PLAYING ATLANTA: Sister Moon Talks Songwriting, Star Trek, and Bacon Chips

Ashley Rivera, the frontwoman and creative force behind Atanta’s Southern gothic-blues group, Sister Moon, weaves a dark mystique throughout her music, eerie melodies set against a heavy sonic landscape. It’s Southern gothic at its finest: a crumbling mansion in the light of a full moon, Spanish moss swaying like ghosts from the limbs of a live oak tree. Her innate ability to evoke strong imagery within her music is part of what drew me to her in the first place; her subtle confidence and intensity of stage sets her apart as one of the finest acts Atlanta has to offer.

As the group prepares to take on Austin for SXSW, Ashley took a few minutes to sit down with me and talk about her musical history, her creative collaboration with producer, writer, and guitarist David Rowe, and the band’s latest single, “Corners.”

AF: When did you realize that music was your passion and calling? Have you always been interested in it, or was it something you grew into?

AR: It was very early on. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with singing! I started doing small local shows around age nine and realized that playing music could be a “real thing.” I haven’t stopped since. The passion for writing songs was something that developed a little later and has continued to grow and change. It is the most frustrating part of all of this. It’s also my favorite part.

AF: Who do you consider your greatest influences when it comes to your sound? Are your favorite artists and bands different from the bands that inspired you to form Sister Moon?

AR: The artist who always comes to mind first is Bobbie Gentry. She was my childhood inspiration. Her voice was so different… thicker and spookier than any female artist I’d heard. And her songs were masterfully crafted stories. I always wanted to be like her. I still do. When we formed Sister Moon, I think we all brought different influences to the table. There have been plenty of times in the studio when we’re not playing a note but instead just sitting around listening to things that inspire us, elbowing each other, “Did you hear that part?!” One of the bands we always go back to is Led Zeppelin.

AF: What’s your creative process like?

AR: It varies, but I typically start with lyrics and melody, and simple chords on the guitar. I bring that to David Rowe (Sister Moon’s producer/guitarist/writer) and we continue writing the song together. He is curiously good at knowing exactly where I want to go creatively. Once we write it together, we take it to the band, and it goes farther than I could’ve ever dreamed.

AF: You’ve recently released a single, “Corners.” What inspired the song?

AF: “Corners” came out of a dark time and some painful experiences. I’m not usually a “wrote this in ten minutes!” songwriter… I will start on something and tinker with it forever. But “Corners” was genuinely one of those songs that just tumbled out. I didn’t imagine it would be released at the time.

AF: You’re going on tour in March; what’s it like to travel and sing your songs in different cities around the country?

AR: About 1% of the time is the playing the gig and 99% is discussing Star Trek in the van while passing around bacon chips.

AF: How has the Atlanta music scene impacted you as an artist?

AR: The scene here inspires and challenges me.  My favorite thing to do on nights off is to go hear a great local band, and there are so many of them. Not only am I blown away by the talent pool, but I’m floored by the support Atlanta’s musicians show one another. For the most part, everyone just loves to share what they do. That’s so refreshing to see.

AF: What’s next for Sister Moon?

AR: We hit the road for SXSW next week! When we return, our new single “Lorelei” will be released on the 26th.

Follow Sister Moon on Facebook for new releases, SXSW FOMO, and (hopefully!) the occasional Star Trek reference, and stream “Corners” on Spotify. 

PLAYING ATLANTA: The Pussywillows Are Atlanta’s Hardest Rocking (and Hardest Working) Indie Rock Duo

Photo Credit: Kara Hammond

When watching Hannah Zale and Carly Gibson, the dynamic duo at the front of Atlanta indie rock outfit The Pussywillows, perform on stage, it’s easy to get lost in the effortless synchronicity presented. They are perfect complements to one another, standing toe to toe and side by side, pushing — and encouraging — each other. 

Offstage, they’re equally complimentary, full of exuberance, passion, and creativity. Hannah is lightning in a bottle, captivating the crowd with her dramatic mystique. Carly is equal parts intense and laid-back; quieter, but commanding and electrifying as she makes playing guitar look like something she was born to do (and trust us — she was). 

