Interview

Evan Greer is Breaking the Chains

I think at my core I make music and do activism that's about bringing people together

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A Shorter Version of this article was first published by wgbh.org

Musician and activist Evan Greer (she/her) is a fountain of knowledge and a cornerstone of two main, yet disparate communities in Boston. Greer devotes half of her passion to making music, touring, recording, and promoting shows. The other half goes towards activism She is Deputy Director for the internet freedom group Fight for the Future, and is on the ground in previous years as a protestor, organizer.

Today one of Greer’s most significant contributions is ‘Break the Chains’ a queer dance party, which aims to unify communities in Boston. Their May 11th event celebrated the release of her new album, She/Her/They/Them out now on Don Giovanni Records.

‘Part of the reason I started break the chains was because I felt there was no space for capital Q Queer space in Boston.’ says Greer as we were on our way to Cha Cha Taqueria, the burrito cart in Back Bay station. During our interview Greer and I walked down the South West Corridor and talked about music, grassroots organization and how queer and trans visibility is both a big deal, but not the only issue she wants to talk about.

Boston Hassle: Considering your involvement with political work and activism and everything that goes into it, what makes you come back to making music?

Evan Greer: I guess love watching people’s light bulbs go on. Whether that’s because they’re connecting with other people like them for the first time, or whether they’re feeling at home or safe or good in space for the first time or if that’s a rare experience for them. I love watching people in the LGBTQ community celebrate and have fun. So much of the mainstream media narrative about us and reception is all about our trauma and our suffering, that’s obviously part of our reality … but I just think its so important to have spaces to comes together and have a fucking ton of fun and celebrate what makes us special and our power and our love and our expression.

Queer people are out there making badass art that’s almost never covered in a mainstream way, or if it is its in a very narrow way … like being trans is one piece of who I am – it’s not what defines me as an activist and artist. Just by creating a space by queer for queer people where we can share our art and be seen as the wholeness of our ourselves … [Break the Chains] plays into everything else I do as an activist as well .. I can say more on that – let me order my burrito first and we can come back to that – do you want anything?

BH: No I just ate, I’m good.

EG: Okay we can start walking back that way after…

BH: Are there any good restaurants around here?

EG: Yeah there’s Orinoco a Venezuelan place near makeshift that I love, it’s so good. There’s Shun’s Kitchen which is right across from makeshift … it’s kinda sleepy no one’s ever really in there but the foods really good. This place is my favorite though.

BH: Cool, thanks for the tip. (As we walk outside I begin to fully realize how dizzying it can be to be around someone so brilliant as they are accessible) Greer continues.

EG: … In my activism more generally I actually get really excited with the actual act of grappling with power. I can get excited about working on almost any issue as long as there’s a specific way me putting hours and time into it that can move the needle and make a difference. I think I spent a lot of my life doing activism that was performative, that was about showing the world ‘we care about this thing and we are right’. I learned over time that being right never won anything, especially when you’re up against entrenched political interests like giant telecom companies or institutional discrimination or the patriarchy or whatever. Just being right about things and yelling about how you’re right about them doesn’t actually change anything. So I get really excited about leading with strategy and being deeply reflective about ‘what are the pieces we would actually have to move in place to change this thing that’s wrong?’

Whether its a company practice or something fundamental in our culture. Which of those pieces do I actually have the ability to move? …. [P]eople do activism for the warm fuzzy, I sort of do it for the revenge. (laughs) When we win a fight we weren’t supposed to win and all the journalists and DC pundits said it was impossible, and the lobbyists on the other side start complaining about it, that’s when i go to bed happy…

BH: How do you approach putting your emotions and also your activism into your music? Do you find it’s an outlet, a catalyst, a respite?

