Innovative bi-coastal artist, Bitch (born Karen Mould), was raised with tap dancing coming through the floorboards. Her mother was a tap teacher, and she had a school in their basement. As such, the tip-twap-tip-twap of the art form was underneath her at all hours. Bitch also remembers watching Sesame Street as a young child. It was on an early episode that she first saw the violin. She was three years old at the time and she soon began to beg her parents for the instrument for herself. At four, she was playing it. Today, the violin features on her forthcoming album, Bitchcraft, which is set for release Friday (February 4). The LP, her first since 2013, showcases the sounds that, Bitch says, were the foundation of her first real communications.
“I was very conscious that I wanted to make a violin-forward album,” Bitch tells American Songwriter. “It is my earliest language. The violin is my earliest instrument and I was very conscious of wanting [this new album] to be rich in violins.”
Though Bitchcraft is much more a pop record than a classical one, Bitch has significant training in classical music and composition. The now-48-year-old artist studied it as a young person for many years. Yet, these days, it remains a difficult instrument to write with, she says. Traditionally, when growing up under classical training, students learn memorization, finger techniques, and a strong sense of anxiety-riddled competition. There is no improvisation when it comes to Bach or Beethoven. Just who is first chair, second chair or left out of the concert? Yet, Bitch pushed herself to write songs on the latest record with the four-string.
“I also play bass, ukulele, piano,” she says. “So, it’s easy to write on those instruments. But I have to consciously make myself write on violin, which I took as a challenge this time. Also, I’m a child of the ’80s, so big synths and all of that stuff are in my blood!”
Growing up, Bitch’s mother loved show tunes. Her father “was a jazz head.” Music was part of her family tapestry. But the violin was her own thing and when mixed with the constant tip-twap of the dancing downstairs, the foundation for artistry was forged.
“My grandmother told me that it would kill her if I ever quit,” Bitch says, with a laugh. “That got me through a few times wanting to quit. I kept playing just to keep my grandmother alive.”
But it was after high school when Bitch took a creative left turn in her life. Instead of pursuing her musical training, she enrolled in acting school. It was there where she met her future songwriting and performance partner, Animal Prufrock. Bitch felt “burnt out” on music, especially the rigorous training that classical performance required. But when she began to work with Prufrock, she found new avenues into sound. She improvised, or held a note for minutes on end. She also studied acting, which helped in new ways. (And Bitch later appeared in John Cameron Mitchell’s feature, Shortbus.)
“When I reflect back on it,” Bitch says, “I learned how to be in my body as a musician and a performer. Acting school was a way for me to enter my body and understand the messages I was communicating.”
It was then that Bitch took on her Bitch moniker, as an attempt to “take back” the term often slung as insults at powerful women or women in high places. Today, the term is as prevalent as ever (“It’s Friday, bitches!”) but it also makes it hard to advertise in today’s digital text-driven universe. Social media can’t market traditional curse words that well. Yet, Bitch pushes on with her name, as double-edged sword as it is. She’s come a long way since those Sesame Street days, thanks in large part to Ani DiFranco, who discovered Bitch and Animal in Provincetown, Massachusetts around the turn of the millennium.
“Ani picking us up and taking us on tour was a huge career break for us,” Bitch says. “I still look back and think ‘Oh my gosh!’ In a lot of ways, I feel like she gave me an artist life. It was mind-blowing for both of us. We were both huge fans.”
At the time, DiFranco had heard about the duo’s performance in a pizza parlor in Provincetown, which itself is famous for experiment stage art. So, DiFranco went to this “must-see” event and fell in love. Today, all three remain friends. And since, Bitch has ventured out solo, first self-releasing Be-Sides, one take wonders and poems in 2005 and then in 2006 releasing Make This Break This on Kill Rock Stars, which is the label now releasing Bitchcraft. Going solo, Bitch says, offered her a chance to explore more of her creativity, independently. That path has led to her 2022 release, her first in some nine years.
“I took the pressure off myself of touring all the time and having to be on this cycle,” Bitch says. “It made me think bigger and think more about if I died tomorrow or if nobody ever even heard this, what is the thing I want to make? I feel like that’s this album.”
She worked on the record with Ann Preven, who helped choose which songs or even which beginnings of songs should be fleshed out and landed on the final LP. Preven is “from the pop world,” Bitch says, which helped balance her more poetic, philosophical sides. The result is an electronically produced album rich with ideas and backed by sumptuous violin playing. The album begins with the phrase, “I want to forgive everything that has harmed me” and also deals with the perils of capitalism (Fame fooled me, Bitch sings) and relationships ending.
“I’m a poet,” Bitch says. “I write almost every day. But there are some days when you can just have your heart broken by the world. To see what’s going on with the climate and politics, it’s a lot to digest.”
To celebrate the release, Bitch will do a bit of touring and also set up two residencies, one in Los Angeles in February and another in New York City in the spring. Perhaps along the way, some aspiring three-year-old musician will see her and then beg her own parents she wants to do that, too. That’s the beauty of music, Bitch says, its ability to alter the present and future.
“It can paint a new world,” Bitch concludes. “Any problems you’re having, you can just jam your favorite song and forget it all in a moment. As a musician I would say, one of my goals is to reimagine a new world. And be part of that imagining.”
Photo by Elena Dorfman / Girlie Action Media