The Good, The Bad, & the Laundry With Brenda Kahn
Poet. Guitarist. Songwriter. Publisher. Activist. Mother. Brenda Kahn’s music career stretches from the anti-folk scene of the East Village in the early 1990s to a recently published book of poetry about parenting aptly titled The Good, The Bad, And The Laundry. Along the way, Kahn recorded with her friend Jeff Buckley, played Lilith Fair multiple times, ran a website focused on women in music, and answered the call when Bob Dylan wanted her to open a show. While she may have traded the drug dealers of Avenue A for her children and a life in the countryside, Kahn’s keen eye for detail continues to serve her well.
Kahn arrived on the music scene with the critically revered Goldfish Don’t Talk Back in 1990. The acoustic punk of “Eggs On Drugs” addressed income inequality, climate destruction, the NRA, and the lack of healthcare in America, all in under three minutes. Her 1992 album Epiphany In Brooklyn established her as one of the decade’s most important voices but unlike fellow punk-folks poet Ani DiFranco, Kahn was signed to a record label. Two weeks before the release of Destination Anywhere, Chaos Recordings was dissolved by Columbia Records, leaving Kahn’s spectacular follow-up without a home.
Finally released by Shanachie Records in 1996, the album earned more rave reviews for her insightful lyrics and strong guitar playing which she continued on the follow-up Outside the Beauty Salon in 1997. But the label never seemed capable of delivering her music to the right audiences and she released 1997’s Hunger, a mix of music and spoken word, on her own label before shifting into new creative fields.
In 1999, Kahn launched the online website WomanRock with a focus on empowering female artists and providing a place to share experiences in the music industry. Carrying the torch first lit by Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, and Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Kahn became an icon for aspiring female artists even if the mainstream lost touch with her. Brenda Kahn’s albums have become lost gems just waiting to be re-discovered by the next generation of rock-n-roll poets.
How did the book come about and what did you learn about yourself as a writer that you might not have realized while writing music?
The East Village in the nineties was a cacophonous mix of music, art, drugs, and politics mixed with my personal travels through confessional open mics, love, loss, and life on the road. All I had to do was cherry-pick the most ironic and compelling stories happening all around me.
In 2003, my first son was born and in 2004, we bought a house outside the city and I was suddenly surrounded by woods and a stream in our backyard, a cute baby, as well as the mundane of everyday life with kids: diapers, baby food, laundry, dishes, and I wasn’t sure how to connect the dots. I made several attempts to creatively square my pre-mom self with my post-mother conception of who I was. But it all felt forced.
One night at dinner my younger son would not stop rocking back on his chair and I told him so many times to stop, it started to sound like a refrain. I couldn’t help thinking about John S. Hall reading his poems at ABC NO RIO, and with that spirit in mind, wrote the poem Stop Rocking on the Chair. Suddenly, there it was, the bridge between my old self and this new self. I started writing again, but it was a completely different voice.
What are some of your favorite memories from the East Village years?
The open mic nights at ABC NO RIO and The Fort at Sophie’s Bar were magical. The performers on that scene were a collective inspiration for all of us. Knowing you had to show up every week with something new and original and hopefully better than the last thing you did was motivating and the bar was really high, so you had to bring your all. ABC NO RIO’s open mic was on Sundays and was often referred to as church.
I saw you went back last year for a show, how much has that area changed over the years?
A lot less drugs. A lot safer. Bizarre that the last rock clubs standing are Pyramid Club and Sidewalk Cafe. OK, scratch that, I just read that Sidewalk closed yesterday. Which makes Pyramid Club the last man standing. The bodegas are all gone and there are several establishments where you can work out and get your hair done.
I’m struck listening to Goldfish Don’t Talk Back at how little has changed in our country from women’s rights to the Supreme Court. How politically engaged are you these days?
Yes! It’s really stunning to look back and see how little forward movement there has been on so many issues. The opiate problem is worse, the environmental issues are greater, the health care crisis is ongoing, our tax structure is badly skewed toward the wealthy… In 2000 a loaf of bread was $.98 and now it’s $3.50 but wages from 20 years ago have not gone up at all. I’m really encouraged by the new congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may not have worked out the details, but I love that she has the strength to walk into a room steeped in the status quo and say what everyone else is afraid to say… we have a big problem and we need to fix it.
