Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes): I started out in Brighton in 2006, and at that time there were still a lot of cool little indie record shops and small underground venues. Almost all those record shops are now gone and the venues … I feel like now they have to have a cinema or put on other kinds of events. There are fewer of those shows that promoters would put on with your friends, where you’d make posters yourself. Maybe that whole DIY thing has been undermined by the instantaneous social media thing.
Joe Talbot (Idles): We played for nine years before we got any recognition, doing those kind of warm-Carlsberg-and-50-quid shows as much as possible. We were pissing into the wind at the start, because guitar music was bloated and cocaine-fuelled and there were lots of rubbish bands around, so people were moving on to more interesting subcultures. We were OK playing to 20 people; we knew the music we wanted to make. But all those venues we played are gone. Because of the triple recession and a government that’s not interested in the arts, there’s no subsidy for culture. I do not envy bands starting out now – incrementally, it’s got worse and worse.
Jayda G: It’s been a huge issue in dance music, too. I’m originally from Vancouver, and Europe seemed like a kind of utopia: ‘Oh, they have a completely different dance culture.’ And then I got here and I realised it’s the same thing. The arts and culture isn’t properly funded. It’s interesting what Natasha said about putting out flyers. There still needs to be an element of that, because you bring people together in a different way than if it’s just through Facebook or Instagram – it’s about getting that one person who wouldn’t know about what you’re playing and then thinks: ‘Oh, I’ll check that out.’
Will Young and Rebecca Taylor, aka Self Esteem. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
Will Young: Record companies put more power into social media than is actually there as a promotional tool. They’re always getting you to make another video – “Hi! I’m on tour in Torquay!” – and I think it just gets lost in the white noise. But, with venues, I think with every action there’s a reaction. I’ve seen a lot of London venues close or be threatened – Fabric, Royal Vauxhall Tavern, other famous LGBTQ+ spaces like the Black Cap. But I think, up north, they’ve found old buildings that are dilapidated, that they can get cheap, and have created amazing spaces for young people. In London, people would just automatically turn them into £260m-worth of flats.
Rebecca Taylor (Self Esteem): There’s a gulf that’s getting bigger, between your Sheerans and your Capaldis doing arenas and someone like me. I’ve got a fanbase, but I’m stuck for somewhere to play. Even in Sheffield, where I’m from, I had to play two nights in a small place, because there’s no middle ground. You’re still playing the places where there’s no mirror and you have to get changed in the bogs. It makes you feel: ‘Oh, I’m not successful.’
JT: It’s fundamental for any government to see the importance of funding the arts. Without getting overly lefty for the sake of it, the point is that governments do not want a congregation of free-thinking people to come in and spend their money how they want; [governments] want you to spend your money how they do. I think there’s a big DIY culture; there’s a lot going on in Bristol, raves being put on in arts centres and cafes and cinemas, people realising that obvious spaces aren’t available, so thinking: “Fuck it, we’ll do it here.” That always comes around: cooperation in communities, building something.
In February, R Kelly was charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse; further charges followed in May and August. Ryan Adams has also been accused of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct, while the Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland had an explosive effect on his legacy. Has music finally had its #MeToo moment?
WY: There’s a musician I’ve worked with who’s been on tour with someone very well-known, and [the well-known person] abused them, verbally and with inappropriate behaviour. The musician didn’t say anything, because they’ve got kids and they don’t want to lose the gig. That gave me an insight into it. The power is still there. It’s about money. No one came to that person and offered them some aid, and I was really saddened by that.
RT: It’s an unregulated industry. Even at my level, I’ve still got to smile and nod at shit I don’t want to. Lily Allen spoke out about it [being sexually assaulted] and said she’d lost loads of gigs as a result. I even worry about how much I’ve spoken out. But then I go: “I’m not who I think I am if …”
‘She said she’d lost loads of gigs as a result’ … Lily Allen, who spoke last year about being sexually assaulted by an industry executive. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Malibu
Things that have happened to me are bad, but nothing compared with things that have happened to some people. I did a songwriting thing for young girls, all around 16, and the whole angle was: “I had to do this, but you’re growing up in a brave new world where men won’t pinch your bum.” All their hands went up: most of them had had producers asking them out for drinks, or they’d felt bad because they’d turned someone down and thought if they hadn’t they might have got the gig. I don’t have an answer. Other than equality, true equality. We’re sort of existing on hope that people are listening generally in society.
JG: It’s better than it was 10 years ago, but still – how many times have I played festivals and I’m the only female on that stage? [Dance music] is a very male-heavy industry. I can count on my two hands how many times I’ve done a gig with a girl promoting. How many times have I turned up and someone says something and you sigh and feel uncomfortable and awkward? At least half my gigs I’m by myself. You have to be very aware of how you conduct yourself, how you look at someone, so they don’t get the wrong idea. It’s lame, you know? Like, how many times have promoters said wack things and I say: “You can’t say that to me,” and then they don’t even know what to do? “Erm … I didn’t mean it!” Well, you did, because you said it.
