Digging in The Garden: Shondes Bassist Talks Politics, Heartbreak and Hope

Nora Kipnis, Staff Writer

How did your band form? What drew the four of you together?

Elijah [Oberman] and I formed the Shondes with two other friends back in 2006. At the time, we were feeling an urgent need to get back to music – our previous band had just broken up – and both really wanted to get serious about it, and give it a real go, shooting for a sustainable career. We wanted to focus on songwriting, infusing honest emotion in it and finding ways to engage politically as a band.

Who and what are your musical influences?

We have a ton of influences that manifest in all different ways in our work, some much more obvious than others. For me personally, the biggest influences are ’80s pop rock, Riot Grrrl and soul. We are very rarely trying to emulate the people we admire in terms of musical style, but more to learn from the songs and singers and bands we love most. Like, wow, how did that line in that song make me feel so much, and how can I do that too?

People can usually detect the punk influence in our brand of rock, and a lot of people say they can hear Jewish elements, but to whatever extent those elements are there, it’s pretty organic and unplanned. I’m always happy when people are moved by our music, and curious to hear all they are hearing in it.

Your music has been often identified as having distinctly Jewish influences. Is this intentional, or is it a function of the music you were exposed to over your life? How do you think Judaism interacts with the feminist aspect of the music?

We are Jewish and love a lot of Jewish music, so I’m always happy and intrigued when people hear it in what we do, but no, it’s not really intentional. We write what feels good to us.

What do you think the interaction is between politics and music? How does your music exemplify or influence that interaction?

We started this band with pretty clear intentions around political engagement and wanting to do our work with a collective spirit. Our writing process, the music itself and the business side of things are all pieces we think about [really] consciously, and we try our best to do things thoughtfully and ethically.

The music itself tends to focus more on imparting hope than in presenting specific political positions. Hope is, after all, a wildly fragile and vital part of life, and we need it in spades if we want to do work that makes the world more just.

We have some songs that speak a bit more explicitly and specifically about our political beliefs, but for me the goal in being a songwriter is to express stuff through music that is simultaneously of great personal significance – even cathartic – and also of use to others. Imparting hope through music feels like part of my job in life. When good songwriters tackle political issues di-rectly, sometimes you get brilliant, honest, brave songs. Sometimes though, they come off really contrived and emotionally removed. So I want to be sure that I hold the bar high for myself.

I would rather imagine that [our new album] The Garden helps people connect with what is meaningful in their lives than that it tells them what I think is right and wrong. Feeling in touch with what’s personally most meaningful always has the potential to help us care more about eve-ryone’s right to safety and self-determination. At least that’s how it feels to me. It’s part of knowing what we are fighting for.

I’m not into writing songs that try to put rhetoric to music or educate listeners. We are better or-ganizers and activists when we are connected to our own needs and desires and feel compelled of our own accord to educate ourselves and take action.

Your politics have drawn both fans and critics. How do you think your politics relate to your music and the fans that you want to attract? Would you rather have listeners separate politics from the music when listening, or do you think that your music and your message are one and the same?

I don’t want anything artificially separated to facilitate fandom. But I also don’t think we have a political platform that every song is in direct service of. People can take our music however they want to, and I’m always happy to talk about how it relates to politics for me.

I think a lot of activists default to having a goal to get people on board with a predetermined party line. The kind of radicalism that has been important to me in my life is all about being engaged emotionally, intellectually and with other people. So I’m not interested in using music to convince people of things; music is a way for me to engage with an audience that I respect. If we have a message as a band, I’d say it is to be as alive as possible. Think, feel, experience awe, dedicate yourself to what you believe in because it feels like a whole, authentic way to exist in the world.

I believe that we should see and fight structural oppression, for example, and be vigilant, open to criticism, cognizant of our positionality and actively walking up the down escalators of white supremacy and sexism. But it’s because it’s genuinely connected to what I want for myself, for people I love, for a world that I’m a part of. I think this is really key — to know in your gut why you care, what your stake is. Otherwise your politics can be just as vapid as any crappy pop song.

A lot of your songs seem to revolve around recovering from heartbreak. What has the ex-perience of heartbreak taught you about your personal power as a woman?

Heartbreak sucks, but it’s an important and unavoidable part of life, right? I have felt pretty em-powered by surviving major blows in my life, and music has always been my go-to activity for the awful times. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “Oh my god, I can’t sleep because I’m so sad. I can’t bear to think about the sadness anymore, nothing distracts me from it.” And then just sitting down at the piano and writing that moment is what allowed me to survive it. That’s super powerful and makes you feel like you’re equipped for whatever might hit you.

What does the name “shondes,” which is Yiddish for shame or disgrace, have to do with your band’s message?

We have all felt like outsiders at one point or another and wanted the band name to speak to that experience, and affirm it. Plus Yiddish is such an expressive and cool language, and it felt good to bring that in.

How does The Garden differ from your previous albums? How is it a continuation of the earlier ones?

We had a lot more control than ever before, and a great partner in producer Tony Maimone through the whole process. It’s an outgrowth of the anthemic pop rock sensibility we were hon-ing on 2011’s Searchlights.