In 2000, Merrill Nisker walked into a music store and bought a synth. She’d just gone through a cancer scare, a heavy breakup, and had moved from Toronto to Berlin. Singing her guts out over the buzzing sounds of a plastic Roland box from her bedroom, she recorded what would become the first Peaches album, and created a feminist classic.
With its sweaty gyrations and unapologetic horniness, Teaches of Peaches hurled a musical grenade at the sinless, clean-cut aesthetic that had dominated pop music in the early Millennium. Nisker was giving the world warts-and-all sexual liberation, brazenly at odds with the “I’m not that innocent” virginal tropes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and the products of a music industry rigidly fixed to the male-gaze.
Four albums would follow over the next two decades: Fatherfucker (2003), Impeach My Bush (2006), I Feel Cream (2009) and Rub (2015). Peaches never swayed from her message – sex positivity, gender equality, fuck the patriarchy. What changed was the rapidly-shifting political world that received it. Today, the backdrop is a Republican party rolling back the rights of women to control their bodies. So it’s both surprising and depressing that a woman owning her sexuality feels more political now than two decades earlier – when Peaches was first fucking the pain away.
“It’s like we’re turning into a fucking live version of The Handmaid’s Tale,” Nisker says, exasperated. “It’s ridiculous… way more absurd than anything that’s in my show.” It hadn’t taken long for our conversation to turn to politics, which is maybe not surprising given the extremity of current events. But it’s easy to forget that things felt comparatively rosier just half a decade ago. “It’s funny, because when my last album [Rub] came out four years ago, people were like, ‘Obama is President and it seems like things are changing for the better, do you feel like you still have a struggle?’” Then a few months later, Trump got in and everyone was like ‘oh my god! Your music is more relevant than ever!’”
“It’s my way of coping with my view of the world, my way of saying ‘fuck the patriarchy’.”
Nisker is Canadian-born but confesses she’s addicted to the soap opera of American news. It’s not just the US that’s a source of anxiety though, her adopted home of Germany might be comparatively stable, but there are cracks of concern. “You know, I’m a little worried about Angela Merkel leaving. She was like an anomaly – somebody who’s in a Christian party but is super fair. She’s been holding it down, holding it together. I’m pretty concerned for everybody everywhere. Look at what’s happening with Greta Thunberg, these old white male politicians ragging on a sixteen-year-old, super-smart girl, saying she shouldn’t be given a voice.”
I ask if she’s an optimist. Nisker tells me that she’s an “actionist”, that taking action is a kind of optimism. “You just have to keep going. If you’re Greta Thunberg then you take a solar-powered boat to America, say your piece, and rile people up. Or if you’re me, you’re going to continue with your shows, and you’re going to make them stronger. If you’re AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] you just keep speaking out. You’ve just got to hope that people are gonna keep fighting the good fight. It’s really ridiculous that we’re coming up to 2020 because it really doesn’t feel like it.”
“I have the privilege to express what I want to express – I haven’t been banned anywhere. There are certain areas in mainstream cultures that are fearful of me, but that doesn’t really affect what I’m doing. Because I haven’t put myself in the box of the music business, or anything like that. I’ve carved out my own way.”
Peaches carving her own way for two decades has culminated in an explosive new show, There’s Only One Peach With the Hole in the Middle, slated for four nights at Berlin’s Volksbühne next month. Billed as a variety-style celebration of the past, present and future of queer feminism – it’s a show that only Peaches could create.
“You’ve just got to hope that people are gonna keep fighting the good fight.”
“It’s a celebration of all my five albums, done in the most over-the-top manner possible,” she says. Nisker has enlisted almost 40 performers, including two dance troupes to bring her vision to the stage. In the performance, the show takes inspiration from the more extravagant elements of LGBTQI+ icons such as Bette Midler and Liza Minnelli. “It’s kind of [a] variety [show] in that people get highlighted, there are moments for dance solos and so on. We have Yukari [Aotani-Riehl] who’s a violinist at the Deutsche Oper, she’s doing some freaky stuff that she doesn’t get to do at the opera.”
The show was inspired by an earlier performance at Music Box Village in New Orleans, a setting that challenged her to hear and envisage her music in new ways. “They have this outdoor stage with shacks, and in each shack is a musical instrument built by artists. They ask you to integrate it into your performance. That’s where I met the musical director for my current show, and I started to play my songs more live – like playing very minimal songs in a marching band style, or replacing sine wave tones with violins. Every song is something exciting and it feels really celebratory – it’s super fun.”
Fun is a big part of what Peaches is about. While the message might be serious – gender equality, sex-positive feminism – it’s her unique humour that brings people together. “It’s my way of coping with my view of the world, my way of saying ‘fuck the patriarchy’. It always surprises me when people are scared – people who haven’t seen me before. Like it’s going to be this horrible, preachy thing. But then they’re like ‘that was super fun’, ‘that was one of the best shows I’ve seen in my life’. It’s something that I strive for. It’s my contribution to changing attitudes.”
Inclusivity is at the heart of Peaches’ performances, and attitudes towards gender have changed since Nisker’s earlier musical output, something that she’s now addressing. “What’s interesting is that some of the expressions that I thought were super progressive at the time are now a bit binary. So I’ve changed some of the lyrics for the live show. Instead of ‘I, you, she together’ it goes ‘I, you, she… I, you, he… I, you, they’. There’s ‘shake your dicks, shake your tits’ and also ‘shake your bits’. Who knows what you have or what you want to have – maybe you have no tits or dick and that’s fine! It’s just about understanding that and being more engaged with the spectrum and learning – being excited about what I have brought but knowing that it doesn’t end there.”
There’s Only One Peach With the Hole in the Middle runs from December 28th-31st at Volksbühne, Berlin.