With Step Sing, Song Mistresses, and a long tradition of a cappella groups, music has played an integral role in the Bryn Mawr experience. Add to that a penchant for critical thinking, extensive time spent honing writing skills, and a diverse cultural environment, it’s no wonder that Mawrters are finding their niche in the indie music world.
As part of this issue of the Bulletin, we’ll introduce you to just a handful of Bryn Mawr alumnae who are making their own DIY-way as musicians. Below you can read about their stories, listen to their music, read professional reviews of their music, and watch their videos.
Since they are Bryn Mawr women, they are all one-of-kind. They are singer-songwriters, post-punk, and feminist rockers. They play keyboards, drums, lead guitar, bass, and harp. They’ve been playing since they were 12 years old. They didn’t start playing until they hit college. They have eight albums among them (plus a handful of EPs), some great reviews in their back pockets, and a Bryn Mawr-nurtured commitment to the music they love.
It’s not an easy way to make a living in the world they’ve chosen. Some work day jobs, some have full-time gigs, but all these young Mawrters have inspiring stories about how music—and Bryn Mawr—shaped their lives.
“Pretty much as soon as I started learning my first few chords, I immediately realized that the only reason I wanted to play was to write,” explains Michelle Zauner ’11, who fronts the indie band Japanese Breakfast.
A piano player from a young age, she was 15 years old when her parents gave in and bought her the guitar she’d been begging for.
Zauner got the chance to hone her songwriting skills when Little Big League, her band with Haverford grad Kevin O’Halloran, was on a yearlong break while waiting for the release of its second album. Feeling creatively stunted and longing to be productive, she set herself a challenge: write and record a song every day for a month.
“The project,” she says, “was born out of frustration.”
But in early 2014, Zauner’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. “I had to leave Philadelphia, and I had to leave my band. I had to leave my partner and my job. I had to throw away everything to be with her,” she says. “And, you know, that was difficult but ultimately what I had to do and the right decision.”
Leaving to be with her family in rural Oregon, Zauner began piecing together and revamping the songs she had been crafting as a form of therapy. Japanese Breakfast’s dream-pop LP Psychopomp came together in that year and was released in 2016. The online music magazine Pitchfork described the album as “at once cosmically huge and acutely personal. Zauner captures grief for the perversely intimate yet overwhelming pain it is. Long may she keep at this music thing.”
Alluding to parental loss, songs like In Heaven and The Woman That Loves You elicit feelings of emotional dependency, while Zauner’s sweet, belting voice blends with wistful guitar tones. “I think my writing style comes from having immigrant parents,” she says. “My mom was not a writer by any means, but she was deeply touched by things. The way she would express herself was in this simple but poetic way. She really embraced meaning. And when I think about it, I’m drawn to those things in my writing.”
Zauner’s music owes something to Bryn Mawr as well. After an initial adjustment to life on campus, she quickly found “her people”—first-year roommate Marisa Helgeson ’11, friend Casey Sowa ’11, and sophomore roommate Riki Gifford-Ferguson ’11—and started the band Post Post, which played on campus and in Philadelphia throughout her time at Bryn Mawr.
Plus, she credits her major advisor Daniel Torday with turning her on to new writers and—a musician himself—encouraging her to nurture her musical skills. Similarly, History of Art Professor Homay King exposed her to different material that still influences her. “Whenever I think of The Woman That Loves You,” Zauner says, “I think of the Wong Kar-wai movie Happy Together. That was one of the first movies that she [King] had shown in one of her courses. It’s nice to know that what you learn in school informs your creative work.”
Growing up in rural Maine, Ivy Gray-Klein ’14, M.A. ’15, was on a constant search for a community of like-minded women. Creative women working unconventional paths and a community that aligned with her interests.
As with many teenagers, one of those interests was music. Gray-Klein has always been drawn to bands with female members and remembers traveling four hours each way to Boston to attend concerts. That way, she could remind herself of the world that extended beyond her small town.
“I didn’t have Wikipedia, Spotify, YouTube, or social media. Instead, I would scour these Angelfire sites for homemade digital archives of women musicians, and that’s how I first discovered bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and the Distillers.”
College gave Gray-Klein the opportunity to explore even more of the larger world, and she immersed herself in the music scene. While at Bryn Mawr, she completed internships with Pitchfork, A.V. Club, and Time Out Chicago, and was involved with FUCS, the concert-booking group at Haverford.
It was while booking shows that she brought Potty Mouth on campus. A pop-rock group of mostly Smith College women, the band crashed in her Radnor dorm room. They bonded over their Seven Sisters connection, and after hearing their stories about learning instruments later in life, Gray-Klein was inspired to do the same. Littler, the band for which she plays bass, was formed shortly after, in the summer of 2013.
“The first two years of Littler’s existence, I was a Bryn Mawr student, first as a senior and then as a commuting M.A. student, so this band has seen me through two theses,” says Gray-Klein, who earned her master’s degree in history of art in 2015.
Littler, a four-piece post-punk band out of Philadelphia, released its debut album, Of Wandering, in March 2016. With its themes of growing up, feeling lost, and grappling with the business of being a young adult, the album addresses issues familiar to many post-graduates—what it means to navigate identity and take those first steps into adulthood.
“By the time I graduated, I felt prepared and ready to leave the coziness of Bryn Mawr,” Gray-Klein explains, “but I still felt that rub of carving out a place for myself that wasn’t the same dorm I’d lived in for four years.”
But two years after graduating, when FUCS invited Littler to play at Haverford’s James House, Gray-Klein found herself back in the Bi-Co bubble, surrounded by music and Bryn Mawr women.
“Our set ended with a roaring Anassa kata led by current students,” she says. “That swell of collective cheer is one of the most resonating things from my time at Bryn Mawr. It’s like a weird secret society handshake meets battle cry. I loved it.”
“When I started playing harp, my expectations were about the same as anyone’s,” admits Gillian Grassie ’09. “A good fit for weddings, orchestras, and hobbits holding four-leaf clovers, which proved a problem when I fell in love with Billie Holiday, Feist, Regina Spektor, and Ben Folds and wanted to write music in those genres.”
Grassie, a harpist since age 12 and a singer most of her life, began following advice she learned from jazz harpist Park Stickney: listen to how non-harpists play their instruments and adapt guitar, piano, and bass patterns into harp arrangements.
“I also had to re-learn how to sing because I’d been preparing for a classical music education, which was a complete disaster when applied to singer-songwriter material,” she says. “There were some embarrassing years of experimentation, but eventually I landed on my own style and sound.”
After graduating high school a year early, Grassie spent two years exploring a career as a singer-songwriter and gauging whether or not there was interest in her indie folk/pop music. By the time she started at Bryn Mawr, she’d already released an EP and started performing in the Philadelphia music circuit. She wrote, recorded, and released her debut album, Serpentine, during her sophomore year, all while juggling classes, schoolwork, and performances.
“If you’re a creative person, it’s hard not to be inspired by a good education,” she says. “College is the one time in your life where your primary job is to think critically. For people who make art, it’s natural that such a high concentration of stimuli would spark creative responses.” Grassie wrote most of her second album, The Hinterhaus, while traveling the globe for her Watson Fellowship, a time she says was one of the most creative periods of her life. She speaks more about her Watson Fellowship, her Bryn Mawr experience, and choosing the harp in this Q&A.
Over the past seven years, Grassie has toured extensively throughout the world, at an eclectic range of venues: she’s performed on a moving train in Mumbai, at a private gala for HRH Prince Albert of Monaco, in a 17th-century church in Sicily, as an opening slot for Amanda Palmer, and at a sold-out club in Siberia. But after spending most of her time touring solo, she found herself interested in discovering ways to fit her harp into the band format, which she says “often means scaling back my harp parts to make space for other sounds and textures.”
“Every studio album I’ve made has been a long, slow process of overdubbing, which creates room for experimentation but can make it hard to preserve the emotional integrity of a song,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to capture the energy of a live performance, and it was thrilling to finally get the opportunity.”
“Our rowdy all-girl-days were some of the most fun experiences of my time at Bryn Mawr,” says Marisa Helgeson ’11.
Along with Helgeson, Riki Gifford-Ferguson ’11, Michelle Zauner ’11, and Casey Sowa ’11 formed the band Post Post during their sophomore year at Bryn Mawr. But its origins go back to their first semester, when Helgeson and Sowa missed the Blue Bus after a Haverford party. Walking back to campus together, they hit it off. And when they found themselves in the same entry-level Growth and Structure of Cities class, their friendship flourished.
“We became best friends first,” says Helgeson, “but by the very end of first semester at Bryn Mawr, our friendship had organically evolved into a romantic relationship.”
With Helgeson on keyboards, Zauner on guitar, Sowa on drums, and Gifford-Ferguson on bass, Post Post, a garage band that Philadelphia City Paper celebrated for its “smart, perky pop,” practiced in Helgeson’s dorm room (much to the dismay of dorm neighbors), in the religion house on Cambrian Row, and later at a duplex on Haverford Road. At first, the band played mostly basement shows and parties, but as they continued to challenge themselves, things became more serious. The line-up shifted, with Haverford’s Kevin O’Halloran on bass.
After graduation, Helgeson and Sowa moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in search of new adventures. Shortly after moving, they formed Strange Relations, with Nate Hart-Andersen just recently joining on guitar and synth.
In March 2015, the band released its debut album, –Centrism, a diary rock or self-described “hi-fi bedroom pop” project born from the mind and heart of Sowa. A blend of elegant melodies and raw, energetic undertones, the album expresses the band’s feminist and queer experiences through Sowa’s hyperpersonal lyrics.
“Being exposed to the ethos of the Philadelphia DIY music scene went hand in hand with the social and critical awakening we experienced at Bryn Mawr,” explains Helgeson. “Both contexts sharpened our perspective on the importance of crafting artistic messages that are honest and hold others and ourselves accountable for our desires, beliefs, and actions.
“When we moved away, it felt only natural to take these lessons, emotions, and memories and translate them into the content of our work,” she continues. “Casey and I might never have met if not for Bryn Mawr, and our music would definitely be less overtly feminist.”
Among other accolades, –Centrism was named one of the top 10 full-length albums to come out of Minnesota in 2015 by the Star Tribune. The trio will release an EP in early summer and several singles throughout the year. Plus, they’re currently working on their second full-length LP, due in 2017.