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Back on the Broomstick: A Conversation with Bitch

By Christopher Treacy

Photo Credit: Jim Frohna

So, this Bitch is Karen.

But this Karen is not a Karen. She is Bitch, however. And she’s proud of that.

Born Karen Mould, multi-instrumentalist, actress, and performance artist, Bitch, got started with professional music in the 90s as half of the duo Bitch and Animal. The daring tones of the pair’s trippy, sexuality-charged, violin-and-bongo beat-folk caught the ear of Ani DiFranco, who began regularly booking them into her opening slot; two of their three albums came out on her Righteous Babe label.

But after those three albums, one of which included their notorious “Pussy Manifesto” as a bonus track, the queercore-inspired duo dissolved. The Bitch moniker remained, however. Call it an ongoing verbal reclamation.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

Twenty years later, the so-called Witchy Poet has accomplished some impressive creative feats, starring in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, producing Canadian lesbian folk legend Ferron’s album Boulder and also co-directing a documentary about Ferron entitled Thunder. Along the way, she recorded five albums of original material, several of which she released on her own label.

In early 2022, nearly a decade after her last disc, Bitch announced Bitchcraft—a new album out on Kill Rock Stars. In between, she’d been holed up in nature… a cabin in the woods, to be specific. When she finally descended from the mountain, it was with some fresh musical ideas, and though her trademark violin remains, Bitchcraft is propelled by synths and drum machines. And it slaps. For an artist that’s always been about empowerment, it sounds appropriately bold.

What follows is an in-depth conversation about music and songwriting, fragmented subculture, articulating rage, and being named Karen in the age of… well, in the Age of Karen. Or, maybe it’s the Age of Mark. That is, if this Bitch has anything to say about it.

It was 9 years between albums. Were you concerned that maybe your people wouldn’t be there when you returned this time?

Yes. And there’s a definite relief to discover they’re still there and saying, “Oh, okay, yay, here we go.”

Kill Rock Stars seems like a good label to get this music out to a wider audience that hasn’t necessarily followed your career.

I’ll just say this—when I was starting to write the new songs, I was in retreat mode. And it’s like, ‘Okay, who am I? What kind of album would I make? Or, what songs would I make? Even if I never share them with anyone, what do I want to make? What am I trying to express?’ That’s where this whole album’s journey came from. And I really didn’t know if people would be there. But I felt compelled to do it anyway, which reminded me that there’s a reason for creating it regardless of whether anyone hears it or not.

When I came back to L.A., I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll just start releasing some singles.’ And I put out “You’re the Man” which was originally called “New Year,” and Kill Rock Stars came to me. And you know, [KRS Founder] Slim [Moon] is somebody I deeply respect. We’d worked together in the past (Make This, Break This, 2006) and we just really love each other. He came to me and said, ‘I really love this new sound, you’re going in this new direction… Do you have anything else?’ and I played him another song I had in the wings. And so that’s when he said ‘I want to put this out and I want you to make a full record. Let’s do this.’

Now, maybe in the past, I wouldn’t have cherished that moment quite the same way, but after having this experience of feeling a little bit, y’know, knocked off my broomstick, if you will, and retreating as I had been, to have somebody who I respect so much being like, ‘Yes, we love what you’re doing, keep going’ was such an important feeling. And it meant so much to me. It put the whole project on track and convinced me that this was all meant to happen. So it has felt very kind of witchy and perfect to be working with them again. I feel very grateful.

Has the up-in-your-grill sexuality of your music always been part of your creative mission?

Yes! Absolutely. I mean, nature is having sex all the time, right?. And pleasure is a right. Bigtime. Always, of course, with Bitch and Animal, we were all up in your grill. Now that I’m a bit older I’m like, ‘All right, okay, calm dowwwwnnn.’

Is it harder now that you’re a bit older, to articulate rage in a way that feels suitable, or genuine?

No, I think I like it more. I mean, I like getting to choose my words more carefully. In my early days, it was just, you know, ‘BLEEEEEHHH!’ I was not much of an editor. I would write something and it’d be just like, the first take, whatever I thought and there it is, you know—FUCK YOU—spewing it out, that kind of raw feeling. 

