At this point, Bulletproof Stockings, the all-female Hasidic alternative rock band from Crown Heights who perform only for women, is no stranger to the media. Since lead vocalist and keys player Perl Wolfe, and drummer and vocalist Dalia Shusterman launched the enigmatic (now foursome) group in 2011, they’ve appeared on nightly news programs, the Oxygen Network, and most publications you’d quickly dash off (New York Times, the New Yorker, the New York Post, Huffington Post, VICE), including this very one. For anyone outside the Hasidic community, there are perpetually two things about Bulletproof Stockings that draw attention and need explaining: How four Hasidic women have found a home in the alternative rock music scene, and, isn’t it kind of a bummer that men can’t see it live? The quick and dirty answers are: There is nothing about the music that defies Jewish law; and, no. Regarding the latter, the band explains that not performing for men isn’t inherently exclusionary or limiting, on the contrary, it allows them to let loose and be free.
Those are the basics, which they’ve explained at length elsewhere. But here’s the new juice. The band has just finished recording their debut LP, Homeland-Call-Stomp, at The Creamery Studio in Greenpoint, which they will release later this month; Then, this Sunday, December 6, the group’s US tour kicks off with a release show at Webster Hall; and above and beyond that, these pertinent facts: Bulletproof Stockings are four warm and wise-cracking women who spend a lot of time conjuring and laughing at absurd and make-believe scenarios, referencing Parks and Recreation (a favorite of Perl’s) to explain “male repression,” and, from time to time, taking free steak dinners from hopeful managers and labels who want to represent them, and then walking confidently away from the pitch if, interpersonally, the group doesn’t feel the fit is right. “There’s business but we’re also humans and you kinda gotta have a balance of both,” explains drummer and vocalist Dalia, succinctly, about their decision to, up to this very moment, remain independent.
Finally, of note, Bulletproof Stockings will invite you into the Crown Heights apartment where Dalia lives, and where the group sometimes practices, and to Dalia’s dining room table while they eat salad and patiently walk you through all the fundamental questions you still have about how they so gracefully straddle the observant and secular worlds, why they eschewed Jewcer, “The Chosen Crowdfunding Platform” (a real thing!), and, finally, deliver a private performance of Off Track that you will listen to with goosebumps on Dalia’s couch, before she bolts out the door to meet her kids off the school bus.
The completion of Homeland-Call-Stomp at the Creamery represents the end of a very long journey for the band. For almost two years, the four members (including cellist Elisheva Maister, who sat with us at lunch, and violinist Dana Pestun, who was not there) have been playing the songs that appear on the album. The recording that began at Strange Weather in Williamsburg last spring and came to a close in Greenpoint, they say, could not have gone better. “It was the smoothest experience we’ve had,” says Dalia of their time, especially at The Creamery. “The room and light were conducive to good sound—the drums and strings—every detail was smooth as butter. It was really just like ‘The Creamery’ in action, I’m telling you.”
They will also tell you that the whole endeavor was made possible by a terribly ambitious and daring Kickstarter campaign. Rather than going with Indiegogo or Jewcer, whose CEO reached out to them personally—both of which dispense any funds raised even if a goal is not reached—they decided to go all-in with Kickstarter. The band recognized that the large and built-in community that the company comes with, and the greater funds that could follow, was worth the risk. They set a goal that was significantly greater than most indie bands dare or than Kickstarter themselves suggested (5 to 10 thousand). In total, Bulletproof Stockings captured 422 donors who raised a whopping $37,522, with an original goal of $36,000. “It’s a Jewish thing, how we calculated the number,” says Dalia. “People give charity in multiples of 18,” she says, because the number means “life.” So, 36 thousand was “double life.”
They announced the campaign on Purim in March—a month of joy and happiness—and in return got way more than they bargained for. Men and non Jewish people, for starters, numbered among their contributors. People they didn’t even know gave upwards of three thousand dollars. Following the same strategy they use with management decisions, that is, their guts, intuition, and, because they are observant after all, faith, they forged ahead not knowing what would come next.
“As religious people, we kind of think somebody is in charge up there, and for some reason he’s been wanting this to happen,” says Dalia. “You know, even tragedy is a stepping stone to a deeper, higher kind of awareness that you otherwise couldn’t have gotten to,” this in reference to her husband who passed away, which led her to New York, and into friendship and music-making with Perl. As Perl points out, their Kickstarter success was just the thumbs up they needed to keep moving forward. “We keep getting the answer ‘yes.’ ‘You want 36 thousands dollar?’” she says, posing the hypothetical question of the person in charge up there. “‘All right,’” he answers, “Why not. We’ll throw in an extra $522 just so you’re sure.’ As long as we keep getting that message, as long as the women keep coming, and they want that, we’re like, ‘yeah, then we’re going to keep on doing this.’”
Speaking of that topic, women cannot be overlooked in conversation with Bulletproof Stockings. What they say about it is quite reasonable if you give it a listen: performing for women-only is a way of creating a space where they can celebrate and explore every part of themselves—which includes sexuality, inherent to singing and making music and dancing—rather than “erase” it, as Dalia says women from such an early age are trained to do. And creating single-sex spaces, after all, is something men have been doing forever.
To prove her point, Dalia cites something very identifiable and always correct: Parks and Rec. “There is this quote from this tv show Parks and Recreation that’s really funny,” says Perl. “There is this scene where these guys and men are just sort of, like, protesting something, and this guy has a megaphone and he’s like, ‘Men have been having a really rough go as of…” she pauses for dramatic effect. ‘“Just recently! But it ends today!’”
We all cackle. Therein lies the absolute validity to what it is that Bulletproof Stockings are doing—celebrating women, in their full glory, in a way that all-male groups have done for a very, very long time.
Before I go, I ask if they would’t mind playing me a song. They hesitate, because it’s been a little over a week since they finished recording and practicing regularly at The Creamery. But they don’t hesitate for long and decide to perform Off Track. First, Perl conducts some business relating to the mastering of the album, emailing back and forth on her phone. Elisheva sets up her cello on a little sticky stabilizing pad on the wooden floor. Dalia sits behind her drum set, and I picture her then, setting up for her old shows with Hopewell, who she drummed for and toured America and Europe with, alongside the Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre. Those days—at least the well-documented, crazier portions of them that happened offstage—are ones she is happy to have behind her.
Perl starts belting out Off Track, and the sound is very much like Fiona Apple, a comparison that has been made often before, but Elishava and her strings and Dalia pounding away, totally consumed at the drums, give it a richer, more spiritual effect. I am awestruck by the soul of it, being revealed at close range. I tell them that, and that I have the goosebumps.
They respond like they’re the lucky ones; Perl Tweets me. It’s the kind of openness and gratitude and enthusiasm that, I feel, could get all of us more, and make us better, if only we let it, as clearly it has done for them.
Bulletproof Stockings performs this Sunday at Webster Hall; Tickets here, 8pm.