Alphabet Rockers’ Kaitlin McGaw on Motherhood, Music and Celebrating Diversity with The LOVE

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

This past summer, as our country marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, many Americans marveled at how far we’ve come since the 1960s. From schools revamping their lesson plans to include the contributions of gay and transgender individuals to the legalization of same-sex marriage, we’re seeing true queer liberation on so many fronts. 

But beyond cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay area, where Kaitlin McGaw calls home, many LGBTQ communities have experienced increased violence and intolerance — especially over the last few years.

“I don’t turn away from it, and don’t cringe when contextualizing it for my young nieces, nephews and child,” says McGaw, whose hip-hop collective Alphabet Rockers channeled their frustration and hope into their latest album, The LOVE. “Embracing that has helped me counter how dominant culture is at work in children’s media, in our implicit biases, in our shushing and half truths.”

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Alphabet Rockers’ Kaitlin McGaw (she/her) and Tommy Shepherd (he/him)

The album — available for download everywhere — is loaded with uplifting, high-energy jams, tribal beats, lyrics about inclusion, gender identity and pride. It’s relatable to every listener, no matter who they are, how old they are or where they live.

We recently sat down with Kaitlin McGaw to chat about motherhood (her second child is due in October!), music, culture and more.

Rockmommy: As a dancer, educator, musician and podcaster, you’re really a Jane of All Trades! How’d you get your start as an artist?

Kaitlin McGaw: It had to be the start of high school, when I dove into poetry, voice and theater. Specifically, hearing the performances of poetry from Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou helped me see the power of these art forms to change culture, including my own. When I moved to the Bay Area after college, I found the bravery to really go deeper into every aspect of my artistry. I performed in a hip-hop dance troupe, acted in musical theater and then finally dove into songwriting and singing full-time. I loved how with music, I could let the songs and art change with me — with performances that could stretch over months and years instead of weekends of a theatrical run. Today there is no separating the art from the heart. It’s an authentic representation of myself and the community I perform with and for.

Rockmommy: Why is a record like The LOVE — which centers on gender identity and acceptance — needed so badly right now?

Kaitlin McGaw: Our kids deserve music that is rooted in our diverse identities — songs that they want to bump loud and proud, and process all their big ideas and feelings. Right now, our kids are absorbing all the pain of our country, including our silence and our resistance, whether we talk to them about it or not. Sometimes we hear folks say how grateful they are we do so much for the next generation. But we’re not done changing, either! The LOVE is for all of us — for parents who want to keep learning and evolving and for kids eager to be a part of love and change. There is incredible power in empathy, incredible impact in learning through another person’s narrative and lens. This is how we broaden our ‘blind spots,’ and we can’t do it by staying in a media space of tolerance that centers on dominant cultures. The LOVE allows us to hear from all ages, to center trans and non-binary voices, and to level up our love and understanding.

The Love Cover smallRockmommy: Can you walk us through the process of creating the album, from concept to execution?

Kaitlin McGaw: For the past two albums, Tommy and I have used an inquiry process to create our songs; our goal is to have an authentic truth to each song that meets the real need of our audience. It’s almost like translation. We research, we listen, and we host individual and community conversations about the issues we are writing about. Then we create a web of lyrics and sounds — always pushing ourselves sonically to stay contemporary and on the top of our musical composition. The first track we created for this album was “Live Your Life” — written with a young trans member of our family — and he shared what he would want to tell the 5-year-old version of himself. For other songs on this album, we partnered with Our Family Coalition, the two spirit indigenous community of the Bay Area, and many individual families with gender diverse identities. What resulted was music that sounds, as Our Family Coalition reflected, “by us and for us” — and songs that translate from age 2 to 80 in our human evolution.

Rockmommy: Some of the best art comes from anger and frustration. Have any of those emotions fueled this record?

Kaitlin McGaw: One of the kernels of love on this album, advised by one of our gender non-binary parents, was the importance of honesty even if it counters the child media of ‘love is love’ and ‘sunshine after the rain.’ Telling kids that everything would get better, in the parent’s perspective, was neither true nor fair. You will hear that freedom to name the pain and the self love in so many songs on this album — and I hope listeners will join us in that spaciousness.

