Luckily, she's found the time to make a few solo records as well. Her newest isn't actually on the Bloodshot label - it's available from crosstown pals Touch and Go, and is called In the World of Him. As a followup to her previous solo release, 1999's "Cowboy Sally’s Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos", it may well leave many fans of the latter record scratching their collective head. Out with the lush country sound (was it camp? Who cares - sounds great) and in with a spare recording where bleak electronic blips and bleeps accompany a gentle acoustic strum. The record is a collection of songs written by men, with a very male point of view, and the musical backing is for the most part provided by Johnny Dowd and friends, who offered up their recording studio to put the songs to tape.
A collection of songs exploring the politics of gender, with some lo-fi electronics stirred into the acoustic pot, should really surprise no one, however. Hell, she's a Mekon.
I phoned Sally. She answered. Here's what happened next.
FEAR OF SPEED: You've had the concept of this record in mind for a few years, but only now has it come to fruition. A record sung from the male point of view - were you spurred on at all by the times we're living in, with the US and the UK at war with Iraq? Or was it simply the fact that you found the right group of songs to cover?
SALLY: This is the project that I've been working on for some time. It took me an awfully long time to do it, for a variety of reasons. And slowly it became something else anyway. When I first started with my ideas for this record, it was probably five or six years ago. I didn't suddenly think "this is what the record is going to be", but as I started gathering the songs together... I think it was more a product of the times for me emotionally. About two or three years ago, I thought "okay, I really have to pull this project into something cohesive."
I probably had about five or six songs at that point. My idea was those five or six songs written by men, and then five or six songs as a response to those songs, by women. But that didn't materialize. And I kept finding these other songs that seemed to fit well. Some of them I had already been doing live for years, and some were basically brand new. As I went on, the theme developed that it would be men describing themselves, and explaining themselves. And I suppose that did seem to tie in with a sense of worry about the current situation in the bigger picture, but it also did with the smaller picture, my own emotional dealings.
A lot of things like this are kind of serendipitous. You make a record, and then people read a timely appropriateness into it. If what you're getting at is whether the current political atmosphere of the world suddenly made this record coalesce, I don't think that's the case.
FEAR OF SPEED: Regardless of what most people here in the US seem to think, the political atmosphere of the world hasn't had a massive and sudden change. It's just that the mess is in the average person's face now, and everyone is being forced to confront the repercussions. I just wondered if on some level, this bullying of the world by America - America being largely run by men, of course - was a motivating factor in bringing the record from an idea to a finished piece of work.
SALLY: No. The strange thing about it is that it does seem to fit with what's going on now, but you know what? Ten years ago it probably would have fit too. Because it's relatively ambiguous. It's about war, but there have always been wars. Mekons songs have always had that subject matter going on.
I do think that for Americans, things are suddenly much more... apparent. Because it's closer to home. But for everyone else, I don't think things are much different at all. America is a very insular country, and people don't see or even know what their government does in their name. How would you know, unless you make a big effort to find those things out? You wouldn't, because you certainly won't find it in the popular media. I've been coming here since the late Eighties, and always marveled at the regular network television coverage; how bizarre it is to see no world news at all.
FEAR OF SPEED: In the very first song on the new record, "Sentimental Marching Song", comes the line "Are all men the same, born to brutalize?"
SALLY: Right. That's Jon Langford's song. And that is a pretty harsh statement. (laughs)
FEAR OF SPEED: It is. But it certainly isn't indicative of the record as whole, which comes at the subject matter from a variety of angles. The Kevin Coyne song, for example, is an extremely vulnerable song.
SALLY: "Sentimental Marching Song" is about a lot things. Random violence. Football hooliganism... in Leeds, you can be walking down the street and be beaten up by a group of people for no reason. I suppose I see that song as a man looking at other men, and recognizing some characteristics that he has in himself, but doesn't act on - but realizes that many other people do. And that translates into the wider picture. War, nationalistic aggression, xenophobia. Why do we do these terrible acts? And generally, it seems that men perpetrate a lot of them.
