Black Honey: “When you’re scared, that’s when you know that you’re saying something important”

Personal trauma, female rage and a refusal to stick to one lane - Black Honey’s ‘A Fistful of Peaches’ is a record ready to punch back. Hard.

Personal trauma, female rage and a refusal to stick to one lane – Black Honey’s ‘A Fistful of Peaches’ is a record ready to punch back. Hard.

Words + photos: Jamie MacMillan.

There’s an old saying about how stars, real stars, can light up a room as soon as they enter it; their personality and charm instantly shining from deep within them. That is most definitely the case today in a photo studio near Brixton, London, as the various members of Black Honey begin to drift in. Dressed head to paw in a beautiful, luxurious white coat and taking her place in front of the camera like she was born to do this, this is Zero the dog’s hour, and she will do whatever it takes to take the spotlight away from a band who are gunning for another chart success with their third album, ‘A Fistful Of Peaches’.

The momentum is strong going into this. After their spiky self-titled debut album only just sneaked into the charts on its release back in 2018, the pendulum swung wildly in the opposite direction for the follow-up ‘Written & Directed’. Kicking the doors in at Number 7, its (deserved) success came as much of a surprise to the band as anyone. “Oh, we had peak imposter syndrome,” laughs frontperson Izzy Bee Phillips as Dork catches up with the band down the pub post-shoot. “We just felt that we had blagged it somehow, like what is going on??” 

The celebrations for that came at a strange and troubled time, however, for both the band and everyone else. Externally, the world was limping back to post-Covid normality, but the group were still wrestling with the repercussions of their guitarist Chris Ostler suffering from a serious injury – a herniated disc in his neck had affected his spinal cord severely, and he was admitted to hospital for emergency surgery after beginning to lose mobility. As the band announced in terrifying detail some months later, his surgeon had warned him prior that the worst-case scenario was permanent paralysis. 

The guitarist is in top form during our photoshoot but leaves the interview to the others. And although the band are plainly still concerned for their friend’s health, they say today that it has given them a whole new perspective. “I think it’s made us better people,” admits Izzy before drummer Alex Woodward continues. “You never think it’s gonna be you,” he says. “And then, when it does happen to you, it’s like, fuck. It becomes even more important to be personable or in touch with the people supporting you because everyone’s going through the same shit.” 

“We’re a group of four people and this horrible health thing happened to one of us,” chips in bassist Tommy Taylor thoughtfully. “I’m sure for everyone in a group of four people or family, this is the kind of shit that happens to everyone; it’s almost a reminder to respect and reflect, I guess – you never know what people have got going on in their lives.” 

Describing having Chris back in the band as “like a miracle”, Izzy also considers how it has changed their viewpoint. “People have so much shit in their lives that you don’t ever think about or even acknowledge,” she says. “Their lives are so difficult and complex that it reminds you of everyone’s humanity and makes you more kind.”

All of this personal emotional trauma came on top of what had already been a horrendous year for, well, everyone. Izzy had found it largely impossible to write during lockdown, the only exception being the darkly vulnerable ‘Nobody Knows’, its lyrics detailing the still all-too-familiar memories of staring at four walls and contemplating planes flying overhead with nobody inside. But that was it, as she describes a period where nothing could inspire her to write. The band did what everybody else did, of course, jumping on livestreams to keep their all-important fan community strong and together. 

We had peak imposter syndrome”

Izzy Bee Phillips

“I think we got closer to a lot of people that listen to our music then,” remembers Tommy. “You got in the habit of doing them and speaking to these people. I hated them.” “You mean you hated the Zooms, not speaking to the people, right?” checks Izzy quickly on accidental cancellation watch before concluding, “I think it’s the final death of the separation between artists and fans.” 

After the success of ‘Written & Directed’, another unexpected obstacle creeping up on the band quickly was a sense of expectation and the easy temptation to do it again. But ‘A Fistful Of Peaches’ swerves it totally. “There was so much chaotic artistry that went into album two that it would have been hard to do again,” explains Izzy. “I love that one of my biggest critiques is that I don’t do one thing and that I’m doing too many. One day it’s disco, and currently I’m having a post-punk era, obviously. It’s just impossible for me to do the same thing twice; I can’t even sing the same vocal take twice, let alone write songs that are coherent!” 

