Interview: White Mystery!

Underneath This was excited to interview Miss Alex White from the band White Mystery. Before reading the interview that follows, please read more about the band from their self-penned bio and check out their new video “Dubble Dragon” from their double album of the same.

White Mystery is a brother-sister rock’n’roll duo Miss Alex White & Francis Scott White from Chicago. The siblings have toured 15 countries worldwide, earning rave reviews from MTV, VICE, Sound Opinions, Pitchfork – and currently represent Levi’s #equipped. Expect their fourth annual full-length, self-released double album, DUBBLE DRAGON, on April 20th, 2014. White Mystery’s fourth studio album and a blistering live performance come together into a “DUBBLE DRAGON,” a 20-song Rock & Roll epic, weaving together their signature non-stop energy with heroic poetry and fantastical elements borne from the telepathic minds of Miss Alex White and Francis Scott Key White.

Please check out WHITE MYSTERY online at the following sites:

Website http://www.whitemystery.com
Facebook http://www.facebook.com/WhiteMysteryBand
Bandcamp http://whitemystery.bandcamp.com/
Twitter @MissAlexWhite
Instagram @whitemysteryband
#whitemystery

PHOTO BY DIANE ALEXANDER WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY

PHOTO BY DIANE ALEXANDER WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY

Check out the video here
Directed and produced by Alxis Ratkevich & Chris Newton, the epic new music video for White Mystery “DUBBLE DRAGON” guides you around Chinatown in Los Angeles, to a mystical shop (hosted by legendary drummer Don Bolles from The Germs and 45 Grave), into a psychedelic performance by the brother-sister rock’n’roll duo; all through the eyes of a young boy, Tomek Adler. Miss Alex White & Francis Scott Key White are launching their European and North American tour; see the shows here: http://www.whitemysteryband.com/shows/

Please describe your path to becoming a musician and forming “White Mystery.” How did you develop this name?

I saw a shiny candy wrapper on the sidewalk on April 20, 2008 that said “White Mystery — OUT OF CONTROL!” That was the day we decided to start a band.

What is it like working with your brother in the band?

Working with my brother Francis Scott Key White in White Mystery is a spiritual experience. He’s poetic, sensitive, and strong, which makes for really interesting songwriting along with lots of adventures around the world.

When I listened to your album, “Blood and Venom”, I got a punk, riot grrrl feel, for example on your song, “Good Girl.” Your subsequent album, “Telepathic” felt somewhat more rockabilly. How do you characterize your style and who have been your influences?

Wow, that’s a really interesting take on the music. Here is a diagram of my influences:

http://www.whitemysteryband.com/2011/08/08/miss-alex-white-musical-influences/

How will your next album compare to the previous records?

White Mystery “Dubble Dragon” is a double album, which is a step up from the first three albums. It’s recorded incredibly live and contains secret messages.

What was it like playing at South by Southwest this year?

It was super cool. You can see a lot of photos from SXSW on the White Mystery Facebook here http://www.facebook.com/whitemysteryband

Interview: Matt Howard of The Lion of Tallasi!

Underneath This just conducted an enjoyable interview with Matt Howard of the band, The Lion of Tallasi. Please read more about them in the bio sent by Matt and watch this video of their song “My Babys Gone Away From Me” before reading the subsequent interview. I not only appreciate their music but also their social justice perspective.

Lion of Tallasi is a band from Tulsa, OK. It is a project led by singer/guitarist Matt Howard. Formed in 2011, they have released an album, an EP, and one single. Current and former members include: Kristen Howard, Mike Chiado, Blake Jarman, Ben Burkes, and Brandon Burkes.

mattphoto3

Please describe your path to becoming a musician.

I’ve always had a fascination with music. When I was little my dad had this old beat up guitar in his closet and I would go stare at it like it was this magical alien relic. It was just this beautiful thing. That’s one of my earliest memories and I think that kind of set the tone for things to come. The first time I can really remember being impacted by music was a little later when my older sister got into Nirvana. I remember hearing that through the wall separating our rooms and just being in awe. I think that’s when I knew I wanted to be a musician. Then later I discovered Dylan and started getting more into the lyrical side of things.

How does being from Tulsa, Oklahoma affect the music that you make?

Well I’m originally from this small town in Arkansas. It’s so small there’s not even a population sign. It’s like a village. And super isolated. The nearest town to have like a music shop or book store is about 30 minutes away. I didn’t really fit in well so I was alone a lot. I think that’s part of the reason I’m a musician now. I didn’t have a lot to do except play guitar and write songs. Growing up there certainly had a lot of influence on my music though. Religion seeps into my songs a lot. It’s kind of an unavoidable thing when you live somewhere like that. My anger at the racism, sexism, and homophobia that’s so prevalent in the south is also a big motivator to write songs.

What does The Lion of Tallasi mean? How did you create that name?

The “lion” part of the name comes from my family crest. At the top of the crest is this lion holding a cross. I thought it was funny in a way. Kind of tongue in cheek because I’m the least lion-like person you’ll ever meet. “Tallasi” is a word that comes from the Creek tribe. It means “old town”. That was the original name for Tulsa and over the years tallasi just kind of morphed into the word Tulsa.

The title of your debut full length album is quite weighty. How did you decide to call it “God, Love, and Death?”

I just wanted something straight forward. I wanted people to know what they were getting into. I also thought maybe the album would find it’s way into the hands of people who would relate to it a little easier. People who have a fascination with religion and death basically. And people that like sappy love songs.

Stars in the Head-1

Your music has been described as folk. What does that label and genre mean to you? What do you think of the latest folk resurgence in the United States?

I’ve always enjoyed folk music because it can be such an unfiltered form of expression. It’s musical freedom. People say that about punk music but as far as I can tell punk has some pretty strict rules about how to look and how to act. Folk can be so many different things. It can be Bob Dylan or Daniel Johnston or Neutral Milk Hotel. There aren’t any rules really. It’s just regular people expressing themselves, rough edges and all. That’s the problem I have with the latest folk resurgence really. It doesn’t have any rough edges. Everything’s smoothed down and soft. It’s beautiful sometimes but most of it is meaningless. I can’t connect to it in any real way. It feels like a lot of it is written in a room somewhere by a team of writers. I know a lot of people enjoy it and I don’t want to take away anything from them. I know I’m in the minority here. It’s just not for me.

What has it been like using social media to fund and promote your music? How do you see technology continuing to influence folk music?

I feel like I’m really lucky to live in a time where I can promote my music through social media. It’s a great feeling when I connect with a new fan online that I might not have ever found any other way. I use social media mostly because we’re not a touring band right now, because (A): We all have full-time jobs so we aren’t able to take off across the country any time we want and (B): touring is expensive. So in order to tour we have to have money so we get jobs but because those jobs are so time-consuming we don’t have time to tour. Some bands pull it off but I haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe if we get signed? I’m not holding my breath for that though.

Who and what are some of your creative influences?

I think the first one that people are going to notice when they listen to my music is Bright Eyes. I’ve always felt a deep connection to their music and they’ve obviously been a big influence. Another obvious one, especially on our first album, is Bob Dylan. Elliott Smith is another big one but I’m not sure how much of that comes through. Lately my favorite band has been a band called Villagers. They have such beautiful and well written songs. They’ve been a big inspiration on my writing lately.

mattphoto2

How do your social and personal identities affect your creative process?

