Rose-gold skies, swaying palm trees, unreal beauties, and booze galore. Los Angeles has a lot in common with your typical idea of paradise, if you forget about all that violent crime and dirty coke. It’s fitting, then, that White Lung’s Vancouver-bred punks assembled their latest record, Paradise, in L.A., down the street from a motel with the same name.
Frontwoman Mish Barber-Way, guitarist Kenneth William, and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou have achieved a kind of sunny nirvana with their once-obscure band, too.
With its third effort, 2014’s Deep Fantasy, White Lung won universal critical acclaim and toured the world, including massive festivals like Fuji Rock and South by Southwest. When the time came to write a follow-up, the band had evolved and established itself as a legitimate heavyweight contender.
“I’m excited for people to hear the diversity of the album,” says Barber-Way, reached by the Straight at her L.A. home. “Or for those that are like, ‘Oh, this song’s too pop, ughhh…’ Give me a break. Listen to the rest of the record, idiot.”
Though worn out by the week’s whirlwind of promotion, the singer is still her famously outspoken self.
“I have a distorted idea of what it means to be pop, because I just think of it as having strong melodies,” she says. “To me, the Misfits are totally pop. And to do positive and earnest lyrics without sounding like you’re writing a children’s song is really hard. Writing about being happy and in love is not cool. But I’m very content with my life and relationships right now.”
Paradise sizzles with vibrant, sordid energy, with serial killers, trailer-park deadbeats, and fame-hungry hustlers all playing their part in Barber-Way’s lyrical melodramas. Meanwhile, William’s delightfully deranged fretwork and Vassiliou’s doomsday back end are as potent as ever.
The precisely melodic arrangement of “Hungry” and “Kiss Me When I Bleed” is fresh terrain for the band. Barber-Way’s vocals are relentlessly fierce, but laced with a hopeful tenderness now. On “Below”, when she belts “You know this means nothing if you go die alone,” atop pearly guitar chimes, you can feel her sincerity deep in your guts.
“I’ve always written from a very personal place,” the singer says. “Then there comes a point where you don’t want to keep giving pieces of yourself away. Once I realized the freedom of fiction, I could create these strong images that I would never have been able to before. I found new ways of exploring these topics that will always resonate with me.”
The newly minted Angeleno took notes from country and blues while working on Paradise. The painfully heartfelt storytelling of Hank Snow, Dinah Washington, and Loretta Lynn inspired her to write more candidly than she’s used to. Along with producer Lars Stalfors’s mentorship, this helped to push Barber-Way happily out of her comfort zone.
“I grew up a disciplined figure skater and dancer, so I like having a coach,” she says. “I don’t walk into a studio and go, ‘I know everything! Everyone else knows nothing.’ I know the least, and I want to get better.”
Having cut its teeth in Vancouver’s DIY punk scene, White Lung is accustomed to working hard for very little payoff. Luckily, that has changed, but the band’s perseverance has not.
“I did that, now I’m bored of it, so I’m going to try something else,” says Barber-Way. “That’s what happens with anything in life. You accomplish one thing, and then it’s on to the next challenge, please!”
White Lung plays the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (June 17) as part of Levitation Vancouver.