Caithlin De Marris Explores the Power of a Woman
Caithlin De Marris is a musician who has been recording since the late '90s, with a career that started in the emo scene with Rainer Maria. I met the band, which I was a fan of, while I was at MTV when I booked them for a live performance in the early 2000s. They'd moved to NYC and I have great memories of seeing them at Brownie's, North Six, Bowery Ballroom, sometimes out dancing at MisShapes — all over.
When I heard De Marris's new album, though, I was hooked from the first line of the first song, "Good Luck Come Back."
"I imagine the awkward sex we had / Imagination is all I take to bed"
I knew immediately that I wanted to talk to her about aging: what it's like for women and her in particular, how it has impacted her creative process, the way it forces you to reckon with the past, the brutality of reckoning with how you see yourself.
It has probably been 15 years since we last bumped into each other, but a shared sense of curiosity and a shared lived experience were the undercurrents that pushed our conversation forward. With all the discourse and dissatisfaction I've seen on social media about what interviews look like now in mind, I decided to publish nearly all of our hour-long conversation.
Courtney: Tell me about writing What Will You Do Then? and what was inspiring you?
Caithlin: "This album stretches over nearly a decade of songwriting for me. I was, in some ways, very quiet during that decade, but learning to learning to collaborate in a different way that was focused and natural. I was learning new technologies in order to harness that creativity, taking lots of risks, and never believing —at the beginning, I didn't believe I could do it. I had those messages embedded in me for since childhood probably as a female musician. I owe so much gratitude in the most lovely way to my co collaborator, Kaia Fischer. Throughout my tenure as the musician, since college, she has been a best friend, like a fairy godmother, and someone who empowers a lot of people. I'm not the only one fortunate enough to have that friendship with her. In my darkest moments that collaboration keeps me going. I feel like we've been connected for centuries or something if there is such a thing."
The relationship you have with Fischer, which goes back to your days in Rainer Maria together, is like the one Stevie Nicks describes having with Lindsay Buckingham — a musical soulmate who gets you and understands what you want to put out into the world.
"Absolutely. And without the contentiousness. We had a chance to be apart for many years, not even in the same country, which surely strengthened our ability to grow. When we came back together, there was so much joy and understanding. Some of these songs were written when my oldest child was just a baby. I was recording them myself in my apartment in Brooklyn. We've gotten to this place now with technology that even those recordings that, in the past, we couldn't have used, now we can because we can make them sound great. So that initial feeling, that initial take of the vocals where I was in a zone, can be preserved and come across.
"Flash forward, maybe five years from that initial genesis of this record, and I had moved locations and had a different setup. I had a keyboard, and sometimes I was using my iPhone to record takes. And I had this, this device that Kaia gave me, which was basically what a Tascam Recorder would be without the cassette. And I would take, I would be late at night, so my kids were asleep, and I would just get in that song like I'm talking about and I would do takes, and I would kind of even write songs as I was going, but I was feeling it so much. I was tapping into that authentic, truthful voice that I try to [use] so much now that I have more confidence in who I am.
"Kaia is living maybe in Thailand at that point. I was sending her the tracks and she was like, 'Oh, this is a good beginning, keep writing.' I didn't know if she was saying, when she gets back, we'll work on it or whatever. Flash forward a few more years, and we look back at these tracks and say, this is a song, let's build on this. They're three or four years old, but it's real and we can build around them. Then we reached out to other musicians and put our own stuff on it. I'd never experienced [recording like that] before. I'd always gone into a studio for Rainer Maria — we had rehearsed a song, went into the studio, recorded live to tape, and went from there."
What you did on this album sounds like a lot of layering, doubling over sounds and vocals, making it into this watercolor effect.
"I love that because I love looking at anyone painting watercolors. It is this beautiful bleeding in."
I know you have this powerhouse voice, but you use it with so much more discretion on this album. So much of it feels intimate. Tell me about your evolution as a singer?
