The Parting of the Ways
Being raised as a Catholic is to find yourself in a world of gods and monsters, a land of the good and the bad. It’s a world that Hannah Rodgers, AKA Pixx, found herself and ultimately rejected.
When we meet in a Streatham pub on a balmy May evening, one of the first things she tells me is that Catholicism doesn’t come out of your system overnight: “The suppression is insane, and the feelings and guilt they give you sink right in. It’s so incredibly knocked into you.”
The 23-year-old songwriter has never shied away from tackling the big questions. Her debut as Pixx, The Age of Anxiety, explored the insularity of the modern age but her second album Small Mercies sees her gaze turned outwards. It’s a record where nothing is sacred or off limits, where as well as tackling the intransigence of the Catholic Church, it takes in gender politics, environmental meltdown and at its close, the chaos of heartbreak.
Ingeniously, each song has its own narrator, including a dictatorial God, a toy and Mother Earth. Each song is written to musical settings that match their respective voices, hopscotching across a dizzying array of genres. These are all remarkable things, but what is most remarkable is that two records in, Small Mercies sounds unmistakeably like Pixx.
With such a huge range of themes to talk about, I start by sharing a theory about how great art intertwines: namely that Small Mercies became my soundtrack to the second series of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. As a huge Fleabag fan, Rodgers gamely indulges the theory: “I told my Mum to watch it and she sent me a message saying, ‘Han, is it terrible that I have a crush on Hot Priest?’ I said ‘Mum, you’re so late, everyone has!’”
Both Waller-Bridge's show and Rodgers' new record share brilliant one-liners and acutely insightful observations of modern life and the consequences of faith. “I’d like to get to know you / but I probably won’t blow you” from “Andean Condor” is perhaps the pick of the bunch, but what sealed it was the closing acts of both works of art, where there’s a cathartic acceptance that love doesn’t always work out. For Fleabag it's the line “The worst thing is that I fucking love you” delivered to Andrew Scott’s titular Hot Priest. On Small Mercies the denouement is to be found in the heart-breaking finale “Blowfish”, where Rodgers writes a line Waller-Bridge would surely be proud of: “I am not angry, I’m just mad, I’m just mad, I’m just sad / You left without notice, I heard that your heart was intact.”
Rodgers has a good-natured laugh at the comparison. '“Blowfish” is me accepting myself," she tells me. "It’s the one song on the album where it almost pains me to play it. Heartbreak is the strongest thing I’ve ever felt in my life by far.” We come back to Fleabag later in the conversation but love is just one of Small Mercies many interrelated parts. On “Disgrace” (initially titled “Catholic Track”) and “Mary Magdalene”, Rodgers has written a cri de coeur against the Catholic Church. “Catholicism is a massive backbone to me as a human being," she explains. "As much as I want to rib the whole lot of it, it’s hard for me to do that. Something that I think about a lot now is that when I was younger I didn’t see the dark side of what religion was teaching me. At the time I saw it as a comforting thing, it was just ‘There is a God’, but I didn’t see God as ‘a God’ in the sense of Catholicism, because my Dad brought me very much into nature.”
As a child, her Father took her for walks in the woods, where he would tell his daughter about the importance of Mother Earth and recite lyrics from folk songs, which would go on to inspire her own writing. “He told me that Mother Earth was the most important thing in the world. I was lucky in that way and I merged the two of them. Mother Nature was my God when I was growing up but being at an all-girls school it got to a point where the system and teachings of Catholicism were incredibly unfair, especially as a woman.”
As someone who went an single-sex Catholic school two decades before Rodgers, my world was one of endless playground fights, where showing any form of sensitivity meant you were quickly ostracised from the pack, by both the teachers and the pupils. Talking to Rodgers, I realise it was the same deal at an all-girls Catholic school years later, where some of her best friends felt uncomfortable revealing their true natures through fear of reprisal. “It was only years after we came out of that school that they told me ‘I was a lesbian that whole time’. I was ‘I’m so sorry you couldn’t tell me that’, even though we were best friends and I’d be ‘I sucked someone’s dick last night,’ she wasn’t able to say to me, ‘I wanted to lick a pussy last night.’
