January 7, 2010
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Writer Sana Krasikov interviews Alicia Jo Rabins of Girls in Trouble:
Sana Krasikov: Alicia, when I was listening to your album, what came through the loudest for me was a sad, sweet Irish Ballad sound. Your violin playing and singing feels very much in the grain of the Irish Bard tradition. Can you talk a bit about that – has Irish music been an influence for you. Do you think there are parallels between Irish storytelling and Jewish storytelling?
Alicia Jo Rabins: Definitely. The Irish and the Jews have a lot in common - as James Joyce pointed out. Perhaps not coincidentally, Joyce is one of my favorite writers and Ulysses, as a modern Irish interpretation of The Odyssey , was a major inspiration as I was writing these songs interpreting Torah stories about women through a contemporary American voice. And musically, absolutely - I play a lot of traditional Appalachian fiddle music which has its roots in Ireland and England, and I've been profoundly influenced by the simplicity and depth of those songs and fiddle tunes. I love the way old Irish and Appalachian murder ballads tell these gruesome stories which somehow feel so good to sing - good enough to be passed down through generations, kind of like these Torah stories about betrayal and exile and love and leprosy.
Was music always in the background at your house when you were kid growing up in the Baltimore suburbs? What do you remember your parents listening to?
I started playing violin when I was three years old, and so did my two younger sisters, so there were always a lot of squeaky little violin noises around, and a lot of basic classical repertoire that got more complex as we grew up. My parents listened to classical music, but I didn't like a lot of it because it was too intense - I used to come downstairs and ask them to turn off the scary music (usually Beethoven.) I didn't know pop music existed until I turned thirteen, at which point I started listening obsessively to top-40 radio for about a year, but pretty soon after I got into local bands and the whole DIY scene and stopped listening to mainstream radio. So I kind of missed out on pop music the first time around, and I'm still filling in the gaps, which leads to some unusual choices of van listening on tour.
You played for cash in bars when you lived in Jerusalem, right? How was the rock scene in Israel different from the rock scene here?
I lived this weird life for two years where I was basically a Jewish monk during the day - studying ancient texts in Aramaic and Hebrew, chanting prayers, saying blessings - and then at night I would go out and play bluegrass and rock music in clubs. But I can't really speak to the scene in general; mine was a pretty unique experience. I will say, speaking of the Israeli scene, that I've been to some Monotonix shows here in the States over the last year and they have blown my mind. If they're any representation, the rock scene there is insane.
One reason I wanted to hear your album was that, while I was living in Moscow, my friend Nadya and I had this Torah study group going where we got a bunch of young women -- Russian, American, Israeli, Jewish, Christian, agnostic -- to all get together Tuesday nights and read stories and commentaries about the matriarchs. One forgets how packed with drama the bible is and how its stories rarely lead you to simple conclusions about God or human nature. I remember when we read about Tamar and Chana – who felt like these underdogs who were being treated as though they were crazy or drunk (in Chana’s case), and as a result felt abandoned by God. And yet, when they were proven right (or righteous), their role in the story in the story seemed to be to shed light on some patriarchal errors or hubris. Almost like a corrective force. I wonder if that’s a theme you picked up from reading these stories as well, since you seem to explore it in your songs.
Wow, that group sounds amazing. Sometimes it seems so rare that people actually sit down and read the Torah or the Bible or whatever, instead of just assuming they know what's in it. It's actually great literature with all these shocking stories about humans and what we do to each other. That's deinitely a large part of the inspiration for this project - bringing the dark, twisted, human stories out. Not just to shock people, but to contextualize all the darkness we see around us - that it's human darkness and not, actually, essentially modern. And at the same time those situations give us the opportunity to make brave and creative decisions - to use whatever tools we have to make things work, whether it's our intelligence or even just our vulnerability. I do sense a kind of proto-feminist awareness in some of those stories like Tamar and Chana, where men who are overly confident in their power are schooled about justice, karma and love by resourceful women. And then there's Bat Yiftach (the story behind "Mountain") which is just kind of heartbreaking and ends in death.
If you were to drive for six hours straight, say from New York to North Carolina, what music would you take along for the car ride?
Funny you should ask, because I'm answering these questions on tour in North Carolina. We've been listening to a lot of Brian Eno, to Micachu and the Shapes, to Gladys Knight, Nina Nastasia, and to Elton John (not because anyone is into Elton John but because I've never really heard him - see #2). And somewhere in the back of my mind I'm always listening to Leonard Cohen on repeat.
Because of the album’s title, I can’t help but ask: tell me about a time in your life when you were most in trouble.
I tutor bat mitzvah students, and if I answered that question honestly, their parents would all probably fire me immediately.
On your Myspace page, under “genre” you wrote “psych folk”. Can you talk about what that means to you?
I don't take genre descriptions very seriously, and I don't really know what "psych folk" means. But I'm deeply influenced by traditional American folk music, yet also interested in expanding that sensibility and bringing it into realms that are far from strict folk music - violin looping, for example, or weird literary influences - so I figured psych folk was as good a way as any to describe that.
Your husband Aaron was one of the collaborators on this solo album. What’s the give-and-take like when you produce music together?
We got engaged between recording and mixing the album, and got married a few weeks before it came out, so this record has a lot of love in it. As an artist, Aaron's great to collaborate with because we come from such different places, musically speaking - I'm from this classical and folk/traditional music background, and he's lived for years in Olympia and Portland, and has toured the world for years playing weird shamanistic punk music with Old Time Relijun, plus he knows a ton about rock history which I don't. I wrote all the songs, but we would brainstorm together about arrangements and production - we'd stay up late playing each other obscure stuff from each of our record collections, and pushing the songs in different directions, and I think you can hear some of that reflected in the songs. The other musicians on the record, Tim Monaghan (drums) and Jascha Hoffman (keyboards) are also also close friends, so Aaron and I would bring our ideas to practice and then the final arrangements are the product of all four of us trying different things out together and seeing what works. It's a solo album in a way, but it also turned into a band of sorts.
In high school, my friends and I played this game called, “Sleep with, Live with, Throw off a Cliff.” If you were to choose three characters from your songs – whom would you sleep with, live with, and throw off a cliff?
Oh boy. I have to say, of all the interviews I've done you are the first one who's asked which Bible character I would sleep with!
I can't answer that. It would make all the other characters too jealous. But I will say this: on the album, Tamar gets slept with; Ruth gets lived with; and Bat Yiftach gets sacrificed. But not by me.
Sana Krasikov links:
Girls in Trouble links and free and legal mp3 downloads:
also at Largehearted Boy:
previous musician/author interviews
Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks