Brett Anderson never planned on being a rock star. She was in middle school when she and three girlfriends decided to form a band. Just a few years later--while still in high school--they were touring Japan, and soon after that they signed a major record deal and became known worldwide. The Donnas were a hit.
In this episode, we learn what it was really like to be "Donna A."--from why she calls her early vocals “screamy and thrashy” to the differences between touring in a van and a tour bus. The Donnas were often underestimated for being an all-female group, but their bond helped them get through the times they had to "laugh and cry at the same time." Brett talks about about writing songs, taking care of her voice, performing on "Saturday Night Live," and a lot more stories from backstage.
After The Donnas stopped playing music together, Brett went back to school and found new passions. She shares the joy in discovering second, third, even fourth acts in life.
In this episode:
How the band came together (03:20)
Obstacles faced being an all-female band (05:28)
How the band’s songwriting evolved and how they created their music (08:05)
How the band grew (10:53)
Were they really living the rock and roll life, or did they have onstage personas? (14:45)
What’s the main difference between touring in a van or a tour bus? (18:56)
How Brett would protect her voice--and issues (24:35)
What was it like to be on Saturday Night Live? (25:18)
The importance of being in the moment during a big performance (28:34)
Tips when forgetting lyrics onstage (30:24)
Why the band stopped playing together (34:24)
How it felt going back to school (36:38)
The Donnas music in movies and videogames (41:29)
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BRETT ANDERSON 0:07
We would do things like we'd trashed dressing rooms and then clean them up. Like we're rock stars, you know, in that definition of rock star, which is like selfish, self centered, terrible people. And then we were like, well, we know the people that work here, so we should probably...we should probably clean this up.
ELIZABETH PEARSON GARR
If you’ve ever wondered if rock stars really live up to their wild and crazy reputations… keep listening. I’m Elizabeth Pearson Garr, and on this episode we get a true backstage pass to learn “What it’s like to… Be a Rock Star.” Brett Anderson and three friends formed a band in middle school, in 1993. They later went onto world-wide fame as The Donnas. They played some huge gigs like the main stage at Lollapalooza, appeared on Saturday Night Live and Letterman, and toured the world for 20 years. Now Brett is doing something entirely different.
Hi, Brett. It's really nice to meet you.
It's nice to meet you too.
Well, it's super exciting for me, you know, I've never met a real rock star. So fake news for me. I was wondering how that feels for you. Like when you hear that phrase? Does that resonate with you? Or does that feel like oh, that was a time of my life in the past? Or was that just such an influential part of your life that really formed who you are today?
It's funny, I have a lot of answers for that one question. Like on a linguistic level, it's funny because you know how pretty much everyone can be called a rock star these days. Like, if you're a chef, you're a rock star chef or a rock star knife sharpener. But like, if you're actually a rock musician, it has like a different connotation. It kind of means like, you think you're a rock star, like you come in all like here I am. We would never use that term. But considering how you're intending it, that I was a musician for 20 years and that's what I did with my life and pretty much nothing else at that point in time, it's nice. I mean, it's part of my identity. It's a little bit interesting in interviewing for jobs right now. And it's always like, do I mention it? Do I not? It's weird if I don't mention it, but it's weird if I do. It’s a double edged sword. Yeah, but it's nice that you are aware?
Well, it definitely, I mean, it's really cool. It's something that most of us will never even set our toe close to that pond. Also, it's funny for me, because if I get this right, you got together with your friends at age 13 in middle school and formed the band. I have a daughter who's 13 at that exact same middle school that you went to. And so to think of her getting together with friends and forming a band, and then I have a 15-year old at the school where you went to high school. And shortly after that—I think at 16—you guys went off and like toured Japan, it just kind of blows my mind to think of my kids, you being their ages. And like being a musician and touring the world. You were really young.
Yes, that's actually a really amazing perspective for you to have. Because you know, when I think back on it, all I can remember is how I felt, you know, and I can ask my mom what she thought. She thought it was a little crazy.
So what drew you guys together, you were just friends and said, Hey, let's start a band?
Pretty much. I mean, I was in social studies class with the guitar player. And you know, we did a group project together where I don't remember who we were. But you know, we were both presidents from the past and had to make some presentation together. And then the drummer and I became friends in the bathroom because my best friend at the time had said she didn't like her. So that made me very interested in her and she was putting on makeup in the mirror. So that was exciting, too, so instantly thought she was cool. And then the bass player and the guitar player came to school dressed as Nelson on Halloween with like, tennis rackets as guitars. And I was like, oh my god, they're so cool. So they were just the coolest people to me. Not at our school, we weren't cool at school. But to me, they were the coolest. And so they sort of had been playing together. And I think I was the last one to join. I mean, I know it's last one to join, and I feel pretty lucky that they considered me.
