If your queer coming of age happened in the 90’s then you would have certainly been aware of the burgeoning movement of queer women performers. Armed with guitars, grit and gusto—tracing tracks left by (the likes of) Kathleen Hanna and Ani Difranco—young brave souls spat words and carved tunes railing against the patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, inequality and all the social ills that we had yet no laws or protections from.
Among those pioneers was Alix Olson. Back in those days women performers booked their own shows, traveling (with compatriots when they could) from college gig to backwater dive bar, while inspiring a younger generation of feminists, queers, and activists to keep beating the drums. And quite honestly things haven’t changed all that much, many of these artists continue to produce their own projects, then taking them on the road, putting the D in the I Y, as they continue to inspire us.
A decade, a dissertation and one child later, Alix Olson has released her latest recording “Protagonist“. In it she weaves between critiques of capitalism and consumerism, patriarchy and misogyny—topics that brought her to our attention many years ago—albeit with slightly changed perspective of motherhood. Pals and fellow road warriors Melissa Ferrick and Pamela Means fill out the ambiance of “Protagonist” for a thoughtful and heartfelt listen.
Alix and I recently talked about what happens when an artist “grows up,” how does her art and life change?
Velvetpark: Tell me a little about what has gone on for you in the last few years? PhD and motherhood seems like a lot to take on.
Alix Olson: In 2009, I took a break from touring to go to graduate school. It had gradually become clear to me that for over a decade I had been breathing, interacting, moving within this very exciting but also very particular temporality. I am so grateful that my twenties were spent in this pace and this rhythm; I was able to speed and weave through ideas and people and communities and politics and do it all over the place. I never took that for granted. How lucky I have been.
How much I have been able to see and learn and hopefully contribute in that mode of movement. But I think I felt this urgency to experiment with new ways of thinking and being and acting in the world. Being a student again has allowed me to explore ideas at a slower pace, to read and re-read those texts that first sparked my poetry and all of the new concepts that have emerged since then. I am sure there are artists and activists and thinkers who are able to do all of that at once—but I’m sort of myopic—I needed and wanted a big-ass chunk of time to hunker down with thick books and pens and question marks.
I also got sober in early 2010 and that was a game-changer. It allowed me to have so much more clarity in all ways—in particular about what I actually wanted to do with my days. One of those things was having a kid. My partner and I were really lucky in that we were able to avoid the medical model completely. We asked another spoken word artist friend to help us out and, armed with a lot of books, a measuring cup and a plastic syringe, got pregnant the first go-round.
How do you feel motherhood has changed your outlook, I feel a shift in your lyrics, from an independent rebel to… um… can you say a few things on that topic?
The actually feeling of being a parent is unexplainable in all those hopelessly crushed-out, ach-y, all-consuming ways that probably any parent knows. It can also be frustrating and exhausting. Psychologically, the whole venture is jarring—it holds a mirror up and says “honey, deal with yourself!” As an evolving student of politics, every day, I feel more (or at least differently) tuned in to a political issue as a result of being a parent: The constraints of gendering (or not-gendering), the Baby Industrial Complex of middle-class consumerism, the ways that the United States values particular classes and categories of children while pretending to honor all of them.
While most of Protagonist was written and then recorded way before or right after I became a mom, I do feel different in my work. Not less angry—the injustices of this world definitely piss-me-off just as much now that I’m poised to watch someone I love so deeply get entangled in them all. In some ways though watching this person literally discovering the skin of trees and how water drips and how spinach tastes and all that stuff enticed me to take a step toward simplicity and ease and pleasure. It was either that or let this big chasm be there between us where he’s constantly giggling—at the sound of an airplane, say– while I’m busy railing against the amount of oil it’s using.
Its been almost two decades that you have been on the scene, you started as a radical rabble rouser, and now, for lack of a better word you have done a few “traditional” things. Do we all eventually settle down? Or do you see it that way?
I don’t know that we all eventually settle down. I hope not! I do know that it took me a bunch of years of allowing contemplation and tolerating some sadness and, most important for my particular brain, of not drinking to avoid that sadness—to get to this place of awe about the world, to really understand how much I actually value—at a level where there are no words—what it is that we are so busy fighting for and over and about. I also know that I could not have gotten here without a lot of rage.
I think I am opposed to attaching emotional stages to stages of perceived maturity: “oh, those young, angry protesters! Just wait until they face the real world…” I think our society is structured in such a way that we are forced into modes of stability at a certain point because we are forced to “plan” for the future and old age and retirement and our kids’ futures and all that stuff that our corrupt political economy wants us to waste our time doing.