On her musical awakening
I’ve been playing music since the age of three, when my parents first started bringing me to violin lessons. I started taking piano lessons when I was six, and then got pretty into singing in local plays (I was Dorothy in ‘The Wizard Of Oz’!). So music has always been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Actually, there was a distinct moment in junior high school when I vowed that I would NEVER become a musician. I was at my piano lesson and my teacher and I were working on a new piece. I kept on messing up and could never play it perfectly, no matter how hard I tried, so finally my teacher just played it for me to show me how the piece should sound. As he sat there, playing this complicated piano sonata in a dark basement, I saw how emotionally attached he was to the notion of being able to replicate this ancient ideal that few people could even understand. I thought there was something so sad about dedicating your whole life to trying to do something perfectly, when you knew that you could never be perfect. All that time sitting alone in a basement at the mercy of Beethoven or some long-dead composer and no one else even hearing you play – what was the point of that? I thought that playing music must be very lonely, and I decided that I would never want to become a person whose life was like that.
In the next few years I started going to local shows with punk bands comprised of kids in high school. I was shocked to discover that music wasn’t only a matter of rote memorisation, replication or perfectionism. I discovered that you could write songs that expressed your own ideas instead of someone else’s, and that there were entire genres of music dedicated to the idea of being messy, imperfect and human. Feeling myself to be all of these things, I desired nothing more than to play that sort of music. I played my first show with a band the summer before my senior year of high school, and I still remember how I felt – warm and tingly all over. It was the first time in as long as I can remember that I felt proud to have other people look at me. Usually I was the kind of teenager who just wanted to disappear.
The feeling that I wanted to be a musician didn’t come all at once. It was more like an idea that grew and grew the more I went to shows. It would get to the point where I couldn’t hear a band practicing down the street without getting nervous and my hands starting to shake. My heart would start to pound because it wanted so badly to join in. When I finally began to perform in front of large audiences with Titus Andronicus, I saw the way the crowd responded to me. It was like magic. I knew how to hold their attention – how to be someone – it came from inside me. I felt so happy and sure of myself playing music in front of an audience. It wasn’t lonely at all. I was helping people come together and sharing myself with them. The music would overwhelm me and I would have these jolts of recognition as I played: “This is what I was meant to do.”
On the value of studying the arts
I studied English literature and creative writing at college. I’m a writer as well as a musician, and actually, writing helps me with music a lot! In university, I learned that a great work of art in any genre is one that puts the artist in emotional danger. In other words, if you’re not writing something that feels dangerous for you, don’t even bother. I keep that in mind when I’m playing guitar and putting words on paper. It makes me want to challenge myself and never settle into doing something expected or easy. I also learned about dramatic structure – how a play or a poem can draw an audience member in, hold his or her attention, and engage the imagination. That’s something you can apply to songwriting as well, and you can learn it by examining any work of art that you love – a painting, a sculpture, even a photograph. Composition is a set of ideas that apply to many sorts of artworks, not only to music. My poetry teacher in college once said, “Poets are students of everything.” I would agree that this applies to musicians too. You should absorb as much of the world as possible! All the crazy experiences you have and all the awesome ideas you read about can go into your music.
On her life as a writer
I write music journalism, essays about politics and about my life, and poetry. I would like to write fiction some day but I haven’t really done it since I was a kid. I think that writing and music go together for me. One part of your brain really influences the other. If I write something – like, on paper – it’s a lot easier for me to write a song. And if I have fear or writer’s block in one area of my life, it affects the other part of my life. I think that writing is really about sound, when you come down to it. If you can hear when a sentence sounds right and when it sounds wrong to you, then you can be a writer. The same thing goes for music. Great writing is like music. You don’t even have to worry about what it means. You can just close your eyes and let the sound of it wash over you.
On leaving Titus Andronicus
It was a big decision to leave Titus Andronicus. I learned so much from being in that band and grew as a musician and as a person during my years playing with them. The thing is that, at this point in my life, I want to put 100% into my own songs. I need the freedom to be able to focus on my own music. Playing someone else’s songs is okay but I have written so many of my own. I want to dedicate myself to expressing what I feel I have inside me. Who knows what will happen in the future? I could create something wonderful or I could fail big time. But if I don’t really try to make music on my own, I will never know what the future could bring. Right now, I just want to try!
On what comes next
My band, Hilly Eye, is recording a full-length album! It’s a big project and it’s very exciting. We have tonnes of songs that no one has even heard yet. It’s sort of an experimental band, a little psychedelic and a little noise-rock. There’s also definitely a ‘90s grunge feel to some of the songs, so fans of Throwing Muses will be interested. We’re starting to talk with some labels about possibly putting the record out. When I’m not working on Hilly Eye, I’m playing with Amy Klein & The Blue Star Band. It’s a more folksy project where the lyrics approximate poetry. The songs can be quiet and introspective at times, but also dynamic and powerful. My friend Kiri [Oliver], who sings in the band Delta Hotel, harmonises all the vocals with me, and we have some very striking melodies going on. There’s even a cello. It’s a grand, orchestral sound. We started the band to play the songs that I recorded on my solo album [I Know What You Want], and now we’re working on new material. Everything sounds so much better with the full band than it ever did when I performed by myself. I feel like the songs are really coming into their own.
