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A Protest Music Interview: Saffron A

There are different ways to both react and deal with trauma. Saffron A is a young musician from Brantford, Ontario, who chooses to put her experiences into song. Sad songs are as common part of popular culture as anything, but there are deeper levels of personal experiences that are getting their taboo sticker torn off by a new and brave generation.

As Saffron explained to me via email it felt natural for her and impossible not to create songs about some of the traumatic events in her life. In addition to her ‘normal’ touring and connecting with her audience she participates with organisations, such as Take Back The Night, giving talks and singing her songs at various empowerment events.

Check out her latest EP’s, both out this year, on her Bandcamp page.

First of all, for those not familiar with your work, who is Saffron A?

I am a feminist solo artist, and I play the tenor guitar and octave mandolin. My music sits where emotion and intellect intersect, focusing on themes of sexual assault, mental health, trauma and empowerment!

Has your music always been political or made in protest?

My music hasn’t always had this focus, but it has developed through lived experience. My earlier work was more experimental and explores the facets of human relationships. I would argue that I still do those things in my current writing, but with more precision and social awareness.

“At the time it was an easier way to say that something upsetting has happened to me, without having to explain my experience 50+ times. I felt compelled to write these songs as an act of survival, there was little choice on my part. “

Your recently released an EP, titled Resistance, which is a follow up to another EP, released earlier this year, called Resilience. You describe the first EP as “a collection of songs which focus on the initial response to experiencing sexual violence.” What made you decide to put these intimate feelings into song and how do you describe the process of both writing and then performing such songs?

It all started with the song Resilience. I wrote it after my assault as a way to process my experience, and released a demo of it to share with my friends and family. At the time it was an easier way to say that something upsetting has happened to me, without having to explain my experience 50+ times. I felt compelled to write these songs as an act of survival, there was little choice on my part. Writing has always helped me understand myself more and process my life and feelings, so it was only natural to process this trauma through song. When I started performing Resilience, the response I received during the song and after the show was profound. I knew that there was more I had to say in connection to this piece, and I had to form a full picture of my experience. That’s when a lot of the writing for this project began.

What’s interesting is a number of songs on the Resilience EP were written previously, but they fit with the narrative so well. With the Resistance EP, I wrote all of those songs from a place of frustration and unrest. At the time of writing Resistance I was finishing my Justice Studies degree. Having personal experiences with facets of the Canadian justice system (the police, court) and being further traumatized when seeking help motivated me to dig in and write Loud and Clear, as well as Priceless Advice. Break and Enter, as well as Flashes speak more to my internal response to external trauma. The title track Resistance is my battle cry to keep fighting and continue to live despite the injustice. Performing these songs is unique every night and they feel like they have a life of their own.

How have people been receiving your music, especially when you play live?

I’ve been cutting my teeth touring this summer, and these shows have shown me how important my music is right now. A blanket statement is that people are challenged and moved by my work on a personal level, but it goes deeper than that. My shows have felt like a collective energy exchange of emotion, and afterwards folks thank me and share their own stories with me privately. I am honoured to be apart of these dialogues and inspire people to think critically about our society and how desperately things need to change.

Recently you both performed and gave a talk at two Take Back The Night events. How did that go and what other activist activities or events do you participate in?

It was amazing to get to speak and sing at the Take Back The Night rallies in Halton and Humber College. It is an honour to be a part of the community in this way and to connect with different populations in public spaces. I also have been a guest speaker at the Transforming Trauma Into Triumph conference by The Gatehouse, which took place at the Toronto Police College. That was an important accomplishment for me, and a great event to be a part of.

Can you tell us about your instruments of choice, the octave mandolin and tenor guitar, and how it came to be that you use them for writing your songs?

I started playing the mandolin, and I’ve stayed within the bounds of instruments that are tuned in fifths! My dad custom built me an electric tenor guitar which changed my whole sound, and then he crafted an electric octave mandolin which was another game changer. They are my signature pieces that set me apart.

You got a new single out, Priceless Advice, which readers can hear above. What can you tell us about it?

Priceless Advice is featured on the Resistance EP, and it deconstructs the messages people socialized as young women are given to keep themselves safe. These “helpful suggestions” come from parents, the police, friends, the media. Society puts the responsibility on women not to be violated instead of teaching men not to violate others.

Where you are from, do you feel there is a strong scene of artists like you that use their voice to spread either political, intimate or protest messages?

I’m from Brantford, Ontario, and there is a small but mighty activist scene. The music scene itself is not welcoming to bold women, but groups like Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent are cool to collaborate with. Another barrier is that there are few spaces for people to have concerts, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable inviting anyone to see me play in those venues because I can’t ensure their safety. Brantford needs safe accessible art spaces, but there is a gap.

What are some of your musical inspirations? Do you follow other contemporary artists that also use their voice responsibly?

For me personally, Janis Ian is my favourite songwriter of all time. Her brutal honesty and vulnerability in her work is inspirational. I’m also influenced by the versatility of Jack White. More politically minded bands like The Clash, Hole, Nirvana and Bikini Kill push me to be blunt in some of my writing. 

Riot grrrl bands have been having a resurgence, so The Shiverettes and Peach Club are so needed. They’re bringing important messages to the forefront!  In the world of popular music, Lizzo is a gem, and her messages of self love and empowerment bring me to my feet.

Some of my friends in the Canadian music scene like The Lifers, Annie Sumi, Missy Bauman, Scott Cook and Piper & Carson are also important voices. They make noise and speak their minds, but also leave people feeling safe and cared for at the end of their sets. They share their own social commentary in a way that people listen and don’t feel alienated.

What is on the horizon for you?

In short, more music, more touring, more adventures! I’m excited to share what I’ve been writing and I look forward to bringing my songs to new places and spaces.

Lastly, thank you very much for participating and for your music. Is there anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

Thank you for giving me a platform to share. Consent is everything! Support your local music scene and empower marginalized voices! If you like any of my songs, please share them with a friend and follow my journey on social media!

Check out more about Saffron A’s work on her Webpage ı Spotify ı Facebook ı YouTube ı Instagram

New Release: Ow by Pom Pom Squad

Album of the day here at Shouts HQ’s is Ow by riot grrrl act Pom Pom Squad out of New York City. This sophomore piece is noisy, beautiful and real. Check it out!

Cover photo from the Pom Pom Squad’s Bandcamp page.

A Protest Music Interview: Evan Greer

“There is no such thing as a-political art. There is art that challenges the status quo, and art that doesn’t.”

– Evan Greer

This time we got somewhat of a legend here at Shouts. Evan Greer has been moving around both the music business and the activist world for quite some time now and she recently released a new album titled she/her/they/them .

Out of Make Shift Boston, a co-working space, she works as the deputy director of the nonprofit Fight for the Future, she is a friend and active supporter of Chelsea Manning as well as a hard working independent musician who has spent 300 plus days on tour in a year and more recently while parenting along the way.

It’s been 10 years since her last album and now, through Don Giovanni Records, a new piece has finally come to light. I contacted Evan to learn about her new album as well as her thoughts on music and activism and how the two are as she puts it “inextricably linked”.

10 years between albums is quite some time. Can you tell us why the long time between the albums and what you’ve been up to in that time?

I wish I could claim that I was just toiling away in the studio for all those years trying to nail the perfect guitar sound. But the truth is that I just got really busy! I’ve always balanced my music with my activist work, and for many years when I was working as a full time artist, I had to tour about 300 days a year to make ends meet.

Even after I had a kid I kept touring pretty relentlessly, but eventually I had to slow down a bit and so I put more focus into my activist work, becoming a campaigner at Fight for the Future, an activist group focused on Internet freedom and opposing government surveillance.

I’ve also been organizing a monthly queer dance party in Boston, providing a landing pad for other touring trans and queer artists. Getting into the studio and recording an album just never quite made it to the top of the list for years, but I’m so glad that I finally did.

In a recent interview you said that for you “music and activism have always been inextricably linked”. Many people believe the two should be separated, that the arts shouldn’t be political. Shouts is about exploring these two things just as well as the idea of journalism and activism being linked. What’s your take on all of this?

The whole “just stick to music” narrative is based in a false concept of “neutrality.” There is no such thing as a-political art. There is art that challenges the status quo, and art that doesn’t. We’re living in a deeply unjust world with ongoing and active state violence, growing white supremacy, and we’re on the verge of a climate catastrophe.

The choices we make about what type of art to make in this moment in history are political choices, whether we like it or not. That doesn’t mean that every single piece of art needs to be an overt form of protest — it just means that we shouldn’t pretend that art is somehow detached from society or our collective human experiences.

Six Strings is very straight forward, deeply honest and uncomfortably sad. Do you play this song live and if so what kind of emotions does it bring out on stage? 

“Uncomfortably sad,” is the review I was looking for with this tune 😉 I do occasionally play it live. When I do I actually introduce it as a bit of a comedic song. It’s a snapshot of one of those moments when you just feel so, so down, when everything feels pointless and you can’t see your way out of the hole.

I don’t feel that way most of the time, so it’s kind of neat as a songwriter to have been able to create this piece of art that captures how I felt in one of those moments. It’s a good way to remind myself and others that when we get to that place, it will pass. In some ways it’s a song about resilience, because in the end, we move past it.

The song also made me think of the guitar as a living creature – do you have a special guitar, the one you’d bring out of a burning house and if so, why that one?

I have a trusty Taylor that I’ve dragged all over the world, played at hundreds of shows, and that I’ve had to rescue from teargas filled streets at a protest at least once. I love that guitar, but honestly I’m pretty utilitarian about musical instruments.

I’ve never really been a gear head. I’ve done a lot of touring in both the US and Europe by bus and train, and I often don’t bring my own guitar with me — I’ll work with the show organizer to borrow a guitar in each city, playing a different one every night. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re pretty beat up. I kind of like the challenge of finding each guitar’s voice.

For me the focus at a show is always about the connection with the audience, not about creating the exact same sound every night. 

Children’s Song is a humorous, yet very powerful song, and it could just as well have been called ACAB. Why do you think there is such a problem with the police state today in your country?

Modern policing in the United States is an extension of hundreds of years of structural white supremacy dating back to slavery. The primary role that the prison system and police violence plays in our society isn’t public safety, it’s social control. I try to teach my kid that this is not about individual police or whether they’re good people or bad people, it’s about the system itself, which is designed to uphold unjust power structures.

Going back a bit, your tour diary from 2015 is an absolutely brilliant read and hugely inspiring. How important was it to tour Europe with your friends and kids? Is this the new standard for future tours?

Parenting is punk rock. There are lots of musicians out there raising kids. But often this isn’t really visible. Our pop culture conception of touring artists is that they’re all in their 20s and party hard after every show. Touring with our kids, and documenting it so other parents can see, was a cool way to push for more visibility.

Can you tell me how the creative process was different while making/recording this album from 2009’s Never Surrender? What did Taina Asili and Gaetano Vaccaro bring to the process?

I’m totally not a studio musician and I never really have been. But when I write songs I hear them with full instrumentation and studio polish. My live versions are my best attempts to approximate that with just myself and a guitar. Going into the studio has always been stressful for me — something about the permanence of recording music makes me feel like I’m never going to get it good enough to match that thing that I heard in my head when I first wrote the song.

But Taina and Gaetano’s expertise helped so much. They’re brilliant musicians and amazing friends. Sometimes the role they played was very concrete: adding harmony vocals, electric guitars, and bass.

Other times it was more like therapy — helping me figure out what I wanted when even I wasn’t sure. In the end, the album is special because it’s different from what I heard in my head when I wrote the songs. It’s a living breathing project that evolved over the course of a few years, with help from an awesome array of guest artists that shaped the sound.

A question I often ask political rappers is how they balance between the message and the flow. Do you ever experience a conflict between the words you want to use and how they fit into the song?

Yes this can happen. One thing that’s been helpful for me is to realize that not everything I want to express politically needs to be a song. I’ve started writing a lot more opinion pieces for outlets like The Guardian or Washington Post, or scripts for short videos, or infographics and other types of creative projects.

If you could have any artist, living or dead, featured on your next album who’d be your top 3 picks?

Hah. Tough one. Honestly it was a huge deal for me having Chris #2 from Anti-Flag and legendary riot-grrrrl cellist Bonfire Madigan play on she/her/they/them. Let’s go with: guest feature from Janelle Monae, guitar shredding from Sister Loretta Tharpe, and Keith Moon on the drums.

When you need someone else’s music to inspire your fighting spirit, what do you listen to? Any active, contemporary protest musicians, or not, that you want to throw a shout out?

Too many to name. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of indie pop punk stuff like Worriers, Potty Mouth, Sad13, Aye Nako, etc. I’ll also never stop loving stuff like Rilo Kiley and Sleater Kinney. When I need political inspiration I’m all about Ana Tijoux, Shadia Mansour, Calle 13, La Santa Cecilia, Chumbawamba, Saul Williams. I’ve also been loving the other artists on my label, Don Giovanni Records, like Mal Blum, Screaming Females, Bad Moves, and Waxahatchee. And then I just listen to a ton of radical artists from my broader community like Taina Asili, Climbing Poetree, bells roar, Sihasin, and Anjimile.

What is on the horizon for you?

The future is always unwritten. For the foreseeable future I’ll likely continue to balance my music with full time activist work, so I’ll probably still put out new songs here and there and do some occasional shows and short tours, but I’m not likely to be back on the road 300+ days a year anytime soon. And I’m okay with that.

For me music has always been an outlet for work that I wanted to do. The longer I make music and do the work, the more I see how the pieces fit together.