There’s a certain excitement you feel when an indie band you love starts to get noticed, though often, at least for those of my generation, if they become too big there’s also that disappointment as you lose that sense of kinship you felt with other first generation fans. But sometimes the band becomes something more, transcends the simple joy they provide with their sonic creations. They become a voice, fists raised in the air as they yell to the rafters in support of an idea, perhaps even more importantly an ideal. And when that happens, well, you may just find yourself proud to call yourself a fan.
Dream Wife is such a band.
The first time I saw Dream Wife live was at Iceland Airwaves in 2016 and it was clear they were something special musically, punk attitude and music over which vocalist Rakel Mjöll effortlessly wove in and out, equal parts whimsey and attitude. But there was also their message, one of female and female-indentifying empowerment, encouraging other womxn to pick up instruments and start bands, or step behind the controls to produce, or follow whatever other dream they might have. On stage they refer to themselves and their audience as “bad bitches” and make a point of ensuring there is safe space right up in front where women can dance and celebrate with them. They are empowering. They are powerful. They are, quite frankly, exactly what the world needs right now.
I pre-ordered So When You Gonna… as soon as it was available online, assuring myself a copy on neon pink vinyl along with a signed zine created by bassist Bella. It arrived a couple of days ago and it’s fantastic, from the gatefold jacket to the you-can-see-it-from-space record to the full-color zine. The entire thing screams “attention to detail”. There is also a green/yellow Rough Trade exclusive edition of 1,200, plus the standard black vinyl pressing. And how popular has So When You Gonna… been? Popular enough to crack the Top 20 on the UK charts in its release week, making it to #18, the only independent album to chart that high. It’s also #3 on the UK vinyl chart, and #2 on the indie chart. Dream Wife are showing the world just what is possible.
So When You Gonna… blasts off like a rocket with “Sports!”, playing off the “the rules” we’re told to live by (Height is time / Time is money / Never apologize) and working through a litany of sports cliches used to push and drive us, sometimes to the point of absurdity. The chorus, Put your money where your mouth is, could be another of these platitudes… or more likely a retort to those who try to move us in directions that aren’t those we’d choose for ourselves. “Sports!” also sets the stage sonically – this is clearly an album that benefits from headphone listening, layered and including subtle moments that are easily missed if you’re not paying attention.
Dream Wife quickly dissuade you from thinking So When You Gonna… is a simple rocker rocker, following “Sports!” with the wistful and dreamy “Hasta La Vista”, a chill jam that provides Rakel the opportunity to cast her unique magic, exploring her range with an uncanny combination of innocence and depth. To my ears it’s the most beautiful song on the album. That’s followed by the sensual burner “Homesick”, which in turn gives way to the self-questioning anthem “Validation”, with its refrain, Validation why does that mean so much to me? And what about the quiet stillness of “After The Rain”? Stunning. The bottom line is there’s something for just about everyone on So When You Gonna…, all of it fully realized and honest.
So When You Gonna… is available online HERE, so definitely go give it a listen – it’s one of the best albums of 2020.
I had the privilege of interviewing Rakel in 2018 for an article that later appeared in RVK On Stage magazine (Issue #4, Winter 2018). While RVK On Stage is no more as a physical magazine, the website is still alive and kicking and I encourage you to check it out HERE if you’re interested in Icelandic music. The publisher graciously allowed me to reprint the article in full here, so I hope you enjoy it.
“Dream Wife Are Here, And They’re Changing The World”
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Dream Wife as I waited for them to take the stage in Harpa’s Silfurberg room. I was already a huge fan of Iceland-born singer Rakel Mjöll, having fallen in love with her performance on Halleluwah’s self-titled 2015 album, but I expected this was going to be something different than the old-school lounge stylings of that project. And it was. It was punk, and honest, and powerful, and Dream Wife was immediately in heavy rotation on my iPod.
The band’s back-story is fairly well known. In 2014 Mjöll connected with a pair of Brighton University classmates, Brits Alice Go and Bella Podpadec, to form a band as part of an art project. With Go on guitar and Podpadec on bass, the trio created a This Is Spinal Tap-like mockumentary and performed live in a gallery. Things went so well they stuck at it. In 2016 they released some singles, eventually combining them into the four-song EP01, an all-killer-no-filler debut that made a definitive statement to the music world that Dream Wife were here and going to be a force to be reckoned with.