Did you know you could sing; were you a vocalist before?
You know, the jury's still out on that. I'm a performer. I'm not even a good actor. But I do what I do. Like if people need someone to have like a female voice with attitude, they could call me and I can deliver.
Well, I think the results speak for themselves. Brett. I think you are a singer.
I appreciate that.
You've performed all over the world and Lollapalooza and all sorts of other stuff. You guys had some hits. Yeah, I think you can call yourself a singer.
Here's what I can say for sure is that I wasn't bad enough that I ruined it for the band. I mean, I do think that one of the really special things about the band was that we're all female. You do often see a female singer, that's not really a novelty or that special, but you don't often see a female drummer or female guitar player, sometimes female bass player, but then to have all four. That's pretty unique. So I think that during solos and stuff, I would just turn around and watch the band and feel like these people are pretty cool.
Did you ever get any pushback? Did people try to insert a guy in the band or anything? Or was it pretty easy to stick together?
No one ever tried to insert a guy, but I mean, all kinds of horrible things happened. In high school, we would get notes in our locker saying girls can't play rock and roll and like profanity and go home and play with your dolls. And at that time, it was 1994, you know, and the riot girl movement was happening. So like in the world, we thought we were beyond that. And we were just surprised that people were still pulling that stuff. And in a way, it was almost like a joke. It was tongue in cheek on like every level, but it still was difficult to deal with. And then when we signed to a major label from Lookout, we did meetings with Universal and Atlantic and Island Def Jam. And I'm not going to name which one, but there was one label that really wanted us to drop the instruments and dance.
No way—be like the Spice Girls or something.
Right! Your face, they can't hear that on the podcast at all. Like it's just jaw dropping. The fact that anyone would even consider that, they're so far off the mark of what was valuable about us just had no idea.
Had that even listened to your music? It’s not who you were!
It just completely missed the mark. It's funny, a lot of the things that have happened to us are so offensive, but they're also so funny that you're just laughing and crying at the same time, kind of you're like serious, this is really happening?
And did you guys have enough sort of self affirmation at that time to be able to take it that way? Or you were really young, so did you feel like, at times you were kind of swayed? Or how did you deal with some of that stuff, the sexism and other things?
I mean, we immediately knew it was total BS—immediately. And we also were super tight with each other. So having that bond, and that unit was really helpful. I mean, part of the point of the band was just to show that it wasn't just for men. And I think that we achieved that goal. I mean, I've met a lot of people that said that they started playing because they saw us on stage. And it sort of was like a light bulb moment to be like, oh, it doesn't have to be just like some white dudes. Other things can be on stage, playing rock and roll or playing whatever music you want to play.
That's so cool. That must feel great.
It's really amazing. I mean, if I do nothing else in this life, I'll die happy just because of that. But we did have to deal with some obstacles. And like a lot of people just didn't get that point at all. And then there was like a musical aspect to what we were doing as well, besides the statement that we were making. We're all musicians, we all love music. We're all fans, we identify as fans before anything else. And wanted to put all of those references into our music. And I think that was lost on a lot of people. But we enjoyed it. And some people got it.
Yeah, can you take me into some of that, like how your songwriting evolved, where you started? And how did you as a group, create your music?
It started, we had a band called “The Electrocutes” in the beginning, and it was very, like sort of screaming and thrashy and loud. The first song lyrics I wrote, were about like a person who thought she was a feminist, but had everything all wrong and backward, very smart 13-year old, very critical mind. But everyone really contributed to the songs a lot and the way that we wrote songs varied, but you know, sometimes it would start with a guitar part, and then just a melody. And then we would fill in words for that. But I think like, maybe the best era of our songwriting was, Allison would make these tapes where she would kind of create the skeleton of the song with the melody and guitar parts. And we would all get together and eat snacks and think of lyrics together. And it was a really amazing process. And, I don't know, a way to get to know each other and understand the world and everything. Because when I, I mean, I did write some lyrics on my own, but it was, you know, I was always trying to represent the band. So it was nice to actually write lyrics together to make sure they did represent all of us.
So is that a pretty long process? I can't conceptualize writing a song. I mean, I'm a writer, so I can think about writing lyrics that could make sense to me, but coming up with melodies and riffs and like that just seems otherworldly to me. So, can you walk me through some of that? And would that just take a lot of iterations and day after day of reworking things?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, months even, but you know, we like hanging out with each other and so we, you know, we probably made it take longer than it needed to just because we had fun doing it. And just thinking of like writing a song from the beginning like on my own, when I've written songs kind of after actually The Donnas, it kind of helps to have a perspective of like you're solving a puzzle. So like, one song I wrote was about the end of a relationship. And it started with all of the instruments together. And then it would lose an instrument one by one until it was just like humming at the end. So it was just a concept. And you know, that's one way that you can write a song—just come up with a concept where it's like, the musical arrangement will reflect the theme of the lyrics.