Bitchcraft is one of the first times I’ve ever edited as I went along and, as I said, thought about what I wanted to say and then picked my words, choosing them carefully and wisely. It feels like it’s coming from a more empowered place.

Are there threads that you can pinpoint that are running through all of your music? Because while Bitchcraft employs a slightly different delivery system, it still has your creative stamp.

It’s good for me to think about that. Just on a meta-level, the song that I always think of as a nod to Bitch and Animal, especially to our first album, is “Fallen Witch 2.” That has a similar energy to what Animal and I used to cultivate.

The violin is a thread. And especially for Bitchcraft, I took my time with this one—so much time off since my last album, and in a sense, I feel like I went back to my earliest voice, which is my violin. And, in the early days of Bitch and Animal, the violin was all I was playing. I didn’t pick up the bass until a couple of years in. So even though I’m playing with beats and electronica on this album, I wanted to make sure Bitchcraft remained ‘violin-forward’ and to really make her the centerpiece. I think my feminist rage is still there. And I think the rallying against the various powers-that-be is still there. And, you know what else? My love of rhythm. Definitely still there.

Right, it just comes across as a bit more polished because you’re pairing the violin with machines—using different means to accomplish some of the same things. What works for you about this new sound, what’s your favorite thing about it?

What I love the most about it is that I feel it allows me to project the biggest side of myself onstage. It gives me this powerful sonic bed to play with, I just love the power of it, the bigness of it, which is fun for me and new. Bitch and Animal had a scrappy, stripped-down aesthetic, you know, and through the years, I’ve tried other musical setups, but there’s something very full and powerful and big about this. And that’s what’s filling me right now.

I feel as if you can be counted on for a well-placed zinger like that.

So, does a song still begin with the violin?

Definitely “Divvy it Up” started on the violin. “Easy Target” got started because Mel York from The Butchies sent me that beat. And I wrote the song right over it. With “Fallen Witch,” both parts 1 and 2 started from the violin. “Hateful Thoughts” started on the violin. “You’re the Man” actually started on my keytar, which I used to write that baseline. They all happen in different ways, but violin seems to dominate a bit.

Does it ever just start with a phrase?

There are some of those. I mean, “Fallen Witch” may have started on violin, but it also didn’t grow much more beyond that central phrase.

And I’ll mention “You’re the Man” again, because that one was a response to an Aloe Blacc song. I wrote it quite a few years ago, and his song that was really big at the time has that chorus, ‘I’m the man and I’m the man, I’m the man…’ And for me, as a feminist, I was left thinking about how we have that phrase, like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re the man!‘ but we don’t have it really for women… except for maybe the more demeaning, ‘You go, girl!’ So, I decided I wanted to write a response to it in that way of… maybe putting it out into the universe that we could start saying, ‘Yeah, you’re the woman!

Allllll the broomsticks: Bitchcraft cover art, courtesy of Kill Rock Stars

As someone that’s prided themselves on using their artwork as a mouthpiece for feminist ideology, do you ever feel that maybe that movement has become so fragmented within itself that it has lost sight of where it needs to go? Sometimes within the queer community, it feels like we’ve just become warring factions. And that’s an oversimplified way of framing it, but I wonder if you’ve experienced any of that in feminism.

Absolutely. I think with every marginalized community, that’s one of the things that happens and it makes it much more difficult to unify and create—to have a unified front, to actually pull everyone in and go for the common goal. And I think that’s unfortunately just part of the sadness of what happens to marginalized cultures. There’s even more to overcome. And it’s very easy to get bogged down in the minutiae. That’s why good leaders are so important.

And yeah, I’ve also seen that in the LGBTQ community and the feminist community. There’s infighting or, you know, people can’t get on the same page to move forward together against the actual roadblock that’s in their way. And I don’t know if that’s a human condition thing or where it comes from, exactly.

But on the other side of that, I do feel as if young people these days wouldn’t argue with someone saying, ‘Yes, I’m a feminist.’ I think they’d take it at face value and appreciate it for what it is. I do feel like there’s a powerful movement of people who understand at a core level that this is an important social issue, and if you don’t call yourself a feminist, you’re missing the boat on something pretty basic, right? So it’s kind of like a yes and no answer because there’s so much to it.

