L.A. Exes Serve Up Sunny Queer Surf Pop on Debut LP Get Some

Photo Credit: Molly Adams

Good vibes for dark times is the motto of four-piece L.A. Exes. Their beachy-meets-pop punk sound makes light of longing – not necessarily for a long-lost lover, but with a general sense of nostalgia expressed in a sonic wonderland of rock, pop and groove. The sonic signature of their debut album Get Some (released August 20) recalls the sunny-on-the-surface but malevolent-edged songs of the girl groups making lushly melancholic love songs in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

“We knew that we wanted to do this throwback production, and really play around with Beatles, Beach Boys, Shangri-Las references that we loved, and do our version of it,” explains bassist and vocalist Sam Barbera, who also helms her solo electropop outfit BEGINNERS, has collaborated with Kygo, and voiced an Apple campaign, too. “Creatively it’s nice to have different outlets like that, for whatever your mood is,” explains Barbera.

Barbera met L.A. Exes guitarist/vocalist Jenny Owen Youngs via Jake Sinclair (the Grammy-nominated producer of Panic! At The Disco, Weezer, et al). Guitarist Rachel White was his assistant, and Youngs knew drummer Steph Barker from the New York scene, rounding out the low-key supergroup line-up. “[Initially], it was very casual,” Barbera says. “The idea was, let’s just start writing and see what happens. In the very beginning, me and Jenny went to Jake’s house, and we wrote every song on acoustic. We’d write a song a day in a matter of a few hours, and just hang out.”

Youngs has three solo albums and a bunch of EPs under her belt, and has lent her captivating voice to TV soundtracks for Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy, Nurse Jackie, and Bojack Horseman. When she moved to LA in 2015, she began co-writing and collaborating up a storm, not least on chart hits “High Hopes” (Panic! at the Disco) and “Band Man” (Pitbull). She also founded podcasts Buffering the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars Investigations, in which dissects each of the cult series episode-by-episode alongside different co-hosts.

New Hampshire native and Berklee College of Music graduate Steph Barker has toured internationally with Kate Nash, Coast Modern, and Love Fame Tragedy. Her solo project Baby Bulldog released EP Rodney in August. She moved to L.A. six years ago from New York, which is where she’d initially met Youngs. She’d had been skeptical when Youngs explained that her friend Jake was looking for a female drummer, but when she met the band, she was all in.

“An all-gay band that’s doing everything that you’ve dreamed of and want to play, with all of your friends that are going to become your best friends? It was like, cool, yeah!” she recalls with a laugh.

The metallic buzz of surf guitar opens the album with “Skinny Dipping,” a foamy, salty wash of dissonant harmonies somehow swinging hula-hoop style into a joyful oneness by song’s end. Queer love song “Totally Worth It” introduces girl-group backup singers, with Youngs’ sweet falsetto wondering, perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, “Maybe I’m a bad person?”  The plaintive admission on the title track (“I just wanna hang out with my ex… get some”) dissolves into accusation (“You don’t love me like cocaine”) over a purr of “waahh-ooohh” harmonies on “Cocaine Girl.” A twist in tempo results in the mariachi-meets-marching band beats on “I Got Half A Mind.” It’s all dreamy, slightly kitsch-camp, guitar-and-choral hooky surfer pop, prompting the suspicion that Barbera and Youngs might actually be crying behind their chunky, ultra-dark sunglasses. Both women were experiencing heartbreak during the writing of the album, but it feels cathartic to listen to these songs, rather than somber.

Says Barbera: “At the time Jenny was going through a divorce. Our first writing session ever together, my girlfriend had dumped me the night before so I walked in literally in tears… that’s when we wrote ‘West Keys,’ so that song is about her… Steph fully wrote ‘Not Again’ and Rachel brought in ‘Cocaine Girl,’ then Jenny and I brought in the rest.”

Try not to shed a tear during the band’s dusky, pared-down cover of Cranberries hit “Linger,” a paean to the dearly departed Dolores O’Riordan that closes out Get Some. Including the song was a unanimous decision, according to Barbera. “When it came up as an option, all of us were like, ‘Oh yeah, this is perfect.’ It’s a song that moves all of us, and a lot of people. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who doesn’t like that song,” she says.

But L.A. Exes’ biggest influence is even more classic; Barbera says their inspiration was ultimate pop foursome The Beatles, approached through a queer lens. “Our closest reference to style of chord changes and harmonies was The Beatles, really. What would The Beatles be if it was four women?” explains Barbera. With their magnetic tunes, earworm melodies, and girls-to-the-front attitude all wrapped into a couple of minutes, L.A. Exes don’t stray far from that lofty mark. “We all come from different backgrounds. We’re into indie and punk. Those kind of leanings, once we were actually writing, filtered in there as well.”

Follow L.A. Exes on Instagram for ongoing updates.

OFTEN Turns Restless Uncertainty into Latest Sad Bop “Deep Sleep”

Genre-bending Atlanta artist OFTEN (who uses she/they pronouns) describes their project as “the queer love child of Donna Summer and Fiona Apple.” Such a description articulates the many intersections where the artists finds themselves: between their queerness and an intense Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, or being a Black student at predominantly white schools growing up. All these identities meet on their debut LP Dirty Saint, out October 8. Today, she premieres the video for “Deep Sleep” via Audiofemme.

OFTEN picked up their soul and jazz influences from their parents, but became obsessed with Fiona Apple once surrounded by mostly white classmates. “I was obsessed,” they explain. “I just really loved the way she wrote music. Her lyricism was really beautiful to me, and I was just like a really sad, angsty kid, so I just felt really connected to her.” Likewise, OFTEN’s lyrics are at turns poetic and melancholy, which might seem at odds with her love for Donna Summer, who she says “deserves so many more flowers than she gets.” They love Donna Summer for the way she showed the fullness of herself, slowing down her take on disco that was different for the time, and taking on sexualized subject matter without any fear. 

Summer’s influence appears mostly in the tempo of the album, which creeps along languidly like a breeze on a humid August afternoon, dense and heady. OFTEN layers vocals for a harmonizing effect, all placed over stark, slow synth beats. “I [call] myself a sad disco queen,” OFTEN says, “because I’m a really sad little person but I want to make sad bops for my people.”

And sad bops they are. While OFTEN spent the early pandemic reworking an EP they planned to release last year, life forced them to slow down. After losing the house she shared with her girlfriend, music “was just the only thing I had around for myself to keep me here, and stable, while so much of our life was unstable.” They wrote scores of new material in friends’ living rooms or spare bedrooms while they figured out their next move, reworking tracks from the EP like “By Summer,” “Deep Sleep,” and “Wake” to fit into a more cohesive whole.

OFTEN plays with the instability and uncertainty of this time in the new “Deep Sleep” video, which features a montage of footage from their pandemic year. She takes us from bedroom to living room to bedroom, interspersed with the natural settings in between, towering mountain ranges and smooth seas. You see OFTEN in several different beds, all with different bed linens and each time sporting a different make-up look. This articulates the passing of time, the journey from one place to another, the anxiety of a nomadic lifestyle but also the necessity of finding joy in the worst of times: her partner kisses her on the cheek as they stand outside a mobile home; she floats in the ocean on an inner tube.

The idea of sleeping is a theme that repeats itself on the record, or rather, examining the “places where you felt like you slept on yourself.” And by that, OFTEN means “feeling like I couldn’t, feeling like I wasn’t good enough, or just a lack of self confidence.” Dirty Saint is a re-worked iteration of an unreleased EP that dealt heavily with the fallout from a strict Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, one that doesn’t accommodate queer identities. They were working through what they had been taught, trying to deconstruct and rethink the concept of God on a personal level, but realized “I had a lot I needed to sift through for myself as just a person, and my childhood and upbringing,” before they could take on their complicated relationship with God.

“So Dirty Saint is more of me facing myself, and having a dialogue with my younger self, and realizing that she needed a lot of care and love from me she didn’t get,” OFTEN explains. “It’s kind of looking in the mirror and having a conversation with your earlier self. The things you did right, things you did wrong, places you felt you weren’t cared for.”

A previously-released video for “Palm Trees” articulates that struggle visually. We see two versions of OFTEN: one is more feminine, dressed in a flowing red sundress. The other reads more masculine, wearing pants and a crewneck sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. They argue with each other, before walking together towards the ocean at sunset. These internal contradictions are ultimately able to coexist with each other, in the realization that we are allowed to contain multitudes, that we are allowed to be many versions of ourselves at once. 

OFTEN says this album is an introduction to herself, from herself, a person and artist that is constantly evolving and learning how to self-define freely, and their hope is that it will allow others to “feel seen” as well. A fan of astrology, they point out these internal contradictions at play even in their chart, where a Sagittarius sun meets a Pisces rising, a fire sign muted by the emotionality of a water sign. And for now, that self-awareness is enough, in many ways.

Chani Nicholas has been telling me all year that the fruits of my labor are going to become something else,” they say. “So I’m really excited for what’s going to happen in the next few months, but all I can do right now is just keep making music. I don’t really know what’s going to come my way.” And really, none of us do. All we can do is keep making music, whatever that means for each of us.

Follow OFTEN on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Aussie Abroad Larissa Tandy Pays Homage to Three Hometowns with Singles Series

Photo Credit: Kane Hopkins

Australian-born, Vancouver-based Larissa Tandy is looking on the bright side in her latest single “No Fun.” It’s the final in a trilogy of singles she’s put out this year, following “Drive” on July 23 and “Sirens” released on May 21. All three were written and recorded between Nashville and Memphis with the help of Nashville’s finest session players and a legend of the Motown scene, Funk Brother Jack Ashford.

The trilogy concept was birthed through a very rational decision. Tandy knew she could only afford to create and promote three songs, as opposed to a full album. But by releasing them as a trilogy, she’s inadvertently captured a snapshot of her life across three cities.  

“They do speak to the different parts of my life,” affirms Tandy. “‘Sirens’ is very connected to my past in regional Victoria. The second song, ‘Drive’ is very much based on my time in Nashville – the people I was writing with, and stylistically fascinated by – and then the third [‘No Fun’] is related to my life in Vancouver. I do feel like I have three home towns.”

Riffing on Vancouver’s reputation as a beautiful, but boring place to live, Tandy complains that never stops raining, that everyone says they’ll call then they never do, but then finds the silver lining in they city’s overcast skies: “there’s still a million reasons to never leave this town.” Primary among these – Vancouver offered sanctuary when Australia refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of her marriage. She met her partner, Elisabeth, on a holiday visit to British Columbia in 2007. Tandy returned to Melbourne for nearly seven years before she and her wife made their home in Vancouver in 2014, and the couple welcomed their daughter in 2019.

The video, however, won’t be lauded by the Vancouver tourism authorities, with an unenthusiastic Tandy posing in various mundane settings around her adopted hometown, her head poking through an oversized postcard reading “Beautiful NO FUN”.

Tandy made it herself, including designing the seagull who’s mouth she inhabits in the video. “It’s currently propped up against the house in the backyard. I might actually do something with it at some point,” she muses. Sounds like fun, so that’s probably against the local laws.

Tandy’s accent is unmistakable in its broad, Aussie frankness. Her knack for storytelling and unexpectedly candid confessions in the least melodramatic of moments are also typical Australian traits. Now 45, Tandy was born in Sydney and grew up with her parents and older brother Ryan in regional Victoria, on the Mornington Peninsula, before making her home between Vancouver and Nashville.

“My dad was in the Navy,” she explains. “My dad was from Sydney and my mum was from Melbourne. I must have been so little when we were relocated to Melbourne, and there was also a short period when we moved to Tasmania. I got kicked out of boarding school, returned to Victoria and spent my teenage years on the Peninsula. I don’t think I’m normal enough to thrive in that [boarding school] environment. I was 10 when I went, so I was making sense of this whole other world, this reality I had no idea about before.”

A reality that did make more sense to a young Tandy was songwriting and singing. “Ryan had been in every single band that I’d played in, we’d worked together on everything,” she remembers. “I started a band around 2000. I’d been playing bass in this 3-piece but the other two people were a couple and they had a spectacular break-up during one of our shows… my brother was like, ‘Start your own band – just do it!’”

They did, expanding with bass players, backing vocalists and a drummer, but they had a booking agent who lamented that his venues wanted “quieter” bands. So, Tandy improvised and insisted they did have a quieter band, inventing the name Strine Singers.

Ryan and Larissa joined with another brother-sister duo, Mick and Lou Rankin in 2011, releasing their EP Counter Canter two years later. The folk-meets-country harmonising over gorgeously simple, steely guitar still sounds just as fresh and affecting as it did upon its 2013 release. The band amicably parted in 2014, though they’re all still close Tandy confirms. “They coaxed me out of my shell, and encouraged me to put more stock in my own work,” she says. “It was a good, really supportive environment, but I was ready to move into a solo thing that I could put my name on.”

Since 2016, she has travelled back and forth between Nashville and Vancouver, writing and collaborating fervently in East Nashville. Vancouver is home though, and upon settling there with Elisabeth, she wasn’t sure how to break into the Canadian music scene. “I’d just landed in Canada. I really didn’t know what I was gonna do. Strine Singers had wrapped up. I had this idea that I’d release stuff then go back and tour Australia,” she says. “I had all these songs and I thought I may as well try to make a record, though I had no music network in Canada. I did some research on Canadian albums I loved.”

That was how she met Jim Bryson, a studio owner in Ottawa who would eventually produce her 2017 solo debut The Grip. “Jim was [a collaborator and guitarist] in the touring band for Kathleen Edwards, a beloved Canadian alt-country artist. I really loved what Jim brought to that band, so I reached out to him and next thing you know I’m flying out East to make a record with him,” she recalls. “I stayed at his place for two weeks and we worked everyday trying to play as much of it as we could.”

Fortuitously, Australian friends and acclaimed singer-songwriters Liz Stringer and Kat Lahey were on tour from Australia so they featured on the album, too. They recorded it mostly in 2015 but it took a lot of research and work for Tandy to find a distributor (MGM Australia in Sydney and Nashville). At the same time, she was trying to juggle being her own manager, with no support team, and she’d also had four hip surgeries within that period.

“I really didn’t know how to put a record out… but that whole experience has a lot to do with where I’ve got to now, which is how to find a way to release things as close to when they’re written as possible,” she says. The Grip spent four months on the US Americana charts, attracting positive reviews internationally and winning her the prestigious Nashville Songwriter Residency. And releasing these latest singles in a purely digital format symbolizes Tandy’s rebellion against the slow-moving traditional system that dictates when and how artists should make and share their work.

“I founded the more I started to complicate the process, the more I created delays, whereas doing things digitally kept things simple,” she explains. “I created visual assets, the videos, and tried to do away with anything that interfered with the process and slowed things down. I had the opportunity to do this without thinking about the commercial aspect, I had some budget to do it and I wanted to get the ball rolling. I entered a great creative period of my life, I just wanted to clear the decks and make some space for it. I didn’t want to be stuck in the standard release system of releasing an album every two years and sitting on work for so long. I think it’s possible to build your own audience and the best way to do that is to keep nourishing the patch of turf that you have with more and more of your work.”

Tandy has her own home studio, which is where she’s assembling a collection of songs that she intends to release as twelve stand-alone singles, beginning in mid-2022. But Tandy plans to preview two songs per month via Patreon beginning in September, followed later by a traditional album that offers the songs as a cohesive collection.

“The songs that I’m writing for it are really personal so I’m trying to create something low-vibe,” she says. “I’m pulling them up, tinkering, it’s a different way to work.”

It’s a great time to get personal – with prime examples of women in country music writing about their sexuality, speaking about their partners and their queerness in interviews and owning it. “There’s a real movement in queer country that is so exciting. The amount of artists – queer or otherwise – who have endorsed hat movement, or expressed their allyship… there’s a sense that things are really changing in the industry and where the power once was, it no longer is,” Tandy says. “If someone tells me my music is ‘too gay’, I say it speaks to some people, and so be it. I identify as non-binary so I see it as a challenge that in this fast-moving environment, people want to understand things quickly and easily so the more complicated things are, it can be an obstacle [to people understanding]. The more authentic you are, the better off you’re gonna be.”

