Epicene: Grawl!x and Umbilica on gender identity

Epicene: Grawl!x and Umbilica on gender identity

Following a trilogy of albums on the subject of grief musician Grawl!x – collaborating with Umbilica – has now turned their attention to exploring gender, feminism, and identity. 

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Grawl!x and Umbilica

Epicene: having characteristics of both sexes or no characteristics of either sex; of indeterminate sex.

Not one for shying away from subjects so big and universal in the human experience James Machin – songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind both Grawl!x and ((MARIA)) – has moved from exploring grief over the course of three albums, to gender inclusivity in their most recent work. Both themes intersect around loss, renewal, and the external presentation of internal emotion and identity, while also being both uniquely personal and society wide in their scope.

As Grawl!x the trilogy on grief began in 2014 with the release of debut album Good Grief, was followed in 2016 by Aye!, and completed in 2018 with the release of Appendix. Across the course of the three albums the shattering nature of grief, and the healing which comes with time, are tracked as artists including Haiku Salut, and composer Richard J. Birkin add to the intricate and often orchestrated dreampop sound. Far from being mournfully indulgent melancholia this is full of soaring hope, and bittersweet moments, just as the songs drip with considerately placed details so too are they drenched in the emotion underpinning grief: love. Understated, and certainly underrated, they were an ambitious undertaking from an artist with incredible musical mastery and a knack for grandeur expressed without becoming ostentatious.

With a prolificacy to match their creativity there was little pause after Appendix, with writing and recording on what will become a fourth album (currently slated for release in early 2020) beginning almost immediately and with another, equally ambitious, angle emerging: gender.

Machin said, “The grief trilogy if you will was very much an internal thing so I knew I wanted to write about something more external, that is on a broader social topic. I’ve always been aware in some sense of my own gender and felt like a very natural yet big theme to explore. It’s funny what we’re drawn toward.

“Gender non-conformity, I found, seemed to be met with mostly ridicule when I was younger which always upset me. Now I think in certain circles people are much more open minded. It’s an important point how one is expected to behave in society; particularly one which is still so geared to toward cis-white, Christian dominance. I certainly think gender identity is taken a lot more seriously, and I hope it’s getting easier for artists to talk about their own gender identity.

“Reading about things has had a massive impact on my writing and me personally. Having the language to express and define abstract thoughts is essential. I simply didn’t have access to that language when I was younger but I learned to write as a form of therapy as a teenager and ever since it’s been a case of delving into my sub-conscious, as it were. I’ve tried writing through the lens of other folks and characters and I’m just not very good at it. Call it narcissistic if you like, but I can only really interpret things through my personal experience.”

ID: Epicene

Rarely linear understanding their gender has been a journey for Machin – and one which they are exploring musically not only as Grawl!x but more recently as ((MARIA)) too.

The two sides connect in most recent single Epicene, released under the Grawl!x name and featuring Umbilica. Lyrically the track explores the binary set up of gender in society, and the division expectations of masculine and feminine cause individually and on a broader scale, culminating in the refrain and signpost to the other creative identity, “Maria in parenthesis / Our relief / Don’t leave”.

Machin said, “Grawl!x and ((MARIA)) are kind of the same character. ((MARIA)) is the name of my femme alter ego, and she has started to put music out with the release of album Lepidoptera. I guess writing the song ‘Epicene’ has been one of many checkpoints along the road to me accepting the more inclusive gender side of myself. I guess ((MARIA)) is an extension of that…but still early days!”

Discourse recently has turned to the fluid nature of gender, and the separation of gender from sex, with music reflecting this issue and scenes focusing on best support but for Machin gender in music is nothing new. They said, “It’s a funny one because I would argue that androgyny has always been a massive thing in music. In their younger years many of the biggest rock stars played with gender and that can trickle down into local scenes. .