Socially we have made huge strides forward as a society even while our government has not (think transgender awareness, diversity, #metoo…). Sometimes I think Trump has done more for progressives than for the “alt-right”. We need the old guard to retire. These ancient ideas that we are kingly nation-states that need to protect our borders seem so outdated. We need to stop pretending we’re not a deeply integrated worldwide species with global reach and global concerns.
So to answer your question… I have stayed involved in politics. In 2008/12 I helped with the Obama campaign in the Lehigh Valley (PA) which is the swing section of the swing state of Pennsylvania. I have a political science degree from NYU and spent a year of college at the London School of Economics. I’ve built my political views of the world on that early base of information about how our world works. When you know a bit of the history of world politics it’s easier to read between the lines.
The Ryan Adams news was not the least surprising in terms of the issues that persist in the business. How much of that did you experience during your career? While I feel like the 90s were a hugely successful time for women in music, I am terrified to imagine what the artists were experiencing.
I think your comment re: Ryan Adams, that it was not the least surprising, is because this kind of behavior is and always has been so pervasive. I have experienced many versions of sexist entitlement my whole life. Including being molested on the street in the middle of the day by a passerby who thought he could just reach over and touch me. But what’s even more pervasive, is the silent life women and girls lead.
The Cinderella myth is deep in our culture… Deep down you are a princess, but in fact you have an unreasonable amount of drudgery to accomplish before you can do anything on your own terms, if you get all your work done, you can try to transform yourself in your minuscule amount of free time, and if you can pull together the right look, you might get a guy powerful enough to set you up in a life of leisure… so long as you keep him happy.
I think this is finally changing because of access to the internet. I wish I’d been able to google “Should I get a Fender or a Gibson guitar”. Or “what are the chords to “Like a Rolling Stone” back when I was in high school. I met several guys along the way who treated me as total equals. One of whom was Jeff Buckley who taught me the two drum beats I can play on a kit now. And my producer Tim Patalan on Outside the Beauty Salon, who handed me a guitar and said – “You play the lead.”
Any memories about touring with Dylan and Buckley that you could share?
Opening for Bob Dylan was one of those bucket list moments that seemed so unlikely, it wasn’t even on the list. We found out about the tour dates while I was in France doing a promotional tour for Epiphany in Brooklyn. My manager busted into the room and said he had good news and bad news. The good news was I was going to open for Bob Dylan, the bad news was I wasn’t allowed to open for him solo acoustic. I had to have a band. I was in France, the show was in two weeks, and the guys I made the album with were all on tour with other artists. Of course, I said yes. I had just written the song “too far gone” and the timing was all over the place. I didn’t know if I would get in trouble, but the band dropped out and I did that one song solo acoustic. The feeling of being on that stage, where you could hear a pin drop, singing to 6000 Bob Dylan fans… best ever moment.
With Jeff Buckley it was really different because we were friends. I don’t have a lot of tour stories because we were in different vehicles, but we would hang out at sound checks and play blues songs sometimes or eat together, but mostly we played our shows and went onto the next town. But my memories of Jeff are more about hanging out in New York. We spent hours together doing nothing. Shopping in random thrift stores or making up dumb songs on the guitar. In my mind, I can see him wheeling my 50lb amp down 9th street to a gig at Brownies, I remember him calling me last minute to come see him open up for Patti Smith at Irving Plaza.
The one serious recording we made together came from a time we were in my apartment and he was playing my tele, this really beautiful riff, and I said, ‘I have something that might work for that’ and started reading these snippets of poems I had written in these tiny notebooks. After about 10 minutes he stopped and looked at me and said “four-track”. So funny because now you would just pull up an app on your iPhone and click a button, but back then, you had to set up microphones and plugin guitars and set levels. Jeff had a reel to reel tape machine in his apartment. Anyway, that song turned out to be “Faith Salons” and it’s one of the last things he recorded. When I hear his foot tapping and his vocals in the background it gets me every time.
What were some of the biggest lessons you learned navigating the record labels in the 90s and what is the first thing you would tell a young artist about to sign their first record contract?
Lessons: Find a mentor. Keep studying your craft. Read a lot.
First thing I’d tell a young artist: Understand the way things work. Especially finances which for some reason they don’t teach in schools. Know what an IRA is, the value of compound interest, and how to do your taxes. Buy good instruments and recording equipment.
What are your kids listening to these days?
Glass Animals, Pink Floyd, Queen, MGMT
Have they started to understand what a significant impact their mother had on the music industry?
Possibly the significant impact I make on their dinner plans.