Bjelland (front) in 1992
|Born||December 9, 1963|
Salem, Oregon, U.S.
Katherine Lynne Bjelland // (born December 9, 1963) is an American singer, songwriter, musician and guitarist. She rose to prominence as the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the alternative rock band Babes in Toyland, which she formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1987. She has been noted for her unusual vocal style alternately consisting of shrill screams, whispering, and speaking in tongues, as well as for her guitar playing style, which incorporates "jagged" tones with "psychotic rockabilly rhythms."
Born in Salem, Oregon, Bjelland was raised in nearby Woodburn, and learned to play guitar as a teenager from her uncle, with whom she performed in his band shortly after graduating high school. Upon dropping out of the University of Oregon at age nineteen, Bjelland relocated to Portland, where she became involved in the city's punk rock scene. There, she became friends with Courtney Love, and formed the band Pagan Babies.
After the dissolution of Pagan Babies in 1985, Bejalland relocated to Minneapolis, where she formed Babes in Toyland with drummer Lori Barbero. The band's debut record, Spanking Machine, was released in 1990, after which they toured Europe with Sonic Youth. This was followed by their second album, Fontanelle (1992). The band would release their third studio album, Nemesisters, in 1995. In the mid-late 1990s, Bjelland collaborated on other musical projects, including contributing as a bassist in the band Crunt with her then-husband, Australian musician Stuart Gray.
Babes in Toyland formally disbanded in 2001, and Bjelland began working with Katastrophy Wife, a project under which she released the albums Amusia (2001) and All Kneel (2004). She remained out of the public light for several years before publicly revealing in 2007 that she had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. In 2015, she reunited with Babes in Toyland and began touring internationally for the first time in over a decade.
1963–1981: Early life
Katherine Lynne Bjelland was born on December 9, 1963 in Salem, Oregon to Lynne Irene (née Higginbotham) and Lyle Bjelland. She was raised in Woodburn, a small town north of Salem. "It's predominantly Orthodox Russians and Hispanics," Bjelland said of the community, "So being white [was] more like being a minority... We lived at the edge of town, so there was complete wilderness behind us." When Bjelland was five years old, her mother abandoned their family. Bjelland's father subsequently remarried, after which she claimed to have been physically and verbally abused by her stepmother. "You know, I really hate to talk about it because she's great now, but in my childhood she was very abusive," she said. "It probably did help my creativity a lot [though]. I was always grounded. I hate to talk about it because I feel like she doesn't think that she did it, but she was [abusive] and it influenced my life quite a great deal."
Bjelland became interested in music as a young child, and began listening to rock and roll records. As an adolescent, she became enamored with Rush, and attended four of their concerts. She also cited Kiss, Cheap Trick, The B-52's, the Plasmatics, and Captain Beefheart among her favorite artists while growing up. Her uncle, David Higginbotham, taught Bjelland to play guitar in her youth. Her first performance was at a small bar in Woodburn called Flight 99, playing with her uncle in a band called The Neurotics.
She attended Woodburn High School, where she played on the school basketball team and was a cheerleader. After graduating from high school in 1982, Bjelland briefly enrolled at the University of Oregon, but dropped out after her freshman year and relocated to Portland at age nineteen. During this time, Bjelland worked as a stripper to support herself. She became introduced to punk music after attending a Wipers concert in Portland: "I didn't know about punk rock that much," she recalled. "I was from a small town. All of a sudden I was like, 'What the fuck is this?'"
1982–1986: Early musical projects
At age nineteen, Bjelland purchased her first guitar, a Rickenbacker 425, from a pawn shop for $200. In Woodburn, she joined The Neurotics, and then an all-female band called The Venarays, which Bjelland has described as "rock with a '60s edge." The Neurotics were composed of Bjelland (rhythm guitar); her uncle David Higginbotham (lead guitar); Marty Wyman (vocals); Brian McMillan (drums); and Laura Robertson (bass). Commenting on the band, she said: "After The Neurotics I got this band together with my best friends, so it was an all-girl band. We were called The Venarays. The name came from the [Latin] word venary which means "actively hunting out sex"! We began as a way of having fun with each other." The band, however, was not exclusively female, as drummer Dave Hummel, and later, Jack Rhodes, were men. The band name bears similarity to Vena Ray, a character from the early 1950s program Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.
After quitting The Venarays, Bjelland met Courtney Love in 1984 at the Satyricon, a Portland nightclub, and the two started a band called Sugar Babydoll. They relocated to San Francisco in 1985, after which they were joined in the group by drummer Suzanne Ramsey, and bassist Jennifer Finch. Bjelland recalled: "We went through a few names, and we only played a couple of shows. It was the smallest thing I've ever done musically." The group was inspired by Frightwig, an all-female band from the San Francisco Bay area. After Finch left the group, they renamed themselves the Pagan Babies and introduced Deirdre Schletter and Janis Tanaka, releasing a four-track demo in December 1985 before disbanding. Love went on to form the band Hole in 1989, while Finch would be part of L7.