FEAR OF SPEED: I had seen some of the Larry Sultan photos from "The Valley" exhibit, casual shots taken of porn actors between takes...
FEAR OF SPEED: Not only did you replicate the most famous photo of the series for the cover of IN THE WORLD OF HIM, you actually had Larry Sultan take the photo of you. What drew you to that photo?
SALLY: The original photo, with Sharon Wild, strongly appealed to me on lots of levels. It was very ambiguous, and when you looked at it you really didn't know what had just happened, unless of course you did know that selection of shots is porn stars between takes. Her facial expression in that shot is just so hard to read. And the picture is kind of hostile, but in a very understated way. And when I saw that shot, I thought I'd love that idea for the cover of my record, as it really sums up a lot of what I was trying to get to. Which was... well, this woman has obviously has just had sex, or been left, or whatever it is, and she's captured at that moment. You can't really tell if she's angry or not, but it is definitely not a comfortable photograph.
I wrote to him and asked if I could use that idea for a shoot. He said yeah, but also wanted to know what my intentions were. After that I didn't hear from him for a long time, but eventually he emailed me and said he'd like to take the shots. And the reason we replicated the photo was I didn't want to use a photo on the cover of someone that's not me, you know? That seemed weird. And I liked the idea of us trying to capture the alienation that he got with Sharon. I don't know if we did manage to capture it, because I just love that photograph so much.
FEAR OF SPEED: Her expression is so unreadable.
SALLY: She definitely doesn't look pleased. But she also doesn't look angry. She's just kind of blank, quizzical, as if her space has been invaded.
FEAR OF SPEED: There's a feminist element to the photo.
SALLY: Right. Even though she's in her underwear, and obviously just been screwed in some porn shoot, there is. And also an ambiguousness and alienation, the fact that you can't quite place what's happening, or what she's thinking.
FEAR OF SPEED: Getting back to the songs, the shift in tone between your previous solo record, the COWBOY SALLY record, and the new one...
SALLY: ...is striking?
FEAR OF SPEED: Is striking. And I came upon an article where you quoted Steve Albini saying "every band has it's own natural audience, and generally that number is pretty fixed."
SALLY: Right. Yeah.
FEAR OF SPEED: Apart from the big fans who follow everything you do, do you think the audience for the COWBOY SALLY record is truly the same audience for IN THE WORLD OF HIM?
SALLY: I don't think so. (laughs)
FEAR OF SPEED: Well, maybe that's a good thing. Two fixed audiences!
SALLY: The thing is... IN THE WORLD OF HIM record is more me. COWBOY SALLY is a really sweet record, and I'm glad I made it. It is a side of me, a playful and kind of puckish side of me in a way. But it was a record I made for Bloodshot, and I always viewed it as a sort of one-off. The only idea I had for it was that it would be a sweet record, and fun for people to listen to, just a fun kind of camp take on old-style country.
Whereas the WORLD OF HIM record I've been thinking about long before I even started COWBOY SALLY. I work really slowly, so it takes time, but this new record feels more like me. Me in this somewhat ornery state, where some of it is forgiving, but some of it is not. And I do recognize that some people who liked the previous record may not like this one. Maybe they will, but it is a much more difficult record.
FEAR OF SPEED: I was talking to Norah O'Connor about her record on Bloodshot, and how it wasn't what I expected from the label. And COWBOY SALLY, of course, is a very Bloodshot record.
SALLY: Of course, and deliberately so. When they asked me to make a record for them, I wanted to give them something that would fit on their label. When you have a friend 'round for dinner, and know they like a certain kind of food, you try to acommodate them. And for me, it was very freeing. It was a very easy record to make. We just gathered the songs and recorded it. No worrying.
Whereas this new record is much more about me, and was something I was really thinking hard about. For a very, very long period of time.
FEAR OF SPEED: COWBOY SALLY was almost done in character.
SALLY: It was. And if I make any other country records like that... well, it's called COWBOY SALLY for a reason. It's to differentiate, and say that this is a little bit of a character here.
