by Louis Marrone (@LouisJ_Marrone)
At the end of the day, music should be about individuality. It’s about creating something new. Even going beyond that, the idea of artistic expression in pursuit of educating, spiritually self medicating, or even innovation, is one of the most powerful things that we, as humans, have. GRLwood seems to know this pretty well.
GRLwood, in the simplest of terms, is sort of like if riot grrrl met some sort of strange screamo band. Consisting of vocalist/guitarist Rej Forester and drummer Karen Ledford, GRLwood is a band that lives for being their own thing. Some may try to label them as this, that the other-- punk, queer-core, alternative, etc.-- but in the end of the day, the band strives to do what comes best, regardless of what category they fall into. For them, they have no desire to stand in front of the barriers that the gatekeepers at least try to put up.
Forrester and Ledford’s work comes to them in the moment, rendering the usage of pre-written content useless. Their results are raw, unfiltered audio and satirical yet empowering lyrics that provide commentary and artistic expression on their surroundings. Considering that they’re based in the south in what may be one of the most politically tense moments in modern history, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage in things to scream about. For example, their hit single, “Daddy” is about the absurdity of patriarchal oppression against women, and the concept of womanly servitude in support of that. But you may not get that at first listen, considering the lyrics are riddled with rage, sarcasm and dry wit. With this, the band is able to get a message across in a way that makes them both alternative and accessible at the same time. In the words of Boots Riley, “people aren't used to thinking and laughing at the same time”.
Based in the city of Louisville, KY, this past June they released their debut album, Daddy through sonaBLAST! Records. Post-Trash had the opportunity to speak with them over the phone about their origins, the state of rock, the correlations between environment and art, and more.
How did you guys get into music? How did this lead to GRLWood?
KAREN: I grew up in Rackliff, KY. I’ve always been obsessed with music since I was a kid. My parents were both very much into classic rock. I got an Ozzy Osbourne CD when I was six and I was obsessed. I had an older brother who played guitar in a band and I would always watch him play and think ‘I want to be in a band’. I taught myself to play drums when I was twelve.
REJ: I’m from Louisville, KY. My father played guitar and he brought me my first one when I was ten. I learned by ear. I started playing seriously when I was fourteen or fifteen.
KAREN: Me and some friends went out one night to play ping pong and support our friend’s band. While we were there, there was a girl playing solo under the name “GRLwood”. I had a coworker tell me I should check her out. What I saw was a girl playing guitar and singing. She was playing percussion with her feet; she had a suitcase drum at one foot and a tambourine on the other. I thought ‘Holy shit this is amazing. I need to play music with her’. So after she was done playing I talked to her and asked her if she ever considered having a drummer and she said she’d always wanted to have a girl drummer. Two weeks later we played a show together.
You claim to be a scream pop act, that also identifies as “gender-fuck feminists screaming at you!” But in your personal lives, you are also a part of the queer community. Would you consider yourselves to be a “queer-core” band, and if so, what makes a particular act just that?
REJ: We’re queer, we sing about our experiences as queer people. Queer people can hear our music and relate to that on that level. Art belongs to people, so what people make of that is up to them. But if I were to name the genre of music that I play, I would call it scream pop. It’s typical pop music but I’m just screaming the chorus. It’s heavier. But it’s no different than any typical pop music. I think people can get really pretentious with the terms punk, or dream punk, or surf punk or punk whatever-the-fuck. I don’t care! It doesn’t need to be punk. I’m not trying to be anything. I’m just trying to make make music as I want to make it. And some of our stuff is really poppy. And some of it is really angry and aggressive. We’re not purposely making music to be “queer music”. That's just our experiences.
When listening to your music, I noticed there was smooth production with this jagged edged, rapid paced speed to the actual music. Aside from that, looking at the album artwork for daddy, it’s this sort of simplistic outline drawing. How do you guys come up with that? How important is aesthetic to your act?
KAREN: Musically we just go with it. This is who we are. This is what we do. We’re not trying to make anything a specific way on purpose. It’s just us having fun together and that’s what comes out of us being comfortable with our connections to each other musically. As for visual aesthetics, our visual partner Jordan Lanham is a good friend of ours. They hang out with us all the time. I think music can be bridged with art, and their artistic style is very simples lines-- very uncomfortable, yet very pleasing.