For myself as an artist and privileged cisgendered white woman, I have been in conversation with anger, oppression, humanity and justice for many years, even if it is not in my lived body. I don’t turn away from it, and don’t cringe when contextualizing it for my young nieces, nephews and child. Embracing that has helped me counter how dominant culture is at work in children’s media, in our implicit biases, in our shushing and half truths.

All that being said, the album The Love feels at once contemporary — speaking our current truth — and of service to our child selves, both music for our future legacy and healing of our past. None of the violence and oppression we are witnessing today is new, nor is our bravery or truth speaking new. But it all is still a revolution and revelation of expansive consciousness, connection and willingness to create positive change.

Rockmommy: Were there logistical challenges in making the record?

Kaitlin McGaw: We coordinated more than 60 artists and collaborators to make this album, which was a huge undertaking! The logistics of coordinating recording sessions, meetings and rehearsals continues to be a huge part of our job in presenting The LOVE — and yet this challenge is so necessary to undertake. One thing I’ve learned about equity and creating equitable frameworks is that what may feel convenient is not always equitable. It takes time, trust and stretching to find that common ground.

Having said that, we’ve got an amazing home base — Zoo Labs — a studio and business development space right here in Oakland that has facilitated every public creation for the album. From artistic brainstorms to business models, listening sessions with families to final recordings, we had a safe and nurturing environment to create. We are also fortunate to have a deep and diverse community of creative minds — families that really opened up to us, and artists who came on board to share their truths.

Oh, and being in my first and second trimester of pregnancy throughout the recording meant a few bumpy days as well! This baby is going to have music in their heart from the very beginning.

Rockmommy: You have lots of other projects and work commitments, in addition to motherhood. How do you balance everything?

Kaitlin McGaw: Balance is huge. Having an active toddler with 12-hour recording sessions, 7 a.m. departures for school concerts, and coordinating a team of performing artists, documentarians, booking agents for tours and shipping/product management means my brain has to be large and in charge. And full of patience. My main thing I have been working on is letting go — knowing I won’t get to everything, that’s it’s OK to not be the perfect meal planner, that my life and art will be OK even if I have to do one more than the other. It’s not always easy. My self care routine is to stop working after I pick up my little one from day care — no projects or logging in. Same for weekends, when we are not performing, I give my family 100 percent attention. Of course the work day, inspiration and upkeep doesn’t ever stop for entrepreneurs, so it’s not easy!

My husband and I are both very passionate about our life’s work (he works in building affordable housing for the Bay Area) so we also feel a ton of support for one another’s time, heart and balance. He thrives on the mornings with our toddler when I race to a school show, or their time on weekends when I’m out at a concert. And I love sitting on the carpet to play with cars to start or unwind the day. But the best part has been watching my toddler grow up in the studio, at rehearsals and looking up to the 10- and 11-year-old Alphabet Rockers.

Rockmommy: On the other hand, how has parenthood influenced your artistry?

Kaitlin McGaw: Becoming a parent has given me so much more compassion for each parent’s journey. Now at shows, when I see parents with little ones, I feel extremely thankful and aware that they have gone the distance to do something of value for their children. I feel even more responsibility and honor to be a source of culture in their family story.

And every story that is shared with me becomes a part of my artistic fabric. The mom who told me her family was targeted with racist harassment on the street on vacation — she said they went back to their hotel and listened to/sang ‘I’m Proud’ on repeat. This is the why. And it brings it all full circle. That song was rooted in the need for healing and self empowerment for diverse individuals — and it continues to do just that. I am eager to hear the stories of how The LOVE changes lives, moments, and after-school processing, and builds a community of empowered change makers.

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy. 

Should you Changes Lyrics for a New Audience?

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom 

I’m a pretty wholesome mom, inside and out. Except when I write songs. When I sit down with my guitar at night and start strumming, the first lyrics that come to mind aren’t about dinosaurs and eating vegetables. I drift to another place — my mind drawn to more salacious topics, like sex and politics or even gay rights and gun ownership. I’ve been known to drop more F bombs than your average mom singer (is there an “average mom singer,” though?).  

