
You performed Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” [in which audience members cut off the silent performer’s clothes until they are naked] a couple of years ago. What did that experience mean to you?
It’s a 50 year-old piece, and it’s still as relevant as it was back then, which is an incredible feat. And like all things Yoko Ono does—which is her superpower—she has this seemingly simple idea or concept, but then once you play out the concept, there’s so much thought and process that goes through while you’re doing it. [I was] sitting still, which is something I never do, and not speaking or shouting, which is something I never do, and being completely still on stage, and having people come up and cut whatever until I’m naked. But what happened was, I was the audience. They were performing, I was not performing. It was like a complete transformation of what audience and performer is, on just one level, and then on the other level, of course, the anticipation of seeing a person naked will always be something of an event. The female body has more parts to reveal...but it was more like [being] a vulnerable person, I didn’t really find it particularly feminine. It was larger than that.
What do you think it takes to shock an audience in 2015?
I don’t know, I’m not really interested in shocking an audience. I’m interested in including and engaging, and apparently I’m shocking to some. But it doesn’t really take much. It usually takes a stupid thing, like showing a nipple—which is not something I do—or saying a certain word that everybody says every day. Or displaying things that we all really do and feel, but somehow...are repressing in some form. It’s really ridiculous how we treat ourselves, to like, be outside our bodies. When that’s what we really have. So when somebody actually uses their body as a sort of tool, it’s almost shocking. It should be shocking that it’s shocking.
Speaking of the body as a tool, with your “Light In Places” video [featuring aerial artist Empress Stah and a laser-shooting butt plug], I realized that the viewer gets a content warning before they watch it.
Oh yeah, you’ll get a content warning on every single one of my fucking videos.
What is the point of making a conventional [video]—what are you doing? What is art? You want people to have something to think about. I’m not trying to shock, I’m trying to promote discussion, promote change, to bring people closer. My goal, my philosophy, is [you should] feel comfortable in your own body. Which seems to be the most difficult thing for all of us to do. And for some, it’s much much harder.
“If we want to move on from feminism to humanism—which is, to me, the goal: humanism, balance—I want to hear men talking about it. The male sexual revolution needs to happen.”—Peaches
On that song, you say I came to destroy the past. You’ve spent your career breaking down restrictive stereotypes; do you see progress in the music industry?
I think we’re trending. The pop world—not that I’m particularly pop—but it goes in waves. So, we progress—but didn’t we think we’d progressed with riot grrrl? And then it was gone. And electroclash—I’ve had this new revelation of what electroclash was. It was so advanced, it was led mostly by women. It was me, Le Tigre, Miss Kittin, Chicks on Speed; it was mostly women, and completely queer. Nobody could handle it, and it died so quickly. And then what came in its place? Nu rave. Which was just basically a straighter version, a more conservative version. It was progressive, but not as progressive. So things progressed, but then—they go to a point, and then they go back down. Like I said, it’s in waves.
I don’t like to bring it up, because people ask me, like, "what did you think of Beyonce having the word ‘FEMINIST’ behind her"...but these are all trends. I’m not saying she’s not [feminist], I’m just saying, it’s trendy to do these things. I think it’s incredible that Miley Cyrus takes her money and creates a huge fund for LGBT communities of teenagers who are being kicked out of their houses for being that way, those are good projects. If it’s a trend, it’s a good trend.
Yeah, look at Nicki Minaj. She’s slayed it all. Changed the game.
In that vein, I really like the song “Vaginoplasty” on Rub.
Have you seen that movie The Perfect Vagina? They show you the 300% rise [from 2006—2008], of young women especially, getting vaginoplasty for no reason at all. Because maybe someone told them that their vagina doesn’t look beautiful. And this goes back to the whole body experience that I was talking about. Because—where the fuck did you come from? You came out of that vagina. You better not be dissing that vagina. You came out of a vagina, what’s your fucking problem? You came out of a vagina, why are you so scared of it? In the song I also say there are reasons for it. Obvious reasons; reassignment and accidents. But it’s also like—people talk about big dicks, big ass, but no one talks about a big vagina. So that’s like the last frontier.