Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: An Interview with Grace Vonderkuhn

Douglas Martin chats with Grace Vonderkuhn about being a woman in rock, Ty Segall, and her forthcoming LP, 'Reveries.'
By    January 23, 2018

When she dropped her stellar EP in 2015, Grace Vonderkuhn immediately became an artist to watch. Carrying the torch of contemporary garage-rock stalwarts and legends of alternative nation in the same stride, Vonderkuhn leaves her own fingerprints all over this legacy by singing about the metaphysical and sacred while adding spacey acoustic ballads to her face melting barnburners. On her imminent debut full-length, Reveries (out February 23rd on EggHunt Records), she further traces her own identity as a songwriter to thrilling effect.

Opening with “Livin’ in a Dream Part 1,” she slurs about lacking self-esteem. On “Something to Say,” she’s “packing imaginary heat” in defense of other people’s gossip over the classic quiet-loud-quiet song structures. She pep-talks herself about overthinking (“Worry”), her “Bad Habits” come home to roost, she imagines herself swaddled in cellophane. Her music is freewheeling and crisp, sludgy, in the clouds, on her feet in a full sprint, she sings as softly as a lullaby, she gets downright anthemic. Reveries finds Vonderkuhn truly coming into her own as a songwriter, imbuing her personality into whatever musical or lyrical path she decides to traverse.

Late last week I had the pleasure of interviewing this wonderful artist via email about her work, her influences, the Delaware rock scene, and how growing up in a religious household brought her to the life she currently leads. No earplugs were harmed during the course of this interview. —Douglas Martin


You spent a good deal of time in the Delaware punk scene, correct? Is there anything you’ve noticed about the region that add a sense of identity to the music that comes from there?


Grace Vonderkuhn: I think the size of Delaware really influences the scene. It’s so small, so even just being from here is kind of unusual. It has a small town/small city vibe but it’s really close to all these other cities (Baltimore, Philly, NYC, DC). We kind of hold on to our DE roots even though we’re trying to branch out into these other places. It may be small but there are a lot of talented musicians and artists. We do try to support each other. When out-of-town bands come through on a good night, I think they can be taken aback by the fact that there actually is a scene and we’re building something.


What are some of your favorite bands in Delaware right now? Could you offer brief descriptions as to what they sound like?


Grace Vonderkuhn: Gozer is one of my faves. They’re heavy and catchy and tons of fun. We went on a little tour together over the summer and had a blast. Also Hoochi Coochi is great. They’re full of soul and they’re bringing something new to our scene.


After being in bands and such, was there anything in particular which led you to fronting your own group?


Grace Vonderkuhn: I basically wanted to do my own thing and not have to worry about other people’s schedules and input. The plan was to be able to play solo or play with a revolving cast of characters. Of course I ended up playing with [bassist] Brian [Bartling] and [drummer] Dave [Mcgrory] who are absolutely part of the Grace Vonderkuhn machine now.


Were you writing songs in your old bands or did that start with your solo project?


Grace Vonderkuhn: Besides the bands that I’ve played bass in, I’ve always been the primary songwriter in my bands. That’s actually another reason I play under my name. People used to assume that because there are dudes in the band, they must be writing the songs. Even when I’m playing lead guitar and singing lead vocals…it was very frustrating having something I created attributed to other people just because they’re men.


Now that you’re out in front and there are people who are fully aware this project—as it bears your name—do you feel the disrespect that comes from men about being a woman writing songs and leading a band is more subtle than just men assuming you had no hand in writing any of the songs? Is the disrespect more aggressive? Does it just manifest itself in different ways?


Grace Vonderkuhn: Thankfully I receive a lot support and positive responses. I haven’t had a lot of negative experiences as of late. When disrespect does occur, it’s usually creepy stuff more than anything. Like, after a show this older man told me I had a huge mouth—and it’s like yeah, people open their mouths when they sing—but does he realize how weird that is to say? And I couldn’t picture him saying that to a dude, but who knows? So yes, I guess it manifests itself in different ways.


A lot of the time, artists have the epiphany where they decide they want to go into music because of the way a song or artist made them feel. Was it like that for you? This is a pretty long-winded way to ask: How did you start playing music? An old friend of mine once interviewed you and you told her Josie and the Pussycats was your inspiration? What did you draw from them in this early work of yours?


