Category Archives: correspondence

Riot Grrrl

I haven’t had any Riot Grrrl queries for a long time, but maybe there’s another round of new interest from what seemed to be new interest a few years back. I got a FaceBook message from 17 year-old Julia in Germany saying she’s working on a school project about Riot Grrrl, hoping I’ll answer questions.

“As I want it to be as authentic as possible and mirror the mindset of Riot Grrrl and show what it really meant for all those girls, I’m trying to reach out to as much people of the movement as possible. You are one of them. ”

Well… here’s my message back which intends to make a connection between “all those girls” and present day activities connected to RG as opposed to simply looking back at it as history. Done. Past.

Hi Julia!

Mecca Normal (my band) is frequently referred to as an early inspiration to the co-founders of Riot Grrrl, but we weren’t a Riot Grrrl band. We’d already been playing, touring and recording since 1986. We had our own thing going called The Black Wedge — anti-authoritarian poets and minimalist musicians on tour in an old school bus.

In 1986 some of the women who co-founded RG saw Mecca Normal perform in Olympia. Which is also when we met the guy who wanted to put out our records on his label. Here’s a link to the first Mecca Normal show in Olympia where a future member of Bikini Kill — drummer Tobi Vail — first saw us. I think she would have been about your age at the time — or younger! I was in my mid-20s.

We hadn’t done many shows at this point, but as we continued on with songs about feminism and social justice, I spoke more from the stage — and in interviews — to encourage young women to get together with their friends and start bands, to write lyrics about their experiences in the scene and in society. There weren’t very many women in bands at that point.

Our first album was out at that time (on my own label) and one of the main songs on it was “I Walk Alone” — which we still perform at our live shows to this day!

It seems there is a lot on the internet about Riot Grrrl. Maybe check this series of video interviews put out by the EMP museum (Experience Music Project) in Seattle. If you search through their material on YouTube you’ll see other Riot Grrrl interviews that should be of interest to you.

Here’s Mecca Normal opening for Kathleen Hanna’s band The Julie Ruin in Portland last year. A new song about feminism.

Good luck with your project, and I hope this helps!
Jean

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Interview Questions Requested

I received an email from a music magazine’s publisher asking me to contribute interview questions directed to him. He stated that nothing was off limits. I could ask him whatever I wanted. I composed the following email and sent it to him. He replied an hour later saying that his magazine had one rule. “NO religion or politics.”

So much for “nothing is off limits” questions. He knows me, my work, my band. I don’t plan on following this up with him. I guess I’m allowed to ask, but he isn’t going to answer.

Here, for the record, are my questions.

In November, the abstract I submitted to the EMP (now Museum of Pop Culture — MoPOP) Pop Conference was accepted. I’ve never applied before, but with the focus on music related to politics, I felt compelled to contribute.

I submitted a presentation titled “How I Became a Successful Agent for Radical Social Change” during which David (Lester) and I will draw from our 60-minute classroom presentation “How Art and Music Can Change the World”  which outlines how we came to inspire the co-founders of the 1990s social movement known as Riot Grrrl.

Actually, the dates are significant. I applied on November 8, before the polls closed, but when I received the acceptance email mid-December, both the title and the content of my talk seemed entirely different than when I submitted it! It felt like we’d slid backwards a fair few notches with little foreseeable hope of resuming the kind progressive social change that positively impacts the vast majority.

With these concerns in mind, here are my questions for you!

How do you think music that relates to politics will manifest under a Trump government? Will there be an upswing in political bands and events?

Do you think art – and music specifically – can impact the direction the US is taking?

As people re-evaluate their news sources (go Teen Vogue!), do you, as a journalist and publisher, see a new role or responsibility, or will your content mandate remain the same?

Which American bands with progressive lyrics come to mind in terms of having the potential to address, inspire and motivate large groups of people? Or is that even something a band and music fans should concern themselves with? Should lyricists continue to focus on ‘love’ as a major theme, obfuscating their feelings and song meanings through semantics and idiosyncratic references? What would you like to see happen on the lyric frontier?

I’ve noticed that Americans seem to love mystery when it comes to celebrity engagement. There is a love of speculation. What is that person really like? Do you think transparency in terms of the directness a band might want to take with its lyrics and interviews would negatively impact its likelihood of success? Is the tradition of mystique worth protecting in this coming era?

Would now be a good time for lyricists to use their words in ways that have previously seemed vaguely unnecessary or should we wait until it we’ve exhausted other forms of protest before we expect the arts to address and reflect the decline in the quality of life?

Which do you think will occupy people’s mind’s more in terms of time spent in spectator mode – escapist entertainment or activist culture? By that I mean, which will seem to be the more demanding of following?

