Pret-a-Reporter

Evan Rachel Wood and Zach Villa on Their New Band, How David Bowie Saved Wood's Life

Courtesy of Rebel and a Basketcase
Rebel and a Basketcase

The duo opens up on their new electro-pop project, Rebel and a Basketcase.

Edgy, youthful and insanely Boy George-y — those are probably the best phrases to describe Rebel and a Basketcase, the new electro-pop duo forged by actress Evan Rachel Wood and Juilliard-trained actor Zach Villa, in an effort to "go back and reclaim" defining moments from their teenage years. The pair initially teamed up for one song, "Oh Yeah," but come this fall, they will drop a full-length studio album and EP.

Billboard spoke to Wood and Villa about the inspiration behind their ultra-'80s video, how David Bowie saved Wood's life ("You couldn't define him, and when I was growing up, that’s how I felt about myself") and how one overstuffed shoebox full of handwritten teenage lyrics helped conceive a highly personal, yet easily relatable, album.

Tell me about the inspiration behind “Oh Yeah.”

Evan Rachel Wood: When Zach and I met, I was in a time in my life where I was tired of making myself smaller for other people and I was ready to overcome oppressive situations and begin a time of rebirth. And when Zach showed me this song, it immediately spoke to me.

Zach Villa: That song actually started, I want to say, maybe three years ago now? I was traveling home, trying to move into a different area of music production and was just experimenting around and created that opening lick. It sat on a hard drive for a very long time, and then right before Evan and I met, I was in a place where I was questioning a lot of things. The caste system in society, wondering if someone can achieve any kind of greatness beyond their own given level in life. So I began approaching music like that and finished writing the lyrics after we started working together.

And the video?

Wood: We wanted to show a gray look and a glam look. The gray look is everyday, routine, uniformed. You're placed in a box. You're fed this water, a voice comes through a speaker and you are being told who to be and what to do.

And the glam look is the inner-child, slowly becoming stronger until at the end it just explodes and your true self comes out. You’ll see there’s blue and pink water coming out of our mouths. In our mind, that’s the rejection of the things you're fed, or learned, but aren't necessarily true.

Villa: It might be hard to tell, but the water is actually in reverse flow, so while we’re rejecting the things that are holding us back, we’re taking in the bright and new form, keeping everything cyclical.

It's very androgynous-looking, and Evan, you specifically are known for bending the boundaries of gender norms in terms of beauty, fashion and sexuality.

Wood: Absolutely. I think that's another reason why this song spoke to me. I've struggled with gender norms my whole life, always feeling like I wasn't black-and-white; I was in this gray area, and gray areas really scare people because you can't define them. And that, you know, that's the inspiration behind this as well. I finally got to a place where I wasn't going to do it anymore, and I was finally just going to be me.

Was David Bowie a big inspiration for you?

Wood: I grew up idolizing David Bowie, and we were in the middle of writing the album when he died. It gave us a whole new source of inspiration, a feeling like we had to keep the torch burning.

Villa: We felt like we had to fill the void, and we talked a lot about that after he passed: how we needed to make up for lost time because the time is now. If he's not there to carry that place in society, then the rest of us have to take a stab at it. For better or for worse.

Wood: I met Bowie when I was 15 backstage at his Reality tour and blacked out completely. I have no memory of the encounter except just looking into his different-colored eyes. He's been propping me up throughout every chapter of my life. And so it was so strange losing him the second I decided to put music out into the world. … I guess that’s very profound. But he saved my life.

In what way did he save your life?

Wood: You couldn't define him, and when I was growing up, that’s how I felt about myself. It was like he was always producing this message of hope and understanding, always reaching out. He was so in your face, but never in a “f—k you" way. He was an ever-revolving, ever-changing work of art; so fluid, so unapologetic, but uplifting at the same time.

What was the writing process like?