The two women are committed to their music, performing together as The Pussywillows and in stand-alone projects as Zale, Carly Gibson, and Gibson Wilbanks. In the middle of their eternally busy schedules, Hannah and Carly sat down with Audiofemme to talk music and their otherworldly connection. 

AF: Individually, you’re both incredibly talented performers, musicians, and songwriters; what made you decide to band together and form The Pussywillows?

CG: Thank you so much for the kind words and inviting us share our story! It’s funny how things organically happen. Hannah and I never thought about it much; we immediately started singing and writing together after we met. It felt like it created itself, with no question or hesitation. We were both strongly drawn to each other’s energy and our vocal tones happened to blend effortlessly.

From the very beginning, we’ve been riding on the same emotional life roller coaster, mirroring each other in our own fashion. Our lives seem to move in tandem and it’s one the most beautiful and healthy relationships to be a part of.  My weaknesses are her strengths and my strengths are her weaknesses; together, our polarity conducts some kind of unique power source that’s cathartically satisfying.

HZ: Well, dang. Thank you so much. I don’t think becoming a band was really a choice we made or something that we talked about at the beginning. We wrote together instantly and easily so we kept doing it. A lot of our connection came from being in the same place in our personal timelines and dealing with a lot of the same struggles. We still struggle and heal in tandem somehow. Carly makes me a better musician and person and that’s how I know we are onto something.

AF: How did performing as solo artists prepare you for working together as a unit?

HZ: I think our different backgrounds as solo artists are one of our greatest strengths as a band. While I was performing in Broadway musicals and reading books about artist management, Carly was already playing out gigs and soloing on guitar better than the boys.

We try to bring our experiences together to create a dramatic, energetic rock show that makes you feel something. We are yin and yang and let each other be completely who we are. We both felt like we were missing something playing alone that we have found in each other.

CG: We definitely had polar opposite backgrounds. In a nutshell, I’m from a weird hippie family full of musicians, and Hannah is from a musical theater-loving, Jewish doctor family. I was ignoring my homework and playing out in rock bands in high school while she was getting straight A’s and slaying Broadway musicals.

We grew up marinating in very different kinds of genres, but our common thread is ’90s music. The moody, chick-rock stuff is our jam, and was the vibe that inspired the songwriter within each of us to be born.

We strangely complement each other perfectly. Though we are opposites in a lot of ways, we share a soul connection that allows us to be on the same page, pretty much all the time. We catch ourselves harmonizing lines without meaning to and we often finish each other’s sentences with the same inflections and gestures. There is a whole lot of unconditional love and respect that we have for one another that’s the foundation to what we are as a unit.

AF: What’s been the hardest moment for you, and, on the other hand, what’s been the proudest? 

CG: Our hardest time was going through a nightmare studio experience where we wasted a whole lot of our time and money on a debut EP we could never use. We were able to pick ourselves back up, as a team, without blaming or taking it out on each other.

I think our proudest moment yet has been able to finally define and refine our sound as a band; to be able to get to the essence of our vision and belief in who we are as artists. We get to create our own world that people seem to really dig stepping into with us. Packing out rooms with a hyped audience screaming “PUSSYPOWER” feels super satisfying, every time.

We’re proud to be women playing rock n’ roll that’s for everyone. We aim to take back the word that has been so harshly demoralized and connotated with “weakness.”  We believe in a balance and respect of feminine/masculine energy that resides in all of us. Being able to tap into our individual truth and power without shame or judgement is what we strive for every day, and we hope to encourage our audience and fans to do the same.

AF: Your sound is self-described as “Tarantino feminism.” What inspires the music? 

HZ: Our music has that same neo-noir quality; it can be dark and has a sometimes sinister, shadowy feeling. We like to tell bold stories featuring strong female characters based on real events and people in our lives. We aren’t afraid to be a little cheeky and impolite. Tarantino doesn’t believe in linear timelines and neither do we; we live and write for the past and future at the same time. We want our music to be consumed, analyzed and enjoyed equally, not cause we are a “girl band.”

AF: Who has inspired you the most in your individual careers, and as The Pussywillows? 