Wow. Oh, that's cool. Okay. So can we go back a little bit to your teenage years? What did it feel like for you? You were in school and then you were writing music? And did you guys have a vision? Like, here's where we want to go? Here's what we want this to be? Or did it just kind of go from performing in garages to suddenly more people wanted to hear you, and then it just kept growing?
Kind of both of those are true. I think in the beginning, it was just sort of like a project. It was like, you know, if you were to start, like, some kind of club or something, you know, just something that's made up, like, Oh, we're a band, and there were kind of air quotes around it. But then it became real. When we started playing shows—I think when we were 14—we played at the Chameleon and Kilowatt in San Francisco. And that made it feel more real. And then the first tour that we went on when we were 18, when we got to Austin, and played at emos, there were people who were singing along. So that really made it feel real and exciting. Yeah, so that's the kind of moments where you're like, oh, this is actually happening. We're not just pretending to be a band, we're actually a band. But yeah, thinking back in the beginning, it was 1993. Like L7 was on MTV. And they were huge, huge influences for us. And we just wanted to be on Kill Rock Stars. That was like our big goal. I thought that that was the record label for us. And we went to see Bikini Kill together—I think my mom drove us in the Suburban—and we had a cassette tape that we gave to them. And then we found it on the ground later, and we were all bummed and took it personally until later in our lives, people would give us stuff and we'd lose it. So we realized like it wasn't necessarily personal.
And how about the name the Donnas, how and why did you change from the Electrocutes to the Donnas? And then I know each of you came up with you were each Donna.
It was our last name, or the first initial of our last name. So I'm Donna A. for Anderson. That pretty much happened because so we were kind of the Electrocutes and the Donnas at the same time for a while. And the Electrocutes was like our real band. It was like the cool band that was more artistic and like Sonic UC. And the Donnas was almost like oldies, like very Ramones-style influenced, and we wrote songs with Darren Refaeli for the Donnas, who was a guy that was in the music, like garage music scene in San Francisco. And he came up with the name of the Donnas that he rearranged the letters of a McDonald's Happy Meal. Just everything has to have some corporate capitalist roots around here. So that's kind of how that happened, it was like, you know, since we were writing songs with him for that project, it wasn't a real band. And then we merged them together at a certain point, probably after two years. And that's when we took more control of the songwriting—or all control.
Was there a certain point when you felt like okay, this is it, this is gonna be our path for a while, like, I think I read that you guys each went to college after graduating from high school, but then you stopped because you were like, wait a minute, this music thing is actually happening. So was there something in that year that made you refocus and say, this band is going to be pretty big?
Yeah, it was, it was kind of incremental in a way. There were sort of layers of like, oh, this is really happening. You know, like, when we made our first seve- inch record, it was like, oh, this is like a real vinyl, solid thing I can hold and show my grandkids or whatever, so that I made it feel real. And then when we went to Japan that made it feel real. We'd send a radio trash first, which was our friend John McGuire's record label, like out of the trunk of his car. And then we send a Lookout. And that felt very real. But I think the period of time that you're talking about, like when we went to school, we just went for a semester each and Torry had to actually defer, because the program she was going into wouldn't let her go for just a little while. And we recorded I think, while we were in school, I remember going from—I was at Berkeley—and we were recording in Oakland, so kind of go back and forth there. And we had a tour booked for six weeks. So that was kind of like why we ended school. And we did. And that was kind of just going to be a test to see like, you know, this might be our big tour and six weeks and then it's over, or maybe it'll lead to something. And it just turned into 15 years of touring and writing music and producing records.
Did it kind of feel like that was a persona that you put on like your Donnas thing and your musician rock thing and then I mean, you were at Berkeley, you're a college student or is it one of a whole where you kind of playing a part or was that you?
I mean, again, all your questions are really great. And it's like the answer is yes.
Yeah. You know, that makes sense. Yeah, it makes sense.
There's definitely a character element to it, you know, the clothes that we wore and the way that we acted. But then also, that was truly how we really were. We would do things though, like we'd trash dressing rooms, and then clean them up. So there was that side of it, too. It was like, we're rock stars, you know, in that definition of rock star, which is like selfish, self centered, terrible people. And then we were like, well, we know the people that work here. So we should probably clean it up.
We don't want to have a super bad reputation.
Right, especially we're playing at places like Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. And it's like, you want to go back there and play again. So you can't burn bridges.
So you weren't doing the whole rock and roll lifestyle with the reputation of rock and roll lifestyle fully?
