A silver lining forced its way through a storm of tragedy -- including the death of one band member's parent -- when S.F. female post-punk trio Grass Widow signed to Kill Rock Stars this past winter. (Kill Rock Stars is a premier west coast indie label that's also home to The Decemberists and the late Elliott Smith.) With their raw, three-part harmonies and fast, upbeat tempos, it's not immediately obvious that dark feelings lay below the surface of Grass Widow's songs. But just as the band was preparing to infuse more happiness into its lyrics and heavy metaphors, tragedy struck the group of best friends.
Even though it's the product of a year's worth of grieving and coping, Grass Widow's upcoming album, Past Time, (due out in August) still gets the feet tapping and head bobbing. Hannah Lew, Raven Mahon and Lillian Maring called us from their practice space -- a meat locker -- to talk about fried eggs, San Francisco's unemployment office, and Cookie Monster's role as a sometime fourth band member.
Grass Widow performs at the All Shook Down Music Festival in North Beach on July 25.
You practice in a meat locker?
Hannah Lew: Yeah, it used to be an old meat packing factory, and we practice in what used to be the refrigerator. It smells a little questionable.
Raven Mahon: No windows...no ventilation.
HL: There's a hot dog in a jar in there. That's the only meat in there ... besides us.
In an interview, Lillian said a major theme in your music is anxiety. What are some other themes?
RM: As friends, we really talk about what's going on in our lives and relationships, and that works its way into our songwriting. A lot of that is difficult subject matter. Dealing with tragedy or illness ... all sorts of stuff. We're not a band that just writes about our boyfriends. There's a lot of deeply emotional, personal stuff that goes into it.
Your new album, Past Time, has a song called "Fried Egg." What's it about?
HL: Well, we feel very strongly about eggs... [laughs] Actually, the song is about nighttime anxiety, and also nighttime as a metaphor for death and the subconscious. We used the idea of an egg where the yolk and the white are two sides of understanding anything.
What was causing you nighttime anxiety?
HL: We wrote that song when we were having a band retreat, and we were staying in this cabin in Mendocino.We had a wood-burning stove. Upstairs there's a loft, and there's three clean beds with matching polar bear sheets. At night, it was completely pitch dark, and I had the worst nighttime anxiety. I had this feeling that something was calling me from the middle of the woods. Over the course of the next week, it was contagious. The truth is, as a band, we have dealt with a lot of tragedy in the last couple years.
Can you talk about that a little?
HL: In the past year and a half, my father passed away, and it was pretty hard to escape that subject matter within our songs. I felt very isolated, but I feel so lucky and faithful to have a band with my two best friends. We named the album Past Time because we were thinking about how this album encapsulated this era of our lives when we were dealing with really hard stuff. It's strange to have a product that is proof of a year. It's so weird, because we said, "Yeah, our next album is gonna be our happy album!" "Something good is gonna happen this year!" [laughs] But we're lucky in that way to have each other and this project.
Are you going to be able to listen to this album and not be sad when you hear it?
HL: There are some songs I'll listen to and it will remind me of this moment we were writing -- that desperation. But I already feel joy when I hear the songs. I feel like they're just very real.
Lillian Maring: We never settled on sad. All the songs have some element of self-motivation. I get a sense of pride when I listen to this album, because it reminds me of the process of survival. We never allowed our grief to get the best of us. We were always so oriented toward the light that we eventually got there, and that makes me feel really happy.
HL: I think the fact that we made songs is a testament to the fact that we didn't just wallow. We've never been interested in that. A lot of pop music is just a romanticization of sadness. None of us feel romantic about sadness.
RM: I don't think they necessarily sound like sad songs.
Yeah, you've said that a lot of the music is upbeat and you really have to listen to the lyrics.
HL: Yeah - to find out how messed up we are? [laughs]
RM: That's the nature of the songs, too. We're not being literal in any way. You only know because you asked and we were explaining it. But the meaning is really hidden there. It's always for us.
HL: That's the beauty of music and lyrics, and poetry. People can take on their own meaning and relate.
What do you do outside of music?
RM: I'm a woodworker. I make furniture. There's someone I work for in Mendocino, but I also have projects that are commissioned by clients in the Bay Area.
HL: Raven is great. She's being modest, but she's a fine woodworker. She made me a record shelf that's awesome. I work at an independently run video store in San Francisco called Lost Weekend Video. It's a really fun place to work because I make movies. That's my other passion.
RM: I'm gonna brag about Hannah a little bit. She makes beautiful films on 16 mm. They're all really magical. She uses lots of camera tricks. [This week] we're gonna make a music video that she's directing for "Fried Egg."
LM: To conclude our day job portions, Lillian has been unemployed for a few months now, but I am the webmaster for the band. I have a lot of hobbies. [laughs]
RM: There's been sacrifices on all sides. Hannah took a year off grad school.
She was in the film program at San Francisco State. Lily is here in the
Bay Area [from Washington] because of this. We're gonna see what happens. In the beginning this was just an experiment to see where it went. But really, we didn't know how it was going to work out. And it just did. And it has this momentum now and I think all of us feel really connected to it and can't imagine it not being part of our lives.
How do you feel about getting signed to Kill Rock Stars?
HL: We feel so excited. Everyone there is awesome. One thing we deal with as an all girl band is that everyone immediately wants to talk about the fact that you're girls. We get, "You're sexy!" at shows, and they're missing the mark. Kill Rock Stars is perfect because they have politics that we can really stand behind. We don't have to spend all our time explaining how we are women who are making music, and it's not about our sex appeal.
HL: There were a couple Cookie Monster pictures! I happened to see him on the street after our show in Brooklyn, so we took a picture with him. But earlier, we were staying somewhere where somebody had a Cookie Monster outfit that I put on. Cookie Monster used to play trumpet. He played on our first record and comes on tour with us.
LM: When we were recording an EP in Portland, our friend Alex, who runs the studio, had a dog suit, and Hannah put it on.
HL: I actually played a show with him once where I wore the dog suit the entire time. Not gonna lie, it was pretty fun.
RM: We don't own any of those, but we wouldn't mind.
HL: Cookie Monster wanted me to tell you he's sorry he couldn't make it to the interview.
I'll look out for him on the first CD.
HL: Yeah, he plays pretty well.
RM: He's a total drunk. [laughs]
Hopefully he'll be at the All Shook Down Festival!
HL: Oh, definitely! You should add him to the roster.