meta-scriptLife After The Donnas: Frontwoman Brett Anderson Looks Back On 'Early Singles 1995​-​1999' & Forward To New Frontiers | GRAMMY.com
The Donnas
The Donnas (second from right: Brett Anderson)

Photo: Neil Ziozower

interview

Life After The Donnas: Frontwoman Brett Anderson Looks Back On 'Early Singles 1995​-​1999' & Forward To New Frontiers

“We believed in what we were doing,” Anderson says of the Donnas’ early rise, when they were just teenagers. “The fact that we were with friends playing music that we loved, that was the important part.” You can hear that on ‘Early Singles 1995​-​1999.’

GRAMMYs/Mar 7, 2024 - 07:13 pm

Brett Anderson could look back on her early experiences with the Donnas with a jaundiced eye, and nobody could blame her. Sure, the ‘90s was when “the fun generation” flourished, as she characterizes it. But for girls and young women, its music landscape could be a viper pit.

“We never went to the bathroom, or anywhere, alone, ever, on tour,” the former “Donna A.” tells GRAMMY.com, while commuting home from her job as a social worker at Long Beach Memorial Hospital. “There was some understanding that bad things happen when you're alone.”

“And I hate to even Voldemort this into life,” Anderson says later — and goes on to recount a shocking article that salivated over the band members' bodies.

Yet Anderson betrays no bitterness: her love for the other three Donnas, and the music they made, permeates her words. Her head’s full of memories of recording their scrappy, precocious punk songs at a Bay Area Mail Boxes Etc.; some of them, like “High School Yum Yum,” “Let’s Rab!” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” seem to spring from an interband, invented language.

Now, you can hear those tunes anew, via Early Singles 1995-1999, which dropped March 1. It’s a monument to the friendship between Anderson, guitarist Allison Robertson, bassist Maya Ford, and drummer Torry Castellano.

The band they formed as teenagers went on to be signed to a major label, rock the late-night circuit, perform on MTV and even appear in the 1999 teen comedy Jawbreaker. In 2012, after seven albums, the Donnas, unceremoniously and undramatically, “wrapped it up.”

For now, Anderson’s fixed on their beginnings, when anything seemed possible.

“When you're that age — or, really, any age — it's easy to be self-conscious, but I always really looked up to the other three girls and a hundred percent believed in them,” Anderson says. “When we were together, we definitely felt like a force to be reckoned with.”

This interview has been edited for clarity.

I’m very curious about your job as a social worker. But if you’re burned out after a long workday, you don’t have to talk about it.

I don’t think I'm going to be burned out for a couple of years, at least, because I'm on the palliative care team. And it's always been a passion of mine ever since I learned about it, because no one really understands it.

And I'm always attracted to things that are a little bit off the beaten path and not understood, and I want to explain it. So the idea just in general, that hospice and palliative care are not the same thing, if I could just address that, that would be a major victory.

Can you tell me the difference? I didn’t know that.

Yeah, I would love to. So hospice is end-of-life care, and you need a prognosis of six months or less to live. Palliative care is this much broader, much lesser known extra layer of care that people can get if they have any life-limiting illness.

So, anything chronic, anything that you could, not be dying from it, but you might need help with difficult decision-making or uncontrolled symptom management — things like that.

What spurred this life change?

I think part of it was how ageist the music industry is.

Wow, tell me more.

I think I just saw it all around me. People just complaining about feeling old and being out of touch and calling other people old and internalized and externalized ageism. And just so ridiculous, because I feel all -isms are bad.

And I feel that the reason that ageism is bad in particular, is that our age is one of the least informative details about us, because it's constantly changing.

From when we started, it was like we were working against something, so I was like, Oh man, why is it like this? And then I was like, Oh, right. I chose this. I identify as a person who's working against something, OK.

The Donnas

*Photo courtesy of the Donnas.*

I’m looking at a very early photo of the Donnas right now. Does it feel like you were reincarnated into a completely new life or something? Or are you super connected to that version of yourself?

I feel like even at the time, I wasn't super connected to it. I mean, especially with the Donnas, it was a persona, because we started the Donnas as a joke band — like a side band. And our real band was called the Electrocutes.

When we were doing the Donnas, it was a shtick — tongue in cheek. And I think some people didn't know that we were in on the joke, because we're too young and there was an older man who could have been a Svengali involved. They assumed that we didn't understand the context with which we were living.

Sounds pretty misogynistic to me.

It's crazy, yeah. It is actually really funny that you said, because I'm watching “Mad Men” for the first time, so it's getting me all riled up again about just the s— you have to do to get by in a world where the rules are not made for you. And I realized so clearly that I'm really only talking about one identity, and that's gender. But yeah, it was hard.

What do you remember about the emotional or psychological atmosphere back then, being as young as you were?

There’s one thing I did not remember until the drummer, Torry, and I just did this interview for some archive in Texas not too long ago. She always remembers things that I would never, ever remember, and it was such a huge part of our existence.

We never went to the bathroom, or anywhere, alone, ever, on tour.

Whoa. What was up with that?

I don't remember the specific incident or incidents that started that, but whatever it was, there was some understanding that bad things happen when you're alone — whether it was when we were on Warped Tour, or when we were just on tour.

And the smaller clubs didn't seem that bad, because you usually know those people. But when the clubs started getting bigger and it was more anonymous — yeah, you don't go anywhere alone.

Just out of general safety concerns?