I ask if she still finds herself praying, explaining that sometimes I still do, but only in times of trouble, and even then I feel the Catholic guilt kicking in for not praying regularly. Rodgers says that for her, it’s very much the opposite. “If I’m in a shit place I’m always ‘I’ve put myself here’ but if anything good happens I’ll say ‘thank you’," she says, "maybe because the Catholic guilt is still so riddled in me.”
Did she find any positives from her Catholic upbringing? “The idea of believing in something gives you a way to step out of your own mind and be ‘I’m going to speak to this person, this being, whatever it is.’ When you’re in times of desperation that’s obviously a beautiful thing. It’s not like religion or belief is bad, it’s just the system of the Catholic church.”
She tells me that one of the most negative aspects of that system was not knowing how to be thankful to herself, rather than God: “I didn’t know how to recognise myself as a person and be ‘This is me. I’m doing this, someone isn’t telling me to do it and no one’s making it happen.’ That’s one of the realisations isn’t it? If you constantly justify everything good and bad that happens to you through the idea that someone else is doing it, you’ll never feel good about yourself - you’re just a non-person.”
Her parting of the ways with Catholicism happened at the age of fifteen. Having attended church every Sunday and singing in the choir until she was eleven, Rodgers missed mass for a few weeks due to illness, but on her return to church, she hadn’t banked on the parish priest being a stickler for ecclesiastical protocol: “I went up to get communion and he didn’t put it in my hand. After a while I realised ‘OK, he’s not going to give it to me’ and I walked straight out of the church. My parents are very loving, understanding people and said ‘Fuck that, we’ll eat some bread at home.’”
Her parents stopped going to their local church, but through their friends they discovered the parish priest had added the incident to his sermon. “At all the services after that day he’d say, ‘You cannot come to communion if you haven’t confessed.’ I was fifteen. That was my moment.”
"After all of this feminist movement, it’s the same it’s always been, male bands always have the upper hand - boy bands soar, but I haven’t see female bands soar in that way"
A few months later leaving the church, she also left Catholic school and enrolled at the BRIT school. It proved to be an eye-opening experience: “No one else had been raised that way. Everyone was so open-minded and I was ‘Jeez, I’m so behind the times.’ I wasn’t really Catholic at that point and it’s only in recent years that I’ve started to address that.
"This album addresses how Catholicism affected my thinking and who it’s made me be. Everyone I’m friends with now find it really funny that I was raised as a Catholic, but as much as they torture me about it I tell them ‘You wouldn’t believe the stuff I had to do’, like going to see a priest in the middle of a lesson.”
Talk of priests moves the conversation into another key theme of Small Mercies, namely male hierarchy in the music industry. “Unless it’s a male band, no reaches that level of buzz and fame, I still haven’t seen it," she tells me. "After all of this feminist movement, it’s the same it’s always been, male bands always have the upper hand. Boy bands soar, but I haven’t see female bands soar in that way.”
I ask why she thinks that is and she laughs and bats the question right back. “Because society is disgracefully unfair to women? We’ve got bands like Warpaint, but it’s not the same glow, it’s not the same leap to attention. There’s not a big enough platform for women in music, but that’s one of the reasons I do it. With this record, the biggest thing I could hope to take away from it is that people tune into the topics.”
Small Mercies opener “Andean Condor” tackles gender imbalance in society head on with the line ‘Mature males tend to be at the top of the pecking order’ and Rodgers explains “That line is a far-fetched statement, but when you’re writing music, if you want to make a statement you have to be dramatic.” The video is a brilliant subversion of gender roles, with Rodgers flanked by a pair of subservient, half-naked men who dance when they’re told to. “I’ve had too many occasions where I feel I’m in a different era and that’s why I’m wearing an Elizabethan costume in the video," she says. "It’s about male hierarchy; we’re outgrowing it slowly but surely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t vocalise it. People always say to me ‘You don’t need to get so angry about that now, we’re working on it’ and I’m ‘It’s not done, we’re not there. Don’t tell me we’re working on it, that doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Her observations on male behaviour began long before she worked in an office, where as a child she’d spend her weekends with her older brother and his friends. "Before I had my own life, my own friends and my own freedom, that was who I was around," says Rodgers. "Socially it was with the boys, they were boisterous and crazy, it was very much lad culture and I never fitted in with that. I’m very close friends with a few of them now, but I still love them all.”
