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the beautiful worst

2.14.17 vol. 3 - issue 4

Thirteen years ago, I was a second year student at Hampshire College, eagerly diving into as many projects as I could fit in my schedule. That was when I first met Laurel Butler. We were both in a modern dance class that left me out of my element (and where Laurel was very much in hers). The following semester, we co-produced Hampshire Theatre's production of The Swan (which, fun fact, was the first play at our alma matar to feature full frontal nudity). With her talent, vision, and ability to organize collaborations, it came as no surprise that Laurel would go on to do incredible things.

A theatre artist and community activist, Laurel has been involved with projects including arts education in the criminal justice system, a traveling theatre performance with her husband, and an all-female David Bowie cover band called Lady Stardust. She is currently the Associate Director of the Arts Education Program at UCLA. Cassandra, a feminist art-rock/power ballad/pop band, has been her latest endeavor. For Crying Out Loud, the band's first full-length album, was just released last week. We did an interview together on the Huffington Post, but with HuffPost's 1,000 word limit, we couldn't include everything.

Here's some bonus material from our full interview:

How did you get the idea for Cassandra? How did the rest of the band form?

The summer before moving to LA, I was corresponding with some collaborators about the vision for the project. We had a Google Doc to which we would all post little snippets of inspiration, like quotes and images and song ideas, and one day I posted a picture of Cassandra, Tia Carrere’s character from the movie Wayne’s World, which was my absolute favorite film for all of my childhood and adolescence. And I was like, WAIT. That’s it. She’s the absolute essence of the project – a glittery jumpsuit-wearing woman who embodies an erotic sort of badass fearlessness in her rock & roll artistry.

The band has always been described as a fluid and mutable collective, which is true – we have pretty much never had the same lineup of performers in any of our performances, and instead try to adopt the philosophy that whoever shows up are the right people. I am at the center of the collective, so sometimes it is just me – like, on the record I am the only vocalist that appears. And then sometimes we’ve done shows with upwards of 10 women onstage at a time. It just depends on the context. Some of Cassandra’s members are longtime collaborators – I’ve known Megan since we were both at the University of New Mexico almost a decade ago. I met Vanessa in line for a free Karen O show at Amoeba music during my first month in LA. The following year, Megan and Vanessa and I performed as Cassandra, as a trio, on a lineup with one of Mónica Mendoza’s bands, and now she’s our guitarist. I met our bassist, Gina, in dance class! So, most of our LA performance crew came together in that inexplicable way: witches that just gravitate towards each other because they have a set of shared values/aesthetics/energy and are drawn to each other by some profound vibration. And then when we perform on the East Coast we often collaborate with women from the Royal Frog Ballet theater collective, with whom I have been collaborating since college. So, it’s a widespread coven, a rich ecology of women with a lot of dynamic relationships and herstories.

Cassandra’s message and aesthetic expresses fierce, active feminism. How do you create a feminine message using rock music?

In general, we look to the idea that the personal is political, and make sure that we are telling our stories and attending to our art in a way that feels honest and true. But beyond that I think that there is simply something about liberation of the body and the voice, and then the visibility and amplification of the liberated female body and voice, in whatever manifestation feels true at the time. We are very concerned with autonomy, and self-determination of representation. And power. I think that is a central conceptual question for Cassandra: in what ways we can use the prescribed aesthetic codes of rock and roll – a genre that has long been known for misogyny and sexism and rape culture – and reclaim them as postures and platforms of power for ourselves? To claim territory for ourselves in a way that feels unbound – the screaming, the flailing, the shredding, the wailing… there’s something about owning the intersection of freedom and power and vulnerability in the rock and roll space that feels very feminist to me. Omg, and rage! For women to go through a state of rage in a public space and have that be celebrated instead of stigmatized feels very very crucial.

 Is there a specific theme or message conveyed in For Crying Out Loud?

On the one hand the album is very personal for me – it’s like my entire Saturn Return wrapped up in a box. But I think that the overarching through line is something about desire. There is this great footage of Pina Bausch in which she asks “Where does all the yearning come from?” and I think that this is a central theme to the record. Each song illuminates or deals with one of those forces - domestication, persecution, trauma, grief, a condition of being un-free - and investigates how our internal processes can metabolize those things, alchemize them into a sort of power. It’s a record about a state of deeply dynamic and personal resistance, I think, and about the role of transformation – even magic – in the process of subversion, and liberation.

Who influences your work? Who do you hope to inspire?

David Bowie has influenced me beyond anything I can describe. More immediately, The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual tour is, I think, the greatest influence that still informs my vision of what Cassandra could be someday. I would really love it if Cassandra’s live show were highly physicalized and performative, with really complex choreography accompanying the music, and maybe even a narrative.

To be honest, I’m fucking inspired by my friends, by the women in my community. The woman who is a playwright, an herbalist, a midwife, the woman who is writing her thesis on her work with refugee resettlement in Europe, the woman who runs an initiative to empower female musicians at the US/Mexico border, who facilitates a white anti-racist book club, who works to fight climate change, who is a radical nurse committed to reproductive rights, the woman who is an artist in her community and is designing Cassandra’s album cover right now. Those women inspire me deeply, and I think that I hope to inspire other women to do what they have done: to listen to the thing inside you that turns on and comes alive when you engage with a particular aspect of the human experience and to plug into that as deeply as you can.

"Everywhere Cassandra ran, Cassandra found she could float. How did she float? With her float can. Does that sound like a tautology? But the arts of prophecy are often tautological. They reason in a circle. The prophet must prove to you that she is a prophet by telling you unbelievable news, which you will only believe if you already regard her as a prophet. If the news is not unbelievable, then she is just a news source. If the news subsequently comes true, then she was a prophet but it doesn't matter now that the news is widely available. Cassandra’s is a conundrum of the veil. Where is the edge of the new? Where is the edge of belief? Is it possible to believe something truly unbelievable? How does that begin? Is there a crack of light under the door? How do you know to see it as light? Is there an edge of light all around the dark mass of your life up to this moment? Can you see the dark mass as a veil? Can you want it gone? Can you say flic flac it’s gone? Cassandra can." - from Float, by Anne Carson

Cassandra's first album, For Crying Out Loud, is now available here.

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