I think it was multilevel. It was just your general safety. And then there's also the reality of the things that people said to us from when we were in middle school and high school. They would literally say, "Go home and play with your dolls, girls can't play rock and roll."

And I mean, we thought it was funny. We weren't personally wounded by it, but people will say things to you when you're alone that they won't say when you're with another person. Usually, sexual harassment doesn't happen on stage; it's backstage.

It was ‘93 when we started, so we were 13.

That’s really young.

Yeah, I know. And I mean, I hate to even Voldemort this into life, but there'd be articles that would say something like our "bouncing nubile breasts." And we're like, "F—." I wore two bras for a year after that — like, This is not what I want to be putting out there.

To drill into the Early Singles collection: what do you remember about these sessions? These are pretty scrappy recordings.

We were recording at Mail Boxes Etc. after hours. So we would just throw the equipment up on the counter. That was when we were doing the Donnas with [producer] Darin Raffaelli, and he worked there, so we could get in there after, at night. We would smell them baking donuts next door.

I'm still like this when it comes to creativity. I'm so much more creative at night when everyone else is asleep, because there's less external noise distracting you, and you're not missing anything; you can be in your own world. The whole world fell away when we were doing that. We were just us, in that Mail Boxes Etc.: in heaven.

What was your interband friendship like? Were you like a Beatles-style four-headed monster?

In a way. Actually, it's funny. I think about things like that a lot, and I haven't applied it to our band ever. But yeah, I mean, when you put four people in a vacuum, everything's relative, someone's the most like this and someone's the most like that.

I think as compared to other bands like the Spice Girls or things like that, where people have really defined identities, we didn't pigeonhole each other or ourselves as much, I don't think.

Despite the tongue-in-cheek, Ramonesy conceit — everybody has the same name, we’re a happy family — it sounds like you were all very serious about the band. It sounds like you were driven to do something substantial.

I think there are a lot of people who are dying to be famous and to make it. And those were never words that we used or feelings that we felt.

It wasn't that we wanted to be big and famous for no reason. We wanted to be as committed as possible to the band, so that we could go as far as we could with the band, because we believed in what we were doing.

The content was the driving force, the fact that we were with friends playing music that we loved. That was the important part, not the ultimate scope of the thing.

You believed in the songs and each other. Plain and simple.

Yeah, yeah.

Do any moments or tunes from this collection stick out in your memory?

Well, the first one that pops into my head is “I Don't Wanna Go to School No More.” Which is funny, because I think we all ended up going back to school, but it's different when you're older. It's a whole new game.

We had a couple of songs, “Let's Rab” and “Let's Go Mano!” They were made-up words, which I always love. Rab, it's so random, was what this one guy in school called this other guy in school. His name was Rob, but he called him Rab, and then we made it into slang for partying.

I’m just thinking about believing in the songs and in each other. When you're that age — or, really, any age — it's easy to be self-conscious, but I always really looked up to the other three girls and a hundred percent believed in them.

So, whenever I was self-conscious about myself, I was never self-conscious about our band. It was fun to walk into a new venue and be able to feel confident.

I just know that we were bringing something good, even if I sometimes doubted myself. And I think everyone may have doubted themselves too, in a singular way. When we were together, we definitely felt like a force to be reckoned with.

What was up with “I Wanna Be a Unabomber?”

That was from the before times. Every once in a while, I'll have a shame wave thinking about that. I mean, it was just a different world…

Personally, I love it. That’s the best title in the entire thing.

Well, that's the thing about humor, isn't it? It's like what's funny on a certain day in a certain context, it's horrifying in a different one. So, there you go; that was an extreme statement.

Any other anecdotes pop up?

Another amazing thing that we got to do was, when we were 16 — I think between junior and senior year of high school, or maybe it was between sophomore and junior, we got to go to Japan for a week and play five shows.

Wow, what was that like?

It was just beyond our wildest imaginations. It was 16-year olds in a band flying to Japan. There were people waiting at the airport when we got there. And we felt like what the Beatles would feel like, a little bit.

The clubs that we played at were so cool. One of them [was] four stories underground and just completely thick with smoke — and as a singer, that's horrible. But just as a memory, there's just nothing like it.

What do you remember about how these sessions — and your early success — flowed into the next stages of your career?

I think one thing we are really lucky about is that everything grew very gradually and incrementally. So, we never had that big spike. And I think often when someone does have a big spike, then they have a huge drop that's just as steep. And for us, it was like we just gradually grew and grew and grew.

And then, it made it nice on the other side, when we just gradually stopped saying yes to as many things and wrapped it up. But without having some big blowout, break up, farewell tour or anything.

While you were saying that, I was remembering seeing the Donnas open for the Hives at the Fillmore, in 2008. You played “Smoke You Out” and green lights came on.

Oh, I love that song so much. “Everybody’s Smoking Cheeba” — that’s another early one.

I mean, it does seem so quaint, and such a different time. Because now, I'm thinking about our photo shoot for the cover for [our self-titled 1997 debut] The Donnas.

I don't remember where we were, but we just went to some school with a camera and took some pictures and that was it. It was just so very simple. And also sometimes it felt like it was almost not real. We were like, "Oh, we're going to do a photo shoot, because we're a band and we're going to make a record." Because there was no one watching.

And I'm just so glad we got to grow and spend all this time learning our instruments and our positions without that critical eye so much. Because I don't know that any of us would've enjoyed it.

