"We're Making Music Because We Have To": A Q&A with Grass Widow
Recently, I had the chance to talk with the three amazing women of Grass Widow about their spacey new album ("Spock on Muni" isn't a Star Trek IV reference), Girls Rock Camp (they love it), and getting back on the bike (you have to do it). Check out their excellent record Internal Logic, due on May 29th on their very own HLR Records.
What’s the transition into Internal Logic, and what are all of the space references are about?
Hannah Lew: There was a decisive moment where Past Time was about trying to understand death and grappling with that. It was really hard to play those songs after that album. On tour it was like “I can’t do it tonight, I’m literally going to start crying, I can’t do it.” I lost my dad while writing it—it was too hard, and when we started realizing if we were going to be on tour a lot and play songs, we had to play songs that we needed to hear, things that felt good to play, things that we need to hear ourselves hear every night.
If I don’t understand something, I could either try to grapple with a narrative, or I can kind of throw myself into science and get interested in something that I know exists and makes me realize how tiny I am and there’s this whole big world of possibility and I think that’s a big comfort. A lot of the songs on the album are just positive affirmations for us. It’s not arbitrary to me, “Goldilocks Zone,” in a lot of ways, is written—I read this NASA thing where they found this habitable zone where there’s a planet that’s a lot like Earth that might have other life-forms that could totally be just like Earth. That’s just like, that’s so far away, but it’s possible, and that possibility is so full, and it’s just so, so inspiring, and that’s kind of the feeling that a lot of the new songs have.
Lillian Maring: I feel like in Past Time we were in a tunnel and trying to figure out which way to go to get out of that tunnel and into the light...like, when you fall off your bike and you think you’re okay and you stand up and you say “Don’t help me!” because you’re in shock and you can’t feel anything and you just start walking forward and doing whatever you think you need to do, that’s kind of where we were when we were making Past Time. We were like, “What do we need to do right now?” and then we felt the pain, and we healed and now we’re on our bike again. That’s what “Milo Minute” is about, it’s about moving forward and getting back on the horse or the bike, or whatever metaphor you want to use.
Grass Widow's "Milo Minute" video is species-inclusive, too.
What do you think of the notion that gender and identity are so entwined in rock music?
H: I think it’s not just rock music, I think women just, there’s this dominant concept of femininity that is this sexualized—a woman will get power and recognition from her sexuality, and I think it’s just a weird fucked up trope that’s in our culture, and it’s really a shame when it crosses over into subculture too... there’s this whole “oh, girl group” thing, blah blah blah—why don’t people understand that I’m way more influenced by the Velvet Underground than the Shangri-Las? Like, the Shangri-Las are funny, but they don't inspire me to make music. I think there’s kind of this throwback idea, but the throwback idea of women in the '60s isn’t very romantic to me.
Raven Mahon: Rock is so visual, and people are expressing—it can be expressing creativity through the way that they present themselves, but it's hard to get away from that, even if you want to make a point to draw people’s attention to your musicianship and not your clothes. I think especially with the Internet and other media involved in how music is experienced it’s just hard to get away from the historical culture that’s put women in that position, and men too; it just kind of infiltrates that and continues that on, and it’s hard to escape it.
H: [It’s] so frustrating when it’s your craft, and it’s like “I’m a woman, I’m Jewish, I’m a filmmaker, I’m a daughter, I’m a girlfriend,” ...there are so many different ways that women are expressing that or thinking about themselves as women.
L: It’s challenging, too, being performers and being on the stage because people assume maybe that we have the same goals that other women do—I read a review recently where someone’s like “yeah, it seemed like the members are trying to outshine each other [in this girl band]” and it’s like, would you even say that about a band of guys? Fuck no? What are we, Mean Girls?
H: You know, we’re not making music because we want to be better than other female musicians or because we want to emulate girl groups or something; we’re making music because we have to.
R: This is why having this conversation isn’t just perpetuating the problem, because of historically the way the culture has proceeded, we just default to that whole paradigm, we’re just constantly fighting against it.
It’s frustrating. I want younger people coming into music and finding their voices to be able to be free to explore that...not because they want to [be] beautiful or to achieve those old standards, but because they want to realize themselves as musicians too, or as performers, or as whatever aspect that they want.
H: We three are different people, and that, to me, that multiplicity says a lot in itself and I hope that if anything, other young girls would notice that, like “They’re not the same, maybe I’m totally a freak and I will meet other freaks and we’ll do something new, that hasn’t existed before.” And that’s how the world slowly changes.
The production process for the Internal Logic vinyl involves some labor-intensive lounging on the beach.
Could you talk about the importance of gender and age inclusion in playing?
H: It’s always been important for us to play shows or create some kind of environment where people can be comfortable regardless of age gender or nationality. As women just growing up in our culture it's just hard to find a place to be in the audience and have things for you. Growing up you can either go to bars or go to shows and it’s nice to have events that feel like they're really for you and I feel like...not having this one version of femininity be this dominant way that women get to be women, but actually having lots of different ways to be women and having women feel like they can be in an environment where they can express their individuality.
R: One thing Girls Rock Camp is doing that’s amazing is it creates a forum or a place for that kind of exchange to exist from like the younger generation to a generation that have found their way to music... Just to have access to the experience of being a musician and playing music with people ... is really empowering and it's empowering to feel like that there’s not this like vast divide between people in the act of being creative and be able to share it with people.
How did you get started with the Girls Rock Camp?
L: I was living with my friend Carrie in Oakland when she was putting together the Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, she was getting all of her submissions and everything, which was really amazing because girls will send videos where girls are like [imitates gasping voice] “I can't breathe without music, please let me into the camp” and you’re like, “This person needs to get in.” [laughs]
Before we left, I couldn't help but ask about a mutual love of The Kinks, and guess what?
L: There are certain songs where it’s like [whispers] “that’s my jam.”
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