“Being onstage for me is a war. Self-consciousness is the enemy. I don’t think about being sexy – I think about freedom.” -Isabella Manfredi
Isabella Manfredi, front woman of The Preatures is all about rock ‘n’ roll. Not only because the Australian group crafts infectious rock jams, but for her intellectual and modern beliefs about freedom as a female musician. Along with Isabella, the group consists of Gideon Bensen, Jack Moffitt, Thomas Champion, and Luke Davison. The Preatures formed in 2010 while they were in school at the Australian Institute of Music. “I was twenty-one. It was pretty late to get in the game, but it wasn’t a career choice,” says Isabella of her leap into music. “I was studying English, I wanted to be an English teacher. But I took some time off and got involved with the boys, and from there, we started playing shows… I got hooked.” After covering classic rock songs from the likes of The White Stripes, Patti Smith, and Bob Dylan, three years of hard work landed them a record deal with Mercury Records. “Signing was a big deal. We’d always thought we’d sign with an independent label but Mercury offered us a great deal and they believed in us.” Their debut full-length Blue Planet Eyes includes “Is This How You Feel,” which won the Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition in 2013. The song’s music video is mostly footage of the band playing, Isabella owning the mic all the way through. In their videos, Isabella is often shot on stage performing, because it’s where she belongs. “I was trying not to make it about perfection or making a masterpiece, it was just about capturing the band at that moment and the song in their moment as much as possible,” she says of the process behind recording Blue Planet Eyes. The group is currently working on their second album.
Isabella’s not interested in perfection. She’s interested in rawness, expression, and truth – a truth that she endeavors to share onstage. “We supported a band in Washington DC last year, and after the show there was a tweet from a local male journalist, something to the effect of ‘As a father of a young daughter, I advise Isabella Manfredi to wear a bra onstage. God knows she can afford one.’ The comments hurt me and made me feel shamed.” It wasn’t what she wore, but rather how she wore it. “The outfit I’d been wearing was a white crop top and white jeans – kinda TLC and very ‘pop’ – but my act was to destroy it throughout the show, pour water on myself and be physical to the point of aggression. For me that was really punk. To have it misconstrued as me sexing myself up just to get attention really stung… It wasn’t my lack of bra that offended, it was the aggressiveness, the rawness, that turned a totally acceptable form of female expression into something he felt deeply uncomfortable with.”
Isabella respects other female artists such as Madonna and Miley Cyrus for creating art interwoven with their intrinsic sexuality, pushing self-expression to be true to themselves rather than what society wants. “I think for society to truly accept a woman’s self- expression, we have to allow women to be ugly, and that means we have to allow ourselves to be ugly. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Read the full interview with Isabella Manfredi and The Untitled Magazine for The #GirlPower Issue below.
The Untitled Magazine: Tell us a little bit about your background. You grew up in Australia, and have Italian roots. How have these two cultures influenced you creatively?
Isabella Manfredi: I lived in Italy when I was 18 for a year. To the Italians, Australian girls are a like a wild animal: natural, confident, easy to fall in love with, but ultimately not ‘wife’ material. I was independent for the first time there and fell in love with Italian music like Fabrizio De Andre, Francesco Guccini, Mina, De Gregori, Fossati. I identify with the passionate disposition, and the appreciation of pathos and conflict as a natural part of life. My dad’s side passed down a strong immigrant work ethic. But I love being Australian. I’m lucky to live in a country with the oldest living musical culture in the world. The Aboriginal people have spent thousands of years weaving knowledge and history of the land, all of its topography and resources, sites and wonders, into song passed down from generation to generation. They call it singing country; it is embedded with music at an ancient level, so you can really feel it in the land all over the place. I reckon it’s so spiritual it even trumps the Roman Catholics. Australians also have a high bullshit radar, they aren’t affected or temperamental. Whatever needs to be done, they get on with it. I consider myself Australian more than Italian, but both run deep.
UM: When did you decide you wanted to become a musician?
IM: I was 21. It was pretty late to get in the game, but it wasn’t a career choice. I was studying English, I wanted to be an English teacher. But I took some time off and got involved with the boys, and from there, playing shows… I got hooked.
UM: What are some of your musical inspirations?
IM: John Lennon, Chrissy Amphlett, PJ Harvey, Ron Sexsmith, James Brown, Chrissy Hynde, Suicide, Talking Heads. I love songs in all forms… just great songs.
UM: So you met Thomas and Jack at the Australian Institute of Music back in 2008. What were the circumstance that brought you together? Was there an instant artistic connection?
