Steve Rodgers and the Art of Rebuilding a Music Scene

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

On a warm, overcast Friday in early June 2020, Steve Rodgers might have been strumming his guitar and thinking about set lists for a string of summer concerts. But instead, the indie rocker dad was hard at work building a new chicken coop out of the wood he salvaged from his daughter’s old toy chest. 

“It’s for five chickens, which is the legal limit in Hamden,” says Steve, who has already built an impressive array of wood- and recycled-materials projects over the last few years, in the home he shares with wife Jesse, daughter Fable, 16, and son River, 10.

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Steve Rodgers

The act of repurposing good materials into something new and needed is actually a fitting metaphor these days: In the summer of COVID-19, as Steve and other musicians have been blocked from playing indoor concerts, it’s become necessary to figure out new ways to get live music to the masses.

And he’s doing a pretty good job, so far. In May, Steve — who is still best known for his role as the singer from Mighty Purple, the band he co-founded as a teen — was one of the first artists tapped by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas to start playing live, acoustic outdoor “backyard” sets. It’s one of the few options at the moment for safe, live music right now as most nightclubs are closed and concerts have been postponed or cancelled.

“I played two gigs in one day — one in a two-acre backyard and another on Court Street in New Haven,” says Steve. “There were, literally, on every porch, a family or friends and their roommates. Every time I finished a song people were clapping … they hadn’t seen any live music for two months. It was a good day for me and my fiddle player.” 

And while it isn’t the summer he imagined, it’s an absolutely fitting experience for a guy who’s had to adapt and think outside of the box to survive. 

Humble Beginnings 

When I first met Steve Rodgers, he wasn’t a 40-something dad of two, a music director in a church, or a nightclub owner. He was just 20-year-old dude from Hamden who started a rock band with his younger brother Jonny. 

Mighty Purple officially formed in 1992, with Steve on vocals and rhythm guitar, Jonny on vocals and lead guitar, Adrian VandeGraff on bass and Will Mix on drums, and quickly grew into one of New England’s more popular regional acts, opening for the likes of Dave Matthews Band and Bare Naked Ladies. Their music spans multiple genres — folk rock, psychedelic rock, funk or even hard rock. The common through line is the Rodgers brothers’ earnest, powerful harmonies and the band’s high-energy performances. Even today, the band’s influence on the New Haven-area arts scene is still evident — nearly every musician I’ve met in Southeastern Connecticut has a Mighty Purple story. 

My first Mighty Purple experience, in Fall 1994, happened by accident, as some of the best experiences do: I was to be a freshman at University of Maryland in College Park, where I met Jason DaPonte, who was from Stratford, Connecticut, and lived in my co-ed dorm (Elkton Hall). He knew Mighty Purple from his high school days, and helped them secure a gig at Javaheads, an intimate little coffeehouse-bar hybrid in downtown College Park, which served bottomless coffee and $2 well drinks. It was one of the last places where patrons could smoke cigarettes while listening to alt-rock acts play in a makeshift space by the windows. 

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Mighty Purple

Deciding to go to the show was a no brainer. Forgive me, but at the time I was 18 and full of hormones. I took one look at the flier and saw two guys with long hair, holding instruments. It was like the grunge version of Nelson. I was in.

But it was the music — arpeggiated guitars, bass, and percussion infused with some of the warmest vocal harmonies I’d ever heard — that kept me there. The show was a stripped-down, acoustic set, and the moment Mighty Purple launched into “When Kingdoms Fall,” an epic anthem characterized by its atmospheric effects, addictive hooks, and a singalong chorus, I became a fan.

After the set, I bought their CD, Bohica, and we somehow ended up having an afterparty in my dorm room, where Jason and Steve swapped stories of their youthful antics. I have a vague recollection of drinking and bong hits, but neither Steve nor I can remember that night completely. I did remember that Steve was the chattier, more extroverted of the brothers, while Jonny was the quieter one. I also recall the hours I spent listening to that CD on my walkman for the next 12 months, enjoying the heavier, funkier tunes like “Wail” and “Circle,” and my favorite — “Rose for Caroline” — throughout my entire freshman year.

“My brother and I wrote some songs collectively, and many more individually,” says Steve. “Once a song had a basic framework we would bring it to each other and then to the band. Throughout the various seasons of the Mighty Purple journey, we had many different ways of writing songs. Sometimes we wrote as a full band. Adrian, our longtime bass player, wrote many parts and transitions alongside my brother.” 

Interestingly, it was during that year, within months after seeing and hanging out with Mighty Purple, that I would pick up a guitar for the first time, and learn how to play.

Building a Scene

Steve and I crossed paths again in 16 years later — in October 2010 — because I’d transplanted to Connecticut from Brooklyn by way of marriage, and managed to score a freelance-writing gig for NBC Universal. My assignment: to write mini profiles of the coolest bars, nightclubs, and hangouts in Connecticut — including the best venues for live, original music. 

Unfortunately, I lived in Stamford, a city which felt artistically void, oozing with pop-rock cover bands and dance nights with pre-recored boom-boom pop. Nothing against these diversions, but I pined for cute little coffeehouses, poetry slams, dive bars and the artist-enclave culture that reminded me of college.

“Remember that band Mighty Purple, you met during our freshman year?” said my old pal Jason, who’d since moved to London after we graduated from University of Maryland. “The singer, my friend Steve Rodgers, opened a nightclub called The Space. I think you should check it out.”

Oh yeah, I realized. I did remember Steve Rodgers! 

The next day I hopped on the Merritt Parkway and headed toward Hamden, Connecticut, a college town I’d never set foot in, to check out Steve’s new commercial digs. As I greeted Steve for the first time since the nineties, I almost didn’t recognize him. The person who stood in front of me was no longer the wide-eyed guy the on the cusp of 21, but a man halfway into his 30s, with much shorter hair — and a wife and two young children.

The Space itself was unlike any music establishment I’d seen. On the outside, it was gray-block building that looked like it was plopped down in the middle of an old parking lot, in the middle of nowhere. But inside, it was gloriously cool, with a ‘90s record-store vibe, teeming with knick-knacks and hanging lights, and band posters plastered to brightly painted walls. There was a spacious main floor with a stage, and a cozy little basement-bar area, intended for open-mic nights.

Over the course of two hours, Steve shared his plans to lease a second venue, to be called the Outer Space, which would be tailored to 21+ patrons who wanted to enjoy good beer with their music. He would go on to do this, and then in 2013, add a third, all-ages venue — The Spaceland Ballroom — with an ample, checkered floor space that was perfect for watching all kinds of performances, from bands to burlesque.  

But by mid-2017, after years and years of growth, things started getting complicated. Keeping up with the Spaces’ overhead costs and renovations was tough, and Steve occasionally needed to hold fundraisers to keep business afloat. Some health issues had developed, and he began to meet with a couple of parties who were interested in potentially purchasing the venue. Yet he was still working feverishly every day to keep the club vital.

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The Space in Hamden, Connecticut

The signs that something had to give kept coming. Steve’s doctor told him that his vocal cords were fried, and he’d need surgery for his nodules. He’d also need to quit smoking. In January 2018, Steve underwent throat surgery, which left him unable to speak much for months.

There was one “final straw” incident in particular that shook him. About six months before the Spaces would close, Steve was getting ready to lock up one night and was approached by a man in the parking lot who pulled a gun on him. This incident was traumatizing and was one of the signs that told Steve it was time to sell. 

What happened next, which led to Steve ultimately exiting the Spaces, is a long story involving landlords and lawyers — and you can read the New Haven Register’s detailed account here — but from Steve’s perspective, the timing, although bittersweet, all worked out as it was supposed to. The Space and The Outer Space/Ballroom closed in late December 2018. 

Re-Building a Life, Part 1

It would be remiss to write a profile of Steve Rodgers without acknowledging the role that his faith in God and the church have played in his life. 

The son of an Anglican minister, Steve’s earliest memories are of him sitting in the Cathedral at King’s College and listening to sacred hymns. This tied into his musical upbringing, as his parents — “church hippies” — were songwriters and guitarists who frequently played at services. But in his teens, his parents divorced, and Steve found himself struggling with his feelings about religion. 

“The church establishment has driven so many from the faith because of intolerance, judgmental rhetoric and divisive narrow thinking,” says Steve. “My heart breaks to see the divide the church has created. I embrace all humans no matter who they are and no matter what they believe in.” 

In his 20s, after a decade of constant touring with Mighty Purple, Steve rediscovered his faith and enrolled in a Christian missions training program. His re-involvement grew slowly from there, and soon, he began playing drums in a church band. For the last 15 years, he’s served as the church’s music director (even when he was working overtime at his nightclubs).

“My faith now is about my relationship with God and about the spiritual mindset, which helps me to seek and spread hope, love, joy and peace in my everyday life,” he says. 

Faith also proved crucial when it came to the tumultuous reentry into normal, post-nightclub-owner life in early 2019. In the aftermath of his departure from the Spaces, Steve grappled with lingering feelings of sadness.

“Even though I’ve always been a family guy, I was at work 60, 70 hours a week,” says Steve. “I had no idea what I was going to do after all that stuff went down. Financially, that was a very difficult time. In the six months following the Spaces, my true friends made themselves known.” 

What Steve did appreciate was having significantly more time with his family and friends — and himself. He spent the first three months after the Spaces closed building miniatures, including miniature train sets and fairy homes. And as his voice continued to heal, and he acclimated to a more balanced home life, inspiration struck again, and he started writing new songs.

In April 2019, Steve Rodgers released “Count it All Joy,” a full-length album that leans closer to country — and further from rock — than a Mighty Purple record, with mellow melodies and multiple stringed instruments. It’s clear the songs are the work of someone who’s faced incredible challenges and emerged a better person. My favorite, so far, is “Why Are You Here?”, a song about the way humans seek spiritual comfort in the wake of hardships. Even after the imprint of 27 years of smoking, Steve’s voice soars brightly in songs like “Love Will Conquer You.”

