Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An interview with Joyce Raskin, author of "My Misadventures As A Teenage Rockstar"

My Misadventures As A Teenage Rockstar sounds like it’s right out of a Disney Channel movie- but it’s not. Yes, the main character Alex does find a bit of fame as a musician, but it’s not the teenage version of the rags to riches fantasy. I was excited to “meet” a young girl who not only knew how to rock but also learned how to be herself, no matter what she pursued. Dare I say this book also has a strong feminist message? It does!

Joyce Raskin, singer and bassist with the band Scarce and author of My Misadventures As A Teenage Rockstar, was kind enough to chat with me about music, being straight edge, navigating the online world, growing up and following your passion til it hurts.

Joyce Raskin
Describe your story.

Alex is a younger 14 year old girl who is completely self conscious, abysmally awful at making friends, and feels like she is kind of useless in this world. One day, her life completely changes when her brother decides to teach her how to play bass because his friend Tod the Mod needs a bass player. Alex is totally in love with Tod the Mod and this is how she starts her voyage into rock and roll. Once she starts playing in bands she is thrown into a very mature world of sex and drugs. I wanted to contrast her being a younger girl for her age with the older mature things that are being thrown at her. I also wanted this book to be about a real girl, who doesn't just magically go off and have a Cinderella story of perfect success and becomes a rock star. Life doesn't work that way. I wanted Alex to fail and make mistakes and be a normal girl. Sometimes amazing things come out of mistakes and accidents.

Who is it written for?

I wrote it for girls and women of any age who ever doubted themselves or felt uncomfortable in their own skin. I started writing it first as a comic book about all the funny things that happen being in a rock band and being a girl. But then it took on another form and I started thinking about my own two girls, who are 6 and 8 years old, and how I hope they will be as teenage girls. I want them to be happy from the inside out, not the other way around. I know it's going to be hard so I wanted to write something that would help them through it. To be a positive voice along the way. To make them laugh at themselves and be able to pick themselves back up when they have fallen down. It's a brave new world with the internet; a place full of images and information displaying to teenagers how to look good on the outside, but very few role models and voices showing them how to feel good about themselves on the inside. I often think, “If I were a teenager growing up now where I would get my inner compass from?” Music really helped me through my teenage years, and I guess the message in my book I hope to get across is to find that inner compass for yourself, be it music, skateboarding, surfing, drawing, or whatever it is that makes you feel good from the inside.

How much of Alex is Joyce?

The very beginning is definitely me, perhaps a bit exaggerrated, but definitely how I saw myself as a teenage girl. We can be our own worst enemies sometimes. But Alex is much braver than I was at her age. She is much better at skateboarding too. She also has some amazing friends that she makes in the book that I didn't have until I was an adult. But I put them in there for girls to realize they are out there, these amazing women, they are all around, but you have to search them out. Or perhaps they will inspire some of the readers to be those women as they grow up.

I think it’s fair to say that even now rock and roll is marketed more by and for men, and that was certainly the case in the late eighties and early nineties. What spoke to you in rock and roll in spite of that?

I was lucky I had an older brother who was cool and he encouraged me. But I would say that the local DC punk scene really inspired me, especially Ian Mackaye and Fugazi. I remember how excited I got watching them play, going totally crazy and sweating and rocking so hard and intense, and I thought I WANT to do that. I never felt like I couldn't just because I was a girl. One of my proudest shows with Scarce we opened up for Fugazi, and I borrowed Joe Lally's bass and my finger bled all over the strings. After the show all the guys in Fugazi were taking pictures of me and in awe of me and what I had done to Joe's bass. It was pretty cool.

This is a great book overall, but you had me at “straight edge”. Why did you make that such a big part of your story?

Music ironically kept me out of drinking and doing drugs at a young age, even though I was surrounded by it. Playing music is so fulfilling that I didn't feel the need to get carried away in all the things teenagers normally do. I think I wanted Alex to be a role model, kind of an alternative to getting messed up on drinking and drugs. I wanted to show her strength. She might not stay straight edge forever, perhaps this is a stage for her like the hair dye, and music choices she is making. I wanted to show that some people do choose to not give into the peer pressure, or maybe they choose to wait until they are ready.

