First, can you tell us about your musical background?
I come from a family of opera singers and theater performers and Irish traditional music fans and rock aficionados, and I was lucky enough to grow up on Broadway’s doorstep, so I think it’s safe to say that I was reared to have a voracious and wide-ranging love for music. My formal engagement started with piano lessons in kindergarten, then violin lessons in third grade—but I found my true niche when I got my first electric guitar in fifth grade. That’s when I started writing songs, and I have been composing ever since! Aside from guitar-ing, I’ve been singing my whole life, and musical theater and choral singing give me a sense of wholeness and joy I struggle to communicate verbally. Pop punk and alternative rock were the first “genres” that really spoke to me, followed by musicals, so my songwriting has a bit of a storyteller-y, punk-y, indie poppy vibe to it! Also, in the last year I’ve also written and recorded my second full-length album (Tough Love, produced by Alex Rogers) which I’ll be independently releasing in January 2019!
Can you describe the research you’re doing as a PhD candidate at UCLA?
My work at UCLA is particularly concerned with the intersections between gender, sexuality, race, bodies, and guitars; and how marginalized people—specifically queer women, as my current papers stand—physicalize their struggles and identities through their “musicking,” from playing techniques and onstage postures to the sonic products that arise from these musicians' own unique matrices of “human-instrument” entanglements.
What is of most interest to me is questions of technology, of influence, of physicality, of creativity… Questions like, how do Annie Clark’s fingers tell her own social story? Why did she write that song like that? How can we hear Carrie Brownstein’s love for the ugly, the grotesque, and the unsettling? What might her own type of musicality tell us about her social position, and the ideology it has developed within her? How does Mitski Miyawaki move so many people with her eyes fixed on the floor, or the ceiling? Why is prog-rock virtuosity a laughable meme at this point; but the same musical structures take on new revolutionary meaning in a woman’s hands? Where does the craft enter the body? Should I refer to my drum machine as a member of my band? Should I stop using a capo on my 11th fret, like my guitar teacher said, because it makes the “notes sound weird”? What difference does that “weird” timbre make? What difference does it all make? In my work, I attempt to propose some of the ways that it does make a difference—and how, in fact, it makes all the difference.
What was your honors project at Bowdoin? Did this project carry forward into your PhD research?
In my honors project, I explored how the riot grrrls’ specific applications of the punk ethic could serve as an effective mechanism for liberating me from the prescriptive identities I’d been internalizing since childhood. I decided to create a punk band of my own, in which I was the guitarist and singer, and write the thesis as my experiences unfolded. Rather than writing a traditional ethnography, I approached the project through a “personal is political” angle, inspired by Trinh T. Minh-ha’s criticisms of postcolonial ethnographic writing techniques. Since in my specific project I was writing my personal story of liberation through music, I wanted to speak from my specific context as a queer woman at Bowdoin rather than speaking for other queer women or other “othered” people by writing an ethnography. I deconstructed key moments that arose throughout the process using theories including but not limited to abjection, informed by Julia Kristeva; queerness, “failure,” and postmodern feminist discourse, informed by Jack Halberstam, Donna Haraway, and Michel Foucault; noise, informed by Jacques Attali; and improvisation, informed by Tracy McMullen.
As you might be able to tell, this honors project has everything to do with my research now! Although my analyses have become more gracefully nuanced since my undergraduate years, it was because of this honors project that I play my own music for people again! It’s also how I discovered how to communicate why I care so much about music, and why I love the guitar, and why all music is vital and important and worthwhile and tells stories far beyond the ones communicated by lyrics.
How did you decide on a music major concentration in Social & Historical Context?
I like to say that musicology came to me—I never came to Bowdoin intending to study it, but I had always had a profound love for music and a deep interest in how and why people make things and make choices (which at Bowdoin I would come to learn is a whole discipline called “cultural studies”). I took "Intro to Sociology" and "Intro to Gender and Women’s Studies" during my first year at school, and I found that I kept writing about music and culture in all of my papers! I figured there must be somewhere I could do more of that on campus, because man, did I love it… and, lo and behold, I found the Music and Culture Major. During that fateful first year, I also took Vin Shende’s "How to Write Your Own Beatles Tune" class, as well as his "Intro to Composition" class; and Michael Birenbaum Quintero’s "Music and Everyday Life.” All of these courses piqued my interest in the discipline, and by the time I took Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Music with Tracy McMullen, there was no turning back!