IM: They were smoking outside the college, they don’t let you do that anymore, and I went up to them and asked them to play in my band. They laughed at me! We’ve been together ever since.
UM: What made you decide to form the first version of your band, which was a Rolling Stones cover act? Why the Stones?
IM: We weren’t a Stones cover band. We played all sorts of covers. We did lots of shitty gigs at RSL’s and pubs, playing other people’s music—mainly country, blues and rock and roll bands like The White Stripes, Patti Smith, Willie Dixon, Odetta, Beatles, The Band, Dylan. Just classics I guess. I think it’s good to learn from copying what you like.
UM: When you guys formed The Preatures, you got signed right away to Mercury. Was this a surprise? Tell us about the experience?
IM: We’d been a band for about 3 years before we got signed so it wasn’t straight away. Signing was a big deal. We’d always thought we’d sign with an independent label but Mercury offered us a great deal and they believed in us.
UM: You released your debut album, Blue Planet Eyes last year. How was the process of producing and releasing it? Was it cathartic to finally put it out?
IM: Yeah well, I think making records is fairly traumatic, but I think in anything creative, to push for the ideas is always a struggle. And I like the struggle! We’d been a band for ages and making your debut record these days holds a lot of expectation. I just wanted it to sound cool and to be about us learning how to write good songs. I believe in breaking the rules once you have them down so I was trying not to make it about perfection or making a masterpiece, it was just about capturing the band at that moment and the songs in their moment as much as possible. We were all homesick. We’d been touring for almost 3 months and between SXSW in Austin and Coachella, we had 3 weeks. Luckily we had Jim Eno (from Spoon) who jumped on to produce with Jack, the lead guitarist. Jack does all our engineering and production and also mixed parts of the record. We finished off the overdubs and recorded the vocals back at our studio Doldrums, in Sydney. I’m happy with it. It sounds like we’re trying to get back home.
UM: Are there any favorite tracks from it for you, or ones that hold personal significance? If so can you elaborate?
IM: “Is This How You Feel” and “Business Yeah” are the most personal songs. But I think my favorite is “Rock and Roll Rave”. I wrote it about going out to a bar in Sydney called Club 77. It’s always been the only dive bar in the city and I used to go there as a teenager and watch bands all the time. There was a couple of interesting things happening in Sydney around the time we wrote it. In early 2014 two boys died in separate drunken attacks, they called them coward punches – a clean hit to the pavement and they were out typa thing – and everyone got outraged (even though a woman dies in her home every week from abuse at the hands of a partner but, yep) and the state government introduced lock out laws with stringent curfews and tougher fines for the area. It didn’t affect the casinos or the major hotels they had in pocket, but it did affect the live music venues in the area that relied on club nights to fund bands to play. At the same time, Sydney had been producing some of the best electronic music in the world: Jagwar Ma, Flume, Seekae, Flight Facilities. It’s such a tight scene and we’re all friends. But I guess the old paradigms applied where most of the sentiment pitted electronic DJs and club acts against ‘real’ bands. I wanted to write something that drew the two worlds together. There’s a lot of love and pride there for my city.
UM: In an interview once, you spoke about how the use of sexuality/sexual power among female performers is shunned by critics as manipulative, and how there is an inherent double standard in this attitude. Can you speak more about that? What are your personal experiences with this type of sexism?
IM: I think the problem is there in your question. You’re speaking about a woman’s sexuality as if it were separate from who she is, like a gear she can shift in and out of. I’ve been sexual since the day I was born. My point is, you don’t look at Iggy Pop with his shirt off performing and think “he’s using his sexuality”; you see his dancing and gyrating and physicality as an expression of himself in that moment. Being onstage for me is a war. Self-consciousness is the enemy. I don’t think about being sexy, I think about freedom.
UM: What do you feel needs to change in society in order to undo negative mentality like this?
IM: We supported a band in Washington DC last year and after the show there was a tweet from a local male journalist, something to the effect of “As a father of a young daughter, I advise Isabella Manfredi to wear a bra onstage. God knows she can afford one.” He made some other comments and then compared me to the lead female in the headline band saying, “You would do well to look at X, she knows what true star power is.”
The comments hurt me and made me feel icky, like I’d suddenly been caught naked by a stranger and scolded for it; or worse, shamed. The outfit I’d been wearing was a white crop top and white jeans – kinda TLC and very ‘pop’– but my act was to destroy it throughout the show; pour water on myself and be physical to the point of aggression. For me that was really punk. To have it misconstrued as me sexing myself up just to get attention really stung. But then I realized that both me and X, the other female lead, were basically wearing different versions of the same outfit. It wasn’t my lack of bra that offended, it was the aggressiveness, the rawness, and my lack of sexy that turned a totally acceptable form of male-gaze female sexuality into something he felt deeply uncomfortable with.