On her very public involvement with the Occupy movement
Occupy Wall Street is many things – a change in the dialogue about economic policy, a worldwide movement against corporate greed, a rekindling of the idea that the extreme social inequality that exists in the world is not the normal result of a naturally functioning Darwinian capitalist system, but rather a tragedy that we must work to correct. But most of all, Occupy Wall Street symbolises to young people the possibility that their voices might make a difference, that their voices might be heard. In an era when no one has much faith in government, I felt such a sense of hope when I walked into that park – it was like we could really change things. Many people I know have described a similar feeling.
Occupy Wall Street signals that the age of apathy is over, and the age of engagement has begun. When I think about the fact that no one is allowed in the park I visited, the place where I had conversations about rape, about sexual assault, about government and about economic policy with members of “the 1%”, with members of the City’s homeless population, with people I would never have met or talked to about anything in my entire life, I feel like our country has lost one of the last true places of political equality. At the same time, we can’t let the movement end here – even if the physical occupation in New York City ends up dissipating. The spark of this debate must continue, and as we move forward, we can’t limit ourselves to discussions of what’s wrong with the world to economics alone. We must broaden the movement to speak about what Angela Davis calls “the complex unity” of the 99%. We must discuss what divides us, as well as what unifies us.
Although this may make many of us feel uncomfortable or scared, bringing race and gender into this debate will be the bravest and best thing that our generation can possibly do. We must work to dismantle the systems of gender inequality, and racial inequality, in order to make ourselves truly free.
On forming her own feminist organisation
I started Permanent Wave because I didn’t see our generation as having a feminist movement, and I felt like we really needed one. The idea came to me after I started writing on my blog about my frustration with sexism, and my stories of growing up female, feeling like I have something important to say and hating myself for it, and not knowing how to find my place in the world or connect with other women – and many, many women responded, saying that they had had similar experiences. I was overwhelmed with people’s support. I felt like all these other girls and women – not just me – were looking for feminism anywhere they could find it. We all wanted to express ourselves and create real change in the world, and something about the world we live in was not encouraging us to do it.
I picked up a book about riot grrrl called Girls To The Front, which explained how the riot grrrls ended up creating an international movement by supporting each other in activism and the arts. I decided that it wouldn’t be so hard to create a group that aimed to encourage girls to be both creative and political. I decided to have a meeting at my house for anyone who was interested, and lo and behold, about twenty people showed up. From there, we started doing all sorts of things. We organise protests and rallies against sexual assault and rape, hold benefit shows where female bands can raise money for organisations that support women and girls, and create all sorts of awesome events to encourage community, self- and mutual respect among women. Anyone can join, regardless of gender, and we make inclusivity and openness a top priority of our organisation.
Right now, we’re working on our second zine project, a Poly Styrene tribute album with many bands covering her songs, and a big female-centric film festival for 2012. We also have daily discussions about gender and current events on our email list, which has members all over the world! We want to build a culture that values the contributions of women, girls, and queer and trans folks, and we hope that you will join us! Email us at email@example.com and we’ll add you to our mailing list. You can also find us on Facebook.
On the music she’s loving in 2011
I’m really into the new Wye Oak album, Civilian. The first few times I heard it, I passed it off as “just pretty and kind of boring”, but in fact it is the farthest thing from that! It just grows on you the more you listen to it! Jenn Wasner is a fabulous guitar player, both precise and expressive with the instrument. Her voice is very rich and deep, and her lyrics remind me of Emily Dickinson – very philosophical. She’s always singing about religion, fate, or her own mind. I also love Kurt Vile and of course Wild Flag, and my friend just got me into this amazing ‘80s anarcho post-punk band called Dog Faced Hermans. They were from Scotland and toured with the Ex. Everyone should check them out.
On the advice she would give to a young woman wanting to start out in the music business today
(1) Believe in yourself. (2) Practice like hell. (3) Support other girls in their music as well. This advice is probably a little different than what I’d say to a guy, but the gist of it is the really the same.
Playing music takes courage and hard work. A friend recently told me her opinion – that when guys who love music don’t play in a band, it’s usually because they’re lazy or uninterested, but when girls who love music don’t play in a band, it’s often because they feel worried or nervous about the idea. For girls, I think the number one thing you can do is to take yourself seriously as an artist. Even if you have only written one song, you are already an artist. Even if you have never written a song but really want to do it some day, you are an artist in training, and you have to treat yourself like one.
For guys, getting up in front of an audience and being loud and confident is something society has encouraged them to do since the day they were born, but for many girls this isn’t something we’re taught to expect of ourselves. We need to believe that we can and will fulfil our wildest artistic dreams, even when we have fewer artistic role models than guys do. To me, that’s why we have to support other girls in music. We have to be each other’s role models, positive examples, inspirations, and adoring fans. We have to create our own artistic movements and communities where none have existed before. We can make our own professional and artistic networks that are just as good as any other.
We don’t have to feel like outsiders in a music business that’s dominated by men because we have each other. Believe that you can make something new, and you will.