PLAYING COLUMBUS: didi Grows into Their Second Album

Out of the 90 minutes I spend talking with didi, 30 are consumed by parking troubles. Circling foggy blocks in the Richmond District ahead of the group’s San Francisco show, guitarist/vocalist Meg Zakany tries fitting their tour van into one tiny spot after another, only to eventually find that the reserved load-in space has been taken by another desperate Bay Area driver. I can’t imagine a more fitting SF interview backdrop. And though the bulk of our conversation takes place before and after the time spent crowded into their car, these moments of pause and half-heard conversation are some of the most intimate I record. The car is cocoon-like, hushed and warmed by fabric hung into the back seat, and decorated with bottles of rose water. During tour, Zakany explains, “we all take turns driving, and we all take care of each other in that way. Sometimes there’s back rubs, [or] aromatherapy.”

didi and I have each gone out of our way to be in California this summer: myself taking half of my break from grad school to visit my home in the Bay Area, and didi scheduling their tour around visiting the West Coast. “We just did so well on the West Coast last tour–the reason we did twelve hour drives is to come out here,” vocalist/guitarist Kevin Bilapka-Arbelaez tells me. And so we meet each other, for the first time, outside of Columbus, Ohio, though Columbus is where we’re all spending the most time these days. Columbus is also where didi formed, five years ago, and where they released their self-titled debut. Since then, the band’s lineup–vocalist/bassist Leslie Shimizu and drummer Sheena McGrath join Zakany and Bilapka-Arbelaez–hasn’t changed, and neither has their dedication to each other. But much else has. “Five years in a person’s life is huge,” Zakany tells me. “In each of our lives individually, so much has changed. We’ve been through a lot: moving out of state, moving houses, ceremonies… we’ve been there with each other through all of that.”

All photos by Kaiya Gordon

While we talk, I notice again and again how the band communicates care to one other. They know each others’ sleep schedules, and do their best to divide tour duties equally. Zakany tells me how instrumental Shimizu has been in ensuring each member eats regularly over tour; after, I hear Shimizu ask her bandmates when they plan on getting dinner. When didi gives interviews, they make sure the whole team is present. Listening to them build off of one another, acknowledging each other’s strengths, adding on to and affirming their bandmate’s thoughts–I feel like I have been brought into their process. didi speaks to one another as though constructing a musical arrangement, paying attention to the rise and fall of each members’ contribution, pushing forward and falling back as needed. “It’s something that is important to us in general,” says Shimizu, “having all of the voices be heard in a group.”

While playing, McGrath says, “we ask each other for a lot of feedback. I think that’s a really important way in which the group is just checking itself.” Just as their conversations are, didi’s musical method is collaborative. As a new song develops, members will construct musical parts, send them to whomever initially brought the track, see if it fits, and then try the arrangement live. “We don’t really write parts for each other,” Bilapka-Arbelaez says. “Part of what I like about this band is that we all have very big personalities, but we all make room for each other.” The process isn’t always easy. Sometimes, Shimizu says, song processes will take rounds and rounds of collaborative trial and error. But they continue to center collaboration, says Shimizu, “because we care. That’s kind of what really comes across. That’s didi.”

Consistently, the band tells me, moments of personal instability have been balanced by their commitment to didi’s music. “[didi] is like my rock,” says McGrath. Back in 2013, when they first came together as a band, explains Bilapka-Arbelaez, “we were trying to figure out what our sound was. But now, us together is our sound. We love each other, and we love what we’re doing,” he says. “[We] know that it’s something that we do well together, and something we each contribute something really important to.”

Shimizu agrees. “It’s something that can actually give us strength now that we look up and say, yeah, we’ve been a band for five years. It’s something that gives us motivation and the course to keep going. If we can do five years, we can do forever.”