How would you compare the music industry when the Donnas began versus when they ended?

I don't want to sound negative, but I think it was amazing in the '90s.

I mean, all of MTV and Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars and Maximum Rocknroll and Spin and Rolling Stone — there was just so much good content, and so many authentic bands that were actually independent and actually alternative. And it just felt so inspiring.

And then towards the end of it, social media was coming into it and you had to be creating content all the time. And for me, that blew the mystique on both sides as a band and as a fan. I do remember thinking when I first started listening to Sonic Youth imagining Thurston Moore having breakfast, and thinking about stuff like that was exciting, but I don't actually want to see that. I wanted it in my imagination. It was better in my imagination.

I realize that that probably ties me to a certain generation. But maybe you just like whatever's happening when you're in your teens and twenties better than when you're in your thirties. But I don't know, I'm not sure about the reasoning behind that.

But I feel like there was just a lot of room for growth and people could get into it, younger, smaller bands could. There was a place for people to enter the industry.

Are you still playing music?

I do things here and there. I don't pursue anything, but sometimes things will pop up. Like, “That ‘90s Show.” I did the theme song for that; James Iha's doing the music for the show. He had my number from when we were on Lollapalooza 20 years ago, and just neither of us changed our numbers.

It's just so cool when things happen like that, where it's like you plant this little seed two decades ago, and then it sprouts in 2023. So I'm always up for stuff like that.

I've been playing with some Irish bands in L.A., which has been really fun. There's a band called The Ne'er-Do-Wells that I've done stuff with. I had a couple of side projects. And I don't know, also still writing music on my own for nothing and no one, which is always fun.

That’s a nice counterweight to your professional life.

It's nice to be able to pursue another thing. When I first went back to school, I started studying psychology, and I finished my BA, which I started in 1997.

It took, what, twenty-something years? I just went to one semester in '97 before we went on the first tour, and then went back to school in 2012. And I finished my BA in 2019.

I can see how your music career blossomed into your love of helping human beings.

Oh, yeah. I think in the band, there was an element of helping people. After every show, when we would meet people, they would say, "I listen to your music to feel confident, and feel better about myself, too, as an example that girls can play rock and roll."

We had these two shows in Joshua Tree called Desert Moon at Pappy and Harriet's, and they were fan club shows. And after one of them, someone told me that they flew for the first time in their life to get to that show, so it was a motivating factor. Another one: someone told me that they listened to our music before they came out to their parents.

So it's the idea that music can be empowering and liberating and give people permission to feel a certain way, I feel is something very similar to what I do now.

I mean, social work is all about empowering people, and respecting their agency, and trying to figure out what motivates people — and to activate that, and advocate for that.

The Exploding Hearts' Terry Six Shares The Stories Behind Guitar Romantic

Bonnaroo 2024 Recap Hero
Ethel Cain performs at Bonnaroo 2024.

Photo: Ashley Osborn for Bonnaroo 2024

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9 Epic Sets From Bonnaroo 2024: Ethel Cain, Melanie Martinez, Megan Thee Stallion & More

With an exciting mix of rising stars and big-name performers, Bonnaroo 2024 brought another year of showstopping performances to Manchester, Tennessee. Revisit some of the most intriguing sets from The Japanese House, Interpol and more.

GRAMMYs/Jun 18, 2024 - 06:40 pm

The 2024 iteration of Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival was an absolute scorcher — even without the 95-degree highs.

The weekend brought some of the hottest names in music for a stacked lineup of buzzy newcomers and hitmaking veterans. From the Red Hot Chili Peppers' spectacular return to touring with John Frusciante, to Dashboard Confessional's star-studded Emo Superjam, to Billy Strings joining Post Malone for "rockstar," to Chappel Roan singing to a wig, there was no shortage of unforgettable moments at The Farm. 

While this year was the literally hottest that Bonnaroovians had seen in a few years, sweating through shirts (or lack thereof) proved completely worth it as some of the biggest iconoclasts came together and brought their all. It was electrifying, whimsical and at times emotional — and the bright, sunny skies served as the perfect backdrop for it all. 

If anything, the blistering — and briefly thundery — weather was a testament to the enduring nature of music fans; folks from all over the globe will never miss a chance to watch their favorite artists. Relive the magic with nine of the most exciting sets from Bonnaroo 2024.

The Foxies Took Technical Mishaps In Stride

The Foxies performing at Bonnaroo

The Foxies | Yvonne Gougelet for Bonnaroo 2024

Nashville's premier glitterpunk exports the Foxies delivered a fun, crowd-pleasing set Thursday night on the Who stage, even despite a flurry of audio issues and technical hiccups. The Roo crowd was forgiving, though, and the band rewarded us with some of the best songs from their catalog — plus a cover of Sheryl Crow's "If It Makes You Happy."

"Summer Never Dies," "Timothee Chalamet," and "Little Monsters" all landed perfectly, but the group's personality shone brightest during their newest release, "Natural Disaster." It couldn't have been a more apt song for Bonnaroo's carefree setting — an ode to feeling free and accepting the wildest parts of yourself. 

"A huge theme while we were writing ['Natural Disaster'], for me, was when I was 20 living in Brooklyn, how I was, all the cringey stuff that I did as a young adult," The Foxies frontwoman Julia Bullock told GRAMMY.com backstage. "I wish I wouldn't have shied away from it, or been embarrassed by it — I wish I'd leaned into the cringiness. This is an anthem for that: if I could do it all over again I would just embrace the fact that we are all just weird." Indeed we are, Julia.

