Women dominate The Shondes, a Brooklyn-born foursome that uses an uncommon combination of instrumentation to create their sound, which has been described as riot grrrl meets klezmer. With a new studio album (the fourth in their arsenal)–and a very dedicated following of indie fans–The Garden could be the project that pushes The Shondes into an even brighter spotlight thanks to its in-your-face lyrics, poignant vocals and surprising melodies.
In sticking with what they do best, the title track of this new album delivers a kind of anthem for feminism with its rousing chorus belted out by singer Louisa Solomon: “Who told you to give up? Who said you’re never good enough? Who told you to give up on the garden?” The band has long assembled songs rife with anger over patriarchy, politics and religious oppression (remember when they protested the Republican National Convention in 2004?), and they haven’t lost their edge at all. But this latest effort feels much more polished musically (and it should by this stage in their career)–without having to give up on the sound and ideologies their fans have come to expect and appreciate after all of these years. The artists have evolved–and so have their fans.
In addition to the lyrically driven songwriting that stands alone poetically, the album features some mean fiddle playing by Elijah Oberman and guitar riffs by Fureigh. The band even waxes romantic on a transcendent track, “Nights Like These,” the closest they come to a ballad with lyrics reminiscent (also surprisingly) of a band like the 10,000 Maniacs: “On nights like these you get a taste of freedom. You can say the word and I will take you with me. If we are brave and if we break, we’ve got to try to believe on nights like these.”
On the heels of getting a rave review from Rolling Stone, Solomon talks about the album in an exclusive interview on the road, having just played in Philly (and with a show in New York City this weekend). She opens up about the real story behind the music, and how she and the band have found a way to reconcile politics with their evolution as artists.
AfterEllen.com: What was the inspiration for The Garden?
Louisa Soloman: We were really focused on writing music that felt honest and alive. We wanted this record to be a bit of a fresh start without disowning where we come from. We have all been through a lot of major life changes and loss in recent years, and “growing up” emerged as the album’s most consistent theme. There are a lot of different kinds of growing up and we tackle a handful on The Garden.
AE: The theme is prevalent in many of the songs. How is this fourth album different from your previous works?
LS: It feels less heavy to me, like it has a lot more genuine levity, and an openness about it. It was the first time we really had full creative control and partnered with exactly who we wanted to. I love this record.
AE: Your music has been known to combine everything from punk, pop and Jewish influences. Why are these influences/sounds still important to you as a band?
LS: All the music that has moved us throughout our lives comes to bear in one way or another. We aren’t so much trying to emulate anyone or stick within the confines of a particular genre, but all those you mentioned (and more) have inspired us and can be heard to varying degrees in our songs. I think of us as a rock band and speaking personally, punk was enormously transformative to me so I know that plays a big role in how I write and perform.
AE: What artists are influencing you these days?
LS: There are some eternal influences: Otis Redding, Bruce Springsteen, the feminist punk of the ‘90s that turned my life around, especially Heavens to Betsy and Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Lately, I’m also really looking at songwriters I respect and learning what I can from their craft. Elliott Smith is one of the best examples of that! Good songwriting requires so much discipline. I have really been loving Chris McFarland (a brilliant musician/singer/songwriter based in Brooklyn), Matthew Sweet (been having some great ‘90s flashbacks in the van) and Big Star (another classic I had neglected for awhile). You gotta have whole songs, and a willingness to lay yourself bare, not just big ideas or a good hook. I am always working to get better at it.
AE: What has Allison Miller—new to the band—brought to this recent album?
LS: Well Allison is basically a drum god and we should all freaking kneel at her throne! Seriously, she was an incredible addition to the record and we were so lucky to have her. We’ve been doing this tour with another incredible drummer, Fen Ikner, who has just killed it every night with us. I love the way he intuits every song’s unique energy and throws in different details each night.
AE: How about being embraced by the LGBT community—why is that important to you as a band?
LS: A lot of our songs speak to feelings of “outsiderness,” of one kind or another. When people respond to the affirmation and hope we are trying to offer it feels really meaningful, and there’s a lot of resonance there for queer communities. We will always want to do what we can to make our shows welcoming to queer people and supportive of queer community organizing. It is part of where the band comes from and I don’t see that connection getting lost, even as our fan base grows and changes.
AE: Does having out/trans members provide another context to the music you create and activism you pursue?