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with songs about dinosaurs — kindie-rock performers like Laurie Berkner write some killer dinosaur tunes. But it’s not the way I’m wired. For this reason, I use a stage name that’s separate from my real identity so my guitar students will have a harder time finding my music online.

Here’s the problem: Unlike my contemporaries who are famous, I don’t have the luxury of playing whatever gig at whatever venue I want whenever I want. While I believe moms should be proud to be themselves — whether they want to write about dinosaurs or sexual fantasies — club promoters and bar managers don’t aways see it that way. So unless I’m playing a dive bar or indie-rock show in Brooklyn, I feel pressured to alter my lyrics considerably. Sometimes, I’ll have to completely gut a song, lyrically — which inevitably leaves me feeling a little empty. 

This happened at First Night Delaware about 15 years ago, with my D.C. band Grandma’s Mini. We were given $400 to play a New Year’s Eve gig for four hours, only to learn last minute that we would be playing four back-to-back sets in a library. Yes, a LIBRARY! Children would be coming to see us!! If you’ve ever heard Grandma’s Mini — whose most famous song, “Learn to Love Your Sh*t Job” was featured in the indie flick Washington Interns Gone Bad — you know that most of our songs aren’t meant for the ears of innocent children. So it was a mad, 20-minute scramble for me and Ann (my music partner) to come up with alternate lyrics.

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Playing “not so innocent” music with my band Grandma’s Mini

While I don’t mind playing cute songs like “Baby Shark” or “Shiny” when I’m playing a library gig or for my sons’ preschool, I hate watering down content like this. Sometimes I wonder if it’s better to turn down gigs altogether than change in the slightest, which can feel inauthentic. When money’s involved, the decision gets a little harder. Ann and I weren’t about to let go of $400 after we’d booked hotels and arrived on site. 

There are other considerations too. I’m a super-busy mom who rocks — but also works. I barely have time to market my band, or any musical project I’m involved in. I can’t be picky. If I get asked to play at any event, it’s an honor.

On the other hand, life is short: People shouldn’t have to compromise who they are in their hearts. Cardi B doesn’t!

What would you do if you were in my shoes? Take the gigs that require a change in lyrical content, or just be grateful for what you get and adapt as needed? 

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor of Rockmommy.

The Most Rock n’ Roll Pumpkins Ever

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

I don’t know about you, but I’m over the moon that it’s Halloween! While I normally don’t spend hours on social media (though my husband would probably disagree), Halloween is one of those days when I’m entrenched in it. I love seeing the pics of little kids’ costumes, decorations and festivities.

I’m especially tickled over some of the cool, Pinterest-worthy rockstar pumpkins I’m seeing.

Check out this Martha Stewart one:

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Or this one, from the Firewire Blog:

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And this one is another favorite (also from Firewire):

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Enjoy the day — costumes, candy, pumpkins and everything else!

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.

Ragnar Kjartansson’s Tinseled Female-Guitarist Art Piece ‘Woman in E’ Bothers Me: But is That the Point?

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

Let’s start off with this: I am a mom, musician, and feminist. I am not — and have never been — an art critic.

I don’t write brilliant, cerebral dissertations about art exhibits and their overt and subliminal messages. I just like to consume.

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Ragnar Kjartansson’s “Woman in E” (photo credit: Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit)

So when I first heard that The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., was seeking female guitar players to participate in Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s performance-art piece — and that they would get paid to play an electric guitar — I was ecstatic! I had never heard of a performance-art installation that featured female electric guitarists, letting one after another showcase their dexterity on an axe. So I broadcasted the news on my blog Rockmommy’s Facebook page, hoping that my guitar-wielding pals in the D.C. area (which happens to be my hometown) would jump on this opportunity.

“Applicants will be selected based upon their availability, stage presence, and ability to tune, re-string, and play basic chords on an electric guitar,” the announcement said. The performance-art piece, entitled “Woman in E,” is part of a larger “survey exhibition” dedicated to the artist, which will run October 13, 2016, through January 8, 2017, at The Hirshhorn. Auditions were held in early July for the first 80 applicants (since so many qualified female guitarists were expected to apply).