Yeah, not really. I mean, we had seen behind the music, so we knew better than to blow all our money and go crazy. So we kind of kept our money in a big pool and just gave ourselves like a sensible allowance. And any deals that we signed, we were really careful to go over all the details. I mean, we saw ourselves as business people too, because we were, you know, if you're in a band, you're an entrepreneur. I mean, I don't think we use that word. But it's truly an aspect of the role. You know, we had to sit in conference rooms with older white men in suits and hold our own at that table. And it was tricky, but I think our big value was just our integrity, we were never going to compromise our integrity for any amount of money. So we ended up signing to Atlantic Records, because it was a smaller advance upfront, but they were going to give us more artistic control. And that was what was most important to us. We aren't just trying to get rich.
That's really impressive. If you think about how young you guys were, and that you had that kind of presence of mind, and business acumen, to be that wise—not that you were women, but just any young person, to be able to kind of keep their integrity and to not spend all your money and to not sell out and…. you guys were really wise.
Thank you. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there's a lot of information out there. We were like scholars of MTV and VH1…like we watched everything and saw things like bands like REM always split all their money equally four ways. And that's one of the reasons that the band stayed together for so long.
That makes me think of you as the lead singer. Often the lead singer, you know, the frontman or this front woman gets so much attention on a talk show or something. They're the one who's interviewed and talked to and I sometimes think about like, the drummer or the bassist, or something sometimes gets sidelined. And I wonder how they feel, or did you sometimes feel like you had more pressure, like you had to be the spokeswoman for the group, or did others feel like they were given equal say, was there any sort of dynamic there that ever got tricky?
I think sometimes it came up when people didn't understand our band. I feel like if people got what we were all about, it was clear that everyone was contributing. And Torry did commercials for Target, because she was a very interesting drummer. And Allison did a lot of things on her own, too and Maya did a lot of things on her own, too. So they got to actually represent their positions individually, which I thought was really great. And then, if people were focusing on me, it usually tended to be people that didn't really get the band. And so we turned down a lot of stuff that was kind of like the traditional structure. It was like, we need to present like an equal front. And there was always kind of like an energy pulling towards that just because that's the way a lot of bands were in history. But we were definitely different in that way.
You guys had such a long run. Obviously, it changed over time. But could you kind of walk me through what sort of some of the days would be like, like if you were on tour?
Yeah, I would say the main difference on tour is whether you're touring in a van or you're touring in a tour bus. So the first six-week tour, and then for the next few years, we were in a van like a white 15-passenger church van basically. Yeah. Like some are more souped up than others. We bought one and crashed it a little bit, which I still feel guilty about. It's just cosmetic, but that was our van. But yeah, so you'd wake up early and drive. You get to the show for soundcheck. You walk in and you know a lot of the places are like ahhhh, god. It's a bunch of girls, they think they're gonna play music and then after we soundcheck, they're like oh, you guys are actually pretty good. You were like, that's actually not a compliment.
You have to prove yourself….
…on a daily basis. So you know we had a chip on our shoulder a lot of the time but you know, we get through soundcheck and then our first tour we were opening for the Groovy Ghoulies, which was really fun. And then we sort of evolved into being the headlining band, which means you have to get there earlier because you have to soundcheck first when you're the headlining band, and then the opening band sound checks, and then they play. So it's easier to load all the equipment on and off the stage. But then you have to get up earlier to drive if you're still in a van. So that can be really tricky, because you know, you don't load out til 12 or whatever, and get paid, or have some kind of argument about getting paid. And then, you know you get a couple…
There’s stories there. I can tell.
Oh, yeah, people are always trying to keep your bonuses from you or charge you for a rider that you didn't get…he riders like the food that you get backstage, charging for food that you didn't get, and you just have to fight for every penny kind of. But yeah, you'd get to the hotel, I mean, the first tour we were on, we always get one room and sleep two to a bed. And you get to know people really well that way. And then you wake up at the crack of dawn and get in the van and do it all over again. The cool thing about that is that you get to know places pretty well, because you stop to eat and then you stop along the way. And you do like fun sightseeing things. I mean, there's to me nothing as fun. Like do you know about the Thing? Have you seen the Thing? It's on route 66, I think and there are signs for it forever. You know the Thing, you see the Thing. So it's fun to go to those things with a family on a family road trip. But it's extra fun if you're with your band family going because I don't know, it's more exciting. And it's funnier. So we got to do stuff like that.
So you're all around the country?
