9/26/2022 1 Comment
Making friends: Catherine Backus. Femslash, sad songs and skateboarding in the end times
A note on this project: The idea was simple. I wanted to reach out and talk to friends more, in whatever way they're most comfortable: via email or voice calls. And maybe make new friends. I wanted to ask questions about things people are passionate about, focusing more on side interests. I wanted to call it Making Friends because its corny and earnest and makes me think of being kids trying to make friends. -Kim Göransson
Catherine Backus is one of my favorite humans. She's a musician, singer and writer of songs as Catherine the Great and member bluegrass folk trio After Jack as well as the skipperdees. From her bio on the Catherine the Great site:
While the project primarily exists as a repository for her feelings, her sad songs have drawn numerous accolades, including 1st place at the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, 4th place at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Songwriter Showcase, and finalist in the Bernard/Ebb Songwriting Awards. Over the course of her career, she’s shared stages with folks like Molly Tuttle, Kim Richey, Willie Watson, and Ben Sollee. She would love to see a picture of your dog.
KG: Hey Catherine! I want to ask you about a couple of things but when I first proposed we do an interview you mentioned talking about FEMSLASH, so let's start there? In the past we've chatted about the tv shows Fleabag, Killing Eve, Dead to Me and Hacks (objectively amazing shows) but what is your current TV obsession? Why? And is it translating into fan fic?
CB: Kim!!! I am a noted expert in lesbian subtext in popular media, this is true <3
Let the record show I think I only watched the first season of Killing Eve, and that it lost me after PWB left, so I can't speak to the overall quality (and I am in general too squeamish for shows with a lot of violence lol).
I think my current obsession is probably the new A League of Their Own TV Show- I watched it twice in the span of a week lol. Interestingly enough, though, the canonical queerness is so satisfying that I have zero desire to seek out or engage in transformative works!
I think it's rad that I could name a dozen shows I genuinely enjoyed that had solid queer/trans rep, but a part of me is nostalgic for the era of Reading Too Much Into Every Interaction Between Two Women™️ of the the early aughts.
For me, TV I consider myself a fan of has two categories:
1) this is great and I enjoyed it a lot and am perfectly happy to simply appreciate canon (Rutherford Falls, Somebody Somewhere, and The Other Two fall into this category for me).
2) I need to make my character barbies kiss or i will never know peace- there's less of a rhyme or reason to this; sometimes the show is simply Not Good but something about the characters compel me. Sometimes there's a video game where two minor characters share a moment of interaction and i need to read 100,000 words where they find their happily ever after.
Is that anything? IDK!
KG: Yes that is something! And I thought you made it further in Killing Eve, but yeah, my interest has been slowly going down with each season and I haven't watched the last one, I just want them to be happy!
I watched the original A League of Their Own movie last week because I thought I should watch the movie before the show but we haven't started the show yet. I'm excited to try it. The movie felt familiar from childhood. Do you know it well? We also rewatched Point Break not that long ago and now I feel like I should watch Tank Girl and Free Willy to complete the Lori Petty 90s collection.
Somebody Somewhere is also on my list to try but I'm picky with the comedies.
I love that AloTO's canonical queerness is so satisfying that you don't have any desire to seek out transformative works. Is there anything falling into that second TV fan fic category now? Also do you only read fan fic or write as well? And what are your Fan Fiction Origins from the early aughts?
CB: The original Penny Marshall ALOTO is VERY important to my wife, so we were skeptical about the show, but it wasn't trying to "redo" the original, but expand on the actual queer histories of the era! and the stories of Black and Latinx ball players of the era! great show, a+++, hope it gets a second season.
Joel from Somebody Somewhere is me, I am him, if you don't absolutely love it i'll be personally offended <3
I'm honestly in a bit of a fic drought at the moment! been dealing with lots of big life stuff that has sapped my focus beyond scrolling twitter endlessly or playing two dots on my phone a;sldjf;laksjd. but there are certain fandoms like dragon age (video games; extra nerdy) where there's a million characters and a million pairings that are fun to play around with, that if i'm bored i'll just click on a tag and go wild.
I started reading fic as a closeted teen and am now deeply ashamed that Law and Order: SVU was my queer awakening (i don't watch cop shows anymore! but the propaganda was strong in 2006!!!) and i am an alex/olivia truther.
