photos by Dustin Senovic
Wax Idols frontwoman Hether Fortune is equally as well known for her outspoken socio-political beliefs as her foggy, new wave sound, so it's no surprise that our interview is just as passionate. Speaking to her on the phone about the forthcoming and intensely personal album American Tragic, which was worked on by only three people -- drummer Rachel Travers, producer Monte Vallier and Fortune herself -- we also touched on broader topics relating to the likes of Taylor Swift, Twitter and internalized sexism in music. Read the entire Q&A below.
It feels like a big theme of the record is empathy. American Tragic does kind of give off the sense that it's not here for those who take advantage of vulnerable people and communities.
I wouldn't say it's the overall theme of the whole record, but there are a couple songs that are reactive to my own personal experiences throughout the past few years: going through a divorce, having people take advantage of me when I was down, stuff like that. [Empathy is] part of the package of going through a traumatic emotional experience, but it's not the overt message of the album across the board.
I know that you also just did an interview about internalized sexism in music. You mentioned briefly about grappling with that yourself. Was there a definitive moment where you recognized it?
I wish there was a definitive moment, one clear-cut example that was easy to explain. But it's really just a lifetime of lived experiences and over time realizing what was going on and learning not to blame myself. It was learning not to compete with other women and people I was being pitted against who were being affected in similar ways. One of the first things I can remember that made me realize "I'm going to be treated differently because I have this body or this way of presenting my gender" was when I was 15...when I went to a summer camp for audio production. It was the first day and I was the only girl in the class, and straight-up one of the boys looked up and said, "What are you doing here?" and everybody started laughing...And there are a lot of things that have happened since then to reinforce that. I've been fortunate enough to have strong personal strength and willpower from my mother, so I've never let it break me down or stop me from doing what I want to do, but I do sometimes feel surprised by it. It's hard.
I'm sure you saw Jessica Hopper's call for tweets then -- about first brushes with misogyny and feeling like you don't "belong" in the industry?
I was sobbing reading all of those, I was overwhelmed.
I've almost become numb to it. I've been forced to laugh it off or ignore it...and people continue to reinforce that, even in my social circle. There's a lot of backlash happening even within the punk community with expressing that [misogyny] is a problem for some of us. There are times when I've internalized that, but when it comes at you over and over again after years and years it's hard not to feel bad about it.
What are the state of affairs in punk music right now? What still needs to be worked on?
More compassion. I'm not personally in a frame of mind where I'm on this sweeping tidal wave that's happening right now where people are demanding more safe spaces or [participating in] "call-out culture," and I have conflicting views about it. First of all, I think it's important to be transparent and to be aware and take care of each other, but I also recognize that a big part of this punk and hardcore subculture is violence and chaos and expressing anger in a way that those should be safe spaces for people who are angry. They need to let that out and be able to push, shove, scream, sweat and freak out because they're holding onto so much emotion. That was my experience growing up in the hardcore scene, and that's what I sought out. Like I wanted to feel the camaraderie of a group of people losing their shit. I think that's really important about punk and I don't want that to go away. But I do think the scene should have more compassion and empathy for people who are drawn to those subcultures for different reasons. Maybe they have different types of traumas, personality sets, or mental issues where it's more difficult for them to exist in those spaces and feel comfortable. Having compassion rather than judgment and criticism would make the biggest difference.
There is something to be said about "call-out culture" in regards to that. It's been a big issue as of late with band names being watched by the "social justice warriors" and whatnot. Do you have an opinion on that issue?
Not really. There are so many serious, real problems happening in the world all the time. 2015 is a little past the age to be like "Oh, I'm gonna wear a Nazi symbol!" It's like, okay, they did that in the '70s, we get it. Let's find another way to subvert culture and freak people out. Personally, I don't offend easily, but I understand why other people get offended. But it's important to talk about, and I like to fully explore discourse. I would say punk's biggest crime would be being ignorant or boring -- like it's not that interesting to name your band [something controversial]. Most of the times it's just kids trying to be wild and make music and they're not the most cultured and informed people in the world. Like a huge part of the punk subculture has to do with class and maybe they don't understand what would be offensive to a variety of people. But it's a dangerous line. We have to value and respect each other and cultural differences.
Is that why you're also a pretty prominent writer? To encourage discourse?
I don't think that's why I'm a writer. I started writing when I was really young, and I mostly wrote poetry and fiction. Writing for me is primarily a way for me to work out stuff that goes on in my head. I'm comfortable being opinionated, and it works as a tool for me to get feelings across and try and make a difference for somebody, even if it's just someone identifying with what I'm saying.
Do you see your writing and music working in tandem towards advancing what you're saying, or is it more that they inform each other?
Honestly, I've never really thought about it. I've always had an overwhelming need to express myself with whatever medium is available to me. I just have a lot in me that I want to share so I can work through things energetically, emotionally, and intellectually. Being creative is part of my learning process.
I saw your VMA tweets. What are your opinions on Taylor Swift's very controversial "girl squad?"
I think it's totally phony, I don't buy it. It's all for show. I think she's a super talented artist and songwriter, obviously. She's self-made in a lot of ways and she's in control of her own career, so I respect those things about her. But I think that she's so far off the planet... She's on Planet Taylor where everything revolves around her. Suddenly now she's like, "Oh, feminism is cool! This is my girl squad!" Which is, for the most part, supermodels and really beautiful, thin, women who make her look like she's cool. It's just ridiculous, but that is her job as a performer. Do your thing, whatever makes you happy, but I personally don't find it empowering or genuine. She's acting like she's making some grand political statement, but it's a daily reality to have friends that are women. I'm not inspired.
Nicki had a point, and I can't believe it was totally erased.
She totally had a point! And then Taylor just came in on her white horse, like her literal white horse, and completely dominated the discussion Nicki was trying to have about a real issue she deals with as a black woman in the industry. I wanted to hear what Nicki had to say, I didn't want to hear what Taylor had to say. Why is she involved in that? It had nothing to do with her, but she had to insert herself.
What are your opinions on the commercialization of feminism that's been floating around as of late?
It's a catch-22. That's happening with feminism and that's happening with trans-visibility. I can't speak on [trans issues] and I won't speak on that, but feminism is something I can claim and do claim. It's complicated because on the one hand it's good. The more the idea of feminism becomes normalized and accepted as not a scary thing, but as something about equality -- it can only help. But I also can't help but have a vomit-reaction to it being so oddly and clearly commercialized. Like, at the end of the day, the people who are in power at the top-tier of the industry are still men in suits at all these record companies. They're still calling the shots and making the money. It's mostly still old dudes. Feminism is being taken and presented back to us as a product, and it sucks. These men in power are being forced to acknowledge feminism, but they're using it to make more money because they see that women like it.
I think this ties back to the whole idea of your album, American Tragic. Could you explain what 'American Tragic' means?
Thematically, I called it American Tragic because it ties together how I live in this society and culture as an opinionated and socio-politically informed person, which informs everything that I do. And even though the album is very personal and emotional for me, it's a universal theme of feeling broken, abandoned, weak, and invisible. Especially with what's been happening with this major cultural upheaval surrounding social media and Black Lives Matter and trans women being murdered. There's all this awareness and change happening, but there's a huge push against that at the same time. It feels like an energetic war that's always been waging in this country, because it's always been a dichotomy in America: the land of promise, the land of slavery. It's a land of beginnings, and a land of an entire native peoples being slaughtered. It's a land of immense wealth and immense poverty. It's such a huge dichotomy of extremes. That's how I feel every day of my life, like I should be so grateful but I'm also so sad.
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