Yeah, in that white van. Yeah. And then all around Europe in a, like a Mercedes Sprinter with a hole in the floor. And that was fun. So that's one kind of touring. And then the other kind of touring is in a tour bus where, obviously, it's amazing, because you know, you don't have to hold your pee. There's a bathroom on the bus only for pee. And you know, your bunk is on the bus. So you get to drive and sleep at the same time, which is awesome, because then the two longest parts of your day are stacked on top of each other. And it just saves a ton of time and you just wake up in the next town. But the problem is you're kind of in a capsule, so it separates you a little bit from the experience, you're not stopping at roadside attractions anymore, and you're not eating at as many local restaurants as you would have. So it can get a little bit isolating and weirdly, a little bit repetitive. It's a little like Groundhogs Day when you're touring in a bus.
And is someone else driving the bus, not one of the bandmates?
Yeah, the bus, you need a professional bus driver. And they have a lot of rules about when they can drive and when they have to sleep. And I appreciate that. Because you know, I know people who've had accidents and all our bus drivers were really cool. So you want them to be happy and comfortable.
So that must have gotten exhausting over time, though, right? After a certain number of weeks or months are you like, alright, enough of being on the road?
It does. But then you feel guilty about it. Because you're like, I'm living the dream. And I'm complaining about it. You know, there's a lot of quality problems. So you can't really complain about that. You know, I used to complain about touring in Europe. When I was younger, like our first tour, we were like, 18. My boyfriend at the time was like, you kind of have to stop complaining about touring in Europe, like people really don't want to hear it. I was like, but you don't understand, like that we didn't have a hotel to sleep in, the stage was terrible. He's like, sure, that's fine. You get that, they don't get that, and you just sound like a really big a-hole. So, you know, I learned some lessons.
So as you toured more and more and your records are coming out and you’re doing music videos when your fan base was growing,how did it feel to have fans out there cheering for you and screaming for you? Was that a bit of a crazy experience, did it kinda go to your head after a while like, wow, all these people love me?
Yeah, I don't think it went to our heads, because there would always be a show that was a dud.
I love how you keep it so real.
Well, I mean, you can have like an amazing show on a Saturday night, you know, in a big city, they always try to schedule tours, so that you're like in New York on Saturday, and then you're like in some small town in like New Hampshire the next night. It's a Sunday night, and people aren't coming out as much. And so it keeps you pretty humble. Like it's pretty hard for it to go to your head. And the other side of that is that like I said earlier, we identified as fans, I think more than we identified as like the people on the stage. So it was kind of funny to look out and see people and be like, I know how that feels, like I very much am familiar with what that person is experiencing right now. But this, what I'm experiencing right now, is a little bit more alien to me.
You've always had that perspective of both sides.
Yeah, I mean, we like bands, we like ‘em hard and films and everything. Like we were just super fans of a lot of stuff.
What about your voice, because that was your instrument? How did you protect that? Were there certain—I don't know, I always hear about people drinking tea or not talking for a certain number of days. How did you do that? Especially when you were on tour? How did you preserve it night after night?
It was terrible. It's one of the reasons why I don't miss it, because you're constantly worried about getting sick and you know if you lose your voice, the lighting guy’s daughter’s braces, you know, don't get paid for. It's like you just feel so much responsibility to so many people. And it's such a fickle organ, and in my case it’s extra fickle because when I was little I was quote unquote, born angry, my family likes to say, and I had a really bad temper tantrums. So I would just scream until I lost my voice. And apparently, that's not good for you. And my mom actually just unearthed a form from first grade that said that I was handicapped. And I had, I think they described it as extreme harshness. My voice. It's crazy. I wish I had the form right now. They checkd the box that said may interfere with relationships with other children.
Oh, this is so rough.
I know. I know. And you know, they had like a treatment plan on there and what was going to happen. But what happened was I had nodules on my vocal cords, basically like calluses. And that's what Julie Andrews had, and she had this surgery and never quite recovered. So I kind of knew I probably shouldn't have the surgery, I just had to maintain it. So I was always going to EMTs, like your nose and throat doctors, you know, doing the warm ups and all kinds of stuff. But so much of that chronic condition management is mental. And what I found, ironically, over the years and years that I had to do all that stuff, was that sometimes when I was doing everything, quote, unquote, right for my voice, my voice was still messed up and not performing how I wanted it to. And sometimes I would break all the rules, and it would be great. And I think a lot of that had to do with stress and guilt. Sometimes I would do all the right things and prepare, but it was like guilt fueled, like I gotta do this. And I was in fear of losing my voice so I did all the right things. And at other times, I just didn't care as much. And, you know, I would drink or whatever, and it was fine. And I think stress and vocal health are directly related.
That's really interesting. And what about sleep? I always think of sleep as like one of the key components to everything, you probably weren't getting a lot of sleep in those days.
Definitely not getting a lot of sleep. It helped when we got a bus because then we could sleep in as late as possible. And then I had a humidifier like a steam mask that I would put on to try to like soften the nodules like it was crazy. It would have been probably helpful if we could have slept more, but I don't think we would have, even if we had the option.