I’m a very empathetic person and I think that comes out in my songs a lot. I see or hear about people suffering and I feel the need to spread the word, to tell everyone that these people need help. I feel like I also deal with some of my issues with depression and anxiety through music. When I’m feeling really anxious or depressed about something it seems like if I put it into a song it kind of loses its power. Like it’s trapped there in the song.

How does performing compare to recording?

I really enjoy both a lot. With performing you get this cathartic release and you sort of develop this bond with the crowd because you’re up there sharing all of this personal stuff with them. Recording is great because I start with trying to capture a performance and then I get to shape it by adding instruments and effects and EQ’ing and all that. I really enjoy playing producer and the technical side of things, although I’m still learning in that area.

In what ways is your music feminist?

I do consider myself a feminist but I’m not sure that the music I’ve put out to date could really be considered as such. I do think it’s an important issue and one that needs more people writing about it.

I enjoy your song, “It’s Christmas” (Keep Me Warm). There is a bitter-sweetness in it so reminiscent of that season. Any plans to make more holiday-themed music? :)

I’ve actually written 3 or 4 holiday themed songs that I’ve put out under various names. I’m not sure if any of those are available anywhere anymore though. I’ve actually considered re-recording a couple of them for release this Christmas. I’m not sure if that will work out though.

How did making your EP, “Songs for Warm Summer Nights” compare to working on your most recent album?

Well both of them were self recorded using pretty much the same equipment. I spent more time on God, Love, and Death. I think it came out better for it. It’s less sloppy I think. God, Love, and Death was also mixed by someone who had more experience with that kind of thing. Both were really fun though. I think “Summer Nights” is way more personal and maybe kind of depressing. God, Love, and Death is depressing too but more in a “the world is a horrible place and we’re all going to die” way.

How has it been working with other musicians to make songs?

I think my favorite part of recording is hearing the parts other people come up with for my songs. All of the songs on God, Love, and Death are so much better because of the people who helped out with it.

One of my favorite songs by you is “If I Only Had Your Love.” What is the story behind this song?

It’s interesting you ask about that one. When I first wrote it I was feeling kind of lonely and depressed and it was just this song about not being confident that anyone could really love me for who I am. It was only later that I realized the religious aspect of the song. I mean you could interpret most of the song as me talking to God. The first line is the most obvious: “I could sing your praise a million ways but it wouldn’t be enough.”

mattphoto1

If you could cover any song, what would it be?

That’s a tough one. We did a cover of Postal Service’s “Recycled Air” for a compilation that I really enjoyed doing. It was fun converting this electro-pop song into a folk song so I would say something that’s far removed from the folk genre. Like a dubstep song or something.

What do you enjoy doing outside of music?

With music and work I don’t have a lot of time for much else. I am a voracious reader though. I go through 2 or 3 books a week usually. I also go to estate sales looking for old musical equipment a lot.

On what projects are you working on next?

I’m working of an EP that will be kind of a mellow, mostly just me and acoustic guitar thing. All of it is being recorded on this old reel to reel so it has a great sound to it. I’m also working on an EP with my friend Paul Steele, who goes by the name Along Came Paully. It’s a split EP and we co-wrote some of the songs on it. I’m really excited about both of those projects. I think the songs are some of the best I’ve ever written. I’m also planning on releasing a single or maybe another EP and all of the proceeds from that will be donated to LGBT charities. I also have another album pretty much written so I need to start on recording that soon.

What feedback do you have for aspiring musicians?

I’m afraid I can’t really give any tips on being successful. I will say that you shouldn’t give up. If this is what you love then you should stick with it, even if you aren’t playing to huge crowds (or any crowd at all) when you play shows. I feel like if I can connect with even one person and I can make that person’s life a little better with my music then I’m happy. I know what it’s like to feel alone and misunderstood and I know how much music can help.

-Sem

Interview: Gunner Scott!

Underneath This recently enjoyed interviewing Gunner Scott. Please learn more about Gunner in his self-penned biographical statement before reading the subsequent interview.

Gunner Scott is the Director of Programs at the Pride Foundation and received a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Goddard College, where he completed the oral history project entitled “Boston Area Transgender Community Leaders and the ENDA Crisis.”

Gunner brings over a decade of experience leading change in the LGBTQ community along with extensive experience policy development, program management, training, legislative campaigns, fundraising, and communications. Prior to living in Seattle, he was the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC) where he led a five-year legislative campaign for the Transgender Equal Rights bill, which passed in 2011.

Through Making Waves Coaching & Consulting, he supports artists, activists, creative professionals and entrepreneurs in developing their practices and self confidence in promoting their craft, their brand, and their passion to the world. With a 20 year background in providing mental health, substance abuse, and survivor empowerment counseling, he has supported individuals in making change. Along with his executive level non-profit management experience, he has been creative culture maker producing community arts events, including Boston’s Gender Crash Open Mic and the pop-up art show entitled, Undivided: Dewey Square Pop-up Art Show – Inspired by Occupy Boston/Occupy Wall St.

He has written articles for Boston Phoenix and Bay Windows newspapers, What’s Up magazine, and Sojourner Women’s Forum. He penned “Agitate and Activate,” the introduction to Pinned Down by Pronouns, a 2003 Lambda Literary-nominated anthology and he is a co-author on the study and 2011 American Journal of Public Health article “Transgender Health in Massachusetts: Results from a Household Probability Sample of Adults.”

He is also passionate about saving wild lions from extinction and captivity including advocating for lions to be added to the Endangered Species Act in order to stop the rapid decline of lions.

gunner

Please describe your trajectory to becoming an activist.

Great question, for me it started in high school with regards to environmental activism and student rights. I was not out as queer until about 23 and trans about 1999, and it was the 70s and 80s when I was in middle and high school and to be gay was unheard of let alone transgender at least where I grew up in Plymouth, MA. It was not until the AIDS crisis became more public in 1987/8 did anything about being gay come up and even then it was very homophobic.

I became active in LGBTQ activism in the late 1990s when I joined the Boston Lesbian Avengers. I participated in several direct action events, marches, speak outs, and eventually participated in the vigil march for Rita Hester, an African American transgender woman killed in Allston, MA two weeks after Matthew Shepard. And following the vigil a protest at the Boston Herald and Bay Windows newspaper for their transphobic use of male pronouns and publishing her birth name and making it seem as she had “lived a double life” even though she was well known in Allston/Boston as a woman and a musician. Her murder is still unsolved. After that my trajectory was towards transgender rights and participating in the transgender movement that had been slowly building for a number of years.

Eventually, I was lucky enough to work full time as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, which is still one of very few trans led, trans organizations with paid staff and an office in the country.

How have your social and personal identities informed your work?

I think for me, I have always had a strong streak of fighting for the disenfranchised, maybe my own experience of dealing with homelessness as a young adult, my mom being a single parent when I was very young, having experienced poverty, homophobia, and sexism. Later experiencing transphobia and discrimination in housing and health care, but because of privilege, because of my being white, I have had more opportunities and I am treated significantly different now that my gender expression reflects a white man.