Wood: I have a very large shoebox overflowing with lyrics I've been writing and collecting since my teen years and into my late 20s, with lyrics from all walks of my life. Darkness, being in love, being heartbroken, finding yourself ... and lyrics that I've been sitting on for, like, seven years, that I haven't done anything with.

Villa: It just felt so immediate. There was one song we wrote in the basement in less than 45 minutes. I was just messing around, and the second page Evan pulled out was the one she was looking for. She read it out loud and I’m like, “You just wrote that recently, right?” And she said, “No, I wrote that eight years ago. But it fits with this song right now.”

What was the song about?

Wood: That song, in particular, was about being seduced by darkness and how sometimes it's necessary to journey into it to really get to know yourself and come out the other side. But the album as a whole really tells a story. It’s an album you’ll listen to from beginning to end, where every song is cohesive, yet really different.

Villa: We play a lot with melodies too. I definitely approached the melodic process from the idea that when you stumble into it, it fits like a glove. And you might have an idea, but once you start putting all the elements together, it can change right up until the last minute it's recorded. You have to do what's best for the tune, and we had a framework. We couldn't resist using lyrics that felt like it was their time to come forward.

Can you tell me one of those lyrics?

Wood: There’s this lyric from a poem I wrote in my early 20s when the sun was coming up and I was completely falling down the rabbit hole: "We are today/ We are the music that you hear/ We are the voices in your head/ We are the changes that you feared." I picked it up and was like, “Well, this is our mission statement.” Now that song is going to become one of our anthems.

Villa: You will hear it. Everywhere.

How does it feel taking poems from a time when you were in this wild, unstable place and using them almost a decade later in a different mental space?

Wood: It feels great! A lot of the things I wrote were when I was scared and in a dark place. I mean, even a few years ago, I was thinking, "Oh, I can't write a song, I'm not good enough. I can't do it. I'm too embarrassed, blah blah blah." But after I became a mom and had my son, it’s like your heart just expands. And honestly, after I got divorced, I just went, "Well, f—k it. I don't care anymore. I just gotta do it.” It's nice to know those moments weren't in vain, and I could turn them into positive messages and finally do what I told myself I could never do: change.

Villa: In my third year [at Juilliard in the BFA acting program], I was depressed, I was alone, and I was homesick. I was questioning what being an artist meant, questioning responsibility versus owning my own identity, and I had no out. A few years before that, at boarding school, I had a Macedonian roommate named Phillip who took it upon himself to humor me into playing guitar. So then at Juilliard, music was my open door. Music saved my life.

Was there an album that defined those crucial years for you both?

Villa: I think I'm going to own it ... Room for Squares by John Mayer. I'm just going to let that stand. Some people are going to love that, some people are going to hate it. I'm OK with either.

Wood: Throughout the entire time I was filming Thirteen, I’d just lock myself in my room and listen to Garbage’s first album. It was Shirley Manson, Nirvana and Radiohead who got me through everything. Also, Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos. They were so beautiful and strange, and they gave women permission to be angry and emotional, but also strong. I miss these powerhouse singers, these '90s cowgirls, who came in just guns blazing saying, "Nope, I'm pissed! But I'm here and I'm alive and I'm going to sing about it and I'm going to inspire people."

Hearing you two talk, it almost sounds like you’re going through teenage-hood again, even though you’re both adults.

Villa: I've long associated those years as some of the most formative. We usually write that period off, like, "Oh, we were just young, it didn't count. That was just a free pass because I was trying to figure shit out.” And then we move on with our adult lives and that's just ... not fair. That time also means something. It means a great deal. And to be able to go back and reclaim that I think is really cool.

Wood: Yesterday, Zach and I were talking and I said, "You know what I'm really excited about? I'm really excited for all those teenagers just like me, who just didn't know how to express themselves and didn't understand themselves and would just go into their room and lock the door and, you know, they'd put some music on letting it all out either by dancing or just laying on the floor wallowing in it." ... I can’t wait for those teenagers to listen to this and get inspired. Hopefully we can plant a seed for their empowerment.

This story first appeared on Billboard.com.

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