"As women we’ve always known that we’re openly emotional; even though men have technically always had the upper hand, they’ve also very much had the lesser hand"
She’s a football fan, a Liverpool supporter, and still watches matches with her brother and his friends. “I think that’s why I don’t always stand so strongly with the feminist movement in terms of men. I’ve seen it develop. Yes, they’ve had the upper hand and yes, they can be obnoxious and stupid, but they’re not happy. They’re not running in the clouds saying ‘Boobs everywhere! I love life!’
As we talk through gender divides, Rodgers identifies a catch-22. On the one hand there’s the cult of macho behaviour, that leads to a lack of expression: “Men aren’t allowed to feel emotional, so they immediately cut off the idea of equality.” She cites the example of how some of her close male friends display openness. “I’ve gotten close enough to them where they can to talk to me about their lives and how they feel”, but she feels that typically, “men are put in a cage: they’re horrified by the state of humanity, but they don’t know how to come forward and say they feel pain.”
Yet on the other hand, she’s also conflicted about feminism and laments the lack of middle ground between the sexes. “I feel that a lot of feminism now is attacking men," she explains. "It’s ‘You need to sort yourselves out, you need to do this and that’, but men can’t do it on their own. Women are the greater force and we need to help them. As women we’ve always known that we’re openly emotional; even though men have technically always had the upper hand, they’ve also very much had the lesser hand.”
One idea she has to balance the genders is for men be raised to enjoy the beauty of nature: “That simple idea was such a crucial part of my upbringing as a woman, the boys would throw mudballs at each other and the girls picked flowers and what I’m saying sounds outdated, but it isn’t. In terms of education, structurally it’s the same. If a boy left a classroom to cry, it was ‘You’re a pussy’, which is a stupid saying - if you’re a pussy you’re amazing.”
Rodgers went in search of answers for the question of the battle of the sexes and found solace in Betty Friedan’s bestselling tome, The Feminine Mystique. “Reading it really pushed me over the edge. It’s all about ‘The problem that has no name.’” Friedan’s book, which was published in the early 60s’ was based on a series of interviews conducted with American housewives, and she coined the term ‘The problem that has no name’ to give a voice the dissatisfaction her subjects felt at having to stay home and raise children.
"When I was 14 I didn’t know I even had a body, I was just this being that wasn’t aware of myself"
After reading Friedan's book, Rodgers came to a conclusion: that there was unhappiness and misconceptions on both sides of the gender divide. “I realised I was never going to be happy if I saw it all in one, straight way, where I was blaming men," she asserts. "There was a period where I found myself so angry with men, all of them, I was so angry at my brother and my Dad. Men are often so oppressed at such a young age that it turns them into these obnoxious monsters, but women can be so supressed that they don’t believe in themselves. They’re not shown or told that they can do sport or music, or anything where they could really soar because of their gender. It’s exactly the same argument.
“It’s been a real war with myself, I’ve been fluctuating between being so angry about things and then feeling sympathy for them.”
Her views on feminism have also fluctuated, where she was, “convinced that feminism was about females exposing their naked bodies. I was really and truly convinced, because of my own experience of the female body in the male gaze. When I was 14 I didn’t know I even had a body, I was just this being that wasn’t aware of myself, but I remember my boy mates saying, ‘Have you seen these big female pop artists?”
Rodgers watched with disdain as she saw how media demanded that women should be scantily clad to gain publicity. “If you expose your body on social media then people are going to be drawn to it," she tells me. "I got extremely frustrated by that. I thought ‘Am I missing out?’ because I wasn’t ‘Hey, look at me! I’m wearing a bikini!” Not that I ever considered doing it, but of course it’s true. I can see Beyoncé now, but in terms of being overly sexual and being ‘I own my body’ it’s the same thing. Men don’t feel that comfortable with being sexual whereas with women, being sexual is a massive part of who they are.”
“I love the male body, their physiques and diversity, I find it very intriguing and beautiful. I paint men’s penises. Often when I speak to other girls about penises and the beauty of the male body, they get so weird about it. Men are the same about themselves and this is something I want to beat, because it comes hand in hand with equality. Where men don’t feel like they’re disgusting and women stop pretending that they don’t like naked men, because they do.” She starts laughing again and adds for good measure “They do!”