We may eventually look back on 2018 and see it as Dream Wife’s breakout year. In January they released their first full-length album, the 11-song eponymous Dream Wife, and immediately set about touring and taking over the world with festival dates in Europe, a few stops in the US, and some shows in Japan. The second half of the year was given over to a 10-week headlining tour that opened in the US and Canada, stormed through the UK, and then headed across the Channel to the rest of Europe to spread their message of DIY female, female-identifying, and non-binary empowerment. They’re here, and they have something to say. We would all benefit from listening.
I caught up with Rakel while Dream Wife were in Berlin opening for Garbage and getting ready to start the US leg of their tour. “It’s really cool that now we’re supporting Garbage and we’re having such lovely chats with [Garbage vocalist} Shirley Manson,” Mjöll said. “They’re all so brilliant and such good people that it’s so great just hearing her chat, because she’s been in this business for like 30 years and the past years especially she’s been really encouraging. She’s really supporting lots of female-fronted bands and talking a lot about the fucked up things that have happened to her in the music industry. Like talking about mental health, talking about eating disorders, talking about how she was treated.”
If there’s one word that came up time and again during my 20-minute conversation with Rakel it was “encouragement”. She clearly recognizes that Dream Wife has a platform, and the members embrace their ability to be role models. “I think it’s just so important to support other women, or female-identifying and non-binary, to not be afraid of, you know, not being afraid to just do it and have fun and just to make a band with your friends if you want to. To make it more of a norm than it is, so you don’t have to question yourself so much.”
It’s one thing to talk the talk. But Dream Wife is also walking the walk. In July they collaborated with Girls Rock to put out a call looking for female, female-identifying, and non-binary artists to perform in the support slots of their headline tour. And the response? The response was overwhelming. Within a week they received 433 applications. “It was only out for a week, a week deadline,” Rakel recalled. “And that was pretty amazing, and it took a few weeks to listen to all of the bands. But it was very great to be able to listen to so many of these bands and sort of see what crazy talent was out there! It was also exciting to read, because we also had questions, that were more like… the one question I didn’t realize would bring so many stories is, what is your local music scene like? And there were many interesting stories that came from that question, both just people talking about bands that have formed in communities around maybe like a queer punk scene, and that’s happening up north in England, and even negative stuff like stories about somehow feeling like outcasts coming together and changing the scene.”
But as inspiring as the response was, some of the answers were painful. “And also stories that were really heartbreaking,” she told me. One in particular struck a chord, from a band in a smaller city with a scene that was controlled by a just a few bookers who simply wouldn’t give them any opportunities. “There was once a touring band that was female-fronted and they were told they couldn’t get on that bill because if the promoter would add them to the bill the night would be too feminist. It’s like a complete joke.”
Working with Girls Rock is an important part of the band’s mission. “Girls Rock are a global organization, run by volunteers in different cities, that’s really active in Reykjavík. It’s really massive in Reykjavík, but it happens in different cities around the world where they host camps, like these kind of rock camps. And they offer instruments to young girls and teenagers that come to these camps, and it’s all volunteer run, and they can either learn instruments, they can learn about the music business, graphic design, sort of like areas around it, and it’s more about encouraging friendships and to feel like you’re in a safe space. So it’s really important for our youth, these camps that they put on, and nights. Girls Rock.” Ultimately for Rakel it all comes back to encouragement. “If you have any kind of platform, I think you should use however big or however small it is, you should use it to support others. Especially others who need more encouragement, which is why we did this open call.”
Rakel recognizes she’s fortunate to have come up as part of a welcoming music scene in Iceland. I asked her about her pre-Dream Wife experiences in her home country. “When I was doing Halleluwah I was working with a producer and drummer called Sölvi Blöndal and he just had a really interesting kind of world of sounds that he dove into, and it was a really fun collaboration working with him because we became such nerds together. It was very much a project that was based within his studio, so we sort of like spent hours just trying out different vocal loops and really sort of engaging in that type of songwriting.”