The album features Ben Dean on fiddle, Jonny Rodgers on acoustic guitar and Seth Adam on bass, and Fred Delione playing keys for a couple of song.

“‘Count it All Joy’ means ‘no matter what trials and tribulations … there’s always something you can find joy in,” Steve tells me. “Get excited about the things you do have and throw yourself into something.”

Re-building a Life, Part 2

Steve and Jesse chose to homeschool their own children years ago, because they wanted their kids to have a more personalized and nurturing learning environment. So the past three months of mandated “distance learning” are nothing new, except that his kids can’t gather with their friends.

However, their approach to homeschool may seem a little unorthodox by some parents’ standards. For example: While some parents try to educate their kids with a structured schedule, the Rodgers let the inspiration of the day guide learning. So if 10-year-old River would rather paint a mural at 9 a.m. before doing math, he paints a mural. There’s always time to do math later on.

“I know a lot of people are really struggling right now, but we’ve been really family closening,” says Steve. “This experience has helped us get a lot closer and understanding each other more.”  

After our conversation about homeschooling, I found myself questioning this approach. 

I’m a creative person, but I’m also a mom. When the urge comes on to write a song, I can’t just drop my income-generating work or childrearing to write it down. Without structure, how will my kids accomplish anything that isn’t fun? 

But over the course of several hours, I came around a bit in my thinking. I realized that it’s important to take inspiration when it comes. If my 6-year-old son feels like stapling papers together and “writing” a book, he’s still learning. Maybe that’s more important than forcing him to add numbers at a pre-designated time. 

Also, inspiration frequently comes at inopportune times — when we’re focused on other things, or when we’re experiencing pain or loss.

“My last show before coronavirus lockdown was March 6,” Steve recalls. “It was in this little coffeehouse in Vernon, Connecticut, and I sold 30 CDS, which is huge by today’s [streaming] music standards, and I had a lot of momentum building. But I can’t let this time discourage me. I had 20 gigs cancelled, and some really good ones, like a festival in Massachusetts. But instead of getting bummed out, I started spending 10 or 12 hours a week in my basement, learning recording software. Musically, I’ve just let any idea come out. If it feels right, I write something — I don’t let any genre or ideas about genre limit me. I’m not sitting down writing songs called ‘Coronavirus Shut In,’ but I’ve been writing stuff about coming together and healing.”  

In March, he channeled his despair and hope into the song, “Invisible Forces,” which is universally relatable to everyone suffering in the pandemic. The song is mixed by local producer Vic Steffens, and video is not for the faint of heart, with images of spiked COVID balls spinning aimlessly through space, masked pedestrians strolling briskly past one another, and a haunting scene filled with empty children’s chairs. But it’s a cathartic visual experience, and proof that music can bring us together, even when we’re apart.

On June 13, Steve will participate in his second round backyard concerts with the New Haven Arts & Ideas Festival (you can still book a slot here). 

“Really, this summer, what I’m looking forward to is doing some more shows, outdoors and stuff,” says Steve. “I’ve also taken up home recording, and am learning how to use software. Some of my music friends are busy with their own stuff, so you know what? I’m playing bass now. I’m playing lead guitar — which I’ve never really known. I’ve taken this time to learn.” 

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.

The Mysterious Debbie Harry’s Memoir ‘Face It’ Promises Grit and Nostalgia

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

Debbie Harry is not an open book. This came a surprise to me, not only because she wears bold, brightly colored outfits, but because of her huge persona as the singer of 1970s punk-pop band Blondie.

I’ve seen the band Blondie play once, about a decade ago in Brooklyn, and Harry was fun, friendly and not unlike her affable contemporaries Pat Benetar and Joan Jett. But it is the private Debbie Harry that I am most interested in: the woman who started a band with her lover (Blondie guitarist/songwriter Chris Stein), became an international music/fashion sensation in her 30s (at a time when women were artistically “finished” in their 30s), and remained an independent provocateur for her entire life.

During Monday night’s release party in NYC’s Town Hall for her memoir “Face It,” we got little glimpses into Harry’s life and legacy. But if she hadn’t been joined by Stein onstage — as well as DJ/rap legend Fab Five Freddie and Rob Roth — the 90-minute conversation wouldn’t have been so engaging.

It took prodding from all three guests, plus one well-worded audience question, for Harry to give any dirt on her rock n’ roll career. I had hoped for just one or two little anecdotes about Andy Warhol, or the moment when Harry and Stein knew their band had made it (though I loved FFF’s account of hearing “Rapture” for the first time”).

By the end of the night I felt a little baffled, yet intrigued: Why does Harry sometimes say she regrets writing a memoir? Why does she need Stein to animate the conversation? And why aren’t she and Stein together anymore?

I’m hoping some of these answers are in the book.

 

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.