Follow Larissa Tandy on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Queer Acceptance and Electronic Body Music Meet on Forthcoming Brixx EP Conversion Therapy

Photo Credit: Nicole Reed Photography

Sabine Brix – best known as Brixx – isn’t afraid to plunge into the dark and embrace the sense of being lost and alone in the moments it takes to adapt to a new reality. The Melbourne music producer, composer and DJ repeatedly disorients and recalibrates herself – and listeners – on her forthcoming EP Conversion Therapy, out September 20 via Heavy Machinery. Despite the title, it’s not specifically about the brutal, enforced measures taken to try to deny people their sexuality, but it definitely addresses the liberation in accepting queerness in a world that is mostly designed for, and by, the heteronormative.

“I’ve had absolutely no experience with conversion therapy,” Brix clarifies. “It’s about transformation… I suppose it’s about embracing queerness and moving away from the perception of who we think we should be to evolve into who we actually are. So, it’s a transformation and a conversion of self.”

Born and raised in Melbourne to German parents, Brix’s queer identity emerged in her formative high school years. While other girls had plastered their school diaries with images of muscle-bound men from Manpower (“Australia’s Thunder From Downunder”), Brix’s choice of adornment provoked questions from fellow students.

“I had Drew Barrymore and thought it was strange that they all had men on their covers and I’ve got a half-naked woman on mine,” she recalls. “What’s wrong with that? But I remember a friend asking me, ‘Are you gay?’ and I said, ‘Well, no’ but I was quite defensive. Why was there this defensiveness, why wasn’t there more an openness? Like, maybe I am?”

It wasn’t until after high school that she understood and embraced her sexual attraction to women, freed of the claustrophobic ideas of what a gay woman might look like, or act like, since the only openly out girl at school was androgynous-looking and there were no other evident role models. Eventually, music became a tool for expression.

“I’m quite influenced by Electronic Body Music, techno, New Beat, breaks; anything with heavy percussion and a heavy bass line, that’s always at the forefront of what I do,” she says, adding that she’s constantly asking herself, “How do you express yourself emotionally without using the voice? I think that’s why I was interested in cutting up samples and having some references to homosexuality and pain, different little bits and pieces so that it’s audible that this is a queer release, so they dig a little deeper. Often with electronic music, if there’s no vocals or samples, you don’t know what that person is trying to achieve.”

In May last year, Brixx unleashed five tracks of darkwave-meets-New Order ferociousness via Parfé Records, in the form of her debut EP Corporate Punishment. If the Cocteau Twins were asked to DJ a warehouse rave in a dungeon, it might sound something like the icy stab of synths on “Mansplainer.” The robotic voice that injects its unwelcome opinions sums up the experience of being the victim of mansplaining perfectly.

Conversion Therapy is much more lush, atmospheric and dynamic than its predecessor; its first single “Double Axe” is immediately more inviting and enveloping than the snarling chill of Corporate Punishment. Though Brix’s signature dark undercurrent courses through, snaking invisibly around the basslines, there’s also a sense of romance and brief glimpses of ecstasy. Fans of Depeche Mode, Belgian electro act Front 242 and Ministry might hear remnants of those influences in the reverberating, haunting synths, that repeat like a mantra – hypnotic and somehow soothing.

The EP came together in three months, which was the time frame demanded of her by Flash Forward, an initiative of the City of Melbourne and the State Government of Victoria, in which 40 musical acts were partnered with a visual designer each to release a vinyl album through Melbourne label Heavy Machinery Records. Physical copies of heavyweight 12” black and white marble effect vinyl EP featuring original cover art by Bootleg Comics will be available in limited edition of 300. 

“The Flash Forward project came up really quickly. I had to create an EP within three months, when my previous EP took two years. I thought, ‘I have no idea how I’m going to manage this!’ becauce I only had one track,” Brix says. “It really forced me to push myself and… I think people would be surprised at what they can do when they’re faced with a challenge.”

Brix relied on her abilities as a storyteller – she studied film scoring in Sydney for a year, and her professional background is in journalism and writing, though she left full-time writing work five years ago – to communicate ideas and create a narrative within sound. Over four tracks, Conversion Therapy tells a story with an overriding theme of acceptance and celebration of queerness.

Beginning with “Shock of the New” – a cinematic ode to exploring sexuality for the first time – the story doesn’t follow a clear trajectory, exemplifying the “rollercoaster ride” of coming out and embracing the self. A fan of David Lynch’s ambiguous masterpiece Mulholland Drive, Brix made some elements crystal clear, but there’s so much left up to interpretation, too. The final track on the EP, “Metamorphosis,” features her friend, DJ and producer Black Dahlia. The track is eerie, driving and dark. Brix was aiming to instill a sense of uneasiness in the immersive and hypnotic drone that reverberates through the track.

“I really wanted it to be a journey in terms of coming out and then going towards self-acceptance. There’s a sense of hope closing it out, so that it’s not all kind of dreary,” Brix says. She met Black Dahlia last year, connecting over their mutual love of Electronic Body Music. They began to send each other WhatsApp voice mail messages, which they still do: snippets of vocals, found sounds, snatches of basslines.

“We like to create music where we’re making ourselves vulnerable,” says Brix. “I sent her a particular bassline, and told her some of the themes of the album, and she just came up with these vocals. She kept repeating this one line, ‘You tried to bury me, but I’m the seed’ and I just thought that was really beautiful and really played into the ways that I felt about coming out… burying toxic relationships… or homophobia. But then there’s also this uprising that can occur once you discover who you are.”

Follow Brixx on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Oompa Celebrates “Feeling Like a Bad Bitch” With “Lebron”

Photo Credit: Ally Schmaling

Boston-based rapper Oompa makes music as empowering as it is energizing and sonically unique, and her latest single “Lebron” is no exception. In the beat-driven track, her powerful voice raps about independence, confidence, and trusting yourself. “I’m the judge/And the jury/And I call it how I see it,” she declares in the first verse, going on to interweave biblical and basketball references alike into an upbeat self-esteem anthem.

Oompa came up with the idea to sing about pro basketball player Lebron James when she was contemplating who embodied “that feeling of feeling like a bad bitch,” she explains. “I was like, who must feel like a bad bitch all the time? It’s between Drake and Lebron — it’s got to be Lebron. It doesn’t matter what conversation Lebron is in — he just seems so unaffected by people’s opinions, and he outperforms himself. It seems like he’s always in competition with himself.”

She aimed to give a sound to this stance of being who you are and not worrying about anybody else through punchy drum patterns and a strong bass track. “I was like, when I’m in the club, I want to feel this tickle my sternum,” she says. She also incorporated sparse, sometimes nonsensical lyrics that flowed naturally without much thought — a style she’s applied to the whole of her forthcoming album Unbothered, which comes out October 1 and includes “Lebron.”

“I just wanted this whole project to be about fun for me,” she says. “It’s about removing this pressure to be a better lyricist or songwriter or have a better production team — all the things that suck the life out of making music. I never give myself that space; I’m super precise. [But here] I give myself permission to say things, and I think that comes through in the record. It feels fun and like summertime vibes.”

That would just as accurately describe the video for “Lebron,” which features Oompa shooting hoops and dancing on the basketball court with friends. “It’s really about seeing the city come together and having a great time on the court,” she says. However, it also alludes to the story of how the rapper got her stage name. “I used to play basketball at Washington Park, and all the older kids would call me ‘Oompa Loompa baby’ because I was short and chubby,” she recalls. This, for her, was a Lebron moment — not just because she was playing basketball, but also because she put herself out there and didn’t worry about what other people thought.

In a broader sense, her upcoming album revolves around the concept of joy. “Joy as aliveness, joy as a commitment to being on Earth, and also this idea that joy is not a constant; it is not a thing that once achieved, you get it forever, but it is about the commitment to the pursuit of it and finding joy in the pursuit,” she explains.

Her latest single, “Go,” for instance, captures the kind of sound you might hear by the pool on a tropical vacation, with dreamy synths, warped vocals, and a catchy R&B-inspired tune as she sings about the bliss of a new relationship that nevertheless seems doomed from the outset. Paying homage to funk and soul, the song was inspired by a moment Oompa shared with a partner. “We were in a convertible with the top down, and I was like, where are we going? And at the time, I was just completely avoiding all the red flags with a particular relationship and was like, we’re just gonna have a good time. It’s the summer, the top is down, we’re just gonna go ’til we can’t go no more,” she remembers.

Oompa recorded her latest music in a home studio she set up during the pandemic, where she honed her improvisational style. “I free-styled it four bars and free-styled it another four bars and wrote another five bars, and this was a process of letting go and not being so meticulous and feeling what it means to embody this place I’m in,” she says. “The process was a lot of freestyle, a lot of carelessness in the way that I needed.”

She’s currently working on several music videos as well as a short film to accompany her album. Outside of her music, she’s an activist for LGBTQ+ rights and currently serves on the leadership council for The Record Co, which provides affordable workspaces for emerging musicians in Boston, particularly queer artists and artists of color. The organization is “trying to understand the barriers between music makers and their music,” she says. “One of the biggest things we’d talked about was how hard it is to make music in the first place.”

In her own musical journey, Oompa has surmounted obstacles by being true to herself and following her passions. She began by rewriting Eve and Left Eye lyrics in her journal and rapping them, then joined rap battles in middle school, got into spoken word poetry in high school, and started performing on stage in college. “I was so afraid to perform, but I was like, I’ve got such a burning passion for it,” she remembers. She met some friends who help her put out her first mixtape and has continued to chase whatever she feels excited about – in true Lebron form.

Follow Oompa on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Melbourne Punks Plaster of Paris Distill Queer D.I.Y. Ethos on Debut LP Lost Familiar

Photo Credit: Kalindy Williams

Melbourne three-piece post-punk purveyors Plaster of Paris are bristling, vulnerable and truthful on their debut album, Lost Familiar, out June 23. After years of thrilling Melbourne with brain-shuddering, pelvic-shaking garage rock on stage at some of Melbourne’s finest rock venues including The Tote Hotel, The Old Bar, and The Espy, putting their raw, live energy on record has been long-awaited.  

Formed nearly a decade ago, shifting lineups and changing band names solidified in the last five years, bringing us the Plaster of Paris we know and love today: Zec Zechner is on vocals, Sarah Blaby is the goddess of guitar riffs, and Nicola Bell is deadly behind the drum kit. Zechner came from a grassroots, feminist, DIY collective from the inner West of Sydney, while Blaby is Melbourne born and bred. The two met when their former bands played shows and toured together. Both were involved in queer-friendly, trans-friendly shows and bonded over their proactive political and personal attitude to art.

“We’re not your average four piece – we don’t have a bass player,” explains Zechner. “Essentially, Sarah and I write songs together. I write the lyrics, and I like to use a really organic process – having a theme, a really visual idea, and building a song up slowly, like a painting. I like to use really visually strong lyrics, built around how I see the world. It’s almost a diarised experience. We’ll hum along a melody, then Sarah will write a riff around it. Then I’ll polyrhythm, and weave it in and out of guitars. And of course, Nicola’s an amazing drummer and an amazing filmmaker, who’s been nominated for multiple awards for her films.”

Working with engineers Casey Rice and Paul Maybury, plus post-production by Nao Anzai, Lost Familiar was recorded at Atlantis Studios in Tottenham, a church-based studio in Fryerstown just outside Melbourne, and the rest was done at Secret Location studios. The mastering was done at Rolling Stock studios in inner-suburban Melbourne.

“We love Casey, we love Paul,” says Zechner. “They’re fantastic engineers and producers. We wanted to work with Casey because they’re from a really DIY, punk background in Chicago. They’ve also worked with [Melbourne punk band] Cable Ties. They get a really punk guitar sound, which suits Sarah’s angular, sharp guitar – not unlike Gang of Four. Paul lived close to us, and we wanted to get the work done and finish the album sooner, plus the two of them are friends. We wanted a bigger drum sound and guitar feel, which Paul executes beautifully. He has a reputation for that real garage vibe.”

Nao Anzai has worked with big names in Australian music, including studio engineering for David Bridie and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, as well as doing live engineering for Tropical Fuck Storm and Alice Skye. “Nao is a wonderful engineer. He has worked on Cash Savage and the Last Drinks, Teskey Brothers – a lot of big names,” gushes Zechner. “It was just really good luck and a good friend introduced us to them. He did a beautiful job, and he’s got magical hands. He does a lot of live shows, festivals and things around the country and overseas.”

Thrashing out of the speakers with the spiritual essence of Hole’s “Violet,” Plaster of Paris’ “Newcomer” was originally released in 2017 on a dual 7” vinyl along with another track “Oh Wow.” The band decided to remix and include them on the album.

“’Newcomer’ initially came to me when I moved to Melbourne, but it took time to make sense to me,” says Zechner. “I talk a lot about Australian experiences – being a newbie, and reflecting on being the daughter of migrant parents. Moving from a small town to a big city, searching through dusty bazaars… searching for lost family, found family and connections, someone you can rely on to be there. That’s where the album title came from, too.”

Zechner’s dad is Austrian, her mother from New Zealand. “That’s informed my experience as a queer woman, growing up in a small town [Albion Park, south of Sydney]. Since 17, I was always moving to the big cities, fleeing childhood trauma: I’ve moved to Darwin, Canberra, Sydney. I’ve had a nomadic life, trying to fit in. I’ve worked in Indigenous communities in Darwin, and Nicola has too. That’s a big passion for us,” explains Zechner.

Another track, “Danceflaw” was inspired by the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, which Zechner responds to with determination to take a stand against terrorism and fear.

“I love ‘Danceflaw.’ That’s one of my personal favourites,” she says. “Both Sarah and I were in LA for a lesbian wedding in Palm Springs in 2016. We happened to be there during Pride and we were going to go out that night, but [the nightclub shooting] happened that night. The song is about how it’s political to stay visible, and remain visible, and to keep going to the dancefloors as a queer woman and queer person. Don’t let homophobia or outside influences pressure you into not being your fabulous self.”

Zechner and Blaby ended up going out that night and being together with community, drinking cocktails and supporting each other. “The next day, I remember seeing rainbows drawn on the footpath around Silver Lake in LA, and thinking about how beautiful that was,” she recalls.

The political and the personal are intertwined, anthemic and empowering on Lost Familiar, which has a wholly fresh take on the early ‘90s riot grrrl sound that was exploding in Zechner’s formative late teens. “My dad bought me a classical, nylon-stringed guitar for my birthday,” she recalls. “I remember staring at the Hole Pretty On The Inside cover, Babes In Toyland, Sleater-Kinney – also Sarah’s favourite band – then going to see Nirvana at the Big Day Out [festival]. I loved Nina Hagen and those big diva vocals, Marianne Faithfull, Anita Lane, and of course, Kate Bush.”

Zechner’s passions also extend into goth and darkwave bands like Depeche Mode, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy and The Cure. “I love buying that goth stuff on vinyl because it’s so rare,” says Zechner. “I’d rather buy that than a meal. In iso, I was living in my Sisters of Mercy hoodie. I saw them in Melbourne and sang along to every song until I lost my voice.”

It was important to Zechner and the band that they align with like-minded people, so opting to release their album on Psychic Hysteria was an organic fit. “Psychic Hysteria has similar politics to us… we’ve worked really hard at keeping this precious DIY thing quite strong and really grounded,” she says. “Sarah worked with Kurt [Eckardt] at PBS [a local community radio station]. It was my idea to say, ‘Do you wanna put my band on your label?’ And he said ‘yeah.’ They’ve got some amazing bands like Hearts and Rockets, Zig Zag and Shrimpwitch.”

Having found a supportive community, Plaster of Paris are ready to thrive in 2021. They’re currently organising an East Coast tour; in the meantime, Lost Familiar provides a burst of their band’s “unapologetically queer, feminist and D.I.Y.” ethos, satisfying fans who’ve had to wait a while for a debut, and likely bringing new fans into the fold, too.

Follow Plaster of Paris on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Joy Oladokun Chases Darkness and Light on Major Label Debut in defense of my own happiness

Photo Credit: Nolan Knight

Joy Oladokun has crafted noteworthy art with her major label debut album, in defense of my own happiness, out June 4 via Republic Records. Leaning into cinematic melodies that embrace a pop, R&B and folk-friendly blend, the Nashville-based artist has a voice rich and lush with stories of pain transformed into power. Across the album’s 14 songs – which include fantastic collaborations with Maren Morris and 23-year-old singer-songwriter and poet Jensen McRae – the Arizona native and child of Nigerian immigrants embraces themes of bettering oneself and cleansing her soul, shedding the trials of the past while standing tall in her own grace.

You can catch Oladokun on the road this year as an opening act on Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s tour in September, in addition to appearances at Bonnaroo Festival on September 2 and Austin City Limits Music Festival on October 1. Visit Oladokun’s official website for more information. In the meantime, here are five standout tracks on in defense of my own happiness. 

“Breathe Again” 

Featured in season 5 of This is Us, all it takes is one listen to “Breathe Again” to become an instant fan of Oladokun, even without NBC’s endorsement. Her voice sparkles like a gemstone under the light on this gentle piano number accented by a soft orchestra. “Breathe Again” serves as a true demonstration of raw vulnerability as Oladokun shares her personal, innermost thoughts with the world. Fragile enough to bend, but strong enough not to break under the pressure, Oladokun takes a hard look at herself as she’s trapped by inner demons, yet reaching toward the light. “Breathe Again” feels like a moment of self-betterment and rebirth, making for one of the album’s most triumphant moments.

Best lyrics: “Follow me down where the waters run deep/I’ll let you drown in the worst of me/If my intentions are good why can’t I come clean”

“Hold my breath until I’m honest/Will I ever breathe again” 

“I See America”

The album’s second shortest track is also among its most thought-provoking. Here, Oladokun takes an aerial perspective on the melting pot that is America. Rather than taking a stark political stand, she looks at unity from a refreshing perspective. Blending subtle observations with potent lyrics that manifest god in the form of a man on the street with a tear drop tattoo on his cheek and dirt under his fingernails, she also manages to illuminate the balancing act of human relationships. As she reprises the pinnacle mantra, “When I see you/I see us/I see America/I feel your pain/I share your blood/I see America,” it has a powerful way of manifesting in the listener’s spirit.

Best lyrics: “I feel your pain/I share your blood/I see America” 

“Mighty Die Young”

With a voice like an echoing beacon in the darkness, the dynamic artist delivers a tribute to the fearless leaders who used their voices to lift up noble causes, leaving this earth with glitter in their eyes, smoke in their lungs and dust on their tongues – symbols of a job well done. In two minutes and 18 seconds, Oladokun counteracts those who’ve dealt her more than her fair share of indignity with an endless well of kindness, ending the song with the fitting proclamation and a declaration of resiliency.

Best lyrics: “I’m not mighty/I’ve only just begun/The mighty die young” 

“Heaven From Here”

Alongside glimmering harmonies from duo Penny & Sparrow, Oladokun confronts mortality in this gentle piece. She sings of seeing a heavenly view through the cracks of the stained glass windows in an abandoned house once shared with the person she loved, now a relic of their faded union. With a plucked acoustic melody that evokes the feeling of rain bouncing off a window pane, the song finds her asking the universe to give her another day to enjoy life. It is as much a song about perspective as it is about pondering the mystery of life, likely to prompt deep thought in anyone who listens deeply.

Best lyrics: “Just terrified of getting older/‘Cause no one goes with you to the other side”


Oladokun ends the album on a light note with “Jordan.” Despite being baptized in the sacred Jordan River only to be bound in chains, she’s soon freed by a deep love. Building a new promised land with the person who saw past the scars and turmoil to the beauty underneath, the lyrics celebrate what they’ve built together. Carried by a peaceful instrumental, Oladokun culminates the song with the declaration,  “now I’ve found love, there’s no turning back” — ending her beautiful debut album with a defining statement that sets the stage for a bright future. 

Best lyrics: “You loved me though I was not lovely or deserving/You kissed the curse from my lips/And taught them to rejoice again” 

Follow Joy Oladokun on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Jayli Wolf Reclaims Every Part of Herself on Forthcoming EP Wild Whisper

Photo Credit: Hayden Wolf

With her two new singles “Child of the Government” and “Hush” and their accompanying videos, Canadian-born actress and musician Jayli Wolf is poised and proud of every inch of who she is. But her palpable self-possession and undeniable star-quality has been hard-earned, arising after many excruciating years spent coming to terms with some earth-shaking revelations around her identity.

Wolf spent most of her young life assuming her dark hair and tanned skin were the result of Mexican heritage, only to find out at eight years old that she was First Nations . This discovery—delivered by her estranged biological father who also had no idea he was indigenous—queued a process of personal exploration and reclamation that was later expedited by Wolf’s growing disillusionment with the Jehovah’s Witness community, the religion she was raised in and eventually left completely about a decade ago.

Understandably, the force of relinquishing her entire belief system and learning her true heritage blew Wolf’s world apart. For several years, she fell deep into depression and addiction before beginning to make music again—something that she’d loved since she was a kid, but wasn’t allowed to pursue professionally due to her religion. She charts this progression on revelatory solo debut Wild Whisper, out June 18.

Recently, Wolf spoke with Audiofemme about coming to terms with life after growing up in a “cult,” her indigenous identity, and bisexuality, which her latest singles so bravely and tenderly document.

AF: “Child Of The Government,” comments on the generational impacts of the Sixties Scoop—when, from the 1950’s into the 1990’s, the Canadian Government and the Catholic Church “scooped” more than 20,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children from their families and communities. I know you recently learned that this happened to your father. Was he able to get back in touch with his indigenous roots? 

JW: Yeah, he did. He thought he was Mexican because the Canadian government and the Catholic church changed his adoption papers and basically said that he was not eligible for Indian status, that he was not Indian, and that’s part of the erasure, like what they’ve done with our culture. And that was part of what they wanted with the Sixties Scoop. He thought he was Mexican and if he never found his family he never would have known.

So, he went up North. I belong to the Saulteau First Nations community near Chetwynd, British Columbia, and he was able to get the adoption papers and find his biological mother’s name and then he went and found his biological family. He went and he actually lived up on the reservation for quite a few years after he found my biological family. He got to spend a lot of time with them, and I just made it up there two years ago to meet my family. 

AF: Wow. So at the end of the video for “Child of the Government,” when you are standing with two elders—is that your father and your grandmother?

JW: That is actually my biological father but we got an actor for my grandma because of COVID—I didn’t want to fly her in. 

AF: Fair enough. So when was that, that your father got reunited with his family?

JW: I don’t actually know – years ago. I haven’t been close with my biological father so it’s only been the last couple years that I’m trying to rebuild that relationship. We’re not going to be a typical father-daughter but at least we can be acquaintances, so I’m getting to know him again. 

AF: Did he raise you? Tell me a little about your upbringing. 

JW: I was raised by my mom’s family. I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in a little town called Creston, BC, and my grandma pretty much raised me. My grandmother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and my mom had me when she was like 15, so we lived in a trailer – my grandma, her five kids, and me. My grandpa too, but my grandpa, he was like the opposite of my grandma—a severe alcoholic, you know, drug addict. So it was a really weird upbringing. A lot of polarity. And I had no idea I was indigenous. I actually thought that my dad was Mexican. I had heard that he was Mexican. It wasn’t until he let us know that he had found his biological family that I found out I was First Nations.

AF: That must have been an astounding revelation. 

JW: It was weird because when I was little I was outside all the time. I tan really easily, I get pretty dark in the summer, and [I had] long dark hair. Then all my mom’s family is like Danish—so blond, blue eyes. I always stood out in my little family. And then [seeing] my dad, it was like, oh, this is where my brown eyes come from, this is where my dark hair comes from. 

AF: That must have been a huge identity shift for you to know you’re indigenous. What did that process look like for you? How does that make you feel, learning that information? 

JW: Really, really good. Initially when I found out I was still a Jehovah’s Witness so it didn’t really mean a lot to me because the culture would have been something I never would have wanted to be a part of, especially spiritually, the Cree stories, the Star people. As a Jehovah’s Witness, that would have been very demonistic so I never would have honored my culture. And my growing up in a very white—like my mom’s side is Danish— so growing up in that, I had no knowledge of indigenous culture. It was life-changing to find out I was indigenous, but it really took reclaiming it and going back up North and meeting my family and reading and trying to connect with other people in my community… to be proud that I’m indigenous [and start] to understand it. And once I understood what my dad had been through and the history of everything in this country, the history of indigenous people, I was so much more connected to it. 

AF: Totally! So, you went back two years ago to meet your family? 

JW: Yeah. Two years ago I went up North and met everyone. Well, I already knew my dad but I went and met my grandma for the first time, my great grandma, all my cousins, my aunt. It was really cool because when I got to go back there, I started to learn about things that I never knew. Like, my cousin took me out in the forest and taught me how to forage for different plants and make different teas and my great grandma taught me how to make—she was making dry meat because she had her big dry meat rack, and she’s teaching me how to make pemmican. So, I got to learn a lot. She was teaching me words in Cree, she brought out her children’s book to teach me words in Cree. And hearing her stories about what happened to her when she was little and how they came to try to take her residential school… I got to learn so much just by meeting my family and I feel very grateful because I know a lot of people will never be able to make their way back home and have that connection. 

AF: And you put all of that into “Child of the Government?” When did you write that song? 

JW: I just wrote that song like 8 months ago, 9 months ago. 

AF: Was that your first time really writing about your indigenous connections?

JW: I would say so, yeah, because I was thinking about my dad and it just sort of came out and I was like, I think this is worth putting into the world. I think this needs to be said. 

AF: Did you know about the Sixties Scoop before learning about it in relation to your family? 

JW: I had heard things from others in the community when I started to do the reclamation work. But [when] I really talked to my dad, sat down at the table with him, seeing his adoption papers, that really hit me, because I was like, wow, the government literally lied. They literally just took your indigenousness away. They said no. They put a big x, you know?

AF: What did your reclamation work look like? Is that how the community refers to reclaiming your tribal status? 

JW: I mean, not for everybody. I think everybody has their own journey of reclamation. I would say for me it was a part of it but a lot of people don’t want to – a lot of people can’t get their status, first of all, because even if they wanted reclamation they have to be able to trace their roots back in such a way that the government can verify everything. Everyone has a different process of reclamation and for me, I did get my status, I did want to become a part of the community so I can vote and learn about everything that’s going on on the land that my family comes from.

AF: Backing up just a bit, tell me about your upbringing as a JW. Was there music in your life? 

JW: We could listen to music as long as there’s no swearing or debauchery or anything that’s R-rated, but yeah, Jehovah’s Witnesses do listen to music. It’s just… I could never pursue music. I could never be someone who could go on the road and actually be a musician because that would take me away from God, so I never thought I would be a musician. 

AF: Tell me more about that. Why is that considered being taken away from God? Because in some cultures, I know music is used in worshipping God.

JW: To be a Jehovah’s Witness, there’s so much time committed. We had our three meetings a week. I don’t want to go into all [the rules], because we’ll be here all day – the rules of being a Jehovah’s Witness are so time-consuming. You have to be stationed so that you can go to all your meetings and be a part of your little community group and make sure that everyone is watching out, like, if you’re doing good, if you’re behaving, if you’re following the rules. If I’m on the road [as a musician], that’s like freedom, right? I’m not going to my meetings, I’m not recruiting other people and going door to door and doing the responsibilities and that’s a huge part of serving Jehovah, serving God.

AF: Did you want to do music professionally from a young age? 

JW: I thought about it a couple of times but never thought I could actually do it because I was like, I don’t want to displease God. 

AF: Were you exposed to R&B and soul and the stuff you kind of draw on now in your music when you were in the religion? 

JW: My grandma listened to Elvis and she listened to old-time music. I wasn’t exposed to a whole lot of music. It was basically just my grandma would listen to the radio.

AF: So, what did leaving look like, and when did you leave? 

JW: So, I’ve been [out] for a while, more than a few years. First, I’ll answer what it felt like. It’s like dying. It’s like you literally have to die and be reborn. You know you’re going to lose everyone you’ve ever known, your community. Everything you’ve ever lived for and dedicated yourself to, you’re going to lose. And then your belief system comes crumbling down. Like, I talked to God every day and I followed all these rules for so long. And then to be like—I’m free. It’s bittersweet. You’re scared because you have to let go of the hope too, of paradise. So, now I know I’m going to die, but also I’m free. It’s something that’s very hard to put into words. 

AF: What motivated you to leave? 

JW: I figured out it was a cult. As soon as I understood that it wasn’t real, it took months to really deprogram myself and be like, well, this is not based on the Bible. It took a long time and realizing it was a cult was like, well, I can’t live my life like this anymore. I need to do what I want to do and be true to myself. 

AF: What exactly accounted for such a sharp change in perspective? Were you doing a lot of reading on the internet? 

JW: I was just getting into trouble. I wasn’t following all those rules and I stopped going to meetings. I was getting ‘spiritually weak’ and falling away a bit and started to ask questions. I was lucky that there were people around me that came into my life that answered those questions for me. They had already left [the religion], so they helped me to start to deprogram. 

AF: Was Hayden Wolf – your partner and musical collaborator in your other band, Once A Tree – one of those people? 

JW: No, actually I helped him get out. We just met when I was leaving and then within a month he was out. 

AF: That must help to have somebody close to you that can relate to being an ex-Jehovah’s Witness. 

JW: It’s so nice. It’s a whole conversation you don’t have to have. 

AF: Well, I also watched “Hush” and was really touched by the story behind it—how it’s a commentary on what you went through falling for a woman and realizing you were bisexual while you were still a Jehovah’s Witness. Where does that experience and realization fall into the process of leaving the religion? 

JW: I actually had a relationship when I was still in the religion. We hid it, me and this girl. But we both would pray for forgiveness all the time, and pray that the feelings would go away. I’m really happy to say she’s also out of the religion now and we’ve reconnected. I’m very, very happy about that. And before I met Hayden, I was already out, and I started to open up my life and date whoever the fuck I wanted. And yeah, that was so awesome, and so, so freeing. And Hayden is amazing, we have a kind of open relationship, and it’s beautiful. 

AF: Wow. So, is your sexuality received well in your indigenous community? 

JW: Yeah. [They’re] so accepting. 

AF: And as a Jehovah’s Witness that wouldn’t have been the case? 

JW: No. That’s like the ultimate sin, to be gay. [It’s considered] immoral. 

AF: So tell me about making “Hush.” Why did you feel like you needed to tell that story? 

JW: You know what’s interesting? I didn’t actually feel like I was going to ever talk about my bisexuality and then I was just drinking wine and sitting around and I started to talk to the girl [I loved] and we started to reconnect and I was like, man, I do want to talk about this. So, that night I finished talking to her, and I wrote that song. It just came out. I just kind of decided, I’m never going to feel shame over any part of myself and I’m not just doing it for me, I’m doing it for the other people who are still in the religion or thinking about leaving the religion. I wanted to really look at every part of who I am and be proud.

AF: That’s awesome. So, I know you’re calling from the set of a new show that’s coming out soon on Disney. Do you do a lot of acting, too? 

JW: Yeah, yeah. The show I’m doing now is definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been acting for four or five years now and kind of booking little things here and there like CBC shows and then this movie [I’m in is] coming out in July. It’s called The Exchange and it’s got Justin Hartley and it’s got the Borat director and The Simpsons writer, yeah, so that’s coming out July 29th. And then the show that I’m doing, I’m going to be filming until August. 