Is there something specific that went on in your life that created a need for your woodsy retreat?

It’s still pretty hard to talk about. But, we could circle back to the whole thing we were just discussing, about infighting and people trying to cut each other down. And maybe it’s that we don’t understand how to hold each other up because that’s not how we were raised. We weren’t raised to have solidarity with each other and to understand how to have hard conversations with each other where we’re still holding each other up, instead of just trying to cut each other down. We’ve been raised in a patriarchal, warlike mentality, and it makes it hard to learn to practice solidarity. So, that surely had something to do with it. I moved off to the cabin and kind of hid out for a while in part because that stuff does get exhausting.

Since the pandemic, though, I left the cabin and came back to L.A. with these songs I’d written and felt I was ready to be back in the world. The dream is to always have a cabin in the woods to retreat to, but right now I’m in the mode of ‘Okay, I need to join the world again.’

And it has felt like there’ve been wide open, welcoming arms waiting for me. Which, of course, has felt so good.

Living in a cabin, surrounded by nature… it has a pagan feel. You’ve often used ‘witch’ and ‘witchy’ to describe yourself and your creative work, but are you a witch? Or, on a more macro-level, is there a spiritual foundation to what you do?

There’s certainly the worship of Mother Nature, but I’ve never studied paganism in any sort of formal way. I feel like there’s witchy energy that just naturally flows through me, but I have no formal training in the matter. Being in the country and being in nature is my favorite place.

The basis of my work has always been to try to liberate my people, to do my part. And that can be exhausting and difficult. But I think at my spiritual core, I’ve always believed that people are good and that we’re all part of this rhythm— this bigger rhythm of the world and nature and the planet. If we could just figure out how to tap into what’s inherently there and resist greed and all the awful capitalist-takeover stuff, we could be living in bliss. So that’s always been where I’m operating from.

And then, of course, you go out there and you do this for 20 years, and you get your heart broken a few times, and maybe you just need to go isolate in the woods for a while. But the mission has never changed. I’m still compelled to make work that tries to help.

Last question: Does anybody still call you Karen?

For a long time, I managed to fly under the radar with my legal name. Nobody knew what it was. And it’s beyond lame how it came out. It was a Facebook policy issue that got the ball rolling. And it was awful for me because this was when I was isolating and feeling disconnected from my own power, from my career, and then this happens, and I felt… outed, in a way. It felt as if somebody had published my ‘dead name.’ And it was very painful. I didn’t have any time to prepare or pull an online stunt or hold a contest to let my fans guess my legal name or anything of the sort.

And then, at some point, it turned into a lesson in shame and self-acceptance. I was just thinking about this last night—there’s been a gifting aspect to it.

My first show on this tour was in Pittsburgh, and I spent my early years there, so I saw some old childhood friends that, of course, still call me that, and it forced me to ask myself why I’d be ashamed of this aspect of who I am because after all, it is a part of me. And so an integration process has taken place, and it has helped me understand the interconnectedness of all my different phases, including who I was as a kid.

I’ve worked it into this play that I wrote which I’m using in my live shows—which ties all the Bitchcraft material together, but it also ties together different phases of my life and career. I talk about the phase of Animal and me on tour together and writing the “Pussy Manifesto,” and eventually how, more recently, I found myself in this battle with Mark Zuckerberg. Because Facebook won’t let Kill Rock Stars advertise my record, they won’t let me promote my shows or any shows with my name on the bill because you can’t advertise through Facebook using the word ‘bitch.’ It’s deemed obscene.

And then, we arrive at the fact of my birth name being Karen, which is now used as an insult for a certain type of woman. The crazy irony of my life just keeps increasing, along with the things that are being provided for me to rebel against! So, here we go again, I’ve got to write the ‘Karen Manifesto.’

And to be clear, criticizing that certain type of person isn’t what makes me angry. We all know exactly who Karen is. What makes me angry is that we have that word for women, but we don’t have it for men. There’s no viral meme going around about like, ‘There’s another Mark,’ you know? It just points to the patriarchal thing that we’re all living under. And yes, I think it should be Mark.

There have been attempts to use ‘Ken.’

Yeah, but it won’t catch on the same way, because the bottom line is that we love insulting women.

Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He lives in Waitsfield, VT.