EG: … to me music and activism have always been inextricably linked, I wrote my first song in high school when the US was preparing to invade Afghanistan after 9/11. It was sort of an anti-war song, and I thought well I can’t go around singing this song unless I’m gonna try to do something about this. So, I helped organize a student walk out, the first time I ever played in front of more than a few dozen people was at a big anti war protest that me and my friends organized on Boston common in the build up to the Iraq war. So those things have always been connected for me. But I do like all the different elements of it, I like sort of creating and consuming utilitarian political music, like the songs you can sing at a protest or on a picket line or in a jail cell, that are ‘in your face political’, that are about a specific political current issue, musical propaganda essentially. But also, increasingly, I see the value and appreciate and focus on creating art that’s more medicinal, that’s more about teaching people on a human level that are grappling with all the interconnected forms of oppression and trying to be a little vulnerable about how I experience them, both as an outlet for myself to share myself with the world but also as a way to bolster experience or help people who have adverse experiences to know that they’re not alone…

That’s the biggest message I get back from people around the world that listen to my music, that my music helped them know that they are not alone. That means the world to me because I know deeply that feeling of being alone and how painful it can be. That’s one the things that keeps me going, knowing that even if it just those few people, you can create a piece of art that gives them that feeling of connectedness to other humans. I can say that art like that has definitely saved my life a few times…

I guess the other thing I’d say is that for me at different times in my life I’ve focused more or less on either activism and music and bounced back and forth between the two. And I’ve kind of realized that I have to do both. If I’m just working full time on campaigning and not making music at all, I get super bummed out and want to stop everything and go on tour forever. And if I’m on tour forever and just completely focused on playing shows and making music, then I get super bummed out and really miss being involved in meaningful activist campaigns and struggles. In order to maintain my own mental health, I have to have one foot in each camp, and I think it makes the music better too. I think there’s a lot of artists that sing about social movements or sing about politics and then I think there’s artists out there who sing about social movements because they have to or they love music — you can tell the difference.

BH: My brother and sister are both older and they started listening to Anti-Flag when I was in third grade, your record made me go back and listen to Anti-Flag and see it in a new light … The other thing I’ve been thinking about is a binary, but something to me that comes up in your music is ‘unity’ … I think it’s an interesting concept, so Is [unity] the underlying premise? It’s a simple question, but does it require a simple answer?

EG: I think at my core I make music and do activism that’s about bringing people together, a wide range of people rather than just pigeon-holing myself in one sub-culture. I think at the same time the ideology or the term unity, especially lately, has been abused to silence the voices of marginalized people within communities who are saying, especially In the LGBTQ community, trans folks have historically been told ’shut up, don’t talk about that. We need to have unity’. You can’t have real unity when there’s people in your community that aren’t being listened to and heard. There’s so much pain and so much trauma and that can make it hard to build together. What I try to do is hold up those truths and not ignore the fact that there’s real problems within our community… but also always be looking for a positive, forward looking feel of the world but let’s not pretend there’s not problems, let’s actually talk about what we can do about them.

Sure I can play guitar … but that’s not what I’m good at. What I’m good at is bringing people together and making them feel something and that’s the current that runs through everything that I do.

BH: What music do you listen?

EG: To be totally honest, all I listen to lately is layered guitar driven woman fronted indie rock usually that’s not necessarily political. I can’t get enough of it. I am influenced by and love a huge range of music. Lately I’ve been into Celia Cruz, Salsa music and hip hop.

I’m a 90’s kid so I only know how to dance to Destiny’s Child and adjacent music. I go to dance parties now and kids are playing all their house music and their experimental stuff, it’s really awesome but I don’t know how to dance to it. (laughs)

Zoomed out, what really got me into music was my parents music like Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Buffy Sainte-Marie and all those 60’s & 70’s songwriters … they were my gateway drug. And then political punk bands like Anti-Flag of course and Against me!, they were a huge influence and then even their predecessors like Crass and Chumbawamba and UK anarcho punk bands were also a huge influence.

More recently, there’s so much great art being made in Boston. I just made a playlist for Spotify 50 some-odd trans and non-binary artists… like Bells Roar who plays on my record are super amazing, Taina Asili who produced the record, her band is incredible … I love Downtown Boys, Algiers, that just came through are super great I could go on and on …

This is the duality of the internet. There’s ways that its terrible for artists. The dominance of Spotify is a problem and Liz Pelly’s been writing a lot about this algorithm is literally creating a genre of ambient boring-ass indie music because that is what works well for the algorithm, but at the same its increasing the number of women and queer folks writing for mainstream outlets than there were five years ago. So the gatekeepers of what is cool have changed a bit so think that’s super important, I think obviously we still have a long way to go and it’s still ridiculous that some of these acts are pigeon holed as ‘female fronted pop punk’ but I think I’m seeing more voices actually being heard … I think the internet has a lot to do with that.

