Surprisingly, the question that threw off the Montreal band Mad June’s vocalist and guitarist Vanessa McLean the most was naming her favourite lesbian in pop culture, when I met her and the bassist Pascale St-Onge for a chat.
“Oh, I have no idea. I’ve never really thought about it,” she says. After much hesitating, the question leads to an interesting discussion on Ellen DeGeneres and her personal connection to the now-famous “coming-out” episode on Ellen.
“It was just before I came out. It actually made it so much easier for me,” she goes on. “I remember coming out to my best friend’s mother, and saying: ‘you know, I need to talk to you about something. You know that episode of Ellen? You know that episode at the airport? You know what she says on the show there?’ She said ‘yeah,’ and I said ‘well, I’m saying that to you now.’”
She may be at a loss for an answer when it comes to pop culture, but she has plenty of insight when it comes to political issues.
“I wouldn’t consider [the band] to be necessarily activist, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have strong opinions about a lot of stuff,” McLean says. Indeed, those strong opinions can be heard in many of their lyrics – such as criticisms against corporations (inspired by the documentary The Corporation) and recommendations of tolerance for minority identities.
Mad June came together as a product of a vacation conversation between herself, Pascale St-Onge (bass), and Marie-Lyne Thibault (guitar).
“We were joking around and said ‘haha, wouldn’t it be funny if we played music together?’” McLean recalls.
She had actually been a solo musician before Mad June, but had stopped playing for about 6 months before the vacation conversation took place. “I was feeling a lot of pressure…so I said ‘I don’t like this, this isn’t fun anymore.’”
From that comment, the three decided to try to play for fun. 5 years later, with drummer Lydia Champagne added to the mix, the group has exceeded their original goal by playing festivals such as the Lilith Fair Finale 2010 in Boston and the NXNE 2011 in Toronto. They’ve also given back to the community by playing benefit concerts like “Change the Beat” at the Rialto Theatre in Montreal for Girls Action Foundation, an NGO that helps to empower young women.
What other issues, other than women’s issues, is the group interested in and what are they affected by at the moment?
“Right now, pretty much everything.” St-Onge says, citing issues like “the rise of the right,” and the disappearing workers’ rights, as demonstrated by the recent Canada Post strike that was ordered off by the government.
“Pascale and I have written some of the more political stuff on the record and it’s often about what’s going on around us,” McLean adds.
However, she also believes that music and other art forms shouldn’t be preaching didactic messages.
“My really big thing about art for me is that people can feel what they want about art and personally I do not like music or art that shoves something down your throat,” she said. “I like having that flexibility that lets everybody else have a chance to get what they want out of it.”
Their desire for openness in art is also reflected in their rightful reticence towards labels like “lesbian band.”
“I was thinking on our way here, ‘I’m sure she’s gonna ask about that’!” McLean exclaims, when asked about denying the band’s identity as a “lesbian band” in an interview with Xtra.
“The thing is that we are lesbians and we are in a band. But like I said in the [Xtra] article, I seriously don’t know what a lesbian band is,” she explains, discussing the diverse nature of so-called “lesbian bands” like Lesbians on Ecstasy and Uh Huh Her.
“People know we’re lesbians, it’s not about [not wanting to identify as lesbians]. In our first year [of the band], we played Gay Pride Toronto, Gay Pride Ottawa, that’s how we got a lot of our following,” McLean says.
Another label that gets on their nerves? Girl band.
“Yeah, we are women. Yeah, I’m proud of being a woman. But what is a girl band? … It’s oversimplifying people.
“I know that some gigs we get because we’re all women. But the reason why we keep on getting gigs is because we get good music,” McLean says. “Nobody says that to a whole bunch of guys who are in a rock band, ‘you’re a boy band!’”
Mad June plays at Pub St-Ciboire (1603 rue St-Denis) with Isolate Cast on July 7. Doors open at 9pm. Their new single, “November” (a new version from their album We are Not Strangers), produced by Jeff Dalziel, is available for download on iTunes, Amazon, and Bandcamp, among other places.