I didn't start writing fic until my mid twenties, when finally a pairing happened where i was like "damn if you want something done you gotta do it yourself, huh?" but i shan't reveal my otps here <3
I've also written a few songs inspired by fiction- "Tomatoes" (arguably my biggest success) was inspired by a character who had a tomato allergy. my mom wrote me asking if my wife and i had broken up after i posted the demo and i had to explain that i was just really into a mediocre canadian cop drama at the time :/
A question I would like to ask media at large is: WHY CAN'T WE HAVE QUEER WOMEN REPRESENTATION THAT ISN'T COPAGANDA???
Like, there's some (shoutout to A League of Their Own (TV 2022) for being explicitly ANTI-cop, as they should), but a LOT of either canon or subtextual femslash pairings exist in police dramas. Which, maybe the problem is simply the huge presence of copaganda in television overall? But yeah, that sucks, i hate it.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE????
KG: These are all valid important questions. I don’t know. Why does the answer always seem to be: more cops? The copaganda is unending but I think it’s ok to exist with the stories we grow up with and are given (and critique them, and queer transform transgress them?) and a lot of people relate to SVU, I think for valid reasons.
I’m listening to the Tomatoes song now and your first solo album Personhood and I love that you wrote this about a mediocre Canadian cop drama and that it was read by your mom as a break up song. I like to imagine a lot of songs we’ve projected onto actually come out of things like this. But maybe also they’re entry points that you can fill with other things, and listeners can fill with theirs? I find starting writing songs incredibly hard, like, often its about making a fairly simple, familiar phrase feel new or urgent again? Which is almost like a fan fic in a way. I wonder if there are connections between those two writing worlds for you? Also, now that you’re part of the bluegrass folk trio After Jack, are you still writing songs for Catherine the Great?
I’m sorry you’ve been going through a lot of big life stuff lately. You recently got a MS diagnosis, do you want to talk about that at all? How has it changed how you do your life?
Important update: We watched the first episode of ALOTO last night and I like it so far!
CB: I think about songwriting like gardening (i am a terrible gardener); i plant a seed (usually a hook, or phrase that i meditate on like a jesus prayer) and it germinates into the full thing. it's rarely a quick process, although it's a quiet growth; by the time i sit down and play and sing until it's done, it's usually fairly quick. i read an interview with Fiona Apple once where she talked about how she never writes down her songs bc if they're good she'll remember them, and i stole that hahah.
writing a story feels like a more steady, active job; like going on a hike or something. you have to keep putting words on the page and there's generally a starting and ending point; songs feel more cyclical and simple, like you're trying to distill everything down, whereas writing fiction feels a lot like building from the ground up. they're sort of opposites in a way, which is why i think practicing writing in fandom spaces has been helpful to my songwriting, because i'm often coming at the same subjects (every song is a love song after all) with very different techniques.
wow that was pretentious as hell lmaoooooo
Re: Writing songs, I don't generally assign a song before it's written, but often my gut will say "this is solo" or "this will work for the full band." I'll play songs I do with AJ in solo sets, but not vice versa haha. if it's pretty dark/personal/weird it's a solo song, and if it's a bit more accessible it fits better with after jack. we had plans to make a new AJ record in early 2020 and i had a bunch of songs i'd never recorded ready to go with that but that got derailed and i'm not sure when/if it's happening. we'll see!
Re: Multiple Sclerosis- i'm good to talk about it! i'm p early in both the progression and treatment of my disease, so i don't know what the long-term trajectory for me might look like, but i'm fortunate to have taken some disability studies courses in undergrad that i think helped to dismantle a lot of my internalized ableism prior to getting sick. so, yeah, it sucks, but being disabled doesn't mean my life is any less valuable or full now. At the moment, I can still play and sing competently, and other than needing a few accommodations (sitting while playing, not doing outdoor gigs in the heat of summer) I think I'll continue to gig, albeit not very ambitiously, until I feel like my symptoms and relapses are under control.
the best summary of my 2022 is probably my neurologist telling me "make sure you don't schedule your spinal tap too close to your wedding!" real ups and downs over here!
i think i might write some songs about the process eventually, but it usually takes me several years to work through things to get to the point of being creative about them (I think I wrote "Pensacola" 5 years after my grandmother's death, for point of reference). It's kind of funny though, that I spent many years of my adolescence working through depression and occasional suicidal ideation to get to a point where my brain and I were getting along pretty well, then my nervous system decided to attack itself! This is thirty!!!
Developing a chronic illness or disability is a great way to become even more radicalized about the need for single payer healthcare and the abolition of the insurance industry, though, i can tell you that much!
KG: That’s a lot! Dealing with healthcare in this country feels like such a nightmare but I’m glad you finally got answers so you can get treatment. Thank you for sharing all of this and being so open. This is exactly the sort of interviews I want to do. And I agree with that stolen Fiona Apple idea. If I’m writing a song I will obsess and sing the line over and over trying to find the next line until it sticks and I don’t write it down usually at first. I like the thought of this obsessive repetition being almost like a religious ritual, and similarly, for me, singing can feel close to something spiritual too. An out-of-body or in-the-moment feeling. No thoughts!
Early on in the pandemic you started skateboarding again, if I remember correctly, or just more than before? And that lead to Feels on Wheels VA which is described on IG as “Creating inclusive skateboarding and quad skating community in the Roanoke valley for queer, trans, women, and other non-traditional skaters.” Which is so amazing. How is that project going? And tell me a little bit about your own skateboard journey? I regret not getting into that when I was young (I know, its never too late! But it feels kinda late. And risky without health insurance!) Anyway, I love watching your skate clips. It also feels like an ideal activity and passion in these prolonged pandemic super late stage capitalism times?
CB: Re: out of body experiences— every time i've had a high stakes performance I've dissociated during it? Just floating in the clouds singing my lil songs i guess.
Re: Skating- not starting again, just more than before because i was stuck at home and under employed! I skated as a kid (ages 9-13 i think?), but it was kind of isolated bc i was literally the only girl at the park, and my mom brought me and made me wear full pads; not super conducive to making sk8rat friends.
I actually picked skateboarding back up when i was around 23-24 (i'm 30 now, oof), when I moved to Bedford and learned there was a huge concrete park right down the road. I always wanted to learn to skate bowls as a kid but we didn't have any around, so I bought a board again and learned to drop in and carve in my mid twenties lol.
The pandemic is why I started Feels on Wheels, though, because there's an amazing org called Skate Like a Girl that started in Seattle, and during the pandemic they offered an online program. Since I don't live anywhere near the west coast, I was excited about connecting with people that way, and we had these weekly q&a's . One week the guests were two queer and trans skaters who have done a lot of community building through skating, and I asked them if they had advice about organizing in a rural area, since our scene out here looks pretty different from Seattle or Portland. They told me "a community starts with two people," so I basically just made an insta account and asked people to tell their friends. I think our first meetup was April 2021? Tbh I haven't put in as much work with it as I could, but I did achieve my initial goal of making friends to skate with hahaha.
I love skateboarding bc I'm very bad at it. I have to work so hard for every trick, and I'm very risk averse, so I learn slow and have a hard time pushing myself. Now that my nervous system is being goofy, I think pushing myself will look different, but I still have ways to challenge myself and enjoy my time rolling around. It's been really fun coming back to skating as an adult bc w/social media there's so much more visibility for women and queer and trans skaters. Like, as a kid it was like, Elissa Steamer on THPS, and now I could tell you my fave 20 professional women skaters, and probably have left out a bunch of rad folks. I was never really bullied or anything as a kid skating, but there also weren't a lot of models for girls who wanted to skate, which I think kept me from progressing as much, because I didn't have that model.
Anyways, I recommend everybody have a hobby they're bad at! no pressure to monetize it or turn it into a hustle, and it builds character.
KG: I love this so much. If there’s a photo of 10 year old Catherine in full skateboard pads I need to see it. “A community starts with two people” and “I did achieve my initial goal of making friends to skate with” resonates with what I’m trying to do with these interviews too. Without the skateboard part. I’m taking up the hobby of interviewing people badly.
Rounding out this interview for now but I will keep you updated as we continue to watch ALOTO. A couple of final questions: what’s one of your favorite women skateboarders at the moment, who should I check out? Also: do you have anything coming up that you’re excited about as a musician or personally?
Thank you so much for participating and answering so openly and for your friendship. Appreciate you!
CB: This interview feels good to me! You're doing great!!!
My personal favorite skater rn is Nicole Hause, who just went pro for Real this past weekend. She's a really talented transition skater and it's a joy to watch her rip. And as far as street skaters go, Alexis Sablone has to be the GOAT. Their switch flips bring a tear to my eye.
Uhhhhhhh excitement, huh. I've got a couple small gigs I'm looking forward to, but I'm trying not to overcommit and stress myself into another MS flareup, lol. But my wife and I are going on our honeymoon to the UK this winter! I'm excited about that. I've actually got a lot of friends over there I met through fandom (lkasjdflkajsd) and I'm looking forward to seeing them all and eating delicious vegan food with A.
Thank you for your questions and generosity! You rule!!!
Check out Catherine the Great's latest album Jigsaw Puzzles & Pink wine below or wherever you listen to music!
10/12/2022 11:17:56 am
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