Muddy meets Sleeper frontwoman Louise Wener
Zillions of us were copying her gamine hairdo and boyish indie style back in the '90s and now Sleeper singer and guitarist Louise Wener is back on stage with the band, cooler and more confident than ever.
It was a zeitgeist-surfing rise to fame that bore a string of hits and global success, but Britpop darlings Sleeper disbanded in ’98 as the guitar-pop phenomenon fizzled out. Singer and songwriter Louise has since published four novels and a memoir, found gainful employment teaching creative writing and married drummer Andy Maclure with whom she has two teenage kids.
Now the band are back together with two new albums under their belt – The Modern Age (2019) and This Time Tomorrow (2020) – and a packed tour schedule ahead of them this year, including a headline spot at The Music Barn Festival in Northants in June. We caught up with Louise to find out what’s new.
Your life as a writer has fluctuated over the years, from songwriting to memoir and fiction and now back to songwriting. How difficult has it been to move between those genres and does it have to be one thing at a time?
I think it’s a bit like learning a language. Once you’ve got French down it’s a bit easier to learn Spanish. Maybe? But I just like working with words. It’s escapist for me. All consuming. I can’t think about anything else when I have a project to work on and I love that. It’s hard to worry and create at the same time. I don’t think about the separate genres of things I’m doing at any one time, it’s more of an unconscious thing, which is why I like it.
You’ve written in the past on motherhood, in particular how you enjoyed your experience of the early days, despite having been almost expecting (or expected) to find it difficult, at odds with your independence, but I’m interested to know whether becoming a mum has had an impact on your creativity?
You need to clear space to be creative but I’ve learned to fit it in where I can. I wrote novels in nap times when my kids were babies. We recorded This Time Tomorrow in our attic, during lockdown, in the space between dinner and home-schooling and bedtimes and the one lousy walk a day we were all allowed! I usually write at the kitchen table, surrounded by piles of domestic mess. That’s hard on creativity sometimes. And it’s always a compromise. I’ve given up on the idea you can have it all. Unless you’ve got supportive extended family on tap or lots of money for childcare, you absolutely can’t. Not without having a complete break-down.
Writing is quite a different experience to performing on stage but, from the outside, you seem to be able to move quite effortlessly between the two. Would you say that writing and performing enable you to embrace different elements of yourself?
For sure. Writing is my introvert side and being on stage is my inner show-off. It took a while to get comfortable with performing again but I think I’m more easy with it now than I’ve ever been. I don’t have any of the self-consciousness I felt in the ’90s. I’m very aware of the crowd, but in a totally different way. There’s a feeling of elation and letting go.
In your memoir you write about having felt pressure in the early days to always seem cool and disinterested, to never show you might be happy or enjoying yourself (even if you actually were). Has that changed for you twenty plus years down the line? Are you able to enjoy it more now?
Much more so. We were always looking over our shoulders in the ’90s, wondering if we were doing it right, conscious it could all get ripped away at any moment. And you had to be cool in the “right” way. The press had enormous power as gatekeepers at that time, music – and the way it reaches an audience – has become more democratic and much less tribal.
Who are your biggest literary and songwriting influences?
I honestly don’t know. And I realise that might sound odd or disingenuous but it’s always such a kaleidoscope of stuff. When I’m teaching creative writing I’m always encouraging students to find their own voice. It’s the one unique thing you have. Only you can tell your stories. Your imagination is your own. I read more non-fiction than novels and I love all kinds of music. But I’m always looking for character and truth in books. And I very much want a story. Not some formless, meandering thing. I want great tunes with music. Something that makes me feel something. And nothing that lectures me or aims to teach me some kind of moral “lesson.”
Does songwriting feel different for you twenty plus years down the line?
Well the songs on This Time Tomorrow are actually twenty years old! They form a portion of “lost” music that was never released. Some of it was for a solo album I was making. But those songs and the ones from The Modern Age are more personal and emotionally open. I was often trying to hide behind characters, humour and narratives on ’90s Sleeper albums. I’m more comfortable with directness now.
What’s different about being a musician today compared to your experience of band life in the ’90s?
Oh, God…so much. The band was everything to me in the 90s whereas it’s just a part of my life now. I have a family, life is busy, we all do other work alongside Sleeper stuff. So it’s like peering into the whole experience a few times a year and then stepping away. But I write music in exactly the way I used to and touring is much the same, except with less booze!. Going back to recording felt like catching up with an old friend, all so familiar. But the business has changed radically.
Britpop was quite a laddish cultural moment and you certainly stood out and broke new ground for many women coming up behind you. Do you find things any different today as a woman in the music industry?
People send me old articles from the ’90s and I can’t quite believe the way female musicians were written about at that time. It was so patronising. Objectifying. Dumb. Is it different for women now? I’m sure it has its own different set of issues. And I look at the number of women appearing on festival stages, registered as songwriters or producers and it’s still dominated by male artists. There’s still a huge disparity.
You had quite an iconic style in the ‘90s, epitomised by skinny t-shirts and an elfin haircut that zillions of teenage girls tried to emulate. How has your look evolved today? (We’ve been loving pics of you in a silver sequin skirt – please tell us where it’s from!).
I love that silver skirt! It’s by Danish designer, Ganni. I went back to jeans and t-shirts when we re-formed, I’ve always been super low-maintenance about clothing and fashion. But during lockdown I realised I wanted to dress up as much as possible. After being locked away indoors, in sweat pants all that time, I think I’ll be wearing glitter and lamé forever now. Just because.
What’s been your favourite venue/festival to play?
In the ’90s probably Glastonbury. And I’ve always loved Shepherd’s Bush Empire. We also had a soft spot for Wolverhampton Civic Hall. Not the most glamorous location, but gigs there were always just brilliant. And there was a festival in the Pyrenees mountains. A gorgeous spot. Moments like that, lost somewhere in Europe or America, playing somewhere beautiful…that felt very lucky.
Will you write more fiction?
I’ve been working on some script projects lately which I’m really enjoying. Another way to work with words, but I’d definitely like to write another book. It’s a huge commitment though, and I’ve sort of got into enjoying shorter, punchier stuff.
What’s next for Sleeper?
We’re touring The It Girl in full in April/May to mark its 26th anniversary. It would have been the 25th but….Covid.. Then festivals through the summer. After that I’d like to make an album of solo stuff and then maybe another Sleeper record. I should probably clear the attic and the kitchen table first!
Grab tickets to see Sleeper at The Music Barn Festival near Kettering (17 & 18 June).