I seriously get angry when I see someone being treated disrespectfully, discriminated against, often dehumanized because they are not in the majority, because they are visible different in some way.

What are similarities and differences between activist communities in Massachusetts and Washington state?

I am not sure I can yet point those out, if there are any significant differences. I was so embedded in Massachusetts activism, politics, and community and here in Washington, I have been slow to get involved, mostly because I needed some personal space and time to take care of myself after working on a legislative campaign for so long. I know there are plenty of opportunities here in Washington when I am ready.

What were the expected and unexpected aspects of the results of the Transgender Health in Massachusetts study you co-authored with Kerith Conron, ScD, MPH, Grace Stowell, MA, and Stewart Landers, JD, MCP ?

I would say one of the unexpected results was the number of transgender people that had a primary care access and I think that is because the survey was done after Massachusetts instituted mandated health insurance. I was also just pleasantly relieved that transgender people did self-identify when asked on a telephone survey. I have heard so often from data geeks and public health folks that asking more than one gender question or asking about being transgender will cause the results to get compromised from too many non-transgender people not understanding or claiming to be transgender to purposely throw off the results or that transgender people may not disclose. I am hoping that our cities and states will add additional gender categories.

How was the process of developing the oral history, “Boston Area Community Leaders and the ENDA crisis?

I wanted to understand how those who live openly as transgender and are community educators, leaders, and/or activists of today were affected by and dealt with the setbacks of the 2007 specifically the “ENDA Crisis.”

It was really out of anger and frustration with constant accusations by some gay, lesbian, and bisexual activists (GLB) and organizations that the transgender community had recently “tagged on” to the equal rights work and the transgender community is trying to get a “free ride” without having done any work for their own rights. It was like some GLB activists and politicians were saying we [transgender people] have just shown up today and expect to be included. In 2007, Representative Barney Frank alluded to this assumption in his statement he released after he introduced an employment non-discrimination bill to be voted on the House that only included sexual orientation after previously introducing an employment non-discrimination bill that included sexual orientation and gender identity.

I knew there were transgender activists that had been doing education work, being visible, changing policy for decades and yet, they were almost completely invisible on state or national stage. So I started with those who were some of my mentors and my peers in my Boston community. I explored their experiences, feelings, and reactions during that time and about Federal-level LGBT equal rights legislation. I wanted to understand how these leaders came into transgender activism, what they think about legislative tactics as way to end discrimination and if they had to express a public message different from their personal feelings with regards to the situation. I wanted to share that transgender people had been fighting for their rights, alongside GLB activists for decades, visibly, without having their stories erased or re-interpreted to fit a gay narrative. Yes, some of my participants are gay/lesbian or bisexual and some were not and some came from the gay or lesbian community before transitioning. I proved my own theory, which is that we, transgender and gender non-conforming people have been part of the “gay rights movement” for as long and in some cases gender non-conforming people have been organizing since before the first “gay rights group was established in the early 1920s.”

You have been a Commissioner on the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth and the Massachusetts Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth. What are the most salient issues affecting LGBTQ+ youth in the United States today?

That we still have LGBTQ homeless youth in general and that parents, foster homes, and/or families still get away with disowning their kid and they are not held accountable for kicking them out and putting them in danger. These parents should be paying child support to the programs that pick up the pieces.

Homelessness and poverty are solvable issues, yet as a society we continue to not solve these problems and too often blame poor people and poor young people for their situation.

Being homeless can and does interrupt the trajectory of a person’s life. I know this. I failed out of college the first time, because I was homeless and trying to work 3 jobs at 18 years old. I was then not able to get my degree until I was almost 40 years old, because constantly trying to get out of the cycle of poverty, my potential was stunted because of that experience and today, I am still making up for lost time. I am excited to say I am buying my first house at the age of 44 with my husband.

From your experience as the Director of Programs at the Pride Foundation, what are some ways that cisgender queer and trans* communities can collaborate to work towards social justice and equality despite differences?

I think just understanding that experiences of discrimination are often based on assumptions about gender expression. When we work to eliminate sexism and gender expression discrimination we are doing something to lift up the whole community. First thing for cisgender queer and straight people, stop talking FOR transgender people and talk with us, that would be awesome.

How can people become and continue to be informed allies to trans* youth and adults?

One easy way to self-educate, read books or watch documentaries, attend a Transgender Film Festival, Seattle’s is in May, set a e-news alert for transgender stories. Question “gay rights” history and why no transgender people are visible in books and some films about Stonewall. Encourage more gender categories on forms in school, work, etc… we don’t necessarily need 50 (but thanks Facebook for giving us all something to strive for!) but at least 4-5 would be great. Allow space for people to self-identify, not just trans people, write letters to the editor when positive and negative stories come out about transgender people. Donate to transgender projects, organizations, and causes. Transgender movement work is the least funded and yet often has a wide impact GLB as well.

How have trans* people diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, spirituality, and ability worked together for activist causes? What have been challenges and strengths in this collaboration?

This could be a dissertation… short answer is yes and we still need have a long way to go on dealing with racism and classism in the transgender community, much like the GLB and the larger population.

What was it like participating in The “Trans-Form The Occupation” as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement? What is your perception of the movement overall?

Awesome! Just being at Occupy Wall St was amazing as an activist, especially as I was so involved with Occupy Boston. I was just inspired by the number of people that showed up to participate in a workshop that required us to use the “human mic” – I said something then the crowd repeated back so everyone could hear it… might be the loudest transgender 101 I have ever done. The connections made between trans justice and economic justice were incredible, I made so many allies and friends from being a part of that movement.

You have also been actively involved in protecting wild lions from being captured and killed. How do you see animal and human rights activism fitting together?

Easy, when we disrupt the eco-system by eliminating one animal in the larger eco chain we are hurting ourselves especially in terms of adding to climate change and destruction of the environment. For instance, eliminate lions from the plains of Africa, the herbivore population animals are unchecked and can decimate the grasses, which then can lead to drought… as an example.

In addition, what right do we have to trophy hunt an animal in extinction or use up all the land it lives an hunts on, there are similarities to how we treat some people as less than because of who they are and how land ownership and gentrification pushes some out to the farther edges with least amount of resources, this can also be seen in how we treat animals, particularly wild animals.

What insights do you have for aspiring activists?

Breathe, self-care, and work in collaboration or a group. I did not do anything and everything alone, I would as part of a team or group, sometimes I was the most visible and other times I was in the background. Check your ego against what is best for the community and the larger movement and always go with community.

Know when to step aside as a leader and make space for new leaders to emerge. That for me is one the main reasons I stepped down from MTPC and moved across the country. I wanted to make space for new voices and leadership in Boston and Massachusetts.

What are you working on next?

Besides just trying to be really good at my job as a grantmaker with Pride Foundation, I have recently been elected to the Seattle LGBT Commission. I am excited to work on city level policy and contribute to my new community in that way. I really enjoy being civic engaged.

As for other creative things, I have a startup project, Making Waves Coaching & Consulting (http://makingwavescc.wordpress.com/). Through Making Waves Coaching & Consulting, I am looking to coach/support artists, activists, creative professionals and entrepreneurs in developing their practices and self-confidence in promoting their craft, their brand, and their passion to the world. This will also include developing social media campaigns and marketing strategies for artists, activists, creative professionals and entrepreneurs.