The Japanese House Brought Love And Light

The Japanese House performing at Bonnaroo

The Japanese House | Yvonne Gougelet for Bonnaroo 2024

Since its 2015 inception, The Japanese House has always been in the zeitgeist. Where Amber Bain's heavily layered, mournful music was inescapable during the pale-grunge Tumblr era, it now occupies a much lighter space. Coming off of a banner year and a critically acclaimed album, In the End it Always Does, Bain has been embracing her pop side like never before.

Her set was a cornucopia of new and old sounds, the most exciting part of which was her new song, "Smiley Face." Written a year ago when Bain met her current fiancée on a dating app, "Smiley Face" is bright, soft, and sploshy, fraught with the energy of someone falling deliriously in love. "[When we first met] she lived in Detroit and I lived in London, and I would stay awake until she fell asleep," Bain tells GRAMMY.com of the song. "We were in different time zones. I was running on nothing — I felt a bit high." 

Like the rest of her discography, the song held the audience in the palm of its hand, this time enveloping us in a warm, flickering glow. "I could be losing my mind but something's happening," Bain sang, naturally, with a smile on her face. 

TV Girl Delivered A Masterclass In Melodrama

"I have a bit of stage fright," revealed TV Girl singer Brad Petering before the group's second to last song. Even if he felt it, stage fright wasn't apparent during the indie pop band's hour-long performance. Their set felt like a dream; onlookers got lost in the moment, spinning, swaying and dancing in the refreshingly cool breeze. 

It fell serendipitously near the 10th anniversary of their debut, French Exit, an album that launched them into the limelight as stalwarts of indie pop. Songs like "Louise" and "Lovers Rock" felt almost nostalgic 10 years on, and newer cuts like "99.5" and "The Nighttime" blended right in. Backed by a full band — including backup singers Kiera and Mnya, whose powerhouse vocals could've made for their own show — TV Girl turned already dynamic songs like "Birds Don't Sing" and "Not Allowed" into even fuller, radiant versions of themselves. 

Ethel Cain Took Us To Church

Ethel Cain performing at Bonnaroo

Ethel Cain | Ashley Osborn for Bonnaroo 2024

Despite its small size, there was no more perfect space for an Ethel Cain set than the reserved, remote That Tent in the quiet corner of Bonnaroo. Her performance saw the quaint venue packed to the brim, 1000-odd people staring back at Cain in dumbstruck awe, as her band played through songs inspired by Christian music and Gregorian chant.

Beginning with unreleased song "Dust Bowl" and the haunting "A House in Nebraska," Cain's performance was an intense, resounding 40 minutes that traversed between peace and emotional turmoil, much like all of the songs from her breakthrough album, Preacher's Daughter. The euphoric response from her overflowing audience left little doubt that her songwriting can break down walls; she's a timeless act, and her Bonnaroo set proved it.

​​Neil Frances Set Themselves Apart

There are a number of artists with variations of the name Neil Frances — or at least that's what it looked like from this year's Bonnaroo bill. One difference in letters, and you may have found yourself at the Other Stage at 6:15pm on Saturday, seeing Neil Frances instead of Neal Francis. But, whether you've been a fan of Neil Frances for years, or you wound up there by mistake, the indie-dance duo would not have let you leave disappointed. 

Backed by a live full band, their set felt like a psychedelic ode to the club, to dancing, and to feeling free. And their live production is every bit an artistic endeavor as is being in the studio. 

"We've always preferred to play with a live band; there are so many things that we do live that are completely different from the record," the duo's Marc Gilfry told GRAMMY.com. "It's fun, it's dramatic, and we have really great musicians."

Read More: NEIL FRANCES Just Want To Have Fun & Get 'Fuzzy'

Melanie Martinez Gave Us A Peek Inside Her Mind

Melanie Martinez performing at Bonnaroo

Melanie Martinez | Dusana Risovic for Bonnaroo 2024

Adorned with bows, horns, over-the-top dresses, and a multi-eyed, alien-like prosthetic mask, Melanie Martinez was dressed exactly how you'd think she would. With a stage setup of greenery, giant mushrooms, nymphs, and various mythical elements that seemed to revel in its own kitchiness, the details of Martinez's intricately-woven performance art unfolded around the audience, song by song, immersing everyone in a world of weird, elaborate fun.

Her dancers wove through a delicately choreographed, three-act narrative, taking the crowd through her three albums in chronological order, telling the story of the Cry Baby character, who first appears in her debut album, Cry Baby. The character transforms from baby to child to young adult, and finally, to a fully grown, pink-skinned being in the third act. Martinez's set was artistry in every sense of the word, taking fans through the ups and downs of youth and coming-of-age through rich metaphor and lyrical imagery — and prompting delighted sing-alongs as a result.

Interpol Were A Quiet Gem

Interpol performing at Bonnaroo

Interpol | Ismael Quintanilla III for Bonnaroo 2024

More than 25 years into their career, there's still something very disarming about Interpol. Maybe it's their effortless, NYC cool, or that they still know how to build the type of tension that gives you chills. Or maybe it's that they're men of very few onstage words — and when they do speak, you feel as though you've been given a gift.