So then you were touring internationally, and then you were on a lot of national shows, you know, you were on Saturday Night Live and Letterman, and how was it being on those shows? I mean, those are just iconic.
That was another layer of like, oh, this is a real thing, like this is really happening, and made it feel legitimate in a way that was sort of undeniable, which was validating. Saturday Night Live was like the best, like such a pinnacle. Like that night, we went to four after parties and I smoked a cigarette, one of two in my life.
Screw the voice. You were on a set out.
Right, right. And I didn't watch it for a week. So I had a week of just bliss. You know, on top of the world, we played on SNL, Ray Liotta was the host. And then I watched it. And I really was not happy with my performance. So that kind of tainted the whole experience. But for that week, it was amazing.
Isn't that just human nature though? We're gonna be so self critical. But at least you could let yourself enjoy the actual experience, because that's what life should be about.
Right, right. Yeah. And there is something about like playback that is, for most of history, we didn't get to see the playback of everything. We remembered it from the experience. And there's something to be said for that.
Yeah. And at least you were really enjoying it live. I mean, so many musicians I've heard, do things pre-recorded and all of that. So you, you were in the moment. That sounds great to me.
Yeah. I mean, I don't know if you remember when Lana Del Rey was on Saturday Night Live, and everyone made fun of her and said she was so terrible. And I heard all the criticism before I saw it. When I finally saw it, I was like, she doesn't sound that bad. She just sounds like she's really into it. And she kind of like oversang some moments here and there. But it's not like a terrible performance. I felt really bad for her because I think you're so charged with adrenaline, and whatever cortisol, all the hormones, and it's so hard to control your body And your voice is like a very sensitive instrument of that. You can hear if someone's like, pumped up by their voice and she was all charged up, she couldn't help it. It's very exciting.
Did you have moments like that before? A big performance? A big stage Lollapalooza, I don't know, just a big concert? Did you have things you would tell yourself in your mind? Or would the whole band get together? Did you have mantras or something to just kind of cool it, be in the moment?
Yeah. All kinds of stuff. Yeah. I mean, it can get kind of superstitious actually, performing things that happened in the morning of the day of your big performance can cast a shadow on it or make it seem like it's going to be okay. But we had like a little prayer that we did before we went on stage at every show and I used to do this thing where I would write the first line of every verse on my setlist. And people will be like how can you read that on stage? I'm like, I'm not like bending down to read the words on my setlist if I forget them, it's like a process that I'm going through to sort of set my mind and pre-game for the lyrics, you know, so that I have thought about them at least once that day. So I think it helped me a lot.
Did you ever forget lyrics onstage?
Yes, not often, but when I did, it was just terrible. I mean, it's like a classic nightmare. One time, I had to turn around and just look at Torry in terror. And she mouthed the one word I needed to hear to remember, it was like, I will be forever grateful to you. Yeah, I mean, it's such a mental thing. You know, when you miss one line, then you're more likely to miss that line again, because you're in your head about it. And then every once in a while, I'd miss a line. And I would pretend the microphone was broken.
Well, I've heard musicians bang on it or they sometimes just put it out to the crowd like it's your turn to sing now.
Yes, definitely. Yeah. I don't think I ever did that. But I definitely would bang on the microphone and look confused and be like, I don't know what's happening.
So through all those years, it remained fun. It was mostly a fun endeavor. I mean, it was a business too, you said, but you kept going until a certain point when it was time to make a change.
Yeah, I mean, it was definitely fun. And that was the goal. And we call ourselves the fun generation. That was like our whole…yeah, we weren't trying to be cool. That's for sure. We were definitely trying to have fun, not trying to be cool. And I mean, I believe that trying to be cool is like immediately not exempt from that. Yeah. But it was our whole life really, like 24/7. So it was fun. But it was also everything else, you know. You're hard on yourself, other people are hard on you. I mean, I've been called fat and ugly in every language that people speak these days, like, the way that you're picked apart is just insane. So I did a lot of like fear-based controlling of exercise and eating, and then as like, someone who thinks of themselves as a feminist, then when you're performing those behaviors, then you feel on top of feeling self conscious about how you look, then you feel guilty for feeling self conscious, because then you're a bad feminist.
Yeah, it builds on itself. And that's annoying, too, because how many men are called fat and ugly as they're performing?
I guess social media hadn't come out when you were performing. But you were still probably the focus of a lot of articles and TV shows and that kind of thing.
Yeah. And I think that in a good way, we were sort of an example of like, real girls are real people that weren't, you know, all fake and perfect. But that can be a little tricky, too. You know, because even if that's something you believe in, and an image that you really want to portray, sometimes in the moment when you're being presented as like, what do they say like warts and all, you know, like, stuff like that, where you're like, okay. It just could be a little bit tricky, even if you totally believe in the cause.