-Sem

Interview: Ruth Marimo!

Underneath This had the soulful and meaningful experience of interviewing Ruth Marimo. Before reading the interview, please read more about Ruth in the bio statement that she wrote.

Ruth Marimo was born and raised in the Southern African country of Zimbabwe. In 1999, at the age of nineteen, after arriving in England she found herself booking a round trip ticket to the United States. She never boarded her return flight. Ruth now lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where she feels her number one job is raising her two beautiful children. To support her family, she owns a small residential and commercial cleaning business, and in her free time she continues to work on her writing, advocating for immigration reform, and speaking out against the mistreatment of LGBTQ people in Africa as well as the world. You can learn more about Ruth’s current work by visiting her website: ruthmarimo.com.

BOOK COVER PIC!

Please describe your path to becoming an activist and writer.

My path to becoming an activist and a published author was quite accidental. I started writing my life-story in jail awaiting deportation back in 2009, my book started as a goodbye letter to my two children. I was finally released from immigration hold after 30 days in jail. I went to church that first Sunday after my release and the pastor of the church preached an anti-gay sermon. I was so angry that I confronted him about who I was after the service. That was my first act of activism and I have never looked back since that incident.

In what ways have your social and personal identities influenced your activism and writing?

Who I am intersects on so many different levels with so many marginalized minority groups: I am an African immigrant who was undocumented; I am a single black mother; I am an out African lesbian woman; I was in an abusive interracial heterosexual marriage; I have children who are biracial; I was orphaned at the age of five; I date outside of my own race; and I am a woman from a third world nation. So in a sense I feel that I have so many causes to fight for, that my battle is never really done.

You have so much resilience. How have you survived and thrived through very challenging times?

As ironic as it sounds, I think losing my mother at such a young age and basically having this understanding that I was an outcast from childhood has made me resilient, I had to find ways of coping at such a young age and that has helped me deal with life’s trials as an adult. I have also been resilient because I have never wanted to repeat the actions my mother took, so I have never allowed myself to feel so defeated that I give up.

Your mother died by suicide when you were 5 years old. What could the world be doing more for those who have lost loved ones to suicide?

Society needs to understand the pain inflicted when suicide occurs – especially for children. I grew up in a culture where bad things are not talked about so I suffered in silence as a child. Society needs to understand that grief counseling is a must any time suicide occurs. Also silence about the person does not help, it is better to reflect on the person’s life and find healthy ways to remember them. Perhaps the most important thing is to foster environments that prevent suicide from occurring in the first place. Which could start by removing the stigma associated with mental health disorders.

What was the coming out process like for you as a woman from Zimbabwe?

It was extremely challenging. My ex-girlfriend had to literally force me to come out of the closet. When I finally did come out I faced a lot of homophobia from both family and friends. It was as if I had stopped being the person they knew, I felt shunned and people I was once close to distanced themselves in very obvious ways. It was lonely, even though I live in the United States.

Homophobia and heterosexism are experienced and perpetuated around the world, and there has been much focus on aversion to LGBTQ+ people in Africa today. What do you make of that and how do you respond?

I think it is so tragic the way African nations think they are fighting back against a Western influence by punishing their own citizens. The ability for Africans to easily turn violent against one another is something that has always bothered me. What is more disgraceful is the influence of the evangelical right from Western nations in perpetuating that hatred. That factor is actually one of the main reasons I have recently made a decision to walk away from religion. I can no longer identify with something that is so divisive.

What was it like emigrating from Zimbabwe to the UK?

It was a challenge because I was only eighteen and so uniformed about the ways of the world and its laws. I experienced some of the most difficult transitions in my life while living in the UK.

You are a survivor of domestic violence perpetuated by your ex-husband. What are ways that services can be more accessible to survivors of abuse?

I think funding programs that help employ people equipped to counsel survivors of abuse would help greatly. That area needs more case workers, more follow ups of these women and their children. Programs that actually help women escape abusive situations are imperative because most women stay because they have nowhere else to go, with no means of starting over alone. Here in Omaha Nebraska organizations like Heartland family services and Catholic Services are great examples.

What were some of the most challenging parts of being in the immigration detention center in the United States?

As an undocumented immigrant in custody I had no rights whatsoever and the jail that housed me had no information regarding my case . If I did not have relatives here who managed to hire an immigration lawyer on my behalf, I have no idea what would have become of me. The lack of rights undocumented immigrants have in detention centers is deplorable. I lost twenty pounds in thirty days – that is how miserable I was while in jail.

What has it been like living as a lesbian woman of color raising two children in Nebraska?

For the most part it has been good, we live in a great neighborhood in Papillion, which has some of the best schools in the nation and ranks among the safest in the country as well. My kids play outside with the rest of the kids in our neighborhood. I am out and open at their school which is diverse in terms of ethnicity, and ability, which makes the school terrific and inclusive. However racial disparities are very apparent in Omaha depending on where you live.

Speaking!

What have been some of the most rewarding experiences of the activism and motivational speaking you have done? The most challenging?

Last February I traveled to Yale as one of the featured speakers at the annual IVYQ (Ivy League Queer Conference) and last week I facilitated a creative writing workshop at a women’s symposium at Metropolitan Community College. I have had many challenges but I haven’t noticed them as much because my activism started from rock-bottom. I was prepared to stand entirely alone when I began this journey.

Congratulations that your next book, “OuTsider: Crossing Borders. Breaking Rules. Gaining Pride” is being released very soon, in fact on the National Day of Silence. Was this date selected intentionally?

Yes. So many aspects of my story are views we never hear. People living in the shadows are too busy trying to hide and survive and hence never speak up.

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What has the experience been of writing and publishing this work?

It was a grueling process, my editor, Stephanie Finnegan, was relentless in making sure I brought raw emotion to paper. The publishing team at Scout Publishing LLC, CEO Ryan Sallans and Art Director Erika Block, have respected my voice and believed in my story. My girlfriend, Deanne, is also a writer and helps to give me different perspectives.

How has your family responded to your art and activism?

They have been mostly silent, they don’t yet know how to react. I think writing my story is too revealing for them and who I am is still uncomfortable for them. We come from a culture woman don’t grow up to write books – let alone their life-stories. However my family has come a long in accepting my identity and I am included in anything that pertains to family.

In what ways is your work feminist?

Every aspect of it is, especially from an African perspective, I have done everything I grew up being told women simply can’t do.

How does the experience of performing poetry compare to writing a memoir?

They’re both cathartic and are inspired by my experiences so I guess the difference is only that I use more metaphors when I write and perform poetry and writing a memoir is more factual and with performing I’m in front of a crowd and in writing I’m alone.

In your poem, “Who Am I?”, you eloquently and vulnerably reflect on some of your experiences including being “an alien to my own nation.” What do those words mean to you now?

Those are deep words that remind me that I am less valued where I come from because of my sexual identity. That I am less understood by the people I share a blood line with. That I was an outcast among my own people because orphans are not loved equally in my culture. That my own biological father never bothered to have a relationship with me – most likely because I was a girl.

As an African woman, how do you perceive the LGBTQ+ rights movements in the United States? How inclusive are the communities?