Three things can be true, and they were for Interpol's Bonnaroo set Friday Night. Not ones to waste time talking, the three-piece rock band played an unbelievably tight 75-minute set, mostly sticking to a reliable selection of early hits, largely from their 2004 album, Antics. The crowd didn't seem put-off by the lack of chatter, as everybody had some singing along to do — because it was impossible not to.

Milky Chance Never Stopped Dancing

Milky Chance performing at Bonnaroo

Milky Chance | Douglas Mason for Bonnaroo 2024

Milky Chance wants you to dance. The German duo-turned-quad may have steadily transformed since their early folk days, but they've never abandoned their ability to make every beat danceable and each chorus undeniable. And on stage, they were having a ball.

With a set that included both 2012 hit "Stolen Dance" and their latest, "Naked and Alive,'' their evolution from folk renegades to breezier, disco-pop pundits is on full display — and we're glad they brought us all along for the ride. 

Speaking to GRAMMY.com backstage, bassist Philipp Dausch discussed their journey: "It was quite a process to become the band we wanted to be. Our music has always been in-between electronic and folky, so we put a lot of work into becoming that band on stage as well. We love rhythms and beats. We like when music moves you."

Megan Thee Stallion Declared This A "Self-Love Summer"

Megan Thee Stallion performing at Bonnaroo

Megan Thee Stallion | Pooneh Ghana for Bonnaroo 2024

No one is doing it like Meg. A highlight of day four — and perhaps the entire weekend — was Megan Thee Stallion's riotous, yet charming Sunday night set. Clad in a yellow-ombre bodysuit and welcomed by a crowd chanting her name, the Houston hottie commanded the What stage in a manner that suggested it won't be too long until she's in the headlining slot.

"Real hot girl s—," she screamed at the crowd, who didn't hesitate to scream back. It was clear she was on a high; not only was it her first Bonnaroo set, but it also followed back-to-back sold-out shows in her hometown of Houston, making it an absolutely monumental weekend for the rapper. 

Her and her dancers shook, twerked, and rolled through each hit without ever losing breath control — even during what she deemed the "personal section" of her set. And that portion was aptly-named; beneath the ass-shaking and thumping beats, "Cobra" brought about an air of sadness during an otherwise infectiously playful and positive performance. 

The lyrics chronicle her mental health struggles over the years amidst personal traumas and virulent online abuse. "Man, I miss my parents," she sang of her late parents, on what happened to be Father's Day. But shortly after the poignant moment, Megan quickly returned to her signature body-moving, sex-positve calling cards, "WAP," "Savage," and "Body," during which she declared this summer a "Self-Love Summer." That's some Real Hot Girl S— we can get behind.

15 LGBTQIA+ Artists Performing At 2024 Summer Festivals

Queer country feature hero
(L-R) Orville Peck, Allison Russell, Lily Rose, Adeem the Artist, Jaime Wyatt

Photos (L-R): Jeff Hahne/Getty Images, Erika Goldring/Getty Images, Erika Goldring/Getty Images, Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Americana Music Association, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach

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How Queer Country Artists Are Creating Space For Inclusive Stories In The Genre

As country music continues its global explosion, the genre is seeing a growing number of artists in the LGBTQIA+ community — including Adeem the Artist, Lily Rose and Jaime Wyatt — blaze a trail toward acceptance.

GRAMMYs/Jun 18, 2024 - 04:36 pm

When country singer/songwriter Jaime Wyatt announced she was queer with the release of her second album, 2020's Neon Cross, she was convinced doing so would destroy her career. Instead, something shifted — not only was she more free to be herself and to date women openly, but many fans reacted positively, too.

"Several times on the road I've had fans come up to me with their same sex partner, and they're like, 'Hey, we feel safe here. It's so awesome because we both love country music, and we're not out of the closet, and we're not out to our families, but we can be here,'" Wyatt says.

Modern country music is generally perceived as a conservative genre, and deep-rooted cultural and industry biases have long excluded LGBTQIA+ (and BIPOC) artists and stories from the genre. For example, in 2010, when successful mainstream country artist Chely Wright came out, her career stalled and record sales halved. Kacey Musgraves was criticized for lyrics supporting same-sex love in her beloved anthem, "Follow Your Arrow." More recently, even, Wyatt walked out of a recording session after the owner of the space asked if she was singing "'some gay s—.'"

But Wyatt is also one of a growing number of country artists who, in recent years, have blazed a trail through country music and toward acceptance. Among them, Adeem the Artist, Mya Byrne, Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, Mary Gauthier, Lizzy No, Orville Peck, Lily Rose, and Allison Russell. Together, they're celebrating queerness alongside their love for the genre, and pushing it into diversity with patience, tenacity, and darn good country music.

"If you listen to popular music, or if you listen to hip-hop music, it feels like there's a broader diversity to a lot of subcultures as far as what you're able to access," nonbinary country singer/songwriter Adeem the Artist says. "Whereas with country music, it's very linear, it's very myopic, and singular in its expression."

By way of broadening country's storytelling, Adeem plays a honky-tonk blend of classic and '90s country music that's sonically aligned with the deep musical traditions in Tennessee, where they now live. Lyrically, though, their propensity for gorgeous, frankly worded songs complicate stereotypical southern narratives in rare and provocative ways. On White Trash Revelry, their 2022 studio album, they grapple with racism, economic entrapment, gun violence, and family heritage. And their latest, Anniversary, released in May, includes songs about mental health, the poignance of parenthood, and the pain and fear of being a queer person in a world that threatens their existence.

Indeed, some of the places in the U.S. with the strongest ties to country music remain the least hospitable to queer people. Just last year, Tennessee, home of Nashville, the country music capital of the world, passed a total of 10 bills aimed at LGBTQIA+ people, while Texas, perhaps country music's second-best known state, passed 20 percent of all anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation in the U.S. What's more, LGBTQIA+ people and culture have been targeted by numerous attacks around the world — including the Pulse nightclub and Club Q shootings stateside — in the last few years alone.

For many, the consequences of not coming out, of not sharing their full selves with the world, are risky, too. Growing up, Wyatt had no role model to show her it was okay to be queer. She struggled for years with mental health and substance abuse and was convicted of robbing her heroin dealer as a young adult. "I needed to see someone who looked like me when I was a young child," Wyatt says. "And maybe I wouldn't have been a dope fiend in jail."

But while straight white men comprise most of country music's standard slate of forebearers, women and people in the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities have contributed to the genre since its beginning. Notably, it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer Black woman, who in the 1950s introduced reverb to gospel and rhythm and blues music — and in doing so, she forever changed guitar playing, and inspired some of country music's biggest trailblazers, from Elvis to Johnny Cash.

In 1973 — four years after the Stonewall uprising kickstarted a widespread gay liberation movement — Patrick Haggerty and his band Lavender Country released what is generally considered the first gay country album. But after it sold out its first pressing of 1000 copies, the album was mostly forgotten until 1999, when the Journal of Country Music published an article hailing Haggerty as "the lost pioneer of out gay country music." Haggerty began performing again and in 2014, indie label Paradise of Bachelors reissued the Lavender Country album, securing Haggerty status as a grandfather figure to queer country.

Haggerty's reissue landed in a different world than the album's original run. In the interim, a handful of artists released more queer country music, including Jeff Miller, aka "John Deere Diva," known for his George Strait parody, "Not Really Strait," as well as Doug Stevens and the Outband's When Love Is Right and Sid Spencer's Out-N-About Again, which put lyrically gay songs to country music.

In 2011, shortly before the Lavender Country reissue, queer country singer/songwriter and music scholar Karen Pittleman convened the first Gay Ole Opry in Brooklyn's now defunct Public Assembly performance space, launching more than a decade of queer country events, tours and a far-reaching network of performers and supporters. And in 2015, gay marriage became legal nationwide.

As progress has accelerated culturally in the near decade since, it has in country music, too. In 2018, Paisley Fields' debut album Glitter and Sawdust merged cowboy grit with queer raunch. In 2019, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" provoked country music to re-consider the nature and identity of country music. In 2021, T.J. Osborne of the Brothers Osborne became the first openly gay male artist signed to a major record label; a year later, the duo's song "Younger Me" — which was written in response to T.J.'s coming out — became the first country song with an LGBTQIA+ theme to win a GRAMMY. And this Pride Month, longtime LGBTQIA+ supporter (and GLAAD's 2023 Excellence in Media Award recipient) Maren Morris declared on Instagram, "happy to be the B in LGBTQ+."

Read More: 9 Times Queer Artists Made History At The GRAMMYs: From Elton John's Collab With BSB To Kim & Sam's "Unholy" Union

"We as queer fans deserve to have songs that speaks specifically to us," says Rachel Cholst, a queer writer and educator. "And if that means putting in same gender pronouns, then we deserve that too. And if that makes a straight person uncomfortable, I don't know what to tell you. I've grown up my entire life having to internally change the pronouns to the love songs that really moved me."

Cholst started writing about music when she realized she couldn't be the only queer country fan out there. Her work aims to make queer country music accessible, and she has run the Adobe and Teardrops blog for more than a decade. In 2022, Cholst launched Rainbow Rodeo, a zine about queer country music, which appears bi-annually in print and regularly online.

"Everyone just assumed that country music is this one thing, and it never occurred to them to go look for it. That tells you a lot about how country music wants to present itself as an industry," Cholst says. "If we erase anyone who's not straight, anyone who's not white, then what you're saying is, you want those people to be erased from the conversation, from the culture."

Beyond using she/her pronouns in love songs (which she didn't get to do on her first album, Felony Blues), Wyatt's powerful, steely queer country music complicates social consciousness. Incisive and elegant in her delivery, she's equally compelling chronicling her conviction and jail time on Felony Blues, confronting demons and figuring out who she is on her Shooter Jennings-produced second album, Neon Cross, and outlining her hopes and frustrations for the world on her third album, 2023's sultry, groovy, Feel Good.

Wyatt's knack for catchy and advocacy-laced country bangers is clearest in "Rattlesnake Girl," one of her most popular songs. In it, she offers an anthemic celebration of joy unfettered: "I see my sweet friends out on the weekend/ They all look happy and gay," and a barbed warning to anyone who might impinge on that happiness: "Thank you kindly, don't walk behind me/ I've seen people slip that way/ And if you try me, boot heels beside me/ I might have to make your day."

Queer country music means something a little different to each artist. For many, it's about much more than simply being a queer person performing country music. Adeem the Artist considers queer country its own genre, complete with specific rules — many of which have nothing to do with sexual or gender orientation.

"It is explicitly political in nature. It is often kind of raunchy," they assert. "There's an element to queer country that is confrontational, that is willing to create discomfort for the sake of a relief that leans towards some greater social awareness."

