I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to talk to Towanda, a Montreal trio that combines all the best aspects of punk and DIY without a shred of negativity, passive-aggressiveness, or apathy. A self-proclaimed “newcomer” to Montreal, I talked to songwriter, guitarist, and singer Rosie Gripton about Sackville (New Brunswick), her influences and inspirations, how she approaches songwriting, and her encounters with sexism. Her enthusiasm and energy vibrates through every word and its easy to see why the band Towanda is so charismatic, even for those who don’t usually like their music hard, fast, garage-styled, and gritty. Gripton speaks like an old soul who is completely comfortable as herself.
I ask Gripton how Towanda started. She tells me about her early forays into music while she studied at Mt. Alison in Sackville. Her involvement in Sackville’s community radio station CHMA led to playing bass in a band with a group of friends who wanted to make “more aggressive, punk influenced music.” “It was perceived as being reactionary,” she says. “There’s a dominant folk, indie-rock paradigm in Sackville, but that was the music that my friends started making and it inspired me and showed me it was something I could do and was something fun to do.”
When she moved to Montreal, Gripton ran into Rose Connell who also has a Sackville connection. They played together, but weren’t ready for the stage. “[Connell] taught herself drums. I had limited skills in guitar and we could barely play a song.” Practice, a relationship with a classical guitarist, and hard work paid off and the two put together Towanda, released an EP, and “things ensued.”
I was curious if the East Coast shaped Towanda’s sound. Apparently not expressly. “Growing up in Sackville, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of punk music,” she explains. “There’s a lot of our sound that’s more influenced by metal and grunge. More like classic rock.” I ask if there’s anything specific she can point to, and Gripton answers with admirable sagacity when she says, “It might sound cool to pick something obscure, but you’re the sum of everything you’ve ever listened to. I like a lot of musicians. The more seriously you listen to one thing, or something you admire… it’ll surface a couple of months later.” She mentions her friends’ bands Yellow Teeth and Astral Gunk as inspiration, as well as her “favorite parts of rock and roll.”
“All of it inspires me,” she says. True to her word, her choices span both decades and styles. “It starts with the music of my parents. I have a lot of respect for the lyricism of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and the seriousness in their approach to lyricism. Also, Hole, PJ Harvey, and the riot grrrl stuff from the ’90s. All these ’80s underground bands: the Melvins, Flipper.”
Her latest musical love is a band called Kappa Chow. “It’s based around two people, Joe and Ilse, who busted their asses and now have a three-month tour across Canada and the US this fall. They inspire me with their ideas about music. They encourage their friends and musicians to be active participants and go to lots of shows and mail things to their favorite bands, to be social and share. They’re a really cool band and they inspire me. They thrive on making music.”
Gripton’s enthusiasm for Towanda is infectious. She lovingly talks about how being in band is “a project you can always be fleshing out and working on. We do all our own artwork for our posters, our t-shirts, our merch… and that makes being in a band really fulfilling.”
The DIY approach gives Towanda a lot of latitude for expression. Gripton says, “It allows your personality to show through.” It also allows Towanda to play gigs only with bands that they want to play with and work with the people they want to work with. She recounts that once Towanda was approached by a producer. “He said he would help us with song structure and only put his name on a good project. No thank you. I like music and art. It’s personal. Coming from the punk side where my lyrics handle feminist topics and they’re about sex and love, I don’t want some 40-year-old man rewriting my lyrics.” She also says, “It’s not like we’ve got 50 different record labels at our doorstep. We’re DIY out of necessity in a way.”
She adds that she loves how a good band is emblematic of its time. She doesn’t just love the music. She loves everything: the fashion, the visual aspects of a band. “I like the politics and theatre and how that can be embodied in your favorite musical project,” she says. While some of her friends may go back to school, Gripton says, “I like being outside and being outside of an institution and expressing myself in that way. I like the informality of a blog post or a zine. I have a ton of ideas and it’s just a matter of time before I execute them. It’s direct pop culture.”
When it comes to writing songs, Gripton’s lyrics cover a range of topics. “They have to do with feminist themes and power. I’m a ‘personality’ in a lot of my lyrics that I’m not in real life. It’s a place to put my anger,” she says. “I really like sad, angry, dark music.” She pulls out her own tape and talks about some of the themes that come up: hipster elitism, goddess feminism, the struggles of being an artist or kind of an artist. “The stuff is about pain, and struggle, and emotions,” she concludes.
Her songs never come from the same place either. “I try to write a song differently,” she says. “I sometimes have a riff or a drumbeat and then channel what it makes me feel. I enter that headspace and write as if I’m feeling that thing,” she explains. Emotions also play a role. As she says, “I try to harness my emotions. If I’m feeling bad about something, I’ll ask myself to search for a melody.” She adds, “Everything is organic. I don’t want it to be scientific, but sometimes that’s a good place to start from so you don’t repeat yourself.”
One question that I especially want to ask has to deal with the place that an all-female punk band occupies in a scene where all-male bands are more numerous. Does she encounter much sexism? Her answer is refreshingly nuanced. “We’ve experienced sexism,” she says. “In Halifax, we had a problem with a patch chord and someone yelled, ‘Bitches don’t know how to set up.'” She also experiences sexism in a more subtle way. At her musician-laden workplace, the male musicians have all asked each other to jam, but no one has ever asked her even though she’s the most active. “It’s a mental war,” she says. “You have to tell yourself you deserve to be doing what you’re doing. When I started, I was aware that I was a girl. I feel more legitimized as I’ve gained skills over the years, but it is a thing that you have to work twice as hard.”
At the same time, she doesn’t like when people use her to promote feminist causes — especially the ones she doesn’t identify with or support. She feels pressure when Towanda is identified in lists of “girls who shred,” “these girls rock,” or “these are the women you should support.” “They perceive us in a certain way,” Gripton says. “I don’t like that pressure: ‘You’re a legit female musician because you shred’ — I don’t want to be a part of it.”
She’s quick to add that she has great fans from different communities and she loves the Montreal scene if Towanda doesn’t seem to slot in anywhere. She “believes in role-modeling” too. She explains that when they play gigs there are “a lot of girls who are working the door and doing all this unfun stuff, they see us and they’re inspired and want to play music.”
Ultimately, though, as she seems to say both implicitly and explicitly, it is follow your dreams. “I am in a good place,” she says. “Doing the stupid thing and committing myself to my dreams is going well. I work full-time on top of doing creative things,” she says. “If you’ve got the soul of an artist, you’ve got to tap into that.”
You can check out Towanda at POP Montreal. They’re playing with Steve Jr., JLK, and In Hock at Brasserie Beaubien (73 Beaubien E) on Sept. 17. 9 p.m. $10