Grace Vonderkuhn: It’s true, the movie Josie and the Pussycats really inspired me when I was younger because it was literally the first time I saw women playing rock. I was raised in church and so underexposed. I was used to Britney Spears and all these pop stars that used sexuality as their main marketing tool. The bands I looked up to at that point were like Weezer and Good Charlotte and there was just no connection between women and rock until that movie.

Then I sought it out and started listening to Joan Jett, the Pretenders, Blondie, and I started realizing, “Oh, there are girls in Sonic Youth and the Pixies.” Things really opened up. Like, I knew I wanted to do music before all that because I listened to the Beatles and I was like, this is it, but I had no idea how I would do it until then. I actually read an article a few months ago where a bunch of awesome indie rock gals were talking about how much that movie influenced them, too!


You’ve mentioned you are influenced at least in part by Ty Segall. What are your favorite releases of his? Is there anything he does as far as writing songs that you pick from and try to form into your own image?


Grace Vonderkuhn: I am influenced by Ty Segall, and he was actually another inspiration for me to use my own name. He’s just prolific and so decided in his aesthetic. I love that he loves T. Rex and one of my favorite releases is his T. Rex cover album. He plays loud and dirty but always has this unwavering sense of melody and I try to keep things like that in mind when I’m writing songs.


If you could make a Ty Rex-esque covers album, what artist would you choose and why?


Grace Vonderkuhn: Oh man, I don’t see myself taking on such a task but it would probably have to be Ryan Adams’ cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989. (Kidding). I was in a Kinks cover band one year for Halloween which was a really fun band to do. So maybe a Kinks cover album. Their songs are great and it’s a little less on the nose than the Beatles or something.


How was being a rock fan raised in the church? Were there any artists you were prohibited from listening to in your household?


Grace Vonderkuhn: It was pretty tough. At one point the house rule was “no secular music” so my older siblings would sneak stuff in. Among the contraband was Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty and I think a Violent Femmes live album, Viva Wisconsin. I absolutely ate it up and whenever I heard my parents’ car pull up, it was back to Michael W. Smith.


You get compared to the Breeders a lot, but do you like the Pixies? I mean, the Breeders comparisons (as endless as they are) are pretty accurate as far as being a spiritual predecessor for what you do, but do you find yourself finding things you can use for yourself in Kim Deal’s songs for the Pixies?


Grace Vonderkuhn: I love the Pixies. I am probably influenced by them on a soul level, to the point where I’ve written songs when I was younger and only later realized I ripped from them.


What comes first for you, the music or the lyrics? How do you write a song? Is the process usually the same?


Grace Vonderkuhn: Honestly, the process is different for different songs. Sometimes I build a song off of lyrics and/or a melody and sometimes it starts with a riff or a chord progression.


Are there any themes—conceptually or musically—you feel are a progression from your EP? Or did you attempt to rip up the old playbook and start anew, so to speak?


Grace Vonderkuhn: I think the biggest difference of the album is that Brian and Dave play on it and we recorded a big chunk of it live, in the same room. Then we tracked over it, but there’s still a good tension there. It’s still lo-fi but decidedly less lo-fi than the EP. We call it mid-fi. I still like the EP a lot but I think the new album has an evident evolution to it. I can’t wait for people to hear it.


Some of your songs are very, very lyrically intriguing. There are often hooks or bundles of verses (particularly in “Worry” and “Cellophane”) which really provoke some serious thought about how I handle situations in my every day life. What goes into writing your lyrics? Are there certain themes you go back to whenever you write?


Grace Vonderkuhn: Oh wow, that’s good to hear. I’ve always been introspective and that can lead me to obsess over a turn of phrase or concept. I do like to put thought into what I’m expressing because I don’t want to sing something over and over unless I can find meaning in it. I think some common themes on the new record are dealing with anxiety, escapism, frustration, my dreams (waking/non-waking) and just the ethereality of it all.


Is there anything you think about where you’re like, “This is too real for me to write about,” or is anything fair game?


Grace Vonderkuhn: I am definitely a private person so if I’m really feeling like writing about a personal situation especially if it involves other people in my life, I try to go the metaphor route. It’s cool though because stuff can take a really trippy turn and it gets opened up for interpretation. I sometimes have to go through a few drafts trying to decide what I’m comfortable sharing. But I definitely bare more emotionally through music than in my daily life.