Published on The Daily Femme – Monday, June 6, 2011
Contributed by Annamarya
Alicia Jo Rabins, the 34-year-old poet and multi-instrumentalist who crafts intricately saturated art-rock villanelles as the baroque pop outfit Girls in Trouble, is a woman of many worlds. Growing up in Towson, Maryland, the now Brooklyn-based artist studied the robust pulchritude of Bach while sneaking out to attend the smashing punk shows in Baltimore’s music scene. She started classical violin training when she was three-years-old, and at 18, when she started touring with her music, she became captivated with traditional fiddle music. And then she traveled to Jerusalem, where she engulfed herself in the texts, epics and liturgy of the Torah, Kabbalah, and ancient languages. After returning to the United States, Rabins, who considers herself a feminist, found herself still vexed by the ancient chronicles of Biblical women, and decided to turn that connection and its mirroring of her beloved traditional ballads into haunting art-rock and folk symphonies under the Girls in Trouble moniker. She released her self-titled debut on JDub Records in October 2009–the first in an on-going song cycle that interweaves the stories of Biblical women with the complexity of life. And on May 17, she released Half You Half Me, the folk-rock sophomore follow-up continuing the arresting song-cycle. It’s a harrowing piece of mastery, one that explores the darker and more mysterious women-centric narratives in the Hebrew Bible through rumbling chords, lingering melodies, and disquieting intones. Although Rabins is currently on tour, the Daily Femme had a chance to chat with her via email about her latest album, the multiplicity and duplicity of Biblical women, and what feminists can learn from these allegories.
You started Girls in Trouble after visiting Israel to study ancient languages and texts, and finding yourself still haunted by what you learned in your studies, particularly the stories of Biblical women. What was it about those stories that just stuck with you so tremendously?
To generalize (and there are major exceptions): women in these stories are often powerful internally, but they lack the built-in societal power of men, so they have to use their brains and bodies to get things done. This makes for some great (and surprisingly racy) literature. I love how once you get past the trappings, it doesn’t feel old at all. Human stories are human stories. And the ones involving women tend to be less about large-scale politics and more about family relationships, love, sex, death – the things that really haven’t changed much in the past 3000 years.
As part of your on-going song-cycle, your sophomore album, Half You Half Me, explores the “dark stories” of women in the Hebrew bible, whereas your self-titled debut focuses on women as “quiet heroes.” Why choose to break up these facets of women into two parts?
Well, the stories of the first album are pretty dark too! Actually, I didn’t intend to change anything in particular, just to continue the project. But my dear friend, the poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi–always one of the first people to hear my songs–pointed out after hearing the rough mixes of the album that something had shifted. In the first album, my interpretations of the characters were more loyal to their perspective, more pure. In the second, the women’s internal worlds are a bit more complicated; their characters are a little less heroic and a little more ambiguous.
Is it important to dissect the complexity of both sides — the “good” versus the “bad,” the “light” versus the “dark”– in order to truly understand the complexity of womanhood?
Yes, but I would replace the word “womanhood” with “life”!
This dichotomy is strongly at play in Half You Half Me but you never give a solid answer of what is right and what is wrong, more exploring the territory of both. Why tell these stories with moral ambiguity?
I’m not interested in preachiness or purity – I’m interested in exploring life in this world, as we know it, ambiguous and complicated and chiaroscuro. Right and wrong are as slippery as love. That’s where I live and where I am interested in making art.
Is it because the stories, through your interpretation, are less about the end-result and more about what these women had to contribute, what they had to experience, and what they had to struggle with?
I like your interpretation!
There’s also this dichotomy in your music, as well as yourself. While you talk about Biblical stories, you play beautiful, folk-laden art-rock, and while you studied Bach as a youth, you would sneak out of the house to hit up Baltimore’s punk scene. Have you ever had to struggle between these two sides or were they always a natural part of who you are?
That is very perceptive….have you been reading my diary? I think I’m always working towards balance, and it brings me to strange extremes. I’m really extroverted and really introverted at the same time, which can be a little confusing. But I like being all these ways at once. It’s a basic part of who I am – if there is such a thing as a self. (There I go again.)
As a society, we often morally define women in terms of good and bad, whether it is in politics or pop culture – a strong-willed, sexually empowered woman is a bad influence, whereas a remorseful, cautious virgin girl is a good influence, a concept you saw played out with theLea Michele cleavage debacle. When taking into consideration the Biblical stories you focus on, what is wrong with having such a black & white view of women?
Wow, I totally missed the Lea Michele cleavage debacle! She deserves a Girls in Trouble song. But to answer your question, I must say I am impressed by the respect the Torah itself grants many of these women. Tamar, for example, dresses up like a prostitute and seduces her double-ex-father-in-law Judah, who is withholding her future husband from her; but she gets what she wanted – pregnancy – and even Judah, in the story, admits that he was the one in the wrong. Or Deborah and Yael (female general and resourceful civilian, respectively), whose story is in my song O General on the new album: they win a war with their intelligence and strategy. There is plenty of misogyny in the text, but I do find that in a great deal of the stories the women go from being powerless to powerful by using – as I said before – their brains and their bodies, and the text itself seems to congratulate them.
There’s also the idea that God decreed that women are inferior to men and must submit to their dominance, a belief that seems strewn through many religions. Since you studied the Torah in depth, did you find that this “decree” is really true to the Biblical word or are the passages sorely misinterpreted?
There are multiple worlds contained in the Hebrew Bible, and anyone who tries to say “The Torah” has a single point of view on something as huge as gender relations is probably oversimplifying things for their own purposes. There is a major thread through the Torah which encourages justice for all people, even the powerless; there is also a tremendous thread of men having a great deal more power than women. How we reconcile these two contradictory impulses, I believe, is an ethical challenge for each of us and for our communities. As a rabbi said to me when I first arrived in Jerusalem, “The gates of interpretation are always open, and they go both ways.” In general, I would be very cautious about trusting what anyone says the Bible decrees. Go look it up, and know that (at least with Jewish texts) you will probably be able to find another text which states the exact opposite! Then live your life in a way you find ethical, beautiful and just.
Was there any one particular story that you found most unsettling or haunting when writing for Half You Half Me? If so, why?
Lilith (”We Are Androgynous”). She isn’t really a character in the Torah but a Sumerian storm demoness who entered Jewish legend as a kind of proto-Eve who was banished from the Garden of Eden for thinking she was equal to Adam. Women in the middle ages believed that she would come and kill their babies, so they had all sorts of amulets and prayers to keep her away. That image made me tremendously lonely. So I wrote a sort of redemptive love song in Lilith’s voice, imagining her sort of stubbornly luminous and hopeful out there in the howling loneliness, believing that one day she would find her other half and feel peace.
What does the title, Half You Half Me, reference?
It comes from the song “DNA O Sister” which begins, “DNA O sister, I am half you, half me.” The song is about Rachel and Leah, and the way that sometimes you can look at your sister and literally almost see yourself. Which is sort of a metaphor for the whole project: who are these ancient women to me? Who are we to each other? Where do our stories meet?
Is your moniker, Girls in Trouble, a reflection and reference to the Biblical women you write about? If so, why choose “trouble”?
Because I like the messy stories: the ones with real conflict, the ones that feel like real life.
What can feminists learn from these Biblical stories?
Life is complicated, power is complicated, love is complicated, and the problem of how to be good to ourselves and others is an ancient one. But we have our stories and each other’s stories: solidarity transcends millenia.