“I think the great people who do really well just move around,” continues Alex. “If you stay safe, it’s exactly that. Safe. What’s next? What can you do to invigorate that next thing that you want to do? A lot of the time, you move around [in genre] subconsciously, and, hopefully, it all ties together in the end.” 

Even in these genre-blurring days, Black Honey stand out as one of those acts who like to skip around loose ideas of indie, pop and rock. So what kind of band do they see themselves as? “All of those, yeah, but a guitar band through and through,” says Izzy. “We flirted with pushing pop, and it didn’t land exactly how we wanted. But at the heart of it, these are still kind of pop songs but just dressed up in a guitar band way.” 

This album may see them move in a new direction again, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of their love of vintage culture. “We’ll always love that!” states Izzy. “Looking back with rose-tinted glasses is something that’s just been permanently injected into my veins since Lana Del Rey existed, and I fell in love with all of that. But there’s nothing creative about playing it safe.” 

That word again. “Safe” feels like a dangerous word in Black Honey’s world. “I remember being drunk backstage with Florence Welch once,” she continues (we’ve all been there). “And I said I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere. I feel like too much of a drag queen for rock and roll, and too much of a weirdo rock character for pop music. And she just said, ‘If you’re not fitting in anywhere, then you’re doing something right’. That’s the only space you need to be in.”

As festivals and gigs came back to life in 2021, so did Izzy’s songwriting mojo, and by the end of summer, the show had limped back onto the road. She had begun therapy during lockdown and had been exploring and growing her self-awareness of just how her neurodivergent personality affected her day-to-day life. “I think I’m getting better at understanding my causes or the bits about me that I didn’t necessarily know, but everyone else does,” she states. “But doing therapy comes slowly; it takes ages, and it’s really fucking long and hard. I’m not one of those people who can be like, ‘oh my gawd, I went to therapy, and now I’ve made this amazing record’. I’m 100% not done with therapy, but it has definitely given me the ability to access pain in ways that mean I can be held safely and show vulnerability around other people. Which is quite intimidating when you’re a songwriter.”

When approaching the writing of the album, she says she knew where she wanted it to go – but it wasn’t going to be easy to explore. “It was very heavy duty this time,” she remembers. “I wanted to go in deeper on subjects, and I wanted it to have to gravity. It was a feeling of, if you’re gonna put art out into the world after lockdown then it’s got to have a purpose or mean something important.” 

With therapy opening doors in her mind, things began to click into place. “Having to really wake up my subconscious was a big curveball,” she says. “If the last album was making a fantasy world where you could be a villain and protect yourself with huge shields of caricatures, then this album is what happens if you just rip that away like a plaster, finding out what was actually underneath the persona.” 

If the images and vistas that Black Honey regularly summon could seem to have leapt out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, then ‘A Fistful Of Peaches’ is instead embedded in the real world – one where there is more than enough drama and nastiness to go around already, thank you very much. 

Even the sound of the band is different this time, their trademark 60s surf rock guitar replaced (for the time being at least) by what Izzy describes today as “2007 indie sleaze cheese”, something she says the group have embraced fully. “There’s fun and humour and a lack of apology in doing something that isn’t as cool as you’ve made before,” she says. “As well as also having it be a big rock anthem that can also be a love song. But we’ve made it modern and for the female lens instead of that over-done and over-exhausted male perspective, which just isn’t interesting as a listener any more. I don’t find any joy in listening to anything that’s just traditional white man rock; it’s exciting to see women and non-binary people coming through. It’s unlocking a whole other perspective, like a breath of fresh air.” 

She’s excited, talking about the current scene and the way it is diversifying as it progresses. “I feel like I can relate to it all better”, she says, “There is space for people like me, and I think that anything that is trying to create space in rock for queer music to exist in a way that’s cool as fuck is really empowering.”