"This is a headphones record in a lot of ways, and I delight in that. I see it as an evolution in my recording, maybe. It goes back in my experience as a listener to some beautiful moments I had when I could sit with it with my headphones and listen to these beautiful productions. And I'm thinking specifically of artists like Spiritualized and Spacemen Three, the Verve, and My Bloody Valentine. All that music hit me at a vulnerable point in my experience. It healed me to be able to dive into that layered production. I felt the resonance when I needed it most. On a lot of these songs, I was thinking of that healing and reaching out to other people and other humans connecting, thinking of specific people. When I'm working solo, I'm interested in resonating emotions that maybe we don't allow ourselves to dwell on a lot.
"The old normal, before the pandemic, I think a lot of us would agree was unsustainable anyway. Why would we want to go back to that? So when I'm on the stage with Rainer Maria, I'm using that voice to rise above the beautiful cacophony. I'm using that voice to reach out for something. With this voice I I'm creating. I'm trying to hold space for something that is vulnerable but… what's the word I'm looking for right now? This word eludes me because I think maybe I don't understand it yet. I want to be patient with that process. And when I feel like it will come to me when I can wrap my head around it more."
I'm reading a book called How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, and I just finished a chapter about the connections between language and emotion — concepts like hygge in Danish — that we don't get a feel for because we don't have language for it. When something is so particular to a group of people but doesn't translate broadly, without that language, the entire series of connections that create that emotion is an experience we don't have because the context isn't the same.
"This is the kind of stuff Kaia and I explored early on with Rainer Maria. We used her work as a translator and fluency in other languages plus our interest and study of poetry to learn that if you read different translations, you're like, 'Whoa, this is a totally different poem!' You can hear the translator coming through it.
"I'm also thinking just now, looking out my window at the beautiful trees and how we're learning that about the emotions of other beings. We definitely don't have the language for that. No human is fluent in that and wouldn't it be awesome if we were moving towards it?"
Along those lines, is there anything about music that helped you express non-verbal ideas that there just are no words for?
"Yeah and I don't have words even to talk about it, except to describe the experience of playing it and writing it. There's one song in particular on the record, 'Gambling Heart' — it it's a more recently written one and I started performing it live before the lockdown, when I played with American Football. It was partly the collaboration with Kaia that helped me reach the final crescendo at the end. We talked a lot about how we wanted to build that up and how it related to a very physical sensation that is maybe related to a female kind of experience, my female experience we'll say. Now every time I perform it, it takes me somewhere. I dive deeper. I don't know, it's all these things that I can't describe. It is the song that makes me reach out to connect and drive everyone closer — everyone who wants to be drawn closer. I don't want to force them. I just want to provide that opportunity."
So it's like opening yourself up and allowing people to see something in you, but not verbally?
"Yeah. Oh gosh, I was so influenced in the '90s by sex educators, like Susie Bright, Karen Finley, and performance artists like that. I was lucky enough to come across them. Their opening and vulnerability profoundly affected me as a young person. That stuff was ahead of its time."
I don't know if people understand how hard it is to make yourself vulnerable in art. I didn't understand until I started writing. It can feel uncomfortable when you put it yourself there for people to look at and analyze, and everybody gets to comment on it if they want to. Everyone has their own relationship to it. Once you put it into the world, it's not yours anymore.
"That's one of the things I love about having these decades of experience. I don't remember even what my age is sometimes. I don't feel old, I just feel more secure in the process that I have developed to go into that authentic voice and that vulnerability. If I'm writing and it's not resonating very deep in me, then I know it's not quite yet at that truth. So, I keep trying and use different methods. If something's not working, I just put it down and move on to the next method to not be too attached again, like you say, to the product or to the outcome because once it's out there, it's not yours anymore."
At this point, you've been writing songs for 25 years. Do you ever have those moments where you look at something that you did a long time ago or a relationship you've had for a long time and feel like you see a different version of you, a different person?