1987–2001: Babes in Toyland
Hoping to form a new band, Bjelland relocated from Portland to Minneapolis around 1986, and shortly after met Lori Barbero, a bartender, at a barbecue. She convinced Barbero to play in her band as a drummer, despite the fact that Barbero had no musical training. Barbero agreed, and the pair joined with bassist Michelle Leon, forming Babes in Toyland. Bjelland has said she intentionally sought out bandmates who had no instrumental experience: "Lori didn't know how to play when I met her. Michelle didn't know how to play. I was self-taught. Hopefully, from being technically inexperienced, you can use your imagination, and play the drums like an instrument instead of just being a beat-keeper. And play the bass like you feel it, from your gut, instead of saying, 'Here's my scales.'"
The band recorded their first extended play, To Mother, in London in 1990, titled in honor of Bjelland's mother, whom she had discovered died of pancreatic cancer on the first day of the recording sessions. After signing to Reprise Records in 1991, Babes in Toyland's debut single, "Dust Cake Boy" b/w "Spit to See the Shine" was well-received. After touring Europe with Sonic Youth, the band recorded their debut album Spanking Machine, which also was well- received, and was compared to the music of The Birthday Party and New York Dolls. The group would become misidentified as part of the riot grrrl movement, though Bjelland has denied having anything to do with the movement. As she said in a 1992 interview: "I don't feel helpless or anything. I don't feel like I have to be like, "I'm a female and I can do this if I want to", cause, of course I can. I already know that, and I never felt being female hurt anything. If anything, it helped."
In 1991, the band toured in Europe with Sonic Youth, which was documented in the film 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Following this, Babes in Toyland peaked in commercial success when they performed on a portion of the Lollapalooza tour in 1993, and released their second album, Fontanelle (1992), which sold over 250,000 copies. In 1994, the band was featured on the covers of Entertainment Weekly and USA Today. At the height of the band's fame, Bjelland and her former bandmate Courtney Love were often pitted against one another as rivals in media, with frequent comparisons between the two's visual appearances. According to Bjelland, the two had a falling out after Bjelland told a reporter: "Only about a quarter of what Courtney says is true. But nobody usually bothers to decipher which are the lies. She's all about image." Babes in Toyland's original bassist, Leon, claimed the rivalry between Love and Bjelland was "blown totally out of proportion," while Bjelland added in a 2011 interview: "The media did that, and it was really hurtful to me for a long time. They'd say it's some kind of battle. Which it wasn't. We were friends." Bjelland would later refer to Love as her "soul sister," commenting in a 2001 interview: "I haven't spoken to Courtney for years but soul sisters don't need to. There will always be a bond between us, regardless of whether we speak or not."
In 1993, Bjelland moved to Seattle and began a side project called Crunt with her then-husband, Australian musician Stuart Gray (also known as Stu Spasm) whom she married in 1992. Bjelland played bass and Gray guitar, while Russell Simins of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was the drummer. In February 1994, the band released a self-titled debut, along with its first single, "Swine". During this time, Bjelland also co-wrote the track "I Think That I Would Die" on Hole's breakthrough album Live Through This (1994) with Courtney Love and guitarist Eric Erlandson. Bjelland suffered a nervous breakdown after the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994: "[I was in Seattle after he died] to hang out with Courtney and support her," she recalled. "In the funeral home, I saw him dead, which was more than disturbing... I had a nervous breakdown right after that." Bjelland had herself been using heroin regularly at the time, though she denied using it regularly while touring. "Let me make this clear: I never really did heroin on tour," she said in 2011. "When I came home and was bored and depressed [and] with money, yeah, that's when I would do it." To kick her habit prior to going on tours, Bjelland would binge drink through withdrawal symptoms.
In January 1995, Bjelland and Gray divorced after two years of marriage, and Crunt disbanded. Bjelland turned her focus back to Babes in Toyland, and the group released their third and final full-length album, Nemesisters in 1995. After this, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, and contributed to the 1997 album Songs of the Witchblade: A Soundtrack to the Comic Book, for the Top Cow's comics of the same name. She composed, played and produced most of songs, with many rock and metal artists like Megadeth or Peter Steele (Type O Negative), and also collaborated with a freeform musical project called Last Frenzy in England. Around 1999, Bjelland gave birth to a son, Henry, with her former husband, drummer Glen Mattson. Babes in Toyland maintained a loyal following throughout the rest of the decade, and in November 2001, played a farewell show in Minneapolis.