LS: You know, I think if you succeed at writing honestly, then stuff about who you are and what matters to you ought to show, though not always in super explicit, obvious ways. I would be committed to trans justice whether or not there were any trans people in the band, and I’d want to find genuine ways to communicate that. So it doesn’t feel like “another context” so much as an integral part of the band, who we are as individuals and what we believe in.
AE: What kind of impact do you think trans musicians are making on the scene right now? Is it becoming easier to be open and honest? Or are there still a lot of obstacles in terms of gender identity?
LS: There are a definitely a lot more trans musicians publicly talking about being trans musicians than there were a decade ago. This can certainly help transform the way musicians and fans think about gender and its trappings. But there’s no doubt we are very deeply entrenched in a binary conception of gender, in heavily racialized and classed ideas about gender, and unfortunately I think it’ll be a long time before kids feel really free and don’t experience massive coercion around gender. To whatever extent increased representation helps–seeing more trans people living their lives, with a diversity of experiences and kinds of gender expression–I’m glad The Shondes have been around and been a small part of it. It seems like even just a few years back we fielded a lot more questions focused on band members’ genders and this is part of that change. It’s not such a shocking press angle that somebody is transgender. Unfortunately, all that change has little impact for the people most impacted by deep-seated transphobia, as it intersects with racism and economic oppression.
AE: You never seem to shy away from your political and feminist roots either. What are some of the more important issues for you right now – and how do they impact the music you make?
LS: I can’t even begin to sum up what matters most to me in a list of issues, but I can say this: I try to live my life with a dynamic, adaptable bunch of core principles. I think all people should have the right to self-determination, to live lives free from oppression, to experience beauty and awe. And I try to operate from that place. I want to help make a more just world. I want to live in a more just world.
I have a lot of political opinions stemming from that, like, I don’t think Israel has a right to define Jewish statehood in a way that systematically disenfranchises Palestinians, prevents so many from returning to their homes, seeing the sea, receiving health care (not to mention simply living in peace and security).
And I think our country, with all of its wealth, ought to be able to provide food and health care and education to all of its inhabitants. And while we are at it, we ought to abolish the prison industrial complex, take on the psychic and cultural damage caused by centuries of structural racism, and (you may not be surprised to hear that I totally dream of post-capitalist transformative justice models while I ride the subway).
It’s a freaking shonde (in the bad way) when those with power and resources deny them to people in need, and wield them toward widening the gap. I don’t think capitalism can ever address this gap, and I don’t think a capitalist global power like the U.S. will ever take the risk to help end Israeli apartheid. But there’s a lot to be hopeful about, and people have always found big and small ways to improve the world. We’ve always gotta try to see and support those efforts, if not be a part of them! There’s inspiring community organizing going on in every city and every town I’ve ever been to.
AE: These are obviously topics that are in the news as the system evolves with each new political change that comes along. With all of these ideas driving you as a songwriter and as a person, what does The Garden refer to exactly?
LS: It’s an accessible metaphorical landscape for thinking about loss and growing up. It’s an evocative setting ripe with connotations, all of which are welcome! For me, the secret garden was a super formative text and it makes me think all about the choices we make to protect ourselves as we become disillusioned and hardened. It makes me think about preserving and recovering precious, fragile parts of ourselves.
AE: The album features some interesting harmonies, but doesn’t leave your riot grrl past behind. How do you strike a musical balance?
LS: What was amazing to me about riot grrl music, at the time, was that it created new paths, modes of expression that didn’t already exist. And that’s incredibly interesting. So, in our own way, that’s what we are trying to do, too, bringing together various influences, but most importantly allowing the music to be guided by the deep, honest need to express feelings. Sometimes delicately arranged harmonies are a perfect tool; sometimes screaming is. We have to get past these old ideas about genre and art that have us constantly codifying aesthetics and ranking their superiority. I like music that makes me feel and keeps me connected.
AE: What sort of message are you hoping to send with your music and this album specifically?
LS: I just want to share the fear of and desire for respectful, meaningful connection and collaboration. I’d like to impart hope and possibility, encourage vulnerability and bravery. I want to cut through the fear that caring about things, other people, yourself, is “uncool.” It’s totally cool to care, and to try and to make mistakes and to love. I’m too old to feel embarrassed about all that—hipster irony be damned!