"Yes [laughs], yes. I got into this practice, I don't remember when but awhile ago through my journey of healing from some old trauma. I look at the different Caitlins and I ask, 'What does she need that she didn't get? Can I give it to her now?' So I do think about relationships all the time. It's basically the thing that occupies my mind. Now, I'm also allowing myself to think about my relationship to my past selves. It's so relieving to tell myself that the way I evaluated myself then was one way only, and I can reevaluate now. When I listened to old Rainer Maria music, it sounds nice to me. There was a time when I was hypercritical of it; I couldn't listen to it. Maybe that was also because I couldn't connect with the self, you know who was producing that. Now, I don't listen to it all the time, just very infrequently. But people have asked, 'Oh, how do you feel when you listened to your old, former self?' And the answer is: very generous actually, I just let that be. Do you have that experience, do you look back?"
I do. I have also been working on healing from past trauma, and the idea of looking back at the former version of yourself and thinking about what they needed and what you could give them now really resonates, as does re-parenting yourself. Mostly I look back at my early work life and think there are ways in which I was generous and ways in which I was closed off, where I could have done so much more, been more conscientious, and been less guarded. That's what I try to look at and not grade myself too harshly.
"Right. That resonates with me — being guarded, and it's like what was I guarding against? Quite a lot. The culture was very different."
So different. I mean, the Britney Spears documentary made me revisit my feelings about working at MTV at the time, the sense of disquiet that it gave me and figuring out the context for that and the message of that era. Naming it and calling it sexism changes the way I look back at it. It was par for the course when we were in our twenties.
"Absolutely. When, when it was starting to change, the sea change was happening [including] #MeToo, I never thought I'd live to see the day. I thought, really, it would just stay the old way forever. I pushed so hard against it as a young person that even in eighth grade, I was labeled this grouchy feminist. My eighth grade teacher made a special category for Most Likely To and I was named Most Likely To Have A Susan B. Anthony Coin Collection. I was like 14 or 13. So, clearly I was pushing against it and I was being told, nope, no, no, no, no, not going to change."
Just looked back at my high school yearbooks, and there were a couple of joking references by guys to feminism, how I was pushing that agenda, and their thoughts on it. It was funny to read that and realize that it was so loud and impactful that they wrote about it in my yearbook. And also that they were discouraging me from talking about it.
I look back at being at MTV and why the whole era of indie rock in the early 2000s was so white and so male, and I ask myself why wasn't I looking at that harder and examining it. I've been talking to the Shins for a project and revisiting myself at that time. Why wasn't I doing more to uplift the voices of women in that space? Because it needed to be done more. I mean, I only had so much power…
"But there wasn't more — that was an era when I retreated a lot. I read it in the Rainer Maria reviews, I felt it — there was a massive push against anything Rainer was creating, with me and Kaia. It was aggressively gross and I stepped away from it. I do remember, that was around the time when that Shins record was coming out and I felt the vulnerability of that record, it affected me profoundly. It also happened to be at a time when a very important relationship of mine was ending, so it affected me. But coupled with all that vulnerability [in indie music] was this weird misogyny."
The part of me that was looking for women's voices then loved your 2003 record so much. I loved it partly because it was so angry and so much about a feeling of injustice, even within the context of a relationship. Whatever way I got to hear that voice, that tone felt powerful. To me, it was a continuation of feeling like in the '90s when women were allowed to be in rock music and express anger in a big and broad way. That was okay because it was able to be commercialized. It was allowed because it tapped into something that people wanted. But then there was a huge backlash in the late '90s and early '00 against it. It felt like a betrayal to me, like, oh, you don't want us to speak. You want to be able to make money off of it if it's working. I wanted more women who were angry; I guess I was angry. It started to feel like the only options were your album, Sleater-Kinney, and a very few other people. Everyone else had to be a girl with a guitar singing meekly all on their own, which felt so vulnerable. What such a strange archetype, but that was what the indie rock consigliere approved.
