Berlin, Bolton and gender politics

Text by Selim Bulut

Photography by Jam Roston

Musicians have great power, but they rarely use it. These days, in song at least, they are producing a lot less polemic than you might expect. But on her new album, All Love’s Legal, Jam Rostron, the Bolton-born, Berlin-based avant-garde musician and performance artist known as Planningtorock, has made unambiguous political confrontation her modus operandi.

Rostron announces her attack on patriarchy with sloganeering song titles – “Beyond Binary Binds”, “Misogyny Drop Dead”, “Let’s Talk About Gender Baby” – that leave little room for interpretation. The lyrics are equally straightforward: the opening track, “Welcome”, repeats the simple refrain “fall in love with whoever you want to” over a wide-eyed, ambient backdrop.

Rostron has grappled with these concerns before, but never so overtly. “I was trying to bring up politics, but it was very roundabout,” she says. “I was quite scared of being direct about the critical issues that concern me.” When she toured her second album, W, in 2011, the disparity between Rostron’s political beliefs and her music was there for all to see. “I’m very happy with that piece of work, but it didn’t quite do what I thought it would,” she says. “I got to the point where I was wondering what I was making music for. It was a really heavy question: I’d been doing it for so long.” A creative breakthrough came towards the end of that tour. Popular feminism was resurgent, Pussy Riot were detained in Russia and Rostron channelled her anger into “Patriarchy Over & Out”, released that year on International Women’s Day. “It saved my arse, really,” she says of the song. “If I hadn’t found a way to write a track that dealt with that issue that way, then I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you.”

Her politics also affect the form of the music. “I wanted that to go through the whole process – getting rid of all the hierarchy,” she says. Rostron processes and de-genders her voice, challenging the notion of a feminine vocal ideal. By releasing All Love’s Legal through her own label, Human Level Recordings, she also ensures that its format does not have to fit within any pre-existing channels. The majority of the record was produced using digital software, tools far more democratic than expensive analogue equipment. “What’s with this hierarchy about gear?” she asks. “I think digital is amazing: there’s so much software that everybody can access. Who gives a shit what preamp I use?”

Rostron’s is an unusually playful kind of agitprop. The album is funny – “I mean, ‘Misogyny Drop Dead’? I thought that was hilarious!” – but it’s also packed with killer grooves: far more than on her previous albums, All Love’s Legal sees Rostron embrace the rhythms and structures of dance music. Only after finding herself booked for numerous DJ sets did she began to appreciate the inclusiveness of club music. “I was starting to understand what dance music was,” she says. “That sounds a bit embarrassing – because it is embarrassing that it took me so long to discover – but I was suddenly really fascinated.” So on “Misogyny Drop Dead” and “Let’s Talk About Gender Baby”, Rostron sets her thoughtful, activist lyrics to the sort of anarchic mutant disco grooves that make your body kick into gear before your brain. “Anyone can go to a party. You have a wider range of people and that’s very different to a concert concert. Anybody’s welcome.” She pauses. “Well, unless you’re trying to get into Berghain.”

Rostron’s renewed energy is also expressed in a new name: Janine has become Jam. “I didn’t want to have a name that was gender defined,” she says. “It’s gonna be made official – like, on my passport – soon. I thought this was my opportunity to make it known.” It’s this commitment to living her principles that Planningtorock hopes will be most inspirational to others. “I want people to want it like I want it.” § 

All Love’s Legal by Planningtorock is out now on Human Level Recordings.

  • Planningtorock