Yet growth, even when collectively supported, is never painless. With years of touring, interviewing, and art making under their belts, didi has learned, out of necessity, how to navigate working in an industry largely unsupportive of women and people of color. On tour, Zakany says, “You can observe the ways in which people have been socialized, for example, by the way that they carry themselves, and interact with other people.” When somebody doesn’t have “experience with people like us, a band like us or a person like us,” Zakany notices it. 

didi notices, too, when the conversation around their music rings only a single note: asking them to describe the band in terms of marginalized identity. “We recognize how important it is to have those shared experiences with artists, and to be represented,” says Zakany. “We all want to see ourselves represented in music, but I don’t know, sometimes that just takes over the conversation.” 

“I do think a lot about the idea of choosing when to talk about the things that I struggle with,” says Bilapka-Arbelaez. “Me being onstage, as I’m going to be tonight, and introducing two songs that are very important to me, is different than having something come out that like, really focuses on that identity and essentializes it. think I want authenticity more than I want brand recognition.”

“So many things that you do, and that we do, as a team, as women, [is] taking care of each other,” says Zakany. “We have a big guard up. And we have to, because we have to protect each other.”

Like Memory Foam, the band’s second album, has come out of all of this: from years of changes to their lives, their deepening connections to each other, and their experiences as musicians. When they decided on a title for the album, says Bilapka-Arbelaez, “We were talking about how different experiences can leave imprints in our lives and in the way we live our lives. A lot of the songs [on the album] are about those experiences that leave imprints on who we are.” Who they are, not just as individuals, but as a band, is something integral to didi’s artistic approach. Because they can’t speak to each other’s lived experiences, says Shimizu, didi focuses on making decisions as a group. “I can’t put into words why Kevin, for example, may have written a song in Spanish, or why Meg was envisioning this thing with [her] family,” she says. “The songs are personal to each person in a different way.”

Like Memory Foam, which had a soft release in Columbus last week, is different than didi’s first album in several ways. This time, the album will be released on a label, Damnably Records. The group has introduced new instruments, as well: percussive pieces, cello, and synth meant to “make the lyrics come alive with the music,” Shimizu says. “We spent a lot of time in the studio this time around. We had time to sit on the parts, and think about them, and play them over and over.” The result is an album which manages to be both lyrically diverse and emotionally cohesive. “I don’t think that we sat down and were like ‘what’s the concept of this album gonna be?’” says Bilapka-Arbelaez. “The through-line [of the album] is just that it’s personal to each of us, in that we each wrote songs that delved into things that we were dealing with at the time, and then musically we all helped each other sort of parse that out, and express it.”

Overall, says McGrath, as didi has spent time learning and living and making together, “We’ve learned a lot about how we are supported and what we draw strength upon in ourselves. You’ve got to find a balance between when to do it yourself and when to reach out.”

PLAYING COLUMBUS: Grrrls Rock Columbus to Host Halloween in April

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Photo courtesy of

Retrograde’s over, we’ve moved into Taurus season, and the snow has finally disappeared for good. It’s almost summertime, which means three things: cut-offs, camp, and second Halloween.

If you’ve never celebrated second Halloween, you’ve been missing a solid costume opportunity. But this weekend in Columbus, you can remedy that horror – Grrls Rock Columbus is hosting a Halfway to Halloween matinee and cover band showcase on Saturday, raising funds for this summer’s iteration of the camp.

Grrls Rock has become a Columbus staple. Started in 2013, the camp offers music lessons (as well as every-summer, can’t-miss-it camp stuff… hello, capture the flag!) to girls, trans, and gender-variant youth from ages twelve to eighteen. It’s an opportunity for transitionally-aged kids to delve into the music world in a supportive and educative environment – one that prioritizes the creativity and voices of those who often don’t get put on mainstream stages. The Grrrls learn instruments, create bands, and step into the spotlight for two concerts. Payments for the camp are sliding scale with available financial aid; volunteers are sourced from the Columbus community; and the campers are matched with mentors. Basically, it’s a youth development dream.

Dreamy, too, is the list of bands getting covered at this weekend’s event. At the matinee, which is all ages and will be held at Used Kids Records, The Hex Girls and Diva as Devo start at 5pm. Then, at 9, head over to Summit, where the line-up includes cover-band-versions of The Cranberries, Sleater-Kinney, Rihanna, Cat Power, Bauhaus, and Shania Twain (I’m guessing the cover artist didn’t expect Shania to be canceled by twitter so close to the show…it happens). The show costs a $5 donation, and costumes are encouraged.

