White Lung, the band whose most album, 'Paradise,' has garnered incredible critical praise. From left, singer Mish Barber-Way, drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou, and guitarist Kenneth William.



White Lung Brings Chilling Investigative Journalism To Punk Rock

As a writer, it’s hard to employ any objectivity when describing White Lung frontwoman Mish Barber-Way—because I (and I’m sure fellow internet slaves feel the same) am so deeply, desperately jealous. In addition to her raw, addictive music, Barber-Way is a supremely successful journalist, writing for publications like VICE, Broadly, the Talkhouse, i-D, The Guardian, and the Los Angeles Times. While other musicians began their careers as critics and writers—like Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, and perhaps most famously, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders—Way still feels like a rare breed; a badass who gives her all onstage, yet still manages to crank out entertaining and well-reported pieces of journalism, along with deeply-felt essays. In other words, I will be fact-checking this article to death.

Besides her actual music writing for the Talkhouse, Barber-Way’s journalistic work is inextricably intertwined with her music, her bylines providing a particular kind of insider’s view into rock stardom. She used her platform at Noisey to explore the stereotypes of good vs. bad girls onstage, took to Broadly to pen a guide for touring in a band, and wrote in The Guardian about the oddly pervasive rumors of various female pop stars possessing male genitals. “I think that the topics that I’m interested in and the topics that I want to write about are the topics that I want to sing about,” she told me. “So those things bleed together, but of course the way that they’re presented to the public is different. Lyrics are a lot more freeing.”


Barber-Way has made a happy home for herself in Los Angeles with her husband—she moved from Vancouver three years ago, where bandmates Anne-Marie Vassiliou and Kenneth William still reside. Barber-Way and her husband live in Arcadia, where peacocks roam wild (“they’re all showing their feathers and looking for women to impregnate,” she said), and all seems to be going well—which can be creatively tough for someone who writes intense, impassioned music. “I’ve always written from a place of being angry or upset or confused,” she said. “So to not be there, where was I going to go?”

So for White Lung’s latest, critically adored record, Paradise, Barber-Way took it a step further, using her journalistic work as fuel for, well, more writing. “I spent all last year off, which meant I was writing and researching and producing pieces for VICE, Broadly, whatever,” she said. “So all of those stories were running through my head; not so much my own stories, but other people’s stories. So I kind of decided that I wanted to write from other people’s perspectives—because of the freedom of fiction, I could say things as other people that I couldn’t say as myself. And I also knew that I wanted to create strong images that couldn’t be interpreted, rather than being abstract. I wanted it to feel a little more schizophrenic.”


Thus Barber-Way was able to stay dark by transforming source material into song, most notably on the tracks “Sister” and “Demented,” which respectively cover the tag team husband-and-wife serial killers Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo (whom Way covered for Broadly), and Rosemary and Fred West. “I think it’s humanizing to know that women can commit these awful [crimes] of rape and murder and torture, or at least participate on the side,” said Way. Homolka, who is now out of prison, assisted her husband in committing several murders and sexual assaults; “Sister” is chillingly written as an apology to her sibling, whom she and Bernardo “accidentally” killed in the midst of a rape. Way looks at evil in the face. “Oh, when he’s gone,” she sings. “It won’t be long / Until death is sprung.”

Female serial killers are undeniably fascinating, but Paradise isn’t murder porn. The album tackles celebrity, beauty standards, and even love. Barber-Way fiercely sings about women’s ability to take on different choices and opportunities—including crappy ones. “I will give birth in a trailer / Huffing the gas in the air,” she howls on “Kiss Me When I Bleed.” She’s not afraid of metaphorical ugliness, not afraid of offending (Karla Homolka isn’t exactly a popular Canadian talking point).


And thus, because she’s a woman who often writes about women, she’s never able to escape the classifications of and by feminists, which is complicated for her. “It’s that default of, ok, I’m going to talk about women, and all of the sudden it’s politicized as feminist,” said Way. “That’s just what happens. They’ve got to put it somewhere. I do it too when I write. It’s the nature of the beast.” I literally did it when I brought up the question itself. Do we all need to calm down?

“I always think that you should try to look at your opponent and see what the person on the other side of you is thinking. What happened to debate?”

Barber-Way is simultaneously a feminist and dismantles the touchy-feely fourth-wave bullshit so commonly found on the Internet. “I take [feminism] so seriously,” she said. “This is something I devoted a lot of my money and education to, and to see it reduced to a tweet, to see people not so much as investigate behind a headline, is something that’s really irritating to me. I also think that people are so overly sensitive now and are less willing to look at figures and stats and see the other side, and are so quick to base it on feelings.”

“I always think that you should try to look at your opponent and see what the person on the other side of you is thinking. What happened to debate?”


It’s a valid point. Barber-Way has the talent to evoke multiple perspectives and references, never sticking to a singular, oppressive point of view. She is fantastically, almost viciously self-aware, and songs like Paradise single “Hungry” are able to examine both sides of a coin. The song attacks beauty standards while simultaneously giving into them—“We’re all hungry for it,” she cries. In another twist, the song speaks to Barber-Way’s penchant for history. She equates the desire for beauty and fame with The Marshall Plan; in many interviews, including ours, she calls herself Stalin, the audience Russian peasants.

And when White Lung performed in the Milk JamRoom, I did feel like a peasant beaming up at some great dictator, some massively powerful force. It was sweaty and sticky and all-consuming, William shredding away, Vassiliou pounding on the drums with enormous power and skill and a kind of gloriously detached facial expression. Paradise is a fantastic album, with William’s guitar swirling and whirling, making you dizzy in the best way. Barber-Way accurately describes the record as “melodic, aggressive, and anthemic.” But live, White Lung is even better. Barber-Way screams and screeches and howls. It’s amazing she can still talk—after doing some damage in 2013, she takes excellent care of her voice now (she says her warm-ups make her sound like a “dying whale”). Sometimes, she spends whole days not talking. “It’s great when I actually can’t talk and then Anne-Marie has to speak for me, and we go to a restaurant and people think I’m a mute,” she laughs.

While the lineup has gone through changes, White Lung has been around since 2006, and they tour consistently, putting an enormous amount of energy and effort into their live shows. They’ve seen everything, but their worst show happened last year, in England. “British people get drunk at like 6PM,” said Way. “They’re [passed out] by 10, unless they got drugs or something. So we were playing at this horrible hole in Manchester, and everyone was just obviously loaded, and by the time we played it was like 1 AM, and it was just barren, it was horrible. I think we played one real song. Kenny [William] played ‘Jingle Bells’ on the guitar. It was just an absolutely horrible, brutal mess.”

At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine a bad White Lung show, even with a lackluster crowd. They are fierce and innately watchable. Barber-Way used to cover her face with her long blonde hair, but it’s shorter now, and she no longer “uses it as a shield”—she just wants crowds to be “terrified of how great [we] are.” Her advice to emerging artists all revolves around playing live. “I think that, now, so much is relying on your social media presence. But you still gotta deliver live, if you’re lame live…” she trickles off, a menacing ellipsis hanging in the air. “You have to tour, or else no one’s gonna know,” she says. “You gotta force yourself on people.”


Photographer: Ben Rayner

Creative Direction: Paul Bui

Art Direction: Kathryn Chadason 

Makeup: Rie Tsukui using Milk Makeup

Hair Stylist: Shu Yamaga

White Lung’s latest album Paradise is available on Google Play Music

Stay tuned to Milk for more from the Google Play Music x Milk JamRoom emerging artists program.

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