Where do you look to when writing your songs? Where do you find inspiration?
REJ: We just do it. (Laughs). We don’t write anything.
KAREN: It’s a lot of us jamming. A lot of improv. In the midst of a jam we’ll stop and be like ‘Oh shit! We really like that. We should really do something with that.’
REJ: So if a riff’s really good, we’ll just play that riff over and over and over again until I sing something that fits, and then we keep playing that until the same words keep fitting, and then one day we’ll play it and it’ll be a magically completed song.
KAREN: We never sit down with a piece of paper and write it like ‘verse, chorus, verse, chorus’. It’s just not us.
Do you feel like that method has helped the quality of your music?
REJ: Of course!
KAREN: That’s like saying what’s on your mind in the moment instead of writing it out because at that point, it’s probably nothing like you imagined in your head.
You are signed to sonaBLAST! records. What are your thoughts on the state of independent DIY art? Do you feel like it’s gotten easier to put things out there and get noticed or do you feel like there’s now so much out there that it’s easy to get lost or buried?
KAREN: You have the power and the platform but at the same time, when all six billion of us have a platform it’s easier to get lost. It’s a very push and pull system.
REJ: Being part of the label does open some doors but it doesn’t solve anything. It’s still the same amount, if not more work in different directions. Some people think that they can sign to a label and get famous with them doing everything for them. That’s not true at all. It opens more opportunities and doors but if you don’t put the work in to see those doors out then it’s almost worse, because it helps get you to these spaces, but if you don’t work hard, it’s going to leave you on your ass when your contracts over. It allows you to get out there, but then you're no longer playing music as a hobby, this is now your profession, and you have to, in addition to playing music, manage yourself, be your own agent, and communicate with a fuck ton of emails. There’s a lot to cover that’s not playing music. It's a business. It’s not for everyone. Bring it on!
You mention earlier that your lyrics are almost satirical in some ways. Could you elaborate on that?
REJ: I feel like we’re bombarded by a lot of radical and extremist messages online, and as a result, we can become very desensitized to important messages because we’re told how to feel depending on our specific demographic or genre that we want to fit into. But satire is a really great way to get people engaged and show the ridiculousness in things. Instead of me saying ‘Hey, female subservience to the patriarchy based on our bodies is really fucked up’-- because that sounds like literally everything you’ve heard on the internet-- I’ll just sing “I’m your dad”.
What are your thoughts on the current state of “guitar driven” music in general? There was an article in VICE published in which it was argued that ‘rock is dead… but that’s a good thing’. Would you agree with something along that line?
KAREN: Rej and I were discussing that this morning. We were talking about being a rock-star. In the current era, rock-star’s kind of died out with the 20th century. Rock got very overproduced and bland. You go to the Walmart kids section, and they have these ‘ROCK ON!’ T-shirts, where-as back in the day it was like… parents didn’t want their kids listening to rock music. ‘That’s the devil's music’. Now it’s more commercial and sold as something for the whole family. It’s been surpassed by hip-hop because it’s edgy and it’s great. Rock is due for a comeback.
REJ: A lot of different genres have been given space to create new things, and that’s getting people excited. Artists are doing new things that are striking. That’s why rock was so great when it first started; because it was brand new, and off-brand and edgy. Now, though, they keep over-processing it and doing it over and over again, looking for the same results. But it's already happened. You just have this super-saturation and get this super-diluted genre that sounds like everything else you’ve ever heard before. And there’s also a lot of gatekeeping regarding what it is and what it isn’t, which makes people afraid to branch out and explore and grow from it and create something new. “New” is what gets things bumpin’. Old gets old. It’s rotten. It dies. It’s wrinkling.
A lot of DIY spaces and independent venues, such as Death By Audio and 285 Kent are being bought out by corporations. Do you think there’s this threat of DIY and independent music suffering because of this?