I’m basically in the music industry, but way out on the D-I-Y fringes, creating art that intends to connect beauty, truth and understanding for people who are not willfully destroying tolerance. I would have chosen an entirely different direction if I’d been in it for money or fame. You come into contact with music and people I know little about. I recall years ago a local band pulling out of a benefit show to free political prisoners. Word got back through the community that their management thought it might be bad for their career. They did have a very nice career, as it turns out!

Do you think there a fear that writing political lyrics might be damaging to a band’s career?

Is there a lack of confidence there in terms of making a misstep or is it simply an industry taboo to state what you believe if you think there’s going to be backlash?

Do you think bands care more about being famous, “making it big” or affecting progressive social change with their music?

For myself, I find writing the lyrics for political songs quite difficult. I feel a huge responsibility to get it right even though my audience is minuscule. I want to say things in songs that will be interpreted, first of all, the way I mean them, and, second of all, to have them used as fuel in individual lives. That’s a tall order. I’ve been formulating a plan that would bring creative types together to work collaboratively on such material as a sort of sounding board and checks and balance element to the process. Working (writing) with an opportunity for other people’s input (not necessarily from those directly involved in any given project) may be a way forward for political content.

Have you considered anything new for [your magazine] to regularly feature music related to politics? Maybe a section where artists writing political lyrics could talk about what motivated them, what they mean explicitly, what they intended to achieve, what sort of response they’d had in terms of feedback, networking etc.

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Email Exchange

In an email exchange between David and I this morning, he offered to pick up the paper that my painting empire is built on, but which seems to have been discountinued and is out of stock everywhere.
Me: “Have I mentioned lately that you are THE BEST best friend ever!!!!?”
David: “What would our worlds look like without the comradeship we share, and over such a long time? I take great inspiration from all the work you do, and of course your humour.”
David and I have worked together on many projects since we met in 1981 at ages 21 (me) and 22 (him). I couldn’t ask for a better collaborator and friend.
This September it will 35 years ago that we met.

A letter of high praise

On FaceBook, John Brodeur commented on David Lester’s recent illustration for the cover of the summer 2016 issue of BC History Magazine.

“Just beautiful – stunning, in fact,” he wrote, to which David replied, “Wow! Thanks John!”

But the exchange didn’t end there. John sent David this private message.

Hi David,

I hope you don’t mind that I chose not to respond publicly – I realized that my response to your post was very enthusiastic, and replying to your generous response publicly might have come across as insincere and/or as kissing up to a celebrity friend. Insincerity would be an insult to your artistry, even if it was only in the perceptions of people who would have seen my post.

The truth of the matter, though, is this: I’ve enjoyed your music for a long time. And I’m grateful to you for accepting my friend-request, given that Facebook friends who’ve never actually met MUST come across as sycophantic to some degree. I’ve tried to guard against that by viewing the few requests I make as expressions of gratitude for the good energy those people have put into the world. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel some fear, or reluctance, about being perceived as a celebrity collector.

As much as I’ve benefited from listening to and experiencing your music, your visual art has struck me even more strongly. When I was in my 20s, I remember having a similarly strong response to the sculpture of Henry Moore. Until seeing your work, I thought for sure that that response (which I can’t yet describe adequately) would remain singular. I’ll work on understanding and articulating the response because it’s my nature to do so, but I hope to be open to the possibility/probability that I’ll simply have to be comfortable with ambiguity.

If my response ultimately defies articulation, I’m happy (and truthfully, made better) for having been moved by your work. It is, in and of itself, a GOOD.

It shouldn’t go without saying thank you for that. You’ve put a lot of good energy into a world that sorely needs it.

Always warmly,
John Brodeur
Director of Carolina Leadership Development, associate director of the Carolina Union and a clinical instructor in education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Hi John,

What can I say but thanks for your words expressed so eloquently. I never really know what to say to people whose work I like (its always somewhat awkward). But I’m sure it’s a good thing that we make the effort. Funny you mention Henry Moore, I was just listening to a BBC documentary the other night by his daughter on what it was like to grow up with Henry as your father. She admired him greatly. Anyways, thanks again, your words of support matter, especially in what seems like a particularly heartless time.

–David

David also asked John for permission to include his letter in our archives.

John replies:

Wow, David! Thank you for that kindness. Please feel free to use my words however you see fit. I’m honored to know they touched you and Jean in some positive way.

I truly do believe that the work you both do is important. Art–whether painting or lithography or music or whatever else–is more than ‘entertainment.’ It inspires the mind and heals wounds. And it’s such a clear rebuke against our unregulated capitalistic world that the Biebers and J-Los are considered artistic pinnacles.

Complimenting your work is honest, which feels good to be, and expressing it is a fulfillment of my basic responsibilities as a decent human being. Again, I’m honored to know my thoughts affected you positively.

Thankful for this connection,
John

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David Lester’s illustration for the cover of the summer issue of British Columbia History, a magazine that has been publishing since 1923.

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David Lester works in a similar style for his contribution to the recently published Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle an anthology of comics on Canadian labour history produced for the Graphic History Collective.Ballantine

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