AF: Do you see your music and acting going together or are they two separate pursuits?

JW: I think they’re very different pursuits and I curve with it. Like right now I’m in acting mode, and when I get a couple weeks off I go back into music mode and then I’ll take an audition.

AF: I know you said that music has been a really important healing tool for you. Can you talk about that? 

JW: Art in general is so necessary for anyone who’s doing healing work. I think you need to express it, you need to get it out in some way, whether you share that with anyone or not. Dance it out, sing it out, paint it out. I don’t know where I would be without art as an expression. For me it’s very cathartic when I make music, but also it shows me who I am – it reflects back to me where I need to do more healing or how I’m feeling about something. 

AF: That’s powerful. It’s a mirror in a way. Tell me about writing songs for you. Is the process the same every time? Is it organic? 

JW: I like to freestyle. The only way I can write is to freestyle. So I’ll either have a guitar chord progression and I’ll freestyle lyrics, or there’ll be a beat and I’ll freestyle over it. And usually if a song doesn’t come out in a couple times, I move on. 

AF: Is guitar your main instrument? When did you learn? 

JW: I’ve been practicing for a long time. My aunt lent me a guitar before I left the religion, when I was like 15. I’m not a pro by any means. I really actually need to get back to it. This summer I’m planning to start working on instruments again. 

AF: Let’s talk a bit about this new EP. What binds it all together?

JW: It’s called Wild Whisper. It’s my personal story; [I] talk about being indigenous, I go in a little bit about the religion, my bisexuality. This word keeps coming up, but it’s just about reclamation of everything; of my indigenous culture, myself. It’s releasing shame. It’s me stepping into my power.

Follow Jayli Wolf on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Bay Area Neo-Soul Artist Simha Examines Imposter Syndrome on New Single “Losing Focus”

Photo Credit: Holy Smoke Photography

Growing up in the musical melting pot of the Bay Area, neo-soul singer-songwriter Simha gained an ear for both western and eastern musical influences. He seamlessly weaves elements of the Indian classical music of his heritage with jazz and soul sounds, the result being a lush, ethereal vehicle through which he expresses his emotions. He premieres single “Losing Focus” on Audiofemme today.

The song deals with the idea of “imposter syndrome,” a term that’s entered the popular lexicon to loosely mean doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. Simha says that for himself, it manifested as “feeling like doing music was not really something I was good at.” Collaborating with others in the past has helped keep that feeling at bay, but the pandemic forced him to adapt, to look inward and write alone. Though his imposter syndrome initially saddled him with a bad case of writer’s block, “Losing Focus” helped him dig out of it.

“I ended up writing the whole song by myself, and it was a lot of just sitting with myself, and trying to be as honest with myself as possible,” he says. “I still deal with it…but I think now rather than it being, ‘Oh no, this isn’t good enough, no one’s gonna like this,’ it’s more leaning into it and just saying, well maybe the fact that I feel insecure about this might change something about the way I write, or create something new in the music that might capture a different feeling for me.”

And it worked! The solitary time helped Simha to dig into his roots in Indian classical music in a way he hadn’t before, inviting his mother to play the tabla, an Indian percussion instrument, on the track. Simha’s mother had enrolled him in Indian classical music classes as a child and practiced with him at home, but collaborating together as two adults was a new experience for them both. “Being able to recreate that experience [of making music with my mother] was really important for me, because it pulled me back to the idea that music isn’t just work for me, it’s fun for me, you know? It’s something that really grounds me to my heritage,” he explains. “We were charting new territory together, and it was really fun, because I think she also discovered new things about herself when it came to her creative process and her expression, just this new thing she’s never done before. It was really insightful and really a beautiful process.”

The result is profoundly unique. The tabla rhythms weave in with jazz and soul sounds, all layered under Simha’s smooth vocals and deeply personal lyrics. A lifelong fan of jazz, soul, and neo-soul, he lists Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Lianne La Havas and Erykah Badu as major influences. They all shine through, but spliced with Simha’s beautifully intentional cultural injections it becomes something all his own. 

He’s working on an EP to hopefully drop late in the summer, and seeking opportunities to perform outside under remaining COVID restrictions. As a queer artist of color, he says that the “biggest thing for me on this EP, that drives it, is mental health, and specifically mental health awareness for queer BIPOC in the music industry.” The EP will emphasize these themes, and while he works on it, he’s collaborating with artist Emma Timberlea Brown (who designs his cover artwork as well) and an organization he started with some friends called The Humxn Collective to drop a merch line where 50% of proceeds will go to an organization that connects queer BIPOC creators with therapists in their own communities. “I’m really excited about that because the biggest thing I really want to do with this project is give back to the community that has basically raised me,” he says. “For the longest time, if it wasn’t for this community, I would be so lost. The influences I get, the support that I get, is really through how tight-knit this community is. I can’t stress that enough, and I’m really grateful for it.”

There’s no doubt that Simha’s community plays a role in quashing that pesky imposter syndrome by allowing him to see the beauty he is capable of offering to the world. He notes that “there’s so much amazing art that has come out during this time, which has been inspired by so many different things, so it’s really beautiful.” Simha’s art was part of this, and even if he doesn’t always see it, it matters.

Follow Simha on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Reginald Hawkins Celebrates Queer Liberation with “Tricks in the City” Video

Photo Credit: Hailey Kasper

Reginald Hawkins has always wanted to be a pop star. As far back as he can recall, he remembers going by “Popstar Reg” to anyone who knew him and performing at any chance he could. However, it wasn’t until February of 2019 that Popstar Reg was introduced to the world-at-large with his debut single, “Playing for Keeps.” Since then, Hawkins has expanded on his brazen electropop with “FRESH” in 2020 and his latest single and video “Tricks in the City,” released on March 26th. In “Tricks in the City,” Hawkins embraces his sensuality, addresses systems of oppression, and pays homage to Black queer culture. 

“Every time I release a song, it’s like a different era,” explains Hawkins, “it’s just really a reflection of who I am right in that moment.” And right now, for Hawkins, that person is an artist in the midst of immense transformation and learning. Growing up in a small suburb of Detroit, Hawkins attended a primarily white high school and didn’t have any friends who were Black and gay like him. As part of two marginalized communities, Hawkins felt himself assimilating to his environment as a means of survival. But since moving to Detroit in 2018, Hawkins has surrounded himself with artists and friends with shared identities and values and created his own community – the Tricks in the City – which catalyzed a period of vast growth. 

“This is the first time that I’ve been in an environment that is gay and Black all the time,” says Hawkins. “Being able to talk openly about the shit that we’ve gone through, as gay Black people…that helps me to break it down and just learn more about myself.” The “Tricks” are Hawkins and his roommates, who are all creative forces of their own. The video opens with Hawkins surrounded by his best friends in formation around a sleek Range Rover. With icy glares and impeccable style, the Tricks embody glamor at its purest form. With his crew in tow, Hawkins goes on to outline his ideal man, sparing no declaration of self worth: “If you wanna chance with me you better fly me overseas boy/Take me on a shopping spree/I got some big designer needs boy/Front row at fashion week London to Paris boy.” 

Hawkins explains that while this song is, in part, about knowing your worth and trying to find a good man in a small city, it’s also about breaking down oppressive structures and finding his true self. “It’s about understanding how I am being impacted by these systemic issues of colorism and racism and homophobia – internalized and external. And how can I not be an active factor in continuing to make those things happen to myself?” he says. “As you let go of those things that weigh on you, you inherently become a more confident person and learn about yourself and love those parts of yourself more.” 

Tackling systematic oppression within the confines of a pop song sounds like a daunting task, but Hawkins does it with ease, weaving cries for freedom between silky synths and pulsating drums – “Decolonize my mind, I am focusing on gettin’ paper/I’m all for that generational freedom that’s all I’m sayin’/I’m here on the right track just a Black man with some education.” His delivery is as fierce as his fine-tuned Voguing that follows in the breakdown. Hawkins explains that it was important to him to incorporate such an iconic part of queer culture into a visual that celebrates his identity. 

“I wanted to really highlight gay culture and show this really queer expression of ballroom and voguing,” says Hawkins. “That is our culture – especially as Black gay people in the United States… If this track is about freedom and decolonization and accepting my gayness and my blackness intersectionally, I need to really include that part of what that means.” 

In peeling back stifling layers of oppression and connecting with the history of his queer community, Hawkins has begun the journey to becoming his highest self. “As I slowly began to shed those layers, it revealed this more real and truer version of who I am,” says Hawkins. “I’ll never forget the person who I was. That person still defines me and is still in me in a certain way. But that person is freed now.”

Follow Reginald Hawkins on Instagram for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Adeem the Artist Reclaims Identity With Cast Iron Pansexual LP

There are few albums that capture such an array of the queer experience quite like Cast Iron Pansexual, the new LP from Adeem the Artist. Officially out Friday but premiering via Audiofemme today, the record bursts with personality, marked with deep moments of personal retrieval and reflection on queer identity and rural heritage, encompassing some trauma but also recovery from it. “I have found sexuality isn’t just who you kiss/It’s part of your unique identity,” they sing over plucky guitar strings.

“I Never Came Out” cracks open the conversation with plain-spoken honesty and a pinch of cheekiness. “Oh boys in tight blue jeans are driving me crazy/Boys in tight blue jeans with legs that go for days,” they howl with a bluesy growl. “Boys in tight blue jeans are driving me wild/With their poise and impeccable style.”

Unlike most LGBTQ+ people, Adeem, who now identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, really did not have that pivotal coming out moment ─ although the release of the record “feels like a definitive coming out moment,” they tell Audiofemme with a laugh. “At this point, it doesn’t feel like it’s something I’ve missed out on.”

Partly because of this, Adeem says they harbored reservations that they “could be centering myself in something that wasn’t mine” with the record. “Last year, I was thinking about identity and who I was when I didn’t see the same friend groups, [asking myself] who am I when I’m not experienced by other people?” In their story, a certain anxiety descended around them when “my friends started treating me differently and interpreted my jokes differently,” they say, noting a song called “Apartment” confronts this, head-on. “That was really scary ground to step into.”

Cast Iron Pansexual began as an entity unto itself toward the end of 2020, initially prompted by Adeem’s Patreon supporters, who desperately wanted a new batch of music. Writing a song a week, Adeem had “urgency to write” through such accountability. “I need deadlines,” they remark.

Some songs are much older, but a bulk of the record was written in the early months of the pandemic when they felt increasingly “isolated” from the world they once knew. “So much of my community is walking around in market square downtown and bumping into people I know or going to the grocery store and chatting with people from the show I saw,” they offer. Normalcy was completely ripped away, of course; Adeem says they “didn’t even make eye contact so I didn’t have to figure out how to communicate” with the implications of the pandemic looming so large over casual run-ins.

Adeem hadn’t really done much writing about their sexuality. While their world was opening up through extensive self-exploration, they were greatly influenced by nonbinary model and gender activist ALOK and their book Beyond the Gender Binary, released in 2020. Adeem also dove into “internet exploration of gender and gender expression,” they say. “All of that was happening while I was examining these early feelings of queerness and trying to pin it down.”

“I’m not trying to represent all queer people by saying I’m queer. I’m just accepting myself for who I am. I allowed myself to step into it,” they add. “I’m nonbinary, but that doesn’t mean I understand everyone who is nonbinary and can speak for them.”

A vital part of Adeem’s journey was growing up in a Christian household. Originally from Locust, North Carolina, they were baptized when they were just a kid, around five or six. Even then, they “had a pretty good understanding of the metaphysical and existential repercussions of making a decision like that.” Adeem’s church was comprised of devout believers ─ so much so, they were “waiting for Jesus to show up on cloud to take us to the new earth” ─ but Adeem firmly left the church when they were 23 years old, in 2011.

Over the next decade, they “came back a couple times,” including in 2014 when they entered the Episcopal Service Corp. During that time, Adeem discovered the teachings of two theologians named John Shelby Spong and Matthew Fox, both of whom “didn’t believe Jesus ever rose from the dead.” That was a light bulb moment. “When Spong entertains the idea that maybe Jesus is a composite of different characters, and all this could be a metaphor, that was cool to me. There’s still things in there I could be interested in if it’s just a mythology,” they say.

“Going to Heaven,” clocking it at under a minute, is the most forthright in reconciling what they were taught, coming to terms with the truth, and what faith means today, if anything. “On the back roads of my hometown/I was baptized once or twice,” they sing, as their story unfurls. “By some grifters in a storefront church/In exchange for eternal life.” In true Adeem fashion, such heaviness is sliced with refreshing humor. Later, they sing, “I can’t wait to go to heaven/Gonna have a gay old time in heaven/Fuck me, I’m going to heaven/I made a steal of a deal that day.”

Adeem wrote the song amidst a major professional change. They’d had a corporate job for a few years but began to feel the mental/emotional pressure — so they quit. “I’m just not good at having jobs. I’m definitely an artistically-minded person,” they say. Adeem then began doing various odd jobs for some friends to make ends meet, and one of those was driving up to Spencer Mountain to retrieve produce from The Mennonites who lived there. “I was driving through the forgotten towns of Tennessee and thinking, I can’t imagine being 13 and living in a town like this, where the Food City parking lot is lit up on a Friday night because there’s nowhere else to go.”

“I was really ruminating on heaven and hell,” they continue. “It’s important to some people. I would say now I could not careless, but when I was younger, especially in the years after leaving the church, it was heavy for me. I was thinking about how there are people who actively think I’m going to hell. I had this idea of writing a modern hymn and shoehorning in ‘Fuck me, I’m going to heaven!’”

Perhaps Adeem’s boldest entry is “I Wish You Would’ve Been a Cowboy,” a dismantling of country staple Toby Keith’s 1993 hit “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” into an ode of accountability. Adeem examines Keith’s role in perpetuating the extreme patriotism which sprouted up in the aftermath of 9/11 and the deeply troubling exploitation of the working class.

“Your twenty minute song props up Fascists/While you brag about kicking asses/With a boot in your mouth, exploiting the American South,” Adeem sings. There’s both a melancholic weight and an icy rage to their performance, specifically addressing Keith’s 2002 song, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which Keith alleges he wrote in just 20 minutes.

Looking back, Adeem says they were not anti-Toby Keith in the early aughts (that would come later). “I was probably pretty ambivalent toward it. I’d discovered Nirvana, and I was in a different space,” they recall. Their family moved to upstate New York that year, and much to Adeem’s shock, the area “maybe had always been kind of racist. It felt like there was renewed strength behind it.”

“There’s a theory country music was killed by 9/11. I’d been ruminating a lot on Toby. I like his music. He’s a great songwriter. I don’t think anybody would contest that he knows how to write a song,” Adeem adds. “He also wrote the shittiest songs in the aftermath of 9/11. They’re so violent and gross. I did so much googling to see if he ever apologized or ever reckoned with this. And he hasn’t once. The only thing I could find was him saying, ‘I wrote this song in 20 minutes.’ And I toiled for a year on this song, at least, trying to get the phrasing right and make sure I said what I wanted to say.”

They also reached out to Palestinian-American poet named Summer Awad to ask if she would take a pass on the song. “I wanted to talk about it, but I didn’t feel I should. My perspective is so much of a white redneck in America. So, I sent the idea to her, and she sent me back a bunch of the same ideas that were written from that perspective. I didn’t experience any Islamophobia or see much in my circle because… everybody was white,” Adeem remembers. “I wasn’t going to put it on a digital release or anything. I didn’t want to be unfair. I lob some accusations at him, that he is exploiting the working class. And I actually don’t think it is unfair. Who can say? Maybe Toby is picking the themes for the same reason I pick the themes I want to. Someone could say I’m exploiting the queer community for releasing this album, which is obviously not true. But I was worried about the nuance of it.”