BH: When did you first come out as trans, and what impact has it had on your music career?

EG: I came out as trans pretty much right around the same time my kid was born which was a lot of change and transition in a short period of time, I guess that was, my kid was born in 2010, I think I started changing the way I was presenting my gender a little before that.

It was an interesting process, even the paradigm of coming out is complicated for a lot of trans and non-binary folks. For myself It was one thing to come out to my friends and family and then it was like, I had this fanbase, online primarily that have been listening to my music for a while, it was sort of a more active process. I had to decide and pick a day and be like ’this is the day that I’m going to edit and change my pronouns on my bio’ or ‘when am I gonna start telling a reporters these are my pronouns when I do an interview?’ … It’s sort of been an evolution rather than a single moment of coming out. I think I still come out all the time…

BH: I really like the line ‘We don’t need gays in the military, we need more militant gays.’ What do you think of the opposite sentiment of this, where folks try to mobilize within the military or through veterans programs support for gay folks and trans folks in the military?

EG: I totally understand the impetus, right, you know trans folks in the military deserve human rights and basic protections and deserve to not be harassed and targeted. And another thing I think that’s really important for people to understand is that legislatively and legally, the goals of the Trump administration attacking trans and queer folks in the military, it’s not about the military at all, it’s about setting a legal precedent that leads to their exclusion from all sectors of public life. Start by stripping protections from trans folks in the military, that then sets a legal precedent for trans folks in prison, for trans folks in the healthcare system, basically all sectors of government orientation toward trans folks, I think that’s really important coming from a policy perspective.

But that line, its felt for years, the mainstream gay rights organizations main goals were getting us married and into the military as quickly as possible. I think there’s two problems with that. I think they’re actually ignoring the issues that actually impact the most marginalized members of our community like homelessness, like the criminalization of sex work, like institutional white supremacy, job discrimination, the things that are actually leading to people’s death, like street violence, homelessness, extreme poverty. So when you have mainstream gay rights organizations that have all the money and all the lawyers, that are ignoring the issues, that’s a problem.

I think the second problem is about trying to get an unjust and broken society to accept and tolerate us rather than trying to change that unjust and broken society. Rather than challenging the fundamental premise of US imperialism and empire and having a huge military that we use essentially to control enormous amounts of geopolitical power, we’re trying to get ourselves included in that apparatus. I think queer and folks need to recognize governments are never going to protect us. We can’t look to politicians or corporations or political institutions to protect our basic rights, we have to do it ourselves, we have to take care of eachother. Thats been a big part of my concern with that assimilationist politic, thats it has largely been about trying to get us included in institutions rather than dismantle those institutions and make new ones that are just for everyone.

BH: What was the recording and songwriting process like for you for the new album?

EG: Yeah — The highlight was getting it down (laughs) it was a really important learning experience for me because studio recording is a different art form, essentially, than playing live and it’s not my top skill. When I write songs, I hear them with full instrumentation and you know, 16 layers of electric guitars, and drums and horns and cellos and whatever but I’ve rarely had the resources or time to actually perform them in that way. It’s mostly been just me and an acoustic guitar usually, like a busted one that i borrowed from someone because i didn’t want to bring my own on the plane. I share the best approximation that I can with people then I let my charisma and ability to connect with folks do the rest of the work. So going into the studio was a totally different project, this was about getting these songs ready for their closeup.

My rhythm is not the best, playing to a click track is a nightmare to me, I’ve never had a band, like a ‘band band’ that have been playing these songs with me forever. So I brought in my friend Charlene to play drums, she lives in New York and we’re both super busy, we both do activism work full time, so she came in the night before and we ran through all the songs and then we went into the studio to record them piece by piece. Then it was sort of just calling in all my friends, my network of people whose music i love, to collaborate with. A lot of this was happening around the time I was organizing the rock against the TPP tour with a bunch of folks and also working on a bunch of other activism projects, which both made it take forever and ever, but it was also great because i connected with Chris from Anti-Flag because of that. I Brought in Bonfire Madigan from Tijuana to play Cello on Confluence, I’ve been connecting with Bells Roar forever but that was when we decided to do this song.