“In terms of gender expectation, I definitely fell for a lot of clichés surrounding how male musicians were supposed to act and, honestly, suffered for it a great deal. Alcoholism and mental health issues are rife in guitar bands and certainly that had a big impact on me in my twenties. Since letting go of that and embracing a genderqueer identity it feels so much better and so much less effort!”

The patriarchy is ‘effin vast

Working with Josephine Lewis of Umbilica on Epicene came from conversations between the two about gender, but also about feminism and patriarchal structures. Lewis said: “We’ve known each other maybe five years on the Derby and Nottingham gig scene and became friends about two years ago. I’d just starting running She Speaks with two other artists, Emerciana Desouza and Aoife O’Connor. She Speaks is a performance night promoting female and non-binary artists. James came to some of our first events.

“We were both exploring ideas around gender and feminism so it kept coming up in conversation. James has a knack of asking meaningful questions in a light way, which gets people talking. We got chatting about street harassment one night after a gig. Like many other women, I’ve experienced men harassing me since my teens. I considered it a thing men do to women (but shouldn’t), but James had experienced street harassment even when they were presenting as male. That was an eye-opener.”

Grawl!x and UmbilicaMachin said, “I dare say most of my friends consider themselves feminists and given that many of them are women it seemed like something I should read up on. This would have been in my mid-twenties and patriarchal structures are just one of those things that once you notice it, it’s everywhere. There’s a podcast I listen to called the ‘Bechdel Cast’ that has a line in the jingle which goes: “The patriarchy is effin’ vast.” Think that sums it up well.

“These conversations challenged my own experience in different ways. To name a few; issues of entitlement, privilege, intersectionality. I wouldn’t wish to give the impression that I was this toxic masculine butch lummox until Jo came along and took on an undue amount of emotional labour while I learnt the error of my ways, however, I’m always learning and trying to challenge my preconceptions.

“For example, there was a female only workshop & we had a conversation about inclusivity that was really enlightening for me. The idea of how gendered gigs can be for women and how unsafe they can be. Made me rethink some things. There’s lots of work to be done. 

I would say the small branch of our local music scene in Derby is great. There’s one venue/studio called Dubrek which prides itself on being a safe space. Outside of that though even now there’s still a tendency for there to be more guys. Things are hopefully getting better. In Grawl!x, we’ve had the discussions about being mostly boys and try to rectify that. Still though, you get the standard guitar lad band and honestly, I don’t tend to stick around too long! Like all institutions, the industry side of things is still massively stacked in favour of guys being the gatekeepers. But then I tend to avoid that part of music.”

Lewis picks up, “I think everybody in music should be asking themselves whether they are supporting or challenging patriarchal structures. In any field, actually. There are lots of answers to it, but for now I’ll say that venues have a significant part to play, in the diversity of their staff and performers, having a safe space policy and making the space welcoming to diverse audiences.

“Dubrek in Derby has taken a really positive line on all those things. I really like that they’ve made sanitary products freely available in their bathrooms too. If you’re menstruating and low on supplies, you can still attend the gig – it makes me feel seen and valued that some thought has been given to that.

“I’m really happy to see some venues are making more effort to make women feel welcome at gigs. But I think the most important thing is not tolerating harassment, which is not always gender-based. It’s about making spaces safe for everyone.”

What am I here for, if not you?

While Machin’s recent release as ((MARIA)), album Lepidoptera, traces the journey from being lost to being found Umbilca’s album Where the Land Meets the Ocean also explores personal nature, identity and relationships. Describing the inspiration behind single ‘Butterfly’ Lewis said it was based, “on the dynamics of friendship and connection.”

Walking the border between the vulnerability of honesty and the need for authenticity the album embraces the duality internal and external through identity, relationships and more. Creatively too this duality comes up, for Lewis she is tended toward introversion yet with a draw toward performance, while for Machin they consider themselves ambivert, fluid between introvert and extrovert.