Adeem was struck by a few other things. Around five years ago, they discovered the work of Roger Alan Wade and his 2010 album, Deguello Motel, which was “full of really brash poetry,” including the song “Rock, Powder, Pills.” “It was the first time I think I related really strongly with country music since I was a kid,” says Adeem, who largely grew up listening to pop-country on the radio. Wade was a gateway into much richer country music, like Guy Clark and John Prine, and this revelation “made me feel connected to being from the South. [It] was really healing for me.”

Adeem’s “origin story” is as country as they come. Their mother worked overnights at Texaco when their father “popped in to get some road beers, had a one night stand, did the Presbyterian thing and got married.” Through both their musical and personal journeys, Adeem has come “to listen to country music and view that as poetry instead of a reason to be embarrassed. It was like finding a gem in the backyard,” they say. “The more I grew into that, I got to thinking about my twang and how I spent so many years trying to cover it up. I didn’t want to be the redneck in a school in New York.”

Much of Cast Iron Pansexual is a love letter written to “the barefoot hick that I was as a child,” Adeem says. “I think it started to give me a lot of bitterness to those artists and that culture that made me feel so estranged in the early aughts. It got to the point where it was like ‘I don’t fit in here. There’s no place for me.’ And there really wasn’t. It wasn’t a scene that was welcoming to people who looked and thought like I did.”

The album arrives five years after 2016’s Kyle Adem is Dead, another watershed moment in their ongoing life story. In a blog post, written around the same time, Adeem wrote openly about “the religious questions that had chased me for years, the troubled relationships I was clinging desperately to, and the difficult work of sorting reality from fiction in a household where mental illness was often a guiding hand.”

Adeem’s growth and strength is palpable these days. Five years is an eternity, not only in the world at large, but on a micro level. “That was a big moment for me. I’d been going by Adeem with my friends for a long time, but ‘Kyle Adem’ was a moniker I was using to blend ‘this is who I was born’ and ‘this is who I want to be.’ I reached a point where people were calling me Kyle a lot, and it was triggering shitty memories of growing up in the South and the way people said my name and the way the world interacted with me then.”

Adeem dropped the name as a way to reclaim their worth and take up some space. Now, going by Adeem the Artist, they remind themselves “why I want to make albums and write songs.”

Adeem the Artist’s Cast Iron Pansexual is a mighty declaration of self, identity, and resilience that comes with living comfortably in one’s own skin. Even if they wouldn’t call themself a trailblazer, they’re certainly living proof that who you are is perfectly okay.

Follow Adeem the Artist on Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Aaron Lee Tasjan Talks Most Personal LP to Date, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!

Photo Credit: Curtis Wayne Millard

Aaron Lee Tasjan can still remember watching MTV for the first time while on summer vacation with his family, introduced to the music network by the local high school student his parents hired to babysit him and his sister. “There were two videos that really got me,” he professes. One was Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train,” which captured his attention with its acoustic riffs, the other being The Black Crowes’ cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.” After watching those videos, Tasjan says, “everything in the house became a guitar.” Tasjan happened to find a guitar pick on the floor left behind by a previous guest, which he took as a sign. “I treasured that guitar pick,” he says with emphasis. “I was just so fascinated with it.”

Fate would intervene again four years later when Tasjan’s family relocated to Southern California. A young Tasjan was at Vons grocery store with his mother when he spotted a small guitar shop next door offering lessons (the first was free, a sign announced). The aspiring musician convinced his mother to let him take a lesson, furthering his passion for the instrument.

The family later moved to Ohio; at the age of 16, Tasjan was invited to sing a folk song he wrote about peace at his school’s Columbine remembrance day event. The song led Tasjan to a life-changing opportunity to perform at a safe school conference in Ohio hosted by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary). Yarrow was so moved by Tasjan’s song that he invited Tasjan onstage to sing the Grammy-winning trio’s hit cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” That same year, Tasjan flew to New York with the Columbus Youth Jazz program and won the outstanding guitarist award at the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival. 

Each of these moments represent a seed planted in the music connoisseur, who’s since flourished into a genre-blending artist with his infusion of psychedelic-rock-meets-interstellar-pop. “My sound is informed mostly by what moves me. I never really thought of music in terms of genre,” he explains. “I have been touching all these different styles of music since I was a kid. It was just that way for me and always has been. All of these things are intentional and they’re done with purpose, and I think that’s why I seem to be able to do different styles of things that still connect with people.”

That’s evident on Tasjan’s brilliant – and most personal to date – solo album Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, out February 5 via New West Records. Introduced with a three-part video series that positions Tasjan as an alien lifeform kept awake by rock ‘n’ roll transmissions in “Up All Night,” searches the universe to fulfill his musical destiny on “Computer Love,” and takes stock of his journey, ultimately beaming his own unique sound into the cosmos with “Don’t Overthink It,” the record is a culmination of both Tasjan’s journey and his retro sensibilities.

Tasjan began honing his sound in earnest after ditching a scholarship at Berklee College of Music and moving to New York at the age of 20, where he met future pop hit songwriter Justin Tranter. The two formed Semi Precious Weapons, alongside Cole Whittle and Dan Crean, in late 2008. In large part to his connection to Tranter, Tasjan became immersed in queer culture, disclosing that he knew at an early age he was queer, yet wasn’t self-aware enough to understand it at the time. “I just knew that I seemed to be attracted to all different kinds of people and I didn’t know what that meant,” Tasjan remarks of having romantic experiences with men and women while in high school. “I never really defined that or thought of that as ‘I need to figure this out’ or anything like that. It was something that felt natural to me, to be able to fall in love with people that captured me in some way.”

Tranter was instrumental in helping to broaden Tasjan’s horizon when it came to queer culture; he’d watch in awe as Tranter orchestrated photo shoots while indie designers Tommy Cole and Roy Caires of fashion brand Alter (formerly known as This Old Thing?) designed the outfits the band wore on stage. The two also attended several drag shows together, Tasjan marveling at the art of performance – and later referencing his relationship with one of the queens in “Up All Night.” “They weren’t just doing this performance, they were living this performance. It gave you a whole new sense of what it meant to really be authentic within the context of whatever it is you’re trying to present in art, but to really come at it with intention and a desire to be seen,” he observes, adding that Tranter pulled inspiration from drag shows into the band’s live shows.

Tranter and Tasjan also experienced the discriminatory side of being openly queer. Tasjan recalls how Tranter would be chased down the street after coming out of a club in certain pars of town, and recounts a frightening experience when the two were chased by a man in his car. “That was not an uncommon part of [Tranter’s] life. Because I was his partner musically and we had this band together, those moments just broke your heart, largely in a way because they felt too common,” Tasjan reflects, adding that he’s been met with a fair share of disapproving looks that were “always interesting.”

In the fertile Lower East Side club scene, they met rising burlesque performer Stefani Germanotta, sharing bills in small LES venues with her as she developed her electronic pop persona Lady Gaga; Semi Precious Weapons would go on to open as special guests for lengthy stretches of her Monster Ball Tour, once her first singles catapulted her to fame. But by then, Tasjan had left Semi Precious Weapons to perform as the lead guitarist for New York Dolls, and formed his own band, The Madison Square Gardeners, before eventually moving to Nashville in 2013.

Staying true to his identity is embedded in Tasjan’s DNA, exemplified by the autobiographical single “Feminine Walk.” Describing the song as “the naked truth,” the song comes halfway through Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, which the artist says he recorded some 22 songs for, filtered down to 11 that “happened to be the ones where I was really singing about me,” he notes, adding that the subject matter of “Feminine Walk” “doesn’t leave room for guessing” in terms of its subject matter. Tasjan candidly sings, “I get one look, two look, three look, four, every time I’m at the bathroom door,” and though the track is ultimately celebratory in feel, he admits the song served as a “good opportunity to use my creativity to challenge my fear beliefs,” he says. “Everything kind of fell out because it was always there. It was like it was just waiting to happen the right way.”

Tasjan entered the writing process with a vivid childhood memory of walking down the street with his dad when he was no older than eight, donning a ’70s style bowl cut and an “androgynous” look that prompted an older child to stop the father-son pair and ask “is that a boy or a girl?” while pointing at the young Tasjan. He recalls another experience in a Denver airport as an adult, standing at the sink in the men’s bathroom washing his hands wearing jeans, a pea coat and hat when another man walked in and saw him, immediately walking out with a spooked look on his face. Moments later, he returned, laughing and saying that he initially thought he walked into the wrong bathroom. Tasjan laughs himself as he recites the memories, void of any animosity or bitterness. “My sense is more that they’re intrigued by it, and that’s what’s angering them more so than who I’m being,” Tasjan points out, using the song to investigate the curiosity of how people carry themselves and the impression it makes on others.

“I thought about that in my life and how some people have these qualities that seem to capture others in all sorts of different ways, but for some reason, people are captured by the way that somebody looks sometimes whether it’s for a good reason or a bad reason,” he muses. “I just happen to be one of those people. Everybody at some point in time has felt insecure about the way in which they’re perceived – we’ve all had an experience like that.”

“I like songs that I feel like are a part of the cannon, a part of the conversation of music that’s been happening for a long time. That song to me felt like it could be a part of that because I wasn’t sure that I had heard a song before where I had heard somebody say it quite like that. So that made me feel like ‘this is a good road to go down with this one,’” he adds. 

“Feminine Walk” allows Tasjan to explore the differences in perception that often translate into vulnerability – and that exploration doesn’t end with those anecdotes. Tasjan shares another distinct memory from his youth when he proudly invited his classmates on the playground to gather around as he attempted to do his impression of Michael Jackson’s famous moonwalk, feeling a sense of accomplishment when his peers asked him to do it again, only to realize they were actually making fun of him. It’s a moment that Tasjan says draws a parallel to his life as a performer, inviting people in to explore and immerse themselves in his wonderment – wholly accepting the genuine reactions from each individual.

“People’s perception of everything is going to be colored by their own experience, so you put yourself out there knowing that. It’s not really yours to create the experience for someone else – you have to allow them to have that experience on their own, which means it’s going to take on a different meaning than whatever it was that you intended, and I think you just have to be cool with that,” he observes.

“I seek out these moments purposely. There’s something about testing how far is too far, how much is too much. Something about that does inspire me creatively, or makes me feel like I’m pushing myself into a place that I haven’t been yet,” he says. “That’s my goal to do that on every record.”

Follow Aaron Lee Tasjan on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Sadie Gustafson-Zook Meditates on Queerness, Catcalling & More on ‘Vol.1’ EP

Photo Credit: Rachel Gray Media

Folk artist Sadie Gustafson-Zook’s EP Vol. 1 is a paradox: it’s the specificity of the lyrics that make them relatable. Gustafson-Zook sings with precision about moments in her life, from riding the train in Boston to mistaking a bird’s song for a street harasser, but her reflections on these experiences relate them to broader challenges nearly all of us contend with.

Gustafson-Zook moved from her Indiana hometown to Boston for grad school in 2017, pursuing jazz studies at Longy School of Music. In the time period between then and now, she came out as gay. She consequently describes the EP as one about “uncertainty and gay stuff.” The first track and first single off the EP, the cheery “Lean in More,” for instance, is Gustafson-Zook’s “first gay song,” she says. In a classic, candid singer-songwriter style, it describes her first lesbian relationship and the feeling of having “found something that felt really true and honest,” she explains. “I felt kind of late to the game in terms of not thinking about dating people who weren’t cis men until I was 24 or so, so this song was kind of like coming home.”

The next track, “Birdsong,” is deceptively whimsical, with dreamy harp and scatting, as Gustafson-Zook sings about hearing birds chirping while waiting for the bus and thinking she’s being cat-called: “Bird song makes me squirm/because I’ve learned to assume it’s from a man/standing by the road/cig in tow/making all kinds of demands.” She goes on to reflect on the hyper-vigilance that stems from constantly being subjected to sexual harassment and the male gaze.

On “Two,” she sings about dating someone who seems to have two different personalities, the repetitive tonal structure evoking the madness such a predicament can lead to. In contrast, comforting piano chords take center stage in “Alewife,” giving off a friendly vibe as Gustafson-Zook describes everyday snapshots from Boston’s public transportation system.

“Everyone,” a meditation on the pervasive sensation of being judged, closes out the EP, with a haunting melody in minor keys to emphasize that very discomfort. Gustafson-Zook wrote it during a visit to her parents’ house as she worried what people in her small town would think about her sexuality. Like “Birdsong,” it shows how we can feel others’ eyes on us even when they’re not looking.

“It wasn’t even that anyone was reaching out with bad things to say or criticisms,” she recalls. “But I definitely was feeling that there would be pressures, people would be trying to tell me what’s best for me or who I’m supposed to be, and really, it’s kind of just a declaration of me trying to own my evolution and trying to figure out who I am on my own before taking in other people’s perspectives on the matter.”

This is the first collection of Gustafson-Zook’s that was made in collaboration with a producer — namely, Brooklyn-based musician Alec Spiegelman. “I had a lot of ideas, but wanted somebody to help me make the musical decisions,” she says. They worked out of his home studio, and he added unexpected flourishes, like layering in flutes and clarinets.

“I wanted to do more with tracking one part at a time so that we could have lots of really interesting textures that wouldn’t be really possible in a live recording setting, but I also wanted to retain some of that live energy,” she says. She and the harpist Mairi Chaimbeul, for instance, recorded harp, guitar, and vocals at the same time, then tracked everything else on top of it.

Vol. I is Gustafson-Zook’s first EP, but she’s already got a full-length album under her belt, 2017’s I’m Not Here. In addition to making music, she holds a remote day job as a communications manager for an LGBTQ health clinic and teaches voice lessons.

The EP is the first half of a full-length album, Sin of Certainty, slotted for release later in 2021. She’s currently setting up a home studio to record the second half of the album, which she describes as more upbeat and varied in its instrumentation than the first. “We ended up recording all the mellow songs in the beginning so we could get the harp on them,” she says.

Gustafson-Zook raised over $15,000 on Kickstarter to create Sin of Certainty, a title that may resonate with many right now, as it reflects the album’s overall theme of accepting an uncertain future. “I’ve been thinking a lot recently about change and how to deal with it,” she writes in the Kickstarter description. “As I get older, it’s become apparent that the only constant is change.”

Follow Sadie Gustafson-Zook on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Ruby Mack Premieres “Jane,” a Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community

four members of Massachusetts folk band Ruby Mack
Photo Credit: Gianna Colson

Massachusetts-based folk quartet Ruby Mack, consisting of Emma Ayres (Vocals/guitar), Abbie Duquette (bass uke), Zoe Young (guitar/vocals) and Abs Kahler (fiddle), are on a mission to redefine the sacred in a way that encapsulates all people and all aspects of life. Their music shines a light on those demonized in religious scripture, particularly women and LGBTQ people, to honor and celebrate their identities. Their latest single, “Jane,” is a beautiful example of this aim, soulfully capturing the love and loss associated with the LGBTQ experience.

“Jane” was written by Ayres in response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, with a past partner of hers in mind. “It’s just kind of our love song to anyone who feels like they can’t openly exist as their true selves in this world,” says Kahler. “I think the world can sometimes be a pretty inhospitable place to queer folks, people of color, any kind of minority, or anyone that’s treated as other.”

Influences like The Wailin’ Jennys and The Highwomen are evident in the band’s sweet, gentle vocals and minimalistic instrumentals. The slow, mellow single consists of melancholy fiddle, acoustic guitar, a simple rhythmic bass track, and emotive vocal harmonies. “It became a powerful thing for us to all be singing the harmonies together,” says Kahler. “The parts where it’s one voice and then the other voices join kind of echoes that sense of community that we were trying to express.”

The instrumentals start off simple and build as the track picks up, with the vocals getting increasingly loud and passionate toward the end, mirroring the intensity of the emotion in lyrics like “Oh they can keep you from fresh water/You’re the cold rain set me free.” Then, you can hear Ayres’s voice crack with emotion as the song returns to her stripped-down vocals. “The goal is to make people who may not have felt that pain have empathy,” says Duquette.

