by Jade Curson
“I can’t even remember the start of the year.”
It’s not surprising: 2019 has been a huge one for Kathryn Woods and her band, Fresh. Kicking off the year with a three-week stint across Europe, they have gone from tour to tour – and from strength to strength – as the year has progressed. In the summer, they played with Koji and Nervus, and then toured with Slingshot Dakota, in addition to a handful of UK festival appearances. Their first US show at punk mecca The Fest extended into their first US tour when they added extra dates opening for Adult Mom. They also dropped their second full-length and one of the best records of the year, Withdraw, back in June. This week, they will be opening for punk’s golden boys, PUP, returning for their second set of UK dates this year. In a year of big things happening for Fresh, Woods is particularly enthused about these shows.
“It’s the first tour we’re doing on that level. It’s exciting, because the bigger the show and the bigger the stage, the more you can get into your thing,” she explains. “I love tiny DIY shows, but if you’re playing at the back of the pub, and you have no monitors, and the PA system is half-broken so you can’t hear yourself, it does feel like you’ve got a bit less space.” Physical space seems a necessary consideration – onstage, Woods and guitarist Myles McCabe frequently dance and throw themselves into each other and to the floor with an abandon that is equal parts heart-warming and terrifying to witness. She laughs when I mention her passion for dancing. “The idea of dancing fills me with dread. And I love that Fresh is the one exception to that, where I actually don’t give a shit. I think I look very silly when I dance onstage, but that’s kind of the point.”
The Electric Ballroom stage presents an opportunity for silliness on a grander scale, but that’s far from the only reason Woods is excited about this tour. As well as opening for one of her favourite bands, Fresh now joins the ranks of stellar supports PUP have accumulated over recent years. “They’ve had Milk Teeth, they’ve had Charly Bliss, they consistently choose bands that really fit with them genre-wise. They’re a true punk rock band; they don’t give a shit, they play music and have fun, and they care about the community around them.” This last point is particularly important to her. Throughout our conversation, she frequently praises Fresh’s label, Specialist Subject, for having a more diverse roster of bands than most other small-to-medium labels could claim, and points out that moving into bigger spaces with bigger bands often means moving into circles that are dominated by straight cis men: “And I just witness it all over again, people being shocked that I can plug in my guitar to my amp, or don’t expect me to be able to adjust the settings on my delay pedal.”
And for a band like PUP, who could easily fill a tour with bands of a similar make-up to their own, their choices of support suggest a genuine commitment to raising the voices and profiles of bands who would not normally be given such a platform within the wider punk scene. “In terms of composition, there’s no difference between them and, for example, The Story So Far. But The Story So Far aren’t going around raising money individually for charities on every tour and supporting women.” An interesting choice for comparison, given Parker Cannon’s apparent passion for actively keeping women off the stage, though this may not have been specifically what Woods was getting at: “Oh my god, I forgot about that! I do feel like it further proves my point – and I love it when my point is further proven – that there is no excuse to have an all cis/male/white/heterosexual tour line up. If [PUP] can do it, they are showing up all the other bro bands that aren’t putting in that effort.”
While diversity of lineup is undoubtedly an important point of principle for Woods, it’s also become a necessity in order to keep her shit together on the road: “Fresh tours a lot, but we tour smart. I’ve turned down a lot of tours that just looked horrible. Like, I’d be the only woman on the bill, we’d lose money, I could tell I’d be putting myself in a situation where I’d be vulnerable.” It’s no secret that touring – and the accompanying lifestyle – can be a gruelling experience. Woods is quick to champion the value of communication within the band and keeping each other motivated while they travel. “The way we tour is very mindful – we do a lot of yoga, we run, we jog. We try to support each other because it’s not an ideal situation, financially or timewise. But the way I cope is that all my bandmates are, if not experiencing the same things, understanding. I only tour with people who would be empathetic or understand how I feel.”
It sounds exhausting to be in such an active band. It’s astounding, then, that Fresh is far from the primary obligation for any of its members. Woods is currently in the middle of a French degree – and for the first half of the year, was living in France and teaching in a polytechnic high school as part of her studies – as well as writing and touring in her other band Cheerbleederz. McCabe splits his time between Fresh and his own project, MEREX. Bassist George Phillips and drummer Daniel Goldberg both fit the band in around full-time jobs – Goldberg recently also became a father. As Woods lays out all the collective commitments of the band, I begin to understand how it has taken us several months to coordinate our schedules to even do this interview – in the end, we have the good fortune to both be in Covent Garden one rainy Friday afternoon, where she has graciously fit in time for a coffee with me between finishing a class and heading to Hackney to soundcheck for a Cheerbleederz show that evening. Trying even briefly to picture how the band can possibly do all they do within Fresh in addition to their own personal commitments makes me feel like the confused math lady meme. Woods agrees: “It is really stressful and I don’t think I’ve learned how to balance it yet. I’d be lying if I said I’ve got it figured out or find it easy. I wouldn’t say anyone else should do this – everyone I know tells me to do less,” she laughs. “I think it keeps coming down to the fact I really, really love it. I love touring and playing shows. There’s no other explanation for why I’d put myself in this situation.”
