Get To Know: Donna McKevitt

Donna McKevitt first burst onto the scene in the early 90s as a member of the avant-garde madrigal-trio turned rock group Miranda Sex Garden. Signed to Mute Records by label legend Daniel Miller, they toured extensively, at one point in support of Depeche Mode on what became known throughout the music industry as one of the most debauched tours in history. Since then, Donna's been drawn towards a calmer pace of life, but her output is as urgent as ever. Having recently released a first single 'Falling' on Left Out Records, she's gearing up for the release of an album, as well as preparing a multi-disciplinary piece to be premiered at East End Festival, and a project which will examine the relationship between porn and the sex lives of millennials. We caught up with Donna to talk about how moving out of London has affected her creative process, the enduring influence of Miranda Sex Garden, and representations of sex in a post-Weinstein world. 

I’ve been listening to ‘Falling’ for pretty much the entire week. It’s beautiful! 

Thank you! I moved out of London to live by the sea a few years ago and I was feeling so euphoric when I got there that all this music just spilled out - ‘Falling’ was one of those tracks. It grew into what it is now over time - I like to write using samples, but on this one, the string parts felt like they should be recorded with real musicians so we approached the violinist Warren Zielinski and cellist Peter Gregson. We spent the day in the studio recreating the string lines and the track completely transformed into something new. It’s the first single from a potential album.

Do you think getting out of the city made you feel more creatively free? 

Totally. I don’t think it was a geographical thing as much as it was a timing thing. All my life I’ve written music in collaboration with other people, dancers, other musicians, poets dead and alive. I always felt like I needed a crutch to create, but for some reason when I moved away - maybe just because of the joy of doing that - I became unafraid to express the things I wanted to express. I realised that it’s okay to express myself unfettered by collaboration. We have such a desire to rush, to be productive, to seek people out and fill our time. I think it’s often counterproductive.

Do you find that it’s useful to take breaks then, to give yourself space? 

Well, I have enforced breaks - I have to do the school drop-off and pick-up so I can only work for a certain period of time each day. This year so far I’ve been very selfish about my writing - I come home and it looks like a bomb site, and I have to ignore it because I have to work. I have to think about what I could do creatively in that hour. Someone once said to me ‘it’s amazing how much you can get done when the kettle’s boiling’ - that was a bit of a wakeup call in terms of the way I treat those working hours.

That mindset has obviously been working for you - there's another single coming out in a couple of weeks right? 

Yes, it’s called ‘Sweet’ though the name’s a bit of a tonal red herring. I’m always playing my husband my music and when I write something I’ll say listen, it sounds like Barry Manilow’s ‘Can’t Smile Without You’ and he’ll have no idea what I’m talking about. The same thing happened with this track - it sounds like the Eurythmics ‘Sweet Dreams’ to me, but he can’t hear it! 

When I was a kid I used to listen to the Eurythmics loads. My mum gave my brother and I an old record player and she said ‘if you can make it work you can have it’. My brother and I crammed it into my sisters push-chair and walked it the mile down the high street to a repair shop. When we presented it to the guy behind the counter just raised an eyebrow and said ‘…it just needs a new needle.’ Embarrassing. On the way back we stopped off at Woolworths and bought whatever the new Eurythmics single was at the time - we listened to it constantly. 

Do you still listen to your Miranda Sex Garden releases? 

I actually played a track at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago and no one really knew what to say! It’s funny, I’ve recently been consciously thinking more about that time, and it’s been influencing my work more and more. Miranda Sex Garden started out as a madrigal group - two sopranos and an alto - and all the way through my work you can see examples of that, and in the new music I’ve been writing it’s been very present. 

Why do you think you’ve been reflecting on that time recently? 

I think I’ve come to value it a bit more than I did at the time. It was full on, we did two albums and an EP in 3 years, and in between that we were touring 150 gigs a year, countless European tours and two US tours. For me it was a bit much - I didn’t even smoke! I love that we didn’t care though. It was such a strange music, we didn’t give a shit about being commercial. Daniel Miller [the founder of Mute Records, who signed Miranda Sex Garden in 1990 came into the studio one day to try to persuade us to write a single and we were just incapable. The only thing we could come up with was ‘Sunshine’ and look what we did with the video for that! We just couldn’t do it. 

How did you find the experience of being a young woman in a band in the 90s? Were you subject to sexism?

There was one situation with one band at Respect Festival at Finsbury Park - the irony! - and I refused to get on stage with someone who’d been continually disrespecting me. I’d just had enough, but other than that I can’t say I’ve really felt it personally in my career - as a musician I’ve felt respected. That said, there’s a lot that needs to be done on a wider scale. 

For sure - to my shame, I’ve only fairly recently noticed how few women are nominated for Best Original Score awards, for example. Why do you think that is? 

Sexism, of course. We’re living in the 21st century and we’re still sexist - we’ve got to wake up. And it’s not just men, it’s women too. We’re all filled with unconscious bias, and we all subconsciously think we can trust a man to do a better job. A lot of us are guilty of thinking ‘there’s too much at stake, let’s give the job to a guy’. 

Having said that, there’s definitely a shift happening now. As far as the film industry goes post-Weinstein, I think the world’s going to have a big shock over the next couple of years. The things women are doing in film now are so out there and interesting, so subtle and weird. Take Lady Bird for example! Greta Gerwig’s got a huge platform now, and she’s using it to express herself creatively - perhaps more creatively than most men making films right now. The same is true for female composers - so much interesting music is being made, there just needs to be a platform.  

How can we tackle that problem? 

I think it’s useful to start by making work yourself. At the moment I’m working on a new project based ‘Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape’ by Peggy Orenstein. I’m going to be collaborating with a choreographer to examine the effects of pornography on young people’s sex lives. I want to choreograph two experiences: one which is full of shared love and nuance and one which shows the same couple experiencing a sexual act which is more pornographic.

If we can’t talk about our sex lives frankly then we can’t talk about discrimination, sexism, because it all stems from that. Girls are often taught to be so passive about their needs and what they want, and the things that they don’t like. Somebody does something to you and you accept it, you laugh it off. 

Yes! Women are societally trained to apologise. There’s a huge pressure, particularly on young women, to be cool and unfazed.

Exactly, so imagine if that feeds into your sex life! All these things need to be discussed. It’s amazing how liberal people think they are, and then the minute you try to get them to talk about sex - so many of these girls [interviewed in Girls and Sex] are so clued-up, but when it came to talking about these things they didn’t have the language. 

I think there’d be a real hunger for a piece like the one you’re planning. Are you focusing most of your time on that now? 

Actually this year I’m also working on a piece called Nude. It’s a multi-layered work inspired by Duchamp’s painting ‘Nude Descending A Staircase’ - the original idea was to set a poem by X. J. Kennedy of the same name to music, to create a song, then a choreographer would create a dance based on the song, and then a filmmaker would create a film combining all those elements. We didn’t get very far with X. J. Kennedy’s estate so we’ve commissioned Jan Noble to write a totally new poem. It’s actually truer to the idea to do that - everything is inspired by the painting. We’re premiering the work at the East End Film Festival. I’ve got the poem now, so I have to get in the studio and write the piece now! 

I can't wait to see how it all comes together. Thanks, Donna!

Listen to 'Falling' released through Left Out Records 👉 

Follow Donna on Twitter at @dlmckevitt