“When we’re performing that song, I always feel like there’s a lot of space for silence and softness, and it feels very holy,” Kahler adds. “I feel like that was kind of a theme that ran through some of the pieces in this album that we’re releasing — just really holding space for the sacredness of life and of queer life.”

The album they’re referring to is Ruby Mack’s debut LP Devil Told Me (out October 23), which explores feminism and social justice through the lens of religion and mythology as well as modern life and recent events. The soothing folk tune “Machine Man” is an ode to blue-collar workers, and the a cappella “Breadwinner” is “a thank you to all the badass momma figures out there” who support their households, as Kahler puts it, “but also about ourselves as well: We want to be your breadwinner. Let us have that role. We can take care of you. We don’t need men to do that.”

Several songs were written by Ayres, incorporating her interest in oral tradition and storytelling. “For Icarus” retells the Greek myth of the man who flew too close to the sun, commenting on the ways people get carried away with their imaginations, and “Odysseus” is a passionate plea to the mythical hero to return home and avoid the temptation of the sirens.

Overall, the band considers the album a reclamation of the story of Adam and Eve, celebrating female curiosity and knowledge. Accordingly, the album art features a serpent wound around an apple. “Eve ate an apple because she had curiosity, and without curiosity, what is anything?” says Kahler. “We all deserve the things we need and desire, and we shouldn’t be punished for going after those things like Eve does.” This attitude is best summed up in the lyrics to “Milktooth,” an angelically sung track about challenging gender roles learned in childhood: “Holy woman said I deserve what I want.”

Given the album’s overarching themes, it’s appropriate that it was recorded in an old converted church, with the help of Ghost Hit Recording engineer Andrew Oedel. The members, who originally met through the Massachusetts folks scene after each making their own music, consider their friendship a central part of their music and aim to capture their chemistry and authentic emotion in their recordings. Nine of the ten songs on Devil Told Me — with the exception of “Milktooth” — were recorded live to achieve this.

“I feel like that sacredness and that holiness was something that space already held,” Kahler says. “And we are at our most raw and most ourselves when we’re all playing live, and I feel like that definitely translates.”

Follow Ruby Mack on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Dead Method Unpacks Generational Trauma On Debut LP Queer Genesis

Lloyd Best is fearless. He hasn’t always been, but there came a time when he needed to look himself in the mirror and confront his trauma. In order to conquer it, he peeled back his bandages and attended to wounds he had long forgotten ─ or simply suppressed. As any queer individual can relate, such a journey isn’t easy, and it’s rarely without its price.

Known professionally as Dead Method, Best unleashes his debut, Queer Genesis, a gnarly and warped alt-pop dance record, with an unsettling paintbrush and a singular voice. Across nine songs, the Welsh singer-songwriter dips into themes of “heartache, loneliness, depression, and anxiety as effects of oppression,” he says. Each track excavates various kinds of trauma, including misery “passed down through generations of oppression.”

“Queer souls rest here,” he mourns on title track and album opener. A collaboration with HVNTER and MADI, it rings as almost a funeral march, a prayer like a handful of dirt cast upon the millions of tortured souls who never had any rest or justice in this world. The haunting centerpiece, slathered with an afterlife glow, ties directly into “a feeling of sadness and panic that queer people are conditioned into feeling.”

“It’s not always safe for us to walk down the street, to live in our homes, to go to a club,” he further explains. “Some of us have had such terrible experiences that we are unable to just relax in places that we should feel safe in.”

With producer James Minas’ otherworldy style underlining Best’s evocative and soul-squeezing stories, Queer Genesis pumps with sinister musical outlines. It’s fitting that Best has an affinity for horror films, including Pet Sematary and Alien, borrowing trace amounts of unsettling synth work and various other components. “I am drawn to those dark vibes, but it’s very much a sound that we’ve spent years refining and comes very naturally to the lyrics and melodies I write,” the musician says.

Songs like the rattling, chain-bound “Babylon” and closer “Haus (of God),” flickering with electronic debris, interlocks the queer experience of deep “longing for a family when the one we’re born into is not there for us,” he says. “So many people have to create a family, and each of those songs is a different side of the same coin in that experience. The despair of being forced out of a home and the beauty of creating a new one.”

While Best has very supportive parents, many of his close friends do not. “Our bonds run deeper than blood,” he sings in the latter track, which celebrates club culture while never losing sight of the fact that building a family within the shared queer experience literally saves lives.

Only piano in tow, “Bleach” is Best’s artistic pinnacle, a performance so devastating you can feel the wreckage tumble down around him. “There’s a monster in me/And I fed it,” he wails. While working at a call center, and feeling creatively stuck in second gear, he put pen to paper and quickly realized his soul was literally crying out for help. “My music career was stagnant, and I felt like I was fading into the background,” he says. “I suppressed my identity as a result of being told I was acting too gay in comparison to my band members, and it felt like a battle I was losing.”

His mental stress was like a bulldozer, crashing into every facet of his life, and his physical health soon bottomed out. He became so severely ill that he was “confined to my apartment and found that no one was visiting me or checking in ─ other than my partner, who worked throughout the day,” he remembers. “I was alone for the majority of the day with nothing but my sickness and my thoughts, and at that moment, I had to make a decision to choose to live or waste away. It was a hard-fought battle, but I managed to come out of the other side.”

“The structures for helping those with poor mental health in the UK are dreadful, and so many of us fall through the cracks,” he continues. “Queer people are statistically more likely to have poor mental health, and as a result, it becomes another form of oppression keeping us down.”

“Hurt” locks into a similar emotional puzzle. Wintry sounds sweep across his mental desolation, letting his vocal completely burn to the cold earth. One of his very first artist songs – written with album producer James Minas when they first started collaborating seven years ago – the heady track wrestles with giving someone too many chances. “It’s like you’re dancing on my grave,” he cowers into the dark.

When you think you know what to expect, Best tosses out some jarring (but refreshing) curveballs. A song like “Violent Men,” dragging the listener into some macabre club rave, jolts the system awake. Not only does its frantic energy course through the body, but its lyrics hit even harder. “I wrote [this song] the day after the most recent UK election. Seeing the Conservative party rise to power left me with an empty pit in my stomach and a feeling of utter dread,” he says. “I looked around the world and found so much of our trauma is passed down from the violence of wealthy men and women in power.”

“Go to war/Die on the dance floor,” he sings, inhabiting a very unsettling vocal transformation. It’s a simple but acidic line, further puncturing to the emotional core. “Most of us just want to exist in peace but we’re tricked into being pawns in a game that we cannot afford to play,” he says. “I wrote the song to empower people (and myself) to reject the great game and to hold these vile people accountable for their actions.”

“Chasm,” a twisted piano spinning like a tilt-o-whirl, consumes from the inside-out, mimicking what it’s like to be arrested by existential dread on a daily basis. “Will it ever get any easier?” Best begs. He probes and digs, coming up empty handed, and he’s left to his choir of mental demons instead.

“Existential dread is new to me. I’ve had bouts of depression in my youth, but it didn’t really hit me hard until I was in my mid-20s,” he admits. “It’s the anxiety that really gets me. I found myself drinking a lot and spending money I didn’t have to cover the cracks in my life, but that shit always catches up with you. That feeling of this entity always following close behind, knowing a reckoning is coming, and you can either face it or keep running, is terrifying ─ but utterly liberating if you choose to face it.”

As scary as that process can be, catharsis comes more quickly for Best via the songwriting process. “Each song on this album was written in less than an hour, and by that, I mean the bare bones: the lyrics, the melody, and subject matter. I find the longer it takes me to get that stuff out of my head, and in writing, the worse it is, and I usually end up scrapping it,” he says. “My best work seems to flow out of me all at once with only minor tweaks needed to words and melodies from there. I think the majority of the work comes in the production and finding the right sounds.”

Queer Genesis is Dead Method’s awakening. He defies his past, picks up the pieces, and soldiers forward. The war is far from over, but he’s at least far better equipped to cope. “This record has really helped me understand who it is I want to be, what my values are, and what I stand for,” he says. “It allowed me to stand in the light of my queerness and be comfortable with being 100 percent myself. It gave me the confidence to exist without compromise and to let go of some of the traumas I accrued in childhood and adolescence.”

He confesses that while his journey may never really be over, it doesn’t necessarily need to be totally understood in this moment. “I am comfortable enough to lean into it and to create art that is authentic to me, to know my power, and to challenge the glass ceiling that has been placed above me to stop me from getting further in life. I’ll just keep chipping away until it breaks.”

Follow Dead Method on Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Inspired by #BlackLivesMatter and LGBTQ Marches, Autumn Nicholas Premieres Video for “Side by Side”

When soul-pop singer-songwriter Autumn Nicholas witnessed #BlackLivesMatter protests out on the street near her home in Raleigh, NC, she didn’t feel comfortable jumping into the fray. “I had fear because of what the TV and news blasted – they lacked the good, it was all focused on the bad,” Nicholas says. “But I wanted to make a difference and raise my voice.” She asked herself what she could do to further the movement and how she might inspire others who are hesitant to protest. The answer to that question was her latest single, “Side by Side.”

“I chose to write about it and learn more about the injustices and the facts behind the news,” Nicholas says. “I took away my own fear by connecting with the community and the artwork posted to display everyone’s voices through images.”

The song spotlights her powerful, rich vocals with minimal instrumentation, primarily acoustic guitar and piano. You can hear the passion in her voice, not just for social justice but also for her music, as she sings, “I can’t understand why we all just keep taking sides/Why can’t we sympathize?/If we really care about each other’s lives/Then let’s go and make it right/Standing side by side for equal rights.”

On September 14, Nicholas released “Version A” of the song, which is intentionally minimalistic; she wanted to release it as soon as possible just to get the message out. But she also plans to record a “Version B” featuring more production and other artists of all different races from different parts of the world, representing the unity she sings about.

When the queer, biracial artist plays the song live, she introduces it by talking about #BlackLivesMatter. “It grabs the attention and captures the importance of those words,” she explains. However, she adds, “it is deeper than that — it’s about equal rights and LGBT, but it ties in as a whole to unity, something during these times we do not have a lot of, especially since we are feeling like we’re trapped in our homes, like we are divided, whether it’s by sickness or by color. I hope this song can bring some unity to our time period.”

In the video, she performs the song in Raleigh in front of different pieces of street art related to #BlackLivesMatter and other social justice movements, her way of giving her community a platform and a voice. For “Version B,” she plans to make another video that spotlights even more street art. “I want it to focus less on me and more on the words and the art and the community,” she says. “It was a little bit rushed because we were getting it out before any of the artwork was actually taken down.”

“Side by Side” will appear on Nicholas’s second EP Shades of Beige, a followup to 2016’s Chapter 1. The other songs on the EP are consistent with the message of “Side by Side” – unity and equality – and Nicholas cites Pink as an influence on it. “She has very strong beliefs, and she also is more of an anthem singer; she sings about things that are really passionate to her,” she explains. One of the songs she’s working on, for instance, “On Sunday,” is about the internal conflict of belonging to a religion and being LGBT and “trying not to be placed in a box just because you are gay,” she says.

She’s still hard at work on the EP, as the process of recording music during COVID-19 has been a challenge. “It’s been hard because of the times we’re going through, the lack of spaces to go and produce it,” she explains. “That’s been a struggle, but we are working tirelessly, hand in hand with where we are and where the world is and whatever phase we’re in, trying to adjust and make this EP work and release singles as fast as we can with the times.”

In the meantime, Nicholas has also been developing a clothing line called Unbrand.d, which features items designed to be worn by anyone of any gender. “Ever since I was younger, I have had issues with finding clothes I liked to wear that weren’t super girly but weren’t boy-y either,” she explains. “Some people call it tomboy, but I’d rather not call it a gender, and my goal as I gain success is to create a brand where people can feel comfortable in the middle.” She’s currently working on rolling out the first item from the brand, a t-shirt whose proceeds will go to a food bank.

Growing up with a father who played drums and a brother who played guitar, Nicholas took up the guitar herself at age 13. “I just wanted to show off — that was my main goal. I didn’t think I would actually make a career of it,” she laughs. When she’s not creating music or clothing, she spends time with her family, her partner, and her “25 pound child” — that is, her dog. “Making sure I stay balanced in being a human and an artist at the same time has been a journey,” she says.

Follow Autumn Nicholas on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Dream Nails Explore Queer Love and Feminist Rage on Playful Debut Album

We’re going through a precarious time for women’s and LGBTQ rights, and London-based punk band Dream Nails has a lot to say about it — and, most notably, is also doing something about it. The band, which has labeled their Riot-grrrl-inspired style of music “witch punk,” made headlines in 2016 for a song aiming to hex Donald Trump and prevent him from taking office, and their self-titled debut LP, out August 28, contains the mix of political passion and humor that they’ve become known for.

The band has been political from its origins. Lead singer Janey Starling and guitarist Anya Pearson met through a feminist activist group five years ago, and the additional members shifted over the years, now including Lucy Katz on drums and Mimi Jasson on bass. They began playing mainly for feminist collectives in the UK but have gained wider appeal since, which Starling chalks up to feminism going mainstream.

But Dream Nails — a name inspired by a nail salon down the road from Starling — wore feminism as a badge before it was cool, not just in the content of their songs but also in the way they conduct business. They’re self-managed, split labor equally, make sure the venues they perform at have safe-space policies and gender-neutral bathrooms, push for diversity in lineups they’re part of, and use their music to raise money for causes like domestic violence shelters and reproductive rights. “We’re activists first, musicians second, but I think those identities are increasingly intertwined,” Starling says.

Following its 2017 EP Dare to Care, the band wanted to release a debut album that represented the biggest themes of their work. “We specifically curated all the tracks on the album so there was a good balance of capital-P political songs, anger, fun, and queerness, because all of these are integral to our identity,” says Starling.

Queerness in particular is central to many of the songs; “Kiss My Fist” is perhaps the most overtly political, examining the “weird juxtaposition of living in a world where the most-searched term on Pornhub is ‘lesbian’ but queer women get beaten up in the streets,” as Starling puts it. It was inspired by an incident last year in London where a group of boys threw coins at a lesbian couple after asking them to “show how lesbians have sex.” The song “is about just wanting to get from A t o B without being beaten up,” Starling explains. “Do you want us on your screen? Do you want to hear us scream?” the lyrics ask. In “Payback,” a song addressed to perpetrators of sexual assault, the anger is similarly palpable, with shouted lines like “Hey mister, get your hands off my sister!”

Other music on the album is more personal; much of it was written based on Starling’s own coming-out journey. “Jillian,” a sarcastic track poking fun at TV fitness celebrity Jillian Michaels and fitness culture in general, is also about “realizing you’re queer while doing a workout DVD when you just broke up with your boyfriend,” Starling laughs. The song, whose video features body-positive clips sent in by fans of themselves working out, plays on Michaels’ mantra that “pain is fear leaving the body” by describing Starling’s process of shedding the fear of coming out.

Along the same lines, “Swimming Pool” references dreams Starling had while she was confronting her sexuality. She considers “Text Me Back” the other queer song on the album, though it’s about a phenomenon people of all orientations can likely relate to — ghosting — with playful lines like, “Don’t make me double-text you.”

This range of serious and fun topics exemplifies what Dream Nails stands for: speaking up about important issues going on in the world, but all while maintaining a sense of humor and uplifting listeners. In this spirit of playfulness, the album features little “skits” in between songs. One gives self-defense tips, another prefaces the subsequent song “Vagina Police” with the disclaimer that they stand in solidarity with trans and non-binary people and not all women have vaginas, and another features a simple call-and-response chant: ”Do you want to go to work? No! Are you going to go to work? Yes!”

