Rachel Garlin’s State of the (Dis)Union
By Mya Byrne, Staff Writer
In the SF Bay queer music scene, we’re a tight-knit bunch. I’m proud to call Rachel Garlin a friend, and even prouder to have the opportunity to introduce y’all to her fantastic new video, for her song “The State That We Are In,” in honor of Women’s History Month, exclusively premiering here at CQ. (At bottom.)
“The State That We Are In” is from her upcoming album, Late to Bloom, written and recorded during the pandemic. As the title suggests, this song focuses on the current state of our society–and offers Rachel’s poignant musings on the incredible societal shifts that are happening right now. The song skillfully tackles tough topics like ending gerrymandering (“We’re ditching zig-zag-zip code lines”), doomscrolling (“Freaking out and going numb from the spin machine”), voting rights (“There’s pressure on the middle/and suppression in the wind”, a clever bit of wordplay), and the changing climate (“I know the wildfires got very little sleep”) with ease, in a beautifully balanced soundscape of dreamy yet bouncy guitar and flute.
The gorgeous video is a wonderful tribute to San Francisco, too, shot on a rainy day right after the Biden inauguaration. With swooping flocks of birds juxtaposed with highway overpasses, urban forests, and amazing cityscape drone footage, it’s a riff on the dichotomy between city life and nature, which, according to Rachel and filmmaker Dan Foldes, intentionally represents the duality so many of us hold right now – of wanting so much to look to the future when it seems like the only thing solid is desperation.
“The State That We Are In” speaks to all people, but it takes on special meaning coming from this talented out queer woman. It’s hard not to feel a sense of hope and longing when you hear her sing, “There’s a drought, but there’s a river / With a mouth where we can swim / We’re not stuck with the state that we’re in.”
But that’s Rachel. Her exuberance and inspiring presence continually makes me smile; for instance, in the beginning of the pandemic, she started doing concerts out of her garage for her neighbors. It wound up attracting the attention of the press here, but she didn’t do it to make a huge splash. That’s just the kind of person she is. She exudes love, silliness, fine musicianship, and stellar songwriting. She exemplifies what it means to be present in a community.
On March 19, Rachel will be presented in concert by Olivia Cruises, which started in the 1970s as Olivia Records, a label promoting the music of queer women and run by queer women (including the legendary Sandy Stone as their original house audio engineer.) Olivia has since returned to their roots, presenting music online that features some of our favorite CQ artists.
We caught up this weekend for a quick chat about this song and her upcoming concert.
This song has a wonderful message of empowerment. How did your lived experience inform this “The State We Are In”, and what would you like to say to the CQ fam specifically about it?
Hi, CQ readers! I’m feeling extra grateful for your support and listenership during this time. “The State That We Are In” came from a place of feeling solidarity with everyone who’s been pushing for change: activists, artists, teachers, voters, and everyday folks who have been trying to stay balanced during the difficulty of the pandemic.
Like all concerned citizens, the queer folk in my midst have showed up expecting to have a seat at the table and to speak up and to be heard. The song is a reminder that we’re not stuck in the state that we’re in. It’s temporary, and we can actively affect the next “state” that we create. Music can be part of that.
There’s a verse that came from being a community activist: “We’re not tired, we’re not despairing, not resigned / We’re not counting on the roof to fix the leak / And we are gonna speak” – a specific shout-out to Kamala Harris’s “I’m speaking” moment during the debate.
What do you want to accomplish with this song, and what’s it been like for you to create music during the pandemic?
As with any of my songs, the hope with this one is to create something that comes through me authentically, and deliver it with conviction and feeling. If I create a piece of art that resonates with me, then maybe it will with others. I hope that my songs stir something inside of others. That would be the accomplishment.
My main goal during this time has been to “keep the channel open,” as the dancer Martha Graham once said, and to write-record-release rather than stall-perfect-withhold. It’s been freeing and also scary. I’ve learned more about how I get in my own way during the creative process, or intimidate myself out of sharing what I’ve done or what I’m working on. By sharing more regularly with my friends and fans, I’m less likely to get stuck, and in a way that’s where the song came from.
Olivia has played such an important role in the promotion of queer women’s music throughout its history–what does it mean for you to be playing for them?
I don’t even have words to express my appreciation and admiration for an organization like Olivia. When I think about the history of women’s music, or just the history of music, and realize how difficult it was for queer women to be out, I literally bow down to the places like Olivia and people like Cris Williamson who took those risks and had courage of their conviction, to appreciate art for what it is, long before it was commonplace to be out and proud.