So far, so good, I told myself. Finally, female guitarists were getting much-deserved recognition on a major scale.

However, when I inquired with The Hirshhorn Museum about the piece, in an effort to learn more so I could relay information to Rockmommy readers, many of whom are women who play the electric guitar exceptionally well, one of the press reps sent me a video that would end up leaving me unexpectedly angry and confused. As it turns out, “Woman in E” consists of a rotating cast of women, standing on a spinning pedestal and strumming the easiest guitar chord in the universe for two-hour clips!

“It’s just a lady on a pedestal playing melancholy chords,” Kjartansson explained in a video interview following the debut of the piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. “And it plays a little bit into A-minor and then goes into E-minor again.”

To be fair, Kjartansson admitted the exhibit “is a comment on feminism and objectification.”

Still, after watching the video, I felt put off: Who does this man think he is, showcasing  talented female guitarists —who are an underrepresented, objectified minority among musicians already — in such a limited capacity? Does Kjartansson actually know how to play guitar? (As I would learn later, he was, in fact, the lead guitarist for his band in high school.) Still, the negative judgments loomed large, and I found myself thinking: of course an exhibit like this would be created by a man!

After I’d cooled off, it occurred to me that sometimes one can’t always see the broader landscape, or the bigger vision, that drives an artist to create. You don’t get written up by lofty, high-brow media outlets like The New Yorker if you aren’t stirring debates or furthering conversations or moving people, right? Kjartansson is an impactful artist who does all of these things.

So I decided to take a closer look at some of the press materials associated with this piece and watch the video again.

I learned that “Woman in E” was conceived after the artist learned that an exhibit space he wanted to use had once served as a show room for cars. After learning this, he supposedly got the idea for using a gaudy, gold pedestal to “showcase” a performer like merchandise.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Kjartansson sought to hire a diverse cast of female guitarists.

“The performers are these super-cool Detroit ladies,” he said in the post-MOCA Detroit video interview. “They’re kind of like these Statues of Liberty or something.”

Third, Kjartansson’s art education, upbringing, and surroundings have all contributed to his worldview and artistic expression. Feminist art courses have inspired him to think a lot about issues such as how “violent” it can be to objectify a woman in art; his fascination with America, which can come across as disgust, comes from his being raised “in a socialist anti-American home.”

In one writeup for “Woman in E,” it as explained that “the protagonist powerfully embodies multiple tropes of femininity at once — she is a goddess, conqueror, and siren — but eludes a single narrative.”

This statement pretty much reiterates the message dispatched in the “official” write-up, which I was sent by Hirshhorn’s press rep:

“Kjartansson carries the key of E-minor to immersive hyperbole with Woman in E, an installation that walks a characteristic line of earnestness and caricature. An E-minor chord rings out in endless repetition from within a dazzling tinseled environment, its performer rotating slowly like an idol upon her pedestal … But the female performer here is ultimately powerful, as her audience is allowed to indulge in the melodrama of her evocative performance.”

It’s that last sentence I’m still not sure I agree with, even after sitting with my feelings for a few days.”Woman in E” certainly stirs discussions and inspires thoughts around feminism, femininity, and musicianship. But is the woman really “ultimately powerful” because she is strumming a melancholy minor chord, on display in a Miss America-style gown? I can’t imagine people walking away from this exhibit thinking of these women as “powerful” (though the melancholy expressions on some of the Detroit women’s faces as they strummed the E-minor chord definitely make an impression!).

Wouldn’t the subject be more “ultimately powerful” if she were playing something more complex, like the Pentatonic scale or some other minor scale, suited to her skill set?

Female guitarists are no longer novelties, so I’d love for art involving them to elevate consumers. I wish Kjartansson had given his troupe of dazzling guitar-wielding ladies some leeway to demonstrate their skills. That way, the piece could have still served its purpose as a “comment on female objectification,” but without leaving the art consumer with a limited impression of a woman’s musical potential.

— Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.