The LGBTQ movement in the US still has a long way to go, there is often division within the community. We have a long way to go as far as being trans inclusive, particularly in making space for trans people of color at the table. The rainbow flag is still largely a white flag; and that needs to change.

What feedback do you have for aspiring activists and authors?

You have to master the ability to stand in your own truth. The ability to allow people to walk out of your life because they will. The ability to make new families made up of people who see you as you are and believe in what you say.

On what projects are you working on next?

My next focus will be the first of a 12 series children’s book, titled ‘What Is Africa Really Like’. I will partner with American based Cameroon artist, Gerard Pefung. The motivation behind the project is to give children everywhere an accurate depiction of far-away places in the world. Often the picture they get from television is largely one sided and inaccurate.

-Sem

Interview: grey doolin!

Underneath This had the enjoyable and soulful experience of interviewing grey doolin. According to grey’s biography, grey is a transqueer photographer, writer, and artist currently living in Cincinnati, OH. Having lived in various parts of the Midwest for most of their life, the rolling hills; big, open sky; and tucked away forests live in their body and serve as the inspiration for most of their work (and reason for getting up in the morning). grey writes an ongoing column for Original Plumbing, the online trans culture magazine, titled “The Spaces Between,” and is particularly fond of cold, rainy days. You can find more of their photos and words at greyspacephotography.net.

Waiting

Waiting

Please describe your path to becoming an artist.

My path to becoming an artist has been very nonlinear. I’ve always loved writing, playing music, and taking photos; I’ve always been really fascinated by people and their stories, too, which is why I ended up pursuing psychology in college and then as advanced degrees. Being a psychologist or an academic seemed like a more “respectable” career path than that of a writer or photographer, meaning that I would probably make more money. There is a deeply-rooted story in my family about money equaling worth, and it doesn’t even matter if the work is enjoyable. You make money because that’s what responsible adults do.

I recently decided to leave my graduate program because I was really unhappy and had all but severed my relationship with my creative self. Three years ago I was introduced to The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and it transformed my life. I began writing every day and creating things and spending a huge amount of time outside. It was also a very difficult time in my life as I was making many foundational changes, and I credit the amount of walks I took on helping keep me okay. The Artist’s Way woke me up and gave me a safe framework within which to build a relationship with myself again. In retrospect, I knew I was unhappy in school at that time, but I wasn’t ready to let go of the structure that had held me up for so long. I spent the next couple of years really building my life outside of school so that when I finally decided to leave, I had a little more of a foundation. I had spent thirteen years pursuing a career as a psychologist, and I didn’t know much outside of that. I got involved with an awesome group of queers in Madison as part of LGBTQ Narratives, an activist-writers group, and my involvement there led to many great relationships and other community projects.

My creative work in the Madison queer community helped solidify that I am much more than a graduate degree and that my heart needs more space, time, and ongoing creative work with like-minded people to survive than was possible in graduate school. My identity as an artist is still very much evolving–both the creative work and how to be an artist in the world. It’s been a steep learning curve.

How do your creative passions of photography, visual artist, and music differ from one another? How are they similar?

My creative expression, however it manifests, comes from an intuitive, grounded, embodied place, and I trust that intuition to guide what form or “product” that expression takes. My preferred medium tends to happen in phases: for the longest time I solely identified as a writer, then I began writing songs and focused on music for a while, and now I have really shifted my focus to photography. Although I still write, play my guitar, and create other visual art, my primary artistic identity is as a photographer currently. All of the shifting around could be the Gemini in me, or it could be that I have finally settled into my preferred medium.

I feel the most vulnerable when performing my songs in front of others, so when the band I was in, The Sweetness of Gone, was doing shows 2-3 times a month, it took a lot of energy for me to get on stage each time. I couldn’t make eye contact with people most of the time and tended to turn away from the audience when playing. But my love of creating music with my bandmates and sharing that with others was greater than my fear.

My writing is the form in which I feel the most control, both in the process and the output. Although I tend to be quite vulnerable in my writing as well, I have had much more experience sharing it with others and it involves the “mind” more than my other creative work, by which I mean: there is a structure, a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is a point I am trying to convey. There is also a point I am trying to convey in my photography, but it is much less conscious most of the time. Unless I am taking photos for a specific project or for an event someone has asked me to shoot, most of the photographs I take are because the image or scene or moment caught my eye or tugged on my heart, really. I have no formal training in photography, so as I stated above, my intuition guides my eye.

All of my work feels vulnerable on some level, and I have really been working this past year on allowing my work to exist on its own and to believe in its inherent worth, whether or not anyone else validates that for me. It’s been a challenge for sure, especially when money enters the mix. It is hard not to equate selling prints or products or the number of Facebook likes with the value or worth of my work.

Journeying

Journeying

You have written, “I am most drawn to images of the natural world because I believe it is in those spaces that humans are most accurately reflected.” Can you elaborate upon that?

Absolutely. The primary reason I prefer to photograph images of nature over human subjects is because there is a purity there that is difficult to replicate in the human realm. There is no ego. There is less complication. There is unadulterated beauty. In nature I am able to see that which is often difficult to see in others and in myself: a deep, unconditional love and goodness. This is not to say that bad things don’t happen in nature; tragedy strikes, animals attack and kill each other. But not because of shame. Not because of hatred. Not because of a fear that is unique to humans.

How do your personal identities affect your art?

My story, which informs my identities, is intricately linked to my art. I see the world through a White, middle class, able-bodied, Transqueer lens. And within those identities are the layers of growing up in the Midwest, Pentecostal, working class, and female-bodied, just to name a few. And that doesn’t even include my relational experiences and great losses and celebrations. All of that to say: every ounce of who I am shows up in my work.

What are your creative inspirations?

The natural world, animals, relationships, spirituality, people and their stories, injustice, other artists’ work.

How do you decide when and how much to edit your work?

I intentionally do not highly edit my photographs. I might make small adjustments to the light or shadow of a picture, but that’s really it. I don’t own Photoshop. I don’t know how to use it. I am not particularly fond of it. Making extreme digital corrections to an image is not photography–it’s digital artwork. When I see highly edited photos, I have a strong aversion to them because I am afraid that that is what people will think “good” photography is–perfection. Photos with a cosmetic touch feel really hard to relate to–the desire for perfection takes the heart of them for me.

I feel like there is a certain culture amongst photographers where they compare their DSLR cameras and equipment and have debates over RAW versus JPEG formats, and I say: who cares? Take a picture. I am still shooting with a Canon PowerShot SX20 because I can’t afford a nicer camera right now; I use GIMP shop, which is a free, open source graphics program to add watermarks to my photographs; and I use Picasa to edit my photos when I do edit them.

I’m sure some of my reactivity comes from my insecurities about not having formal training–I still have a lot to learn around technique and being able to talk the language of a photographer (whatever that means). And it probably also stems from a fear that being authentic in this world will not be as rewarded as knowing how to play the game. Much like I am working on allowing my work to exist on its own and to believe in its inherent worth, I am working on trusting that the only way to show up is in a real, authentic, and vulnerable way.

Tendergender

Tendergender

What has it been like working on the Trans* Reflection project?

