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November 20, 2013 by

The Shondes: Anthems for Your Inner Outsider

TheShondes-TheGarden-albumCoverSince they started making waves with their 2008 debut album, “The Red Sea,” Brooklyn’s homegrown rock band, The Shondes, have lived up to their Yiddish-inspired name. Providing anthems for everyone’s inner outsider, they’ve been shaking up the music scene with influences from Riot Grrrl, traditional klezmer music, and feminist punk rock, all wrapped into one package.

Back in 2011, I interviewed the band before the release of their third album, “Searchlights.” Now, as they spiral down from the nationwide tour of their fourth full-length album, “The Garden,” I caught up with The Shondes’ front-woman, Louisa Solomon, to learn more about writing songs for radical organizing and what it means to never give up on The Garden.

AW: Was there a Biblical influence for the song and album title, “The Garden”?

LS: In the sense that the garden of Eden is an unavoidable cultural frame for thinking about growing up, loss, disillusionment, and all of that. It’s common ground in a way for getting into all the interesting stuff inside it. But really we were thinking of a non-specific imagined garden, as a kind of holding place for parts of yourself, precious things you’ve given up but know are still out there in some form, somewhere. It begs all the questions that go along with pain and loss and growth: where does stuff go when we cast it off, and what’s it like if we try to retrieve it? It’s just an interesting landscape to spend some time in.

AW: Who are you most inspired by, musically or otherwise?

LS: I am really inspired by people who find ways to make stuff happen, against the odds, against the flow. 

I am definitely inspired by my sister Claire, who, in addition to being a creative and brilliant academic and educator, is a completely genius fiction writer. Her novels read like nothing else. She is so adept at playing with form that the story never suffers for its own subversions and explorations. I think about that a lot when writing songs — how to keep experimentation in service of the song. 

My musical inspirations are varied, but united by their ability to make me feel big feelings: soul, punk, some pop (though I’m picky), and anthemic rock. That’s most of what I listen to these days. I’m a sucker for a well-written song. 

I’m inspired by musicians/friends in Brooklyn who are working hard like we are to write solid songs and share them with people, while making rent in an amazing city. Leda, Chris McFarland, and Laura Stevenson are all good examples. 

And of course my love, New York itself, is an ever-present source of inspiration. 

AW: Has your relationship with your band name – The Shondes – changed since your first record?

LS: I’ve never thought about it quite that way but what a great question. We chose it to pay homage to Yiddish and to experiences of outsiderness. When we began, our music itself was much more “outsider”-ish in superficial ways at least: our drummer was learning to play her instrument on stage, we were consciously merging super different genres, our politics were always in center stage. 

We have grown to write the music we need, and it has become more accessible and more skilled. I still think of it as anthems for outsiders; we just don’t need them all to be in minor, with time signature experimentation, right?

AW: What is your songwriting process?

LS: I am the band’s principal songwriter, which means that more often than not I write the basics (lyrics and chords and structure and big ideas) and bring them to the band. Then the real magic happens in our collective process. Lots of give and take, sometimes arguing, but songs are always Better for it. 

Eli usually does the principal songwriting for anything he sings lead on, and we often work together at my piano to hash out basic song ideas before taking them to the collective space. 

AW: Why is it important for you to combine politics with music? Which issues are particularly crucial for you right now?

LS: “Politics” is such a funny term, right? People mean different things by it; I even mean different things by it at one time or another! In the “everything is political” sense — there’s no way for music not to be political. We exist in all these contexts and we are engaging with them, consciously or not. So I try to be intentional about the kind of music I’m offering to people, and the kind of semi-public figure I am. I would never want to ignore all that. And as someone who is really passionate about the idea of justice, of wanting a better and fairer world, I have opinions on lots of things that sometimes come across through our music, and often come across in interviews! I always want to write in a genuine way, so when my politics are showing more or less, it’s not the product of calculation. I like to think that our music might be a good soundtrack for radical organizing  — I try to write the songs I need to hear to keep going and it means the world when fans tell us it’s working for them too. 

The band has been particularly nurtured and embraced by the queer community, and we’ve tried to connect with queer and feminist organizers on campuses, for example, whenever possible. Our music has real resonance for people who have experienced being outsiders of one kind of another, and people who are looking for hope (aren’t we all?) But I think people who are engaged directly in organizing work are often faced with bleak landscapes, and seemingly unconquerable walls of structural oppression. It’s important to find sources of inspiration, and I feel lucky to have been able to offer some for our fans. 

The band is also strongly associated with anti-Zionist and anti-Occupation work because we’ve all been involved in it at one point or another, and with a Yiddish band name, Jewish political stuff comes up a lot. Palestinian liberation feels really close to my heart for many reasons. As a younger Jewish woman, radicalizing in high school and college, I learned a lot through my engagement with it, especially about racism in Jewish communities, and about meaningful solidarity praxis. People with privilege experience opportunities at the expense of others every day, but there’s something extremely, almost cartoonishly illustrative about how that plays out with Israel. American Jews, who may have no personal relationship to Israel whatsoever have the opportunity to become citizens there, while Palestinians are disenfranchised and brutalized. The particular, undeniable injustice of that fact was very formative for me; being directly implicated made it feel particularly important to use the band as an opportunity to comment on it. That’s part of how we came to write the song I Watched the Temple Fall.

AW: What’s next for The Shondes?

LS: We are winding down our fall tour on The Garden and planning 2014 out. And as always, we are writing new material!