NK: I think talking about it does help, because obviously there’s the Weinsteins, the obvious predators, and then the relationship between men and women in the industry. If you have a conversation about that, I think there is genuinely a desire to get on and be respectful of each other. I think picking people up on things, saying: “This isn’t how I want to be treated,” having expectations of people to act in their highest self and not just think because we’re doing music you can get away with treating people badly …
JG: I was just going to say, it’s in every industry.
RT: But we’ve got no HR department we can go to.
NK: She seems to fit in with that idea of being real, not trying to make her success about her body. She doesn’t suck up to anyone; she’s doing it on her own terms and that’s always been attractive, because kids like anarchy – they like a “Fuck you” attitude.
JT: There’s a good narrative behind her, her making these records at home with her brother, which is cool. Also, pop music is respected now in the realms of pseudo-intellectual journalism. The Pitchforks, you know – pseudo-intellectual titles will champion pop music now.
‘She doesn’t suck up to anyone; she’s doing it on her own terms’ … Billie Eilish performing in Austin, Texas, in October. Photograph: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images
JG: It’s just the cycle of the youthful person who has something to say and has style.
At the other extreme, the biggest-selling album and single of the year were by Lewis Capaldi, who has no style, no image and looks like a completely ordinary person.
JT: It’s the same thing, though. It’s a narrative. They’ve both got narratives that sell records.
WY: I hated Lewis Capaldi, because he held me off from getting to No 1, but I’m over that now [laughs]. His being funny is a big thing. I saw that TV advert he did, where he was saying: “I’m just another singer-songwriter,” and I thought it was really clever.
NK: There’s a romance now around really honest people who are telling it like it is, being upfront, letting it all hang out. Both Billie Eilish and Lewis Capaldi have hit on that in different ways, and they’re refreshing, because we’ve had so much false, processed shit.
Lizzo released Cuz I Love You in April and became one of the year’s biggest pop cultural phenomenons. She also became one of a number of artists to go to war with music critics, suggesting only people who made music themselves were capable of critiquing her work. Is that fair? Is music criticism a necessary evil, an important part of the process of making and releasing music, or a waste of time?
RT: I think there’s been a weird change where, about 10 years ago, you couldn’t be negative about the NME or something because you wanted them onside. Now that’s gone. Journalism is not as frightening a thing. It’s streaming platforms you can’t speak out against.
JT: Don’t underestimate journalists. No offence, but they’re dangerous. I’m not a violent man any more, but I wanted to be when our last album came out, because there were so many wild misquotes about my daughter dying and my wife would get very upset about it. It was like, that’s me that’s upsetting her, because it’s me doing the interview, not some prick who doesn’t care about this.
‘It’s obvious that lots of people are trying to get clicks’ … Natasha Khan and Joe Talbot. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
NK: I remember reading one of Patti Smith’s biographies and she said she used to write reviews because she loved stuff, she genuinely wanted to champion creativity. I think what has become so sad now is that all these bodies of people who are supposed to be authorities on things have now become … explicitly corrupt. It’s obvious that lots of people are trying to get clicks. I’m not talking about reviews, necessarily – my experience has been more with trying to discuss quite heated topics in a nuanced way, and I feel that I’ve been misrepresented. Then it follows you and you have to deal with that for a long time. That’s not fair.
In June, Mick Jagger got back on stage three months after heart surgery. Is there too much pressure to tour – to generate revenue – at risk to your health? And, given the spate of high-profile suicides in K-pop, is the music industry doing enough to look after artists’ physical and mental wellbeing?
RT: I dream of being so successful that someone cares how I am!
NK: I think the more successful you are, the less they care, because all the people around you are making money. You’re in the machine – look at that Amy Winehouse documentary. But, at the beginning, I didn’t know about taking care of my voice, or what was better to eat, how to handle running my own business. Why isn’t there a manual for all managers that says: this is what you have to make sure your artist has, this is how to tour without getting exhausted, this is how not to lose your mind?
Will, you had a very different, more extreme experience of fame to the others here: you were on Pop Idol and went from unknown to famous incredibly quickly. Was support given to you?
WY: I was lucky; I had a lot of life experience. The management team I was with, they did things the way they’d done with the Spice Girls and I said no. They tried to get me to move to some flat somewhere – no, I’m quite happy where I am. They were sending Mercedes cars for me – well, who’s paying for this? I’ve got my own car, thanks. For me, the problems with wellbeing came when I had a breakdown, I had PTSD, and I tried to pull out of a tour. I’d be on the dressing room floor, in a foetal position, couldn’t look at my face in the mirror, didn’t know who I was.
JG: If you’re a DJ, you’re technically freelance, so there’s always that fear: what if the gigs don’t come? I’ve had to make choices about how I want to shape my touring schedule so that I’m mentally well: able to get up, get on the plane and go to the show and be kind to people. That’s the biggest bit: when you’re constantly travelling, it gets hard to be around people. The important thing to do is build your community, your team who are going to support you when the shit really hits the fan.