How was this different than the writing process with Dream Wife? “With Dream Wife it’s sort of the opposite because we didn’t even step into a studio until we recorded our debut album, and we had spent almost like a year and a half… almost two years sort of like playing live shows, and a bunch of them, and in all these like interesting spaces, like house parties. Sort of just doing it on our own in that sense. So it’s like completely two opposites as to how you approach music making. And I think with Dream Wife that live sound and that sort of live energy is what we really wanted to capture on the record.”
Capturing that live sound has long been the holy grail on rock records, particularly in the punk realm. For many bands the inability to impart their visual component onto their recordings is a limiter, but while Dream Wife have an exciting stage presence, they clearly know how to distill their energy and ferocity into a magical sonic potion.
“We write it on the road,” according to Rakel, “and a song, maybe we try it out at a live show, a song that we’ve only written a week before in the rehearsal space. And we sort of really enjoy sort of feeding off the audience. Like, do they like this? Should we change this part? Should we add a double chorus because people are suddenly signing along to a song they’ve never heard before? So we’ve had, especially on our debut album, we were really playing around with that when we were writing, and we would never tell anyone ‘oh, this is a new song’ because we had that luxury of people not necessarily knowing who we were because we hadn’t released our debut album at that time. So we could really experiment with songs just live, and that’s how they sort of ended up, you know, becoming a song. “
That approach to songwriting contributed to a well-received and reviewed album in Dream Wife. Sometimes, however, writers spend more time focusing solely on the fact that the band is primarily female (the exception being drummer Alex Paveley) and rolling out the old clichéd tropes about women who rock. It’s something the band noticed as well. “When we just started out we got some interesting sort of references that didn’t really at all link to our music,” Rakel observed, with Dream Wife often compared to other better-known female bands. “The only thing we had in common is we were both women in music. So I think that’s just lazy journalism and maybe, like, people who didn’t even listen to the band. So I think it’s more about if people are really more interested in the music and not the press photos or some kind of hype.”
It feels like in recent years this is becoming less of a problem as more female bands establish their places in the world of rock. Iceland Airwaves 2016 was the first time I remember looking around and recognizing that there were a lot of women performers, particularly outside the more traditional pop and singer-songwriter areas. That was something Rakel noticed as well. “I mean, I think 2016 Airwaves was a very interesting year, because everyone started noticing that they booked a lineup that had a lot of women in rock, and quite outspoken women also in hip hop. And the cool thing about the festival is that they didn’t really talk about it. They just booked it. And sometimes festivals have to really put it out there, ‘we’re booking so many women this year look at us,’ but with Airwaves that year they just booked it.”
The positive press allowed their label, London-based Lucky Number, to secure Dream Wife Japanese distribution in partnership with Hostess Entertainment. “When we found out our album was being released in Japan we were just, we were like when are we getting over there?” I told Rakel I’d seen the CD on the Recommended wall at Tower Records in Osaka in May, and she was clearly still excited about it. “Yeah!” she said, unable to hide the smile from her voice. “We were on that wall for two months! We were like, what the hell?”
That distribution also secured the band an invitation to play at the Summer Sonic festival, with shows in Osaka and Tokyo. Japanese music fans have a well-deserved reputation for their passion and the respectful way they treat musicians, so I was curious as to how Dream Wife was received. In Tokyo, “it was beautiful. We saw that we were playing at 11:50 in the morning, on one of the big stages, and we thought that was pretty funny, like doing a morning show, a morning rock show. We were maybe expecting a thousand people or something, because it was one of the big stages, but then when we started playing it was like 10,000 people there, because they had opened the doors at 9:00 AM and everyone was there on time. I loved it. As we were walking on stage we were all like, completely like, gobsmacked, cuz we just didn’t expect there to be… the room was completely full, and the audience was beautiful. They were so welcoming, and walking off that stage and realizing your first Japanese show was in front of that kind of audience, in the morning, was something I don’t think we’ll ever forget in our lives.” In Osaka they also had a new experience, playing in a baseball stadium. “It was just something that was fun and we had a good time doing it. We started a band so we could travel and it’s really cool that one of those places we really wanted to go to was Japan. I was great to be able to do it.”
