By Dan Weiss
Single Again is where Dan Weiss investigates chart hits of the past and present, their stories, what they meant and how good they really are.
For this edition of Single Again, Radio.com spoke to Jyoti Mishra of White Town about his worldwide hit single “Your Woman,” which went to No. 1 in the UK in 1997.
Do you consider “Your Woman” to be a blessing or a curse?
Oh, a blessing completely. Because otherwise I wouldn’t have any kind of…I wouldn’t have had any presence in music at all.
What did you have for “Your Woman” first, the lyrical concept or the trumpet sample?
I had the idea for what the song was gonna be about. Well, it wasn’t really one idea. I had the idea of a writing a song that was not any one thing, that was really ambiguous on purpose. But then I had to find out the right song to do it, because I had to make it very catchy or else it would be very boring. So when I came across the sample I thought, this is catchy, I could put anything around this and people would still like it.
When was it first brought to your attention that the sample sounds like the Star Wars Imperial March?
Maybe back then when the internet wasn’t so big, but maybe not. Definitely since, people have been like, ‘oh it’s the Imperial March he’s ripping off,’ but [George] Lucas would’ve sued my ass if it was, and isn’t. But people still go with that.
Did anyone at the record company let on that similarity might be a concern?
No, not at all. Not even one person at the company said no once we had the sample clearance.
When was it first apparent that “Your Woman” was getting a disproportionate amount of attention from the rest of your music?
Well, the song first came out on Parasol, the label I was on in June or July 1996. And then I sent it off to various [BBC] Radio 1 DJs who didn’t play it. And then one DJ started playing it on his nighttime show, but this was like a 10:oo p.m. ’til 12:00 a.m. show. So I didn’t have a huge list of shit but they started loving it. I was just excited to be played on any radio and thought, oh this is amazing. And then he had to fill in for a breakfast show DJ who was away, and when he filled in — this is why it’s a series of lucky accidents — he played my song. And then breakfast radio in Britain heard it, which then would’ve been an audience of about 11-12 million, maybe more. Breakfast radio back then was a huge thing so maybe more that. And then that’s when it blew up, and I got invited onto Radio 1. I didn’t have a manager, publisher, a label apart from Parasol. And then when I tried to see if I could get more copies or anything, I thought I’d have to sign to a major because the demand is huge.
What are you most commonly asked about the gender roles in the song?
If it’s like Twitter comments or YouTube, it’s like ‘Is this a dude singing, it sounds like it’s a chick, what’s going on?’ That’s the most common thing. The second one is ‘Hey, is this guy gay?’ But then I can’t be annoyed because that’s why I wrote the song, to be deliberately confusing.
Were the gender roles in the song the ones you had in mind to begin with or did they switch along the line?
Lyrically, if you dissect it word by word, there’s some phrases that seem to be open to interpretation, but they aren’t really what they seem. I was in Uni then, and learning a lot about modeling and narratives, and stories that didn’t actually have the one thing going on, things that are commonplace. In a dissertation, we’re so used to that on eight different levels. But in pop music we’re not really used to that. Pop music, if it has any message at all, it’s usually one message, and it’s usually “Can I have sex with you?” or “Do you wanna dance?” or a combination of both. So trying to put those things in a very snooty way I said, well I’ll have to make it so people can’t go, “Aha, here’s the one meaning, everyone else is wrong.” And one of the meanings is my ex singing to me how bad a boyfriend I’d been. So that’s one of the layers of meaning and I’m writing about myself. In pop, one of the layers is how horrible a person I am, so I had to make sure that was as acidic as she was at the time … justifiably so.
My basic background in music is indie and electronic, and there’s lots of songwriting on the indie and indie-pop, twee side, that’s weirdly sexist. It’s not sexist as in the rock and roll WASP kind of way, but sexist in the like, girls with tambourines and jumping through unicorn hoops, that kind of way. And when people write on that level of sexist, it’s never real. It’s always the boy’s perfect and the girl did him wrong, and he’s so misunderstood. The equivalent would be like the “friend zone.” They’re never a bad person, it’s always someone else’s fault. So one of the points of the narrative is to say, “well, that isn’t what love’s like?.” The only man who hasn’t hurt someone is a man who’s never had a relationship. But no one ever talks about that. We always have to be the heroes in songs. So that was part of it. And part of it is, if I was gay, and I was in love with a straight man, what would that be like? And if I was a girl who was in love with a man who was married, or wanted me just for sex, what would that be like? So it’s trying to put all that into one thing and still keep it a pop song and not a dissertation.
Was there any resistance from the record company or radio about the perception of you singing to a man?
Well obviously if I’d been signed to a label, they would’ve hated it. [laughs] But because it was already a de facto hit, but the time they’d gotten involved, of course they loved it. I’d sent that CD out at the time to record companies in Britain—they all rejected it. They sent it back, I got rejection letters. My favorite was when I got a letter sent to me from Island records, while my record was #1, saying that they didn’t think it was very commercial. So the A&R person had sent back this record, without even realizing it was No. 1.
That’s so funny.
You expect [label people] to be really ruthless, efficient, cigar-puffing capitalists. And they’re not, they’re just terrible at selling records. At every major label, nine out of 10 of their acts fail. They just throw lots of money and hope a One Direction comes along every once in a while to save their asses. When you’re an artist, you don’t really know this, you think labels must know better. You don’t know that they cross-charge royalties on other people’s losses. So even though I was only on one for ten months, it was pretty bad.
Even though it’s a pointed breakup song, have you had people under the queer or trans umbrella thank you for your portrayal of the gender roles?
Yeah, I obviously got a lot of email about that. I’d say the people who most contacted me were straight girls and gay guys. That’s probably the biggest fans of the song.
The song encompasses so many different possibilities that it’s hard to feel excluded from relating to it.
With all this gay marriage stuff going on now…I was thinking like, people were gay and married before Christianity existed. Marriage predates Christianity, gayness predates Christianity…and yet we’re having this ridiculous talk as if a Johnny-come-lately religion that’s only two-thousand years old can determine how people act and determine state and legal institutions? And this is the 21st century — imagine if we said this back in ancient Greece. They’d just laugh their asses off at you. So the song is 17-years-old, and people still have this conversation? It’s almost 20-years-old, and people are still surprised that there’s homosexuality? How can you not see the world for what it is, this world of diversity.
Finally, how did it feel to get the words “highbrow Marxist ways” into a No. 1 song?
That always makes me happy when people cover it, and they have to sing that bit, and i just bet they’re like “why…why do I have to sing this weird line?” But that line is partially about me because I was a teenage communist. So when other people were doing normal teenager stuff, I was running around the country throwing bricks at coppers.