And I wonder if you ever felt—like sometimes I hear actors say this—I just really love to act, I didn't think I was going to be like a role model or be picked apart for my personal life. And maybe you guys got into this, we wanted to be together, and we wanted to make music and be a band, and all of a sudden were being picked apart for our looks and all of this other stuff. You know, you kind of get to this level where you're up there for public consumption. And that's not what you signed up for.
Sure, totally. And hearing you say that actually makes me really grateful for the fact that I don't feel like our personal lives were picked apart really. And I think a lot of that probably has to do with the fact that it was pre social media for the most part. So it was really mostly just appearance and stuff like that, where it was like, we’re a band, and we are musicians, and we also are females, but like, that's not our genre. And that's not our like leading quality, that really shouldn't be the defining factor.
So what is it that made you guys break up and stop? I mean, I'm sure your friendship didn't break up, but made the band break up and say, like, this chapter of my life is over?
You know, we, we started really slowly, it was just like a slow build, and it was a really slow. And as well, we never really had a moment where we broke up, we just sort of stopped saying yes to things incrementally over a period of time, like a long period of time. And I think that's actually a pattern that you can see in a lot of bands. You know, if you have a big spike, when you grow, you often fall off in a big fall. And so I think that our slow growth and our slow wrapping up was like, a really nice way to do it. When we were like in the thick of it. I would worry about how the band would end and what would happen. And my number one worry, of course, was that it would be my fault and that I would lose my voice or something like that. And when that didn't happen, it was a big relief. But also it wasn't like there was a moment where I realized the band is over and it wasn't my fault, because there was such a long period of time that we spent kind of slowing down. It was a while since we had played a show basically.
Did that feel good? Or did that feel like a loss like, oh, boy, what now?
What now is like the theme of my valedictorian speech at Los Angeles City College. Cuz it truly is like, not only what am I going to do now, but like, who am I now? It was a big part of my identity. And it'll always be sad in a way. But I'm just really glad that we got to do as much as we did. I mean, seriously, since we were 15 and we put out our first seven-inch record, that was more than I ever expected. So everything from that day on was icing on the cake for me. And I just feel mostly grateful at how far we were able to come. I mean, there aren’t many bands of any kind that stayed together for 20 years. Like that's a really long time.
Yeah, what an accomplishment! And you've left a legacy of work, as well as just the relationships and experiences.
And a lot of stories.
Way more, we could have a whole series of podcasts probably about your stories. So you decided to go back to school, you mentioned you went to City College, and then you eventually transferred to Stanford University. How did it feel to be back in school after all that time in music?
Well, when I first went back to school at LACC, it was crazy. And what's funny is the hardest part for me was like sending emails to professors, because I had been on a first name basis with everyone, you know, like the CEOs of the record labels, like everyone, we call each other by our first names. And now, I think I was like, 32, maybe. And I'm supposed to be like, ah, Professor Holmes, like, please consider my request, you know, it's supposed to be like, super deferential and respectful and I'm not against respect or deference at all, but it felt really awkward for me.
Just a different world.
Such a different world. And, you know, we had been so casual for so long that it felt really weird to go back to this, like, professional. And it felt really contrived to me. So that was kind of an obstacle at the beginning. It was interesting to sit in a classroom. At one point, in my sociology class, we were looking through the book, we got to the chapter about feminism, and we were talking about third wave feminism. And there was a picture of Bratmobile in their textbook, as an example. And Molly Newman from Bratmobile was the general manager at Lookout Records, and then she became our business manager. So it was just funny to be there. I just kind of know that my head and also know that if I brought it up in class, it probably wouldn't go over well. So I just had to sort of sit there and know that in my head. That happened.
Yeah, I have a little insider's knowledge here. And then when you got to Stanford, what did you decide to study and what kind of inspired you there?
I decided to focus on psychology while I was at LACC. And then I kept studying psychology at Stanford, because that's one of their huge strengths is their psychology department and all the research that they've done. And I knew I wanted to work with people; I had an interest in substance abuse from what I had seen and experienced on tour. One of the things I saw over and over again was people not being able to control their substance use and being afraid that if they quit, they wouldn't be able to be creative anymore. So that was something that stuck with me from experience. And I just felt like learning more about that. And I got into research and that was really interesting, until I found myself sitting kind of like in a closet with no windows for hours and hours a day, studying about how important it is to spend time with people.
Oh, the irony!
So that was kind of a turning point for me. I think it was like three in the morning. And when I realized I was sitting there one night, and I just like, can you die from irony? Because I might. And that kind of informed my decision to pursue a Master's in social work after my BA, because I knew that I wanted to be more like on a micro level and do direct practice with other human beings in person.