And why do drugs when you can bleed all over Joe Lally's guitar?

Exactly.

I don't know what that scene is like now, but you captured what I remembered: the kids who "indulged" could definitely be more pleasant to hang out with while those who didn't and put that on as part of their identity could be more militant, or at least strident. It can turn into a peer pressure of its own, in a way.

Anything can turn into peer pressure even the straight edge scene of course. I say everything in moderation, but when you are a teenager it's hard to find that middle ground. Sometimes you have to go to the edges to find that middle. I think that takes a long time. Alex is grasping at finding her identity and trying different ones on, and I think this is just one of her stages, her "straight edge" stage. I was hoping people would find it funny how she owns it and makes it like she can kick ass or something because she's straight edge. I also wanted to show how positive mental thinking can change a lot about what happens around you. But it's good to grow and change and try new things and to always challenge yourself as a person. And if straight edge gives you strength for a time against maybe doing something you’re not sure about at that moment, then use it. But change is always good, what might work for you at one age, might not at another age. It might be something else.


I’ve always thought the bass guitarists were the coolest members of the band. Why did you choose that instrument, other than that you’re cool?

I didn't choose the bass funny enough in the beginning, that part of the story is true. My brother's friends' band needed a bass player and I had a huge crush on the lead singer and hence I started playing bass. But I went on to learn guitar and drums. I fell in love with playing bass when I started playing with my band Scarce. Playing music sometimes isn't just about the music itself, but the chemistry between people. Scarce has that chemistry. When I play live I get totally lost in the moment, and it is such an amazing feeling. I think the bass in essence is a sexy instrument and it's tough, so I suppose I like the sense of strength I get from playing such a tough instrument. And women have hips so they feel sensuality and rhythm very naturally, and the bass is all about rhythm.

I love that Alex is a confident, independent young woman, but I also loved that she had a community of strong older women around her. How, when you’re young, do you find that community? And how do you build that when you’re older?

To be honest I didn't have that female community around me when I started playing. I just had a few rock star women like Joan Jett, Exene Cervenka, Debbie Harry, and the Go-Gos, who inspired me. However I did have an amazing mom who was strong and confident and always would say things to me about believing in myself. That can really make a difference in a young girl’s life. I didn't realize it back then, but as a mom I really do now. Recently I have been involved in the Girls Rock Alliance working at the girls rock camps in Boston and Rhode Island and what the camps are doing is what I always wanted as a female musician growing up. But I am a part of that community as an adult, and it feels amazing even as an adult. It feels like a revolution. I can't wait to hear what music and bands evolve out of these growing communities.

Fast forward to the present, and you’re a musician in a successful band. How did you get where you are today?

It's funny how you determine success. It's tough to be a musician, a writer, or an artist. You are constantly struggling but that is what makes good art, music, or writing. You don't do it for the success, you do it because you have to. You do it because it is who you are. When Scarce was touring and got signed to A&M records it was exciting and amazing to be young and be in a rock band. But it came to an end, and I had to deal with the fall out which was really hard and horrible, and I had to start over again. That perhaps is what inspired the title "Misadventures" as well, because sometimes the biggest falls and mistakes and "failures" you have in your life, is when you grow the most as a person. Playing music as an adult I think I enjoy it even more. I look forward to that feeling of being one with the moment. Those moments in life with kids and responsibilities are harder to come by so they are more precious.

What was your most valuable failure?

My most valuable failure compelled me to write my first book Aching To Be. I was a successful musician starting at 21 years old (right out of school) travelling the world signed to a major label record company, being a rock star on the way up; and then one day my best friend and lead singer of Scarce Chick has a brain hemorrhage and nothing is ever the same. Everything fell apart after that including me. It was so much that I had to write it down just to get through it. It was my therapy. I felt like a complete failure. I had start over again, with no manager, no record company, no band, no skills, and I felt so alone. It was really hard. I had a major meltdown. But then I started over again, and worked my way through it ever so slowly, and began to see what I could learn from my "failure". It took a long time. Whenever I am struggling I always ask myself "well, is it as bad as the time Chick had a brain hemorrhage?" Your failures and mistakes can help you measure how far you've grown.