The Trans* Reflection Project is in the very beginning stages, but I am really excited about it. I am hoping to meet some wonderful people, hear some great stories, and take some awesome photos. I plan to begin putting the call out for participants within 150 miles of the Cincinnati area within the next couple of weeks. I have been talking about this project since October of last year, so it’s time to get things rolling. I’ve realized this past year that I am great at dreaming big and less great at putting things in motion.

How does a sense of place affect your art?

As part of the LGBTQ Narratives group in Madison, I often got the feedback that my writing conveyed a sense of place very strongly, which I agree with. I think I have always found comfort and connection in the natural world, so despite where I am, whether the landscape is new or familiar, I am acutely aware of my surroundings and how whatever is happening is situated in those surroundings.

I like all of your photography but am especially drawn to your piece, “Waiting.” What inspired that piece?

Once a year I like to take a “solo retreat” to some natural space I love for several days. A couple of years ago I traveled to Lake Superior, which is a very important and spiritual place for me. I even have the outline of the lake tattooed on my right calf. At that time in my life I was struggling a lot with intimacy and being fully vulnerable in my relationships, especially with my partner. I knew my heart was about to open in a way it had never before, but I was feeling super resistant to it at the time, wondering why I needed to change at all. I was walking along the beach one day and came across these birch trees buried in the sand, their texture made smooth by water, sand, and wind, and I deeply envied their existence.

This particular tree inspired a song I wrote on that trip called “Keep Moving.” The first stanza is:

I woke up one day
and decided I was tired of change,
like a birch buried in the sand
its roots pointed toward the sky,
I was prepared to lose my texture in the wind
frozen in place while I slowly died.

How is your relationship to your work different when it is published and/or featured in a gallery?

The main difference between my relationship to the work that I share and the work that I don’t is the amount of breathing I have to do when sharing something with the world, whether it’s a piece of writing, a photograph, etc. Because my work is very intimate, intricately linked to who I am and, therefore, vulnerable, I am still getting used to sharing it with the world and feeling okay with that. Some pieces are easier than others, but my mind can come up with insecurities about anything.

Gone

Gone

What advice do you have aspiring artists?

You will feel fear, but don’t let it get in the way. Keep showing up, even when it feels difficult. Find the people who see you, support you, and love you; let the others go.

On what projects are you currently working?

In addition to the Trans* Reflection Project, I am currently working on a project called “Succession.” A close friend of mine was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and she asked me to photo document her journey with the disease. The project is deeply intimate and explores the process of death and rebirth and the intersection of those with gender identity/expression. So much of the narrative around breast cancer is by and for cisgender females who identify as such. We are hoping that “Succession” starts a new conversation around breast cancer and gender, in addition to documenting my friend’s process with her illness. Stay tuned for photos from both projects to be up on my website soon.

Interview: Hallelujah the Hills!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Walsh of Hallelujah the Hills. I am looking forward to their new album, “Have You Ever Done Something Evil” due on May 13 2014 – when it may actually be spring in New England :)

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Please describe your journey of forming Hallelujah the Hills.

I went to film school and during the first day of my “films of the 60′s” class they showed us a move called Hallelujah the Hills. Shortly after that I received a grant to record an album with the people of my hometown of Dedham, MA. Even though I thought my path was going to involve making movies, opportunities kept coming my way with music. So that’s where I put my energy. After The Stairs ended, I was so in love with the idea of making albums that I immediately started Hallelujah The Hills with friends who were also musicians. That was the beginning, now 4 albums and many tours later, we’re here 7 1/2 years later.

How does a sense of place and geography affect your creative process?

There’s a line in the song with the same name as the band that goes, “I was born in Vermont / She was born in Vermont / We’ll all die in Vermont” and so many times after a show, audience members will come to me to ask if I’m from Vermont. I’m not, but the character that sings that song is. Geography is important to me. I’ve always lived here in Massachusetts within 10 miles of my hometown of Dedham. I read some Stephen King interview once where he said, “It takes a lifetime to really get to know one place” and I think that’s true.

Who and what have been your artistic influences?

I think artistic influences might shape the edges of your creativity, but it’s your friends, family, and immediate surroundings that really fill up the insides of the creations. There’s more of my friends in these songs then there are musical heroes, you know? Sometimes when I’m doing an interview and I start name dropping Bob Pollard, Maya Deren, and John Ashbery I think, “Well that’s technically correct but really, wouldn’t be amazing if I could just somehow show them Neal, Anthony, Jeff, Chris, Jenna, Evan, Shannon and Ed?”

I am really enjoying your most recent album, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Trashcan.” What inspired the title?!

Well JJ’s [James Joyce's] “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” has always seemed like such a great title for a retrospective for an artist or a band. But if you’re gonna reference that, you gotta undercut it in a way to put a pillow under the fact that you’re quoting Joyce in your album title. Calling your young self a ‘trashcan’ seemed so funny to me. When you’re young, you’ll throw any idea, food, drink or drug inside of you, get it?

I love the video for “Confessions of an Ex-Ghost.” What prompted the Twin Peaks connection with the video?

Learning all about director David Lynch was the first thing that clued me into the idea that maybe, just maybe, being a creative person was a way to live an adult life. Twin Peaks did something significant to my teenage brain. It was a long, tough journey to see it, first of all (pre-internet, tracking down VHS cassettes, long story). Agent Dale Cooper is my favorite fictional character. I wanted to create an homage to the show and since I don’t have access to a room cloaked with red robes and a black&white zig zag floor, this scene was a close second. Plus, it’s so magical. The idea that our unconscious is also a detective and can be polled for information with unusual methods is so true, so beautiful.

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One of my favorite songs by you is “Dead People’s Music.” How was the song-making process for this track?

My girlfriend said to me one day, “Put on something new. All we’re listening to these days is Dead People’s Music” and the whole idea for the song leapt into my head. It’s her favorite song of mine too which makes it especially nice that the inspiration came from her comment.

I am sensing existential themes (or at least imagery) of mortality and death across your albums (e.g., “Effie’s on the Other Side” from Collective Psychosis Begone; “You Better Hope You (Die Before Me)” on Colonial Drones; “Hungry Ghost Extraordinaire” from No One Knows What Happens Next and “Some of them We Lost” on your most recent album). What do you make of this?

Life is only interesting because it ends. How can you not spend time thinking about that? Ram Dass says, “Dying is safe”, only a door into the next adventure. Is it a cop out to take refuge in that idea? These are the fun topics that I’ve decided to write a lifetime of pop songs about.

How has it been working with Kickstarter to make albums?

Kickstarter is something that has changed the way things work for creative people working with the longer end of the long tail. A significant boon for all artists, I’d say.

What was it like to put music to Jonathan Lethem’s lyrics for the song “Monster Eyes?”

It was a great exercise and I enjoyed the results.

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Do you have plans to release and/or perform any cover songs? If so, which?

We’ve covered a lot of John Lennon solo songs over the years. But mostly, I think we’re really great at crafting Hallelujah The Hills songs, so we stick to that.

What was the experience like of your song “Classic Tapes” being featured on the television show, “Make It or Break It?”

To be honest, there’s no story there. That was a matter of music for money. My nieces and cousins were excited. They like that show.

In what ways is your work feminist?