Now you're studying longevity and aging. How did you make that turn?
Yes. It's funny because I'm actually not studying anymore…I finally graduated.
Oh, you HAVE studied! Congratulations!
Thank you so much! Yeah, I was in school for 10 years from the day I started at LACC to the day that I graduated at my last program at USC. But when I was at Stanford, because psychology is such a huge topic, you know, you have to narrow it down and I took a class on longevity from Laura Carstensen. And it felt like undeniable how important it was, you know, our population is aging, and we aren't prepared for it financially or emotionally. Once you learn these statistics and see how things already are kind of not functioning very well in that area, it's sort of impossible to unknow those things. So I just became really interested in and focused on the experience of aging and how it can be improved, and things that are kind of causing unnecessary suffering. But there's plenty of research that shows that we get happier as we age, and that actually, our lowest on average rates of happiness are in our 20s. You know, when it's supposed to be like the greatest time of your life and part of it is because it's supposed to be the greatest time in your life, and you're looking around and you're nervous that you're not making the right kind of lifelong memories that you're supposed to be making.
Well, you definitely had a different kind of memories than most of us.
I guess I'm lucky in that front, because I do feel like I have enough memories to go for a couple lifetimes.
Are you still close to your bandmates?
Yeah, I just spoke with Torry not that long ago. Yeah, we speak occasionally. And then also, it's kind of nice to be able to have some space to do our own thing, because we did spend so much of our lives missing holidays to be together and putting everything else on hold and making the band our singular focus. So it's sort of nice to be able to go do our own thing.
Some of your songs ended up in like movies and video games, things like that. That is so cool. How did that happen? And how does that feel? Do you ever watch those movies and hear your songs?
Yeah. I mean, I've seen them all. I don't go back and watch them. But it's kind of fun when every once in a while I'll get a text message and be like, oh, my God, I was watching this movie and then I just heard your voice.
Yeah, and The Hangover. So yeah, George Drakoulias was the music supervisor for both of those movies and some other ones. And we had a good connection with him. So I think a lot of our good music placements and film placements were a lucky side effect of having a good experience with George Drakoulias.
Well, I just think it's neat that you have this lasting legacy. Like you said, initially, it was fun to have the seven-inch record that you could share with your grandchildren. You have a lot more than that.
Yes, yeah. And the video games are fun, too. I mean, it's so cool. Like, I think that's a testament to to like the musicianship to have a song on Guitar Hero. You know, it's not just like, it was like a girl singer and like backup music, like she's super talented. And her guitar parts are really interesting and unique. And so it's cool to have that represented in the game.
Yeah, it'sa testament to how good you guys are.
There was a game called Donkey Kong, which was about drums and we had a song in that, too. So we are represented on the percussion level as well.
Well, I think we covered everything that I was hoping to talk about. I mean, there's so many more stories, I'm sure, but save some for memoir.
Yeah, I think to wrap it up, the message I would want to put out there is the idea of having a second chapter or even a third or fourth chapter. You might think you know what you're doing with your life in this moment, but it's probably not going to last forever. And that might be a good thing. And life is definitely worth sticking around for, because I just never thought this is what I'd be doing. I never thought that was what I would have been doing. And it's interesting the way it unfolds.
Well, that's a really good point. And also just kind of stay open to the possibilities, you know, like kind of stay curious.
Right? Yeah, about the world and about yourself. Because I think like I've said probably a few times in this interview, I tend to have a pretty low opinion of my abilities and my talent, even though I have pretty concrete evidence that it's there. And I think a lot of people are like that. And sometimes it's humility, which is beautiful. And sometimes it's low self-esteem, which is not as beautiful. So I'd say you know, keep the humility and work on the self-esteem, and you just don't know what you're capable of until you try it.
That's great. Well, thank you, Brett. This has been so fun for me. What a joy to get to meet you a little bit.
Thanks for all your time.
Absolutely. Thank you.
Isn’t it wonderful how people’s journeys evolve? I learned so much from Brett and all the perspective she has gained through her many adventures… from musician to helping aging seniors. Here are my takeaways from our conversation:
Number one: Keep your integrity intact. Never compromise it, especially for money.
2. Stress and guilt can wreak havoc on our bodies.
3. Be aware of what you’re complaining about. Touring in Europe may not be as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s still… touring in Europe.
4. Living in the moment and enjoying an actual experience is a much better life strategy than watching–and critiquing–yourself on screen later.
5. Although it can be frustrating, sometimes you have to keep proving yourself again and again… until people realize things like an all-female band can definitely play.
6. You don’t know what you’re capable of until you try.
7. Be willing to have a second, third, or even fourth chapter in life. Stay open, and stay curious–about the world and about yourself.
8. Let’s face it: no matter what kind or work we do, we’re all rock stars!