Despite the downsides of such extensive touring, Woods admits that it has also had a tangible influence on the writing of latest album Withdraw. Where the self-titled debut was a glorious 20-minute blast of summery pop-punk, it felt like more of a plea to be seen. Not quite bratty, but pointedly confrontational and defiant, with lyrics and delivery striving to be valued and seen as legitimate in a genre which was, even back in 2017, overwhelmingly dominated by men. Withdraw feels more self-assured. It’s a record that allows space for self-reflection, to address deeper issues. “This record is the product of years and years of therapy. And touring changes your experience, but also I’d be a bit worried if at 21 I was still writing like I was at 17. That first record has that feeling of urgency, but I definitely wasn’t as articulate. I don’t really have that insecure teen vibe anymore, which I’m glad about,” she says.
There’s a neat symbiosis in Woods’ increased confidence and her experience in the band. Just as touring and playing shows has informed her writing style, the act of writing and sharing her work has also been a conduit for personal growth and believing in her abilities: “It was a big deal for me as a woman, the terror of sharing my music. I feel like that’s something specific to women and people of marginalised genders is that you are just perpetually ashamed of your art. The idea of people seeing you in that vulnerable state. So it takes a lot of courage to get over that, and you have to be surrounded with really supportive people. It’s still scary for me to send a demo on the band group chat, even after two albums,” she says. “But I’m getting better at it.” That initial lack of confidence in her art is something she’s spoken about openly on social media, and that one of the most important things she’s learned is just to go out and try things rather than worry about being ‘ready’ to do so. In music, as in so many other fields, there seems to be a common theme when it comes to who holds back, and who has the freedom to throw themselves into things and learn as they go… “Men are unashamedly bad and fine about it.” Woods laughs. “They put themselves out there, they rush into stuff with confidence, they look at things always from the frame of ‘I will be good at this’. Whereas I feel like as a woman growing up, it was the exact opposite. I was always quite insecure about my guitar playing.”
Despite stumbling into more and more recognition and acclaim, Woods seems determined not to take the band too seriously: “Obviously I love doing what I do, and I know that 10 or 20 years ago, the way the music industry was Fresh would probably be making enough money that we could all quit our jobs. But also I do think that having your creative output as your main financial source of income is just so much pressure. I never wanted this to be a job, so I try to keep focusing on having a well-rounded life.” Woods is careful to try and maintain that balance in her life so that her band is not her sole focus. However, while she insists that Fresh will only continue as long as it’s fun, she is conscious that the platform they’ve built can be used to raise awareness of issues which are typically not addressed in the music community. This year, they’ve been raising money through their merchandise sales for BEAT, the UK’s eating disorder charity. Earlier this month, they also released a single, ‘Cinema Woes’ – a rerecording of the first song Woods ever wrote – with all proceeds going to BEAT. It’s a charity that Woods is proud to be championing:
“A lot of musicians are fine doing stuff for Mind, which of course is so important, but it seems like the mental health awareness stuff stops just short of eating disorders. There’s a lot of shame around them. No one wants to talk about them and everyone gets really uncomfortable. When I do my thing onstage like ‘we are raising money for BEAT’ – I have a little thing running in my head so I don’t accidentally say something like ‘support eating disorders’, which I’m terrified of saying all the time – but people do get uncomfortable. And they get uncomfortable when I hand out leaflets when they buy merch, saying ‘I don’t need that!” And it’s like, well maybe your aunt does! Or maybe your brother does! Take the god damn leaflet, it’s free!”
A few weeks after we meet, I find myself intimately pressed into dozens of people in a tiny pub called Loosey’s in Gainesville, all screaming along to ‘Revenge’ – “I am valued, I am loved!” – as Woods gracefully drops backwards onto the crowd and is carried through the room and back to the stage. Fresh are riding the wave, and they’ll keep going for as long as it’s fun – and if their stage presence and performance are anything to go by, they’ll be around for a good while yet.