REJ: I don’t think it threatens it at all. In our city anyways, people do it because they love it. Nothing threatens that. Maybe your vacation may make it difficult for venues and spaces hard to access, but usually, where one thing falls, another thing will rise. We’re never totally bumped out of it. I don’t think they’re relevant or correlatable, at least in my experience.
KAREN: The DIY scene has so many loyal people in it that I don’t think it needs to worry and threat about other people coming in and pushing them out. In our city, anyways. We’re also a pretty punk rock city. That’s definitely what goes well down here. That and hip-hop. DIY spaces. Things like that. We have a venue that’s ran by Live Nation and it’s not something that people really talk about or go to unless a really big band is coming through.
KAREN: Yeah, our local shows are poppin’, to be honest. Especially going to other places like New York, and Cincinnati, and wherever the fuck else we’re playing, it really makes me love Louisville-- Louisville has got it going on. Our best shows are the local shows-- the all-ages, secret shows that happen in houses. Those are buck wild. Louisville is alive and well when it comes to DIY spaces. And yeah, Live Nation and the corporations don’t touch it. The tourists are the only ones who go to places.
One of the things I notice when I go to shows is that there is a lot of age restrictions. They’re often 18-21+ shows. Do you feel that there is an importance to all-ages shows. Is the quality and experience in correlation to that. If so, then how?
REJ: All ages shows forever. Because honestly, kids needs music much more than 21 and over people need. If you’re 21 and over, then you have all the opportunities to do whatever you want whenever you want. But a lot of the people under the age of 18 don’t. And sometimes all they have is music. And I’ll be damned if our city is gonna put kids in a position where the only way they have to experience music is to sneak into a bar and be subjected to substance abuse. That’s so fucked up. In Louisville, we have a few 21+ shows, but we always have at least one all-ages show. Because our band has gotten so large in our town, though, there is a house-space or two that won’t let us play anymore because the crowd gets too intense, but there are still so many spaces for us. Because we have a lot of power as a local band, we have been able to open up a couple of spaces to have all-age nights that they never did before, but they do by our request. Kids need it way more than anyone else.
How has being in Louisville, KY influenced or affected you as artists-- even beyond GRLwood? What kind of scene inhabits the city, and what thrives there?
KAREN: Well… being in Kentucky… as the rest of the nation knows… it’s a very right leaning state. There’s a lot of nonsensical shit that happens here. For example, somebody in my hometown got fired from their job because they wore a shirt that said “LGBT” on it. The whole nation right now is kind of in a hostile socio-political climate. But Kentucky in general is one of the hotter spots for that. I know that Rej also grew up in a place outside of here that’s kind of smaller. Of course, you are your environment, and our environment is kind of angry and hostile. Instead of channeling that into negativity, and going out and hurting people, we make music out of that. We make art. Some people go out there and they do some really bad shit because they’re angry. That’s not okay. Music and art is there to let you express your feelings and do it in a safe manner for everybody. We are a product of our environment, certainly.
REJ: Our city is progressive, though. We do live in a nice, comfy progressive pocket. But that’s not to say we’re completely away from the all of the racist, red-neck fuckholes that live outside the city. It’s still Kentucky. I it’s like that everywhere, though. The city is a progressive pocket in the center of a country fuck-hole.
KAREN: Louisville is the place to be if you’re in Kentucky. It’s a safer pocket. Shit still happens, but it’s safer. The haters definitely motivate us. You’re just fueling our fire. Keep talking shit and being a shitty fucking person because we’re just gonna keep writing more fucking music about it and make you look even sillier than you were originally.
REJ: Slurpin’ up the haterade.
KAREN: Louisville is a place for heavier music. People love to dance and mosh. Soft stuff can go well too. The people here thrive on high energy though.
REJ: The hip-hop is high energy, the punk is high-energy. We do have a lot of really cool dream-pop projects, but they operate very differently than we do. We operate within a realm that contains a lot of punk, alternative, rock-- of course, considering our sound. But there’s a lot of everything here. There’s a lot of support for noise projects. But if you put the effort in, then our city will turn the fuck up for anything. I think that’s a beautiful thing. The DIY scene really controls itself here in Louisville.
KAREN: And if you’re a shitty fucking person, then our town is small enough that people will find out and stop supporting you very fast.