What’s remarkable about the fundraiser, though, isn’t the chance to wear your sparkles–it’s the number of Columbus musicians who will be playing at the event. The Cranberries’ band is made up of members from Didi and Field Sleeper; the Devo iteration by Foxx Smoulder; Cat Power channeled by Pony Dog. The cover show should be weird and wonderful, and I’m looking forward to hearing crossovers between musicians old and new; the styles of each knitting together to make music specific to the space in which it will be created.

Intersections between local artists and local youth organizations are so important, especially with on-going budget cuts to creative programming in schools. There is no way to ethically build a community without that community’s input, and burgeoning artists deserve a seat at the table, joined by mentors they can trust. And though not all of the musicians playing on Saturday will or should take mentorship roles, I’m glad to see the way that GRRRLS rock is woven together by many varied threads.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

PLAYING COLUMBUS: Three Ohio Acts That Slayed SXSW

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Remember Sports photo by Jess Flynn

While Columbus geared up for yet another snowstorm last week, Austin was getting ready for South by Southwest (SXSW), a yearly conference and festival highlighting music, film, and art. SXSW is notorious for its sprawl – the festival spills over the city limits for several weeks – its off-site events, and the breadth of artists in attendance; showcases put on by labels, outlets, venues, and even countries highlight the vastness of the music industry.

Like SXSW, music in Central Ohio crosses boundaries of genre, geography, and generation. Artists spring from larger cities, like Columbus, but also form in pockets of community found in smaller cities. Colleges, collectives, and a strong sense of locality generate musical projects which are diverse in their approach, instrumental treatment, and subject. This year at SXSW, Ohio was represented by a plethora of creators, managers, creatives, and more. This week, Playing Columbus highlights three musical artists who planted their Ohio roots at SXSW 2018.


Hometown: Columbus, OH
First formed in 2013 out of the Columbus DIY scene, didi has impressed both within Columbus and beyond; after the release of their debut album in 2015, the group toured with Speedy Ortiz, Sad13, and Diet Cig, among others. didi was named as a band to watch by Columbus Alive in 2017, and they’ve been featured by Remezcla and PBS. They’re an strikingly talented, tight-knit group: made up of Meg Zakany, Sheena McGrath, Kevin Bilapka-Arbelaez, and Leslie Shimizu, the group splits signing and song-writing responsibilities. They’re also an important figure in the Columbus music canon because of their advocacy for QTIPOC and women within the overwhelmingly white, inaccessible DIY community. Fans of didi can expect more work from the group soon – their second album is expected to be released sometime this summer.


Hometown: Akron, OH
Ohio has a rich history of hip-hop and rap, a legacy which has crystalized in the work of Swoope. Though he’s now based in Atlanta, the rapper was born and raised in Akron Ohio, where he grew up playing music with his family and within his church. Swoope’s been an iconic rapper within the Christian community since his earliest releases, but it was with his second full-length album, Sinema, that allowed Swoope to cross into the mainstream. Last month, Swoope released his latest project, Sonshine, on a new label, Native No./EMPIRE.


Hometown: Gambier, OH
Remember Sports, who are now based in Philadelphia, PA, formed in Ohio while the band members were attending Kenyon College. After self-releasing their first album under the moniker Sports, they signed to Father/Daughter records in 2015 and followed up with their second full-length project, All of Something. Since then, the group has graduated from college, added “Remember” to their name to avoid any confusion with other bands, and released a split EP with label-mates Plush. Like didi, Remember Sports includes three vocalists – Carmen Perry, Catherine Dwyer, Jack Washburn – who split duties. Their fourth member, Conner Perry, plays percussion for the band. But Remember Sports goes far beyond the expected instrumental components of a quartet, incorporating a remarkable number of instruments, including slide guitar, melodica, drum machine, and field recordings. They’re prolific, too; though it’s only been months since the EP release, Remember Sports already has new material on the way. Slow Buzz, their third full-length, is set to drop on May 18th. The first single from the album, “Up From Below,” has already been released – a pop-punk influenced song with syncopated rhythm and irreverent, gut-punching lyrics.