“Women in punk are associated with being angry and rageful, and we are all those things, but we also have so much fun at our shows,” says Starling. “We’re constantly laughing and joking, and our lyrics are silly and funny. We don’t have to just be angry that no one gets prosecuted for rape; we can also laugh at the fact that our love interest doesn’t text us back, and both those things are equally important to our existence.”

Follow Dream Nails on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Fab the Duo Release “Our Love Is Resistance” EP to Celebrate Pride Month

During a time of upheaval and turmoil, Fab the Duo’s music provides an uplifting message of resilience and perseverance. Today, the queer glam pop-rock duo is releasing their debut EP Our Love Is Resistance, which tackles LGBTQ rights and social justice more broadly on a political level, as well as their own experiences as a gay couple.

The members, Greg Driscoll and Brendan Eprile, met on Tinder three years ago and have been performing together for the past two years. The EP release was originally scheduled for April but got pushed back because of the Coronavirus. Truly, there’s no better time to share their debut with the world than Pride Month – and the songs have taken on a new meaning in light of the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests.

“We realized, as artists, it’s important to hear our voice, and we had to share the message for social change,” says Eprile, who also considers the release’s timing appropriate due to the recent Supreme Court decisions to protect transgender rights in the workplace and block Trump’s ending of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The first track on the EP, “Our Love Is Resistance,” is the most political. The strings and theatrical singing, with lyrics that make powerful statements like “love trumps hate,” give the song a dramatic, anthemic feel, and the video was filmed at the Stonewall Inn, the site of the historic LGBTQ riots in the ’60s, with an intentionally racially diverse cast. “We decided to keep the video black and white to show how timeless this is,” says Eprile. “The Stonewall uprisings happened over 50 years ago, and it shows how what we were fighting for then is what we’re fighting for today.”

“No Prince Charming” and “I Want a Man,” deal with empowerment in relationships, and the last, “American Icon,” deals with redefining what it means to be American, particularly in terms of LGBTQ inclusion. “Every song has to do with a different element of love, whether it be self-love or world love, love for each other, love in a relationship, love of the world,” says Eprile. “Every song goes into this overarching theme of love, and we like to think this EP tells the story of our love – from where we met to where we are now.” The album is an important step toward representation and visibility for queer couples.

Musically, you can hear hints of pop artists like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, as well as older glam-rock influences like David Bowie and Queen, combined with Driscoll’s musical theater background. Eprile says they aimed to infuse retro, blues, and rock influences into a modern sound.  Whether harmonizing or giving each other the space to belt a solo, the cooperative vocals reflect the EP’s overall message of simultaneously cultivating self-love and togetherness.

Self-love on its own can be an act of political resistance, Eprile points out. “Being who you are and loving who you love is so powerful in itself and does so much to change the world,” he says, “especially in times where there’s so much hate and anger and division.”

“I personally hope people get from this that love is achievable no matter who you are,” adds Driscoll. “I hope they realize that it can’t happen until you love yourself first, and I hope people realize that love has a lot of power in the world.”

Follow Fab the Duo on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Freddie is Ready for Their Closeup with Melanin Monroe EP


You know you are in for something good the moment that Oakland singer Freddie’s voice comes in on their EP opener “Oblivion.” Later in the song, their rich, evocative voice moves to deliver that ever-elusive diva wish: “I wanna be adored by ya/I wanna be adored by everyone.” It almost sounds slurred, or mumbled into a collar. But nothing is truly that sloppy in the world of Melanin Monroe, where songs switch from rap to R&B to soul with the gleeful precision of a gymnast changing grip on the uneven bars. “Oblivion” retains its glam, R&B sensuality, even as Freddie runs through rapid, breathless bars in the rap outro. The enunciation may not be perfection, but I don’t think that’s the goal here – Freddie’s aim is to keep the listener on their toes at every turn.

The R&B and soul genres easily lend themselves to expand into adjacent styles, whether rap or something else, but rarely is the mix ever this playful or deft in balance, and Freddie manages a feat on Melanin Monroe by honoring each new element without letting one overshadow any of the others. This could be due to the power of Freddie’s voice alone, which sounds natural in each of its many iterations, but the transitions are especially smooth on “Oblivion” and “Banjee.” “Banjee” is — and there’s really no other way to say this — a fucking bop. “If you a bad faggot with some bad habits let me hear you sang/let me hear you sang!” Freddie drawls at the apex of the chorus, as a tropical-adjacent beat tumbles down after their vocals. It sounds like a church organ that had one too many Mai Tais, and it’s a choice that turns a good song into a great one, one that deserves to be blasted out of car windows all across the Bay when it gets to hot to to keep them shut.

“I’m lookin’ hella five to the one-oh,” Freddie announces pre-chorus (the area code for the Bay is 510 for you out-of-towners). What does it mean to look 510, to embody the Bay Area? For Freddie, this means, in part, to be Black, to be queer, to be gender non-conforming, and to make music about all these experiences with tenderness and precision. Of course it’s not that simple; there are a million different answers to what it means to “be” the Bay Area, and they can be seen on the streets of every town and city as people protest, as people try to smile through their masks, as people go on their daily walks with their hand hovering over the pause button.

And yet! It is brave, still, to make music as a Black, queer, gender non-conforming person in the year 2020, especially taking into account the danger people of those identities face, daily, unfairly, without respite. Despite genre shifts, despite welcome levity with lines like “slim thick like a grown bambi,” Melanin Monroe represents a desire to be seen. Not just in terms of love or sexual desirability — though that is important too, as noted in “Weak,” where Freddie bemoans the shifting attentions of a lover — but in terms of personal autonomy. Instances of having to declare the self are sprinkled throughout the EP: “Banjee” has a little chanted “I’m Benjee/I’m Banjee”  backing the chorus, while “Y D K M N,” a rework of the 1999 Destiny’ Child hit, “Say My Name,” is more literal about the power of putting a name to something, whether it be a person or a relationship. Freddie lets it be known that they look 510, if you will, because sometimes there is no other choice but to make a declaration of the self and the right of said self to exist in place, free from (or at least defiant of) the panicked oscillations of fear.

Not that getting to that place of declaration is easy. “Fitness” is atmospheric and has some fun ’90s throwback vocal stylings, but below the basic sentiment of the chorus (“I’ve been putting in some hard, hard work”) is a sense that it took Freddie a long time to get to the place where they could confidently sing the opening line (“click, kaboom/everybody knows when I step in the room”) with authentic bravado. But the work, whatever it was, paid off: Freddie has a voice worth listening to, both literally and figuratively.

Follow Freddie on Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Bay Area artists who would like to be featured in this column can reach out to @carmakout on Instagram.

PREMIERE: Sammy Rae & The Friends Uplift Fans With “Whatever We Feel”

Photo credit: Jen Vesp

Sammy Rae & The Friends are appropriately named: the group’s recordings, performances, and online presence are all about friendship, not just among the band members but also among their fans and followers.

Their latest single, “Whatever We Feel,” is an anthem for self-expression, encouraging listeners to do, say, and wear what they like. The hook was actually written by another band member, Myra Moon, and Rae developed the song after hearing Moon singing it in the green room before a show.

“I thought about all of the members of the band and the different things they like to do that make them distinctly them, and how we walk to the beat of our own drummers as individuals,” she explains.

In the true spirit of America’s ongoing self-isolation, Rae describes wearing hoops and brightly colored socks around the house: “I been putting a show on for me babe, I’m the only one who knows it,” she sings. Her jazz background is evident in the instrumentals, as well as the scatting and melodies in the vocals, but she also describes this as one of her more accessible, pop-oriented singles.

As part of the LGBTQ community, this message of individuality is important throughout Rae’s work. “A lot of our audience is queer, and a lot of our audience is 16-19,” she says. “At that age, I was struggling to find a positive environment for me to stand authentically in who I was, and also positive role models in the queer community who weren’t outwardly waving flags in a way that might make my parents or even me uncomfortable. So, I think it’s important to me because it hits close to home, and I want to be the role model I wish I had when I was younger.”

Rae takes her position as a role model seriously. She gets around 100 direct messages a day, and she responds to all of them. She remembers fans’ names and faces, reaches out to people she sees repeatedly, and shares livestreams of her life to help followers feel connected to her.

Rae also addresses issues related to gender in songs like “The Box,” where she sings, “If you put a woman in a box / And a man right there beside her / Tell ‘em both to play the leader / Who you think would take the lead? / Which of them will get their point across / And which of them would just have to ‘yes, indeed?'”

“Before we play it live, I say, ‘It’s a song about how we love each other and love ourselves,'” she explains. “It comes from an experience of looking at an intimate relationship that was close to me with someone else and just saying, ‘How can I be the best woman for you, and also, how can I reach out to you and some of the things you need as a man, and how do I break down that boundary and understand you and let you understand me in a way that is very much not gendered at all? How do we take care of each other in a way that lets us break down these barriers and end up close to each other?'”

Rae plans to release and record a few more singles over the summer. In the meantime, she’s focused on not only spreading positivity on social media but also feeding off the positivity coming from her own followers. “The friends we have online, these numerous personal relationships with all of them, have created a space where I feel their positivity as well, as it does feel like we’re all good friends,” she says. “I feel lucky to have that sort of fan base.”

Follow Sammy Rae on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Katie Pruitt Finds Her True Identity With ‘Expectations’

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Katie Pruitt’s Expectations is a declaration of self-acceptance.

“I’ve never really been a subtle writer,” Pruitt admits in a phone interview with Audiofemme. “I’m pretty damn straightforward.”

Pruitt proves this statement across her 10-track debut album that takes the listener into her innermost thoughts and personal revelations. She recounts personal experiences spanning the past four years – particularly moving away from her conservative North Atlanta suburb to attend Belmont University in Nashville, owning her sexuality and embracing her true identity in the process. “It was a pretty personal record,” she admits. “I knew I wanted to use these songs to tell my stories as accurately as I could.”

Pruitt uses this poignant body of work to share her journey to self-acceptance, beginning with “Wishful Thinking,” which confronts the false narrative that true love is as picture-perfect as we see in the movies; rather, it is embracing ones flaws is a true expression of love. She tackles mental health struggles in “My Mind’s a Ship (That’s Going Down),” which sees her surfacing from a state of depression, depicted through a mundane daily routine she’s longing to escape from. “For me, the answer to that was gratitude for things I already had instead of looking for things that I wish I had.” she explains. “I feel I keep having that revelation over and over again.”

But she ventures to a truly personal space with “Normal.” With a softly strumming guitar, Pruitt takes us inside the halls of her Catholic school where she said seven hail Mary’s for copping an attitude while feeling “scared as hell” because she knew she was different from her classmates. “I feel like a lot of times, I just did what I was told up until leaving Georgia. There wasn’t really much diversity, so I didn’t really have many examples of what living an individualistic life looks like,” she explains, conscious to add that she was raised by a community of “good people.” “I feel I looked around and everyone was wearing the same clothes brands and saying the same things and acting the same way, and it just started to seem pretty robotic. I started to really reject it the older I got.”

Using college as an escape, Belmont became a sanctuary for the young star, surrounded by creative, artistic people who broke gender norms and immediately welcomed into the LGBTQ community, a sense of belonging she didn’t always receive in her hometown. She captures this suffocating feeling in the stirring “Georgia,” which she cites as the most vulnerable song she wrote for the album. The stunning piano ballad takes a stark look at how Pruitt predicted her community and parents would react when coming out to them, envisioning her mother shouting at the top of her lungs and her father screaming with rage that he didn’t want a daughter whose soul wasn’t saved. “He thought if I told the world/They would not see me as the same girl/ They’d say I don’t belong/That’s where he’s wrong,” she sings with a voice that could shatter one’s heart like glass in the gentlest way.

But in spite of their initial opposition, Pruitt’s parents came to terms with her sexuality – in large part thanks to “Georgia,” which she almost didn’t include on the record. After having a conversation with her parents about the content of the song, they embraced the its message, knowing it could help others. “I love my parents. They’re great people – they just struggled with this, and now we’re in a great place. The thing about the song and this story is that it’s not unique to me, and there’s people that this could help.” Priutt says. “[My mom said] ‘If you really think there’s people that this could help, I agree with you that it’s important to share.’ Honestly that was like the biggest gift. Talking about the hard stuff has gotten us to a better place ultimately.”

Pruitt’s most awe-inspiring revelation shines in “Loving Her,” a heartfelt tribute to her girlfriend, Sam. Here, she fearlessly stands up for their love in the face of adversity, opening with a striking line that sees her giving up her spot in heaven if it means she can openly love another woman. “You see I used to be ashamed / To write a song that said her name / ‘Cause I was too afraid / Of what they all might say / But if loving her is wrong / And it’s not right to write this song / Then I’m still not gonna stop,” she sings delicately, but with confidence.

“Loving Her” serves as the crown jewel of self-acceptance on Expectations, a project that begins with self-questioning and doubt and comes full circle with the anthem she calls a “big realization.” “[It’s] not only a personal revelation, but a religious revelation,” she proclaims. “If there is a God, he’s not worried about if I’m gay or not. So that first line isn’t supposed to be knocking religion – I just don’t buy that God thinks like that, and I don’t think you should either. That’s breaking all these conventions that I’ve grown up being told and this is my new religion. This is what I believe now.”

With these heartfelt affirmations, Pruitt finds true self-worth, now living freely in her identity, a powerful evolution that she pours into her compelling debut record. “Through accepting myself, I can make room for actually loving someone for real,” she observes. “Nina Simone said it’s important to make art that reflects the times. [I do it] in a very small way, but it pushes society forward.”

Follow Katie Pruitt on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PLAYING NASHVILLE: Sinclair Premieres “Drop Dead Knockout” Video

Sinclair reaches through the screen with confidence and positive energy in the music video for her song, “Drop Dead Knockout,” premiering exclusively with Audiofemme.

Co-written by Sinclair, Nikolai Potthoff and Julia Hugel in 2018 in Berlin, Germany, the unapologetic bop embraces themes of individuality and self-acceptance. The free-spirited video features LA-based choreographer and actress Courtni Poe dancing her way through the streets of Berlin, past graffiti and into the subway station, with her effervescent moves, bright energy and spirit reflecting the song’s nature. Sinclair and her wife Natalie Rose spent a couple of months living in Berlin and wanted the playful video to capture its unique, eclectic vibe. “The thing that I’ve connected to is that there is this overall sense of self-expression and individuality. There is a sense of crazy freedom,” she says of the city. “I feel so at home there.”


Sonically, the track intertwines Sinclair’s vast-ranging influences, from the bold hip-hop of Timbaland to Sade’s blend of pop, jazz and soul, while the singer herself plays that infectious guitar loop. Filled with attitude, the track finds Sinclair stepping into a place of self-confidence, singing lines like “all the girls/try for me/ I’m as good as they want me to be” with casual bravado.

“We’re allowed to say that; we’re allowed to have that confidence,” she says. “‘Drop Dead Knockout’ is really about me coming to this place in my individuality and being able to wear what I want to wear and self-express the way that I want to. I think knockout, it’s that power, it’s like that guttural confidence. It’s feeling in your gut you can do anything and take on any shit you got going on in your life and dreaming big.”

Though the video solidifies her singular vision, the singer admits that seeking individuality has been a lifelong quest. Raised in upstate New York in the small town of Madrid, Sinclair is sixth in a line of nine siblings, her father an Evangelical pastor and mother a teacher who homeschooled all nine children. A Beatles fan at the age of four and learning to play piano a year later, Sinclair discovered her musical passion at age 12 when her father began teaching her how to play classical guitar, quickly becoming “obsessed” with the instrument.

It was during this time that she began writing songs and accepting her sexuality, knowing her whole life that she was attracted to women. But growing up in a religious household where the family’s belief system was tied to the church stifled her ability to share her feelings with those closest to her. “It was really hard for me in that period to write honest songs. I was writing in code,” she heartily laughs. “I was trying to write songs that sometimes were reflecting that, but if I wrote those songs, they had to be enough in code that nobody would ask questions that would get to the bottom line.”