CG: Having a musical family was the most influential part for me. Music was constantly around and supported, which I am so very grateful for. My parents played in groups all throughout my childhood, and we went to a lot of concerts and festivals. Music has always been the coolest thing in the world to me and looked like the most fun way to express [myself]. I started playing guitar at twelve years old, largely because I wanted to be able to connect and communicate with my dad and brother on a deeper level, to fit in and jam with “the guys” and have stuff to talk about. My brother showed me some live AC/CD footage for the first time and after seeing Angus Young play, I thought to myself, “THAT’S what I want to do. That crazy, sweaty little man is having the time of his life. I want to feel that.”

It was mixture of artists like Jimi Hendrix, John Mayer, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, Grace Potter, Pat Benatar, Led Zeppelin, Heart, Joni Mitchell, Michelle Branch, Alanis Morrisette, Norah Jones, The Black Crows, Indigo Girls, and many others that inspired me to create music of my own. It all lead up to meeting – and eventually being mentored by – one of my local heroes, singer/songwriter/guitarist Caroline Aiken, who so kindly helped show me the ropes and gave me a platform to be heard in the Atlanta music scene. Caroline has also generously mentored Hannah and me as a duet to help tighten and refine our intricate harmonies, as well as giving us opportunities to share the stage with her.

Our sound is a melting pot. We naturally like to be diverse and dynamic by having a spectrum of feels, from light, heavy, to funky. Our biggest influences are Heart, Grace Potter, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, First Aid Kit, Indigo Girls, Jack White, and of course ’90s icons like Meredith Brooks, Alanis, Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, TLC, and more.

HZ: I take a lot of inspiration from ’90s female singer-songwriters like Alanis Morisette, Jewel, Fiona Apple, Sarah McLachlan, Lauryn Hill, and Gwen Stefani. I also am extremely inspired by larger than life performers like Freddy Mercury, David Bowie, and St. Vincent.

Together, as The Pussywillows, we look to Black Sabbath, Tegan and Sara, The Runaways, Zeppelin, First Aid Kit, Jack White and lots more!

Photo Credit: Ed Lee

AF: You’re fixtures in the Atlanta music scene. How have the city and the creative scene impacted you and your careers? 

HZ: We adore playing music in the ATL! The scene here is exploding with talent. Depending on the neighborhood, I get to practice my jazz chops or write an R&B hook or headbang to live metal karaoke. Over the last couple years, we have formed this inner circle of players, producers, engineers, writers, dancers, venues, and filmmakers that have helped us take our art to the next level. These professionals are true friends who challenge us to dig deep and never give up on our goals.

AF: What are your plans for 2019?

HZ: Girl, you know we have big plans for 2019! We are putting out a 5-song EP this spring, along with music video shorts for every song. We are playing hometown shows and touring! We are also going to be in the studio working on more new pussylicious music. We are pushing ourselves to do what feels good and leave the rest behind.

Craving a little more #PussyPower? Connect with The Pussywillows on Facebook and Instagram for the latest and greatest.

PLAYING ATLANTA: Catching Up with Atlanta’s Favorite Girl-Boss, Sydney Eloise

all photos by Maggie Salesman

With a rapidly growing music school and a successful music career of her own, calling Sydney Eloise busy would be an understatement. Many Atlanta residents know her as the frontwoman of ’60s-infused indie pop group Sydney Eloise & The Palms, but she’s also founder at Little Treblemakers, Atlanta’s most colorful and innovative music school for children. With an aesthetic that can best be described in one word – sunshine – Sydney’s ability to guide children through their initial immersion into the world of melody and chord progression is rivaled only by her bright smile and infectious love for music. Her immediate connection with her students is obvious as they perform at their showcases, playing simple melodies or writing songs of their own.

Despite her hectic schedule, Sydney took the time to sit down with Audiofemme to discuss all things musical and magical in the new year. Read on for more about Atlanta’s favorite girl-boss and the world she’s created.

AF: You’ve done it all: written, recorded, and toured as Sydney Eloise & The Palms, taught at a Montessori school, and opened a children’s music academy. What’s been the most challenging aspect, and — on the flip side — what’s been your proudest moment?