One of the standout tracks on the record, ‘I’m A Man’, is equally as empowering in its own way. Playing with listeners’ expectations in the same way as Nirvana’s grunge classic ‘Polly’, it puts the listener into the mind of the man who is a sexual predator, and worse with its chorus-slash-threat of ‘I’ll do what I want ‘cos remorse isn’t my thing / Equal I mean, no such thing it’s survival’. Izzy remembers it now as one of the toughest days in the studio. “I guess when you’re a bit scared to say something, that’s when you know that you’re saying something important,” she says now. “Because it probably means it’s more honest and vulnerable.” 

As we chat, even though she can look back at it with more distance, it’s obvious that the anger behind the track hasn’t disappeared. “I needed to get that off my chest in a way, but it’s just being fucking real about the actual reality,” she explains. “A couple of my friends experienced sexual assault recently and spoke to me about it. And in the space of a month, I know seven fucking people that have been raped, and that’s just part of normal day-to-day life.” 

I wanted to go in deeper on subjects, and I wanted it to have to gravity”

Izzy Bee Phillips

Having watched Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’, with its exploration of just where the lines and boundaries of sexual assault begin, Izzy’s eyes were opened even further. “I still wake up some days and remember an encounter,” she says. “And now I’m annoyed about that because I’ve realised it was a fucking sexual assault. I’m angry that I’m now woke enough to know what it is. I didn’t realise that taking a condom off during sex without consent is fully rape. It’s not consensual, and consent is sexy, and that’s the bottom line.” 

The track also refers to someone ‘holding her drink to her chest like a Bible’, a nod towards what Izzy calls the “boys will be boys” excuses that get rolled out. “’Her skirt was too short; she brought it on herself’,” she mimics before continuing. “I blamed myself for everything that happened to me. And I’ve got plenty of friends who have opened up to me since these conversations, and I’m really fucking angry on their behalf as well. I definitely worked in pubs where the chef used to grope my ass, and girls used to take turns to do the chef run so we could avoid being groped. These were all things that were part of being a woman day-to-day. And I’m angry about those undertones that have been normalised for entire lifetimes. It’s weird that girls have to wear skirts to school, and then get told off it it’s too short. Well, if you don’t want the kid to wear it too short, let them wear fucking trousers!” 

She hopes the song will be empowering. “Imagine if a girl could put that song on her headphones and walk to school and be empowered to say ‘no, what happened to me yesterday wasn’t appropriate’.” 

“If it makes one boy or man or anyone think differently about the way they speak to a woman, then it’s a good thing,” continues Tommy. “It’s not always just your stereotypical person; it could be anyone. And that’s the scary thing.”

Elsewhere, ‘Charlie Bronson’ explores female rage and the damaging way it is portrayed by the wider culture. “I really have a gripe with the kind of mono-nature that women have to be this kind of one-dimensional character,” Izzy explains. “Now films and stuff like that are really exciting because they are exploring more nuance to women. And ‘Charlie’ is me just being able to say, I have got this tapped side to me that is totally nuts.” 

She traces her love of Tarantino movies back to his empowering female characters, the flawed and complex parts that only men traditionally got to portray on screen. Her mum was also vitally important, being largely responsible for what Izzy describes as a “non-binary experience” of growing up – where nothing was out of bounds, and no gender expectations or limits were placed. 

“I found it really hard to understand that people had such binary perspectives of gender,” she remembers. “All because of what had been imposed on them and what they needed to reject. I never needed to reject any gender elements because I was never imposed as ‘my’ gender. Just having that starting point with my mum really not caring about what gender constructs were; it allowed me to express my masculinity in a safe way.” 

Playing with expectations has been a huge part of Izzy’s personality within the band, and is something she explored during the earlier photoshoot with a range of outfits all reflecting different parts of her personality. “My therapist says that there’s a village of people that live within us, and I got obsessed with that quote as soon as she said it,” she states. “A lot of Black Honey is about me exploring different personas, parts and facets of me. Every part of my personality is valid, and it’s all real!”

