[Photos by Chip Willis, Bobbi Kitten and Z Wolf]
Columbus electro-pop duo Damn the Witch Siren have always been a feminist band. Concocted by frontwoman Bobbi Kitten, even the origin of its name is rooted in feminism, stemming from a fascination with the Salem Witch Trials and with sirens in classics like “The Odyssey.” Both the sirens and the women persecuted for being witches are examples of negative depictions of powerful women; historically, the world has been afraid of strong women, so females are often either oppressed or villainized. Thus, Damn the Witch Siren were born, in part, from a desire to show that women can be powerful, feminine and sexy all at the same time.
Although Damn the Witch Siren have been well-received in Columbus for most of their career, their fanbase exploded after their latest EP, Red Magic, was released in February 2018. Something “just clicked” in the past year, said Z Wolf, the band’s other half, and their aesthetic and intention suddenly lined up. It was a combination of the perfect Goldilocks conditions: Bobbi was writing some of the best songs of her life, and although it took a while to become cohesive with all of their songs, two albums and two EPs later, it just started working.
Red Magic details sexual relationships and being liberated within your gender, discussing the way that men treat women and girls a certain, often derogatory, way as they grow into their bodies.
Some women see the message as anti-feminist, however. It is easy to see the band’s sex-positive attitude as a sellout, catering to the fact that sex sells in rock ’n’ roll. But it is about liberation, not fame. Bobbi aims to reclaim her sexuality instead of allowing herself to be objectified, with both Bobbi and Z injecting a touch of androgyny into the band’s image.
This is especially relevant to the current political climate; as the #MeToo movement seems to be dying less than a year after it took off, people are forgetting about the abhorrent things that men have abused in their positions of power. Bobbi wants to keep the conversation alive, though. Because feminism has always been a prevalent part of her songwriting, Red Magic toes the line of politics without losing its genuine charm.
“I think we wanted to have a more political album, and it didn’t really come out too political, but it is very personally political,” Z says. “It’s a personal point of view.”
But being a female musician is often a political statement in and of itself, unfortunately. People sometimes automatically discredit Bobbi as a frontwoman because of her gender. At first, she was bashful about being in front and was afraid of her sexuality. Many women feel that they need a masculine facade in order to hold influence in the music scene. And although she has felt that, Bobbi has since learned that it is possible to be both sexy and fierce without having her femininity stripped away like so many women in power often do.
“Rock ’n’ roll is not a boys’ club anymore,” Bobbi says.
The further she takes it, the more backlash she gets. Plenty of Columbus musicians and fans reject the band for Bobbi’s sexuality and her unusual, yelpy vocals, but she “doesn’t blame” the people who don’t get it. Instead, she acknowledges the inevitable criticism that comes with being an adventurous singer.
That same refusal to tone themselves down ties in with the band’s influences, including Prince, David Bowie, Depeche Mode and Cocteau Twins. They sometimes take guidance from ‘80s pop, especially in drum production, but pop music, in general, is often discredited as being shallow. It would be easy to be ashamed of those pop role models, as Bobbi once was when she tried to only listen to “cool” music rather than pop. But writing music is hard enough by itself, let alone being creative while still tapping into a broad spectrum of emotions that will appeal to a large audience.
“We like to get silly. Just like our favorite artists, they’re all kind of goons. Bowie has earned so many cool factors just because he’s Bowie, but he was such a theater nerd,” Bobbi says with a smile. “Those are our favorite kind of people.”
Both members of the band also love Lorde, in part because she, as well as both Bobbi and Z, has synesthesia. The phenomenon is defined by the stimulation of one sense (in this case, hearing) triggering experiences in another sense. Because of this, Bobbi and Z both consider music to be a visual experience as well as an auditory one, especially as it relates to colors.
“I’ll never forget the first time I really felt like I loved hip-hop was when I was 14 years old, and I got really stoned with my brother’s friends, and they put on The Fugees. The beat kicked in on these great sound systems that we had, and my head just exploded,” Z says. “I remember that making me feel like real steel, cool, gray colors with these gunpowder explosions and sparks at the same time. I was just totally enraptured.”
