Throwback: Meredith Graves
Interview by Sam Paul
Photos by Meg Wachter
Meredith Graves went from seamstress to touring musician in the span of a few weeks, but hers isn’t necessarily a Cinderella story. From the start of her career, Graves has been pointedly, sometimes scathingly, vocal about her opinions in both her writing and her music. In kind, she has sometimes been met with hostility and violence. She is in so many ways a creative force, but at times sees herself and is seen as a destructive one.
But Graves manages to be a great many things all at once. She’s the front woman of hardcore punk band Perfect Pussy, a solo artist, and the founder and manager of her record label, Honor Press. She’s a writer and cultural critic, who has addressed things like the need for Planned Parenthood and misogyny in punk in a variety of publications. She’s had a baking column, and has written food horoscopes. Most recently, she has taken on the job of MTV News anchor, a role in which she delivers pop culture reports and comments about police brutality in the same breath.
We met in her sunny Brooklyn apartment set atop a funeral home to talk about the uselessness of goals, what it means to be a woman who doesn’t care to be liked, and the ultimate squad goals.
Punk seems to have been a huge part of your life for a long time. What was your entry point into that world?
My dad. My dad is an avid music fan and introduced me to punk. There was not a formal introduction—it just was the music he listened to when I was a kid. He also listened to a lot of jazz. The first few bands I remember hearing other than, you know, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were like The Clash, Husker Du, some hardcore, always fringe performative acts.
When did you start performing in bands?
About age 14 or 15. I played drums in a band when I was in high school for a while. I’ve played guitar since I was like 11, but in bands in late high school and early college.
I know you were in quite a few bands before you were in Perfect Pussy. What was it like when you started to realize that the band was catching on, and it was something that was being recognized, and people liked?
I didn’t really have the time to start to recognize it; it very literally happened over night. I woke up one day and there were e-mails from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone trying to get in touch with me. I didn’t have a choice. It just went from nothing to my career. There was about a month gap in-between the first Pitchfork contact and when I was quitting my job to go on tour forever. And then we stayed on the road for like two and a half years.
You know how they boil lobsters? You can’t put a lobster into a pot of boiling water. You have to put the lobster in and heat the water up slowly. I was a lobster thrown into a pot of boiling water. I didn’t really have a choice. There was no adjustment period. It just happened to me.
What was your life like before that? What were you doing for work? What was your day-to-day?
I was a seamstress at a gown store that primarily catered to teenagers looking for prom dresses, but also did some bridal—mother of the bride, bridesmaids, stuff like that. I would work in the store during the day and help women pick out gowns for special events. Then, at night, I would take the gowns home and hem them, and alter the strap length, and take the bust in. Sewing, sewing, sewing. I was also a very avid gardener. I had a very large garden. And prior to that, I was helping to coordinate a DIY space out of an abandoned office below my apartment building. So, I was booking shows, helping to run a venue, gardening, doing band stuff here and there, and then sewing all the time.
I know you had the Village Voice baking column and you’ve talked a lot about baking, and you were sewing and gardening, and doing kind of a lot of these very stereotypical female things, when in a certain way that seems very different from the kinds of things you’re doing now.
I don’t really see it that way. I really don’t. I find it kind of offensive. Not you, but it’s really damaging to me when people talk about cooking and gardening and sewing that way. We codify them culturally as women’s activities, but most of the rich fashion designers in the world are men. Farming is traditionally a male task and women are kept inside. And cooking—the highest paid chefs in the world are men. It’s something like 90% of James Beard Award recipients are men. Men are the lauded figures, and women’s efforts in those areas are diminished because when it’s done on a communal level it’s considered women’s work, and when it’s done in the public eye it’s considered men’s domain. So I don’t actually feel that way at all. I don’t think it’s incongruous with my gender identity or my career.
I’m sorry. I think I misspoke. I was just trying to think about the connections of them being stereotypically female activities and how we view those things. I know you've talked about the trope of the girl with the bake sale at the punk show and how that played into part of your identity when you were younger, and I found that interesting. It resonated with me.
No, don’t be sorry. That, in my mind, is a shock because in my mind baking is very much men’s domain. Most of the bakers I’ve worked under were men, including the baker who I watched make bread, which got me into baking bread. A lot of the head bakers I know are men. My biggest role model in baking is a woman, but the people I learned baking from were men, and the people I read to learn about gardening and urban farming were men, and hardcore is predominately male dominated, too. So, for me, I always saw those things as men’s work, and I thought of myself as kind of vanguard for being this woman who was in this men’s domain, which is the reason I’m like, you know, specific to say that I don’t see these things as women’s work, because I learned everything in all of those disciplines from men.
Save for sewing. The two sewing teachers that really guided me to a place where I could be self-sufficient and have my own business were women. I’ve never sewn with men. In tailoring and alterations, there’s a gender mix, but fashion design is primarily for men, I think, at this point. It’s culturally really odd, I think, for baking to be gendered, or for food production to be gendered.
It is. Were those kinds of zines and the things that you were reading at that point also the way that you found activism and feminism?
No, I was raised in a very political household. My father’s a journalist, and my mother and her sisters and her mother were very strong female role models. I never had like a “come to Jesus” moment, you know? I learned. I continue to learn more about feminism all the time, but I never needed to be taught because I lived with parents who were fantastic examples and still are.
You said you were living in an abnormally sexist town. Being one of few female performers, what was your experience like in that way?
I’ve talked about it until I’m blue in the face and gotten death threats as a result of it. It was a different life. I have been lucky enough to have the experiences that I’ve had since then. When I was the most riled up about the way that I was treated by a cabal of men in my hometown, I tried to strike back with some sort of vengeance, and I was met with incredible violence and incredible resistance, and that was really all it took for me to be able to let go of it—seeing them fumbling around like meerkats, not knowing how to react to being called out on being really horrible. Once I saw how desperate they were and how inferior they felt when someone came at them for their gender, I lost interest in speaking about it. It became then less of an experience that was unique to me and more academic. I could see it at a greater distance when I saw that it was similar to experiences other women have gone through historically. I realized my suffering was not unique to me. It was part of a larger picture and that helped me distance myself from any personal pain.
You’ve spoken out about a lot of these things. You’ve talked about the violence in the scene, safety issues, and how women establish their authenticity. What drove you into writing and speaking out as an activist in that way?
Again, it’s just something I’ve always done. Writing and music are the only things I’ve ever done. They’re the only two things I’ve ever been even a little bit good at. My father’s a writer, and my mother’s a singer, and I wrote my whole life. I finished my first manuscript when I was in college. I actually went to school for writing. There’s never been a point in my life where I wasn’t very, very outspoken about my feelings and my beliefs and my politics. I’ve grown into them. They’ve become exponentially more intersectional, but even when I was 8 or 10 years old, I knew I was queer. I knew abortion should be legal. I knew that women deserve the same rights as men. There’s never been a time where that wasn’t a huge part of who I am and how I live.
Now you’re working at MTV and doing this television thing. How does that play into all of the other things you’re doing and your other goals?
Well, if there’s one thing that this whole experience, and I guess my life in general, have taught me is that I have never really had a predictable time of things. Things just sort of happen to me. It’s just another exciting opportunity. I guess it’s part of the continued obliteration of anything I have that could resemble goals. If you have goals, they get shot to shit when MTV calls you and says, “Do you want to be on television?” And you go, “Okay, yeah, I do.”
Just like I said yes when Rolling Stone called me for an interview. Just like I said yes when Talk House offered to publish my first essay, which led to all of the writing jobs I had in the year directly following. You don’t need goals. You don’t need to set goals if you live the way I do, which is very open-ended and forgiving, I think. I’ve never really had goals. I’ve never really been too passionate about much of anything, and I’ve always kind of had the sneaking suspicion that if I just continued to be kind and work really, really hard, that things would just happen, and I could continue moving. So, yeah, I guess all the last three years have done is prove me right to me, if that makes sense.
Goals are for people that can stay on task, and I can’t. I have to be doing a thousand things all of the time. MTV fits really nicely into that because I am writing for web; I’m online streaming; I’m on television; I’ll be producing radio. I will possibly have my own show at some point. I’m doing live stuff and charity work. It really is seven things a day, and writing my own scripts, and working with production teams, and going to development meetings. It is really good for my brain. It’s really good to be in a position where I can bounce from task to task. It feels really healthy, and very consistent with the way that I get things done. I like it a lot, honestly. It’s really fun.
Well, that strikes my goals question.
No, that’s great.
I just don’t see the world that way. You can’t have expectations of anything because you’re gonna get shit on, and everything you love will be destroyed. I learned that really young. Don’t trust anyone, and don’t expect anything. Life will be much, much kinder to you if you just follow what you think is right. Having goals is a surefire way to get hurt, or to continue having diminished self-esteem in a world that already wants you to hate yourself. Don’t require anything from yourself other than an open heart and, like, unceasing faith in yourself. Don’t expect anything. It’s not safe for humans and other tender creatures to want things from life, other than rudimentary things like love and shelter and continued existence. I’m strongly against the idea of goals I guess. I just go with shit, but I also don’t believe in luck, which helps.
Something that I read that you said in an interview that I thought was very interesting is that people saw you as a “destructive force.” Do you still feel that, in a daily way, or –
Absolutely. I’m not well-liked at all. People don’t like me. It’s really hard. It’s really hard to constantly be reminded that you’re widely disliked. It really sucks. It sucks to be attacked all the time. It sucks to not be able to use social media without someone calling you horrible names. It sucks when people who you used to love very dearly turn against you for the sake of a story. It sucks to be abandoned. This is going to seem really, really like I’m not self-aware, but I’ve never really been able to put a finger on what it is, which makes me think that it’s just me, that something about me just forces people away.
I have a tendency to sort of be a destroyer of worlds. I don’t know. Ever since I was a kid. I was born with colic. I grew up screaming and being loud and being invasive and monopolizing people’s time, and monopolizing conversations—unintentionally. I was a child. I didn’t know. And it carried over into some unhealthy neuropathways into my adulthood, and has led to this omnipresent view of me societally as a very destructive force. Like someone who comes in and upsets people, and says things that people don’t agree with and someone who picks fights, and calls people out, and is just sort of an agent of chaos, rather than someone whose presence benefits a relationship, or benefits a space.
That’s why I spend most of my time alone. But it’s okay to be like that. It’s okay to be a person like me, and there are more people like me, and there’s a ton of pressure on people—especially women—to be sweet, polite and well liked. And I have tried to force myself into that pattern consistently since I was a child and it’s never worked. It’s like forcing your feet into shoes that are a size too small. It doesn’t fit and it isn’t me. So, that’s all I can really do at this point. Also, obviously, I’ve experienced some form of success just being who I am, which makes me think were I able to surmount my narcissistic, violent, controlling, paranoid tendencies that I wouldn’t be working for MTV or I wouldn’t have played a show to thousands of people in New Zealand. You know? It’s a lot. I don’t mean to mythologize myself under any circumstances, but it reminds me it’s kind of like a burden of the ages. It’s kind of like Melisandre from Game of Thrones, like she’s carried hundreds of years of death and guilt and destruction. It’s like I was incarnated into something that no one could ever really love, but could accomplish a lot, and it has been useful for me to identify that because it helps me to cut a clear path through the woods. I know who I am, and I know what people think of me. I know how people react when I try to talk to them at parties. I know how people feel about my writing. People’s opinions of me are absolutely transparent. People aren’t afraid to make it known that they don’t like me, and it has taken years off my life. But it also helped me to live in a way that is more authentic than most people I know.
That’s a lot.
It is, but there’s also no point in lying about it. People don’t want to hear that. People just don’t want to acknowledge that you can achieve some sort of success and still be well liked. And especially for a woman to be successful at all, it’s almost guaranteed that people aren’t going to like her. We’re not supposed to want for that. And, like I said, this wasn’t ever my goal. I didn’t want to be on television. I didn’t want to be in a band. I did what felt right and this happened.
By the same token, though, there will always be people who will come out and rail out against what you’re saying, particularly when you’re opinionated and the things you say are biting, when they’re criticizing things people like, but because you’re in the public eye, and a woman, you also end being a role model for people. And while you have people speaking out against you, you’re also inspiring someone. There are also people who you’re affecting on a positive level. I’m sure they reach out, but there are also people who don’t.
Yeah, there are people who get my lyrics tattooed on their bodies. It’s an immense burden, and it’s really amazing. But I do know how hard it is to be young. I’m not young anymore. I’m almost 30. I’m just kind of like “OK, whatever.” I like where I am in life. I like being the age that I am. I’m pleased to not be a teenager anymore, but I talk to teenagers constantly because of the band, because of my writing. I just—I can’t get too invested. I want to. I want to develop personal relationships with the people that reach out to me because of my work, but I can’t because I can’t tell anyone how to live. I wrote an advice column for a little while, and then I had to stop. Because I was so depressed and I said, “Why am I telling other people what they should do? I don’t have control of my own life. How can I tell other people how to live theirs?” But knowing that impressionable young people find comfort in my work is terrific. The majority of those kids will grow up to be well-adjusted lovely adults. I’m sure of it. And, somewhere in there, there might be a couple of kids who are like me and hopefully they see that they are not alone.
I think that that’s more important than a troll at the end of the day.
Oh yeah, of course. It’s also not just trolls. I haven’t read a comment on an article written by me or about me in three and a half years. I made it two months into my career as a musician and then I realized that whether people were talking about how they hope I get raped or not, I was still going to have to play the show, do the tour, make the appearance. It was trial by fire, and I quit reading the comments and never looked back. It’s not the trolls that I’m worried about, it’s the people that I admire who don’t care about me or have not made an effort. You can’t be everyone’s friend, but it does hurt to know that you’re never going to be. It’s not the trolls. It could never be some basement masturbator throwing my career off. It’s the people who craft your image in the public eye, which is why I try to be so careful when I write about other people. I’ve been forged in words that other people have written about me, which has led to me being sort of an anomaly and a scape goat and being viewed as this really not fun person that people don’t want to be around. Be careful when other people try to tell you who you are; it can get weird. But it’s not guys on the internet. It’s not ever gonna be that.
I guess to kind of step away from the heavier things that we’ve talked about, I always make a point to ask, because we’re a publication about women talking to the women they respect and admire, who are some of the women that you respect and admire?
Historically or currently? Friendships?
People that are doing things that are motivating, or people who you looked up to in the past, or now. That can be intimate people in your life.
Sure. One of my best friends is the author and editor, Amy Rose Spiegel. She is one of my biggest, most consistent inspirations in life. Her first book comes out in two weeks, it’s called Action. It’s a book of essays about human sexuality. She’s the person who hired me at Rookie. We went on to very, very quickly become best friends. Our second dates with our respective boyfriends were a double date. She and I had never met in person. Well, we had met once at karaoke, but years previous. And she was wearing a Tinkerbelle costume, and I had just come from a show and was wearing a big, white fur coat and was sober, singing Bjork standing on a table. We didn’t see each other for a year, and now she is one of my best friends. I have three best friends that are women. My three closest friends are Amy Rose Spiegel, and a woman named Jesse Amesmith, who is the singer of a band called Green Dreams, whose record I’m putting out on my label in the months to come. She is a brilliant guitarist, and also a yoga teacher. We’ve been friends for years. She’s from Rochester, NY, and so I would see her at shows in Syracuse and we finally became friends. My other best friend in the world is a woman named Shauna Roloff, who is a nurse. She’s an RN and also does palliative care. She helps people die, and she wants to eventually become a rape crisis nurse. She is one of these people who would bake with me at these bake sales at the venue. She was my next door neighbor in the building where we all ran the venue, and she was always incredibly active, but not in bands. And now she’s playing bass in her first band, which is a band called the Nudes.
Those are the three women I’m closest to. But I’m so, so fucking lucky. I have so many amazing women in my life, whether it’s writers that I work with now at MTV, like Jessica Hopper, Doreen St. Félix, to the designers whose clothes I wear, Samantha Pleet, Nina Egli’s Family Affairs, to the women whose work I admire as artists. Jenny Holzer, Tracy Emin, Barbara Kruger, are three huge big artists for me. Writers like bell hooks and Luce Irigaray, visual artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, contemporary Fashion Designers Claire Barrow, Simone Rocha, my friend Emily Costello, who is an avant-garde hairstylist in Philadelphia and travels the world teaching people how to do movement-based, scissor only, radical fucking haircuts.
Every woman that’s ever lived, basically. There are a lot of really cool women in the world. My mom is dope. My mom’s really fucking cool. When I was born, she was a musical theater actress and then had random jobs when I was a kid, and then became a substitute teacher, and in a span of about ten years she went from being a substitute ESL teacher to the principal of my high school. She got her teaching license and became like a grunt-work 9th grade English teacher, then became an AP teacher, then the head of the English Department, then the Vice Principal, then the Principal in ten years. Now, she’s the principal of my old high school. Crazy. My mom is a great role model, especially for women who don’t care to be well liked. My mom has always taught me to put business first, and to always make sure that whatever you do results in you being taken seriously.
A lot of women. Pema Chodron, the Western Canadian Monk, who runs an abbey and is an author of a lot of books on spirituality. She is amazing. I could go on. The whole interview could just be a list of women I like. Durga Polashi, the writer. A lot of women. Sarah Sophie Flicker is a huge influence on my life. I’m proud that I’m now her friend after admiring her work as an editor at large, and an aerialist, and a feminist activist for years before I met her. Melissa Auf der Maur, Marina Abramovic. You know, squad goals.