Was that an inspiration for the line “I love to see you naked hun” in “Blowfish”? “It was written about her boyfriend of the time. I’m not ashamed to say I love a naked man. I loved to see him naked and he could never believe it, but for me it was ‘I can’t believe he can’t believe that.’ That one small detail of intimacy between people plays so massively into the culture of men not being able to be more empathetic and understanding about women. When you’re in a loving relationship and you see beauty in someone, but they don’t believe that you see it in them it creates a level of doubt, and it’s always reflected back on you.”
Such observations feed into her writing and whilst she predominantly writes alone, Rodgers also loves collaborating with the producers Dan Carey and Simon Byrt, who bring out very different sides of her writing. With Carey it’s her darker side. “What’s so good about working with Dan is its very much energy based. On this record we did 'Eruption 24', 'Funsize' and 'Duck Out' and in the same way as 'I Bow Down' from The Age of Anxiety, they weren’t songs that I’d pre-planned or had lyrical ideas for. I literally went in and when I came out I’d spilled out this weird, heavy, darkness that I didn’t even know was festering in me”.
"I got caught up in the idea that love songs weren’t the answer to everything, and that was probably based on my upbringing"
Working with Byrt channels the lighter side of her writing. “There’s this weird, jokey, part of me that I would never be able to carry off on my own. That’s why I wanted them both to produce it. I know with those two guys, when I’m in that room I let out parts of myself that I don’t think I would otherwise, and when I walk out of there it’s as if I’m glowing. The mixture of dark and light has always been important to me.”
The light and dark is to be found in the characters on Small Mercies, and we return to the balance between telling a story and revealing a layer of oneself as a writer: “I did it because all this stuff that I’ve been building up over a period of time is massively personal, but it’s still very much just me. These are opinions and personas that I’ve developed, they’re massively part of me, but they’re not my heartbreak you know? Some of them are very much a faraway part of myself”
A prime example of how her personal stories are told via the characters she’s created is on the deft and infectious funk of “Peanuts Grow Underground.” It’s ostensibly a story of a doomed love affair between a man and the planet, and she tells me it was of the most satisfying songs she’s written. “It was about the love I felt at that moment for a boy, so I split it in the song - between a man who has control over planet earth and its safety and the planet earth itself. It’s essentially a cry for help, probably with me as the planet, saying “Help me!” When it gets to the end it’s an unreciprocated love, that’s been going on for too long for this guy to be ‘Forgive me.’
Writing the song was an awakening, says Rodgers, both in terms of how she saw the relationship and her own song-writing, where looking through the eyes of characters revealed a personal truth: “If I’d not been obsessed with writing from another perspective I’d have just written a love story, but it was the fact mankind has such a link with the environment. I wanted to put all of the energy that I had from the relationship into the song.”
Which brings us back to “Blowfish”, where, as with The Age of Anxiety’s closer “Moon Ring Eyes”, she ends the record with slowness, elegance, space and not a little sadness. After a record charting the narratives through different voices, she decided to close with the record's most personal statement. “I guess it’s ending the album with my own demise and that’s why it’s the last song," she explains. "I quite like the idea of saying goodbye and being ‘Here’s me’. It’s giving an element of my true heartbreak and my perspective on my personal situation.”
Such openness is something she says, “I’ve always been really anti- doing. I got caught up in the idea that love songs weren’t the answer to everything, and that was probably based on my upbringing. I felt I needed to write about stuff that’s important and I’m glad that I’ve put myself in those positions where I write about other things.”
"We’re in a time where romance could do a hell of a lot for people - fairy tale love, whatever it is - and we shouldn’t lose that, it’s a crucial part of society"
Album number three is something she’s already thinking about: “I have a ridiculous backlog of songs, there’s about fifty of them. It’s only since I’ve started working with the label that I’ve nurtured songs in a studio, but generally I write in a moment, it’s there and then and that’s what I’m excited to do next - to go and tend to my backlog of songs.”
As we take our leave, Rodgers returns to the nature of love, and how its changed. “People are completely detached to being open and vulnerable," she muses. "Back in the day it was the idea of romance, of everybody longing for it. I think we’re all secretly longing for that now, but on a grander scale it’s ‘You are your own person, you don’t need anyone else.’ We’re in a time where romance could do a hell of a lot for people - fairy tale love, whatever it is - and we shouldn’t lose that, it’s a crucial part of society.
"We’re so isolated now and less likely to fall into love, but it’s the best feeling in the world, even if it doesn’t last, it’s still amazing.”