Dream Wife opened their first US/Canada headlining tour in Philadelphia on September 24, 2018, the first of 14 dates that took them from one coast to the other. By the time they got to Seattle’s basement club Barboza on October 6 they were already in mid-tour form (and unfortunately some band members were suffering from the inevitable mid-tour colds). They’d performed an in-studio set at KEXP the day before and were gushing about the experience and how much they enjoyed their first visit to the city. Opening the show was local signer-songwriter Kaylyn Rogers, who came to the band’s attention through their call for support acts. She was followed by the up-and-coming Russo, who kicked the energy up a notch and got the crowd ready for the main event.
I hadn’t seen Dream Wife live in almost two years, since their show at Harpa during Iceland Airwaves 2016. If anything their sound has become even more aggressive. Alice Go’s shredding guitar intro to “F.U.U.” came at the crowd like radial saw blades flying over our heads, edgy and metallic and sharp. The rhythm section pulsed and pounded, with Bella’s throat straining at the power of her backing vocal bursts. And right up front was Rakel (below), sometimes simpering, sometimes smiling, and sometimes taking her vocal cords right to the edge as she shouted and screamed her way through the charged lyrics. Halfway through the set the women in the crowd were invited up to the front, and with only the slightest prodding the men there, many of who had camped out in those spots as soon as the doors opened, made way for the ladies. It was a blazing set that by the end had the crowd pogo-ing as the band took us to the finish line.
Dream Wife is the right band at the right time in the era of the #MeToo movement and the increased visibility that comes from women sharing their experiences. Whether it’s their “Support Your Local Bad Bitch” t-shirts or their requests from stage that men move to the back and let women come to the front, Mjöll, Go, and Podpadec are all about creating a safe space. I asked Rakel for her perceptions about the recent surge in female empowerment. Does she feel that things are improving? “I can’t really talk, cuz I travel around the world but most of the world that I see is the backstage room. I think for Iceland, if we’re just talking about that community, is that there’s massive progress over the past years. But it’s… with general equality, if you let the ball drop, that’s when you’re in trouble. In anything. When you think things are going real fine that’s when everything starts… you know… dropping. It’s like in Iceland though when the crash came, that’s when everyone was really rich, like, oh our currency is fine, oh I’m buying another house and car, and then came this massive crash. I think it’s when you stop thinking, oh this is fine, it’s throughout the whole of history, you know, we’ve had amazing waves of equality and feminism and pride and then it drops, again.”
“It’s the same thing with women in music,” she continued. “Like, the 90s was an incredible time for women in rock music, same with like Shirley Manson, and sort of like this rise really empowering women in rock. And then came the 2000s and there was a massive dip, and that’s, you know, the time when me and the girls were becoming teenagers and we were like looking back to the 90s for someone to look up to. I mean of course there was like CSS and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, thank god, but there was still a massive dip there. So it’s throughout all of history, feminism and equality and music, if you let the ball drop because you think that things are going good that’s when everything can completely shatter. With any kind of conversation. But I’m actually really, really, really happy that I’m from a country like Iceland, because I know my rights, and I know I sometimes take it for granted, I just presume that every country has the same outlook on equality as I do, but unfortunately that’s not the case. So I think it’s better to sort of take your knowledge and be proud that you have been raised that way and be proud that you’re from a country that supports you that way, at least now because you never know, and hopefully benefit other people’s lives.”
After about 20 minutes it was time to wrap up our conversation. Given how passionately Rakel talked about the importance of encouraging girls and women, I was curious as to how she would like Dream Wife to be remembered in the future by the next generation of young women forming bands. “I don’t know. I think, well, obviously I’m living it right now, but we’re in this band and we’re just on our first album right now too, so I don’t really know what’s going to happen. But I think it’s exciting to acknowledge that there’s a scene that is stirring around you and it’s pretty exciting to just sort of be living in that scene of bands that are incredibly exciting right now because of what we have to say, as well as their musical ability and songwriting. So I think maybe looking at that, I think there’s waves of bands that have something to say and people are willing to listen. It’s exciting that in kind of looking back you can acknowledge it, that there was something happening, and hopefully that encouraged other bands and people in general to sort of embrace that.”