SE: It’s been a journey, and I’ve enjoyed every phase and lesson that led me to this moment. I needed to tour and record just as much as I needed to teach full-time as a Montessori assistant. In those moments, I didn’t realize I was setting myself up for what’s next, or that I was mastering skills that would lead to me start my own business. I mostly felt a little lost as to what my path was. I love working with young children – their pure optimism and honesty are virtues we need more of in today’s world – and, as a songwriter and musician, I decided to see if I could apply my style of teaching with music education.

The challenge was taking a leap of faith and opening Little Treblemakers without a clue as to how this small business would evolve, if at all. I had no clue what I was doing, but I knew it was what I needed. I had a few students and no other source of income, so I buckled down and worked my tail off learning all I could about growing a business. I experimented with lesson plans and teaching materials and called upon my mentors and other teachers for guidance until I found my style and method. I am so proud to say LTM, at only (officially) a year and a half old, has a full roster with a waiting list, along with plans to expand by adding more teachers in the New Year. I am so amazed at the rapid growth of LTM, I’m just trying to keep up!

AF: How did growing up in a musical and entrepreneurial family help you lay the foundation for the life you’d end up building?

SE: We are our environment, and as a child, you absorb so much: what you hear, see, and experience really shapes your story. I was very fortunate to have two entrepreneurial parents who were also musicians. I watched my parents record music in their home studio, I saw my mother open a Montessori School in our house, and my father start his own construction company. He also built a website that was totally before its time, called Music Makers. It connected musicians together to share original music and helped them form bands in their area. When you grow up observing that you can create anything you want, the idea of working for yourself doesn’t seem so scary or far-fetched. If you put in the time, work your butt off, and are willing to make sacrifices and be scared, you will reap the rewards of following your dreams.

AF: Who or what has been the greatest inspiration for you? What keeps you going on the bad days?

SE: There are days where I feel totally overwhelmed with the business and how fast it is growing. I catch myself saying things like, “What am I doing? I don’t know how to run a business!” In those moments, I research and educate myself on subjects I still need to master. I talk to my friends and I call mentors who have been where I am, and I am reminded that no one really knows how to do this, and there is no secret manual to success. You just solve tiny problems every day until the big problems are smaller, and then you tackle those. My days are never bad! I get to work with incredibly adorable and talented little humans every day, and they make me smile and laugh!

AF: What’s it like to encourage and inspire the next generation of musicians? Which musicians inspired you as a child?

SE: It’s so magical to watch these kids bloom before my eyes! It’s incredible how quickly they can master concepts and grow their skills. To see my first-year students master chord changes and simple melodies, to my second- and third-year students writing original pieces or picking out groovy songs to perform, I am always in awe. I remember as a kid spending hours and hours looking up chord charts to Beatles songs, learning to play Joni Mitchell’s “Yellow Taxi” and Alanis Morissette’s “Hand In My Pocket,” so it’s really cool to have students who are interested in an array of musicians, from Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Sheryl Crow to Taylor Swift. We all start somewhere, and oftentimes the things we learn early on remain very powerful later in our lives.

AF: Do you think you’ll return to writing and performing, or do you think that opening and running Little Treblemakers is where you’re meant to be?

SE: I am always writing, because that is just who I am. I do miss performing and recording very much, and plan on diving back into that world very soon! I am right where I am meant to be though, and opening Little Treblemakers has given me even more purpose and reflection into the type of art I want to make and share with the world. Music is powerful and I want to contribute in a thoughtful way.

AF: How has the Atlanta creative scene impacted you, as a musician and as an entrepreneur? Why do you think it’s become such a refuge for creative types?

SE: Growing up in the city definitely helped me cultivate exploring ways to express myself. It’s the creative types that tend to build the culture of a city, and Atlanta does a wonderful job championing that. We have so much going on, from start-ups, visual artists, musicians, to film. It’s all booming right now, and it’s very cool to be a part of it.
Keep up with Sydney on Facebook and Instagram, and follow along with Little Treblemakers as it continues to grow and shape the next generation of musicians!