JT: Our manager was one of my best friends. I think it’s really important to have someone who can remind you of your self-worth, your cultural worth and your monetary worth.
Stormzy’s headline performance at Glastonbury in June was a landmark – he quoted David Lammy and spoke out against Boris Johnson. Is it tough for such a high-profile musician to take a political stand?
‘My dad is 69, a middle-class white guy, and he sent me a message about Stormzy saying: “That man is a statesman”’ … Stormzy at this year’s Glastonbury festival. Photograph: David Jensen/EMPICS Entertainment
JT: Of course. It was a beautiful thing he did, and a brave one. It’s easier for me to be political when I’m not selling all that many records, but the higher the platform you have, the more dangerous it becomes to fall off. Not in terms of record sales – he probably pissed off a lot of people that I wouldn’t want to piss off if I was in his position. He’s a young black man, and it’s not easy for a young black man to be political without being dismissed as just being aggressive and all those other things. But he did it really well.
WY: My dad is 69, a middle-class white guy, and he sent me a message about Stormzy saying: “That man is a statesman.” He was just astonished by him. He’s so authentic, so powerful.
So what should a musician’s role in politics be today?
[Everyone, in unison]: Whatever they want it to be.
JG: Exactly. That’s what art is. It happens in a social context, it’s commenting on what’s happening around us.
JT: It doesn’t have to be overtly political. People assume I won’t like anything that’s not like the Clash, but my favourite album is Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. It’s full of escapism, but it’s also about Belfast.
NK: I don’t write political music, but I am involved in politics in my life. Art can be blatantly political or you can use narratives, archetypes, storytelling, mythology. Artists I admire take the pain, or the idea or the political viewpoint, and they distill it into characters, or colour, or landscape. It subconsciously touches you; it doesn’t have to be blatant. I love Dave; I think what he talks about is really interesting. But that’s not really where my strength is. It doesn’t mean I’m not commenting on what’s going around me.
JT: It’s total dullardry to go: “It has to be in the lyrics.” Look at jungle – that was a really empowering movement of communities that got together, built soundsystems, celebrated community through music. It spawned garage and grime. And there are no words in most jungle tracks.
‘A country song by a gay black guy! That’s sick’ … watch the video for Old Town Road by Lil Nas X.
JG: Because it’s a freaking awesome record.
RT: He’s great, he’s authentic, he’s personable. And little kids loved it, didn’t they?
JT: It’s like when we were talking about politics in music – you need a balance between realism and escapism. Lil Nas X is a very real person doing something celebratory. It’s fun, but it’s also important, it’s also political. A country song by a gay black guy! That’s sick. Can you imagine being in America and seeing that? It’s brave.
John Legend announced in October that he had rewritten the lyrics of Baby It’s Cold Outside to make them more woke. Is there more pressure to be politically correct these days?
NK: “It’s your body and your choice” [one of Legend’s new lyrics]? It’s a bit phoney. I don’t mind the message, but I do think people are jumping on the bandwagon a bit and it doesn’t feel genuine to me.
RT: I agree 100%, but at least it’s still positive.
JT: There’s a difference between political correctness that’s valid, like: “Why are you calling it a chalkboard and not a blackboard”? Well, it’s not because people are offended by the word “blackboard”, you’re just trying to change the cognition of using a word that defines something by its colour. I get that. But if someone’s offended by something that’s 50 or 60 years old [such as Baby It’s Cold Outside] … it’s a bit lame, it’s a bit sheltered. You don’t have to walk on eggshells; you’re always going to offend someone somehow. Just be honest and true and don’t be an arsehole. That’s it.
NK: If you really want to make a statement about something, write an original song. Changing the lyrics of something that’s 50 years old just feels …
RT: … contrived.
In November, Coldplay announced they wouldn’t be touring until they can make their concerts “actively beneficial” to the environment. What should artists be doing to combat the climate crisis?
JG: People need to speak out about it, whether it’s through your art, your actions, or just talking about it day to day with your friends and figuring out the things you can do to help out. I have my DJing and music, but I also have a talk series where I interview young scientists and talk about their work in layman’s terms.
Will Young, Jayda G, Natasha Khan (Bat For Lashes), Rebecca Taylor (Self Esteem), Joe Talbot (Idles). Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
The biggest thing is not just to talk about all the nerdy science stuff that I’m really into [Jayda G has a master’s degree in resource and environmental management], but to build empathy. That’s why we’re in this predicament in the first place. We forgot that we’re animals, we’re part of this Earth, and whatever we do has an impact on the greater system. I think once we figure out how to get closer to that source of understanding, people will inherently make the right decisions. As a DJ, when you get that one big gig that pays for you to fly all the way to Russia, do you really need to do that and put emissions into the world?
NK: Do you think that if everybody made small adjustments like that it would make a difference? We’re all trying desperately to do small things, but big corporations aren’t taking us seriously.
JG: I think the biggest decision you can make is to hold governments accountable, choosing to vote for what you believe in. In the end, that’s what’s going to make the big change.