I think for society to truly accept a woman’s self-expression, we have to allow women to be ugly, and that means we have to allow ourselves to be ugly. It’s not an easy thing to do. I think that’s why Miley Cyrus struck such a nerve, because she was being sexual but not in an acceptably sexy way like Beyonce or Britany Spears. Miley is the enfant terrible with her tongue out and her videos are explicitly raw and totally twisted. They are NOT about pleasing the male gaze, and that’s why they’re so weird to watch. We’re so used to receiving a certain kind of sexuality. ‘Wrecking Ball’ shocked me until I asked myself “WHY?” Because I grew up believing that woman shouldn’t be ugly or distasteful. And I reject that! The Feminine has an immense dark shadow and emancipation lies in true female expression. I understand parents are worried that Miley’s success reinforces that sex sells and bad behavior gets you attention, and if you were to ask me what I think the implications might be on society of so much ‘pornographic’ material, I’d tell you to ask the experts. But I think it’s also important to distinguish between bad behavior that conforms and bad behavior that breaks ground. The Sex Pistols displayed bad behavior, so did The Beatles, so did Madonna. All those artists took their true expression and amplified it for the masses. I think the best thing you can teach young people is to follow their own true self in the face of conformity. And ultimately as an artist it’s about the music and if the song will endure.
UM: Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so what does that term mean to you personally?
IM: I’m a feminist. Feminism is one of the great movements of civil liberty. I think if you call yourself a Feminist you have basic ideals of equality for women – the right to vote, to hold public office, to own property, to reproductive rights etc etc, but I think you’re also interested in the greater struggle between men and women, masculine and feminine, for equivalence, basic or otherwise, and how the polarity of the sexes work together. That’s humanity. Feminism isn’t about misandry and it’s not about being humourless. Neither is it about power over men, but rather the reclaiming of a voice and status that has been denied for hundreds of years, and about owning our deepest truths as women of wisdom, power and intellect. In reclaiming it we must be careful not to simply adapt the masculine side of ourselves and dismiss the feminine; striving to be cool skinny, suit and tie, surviving in a man’s man’s world. For me, equality does not mean sameness. I like this quote by Germaine Greer, from The Female Eunuch, she really is an exceptional writer, “If women understand by emancipation the adoption of the masculine role then we are lost indeed. If women can supply no counterbalance to the blindness of male drive the aggressive society will run to its lunatic extremes at ever-escalating speed. Who will safeguard the despised animal faculties of compassion, empathy, innocence and sensuality?”
UM: In the past you’ve been outspoken about various political issues in Australia. Are there any current topics that you feel particularly strongly about?
IM: It’s always amazing to me what a society chooses to get outraged by. Two young boys tragically dying in isolated drunken attacks last year saw an entire precinct wiped out because of the media-induced public outrage, but there was no talk of male violence or our relationship to alcohol as a problem worth tackling. As a woman watching that I thought, wow, imagine if the same outrage applied to the one woman a week who dies at the hands of a partner or ex, or to the level of Aboriginal incarceration, or to the forced closure of Aboriginal communities, or to Refugees in Detention (rather than the fact they’ve come by boat), or to the government lobbying UNESCO to declare The Great Barrier Reef safe as it gives the green light for Coal ports to be built off Queensland’s Coast. I think we’re at a very interesting time in Australia and it’s mirrored all over the world, and that is that the level of corporate interest in democracy cannot continue as it is, and if it does, it will drive some sort of revolution or collapse. We need great leaders, we don’t need a 24 hour news cycle!
UM: Can you describe your personal style? You get a lot of attention for your unique look.
I always like to feel a bit spunky in whatever I’ve got on. I love beautiful things, beautiful textures, colours, fabrics, classic cuts. I’m a total aesthete really. I have a very specific eye for what I like so if I can’t wear something just so then I’d rather be in jeans and a t shirt.
UM: If you weren’t in music, what do you think you would be doing with your life?
IM: High school English teacher!
UM: What can we expect from you in the coming year? Anything exciting on the horizon?
IM: We just started work on the second record.
Isabella Manfredi photographed by Jeaneen Lund for The Untitled Magazine’s #GirlPower Issue
Hair by Luis Guillermo
Make-up by Mykel Renner
The Preatures photographed by Pooneh Ghana
This article originally appeared in The #GirlPower Issue of The Untitled Magazine (2015), pick up a copy of the issue in our online store