Who was one professor in the Music Department who really inspired you or had a big impact on your time here?
Oh man, it’s impossible to single out just one! During my time at Bowdoin, I benefited tremendously from the department’s intimate size, collegial cohesiveness, and ideological diversity; and I really feel like I took something special away from my time with each and every professor. It was a privilege to sing each day with Robby Greenlee in Chamber Choir; Frank Mauceri gave me confidence in my musical improvisatory abilities; and Vineet Shende opened my ears to harmonic worlds I’d never thought to consider in the pop and rock music I love so much. I will never forget the day during my senior year when Mary Hunter essentially told me I would become a musicological academic one day; and I, a fool, expressed my doubts. That conversation meant the world to me when I finally decided to apply to PhD programs. I knew that somebody in the field whom I respected tremendously believed in me and could validate how fulfilled I was by the work. It is that level of personal engagement with students that makes the Bowdoin Music Department so, so special. Nobody was more instrumentally inspiring to me in this way than Tracy McMullen, whose revolutionarily egalitarian and kinesthetic pedagogical approach was so formatively impactful on my worldview. Not to be dramatic; but she kind of gave me punk music. She introduced me to fields of theory and performance that I had never even heard of before. She taught me valuable lessons in decolonization and improvisative joy and activist scholarship and personal kindness; and I’m just so grateful to her for all of her helpful, calming, and supportive advice, and her continued friendly encouragement. I honestly think I still would be afraid to perform my music for people if it weren’t for her; and now I’m putting out my second album and opening for bands I really admire.
Can you describe a highlight from your time in the Bowdoin Music Department?
I watched “The Punk Singer” (2014) in Tracy McMullen’s Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Music class during the spring of my junior year at Bowdoin. The documentary chronicles the origins of the Riot Grrrl Movement, a feminist movement that started in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s in which college-aged women rebelled against issues including patriarchy, the commodification of girlhood, rape culture, and racism. It opens with circa-1991 footage of Kathleen Hanna, frontwoman of the iconic riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, bouncing maniacally around a makeshift stage in a basement somewhere in Olympia, WA. I remember being captivated by Hanna’s unapologetic confidence. She was fiercely angry, strikingly young, and contagiously passionate, and she seemed to occupy physical and sonic space in ways I'd only ever associated with men. Possibilities flooded my mind with exhilarating urgency. I sighed and thought to myself, “Oh! That is what I’m here to do.”
I saw in “The Punk Singer” remarkable contradictions, subversions, and refusals of rock music’s conventionally white, male hegemonic narrative. Hanna laughed in the face of a society that teaches women to be quiet and demure; she broke down expectations for what it means to be a “successful woman”; and she created in the absence of these expectations a liminal space for women and other “othered” people to assert their identities and reimagine society’s seemingly rigid narratives. My realization was that I wanted to be a “Kathleen Hanna” in my personal studies, music making, and career!
What other aspects of the Music Department or the Bowdoin music scene were you involved in?
Pretty much all of them!!!! I sang in the Chamber Choir, directed/performed in the musical theater club Curtain Callers, was a member of the Bowdoin Music Collective, and played in the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble. I think I took almost every music course the department had to offer during my time at school as well. All the while I also wrote and arranged my own music and did a few radio shows for WBOR!
Were there other academic departments at Bowdoin that you participated in to further your research?
I took many courses with the Gender and Women’s studies department to supplement my research, since it has major intersections with feminist/queer theory. I was also a Religious Studies Minor because I was (and continue to be) fascinated with cultural questions about how and why people think what they think and do what they do. The minor gave me the ability to consider systems of thought (like religion or music) on a relativist scale. It was also really useful for deconstructing the fascinating resonances between music and religion, which highlight the ways in which cultures consider their bodies and express their values. I enjoyed taking English courses for similar reasons!
What advice would you give a student who is considering a Musicology major?
I love music more than anything in the world; and when I learned that I could study it in college, I was so elated. If you do too, get in there and do it! Whether or not you’d like to go into academia (as I didn’t think I did back when I was a Bowdoin student), the Social & Historical Context music major concentration is a really great way of developing your analytical, creative, and rhetorical skills—all of which are quintessential components of the offer of the College! I just can’t advocate enough for how much I learned, and how much I enjoyed getting to know and learning from the amazing faculty. Take advantage of all that you can—because there is so much the department offers, from ensembles to courses to mentorships—because the opportunities really are once-in-a-lifetime!