However, neither musician realized that it was an unusual experience, until reading about it. It was always simply a part of the way that they enjoyed music. Now, though, it has come in handy in both planning out the lighting design of live shows; they see most of their songs as bright neon hues, including red, pink and black. Synesthesia also helps in the songwriting process itself.
The entirety of Red Magic was designed around the color red. Red magic, as opposed to black or white magic, is also known as sex magic in the world of witchcraft, which fits perfectly with the band’s empowering attitude. In fact, when writing the album, Bobbi and Z envisioned the album cover, which features Bobbi, naked and covered in red glitter, against a red background.
The parameter of writing “in red” helped with the cohesion and the intention of the album, according to Bobbi. And although only one song on the record, “I Don’t Wanna Say I’m Sorry”, feels cool, gray and black to both musicians, they remain flexible, fitting well alongside the other tracks anyway. Putting a concept ahead of the songwriting helped create an album, one body of work, rather than simply a collection of songs.
They were able to set that boundary around their songwriting because Damn the Witch Siren does everything from writing to recording to mixing itself. There is a freedom in not having expectations except to “surprise themselves,” as Bobbi says, and it lets them do what they want and create unusual music. On this past record, the duo was more critical and editorial with themselves, according to Z, and the lack of a record label allowed them to do what they really love: get uncomfortable while writing and create music that isn’t boring.
“[When writing,] it’s always good to keep digging to surprise yourself,” Bobbi says. While writing “Wild Child”, she hit a wall. After seven hours in the studio, she wanted something that felt like it came from underneath, so she tapped into a “weird character” within herself.
The band’s eclectic brand of electro-pop tends to carry a stigma in the indie rock-oriented Columbus music scene. It doesn’t use traditional instruments, and because Damn the Witch Siren’s specific “genre-melting” music is trying to break molds on top of that by twisting ‘80s themes into something futuristic, the band doesn’t fit in a lot of places.
But Damn The Witch Siren are okay with being the “black sheep” in the scene, according to Bobbi. Their music has enough accessibility that it still appeals to plenty of fans, hoping that people can see that the two make their own unique music because they genuinely want to be creating art.
“I worry about that a lot. Maybe I am too weird of a writer,” Bobbi says. “But so was Bowie. So was Prince. So were all of my favorite artists. And you can never try to strip yourself of what makes you unique or an individual in a scene, even if it’s hard for you to make those connections with other people.”
They are also known for their high-energy, theatrical shows. Both Bobbi and Z credit that to the fact that onstage is their favorite place to be: “[it’s] better than Cedar Point,” Z laughs, claiming that there is nothing quite as cathartic and escapist as performing.
The duo works well together onstage, which also contributes to the energy. Bobbi describes them as “kids playing with toys” onstage, and the sheer joy that comes from that is palpable. Although crowds in Columbus can tend to be stagnant at shows, the band is not afraid to enjoy themselves rather than putting on a depthless show out of a fear of not seeming “cool” enough.
“People think that we’re a lot, but it’s just like, well, this is who I am,” Bobbi says, laughing. “But also, it’s just a mentality of not being too cool to lose your shit. We’re not too cool.”
All of the band’s best songs are approached differently, though. They always have to break a new barrier to write interesting music. In fact, according to Bobbi, Z is known to say that he is “never excited about his music unless he is scared.”
Even though Damn the Witch Siren’s music tends to break the mold of electro-pop and pop in general, fans have the ability to tell what is real and what is not, and it is evident that the two are creating weird music because they love it. As long as they continue to truly put themselves out there with no inhibitions and share their genuine selves with the world, people will continue to see how real and amazing they are. Music is the closest thing we have to magic, after all, and Damn the Witch Siren is constantly putting out red magic, black magic and everything in between.
Check out Damn the Witch Siren’s Red Magic here: