A Conversation with Amy KleinPosted: July 23, 2011
By Sophie Rae
If there’s one thing anybody who’s ever seen Amy Klein perform knows, it’s that she’s having a really, really good time. Grinning widely and bouncing up and down with the beat, her happiness is infectious, and you can’t help but smile.
When I tell her this after her band, Titus Andronicus’, set at South Street Seaport’s 4Knots Festival last Saturday, she seems pleased. “I like making people smile” she says. We walk around the pier and, it being the lovely day that it is, all the benches are taken, so we sit on the ground, overlooking the East River just as it begins to meet the Hudson on the tip of Manhattan.
As the Black Angels play the last set of the day, Amy tells me about her musical beginnings which are, coincidentally, also the beginnings of her life, since she started playing violin at the age of three. But she only became truly passionate about music when she was twelve. “I was obsessed with Radiohead,” she tells me, “I know, it doesn’t make me sound very obscure– everyone loves Radiohead– but I loved all the weird sounds Jonny Greenwood could produce from the guitar.”
As a teenager, she also listened to a lot of female driven punk from her sister’s record collection, like X-Ray Specs, Bikini Kill, and Bratmobile, who not only made her want to play the guitar, but made her feel like she could play the guitar. “It’s gratifying when you hear other women or girls playing. You start to imagine yourself in that position.”
She says that Riot Grrrl music also helped form her identity as a teenager who didn’t care as much about being “cool” as other kids at her school. “I thought about being cool but I secretly knew I didn’t give a shit about it. Like Bratmobile says, ‘cool schmool.’”
Amy says that when she listened to Riot Grrrl music as a young teenager, she wasn’t explicitly thinking about feminism, but she was thinking about power. “The music made me realize that there were ways for me to be powerful, loud, and assertive, even as a teenager.”
Over the course of her adolescence, Amy began to think more seriously about feminism and its relationship with music. “The first purposely feminist thing I did was at college, when I started Harvard’s first ever– and only one since– female punk band. I wanted to do something totally D.I.Y. and show that girls at our school could be smart, and also be messy and loud and out of control, and that the two sides didn’t cancel out.”
After graduating, Amy received a fellowship to study feminism and female musicians in Japan, where she spent thirteen months interviewing and attending concerts by Japanese female musicians, an experience which she described as “nothing short of magical,” on her blog (which, by the way, is pretty amazing). When she returned from Japan, she worked in a NYC government office that investigates misconduct by the police. It was during this time that Amy reconnected with Titus Andronicus, for which she had played violin on their first album years before.
“I bumped into Patrick (lead singer/guitarist of Titus Andronicus) at a punk show at Death By Audio. He asked me to quit my job and join Titus, and I was like ‘yes, please!’” Just as she says this, a hipster-y looking guy walks up to us, shakes Amy’s hand, and tells her that she is “a magnet” on stage. She thanks him and turns back to me, “where was I?”
We resume our conversation, and Amy eagerly tells me about her most recent musical endeavor, a band with her friend Catherine
(whom she met at Harvard), called Hilly Eye. “It’s very different from Titus,” she says, “Today there were hundreds of people watching Titus’ set. We had a Hilly Eye show and there were two people there.” She says that this discrepancy is disconcerting, but
that it’s a good lesson about why she plays music. “You do it to be creative and to have an experience that validates you personally. I don’t ever want to do music to get validation from other people. That’s not the reason to create something.”
As a boat of screaming tourists pulls into the dock, we start to talk about Permanent Wave, Amy’s feminist group, founded in 2010, which recently helped stage a protest against the acquittal of rape charges against two NYC police officers. Amy says that these types of cases are women’s issues, as well as city-wide issues, because they show how difficult it is to convict anyone of rape. “People take the stories of rape victims with many grains of salt,” she says.
Permanent Wave is also working on a tribute album to Poly Styrene, singer for the punk band X-Ray Spex, who passed away from cancer in April of this year.
A Permanent Wave accomplishment which, according to Amy, is not to be underestimated, is the network of creative women and women interested in activism they have built. “I really hope to expand it to teenagers,” she says.
For the most part, what has enabled Permanent Wave to create this network is its use of the internet. “Some feminists think that if you just talk about these issues online, nothing will happen in real life,” says Amy, “but I think that social media can really help make changes in the world,” citing the recent protest against the acquittal of the NYPD rape charges, which started as a Facebook event and gained hundreds of attendees in under twenty hours.
Amy thinks that blogging likewise has a lot of potential as a tool for feminists, “You have no idea if your story is going to reach someone who feels isolated and confused,” she says. “You could really help someone.”
For the past few months, Permanent Wave has been organizing a show series called Sound Wave, which features female performers and musicians, with every show benefiting a different organization that helps women and girls in our community. The next show is tomorrow, a benefit for the International Women’s Health Coalition, at which Amy herself is playing.
Stop by and say hello!