PLAYING ATLANTA: Starbenders Keep Rock Alive (And Weird) With Their Biggest Year Yet

photo by Vegas Giovanni

When considering the Atlanta music scene, few bands encapsulate the weird, ecstatic, constantly-changing energy as well as Starbenders. The halfway home for misunderstood misfits, fringers, and glam punks, Starbenders — made up of Emily Moon on the drums, bassist Aaron Lecesne, guitarist and vocalist Kriss Tokaji, and the fierce lead vocalist and guitarist Kimi Shelter — is a sonic assault from the very first note, and their legions of fans across the globe are ready and willing to prove it. 

In October, the foursome took their show to the other side of the world, touring for the first time in Japan. I caught up with the group upon their return to talk about touring far away lands, rebellion, and rock ’n roll.

AF: You just got back from what looked like an incredible tour in Japan. What was that like? What was the biggest difference from playing and touring in the US?

KT: Japan was incredible. There was so much to see and experience. The culture is so fascinating, and Tokyo is a remarkable city that’s so full of life and prosperity. While playing shows in Japan, we witnessed a certain level of respect and a passion for music that we don’t really see in the States too often. It was a very positive artistic environment. Everyone was at these shows purely for the love of music and the live performance. People were truly engaged, and they were there to see and feel something real and tangible. 

AL: I think in America we can be a little cynical or pretentious about music sometimes. Japan seems to be much more unapologetic in their appreciation for all things music. The enthusiasm there is palpable. There are record stores on every corner, and trucks drive through the streets with images of artists plastered on their sides. Big LED screens advertise new albums everywhere you go. The overall attitude towards music from audiences struck me as very pure and joyful. 

AF: How has ATL and its musical history influenced you? What statement do you want to make with your music about the city, and what do you love most about the Atlanta music scene?

AL: Atlanta is weird, and that’s the best part. That’s not only what I like most about it, but it’s also a statement I stand behind with our music. Keep being weird, Atlanta. I’ll always be proud to call you home. 

AF: What’s been the proudest moment for you guys? The most challenging?

EM: I’d say touring in Japan was both our proudest and most challenging moment. Flying 14 hours across the world to play music to an entirely different culture was both rattling and extremely fulfilling. I think I can speak for all of us when I say it didn’t really hit us until we arrived at the airport the journey we were about to embark on. The language barrier once getting to Japan was what was challenging – I remember a distinct moment during sound check when all we could do is tell the in-house sound guy, “Led Zeppelin! Make it sound like Led Zeppelin!”

KT: Playing in Japan was nothing short of a dream come true. We were able to meet so many wonderful people at these shows, as well as share the stage with some amazing artists. It’s a testament to how universal rock n’ roll is.  Despite thousands of miles existing between us, we feel the same love and passion for loud guitars and drums.  It was an amazing experience. The most challenging thing for us might have been the language barrier, as well as getting used to certain customs and a way of life we were not familiar with. Throughout our time in Tokyo, we were constantly learning and adapting to our surroundings, and that’s what really opened our eyes to Japanese culture.

AF: You’ve released a single and a new EP this year. How has your creative process grown and evolved since your first release in 2016? Is it collaborative, or does one of you tend to come in with an idea and present it to the group?

KS: I often compare our songs to a human body. I build the skeleton and the rest of the band and I work together to attach the muscles and tendons that mobilize the piece into a living and breathing organism. This has been our process since day one.

AF: 21st Century Orphan packs an even heavier punch than Heavy Petting, which was a killer debut album. Did you go in intending to sharpen the edge? Do you ever find it difficult to just let it all go and give in to the music? 

KS: Thank you so much! We move freely through different textures and genres. The moment you start trying to put bumpers on your creativity is the moment you will prevent something really special from coming out. I believe that you should only prune a grown tree – why disassemble the seed? We protect that sentiment as much as we can and that is what allows us to keep people guessing. It’s just the Starbenders sound. 

AL: Letting it all go and giving into the music is pretty much what I live for, so it’s definitely not difficult. Performance is an almost meditative state for me because my mind is never quiet and when we play, it’s liberating. It’s like going into a trance but exhilarating at the same time, and it’s the one drug I’ve never developed a tolerance for. 