Having lived long-term with various neurodivergent diagnoses (Izzy was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD during childhood), going through therapy and producing ‘A Fistful Of Peaches’ has resulted in Izzy learning to understand herself and her needs even more. “I have an amazing support network,” she smiles. “People always say to me, ‘you’re smashing it’, but I wish they could see how hard the bad shit is, or how hard it is for me to leave the house or get somewhere on time. Not getting lost is a daily fucking problem for me, or saying inappropriate shit, or offending people, or having horrific meltdowns in public. 

“Trying to function in a society that isn’t designed for people who are neurodivergent, who are on the spectrum, or have learning difficulties, is exhausting… And it’s something I know that I’m gonna have with my brain for the rest of my life. I would honestly give away all of my talent to just be able to live a normal, functional and happy life. But I can’t do that! So I have to make the most of what I’ve got….” 

Just as Izzy begins to explain how it affects how people see her, and whether they think it is part of her whole stage persona, a kerfuffle unfolds. There’s a fine balance between Black Honey and all of its members, each capable of saying something wonderfully profound one second and then losing the plot seconds later. Here, it’s Alex’ turn to unravel as he tries to quietly remove the head of his pint. Now, we can’t stress enough how weird this is; he does this by blowing at it with the force of a thousand five-year-olds at a birthday party and dumping about a quarter of it into the air and over the balcony. “One for the guys who aren’t with us any more,” he shrugs to general bafflement and bemusement, the band breaking into hysterics. 

After regaining her composure, Izzy reflects on moments like ‘Up Against It’ and ‘Weirdos’, where she turns many of her lived experiences into something more positive. The former could almost be a letter to her younger self, a reminder to ‘Breathe in, breathe out / Just take a minute’ and a message to the listener that ‘school isn’t the be-all and end-all’. ‘Weirdos’, meanwhile, is a triumphant call-to-arms for the outsiders and those who don’t fit the ‘mainstream’. “I was told I was a naughty kid, that I was badly behaved, that I was problematic,” she remembers. “I was always the weird kid in school, always the one that was a bit tapped or that everyone was a bit scared of. But there’s an entire community and world out there where you can celebrate being exactly who you are. And who you are is fucking perfect.” 

Laughing at her own “live, laugh, love bullshit”, she finishes simply. “Kids should be encouraged to celebrate their individuality, and people should be allowed to be whoever the fuck they want to be.” 

Songs like ‘Rock Bottom’, ‘Cut The Cord’ and ‘Heavy’ are exactly as you’d imagine from the titles, packed with sadness and echoes of lockdown – the latter also streaked with shades from a more specific grief at the death of their fan club leader Gavin Woollard. Izzy reveals that when she listens to those tracks now, she recognises that she was incredibly low and sad when they were written. 

“’Heavy’ has that feeling of when you’re just like, ‘I can’t even fucking brush my teeth’,” explains Izzy. “I can’t do anything. I can’t get out of bed; I can just press play on Netflix. I got so fucking annoyed with this toxic culture of people online saying they were gonna write their novels in lockdown and be the most productive ever. I found it so hard. I think I definitely and finally got in touch with the fact that I’m not necessarily the most mentally well person. I guess I’m more comfortable with being aware of that and….” 

Suddenly breaking the mood, there is the soft sound of a dog’s head slumping onto the pub table, Zero plainly having had enough of the chat and the limelight moving away from her as the band dissolve into giggles. “She is a very visual representation of where this conversation was going,” grins Izzy. “I don’t think I’m gonna write an album like this again.” 

Due to the nature of releasing music in the year 2023, these tracks are already more a reflection of where she was rather than where she is now, and today says she feels a lot better. Whatever world she chooses to live in or which personality she chooses to adopt for the next era, the only thing you can expect is the unexpected. ■

Taken from the April 2023 edition of Dork. Black Honey’s album ‘A Fistful Of Peaches’ is out 17th March.

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