All Photos by Tobias Ortmann

Sinclair came out to her family when she was 20, the news creating friction between them, as they wouldn’t accept her. “When I came out, it was really hard because I felt really betrayed in the sense that they projected on to my character new things,” she reflects. “I think what was heartbreaking was that there was a sense that I was a totally different person in my character overall. Even though the truth was there now, there was still this overarching sense of loneliness, because nobody was really trusting me and knowing my character at that point.”

She left home for Nashville in 2011, where she met and fell in love with Natalie. The couple wed at an all-boys school in Nashville in 2014. Rather than viewing the lack of acceptance from her family through the eyes of bitterness, the singer says it’s part of the journey to finding pure happiness and peace, knowing she found the person who brings meaning to her life. “I have this sense of excitement over the freedom that I get to experience now every day and it’s never lost on me,” she observes, adding that she has recently reconnected with her family. “I understand more than a lot of people how simple life is and I’m lucky, and it’s really because of all that shit. It’s a blessing and a curse.”

With a sound that blends hip-hop and flamenco music, along with her colorful style that’s splashed across her Instagram, she seems to embody individuality; each element is a piece of the journey to Sinclair’s discovery of her creative identity. But she admits that pressure to conform to music industry standards has made it difficult over the years to find artistic independence – she notes that she didn’t start dressing the way she wanted to until two years into her relationship with Natalie. She says her “awakening confidence” allowed more of her true self to click into place. “I just wish for everybody that wherever they’re at now, they’re able to find happiness and confidence in their own skin,” she says.

She pinpoints one relatively recent epiphany: a visit she and Natalie took to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, Spain in 2018. While analyzing his work, she saw a progression in which he began his career following his contemporaries, to eventually abandoning classic technique and creating his revolutionary style. As she continues down her own distinct path, Sinclair may find herself voyaging through an artistic evolution of equal lengths. “He was good until his 40s, and then he was good and different, and then he was a noteworthy artist. And I just was like ‘that’s what being an artist is about,’” she proclaims. “I think that I’ll always be learning that.”

“Drop Dead Knockout” is available now. Sinclair is currently on tour with Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra through Nov. 20.

AF 2018 IN REVIEW: How A Wave of Queer Hitmakers Helped Me Assert My Identity

illustration and words by Ysabella Monton

Drunk on $2 strawberry margaritas during my very first visit to Cubbyhole, my 19-year-old self and a friend struck up a conversation with two women who led with, “Aww, how cute, two straight girls at the gay bar!” We looked at each other, confused. She was quick to correct them about her sexuality, while I, on the other hand, kept quiet, thinking they were right. Who was I trying to fool by being here? I’ve been “mistaken” for straight just about every time I’ve been there, for that matter. And what right did I have to be upset? To those who saw me everyday, I was straight, and was too scared to convince them otherwise.

Fast forward to sometime in early September of this year. After getting “mistaken” for straight in a casual conversation by a gay friend, I couldn’t let it go. At 2am, in an act of subconscious (and delusionally tired) defiance, I chopped my hair below my shoulders – as if a drastic change in my appearance would make people finally believe me when I say I’m queer. I thought back to an interview I’d read in which Héloïse Letissier, who fronts Christine and the Queens, described the epiphany she had upon cutting her hair: “I felt like, ‘This is how I want to exist.’” My drunk ass almost cried when someone in the bathroom at a Rina Sawayama show complimented my new ‘do for the first time; knowing that a large part of Sawayama’s fan base is queer, I found comfort in being seen.

Rarely did I consciously think about openly queer women in entertainment in the past. When I recall queer artists that I listened to growing up, I admit that David Bowie or Freddie Mercury – not women – come to mind first. Whether it’s the media at fault or my own ignorance, I was somehow never consciously aware of women’s queerness. From Fergie and Lady Gaga in my youth, and then, as I got older, The xx, Tegan and Sara, and Sleater-Kinney, I often didn’t know some of my most beloved female artists were queer until after the fact. I later clocked many hours over the years Googling “[insert artist] queer,” intrigued by female androgyny by way of Annie Lennox, and for selfish reasons, hoping to find that Debbie Harry might be into women. This was all prior to the realization that my “girl crushes” were born of genuine attraction. Maybe it took so long because I had few truly visible artists to help me understand that loving another woman was real and valid.

I remember when I first started telling my best friends that there was a slight chance that I could maybe be bisexual, and being met with the classic “it’s probably just a phase.” It made me curl in on myself, backtrack, and call myself “fluid” instead. “Fluid” was my safety net to go back to living as a straight cis female, since I wasn’t committed to a label.

But “fluid” was never the whole truth.

I’ve known for a long time that I’m bisexual, but 2018 marks my first year of unapologetic out-ness. Sexuality is a journey, and labeling oneself isn’t pertinent to having a queer identity. Fluidity perfectly encapsulates how many other people define their own sexuality. For me, though, calling myself “bisexual” out loud lifts a weight off my shoulders. I owe this newfound confidence to queer female artists, from SOPHIE to Janelle Monáe, who are unapologetically themselves.

2017 and 2018 saw a jump for queer females in the mainstream beyond “I Kissed a Girl” or “Cool for the Summer,” where being queer is synonymous with experimental sexual deviance (not to discredit Demi Lovato’s own bisexuality). Kissing girls was once taboo, “just something that we wanna try.” Songs like Sawayama’s “Cherry” operate in the same realm of queerness being new and different. However, rather than eroticizing it, Sawayama crafts a sweet, sparkling anthem that illustrates an awakening; it’s less about the missed connection and more about what it taught her about herself. “Now I wanna love myself/It’s not that us is guaranteed/’Cause inside I’m still the same me with no ID” reminds me of being 19 and becoming infatuated with a stranger at a party as we talked and smoked cigarettes and got dollar slice pizza, though I never got her name. Still, I can’t will myself to forget the moment she told me she likes girls and with ease, I told her I do too. It had nothing to do with my attraction to her. It was the first time I had ever come out, and she has no idea how significant that moment was for me. She was the first person with whom I was living my truth.

Today, there’s Kehlani in the mainstream crooning, “I like my girls just like I like my honey/Sweet/A little selfish.” These lyrics effectively normalize women loving women in a way I’d never understood before. By way of Kehlani, I also discovered Disney-girl-turned-“Lesbian Jesus” Hayley Kiyoko this year when Kehlani appeared on “What I Need.” Kiyoko candidly sings, “I only want a girl who ain’t afraid to love me.” I could never imagine hearing that on the radio growing up. Kiyoko was recently awarded the Rising Star Award at Billboard Women in Music, presented to her by bisexual pop singer Lauren Jauregui. “Nobody wants to be brave,” Kiyoko confesses in her acceptance speech, through tears. “We’re all terrified. I’m very grateful for my fans…I found my purpose in life, and the ability to embrace my truth.”

Women have shown me what it’s like to go from grappling with your truth to embracing it. Asserting herself beyond myriad production credits, SOPHIE’s debut album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is a disarming nine tracks of simultaneous chaos and vulnerability. There’s a challenge from SOPHIE to listen to this record without the preconceived notion of what pop music – and furthermore, people – should be. “Without my genes or my blood/With no name and with no type of story/Where do I live?” she asks on “Immaterial,” giving herself the answer: “I could be anything I want.”

The album is powerful enough to have turned the heads of traditionally closed-minded Grammy committee. She and singer-songwriter Teddy Geiger (who co-wrote the Shawn Mendes single “In My Blood”) have become the first Grammy-nominated transgender women for Best Dance/Electronic Album and Song of the Year, respectively.

They, and artists like the genderqueer and pansexual Letissier, haven’t been blurring the lines of gender in music so much as beginning the process of erasing them. The first time I saw Christine and the Queens live in 2016, I had given little to no thought to the nuance and fluidity of gender expression. When she returned this past year, it appeared that she had invented a masculine persona along with her new record, Chris. The more I indulged in the record, it became apparent that rather than stripping herself of femininity, she had adapted traditionally masculine themes – eroticism, power, dominance – to dispel the pre-existing notion of softness that womanhood was supposed to be.

As Ariana Grande and King Princess have affirmed this year, “Pussy Is God,” after all.

I came across King Princess through Mark Ronson, when she became the first official signed artist on his label, Zelig Records, releasing her first single “1950” earlier this year. In addition to paying tribute to a decade when women could exclusively be queer in private, she plays with religion and divinity in a way that calls out to the once-ardent Catholic still living inside me. “Tell me why my gods look like you,” she whines, “and tell me why it’s wrong.” The idea is not lost on songs like “Holy” and “Pussy Is God,” which not only put women, but queer women, at the center of worship. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, King Princess calls it “extremely fucked up and fun…being the antithesis of a belief system.”

“Fun” never would’ve been the word I’d use to describe the intersection of being a self-proclaimed Jesus lover while attempting to repress this sinful secret the way I repress Catholicism now. While I’ve never been homophobic and I’ve tried to be an ally to others, I was adamant that homosexuality wasn’t a possibility for me. But now I find the layers of irony so absurd it’s funny. For me, queerness was directly associated with eroticism, in turn lacing this part of my identity with sin. Coupled with my warped notions of feminism (in my teenage years, I called myself anti-feminist), it’s all rooted in self-hatred.

Then I heard this verse:

“Searching for someone to fix my drive
Text message, God up in the sky
Oh, if you love me, won’t you please reply?
Oh, can’t you see that it’s only me, your dirty computer?”

It made me wonder if Janelle Monáe had somehow gotten inside my head and heard these conversations I was having with God to fix whatever the hell was going on inside me. Her music has been lush with futuristic and science fiction imagery via Cindi Mayweather, her android alter ego. The juxtaposition of real life with a surreal world allows raw emotion to take the forefront. It’s the same question I’ve been asking myself this whole time that I’ve been fighting the truth: what is wrong with my programming as a human that I’m so inherently broken and flawed?

Janelle Monáe intended “to really celebrate those that I felt needed to be celebrated most, those in marginalized communities” with Dirty Computer. Those communities include not only the LGBTQIA community, but women and people of color as well – and these are all intersections I identify with. It’s the things about myself that I’ve been conditioned to believe are defects, dirty. Deconstructing the android on Dirty Computer gives insight to our very coding as people, the root of this “other” that terrifies people in 2018 as much as ever.

What a weird time, in 2018, to have finally found relief through leaning into that exact fear. This whole time, I’ve been internalizing it, using it against myself, so much that even when I first began exploring the possibility of being queer, I accepted without argument that I wasn’t queer enough to be valid. Compared to the first time I called myself “bisexual” out loud circa 2014, when I say it today, it no longer leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There’s still an adrenaline rush, but it comes from excitement. Because for the first 23 years of my life, I was never being my honest self.

But now, I finally believe that I deserve to live my truth. And so do you.

Check out Ysabella’s ever-growing CHEERS QUEERS playlist on Spotify, as well as the rest of our year-end coverage.

WOMAN OF INTEREST: Chelsea Ursin Relives Awkward Teen Years for “Dear Young Rocker” Podcast

Most people would rather do almost anything than repeatedly relive their most cringe-worthy moments of adolescence and young adulthood. But writer, bassist, and storyteller Chelsea Ursin has done just that in her podcast Dear Young Rocker,” a tell-all, diaristic recount of her time growing up and feeling like an outcast as a female bass player in a very much male-dominated space. Her eight-episode first season is a brutally honest, witty, and sometimes hilarious coming of age tale that deals with issues like body image, imposter syndrome, and hormones.

Ursin says she took a break from playing music while studying writing but was reinvigorated while volunteering for the Boston chapter of Girls Rock Camp, an organization formed to empower young female and non-binary youth through playing music. Instructing for Girls Rock inspired Ursin to start up her own fuzz-rock band, Banana, and share her journey of the ups and downs of being a female musician. Since releasing the podcast, she’s also started a Youtube channel that addresses topics like self-esteem and friendships. We talked with Ursin about the making of “Dear Young Rocker” and navigating music in a man’s world.

Audiofemme: You say on the DYR site that “this is a story for the weirdos. The loners. Those who felt alone and found a home in music.” Besides offering solidarity to other people going through what you went through, what prompted you to make this podcast?

Chelsea Ursin: It was kind of a culmination of a lot of things. I had been playing in rock bands since I was like 14 years old. That was a way for me to connect with people when I couldn’t because I had pretty severe social anxiety and body issues and everything else. I was the only girl I knew of anywhere that played in a rock band and I just always tried to be “as good as the boys.” I tried to be really good so I don’t look like a stupid girl and misrepresent my people or something. But I never put it together as a problem with the patriarchy or other people that were going through that. I just thought “I’m messed up, I’m a loner, so I have to fight really hard for myself.” When I got older and started taking feminist theory and women’s studies, I started to realize that being marginalized in this way has a lot to do with why I played rock music in the first place and why I got so much out of it, and I was part of a way larger community of people that felt left out or othered in the music community.

And then, it wasn’t until Grad school, when everyone was writing about these terrible things that happened to them and I was like, “I just want to write about rock music because I miss it.” I thought it was important and I hadn’t been playing. Then, someone told me about Girls Rock camp because they read my writing and then they told me about riot grrl, which I had somehow never even heard of… I had this new teenage-dom when I was like 25 and I was like, “Wow, there’s so many other people that felt alone like me, this community of weirdos is huge and I want to bring them together.” So, I decided to write a memoir about my time as a musician. Then I started volunteering at girls rock camp, and I saw these little kids going through the same stuff I had gone through as a teenager, and then being able to rock out on stage in front of hundreds of people. I thought, “If they can do this, I can start my own band.” Then I had this confidence renaissance where I started my own band, I wrote a book, and then publishing a book seemed like this archaic impossible thing. I studied sound engineering in college for a couple years, even though I dropped out because all of the boys intimidated me, so I was like, “I’m gonna make a podcast.”

AF: How were you able to remember all of these stories and events from high school in such great detail?

CU: I mean, a lot of it has to do with anger. I think anger lights up your brain because when I first started writing about this stuff, I just got angry. I had never been angry at the people who had made me feel like crap as a kid, I had always just accepted it. I had always been like, “oh this guy’s playing this crazy riff in front of me, it’s not because he’s trying to make me feel bad, it’s because I am bad and I’m not good enough.” So when I started writing about it, I felt so bad for my teenage self. And felt like “you thought you sucked but you were amazing!” And all this anger prompted me to remember all these things that happened, and in the finished product, it reads as one story, but when I was writing, I would remember one detail. I’d go back and listen to a certain Pixies song and I would remember the smell of the paint when me and my band did this painting project together. Then, I would remember someone singing a Queen song. I just put down as many tiny details in as I could, then I’d put myself into that state and put more details.

AF: Was it painful to revisit some of these memories? Especially the ones that deal with self-esteem and body issues?

CU: Yes, a lot of the time I’d write about this stuff and I couldn’t even leave the house after, because it just became so real again. I’m still processing this, because this is so much a part of my life now telling this story, that sometimes even now, if I go to a party and I don’t know a whole lot of people and I end up sitting by myself for a minute, instead of being mature me and going and making a friend, I just sit there and think “No one likes me.” I bring all this stuff up to the front and sometimes it still hits me.  

AF: You talked about having a “confidence renaissance” prior to writing the podcast, but before that, did some of the feelings of social anxiety and self-esteem that your younger self deals with in the podcast carry on into adulthood?

CU: Oh yeah, they are still there all the time and I still fight them every day. A lot of this project is talking to my (current) self, too. When I give advice at the end and it’s for my teenage self, it’s still very much for me. Sometimes, I’ll complain to a friend about being bummed or whatever and I’ll see things sort of in a skewed way, and my friend will be like, “You need to listen to your podcast.” Once those triggers are set in, they don’t ever really completely go away, but I can see them now for what they are and I can fight them.