The all-female Toronto group Vag Halen is making a name for itself with winking cover versions of male-centric music. The Globe and Mail caught up with singer Vanessa Dunn in Italy, where she and her twisted sisters appeared with Canadian artist Shary Boyle at the Venice Biennale.
You've played the Dakota Tavern and the Piston here in Toronto, but now you're appearing at the Venice Biennale and you're booked for shows at the Art Gallery of Ontario and then Luminato. On which stages are you most comfortable?
I've consciously tried to align us with the arts community. I see us as a performance-art band. The Dakota was our first gig, but since then the arts community has embraced us. The elite art crowds are different for us, but they're all dancing by the end.
In an interview, you mentioned watching a video for Whitesnake's Here I Go Again when you were growing up. Watching the video today, it's so over the top that we could probably see it as performance art itself, couldn't we?
It's not so much the performance element that interests me as the music itself and the misogyny in the lyrics of the genre. I was brought up on that music. We all love it in the band, but have a complicated relationship with it because of the cheesy machismo. When we do that kind of music the performance element for us is really about reclaiming it, and also paying homage and reinvigorating it. A lot of those hair-rock songs are great songs, but they've become mainstream, Q107, Sunday-afternoon music. It's become non-artistic.
When I first listened to the new album by Savages, I knew nothing about them. The singer sounds like Geddy Lee. Then I read about them being an all-female band. All the comparisons were with other female bands, which is almost always the case no matter what they sound like. Is that kind of categorizing frustrating?
Part of what we're doing is females doing this misogynist music. But when people say our guitarist is really incredible and that she does all the Jimmy Page solos, they're not just saying it because she's doing it, they're saying it because she's a female guitar player doing it. People like to categorize.
Like Heart being called the female Led Zeppelin, it's a back-handed compliment.
Right. The one that triggers me the most is Courtney Love, who to me is an incredible musician. Say what you want about her personality. No man has ever been held accountable for who they are as a person, but she has, and she's been crucified for it. When she and Hole came out with Live Through This, there was conspiracy-theory talk that she killed Kurt Cobain and that he had written her album. Why can't people listen to Nirvana's In Utero and say that Hole had a big influence on Kurt Cobain's work?
Who else besides Courtney Love has inspired you?
Patti Smith. And my ultimate is Sinéad O'Connor, another artist who was crucified. There's a whole legacy of female artists. In the end, if they survive it, they get their due. But you have to really live through it all to even remotely get your due in the end.
Vag Halen was included in a piece in The Guardian about all-female cover bands. It was written by a female journalist, who I thought was a bit sensational with the topic. What did you think of it?
There was a lot of that article that was a bit off. The whole "semi-nude" thing. To be honest I thought it was written by a man at first. I understand that writers like to fetishize what we do. Male writers do that more than women with us. They're trying to be supportive. We get it.
You're known as a feminist band. Is that an overt, political thing, or is it simply unavoidable?
As soon as you step on a stage, you're a feminist. The struggle is inherent in what we do.
There's a sexual nature to your show. Is that a big part of what you and Vag Halen are doing?
What we're doing is very sexual. But what I'm doing on stage isn't planned. I'm just doing it. I'm just being in the moment. I don't get the luxury that men do, pulling their crotch as Michael Jackson or Prince does. When a female is doing it, it's seen as trying to be in people's faces.
Aren't you? I mean, your band is called Vag Halen.
On one hand, maybe we are. But on the other hand, we're just doing our thing. It's been interesting watching everybody explaining what Vag Halen is. And it's pretty incredible how offensive people can be without even knowing it.
Vag Halen plays the Art Gallery of Ontario's 1st Thursday party on June 6; and Luminato, June 14 to 23.