To some degree, raising awareness and representation — which is essential for inclusion and acceptance — requires a bit of self-tokenization, Adeem says. "The very, very basic act of referring to me as a person who is queer, who is trans, who is nonbinary, who is whatever, those labels only do good as much as they illuminate the differences between us and the fact that I am more difficult for some people to relate with."

Adeem and Wyatt both operate within the alt-country scene, which has been marginally more inclusive than mainstream country over the years. Recently, though, rising country musician Lily Rose cracked through with her viral breakup single, 2020's "Villain." On her latest EP, Runnin' Outta Time (which she released in May), she sings a high-octane pop/country mix about her values and relationships. It's a well-worn country music landscape that has been almost exclusively dominated by heterosexual white men.

"To be one of the first to literally [and] figuratively, carry the flag... it makes me really proud. And it has its heavy moments for sure," Rose says. "Night after night, when I get to meet fans and see comments on social media that they feel seen for the first time in the genre, it's really special and it makes every single second of hard work to get here worth it."

The day after Runnin' Out of Time dropped, Rose made her Grand Ole Opry debut with two songs from the album, "Back Pew" and "Two Flowers"; Adeem and Wyatt also played the Opry for the first time in the last year as well. The Opry, one of country music's oldest and most lauded tastemakers, has welcomed a number of queer artists in the last few years, signaling a subtle shift toward a more inclusive country music institution. (In addition, all three artists recently scored high-profile touring spots: Rose with Shania Twain and Sam Hunt, Adeem with Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit; and Wyatt wrapped up her first headlining tour.)

For Pittleman, an essential part of making music is ensuring space for anyone who wants to make music to do so, regardless of how they look or identify. "Most people who like country music, they just want to hear country music," Pittleman says. "I want to have a good time, too. But you have to ask at a certain point, 'Who is invited to the good time?'"

As she insists, there's a long way to go. In a digital world, radio play doesn't offer a complete picture, but it remains a dominant force in country music. For decades, women have been played sparingly on country radio and artists of color and queer musicians featured far less, a shortcoming which SongData's principal investigator, Jada Watson, spent years studying. Her research concludes that women country artists are played roughly 29 percent of the time, Black artists 5 percent, and other artists of color 7 percent. Queer artists, Watson estimates, make up less than 1 percent of radio play.

"The real problem is who's making those decisions; who has the power and as a result, who has the power and the resources to record their music, to distribute their music, to get it out on a broader scale," Pittleman suggests. "We have to make sure that everyone who's called to make the music has the resources and the power to make it and bring it into the world."

And in spite of multitude setbacks and naysayers, queer artists are creating country music. As Pittleman wrote in a 2020 essay in the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled "You're My Country Music," one of the joys of singing queer country music is making country music, plain and simple. "The point is to mark the deepest moments of human connection, our truest hopes and heartbreaks, and turn them into a sound that gives us joy and strength," she says.

"Because sometimes you love a culture that doesn't love you back," Pittleman continues on the Gay Ole Opry's about page. "We do it because we love the music and want to build a community to support queer country musicians. We do it because everybody needs a honky-tonk angel to hold them tight. We do it because we believe in country music for all."

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grammy u monthly member playlist updated look

news

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: Sunscreen & Suntans Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from our talented members. This summer playlist is a vibrant mix of bubblegum pop and soulful tunes that will have you bopping as you soak up the sun.

GRAMMYs/Jun 18, 2024 - 01:38 pm

Did you know that among all GRAMMY U members, songwriting and performance are some of the most sought after fields of study? This playlist dedicates a space to hear what these members are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that members are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 15 to 25 songs that match each month’s theme. This summer playlist is vibrant mix of bubblegum pop and soulful tunes that will have you bopping and singing as you soak up the sun. So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our next playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip-hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify, Apple Music and/or Amazon Music link to the song. Artists must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects aspiring professionals and creatives ages 18-29 with the music industry's brightest and most talented minds. We provide a community for emerging professionals and creatives in addition to various opportunities and tools necessary to start a career in music. Throughout the program year, events and initiatives touch on all facets of the industry, including business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

Former GRAMMY U Reps Heather Howard, Sophie Griffiths and Samantha Kopec contributed to this article.

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RIIZE press photo
RIIZE

Photo: SM Entertainment

interview

K-Pop Group RIIZE Detail Every Track On New Compilation 'RIIZING – The 1st Mini Album'

In an interview, the rising K-pop boy group discuss the creative process behind each track on their brand new EP — including the album's new song, "Boom Boom Bass."

GRAMMYs/Jun 18, 2024 - 01:37 pm

While RIIZE might be a more recent addition to the K-pop scene, you wouldn’t be able to tell. 

The sextet of Sungchan, Anton, Wonbin, Sohee, Eunseok and Shotaro took the industry by storm last September with their debut single "Get A Guitar." The catchy, retro-synth pop song sold over a million copies in the first week of its release.  

From their debut in 2023, RIIZE was determined to carve out a space for themselves in the expansive K-pop landscape by performing "emo pop" — emotional ballads that still manage to be danceable, evoking the sounds of older gen groups like Got 7 and Super Junior — while also experimenting with other genres. The brightly alluring "Love 119" and disco whirlwind "Talk Saxy" allowed RIIZE to continue their ascent, and netted the group Favorite New Artist and Rookie Of The Year honors at multiple Korean award ceremonies last year.  