AF: In my eyes, Starbenders is a musical representation of rebellion and nonconformity. You’re not afraid to blend genres, take risks, and create something entirely unique. What does that mean to you? How has music allowed you to express yourself freely and without fear, and do you think your fans feel the same way when listening to your music or attending a show?

KS: Music is freedom. I want to convey that freedom to the listener as much as possible. As an artist, we need to accept the vulnerability that comes with creating in a way that makes you strong and not weak. Art and beauty are in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. A compelling and consistent act should be polarizing.  I don’t want people to “sort of” like us. It’s better to be hated or loved. That’s what makes us free.

EM: I can’t really go around hitting people with sticks and honestly that’d be scary for everyone involved so luckily I’m in a rock band that allows me to beat the shit out of drums instead. I should hope when people see us perform they feel the angst and raw power in their bones that’s vibing off of the stage and if they don’t then they can just go back to scrolling through Instagram.

AF: One of my favorite questions to ask musicians is how they feel about being a voice for people who may be silenced, out of fear, insecurity, or even governmental/societal oppression. What role do you think art plays in giving a voice to the silenced?

KS: Through standing strong it might help to inspire someone out there to know they aren’t alone. I often tell people that if I can make it through, they can too. There are more of us than there are of them and WE belong to the misfits. 

AL: Personally, I hesitate to put art on a pedestal as some kind of noble pursuit in and of itself. Like any medium, what matters is how you use it. We put our entire beings into this, and I would hope the things we’re passionate about – equality, love, empathy, tolerance, and compassion – shine through as a positive message. That being said, we’re rebels at heart who aren’t satisfied with the status quo. We’re in the trenches with everyone else, and our job isn’t to speak for anyone so much as it is to raise the flag and beat the drum on the march towards change. If you’re ready to fix bayonets and charge, we’re right there beside you because we ARE you. 

AF: You’ve been heavily involved in various charities since your conception. What kind of awareness do you hope to spread using the Starbenders platform?

KT: Music is a powerful conduit. With all that’s wrong in the world, it’s our responsibility to use the tools we possess to help fight off the evil and the turmoil that exist in our society. We feel there is no stronger voice than rock n’ roll, and it’s necessary for us to use that voice to spread the word about issues we feel strongly about.

KS: Cultivating awareness through social media is a very big part of life now. But people can forget to put their bodies to work for the name of a cause. The physical realm still needs us and boots on the ground can be vital. We don’t work with charities for the brownie points; we do it because we have a calling to do so. 

AF: Who are you listening to, and who would you say had the most influence on you as a band?

KS: I’m all over the place. I grew up playing violin, so I carried the drama of classical music into my repertoire. Phasing from classical music I fell in love with punk, which developed the thunder in my heart. Thunder and drama met the mission when I encountered rock n’ roll. I listen to anything that grabs me… Vivaldi, Miles Davis, New York Dolls, The Sex Pistols, Bowie, Placebo, Dead Kennedys, Stevie Wonder. It’s not a musical act that carries the influence.  It’s thunder, drama and the mission. I’m moved by the storm that wakes me up in the middle of the night.

AL: As a bassist, most recently I’ve been digging in to how [Motown legend] James Jamerson played. He’s just so deft and slick but everything he plays serves the song, and his style defined a whole era. As a fan of music, that new Of Montreal album has me hooked. 

KT: My two biggest musical influences are Led Zeppelin and Prince. Others include Hendrix, Thin Lizzy, Pink Floyd, Queen, The Stones, Bowie, The Cure, U2, Oasis, Bauhaus, The Clash, and The Damned.  Rock n’ roll was my first true love in music, but I’ve always been fascinated with the other styles, genres, and sounds that the world has to offer. Classical and gypsy jazz are two other styles of music I adore and draw influence from.

EM: Paramore, Faye Webster, The Power Station…definite influence for some of our new recordings, Wolf Alice.

Keep in touch with STARBENDERS via FacebookInstagram, and Twitter, and check back with Audiofemme every other Wednesday for the latest installment of PLAYING ATLANTA.