[Recording] was a difficult process for me, it’s not my top skill. I’m not someone who can go in the studio and bang out ten tracks and be done. It took months and months and months and months and I did most of it in Albany with my friend Taina and we both got kids and were trying to work out child care and her daughters in the studio with us (laughs) and we’re trying to make it all work but I’m super delighted with the result and its super amazing to finally let other people hear these songs the way I heard them when they were first created. They’re not exactly what I heard in my head, they went through a translation process, but I’m super happy with how they sound and it’s awesome to have an opportunity to put them out in a way that a bunch of people are going to hear them. It’s amazing Don Giovanni Records was willing to put out the record and also how low the barriers are now, because we’re doing a digital only release. I’m not planning a huge nationwide tour, I don’t know how many people out there need vinyl of me (laughs) I just want to get the songs out… I’m just excited of what that brings next.

BH: For my last question, do you have any tips or tricks for folks who are just starting to become musicians, artists, or organizers?

EG: Yeah, one hundred percent. I did a workshop here at Makeshift just about making a living as a queer artist to specifically share some of what I learned along the way.

The first thing I always say to folks is advocate for yourself. I spent so long in my life taking every show that was offered and taking whatever was given to me and playing shows that were me and all ‘bro-ey’ misogynist cis dude bands that I hated playing and there was nothing redeeming about it all and I didn’t get paid but I thought that I had to do it to get by. Learning there’s nothing wrong with believing in your art and asking to be properly compensated for your labor and asking to be treated correctly and to play in spaces and find audiences for what you’re doing, that’s the biggest thing, especially for folks just starting out, or folks coming from marginalized identities. We can have a lot of imposter syndrome and think ‘I don’t belong here’ and ‘I don’t have to be treated well’. But I think that is a really important thing. Creating music and art is a form of labor, it is a form of work. So if you believe in workers rights, then you should be advocating for your own right as a working artist to share your art in a context that is safe and healthy and sustainable for you…

In a more concrete, nuts and bolts way, I’d also say that the internet is here and it is not going anywhere. It doesn’t do us any good to complain or gripe about how the internet is killing record sales. We need to adapt. And I think the artists that are really succeeding out there right now are figuring out how to share their art in a sustainable way in the internet age…

The last thing I’d say is that it is super super super hard to make a full time living only as an artist. I did it for a long time and I barely did it. (laughs) If you can find a way to balance your life, if you had another source of income that doesn’t drain all your energy, it doesn’t have to be the most inspiring thing to do, but if it can create some flexibility and space in your life for you to pursue your art in a serious way, but also means you’re not completely dependent on your art to make a living, I think that actually creates space for better art and for you to think about your art in a more sustainable way, at least it did for me. When i was just touring relentlessly all the time, I didn’t even have time to think about how I wanted to present my art or getting into the studio to record an album or what types of gigs I wanted to play. I didn’t have time to think about any of that because I needed to play this gig to make fifty bucks or because I needed to pay rent. Once I balanced my life a bit more and was working full time as an organizer, and music is clearly more than a hobby, it’s a big important piece of what I do and a significant portion of my life, I was able to be more selective about the opportunities I can take and think about the types of gigs I wanted to play and create and the ways I want to share my songs with the world and just be a bit more intentional.

Capitalism is ubiquitous and we can really internalize these ideas about our art, basically selling our art for a living and our art is no good. So I really encourage young folks just getting started to rid themselves of those ideas, and just think about what are their goals with their art. What do you really want to do with it? Is it that you want to do it full time for a living, then get yourself on a path toward that. But maybe that’s not your real goal, your real goal is that you want to reach large numbers of people with this art or you want to use this art to support certain social movements or you want to use this art to change people’s ideas about a certain thing or make people feel something. Give yourself those goals and work toward them the same you would work toward any other goal in your life.

A Shorter Version of this article was first published by wgbh.org

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Chris Hues is a human & writer from Boston, Ma & music editor of bostonhassle.com. //// They can be reached at [email protected] or @crsjh_ via instagram & twitter.

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