I made a mix tape for this teacher in high school. We’re still great friends. He listened to the mix and said, “it’s all male artists” and I said, “so?” and he said, “you’re missing 50% of the world’s experiences in this mix tape” and gave it back to me. That happened at THE PERFECT time. I actively started exploring a lot of women songwriters and falling in love with their work.

I might not be the best one to answer this, but I hope that my lyrics represent women in the same, honest light that I try and represent men. At the very least, all I can hope is that the ideas I put in our songs hopefully seem repellent to those who try and maintain the male-dominator-culture. My girlfriend is a brilliant songwriter and we sometimes go over each other lyrics, offer insights. I’d love to ask her about this, actually!

What feedback do you have for aspiring musicians?

Never consider yourself an “aspiring musician.” As soon as you say you are one and believe it, you are one.

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I really like the demo for “Pick Up An Old Phone,” which will appear on your new album. The song sounds intimate and you have described the album as “wholly unlike the other three but still sounds like us.” Can you say more about that?

I’m not sure I can! I just know that we’ve never remade an album. We’ve always changed. They are all different and that’s a point of pride for me.

I admire your stamina. What’s next for Hallelujah the Hills?

Our new album comes out May 13, we’ll tour California and the east coast over the summer. We just love making things and we’ll continue to do so!

-Sem

Interview: Girl Group Chicago!

Underneath This had the great opportunity to speak with Shana East from Girl Group Chicago about her band, 1960s music, feminism and more. Girl Group Chicago will be performing at the Empty Bottle on March 28.

Shana East is the founder of Girl Group Chicago – an all-female live musical performance group that is focused on bringing the female fronted “wall of sound” arrangements of the 1960’s to a modern day audience. She is also a board member of TRACERS, a Chicago-based social initiative group. Shana received her BFA in Photography, Film and Electronic Media from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Past lives include: Kinko’s copymaster, documentary filmmaker, non-profit fundraiser and database administrator.

by C.B. Lindsey

by C.B. Lindsey

What inspired you to form Girl Group Chicago?

Well, I was going through a hard time personally. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, and felt like it had isolated me from making female friends. I initially put the group together as a way to network socially, just a fun activity to do with other women each week. I wanted it to be a safe environment for women to have fun and be creative – like a social club where we happen to play music together. I really had no idea it would catch on the way it has, and that people outside of the group would become so interested in it! It has been an interesting way to introduce more women into my life, and to get to know them both as people and musicians.

The actual spark (so to speak) came when I had this “vision” – it sounds cheesy, I know, but this actually happened. I was listening to the Shangri-Las song, “Dressed in Black” at the time and was in that state just between being awake and asleep. I had a vision of an all-female group performing this song with a shimmery backdrop and matching costumes. By “all-female,” I mean, there was a veritable sea of ladies performing it. I always intended Girl Group to be a “big band,” but at the time I saw “big” as being 10-12 members. It just kept growing and growing from there and I didn’t stop it!

How do the different members bring together their talents to form a cohesive group?

The first year or so we were finding our sea legs, figuring out members’ strengths and what things they might be interested in doing within the group. While I knew going into it that everyone played an instrument or sang, each member brought additional talents to the group as well. But since I didn’t know any of the members until I was in a band with them, this “getting-to-know-you” phase took quite a while. We eventually needed members to pitch in in other ways – someone to keep the finances straight, someone to help with costumes, help with booking, etc. I fell into the “manager” role automatically since I started the group and it’s what I’m good at, as well as promoting our shows. Now that we have pulled together some great gigs, we have more freedom to put our shows together from start to finish. Certain venues like Mayne Stage entrusted me to “curate” our entire show, so I was able to put together a showcase featuring all-female filmmakers there, followed by comediennes, The Puterbaugh Sisterz, followed by our opening band, Velcro Lewis Group, and then on to Girl Group Chicago. It was fun putting the whole evening together as more of a special event – a night to remember!

The other gals, over time, pointed out areas where they saw we needed help or things that they were interested in working on and then they just started doing it! If someone has the extra time to contribute and enjoys doing something that we particularly need help with, I just have to let go and say, “Go for it!”

How do you decide which songs to cover?

I definitely had the most say over our first batch of songs. We needed a starting point. Over time, certain members wanted more input into what songs we cover. Not everyone necessarily came out of the garage scene or was familiar with music from the ‘60’s at the start. Over time they have all become more interested in it, so we formed a Music Selection Committee that meets every time we need to add new songs.

I personally (as a singer) might be into the message or the lyrics of a song, but someone in the horn section might be listening for horn parts or a string player might be listening for an interesting string arrangement. So it’s good to have the committee to get different points of view. We have adapted the song selection process over time, it’s been a learning process. All of the changes we have made seem to keep us moving forward and have ultimately been for the best. Onward and upward!

Sem: It sounds very egalitarian, very democratic.

Ha [laughs], well the issue of “democracy” within the group has been an ongoing one. It’s not totally democratic, but I think we are as democratic as we can be with such a large group. I’m the person who is more of the full-time employee, so I have to make a lot of the day-to-day decisions on the fly without consulting all 20+ members. I don’t think we would function as well if it were 100% democratic. The financial things I often have to figure out – negotiating with stylists or sound engineers, for example – so there’s a lot of day-to-day boring stuff that isn’t [democratic]. We have section leaders who make more of the creative decisions for their particular section. The parts of the organization where members have expressed that they want more creative input have become more democratic over time. It is important that each member feels like her voice is heard and that she is being fulfilled creatively.

Which are your favorites to cover?

It’s always changing! The first one, my first favorite song we did (and the song that inspired me to start the group) was “Dressed in Black” by The Shangri-Las. Mary Weiss is the quintessential girl group icon. The Shangri-Las, well, they were from New York. They carried guns around to protect themselves. They were the “bad girls.” Their subject matter is often pretty dark compared to some of the more bubble-gummy girl groups of the time. I’ve loved them since I was 15; I’m a huge fan.

We’re about to play a new one, “Chick Habit”. It’s not a song from the ‘60’s, it’s actually the first song from the ‘90’s that we’ve ever done. It does sound like it’s from the ‘60’s though. We’ve been working on that one this month. My favorite song always changes because we are always adding new and exciting material!

“To Sir with Love” also means a lot to me… it’s a love song but not a traditional romantic love song. It is directed towards a mentor, and I have dedicated it to my father at several of our shows. It is my most challenging song vocally, and I do get nervous singing it! But at least, I hope, it comes across as heartfelt because it is. I love that one too.

Who are your favorite “girl groups” from the 1960′s? What other musical influences does the group have?

The Shangri-Las, The Cookies, The Ronettes, The Shirelles, The Crystals… I grew up listening to oldies in the car with my Dad. The only group I despise from that era is Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (I can’t stand that high-pitched, shrill voice of his!), but I love pretty much everything else from the ‘60’s.

I am drawn to those songs that touch upon darker subject matter – they tend to be the ballads or “slow jams.” Even though a lot of these songs weren’t actually written by women, I feel like the female singers from that time period were able to convey feelings of isolation or helplessness that women struggle with so eloquently. Even 50 years later, I share a deep understanding of the feelings so many of the lyrics describe. They have really stood the test of time!