FEAR OF SPEED: WORLD OF HIM, even though eight of the nine songs are covers, matches up much more closely with the way you come across in conversation.
SALLY: True. It's more the full picture. It's definitely a more complex record. COWBOY SALLY was a very light and very pretty diversion.
FEAR OF SPEED: When I heard you mention Nico's THE MARBLE INDEX album last year when talking about this project, I thought, wow... this is truly going to be a leap from the last record. Although maybe not to people who know you through Mekons records, which are chock full of leaps.
SALLY: Obviously it's nowhere near as out there as THE MARBLE INDEX, but that was a record I listened to a lot, and thought "this is going to be my template." It's such a great record. Not just the songs but the production as well. The stuff John Cale did on that record was great. Also a very difficult record. I don't know many people who spend much time listening to it unless they're deepy depressed. Or want to be deeply depressed. (laughs)
And it still sounds completely modern to me. It was so out of it's time, one of those records that exists on a parallel plane. If you put it on now, it still sounds jarring. But it's so beautiful. All the work John Cale did on it, all the looping. I don't think my record is anywhere near THE MARBLE INDEX, but it isn't necessarily a record people will put on for enjoyment.
FEAR OF SPEED: I'm looking forward to your Seattle show...
SALLY: Yeah, it should be good. It's me and Johnny Dowd and all the people that played on it, so I hope it will work out well.
FEAR OF SPEED: I did want to ask about "God's Eternal Love", the Mark Eitzel song you cover on this new record, because I'm a big fan of his songwriting.
SALLY: That song was on the second volume of Jon's THE EXECUTIONER'S LAST SONGS record. The money that was raised from it all went to the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. I don't know if Mark wrote that song for the record, or already had it and thought it would be appropriate. But I thought it was such a great, bitter song. I mean, that is a harsh song. (laughs)
FEAR OF SPEED: It is. Those lyrics have some bite to them! "All the good Christians vote to build more prisons..."
SALLY: I hope he likes it. I haven't heard from him, as to what he thought of it. I did send him a copy, but don't know if he's heard it yet.
FEAR OF SPEED: The song "Corporal Chalkie"... I'm wondering why you chose to record it again so soon, as it was just on the Mekons PUNK ROCK record earlier this year?
SALLY: I wasn't really trying to, although I do suppose it's a drag for people who buy Mekons records. When we did the 25th Anniversary Mekons tour, I started singing it, which I had never done before. And when I started doing it, I realized it would work really well for my solo record.
We weren't necessarily planning to make PUNK ROCK. That was a record that came out because we had stuff lying around, and it was going to be one of these odds and sodds records we do, something extra for fans that might want to have it. And then when it came together, since it's such a slow process for me to get anything recorded, suddenly the Mekons record was going to come out before mine. And it sounded so good, we decided we should do it as a proper release.
And in the end I thought "You know what? Fuck it." Because the Mekons record wasn't particularly planned out, and I knew I wanted this song on my record, and wasn't going to jettison the song because of that. It's drag for people who buy Mekons records as well, but I can't just assume those are the only people who will hear my record. There's another world out there of people who don't have PUNK ROCK.
FEAR OF SPEED: Sure! I'm part of that world.
SALLY: It works on WORLD OF HIM, so I wanted it on there. It's like "Bomb", which is also on the new record. That's a Mekons song, but it was never performed live by the Mekons. I had started singing it live during my solo shows. It had been on an obscure record that came out ages ago, and it didn't feel like an issue that I wanted to record it for my new record. But the problem is, when it takes you six years to make a record, all these people get tired of having their songs off the market, and they want to have them out there. I've read a couple of reviews where people are griping about the songs being available elsewhere, but it wasn't planned that way.
FEAR OF SPEED: You can't always control the timing.
SALLY: And people do have a choice whether to buy it or not. You can see on the back of the record what's on it. (laughs)
But as I said, it really fit on this record. You know, I wanted to make a record that was an adult record. Adult themes. And that can be taxing for people to listen to. It seems people don't do that as much any more, make records that address things that adults deal with. I don't know if I achieved that, but that's the direction I tried to go in.