On June 17, they'll release RIIZING - The 1st Mini Album. The compilation record features all of the rookie group's releases plus an additional song "Boom Boom Bass," and demonstrates their versatility and willingness to experiment with genres. With their output compiled, it's easy to see that RIIZE's youthful energy and distinct personalities truly shine. 

Learn more: 11 Rookie K-Pop Acts To Know In 2024: NCT Wish, RIIZE, Kiss Of Life & More

"We wanted to reflect on how far we’ve come from our debut days and growing as artists," Anton tells GRAMMY.com over a video call from L.A. "[The album is] a culmination of our journey and experiences as young adults who are pursuing their dreams."

It’s clear that RIIZE are enjoying the ride they're on together. They laugh at each other's jokes and finish each other's sentences, demonstrating that there's deep friendship behind their already tight harmonious connection. The group is in the midst of an international fan-con tour that runs through the summer — an experience that will, likely, deepen their already close bond. 

In an interview, they offer a track-by-track breakdown of RIIZING - The 1st Mini Album, including the creative process behind each song, how they keep themselves motivated, and their musical dreams for the future. 

"Siren" is your pre-debut song and was one of your most anticipated releases. Can you share a bit about the creation process and how it felt to release this song to the world? 

Shotaro: We have a lot of fond memories when we think of "Siren" as it reminds us of our trainee days. We recorded the song while we were still rookies and shot the video in L.A. I remember being in the studio and encouraging each other to give our best deep voices to make our voices shine. 

Eunseok: I think a large part of why people like "Siren" so much is the rhythmic drum beats and soft piano riffs that creates this high rush vibe. The chorus is my favorite, and was the most fun to sing as it’s very addictive to sing along to.

Your most recent song, "Impossible" is a house track about being determined and never  giving up. Were you nervous at all venturing into a new genre? 

Anton: Growth and youth is a huge part of our music, and that’s something we sought to achieve with "Impossible." House music is a genre that is not usually seen in K-pop, but this is something we wanted to experiment with. So we learned firsthand from long-time house music creatives and input their suggestions into the recording. It was a new experience that allowed us to deep dive into a genre we wouldn’t normally be familiar with.

Sohee: The recording was a little difficult at first, because the vocal keys were a bit higher than our usual pitch. But I feel like we successfully encapsulated the genre very well.

Your new song — the special addition to the EP — is called "Boom Boom Bass." It's a disco-influenced track about playing bass guitar; does anyone in RIIZE have experience playing that instrument?  

Wonbin: We do have experience playing the bass guitar. Getting to recreate those moments in the studio was awesome, and you can hear the excitement in our voices. The song also showcases a totally different side of us that fans haven’t seen before: it’s disco but funk and still pop.

"Love 119" is one of your most successful songs. Can you take me back to the day you recorded it? 

Sungchan: "Love 119" captures the feeling of falling in love for the first time in a dreamy and melancholic manner. We decided to recreate that in the studio and put a lot of our emotions into it by channeling good energy. 

Wonbin: The song samples a beloved Korean song, "Emergency Room," released by the band called IZI in 2005. The song captures the distinct charm of emotional pop, offering a different appeal compared to "Get A Guitar," "Memories," and "Talk Saxy."

Shotaro: We aimed to create choreography that many people could follow. While brainstorming in the practice room with Wonbin, he and I came up with dance moves like the "1-1-9" gesture, that you see in the video. The song has a really bright vibe, making it fun for us to perform. 

Can you detail the creative process behind "Talk Saxy"?  

Sohee: We started creating "Talk Saxy" right after performing at KCON L.A. in July last year and we learned the choreography almost immediately.

We wanted to embody a more confident and breezy sound but still within our niche genre of emotional pop. It took a few weeks of practice to get the perfect take and I think the song helped expand our musical sound by a large mile.

Read more: 9 Thrilling Moments From KCON 2023 L.A.: Stray Kids, RIIZE, Taemin & More 

One of your more recent singles, "9 Days," focuses on your journey as a band. Did you find yourselves feeling nostalgic in the studio?   

Sungchan: "9 days" has a more natural feel because while we were making the song, we had to reference back to our trainee days in practice. The lyrics are a very detailed description of our trainee days and who we were before debuting.  

Anton: I would say we had a fun time in the studio because it felt like we were finally telling our story ourselves and being able to share that with our fans is the best.  

"Honestly" reminisces about past love. What, or who, were you thinking about while recording it? 

Wonbin: I think we really aimed to capture the theme of putting yourself first and saying a final goodbye to someone you thought the world of. That resonates throughout the song, especially in the lyrics. It’s an emo pop ballad at its core.

"One Kiss" was RIIZE's first foray into emo pop and sets you apart from other groups as you highlight your vulnerability. How did you go about finding that sound?  

Anton: I see "One Kiss" as a song made with our fans in mind, we had a hands on approach with making the video as we wanted it to come from our hearts. 

Sohee: I would not say we have found our sound yet as we are still growing and experimenting. We hope to create more good songs like "One Kiss" in the future.

You’re in the midst of a fan-con tour, what has been your favorite city to tour so far?

Shotaro: We love every city equally, we started off in Korea and felt right at home. In Japan, we had so much eye contact with the crowd as they were very hands on. Previously, in Mexico, the crowd's energy was infectious and awesome.

What are your plans for the second half of this year?

Sungchan: We plan on finishing off our fan-con tour by the end of August. Our fans can expect to see us at end of the year award shows with bigger and better performances from last year.

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