We’re doing a new Dusty Springfield song that I really identify with. I am not singing lead on it, but I am very excited for us to do it. It’s called, “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. I have certainly felt that same feeling of being lost that Dusty sings about, whether I was going through a difficult relationship or just trying to figure out what to do with my life. These are common dilemmas, and the songs I gravitate toward are the songs that we as performers as well as the audience can empathize with.

Another great thing about Girl Group is that our members have such incredibly eclectic musical backgrounds and tastes. I would say our influences range from classical to punk, metal to marching band… and everything in between!

Do you perform original songs? If so, how does the band come together to create them?

We have not performed originals yet, but there is some interest from band members to write originals at some point. If we did, I would definitely want female songwriters to write them, even if they weren’t in the group. So for the lady songwriters out there, write us a song! We would definitely listen to any demo someone gave us.

The issue for me with adding original material is that it has to hold up in a set with these timeless songs. We don’t want to throw in an original just to have an original. I don’t think of us as less of a “real band” because we aren’t performing originals. These songs we cover are amazing; they’ve been around for 50+ years, often written by proven songwriting teams and Grammy Award winners… so we have to take the issue of adding originals seriously. But it’s on the table. We are open to a lot of things. I also really want to do a set of all originally male-fronted songs with our own Girl Group spin on them, and it would be cool to do another era, like a 1940’s Big Band set. We have the talent, we just need the time. It can be hard to orchestrate that many parts and practices.

We also have an extended network of talented women behind-the-scenes. Not only are the members women, but there are hair stylists, makeup artists, graphic designers, photographers, and a whole costume design team. There are so many women involved that you don’t see on the stage. And we are so lucky and thankful to have worked with the people we have. I hope Girl Group expands and expands so that one day our “group photo” will be an aerial shot!

In what ways is your work feminist?

Well, I do identify personally as a feminist, but I know that’s an individual decision and a hot button issue for a lot of folks out there. Over the past 50 years, there have been several “movements” within feminism (1st wave, 2nd wave, etc.) and I think there has also been a fracturing of any truly productive movement because different groups have different agendas. And that’s great! (The difference in goals, I mean, not the fracturing!) My personal relationship with feminism cuts through those agendas and gets back to the basics. What is feminism? I believe feminism means you believe that men, women and trans HUMANS are all equal and that all humans should have equal access to healthcare, jobs and education. Unfortunately that is still not the case and that is why I think feminist work is so important. I know the feminist struggle is real because I have lived it. Last year, I started working with a feminist social initiative group called TRACERS, and now I serve on the board. At the very least, it has helped me realize I am not alone in my struggles as a woman, but I think we are doing other important work by opening up conversations that, for some reason, seemed to come to a screeching halt after the riot grrrl movement. We offer the public information and an open conversation. We are open to all gender identities and opinions. We all learn from each other and support each other despite our differing backgrounds or opinions.

So I do more specifically “feminist work” outside of Girl Group. I know there are many women in the group that do identify as feminists, but I can’t say that we are a feminist group or initiative because I can’t speak for so many women. I think what we do is inherently feminist, but I just can’t label my bandmates.

For me, the fact that we are such a large group of female artists and musicians consciously working together and sticking together through all the trials and tribulations we have had… that is the most important thing to me, not whether all of my bandmates identify as “feminist.” There are certain socialized ways that women are taught to interact with each other, and we are learning how to counteract them.

Even putting the group together for me was a feminist act because I knew everyone was going to say, “It’s crazy for that many women to work together” – so I said, “Let’s do it!”

The more time that passes, the more we go through together, and we’ve all had creative differences. The people who weren’t jiving with the group, for whatever reason, aren’t in the group anymore. The people who want that sense of community with other women and are willing to do the work it takes have stuck with it. It is hard – I’m not going to lie. But we’re still together and I have no plans of that changing anytime soon.

I am very proud of Girl Group and the social work that I do with TRACERS. I have no problem saying I’m a feminist. I think more artists and musicians should consider identifying as a feminist or at the very least as an ally. It’s okay! Look – I have been one my whole life and I am not so bad.

Strike & Sem: I agree!

How has the reaction been in the press to Girl Group Chicago? Do the reactions differ by gender of the reviewer?

I have to say that overwhelmingly the reviews we have received have been outstanding. We’ve never received a bad review that I have seen. I think one writer had one sentence in there that was kind of negative, he said that hearing “To Sir with Love” that early in the day was “unnerving” or something like that – but it was still an okay review overall. It’s really weird, I had no clue that even the snobbiest music writer would seem to have some kind of fun with it [Girl Group]. Maybe it’s because we haven’t released an album; that it’s just a live performance thing. I think people respond well to our performances.

On what projects are you currently working?

I work with Bobby Conn and his wife, Julie Pomerleau, who goes by the stage name Monica Boubou. I’m their manager, so I’m always plotting and scheming with them on upcoming stuff. Julie has a residency at The Hideout this month that I have been helping her promote.

I am also working on another group, but we haven’t performed yet. It’s called BIG OIL and it’s in the works… we’ll see how BIG OIL comes along.

Strike: How did you come up with the name BIG OIL?

My boyfriend Jim Cooper came up with it. He used to be in the bands Detholz! and Baby Teeth, and has played with Bobby Conn off and on for a really long time. But he was looking to start something new and enlisted me. It’s really his pet project – I am just excited to be a part of a new group where I won’t be leading the pack. With Girl Group, every performance takes practically a month to prepare, so the ratio of practice time vs. stage time is pretty low. So I am looking forward to getting more experience on stage with BIG OIL, and hopefully that will keep my voice in better shape!

I also have a Devo cover band where I play Mark Mothersbaugh; it’s called DEVOid. Since both Bob 2 (Bob Casale) and Alan Myers both passed away recently, I may have to resurrect DEVOid later this year! Girl Group Chicago is more than enough work for me, but those are just some other projects I’m involved with.

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

Don’t worry if you’re not a “real musician.” I dabbled in band and orchestra and chorus as a kid, but I’ve never been excellent at any one thing. I have never been considered a “real musician.” I didn’t pop out of the womb singing Aretha Franklin songs perfectly.

If you have the enthusiasm and dedication I say you should just do it. I waited around too many years for someone to say, “Hey, you have talent and should be in my band.” But that day never came, so I just had to do it myself! If you have a good idea, you should just go for it. Don’t focus on criticism – if they say you can’t do it, just do it better! That’s the little feminist fire inside of me I guess, every time someone has said I couldn’t do something because I was a girl… that fire has driven me. This happened when I started Girl Group. People were like, “a 20 member all-FEMALE band?” and “How will you practice?” or “How will that many WOMEN work together?” I didn’t do it just to prove a point, but the fact that people didn’t think it would be possible certainly lit a fire under my ass!

I’m sort of a dreamer, you know… I have an idealistic “bigger picture” way of thinking and looking at the world, which can be both good and bad. Good because the world needs dreamers to reinforce hope in peoples’ minds, the thought that good things still lie ahead, that new and memorable things do and will happen. Being an idealist can also be hard because I can take it to heart when things don’t work out the way I had hoped. I’m a very sensitive person; I think it’s good for any group to have a good mix of pragmatists and dreamers. And Girl Group Chicago has all of the above, which keeps it balanced and keeps us moving forward.

-Strike & Sem