Lewis said, “I like people, but I’m an introvert. I definitely have to recharge alone, in between periods of working and being social. I need times where I don’t have to talk. It helps with the writing process if you’re in the habit of looking inward. You have to be able to cut off from everything to get a song finished, or at least I do. Then performing the songs at gigs is the total opposite – really gorgeous, but knackering. It’s not that common for me to stay out after a gig, even though I’m so elated to see everyone. I’m not very rock ‘n’ roll – I go home and sleep!” 

Grawl!x and UmbilicaMachin said, “It’s kinda complicated. Not to sound like I’m harping on about it, but I would say I almost sit between the two binaries. In normal life, I’m usually kind of shy but that can even bleed over into performing. However, I’ve been a performer in some way since I was a kid. It’s just something I need to do. Maybe attention seeking is part of it.

“Sometimes my introvert seems to find themselves in situations where they’re just like “Why are we here?! This is terrifying!” Then on other occasions I just absolutely absorb and adore being in front of relatively sizeable numbers of people. 

Both parts are important for me. At worst, introversion can lead to depressive states but even that can be so useful in terms of giving me time to ponder and make something with depth and care. Then the extrovert wants to make it big and exciting and all in yr grill. Sometimes the timidity can get in the way sure in terms of getting stuff out there. I’m getting better with social media which is just invaluable to get folks listening. However, it does always feel like I’m imposing in some way. It’s just something one must get over I suppose.” 

While both artists have built bands around themselves as needed they have also both been drawn to working solo and delegating rather than collaborating on their creative visions. Working together on ‘Epicene’ was something newer to them both and has given an unexpected creative result as well as led to the release.

Lewis said, “Collaborating is something I’m enjoying more and more. For a long time I didn’t collaborate very much on songs I’d written, because I hadn’t found a way of doing it that worked for me, and also couldn’t imagine who I’d do that with. In some ways it’s easier not to rely on anyone and to have total control, but you miss out on being challenged, which is healthy and expansive when it comes from someone you trust and connect with.

“James was lovely to work with, in that they had ideas they were excited about, but they weren’t restrictive about how those ideas were executed and so was very much open to others’ creative input. The ‘Epicene’ vocals were the first thing we’d collaborated on and we’ve carried on working together. It feels pretty natural.

“When we recorded the ‘Epicene’ vocals I hadn’t been in the studio for some time. I’d started thinking of the studio as a negative place after some bad experiences elsewhere, but recording the vocal at Snug (Recording Company, Derby) was really fun. It put me back in touch with the healthy aspects of being in the studio. I’ve since gone back to Rich (Collins) and Robbie (Newman) at Snug to work on the Umbilica album, which has been positive and magical.” 

Machin said, “In ye olden times I would have said I was a solitary artist despite being in a band as Grawl!x. But then I can be a bit moody! I’ve since come to realise all art is collaborative in one way or another and you either embrace that or you sit on your bedroom floor feeling sad. I’d say for me, working on ‘Epicene’ was quite a bit different as I don’t often collaborate on lyrics with other peeps. However, Jo is amazing. It was a breeze!

“These days I’m always looking for friends to work on things together and have some fun. Connecting to other people through music is the most wonderful feeling in the world.”

Find Grawl!x:

Find Umbilica:

Grawl!x and Umbilca play a joint in-store at Vanishing Point Records, Chesterfield on 23 November 2019. Grawl!x will play The Finsbury, London for Get In Her Ears on 14 February 2020, with Piney Gir.

Inner World is our regular feature about creative natures. Through conversations with artists we explore what it means to be a creative, where creativity comes from, and how creatives interact with their inner world and the world around them. If you would like to be featured or have a suggestion for a conversation get in touch.

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Disclosure: Grawl!x spoke to Sarah Lay who as well as being a music journalist is co-founder of record label Reckless Yes, to which the band are signed.

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Sarah Lay

Sarah Lay is editor of Popoptica.
A long-standing music journalist she's also co-founder of independent record label Reckless Yes, an author of novels, and when not messing around with words and music, a digital strategist.
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