PLAYING COLUMBUS: Jay Som @ Ace of Cups

Jay Som has had a big year. Since Polyvinyl picked up the project – conceived and led by Oakland’s Melina Duterte – in 2016, Duterte has released a second full-length album (Everybody Works), toured nationally, played a tiny desk concert at NPR, and received extensive coverage by major media outlets. In other words, Jay Som has outgrown Duterte’s Bay Area bedroom.

At the Ace of Cups last Sunday, Jay Som played a set which drew from both the old (“I Think You’re Alright,” an enduring hit for the band, was first released in 2015) and the new (a video for “The Bus Song,” directed by Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner, was only released a few weeks ago). It’s probable that I’ve seen the band play live more times than anybody else in Sunday night’s crowd. And it was interesting to encounter Jay Som in Columbus, especially because this might be the last time I hear Duterte play for a while – she and her bandmates are moving to LA in a few weeks, and I’m staying in Columbus for the next few years.

Much has been made of Jay Som’s success in regards to the Bay Area music scene. Duterte is young, Philipinx, gay, and hard-working. She stands within the intersections of identities which are often pushed out of the music industry. But it’s these identities which should, frankly, be populating the Bay Area’s stages more often – POC, especially black folks, make up far more of the East Bay’s demographic than is represented within artistic spaces. As is the case everywhere, DIY and other music spaces in San Francisco and Oakland often prioritize white artists on their bills, making room for loud, cis, white punk boys before creating space for queer folks, women, and people of color.

So it’s encouraging to see Duterte carving a place for herself in the music industry. Encouraging too is seeing artists like her blow up: Kehlani, Xiomara, and Spelling, to name a few, have all made waves far beyond Oakland and San Francisco in the past few years. And Duterte has certainly earned her success. Both Turn Into and Everybody Works are carefully considered, lushly arranged albums. Duterte’s vocals, attention to lyricism, and weaving melodies are remarkable in their precision and vitality.

When performing, Duterte and her band – the bulk of which she grew up with in Brentwood, CA – animate the songs with long diversions into musical riffs. They’ve all known each other a long time, and it shows in their comfort onstage. But that comfort comes with the potential cost of excluding listeners. “There’s nothing I like less than seeing white men jam onstage,” a friend told me during the show, referring to Duterte’s bandmates. That frustration seems to be tension with Jay Som’s success as a Bay Area band. If we are to understand Jay Som as Duterte’s project – and Duterte certainly crafts her records alone – how should we evaluate the musicians that accompany her on tour? Does the backing presence of white, cis men not make an impact on the audience, just as Duterte does?


Jay Som was joined on Sunday by didi, another band intrinsically rooted within its musical community. At this point in their career, didi is a Columbus staple, regularly playing shows with other locals, as well as opening for queercore favorites like Aye Nako and Sad13. The band’s self-titled album, which was released in 2015, is dynamic and well-considered, weighing squealing guitars and sleepy vocals against steady melodies and bass lines.

Like Duterte, didi is vocal about making space for themselves where they can, and are open about the struggles POC and trans folks face booking shows in DIY communities. As well as being accomplished musicians, they’re significant advocates for themselves and others in Columbus.

It’s important to evaluate music within the context of its community. But how do we gain enough access to musicians to make those value judgements? In other words, am I, a recent Ohio transplant, truly able to place a band like didi within the historical and social contexts of the Columbus music scene in the same way I can with Jay Som? How does that change my approach to seeing either band live?

At the end of the show on Sunday, I watched as crowd members lined up to talk to Duterte. Some posed for a picture. Others milled about, finishing drinks or buying merch. It’s striking how much trust we each must have, in each other, and in the musicians onstage, to fill a music venue. To enter any space of entertainment is to re-negotiate the safety of your body in a crowd. That negotiation has higher stakes for some than others, just as being visible onstage is riskier for systematically marginalized folks than it is for those in power. We all take up space in different ways.