"Gosh, yeah. You were on the inside and seeing, seeing it and having to deal with it in your work environment, which sounds very challenging emotionally."
Yeah, you had to go along with the patriarchy a lot, and I've been reexamining that lately. I was in a few different closed Facebook groups of women in the music industry during the height of the #MeToo movement, and it was just this outpouring of information. You heard about accusations before they broke in the news. It made me wonder why we didn't start talking to each other about this years ago? This is wild. It's so sad that it took a discourse this big to make us have this conversation amongst ourselves.
"Susie from Pogo and I had this conversation. We started being in bands around the same time and we didn't ever get a chance to connect during that lifetime, but we did later during Rainer Maria's second coming or whatever. We were like, why did we never connect in the past? Well, there were forces keeping us apart. There were forces that pitted us against each other to compete and made us unsure of who we were [and treated us like we] don't have anything valuable to say. Has the music industry had its proper #MeToo moment? I'm not even sure yet, I feel like it got off a little Scott free in some ways [laughs]. Maybe I'm wrong."
There are two sides to #MeToo in music, and one is the artist side. It's so hard for people to let go of music to which they have an emotional connection. Then the executive side has gotten off without a lot of scrutinies; there are still problematic people in the industry.
"I hear you. I also consider there's this Instagramer who talks a lot about protecting people who are being publicly brought down and I'm very interested in that conversation as well. So as you're saying, how do we then relate to the work that we once cherished — I don't think we have the answers yet, obviously. We're still on that path."
That brings us to another difficult conversation about the lack of representation for women in music, from the lack of women's voices in popular music, there are no women composing music for TV and films. There aren't women music executives. There aren't women producers. There's an under-representation of women in this entire world. That only gets worse as women get older. They become more and more invisible in every aspect of the music industry. I am curious what your experience has been like with that.
"My transition from musician to music educator is one way that I'm making sure that my voice is going to be heard and is going to affect people in the same way that I did on stage with a microphone. Now, this is just my way, but Kaia and I have been thinking about this very thing. We were influenced by Kathleen Hannah and Sleater-Kinney and figuring out how to not become invisible. And who is making us invisible? How do we reject that completely? It is an emotional subject for me because we are missing out on so much freaking power.
"Older women are the most important people on the planet. Older women hold up the world because we make possible childcare, which means that more people can work. We hold families together. We uphold culture, religion, rituals, and our family's histories. We mend broken relationships, we champion compassion, and we look out for our communities. We invest in our families and our communities. At that point, we're at this incredibly powerful place in our lives when we don't have children, or even if you never had children, so we don't have the same responsibilities — they're different. Also, we don't have the burden of the male gaze, which is such a freaking boring thing that I never, ever wanted to have placed on me. For most of my life, I haven't wanted to identify as a woman. I want to say: I'm a person, fuck off.
"Becoming a music educator, at first, I grappled with this feeling of the loss of my value as a performer. I thought my value was in an attractive front person. Or in, I don't even know —whatever story that has been told to me or that I've told myself. I reluctantly felt I had to do something to put food on the table for my kids. I have to do work that will carry me through the rest of my life. My mom influenced me in a very positive way. I saw her as someone who survived tremendous drama and went on to uplift entire communities with her work. She started in the HIV and AIDS communities in the '80s and eventually graduated to helping families in the greater Bridgeport, CT area. This strong, compassionate figure inspired me in my life.
"So going back to music education now, I have been teaching students, and I've been working with young people. I've been working with musicians with exceptionalities who are made invisible. I've been working with other grad students, and other music teachers who are [asking], what are we here for? We're here because we believe music is a social process. It's not this product. Hyper-capitalism commercialization renders music worthless in a lot of ways. Or, we should say, that ignores its true power, which is to bring communities together, teach us about finding our authentic voices, and give us the space to make mistakes and learn from them.
"I heard recently, from an incredibly inspiring music educator who teaches in an underserved community and on a border town in Texas, that sound is a social justice issue. How do we give people who don't have sound or voice or power? How do we draw it out of them? How do we create structures so that it resonates? Everyone deserves to have their voice resonate, whether you even have a voice. If you don't speak, your experience is so vital, valuable, and precious. If we focused on stuff like that instead of the latest trends — which are exciting too, they help me get through my day. I don't want to degrade anyone's work or experience, but I think we have so much work to do to reach the potential of what music is. There's research now that is going on. You might see snippets of it in the press that we survive from music. Music is in our biology and evolution. Our first language is a musical language — infants and their caregivers, that's your first band! You're riffing off each other. It's not just singing, it's how you're developing language with the things we use to describe music: pitch timing, repetition, frequency, meter. Any word you could use with music, that's how you developed and how you are hardwired. So there's so much more to music.
"I'm interested in where my personal music output will go. Can I be an artist in residence somewhere? I want to [compose a] soundtrack. Kaia and I are, in some ways, on this journey together, wondering where we can go — in our collaboration with Mark Duplass for instance. We feel like, damn straight we want our voices out there and we want to uplift other voices."
For all women, once you reach that point where the male gaze is no longer your validator, or if it never was, then whatever your validator is, as you get older, the world changes the way that it looks at you and values you. To start to find that inner strength to validate yourself, out of necessity, is a massive shift in thinking for many women, and it changes everything about them. It's so interesting that it seems to happen at a time that our bodies are changing physically. People don't understand how much women are going through.
"No, they don't. I was reading about the menopause as they call it in England, the menopause [laughs]. Who talks about that? Nobody. We have to normalize that kind of thing because half the world goes through it, more than half if we're considering expanding our definition of gender, obviously."
I'm only scratching the surface of what I don't know about menopause now. How has no one said anything about it except the phrase hot flashes, ever in my life?
"What kind of power do we gain during and after it, that's what I'm interested in! I've heard there are other cultures and philosophies that talk about that. With all the silence in my religious upbringing, Catholicism, around my body, it doesn't surprise me. My body is off-limits, you can't talk about what's happening with it. Menstruating? Forget talking about that!"
That all goes back to the Biblical notion that women's bodies are dirty and the source of all sin.
"Yeah. I was looking up the Sheila na gig carvings in Ireland from around the 12th century. Some websites describe them as hags [laughs]. Let's get that word out of our language right now. Yeah, they're scary looking. I showed my kids and they were like, yeah I don't need to see that again. That's powerful! That is power. Let's think about harnessing that."
That's just women looking the way they want to. Here's what I've been thinking about: I'm vaccinated now. I rejoined my gym so I can swim laps. I'm excited about it because I haven't been able to for a year, and it's great for my mental health. I've also gotten some food writing assignments that will take me out of the house. And I thought, wait, do I have to put on makeup? Do I have to dress the same way that I used to dress before COVID? Can I relax, as I have been for the last year? What do I have to look like now? And then I thought, what if I just look like whatever I want to look like? What if it doesn't matter that I don't wear makeup anymore?
"Yes, I've got a whole closet full of boilers jumpsuits that I'm going to be wearing. They sold out at Target real fast so I think there's going to be a lot of us out there wearing them. We can wear what we want to wear. There's one last thing I want to put out there to you, because I want to talk to other people about this. It's a painful experience, but when you see another person reacting with revulsion to a woman who has aged. I want to look at that person and understand where the reaction is coming from. I think it's something that is not healed in them, a need in them. Why does looking at any human give you a feeling of revulsion? Why a whole group? What is that reaction? I want to understand because it's misplaced and I want to know how to heal that in people. It must be in me too — if we're all different expressions of the same organism, it's got to be in me too. Is it a sadness at our mortality? Is it collective grief for our mortality? Is it fear of an empowered being who has moved beyond being controlled by you? It's got to be a lot of things. I'm putting that out there because it would be helpful to us to think about that the next time we encounter it."