What's your advice to make sure the misadventures- or the mistakes- are learning experiences and not irrevocable tragedies?

I think about this a lot, especially in relation to my two daughters. It's a brave new world with the internet. I think my best advice (I would tell my own girls) is to make sure you do things in real time, don't take risks on the computer. Go out and do things in the real world, and keep some privacy about yourself when you are online and texting. Respect your body. Don't EVER post suggestive pictures of you on the internet, or write something about something personal on the internet or on the phone. Keep those private moments private, or in person between you and the person it pertains to. Love yourself first. Take it slow and don't feel like you have to grow up so fast, go by your own clock not others. Enjoy being goofy and try to do things that help you discover who you are. Find something where you can let yourself take risks like a sport, skateboarding, or start a journal. And if you are really in trouble find someone you can trust to talk to. Don't try and deal with it alone. There are plenty of free clinics where there are amazing people to talk to if you are in trouble. And this is a hard one, never compare yourself to others. Only compare yourself to where you have been and you will learn from your mistakes and you will grow.

My daughters are older than yours, but I'm still dismayed when I see the female artists they listen to and that are getting the most play. Lady Gaga is essentially Madonna 3.0. I loved a lot of what Madonna did and I think I got the joke, but she did it in a very sexualized way. Two and a half decades later: enough already! What's out there now that's putting out a different look and a different message that you'd recommend to young listeners?

The best music is hard to find I think. It's never what's popular. You have to search it out. You have to ask friends what they are listening to. I have always been a fan of supporting local music where you are. Growing up in DC I went to shows all the time and saw a million amazing local bands. Best thing to do is to go out and see shows and take a chance on something you have never heard. Recently someone turned me on to Annie Clark of St.Vincent, she's amazing. And I love my friend Mary Timony's new band WIld Flag, and we just played a show with these two girls who sing like the Carter Family called Tig and Bean. You got to look out for it.

Who are you musical influences?

Exene Cervenka, Mary Timony, Joan Jett, Chryssie Hynde, Joan Wasser, Feist, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, The Clash, Fugazi, The Bevis Frond, to name a few, there a lot. All the volunteers and girls I've seen at the Girls Rock Camps, they are the the true new punk rockers.

What’s more difficult to create: music or stories?

I would say stories for me, even though I have been writing longer than I have been playing music. I have kept a diary since I was eight. But writing is a solitary thing. Music you get help from your bandmates. It can evolve a bit more naturally and organically. But I am just starting to my voyage into writing so perhaps that will change over time. I enjoy them both as something I can get completely lost in. Something that can frustrate me intensely at times. Something that can be a struggle. But in the end all the experiences remind me of being in the world around me and feeling alive.

I checked out your band page and I see that you’ve written more than one book. Can you talk a little about the other books?

Aching to Be: A Girl's True Rock and Roll Story, is my memoir about being in Scarce. So if you want to see the difference between me and Alex you can read that book. The book is about everything that happened to me in that band which was a lot in a short amount of time. What it's like being signed to a major label record company, making videos, going on tour, playing with big rock stars, and meeting rock stars.

The Fall and Rise of Circus Boy Blue, is a graphic novel woven around the lyrics to a new group of songs Scarce recorded that can be downloaded for free [follow this link for the download]. The songs are the soundtrack to the book. The book is the visual and words to the songs.

Do you have any plans to write anything else?

I am writing the sequel to this book right now. The book will follow Alex's 15th year. I would like to follow Alex up until she is an adult, a series of misadventures, maybe one for every year until she is 18. And there's a lot to write about. Being in a band a lot of crazy, stupid, funny, sad, and amazing things happen along the way. Being a girl a lot of things happen too. Combine them together and you've got quite a lot of adventures and misadventures.

Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I look forward to reading- and listening- to the rest of what you come out with.

Thanks Deb. It was a pleasure. Thanks for your support.