Softcult is taking back control, one feminist grunge anthem at a time
Unashamedly calling out misogyny, abuse and sexual assault, this Kitchener duo is ready to be heard
From their home studio in Kitchener, Ont., twins Mercedes and Phoenix Arn-Horn are building their own narrative. After a decade cutting their teeth as teenagers in the pop-punk band Courage My Love, a formative experience that taught them a lot of valuable lessons, they decided it was time for something different. With softcult, the duo is finally in complete control.
Heavily influenced by grunge, shoegaze, dream pop, goth rock and the '90s riot grrrl movement, Mercedes and Phoenix deliver biting, incisive lyrics in hushed voices set against brash drums and grungy guitars — the juxtaposition making the messages they're pushing all the more effective.
In the two years since the now 28-year-old siblings launched this musical venture, they've independently released two EPs, 2021's Year of the Rat and 2022's Year of the Snake. In true DIY spirit, the Arn-Horns write, produce and engineer all their own music, play every instrument themselves and direct their own music videos. They've been anticipating what it will be like to play these songs live since they started writing them back in 2020, and thanks to upcoming tours in the United Kingdom and the United States, they finally get to scratch that itch.
"Having two EPs out and not having played a single show, you know, it's just gonna feel amazing to get to meet the people that are listening to our music," said Phoenix in a Zoom interview.
Misogyny, sexual assault, depression and emotional manipulation are all themes that appear in softcult's writing. Throughout the interview, the Mercedes and Phoenix refer to fans who listen to their music as their community, and it's who they're speaking to — and speaking for — in their lyrics, but they want to take things further. They want to extend the conversation to the potential perpetrators of violence, the gaslighters, the misogynists and ask them to do some self-reflection.
"We have men that listen to our music and you'd think some of the lyrics would really turn them off or make them feel attacked, and that does happen, but also some say, 'I need to do better and I need to tell my friends about this and hold myself and my friends accountable,'" said Phoenix. "We're really proud to see that because it does feel like it's making a substantial change."
Beyond the music, they've found another medium to convene with their community: a handmade zine called SCripture. Inspired by the longstanding history of feminist and punk zines, specifically the riot grrrl zines, the Arn-Horns wanted to explore new methods of proliferating ideas. The zine includes submissions from their fans, personal writing, poetry and visual art, and recent volumes have covered the "Don't Say Gay" bills and anti-trans legislation passing in the U.S., as well as what it's like to live in active war zones.
While trying to think of a name for their band, the Mercedes and Phoenix came across an article that described "soft cults" as insidious forces that people blindly follow — like the hegemonic structures that influence a society's cultural norms — and they were immediately intrigued by the concept. "Our band is all about questioning those pillars of power in society and the way things are and seeing if we can improve on them by going against the grain," said Phoenix.
In the video for "BWBB" (an acronym for "boys will be boys"), the Arn-Horn siblings and an intimidating crew of masked vigilantes wield baseball bats wrapped in barb-wired. Tired of society's excuses for gendered violence, they're prepared to take matters into their own hands, singing: "And it must be nice for you to feel safe/ when you walk down the street/ but if you lay a hand on my sister again/ you might lose some f--kin' teeth."
'It taught us to bet on ourselves'
The duo is relishing the newfound control it has over its release schedule and sound. Everything is scrappy, not overly polished or produced and that's how they like it. They release music when they please and aren't sitting on tracks waiting for the go-ahead from a label exec. When reminiscing on the decade they spent signed to a major label as Courage My Love, they say they felt like teenagers swept up in the excitement of it all. Through the process they learned to trust their own instincts, and not always defer to a team to tell them what to do.
"[The experience] taught us to bet on ourselves a bit more and be more self-reliant. What can happen when you're a younger artist and you get signed really early is you get used to taking everyone's input and not trusting yourself," said Phoenix.
They're much more fulfilled now, producing everything out of their home studio in a cozy room with tapestries on the wall. They both sing and play keyboard, while Mercedes handles the guitar and bass and Phoenix plays the drums and anything else they feel like throwing in.
"Even though we definitely don't do everything as slick and neatly as someone that has more experience, we like that it sounds a little bit rough around the edges. That's just our sound."
'It lit this fire in me'
While writing songs as softcult, Mercedes and Phoenix felt emboldened to go deeper in their subject matter. "Uzumaki," the closer on their second EP, is a song about overcoming past trauma and finally freeing yourself from the aftereffects.
"Even after the experience is over, the trauma remains and you still feel kind of held down or held back by this thing that happened to you," said Mercedes. "I didn't ever actually talk about it or process how it made me feel until we started writing the song and then the lyrics were just coming out. We didn't even really need to talk about it. We just kind of both understood where it was coming from."
Everything changed for Mercedes when she discovered riot grrl and feminist punk pioneer Kathleen Hanna when Mercedes was 19. After witnessing and experiencing varying degrees of misogyny throughout her teens, she felt she finally had a conduit to express her rage and frustration.
"I was inspired by Kathleen Hanna because she's so unashamed when she talks about these topics that typically have a lot of shame around them, abuse and assault and just being objectified. She speaks up and she's just a powerhouse, like a force to be reckoned with."
A switch flipped in Mercedes' brain when she realized that she didn't have to passively accept the way things were. This ethos is at the forefront of all of softcult's new music, written from the perspective of disgruntled women who are no longer willing to stay quiet about the myriad ways the world works to belittle, degrade and silence them. The rage is present in each thundering guitar riff, and the social critique present in each coolly delivered line.
"It lit this fire in me … it never really occurred to me until I was introduced to riot grrrl that you don't just have to sit down and accept that this is the way things are, you can totally call things out and push against injustice. I do think it shaped who I am and definitely what we want softcult to be."