2002–2014: Katastrophy Wife and mental health issues
With Babes in Toyland playing only performing sporadically in the late 1990s, Bjelland started the band Katastrophy Wife in 1998 as a side project with her then-husband, drummer Glen Mattson. The band toured at venues, such as Ladyfest, worldwide, and released two albums, Amusia (2001) and All Kneel (2004). Tom Edwards of Drowned in Sound gave All Kneel a favorable review, ranking it among Bjelland's best work.
In 2002, after the dissolution of Babes in Toyland, Bjelland produced and contributed guest vocals on the album The Seven Year Itch for the band Angelica. After that band's own dissolution, Bjelland hired the drummer and bassist for an impending European tour. The new band was billed as Babes in Toyland, which resulted in Barbero threatening a lawsuit, and Bjelland ultimately scrapping the name. Bjelland later claimed that Kurt Pagan-Davies, a manager with whom she was working during this time, had been partly responsible for the decision to tour under the Babes in Toyland name, which he denied. She subsequently accused him of stealing money that belonged to her from the publishing of Katastrophy Wife's albums Amusia and All Kneel.
In 2006, on the official Katastrophy Wife website, Bjelland wrote that "Katastrophy Wife have had a few incarnations but from here on I will only re-incarnate my self." In April 2007, the band released the single "Heart On", on the Australian record label Rish. The single was intended as a trailer for a forthcoming album, Pregnant, although as of 2020 the album has not been released. Katastrophy Wife's vinyl debut was on an Independent label compilation called The Tundra Sessions, featuring production by Tim Mac.
In 2007, Bjelland revealed she had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and had been institutionalized for a period. She commented on the event, saying: "I don't know how I've progressed musically as such but a major influence in my writing was dealing with my whole schizophrenia episode. I actually haven't spoken to anyone much about this. Dealing with multiple personalities was extremely difficult because some days I didn't know who I was or where I was at. I was very lucky that Adrian (Johnson, her partner and manager) stuck by and helped me through it all. So obviously that was going to affect some of what I wrote about."
2015–present: Babes in Toyland reunion
In 2014, Bjelland reunited with former bandmates Maureen Herman and Lori Barbero and began rehearsing to perform live shows. "People would show me on the Internet all these young fans who wanted to see us, and I felt kind of obligated to play," said Bjelland. "You see people with their moms and even grandmothers coming to the shows together. It's super cool. I'm just surprised at how much people still like it."
In February 2015, the band played their first live show together in fourteen years in Joshua Tree, California, and performed additional shows on an international tour throughout 2015. Bjelland commented that she intended to write new material, but that it would be concerned with "less anger about people. Now it's about things that are going on in the world. I've got a whole plethora of songs ready to go."
As a child, Bjelland's favorite band was Rush, particularly their fourth album 2112. "It was kind of a band that girls didn't like, just guys liked them... I liked them because they had weird, spacey other-land lyrics, and lots of breaks, and really cool instrumentation," she said. As an adolescent, she also listened to popular rock bands such as Kiss and Cheap Trick. She would later credit Cocteau Twins, The Miracle Workers, and the Wipers as early influences, and also said she listened to Billie Holiday as a teenager. As an adult, Bjelland named Captain Beefheart, Charles Mingus, Leonard Cohen, Frightwig, Girlschool, Motörhead, and other '70s metal bands as important to her.
Voice and instrumentation
Bjelland has been noted by music critics for her unique screaming vocals, which have been likened to those of Ozzy Osbourne and Diamanda Galás. Journalist Richard Cromelin noted in a 1992 Los Angeles Times profile that "She retches her enraged lyrics, her screams skid across the beat and collide with the blunt riffs. Her voice erupts into laughs and gargles, then croons down low with eerie detachment." She has also incorporated speaking in tongues in several songs.
Commenting on her musical aspirations, Bjelland said: "It should sound like nothing that you've heard before. That's my intention... Like my singing, all I try to do is I just push myself into things where I think I can't reach notes and stuff. Sometimes it sounds really ridiculous, but then you just kind of work on it." A 2015 concert review described her voice as one so powerful that it "can strip the chrome off a bumper."
In Babes in Toyland, Bjelland's instrumentation and songwriting has been described as "ugly, crunching post-punk," supplemented by "rudimentary" guitar chords. She learned to play guitar from her uncle, David Higgenbotham, with whom she played in his band, The Neurotics, prior to forming Babes in Toyland. Commenting on her guitar playing, Bjelland said: "I think it's not the quantity but the quality, and I don't think it's the speed you play, it's the soul that comes out." In an interview with John Peel, she revealed that she had never played with an effects pedal until 1993: "If you learn how to play without effects, you have to learn how to make your guitar speak instead of the electronics."
Babes in Toyland
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