TEEN: Like Justin Trudeau, Brooklyn’s Rad Girl Band Is All About Gender Parity

TEEN (All photos by Hannah Whitaker)
TEEN (All photos by Hannah Whitaker)

Late in October, I was leaning against a railing, squished inside East Williamsburg’s Holyrad Studio, surrounded by a bunch of floor-sitters. That night, Sofar Sounds, a music promotion company that organizes secret shows, had booked TEEN, the Brooklyn-based band comprised of three Canadian sisters (Teeny Lieberson, previously of Here We Go Magic, Katherine Lieberson, and Lizzie Lieberson) and Syrian-American bassist, Boshra Al-saadi; before the show, Sofar organizers told me the still-secret band was one of their “favorite pop lady groups.” The first sign that I was, in fact, in for something special that night came when I spotted four women wearing red blazers and black pants.The effect was: professional. This was TEEN.

Who wore coordinating outfits anymore? Let alone blazers, the colors black and red, and sequins? I was transfixed. It was as if they were guests on an old variety show, like Lawrence Welk, except everyone in this audience was 25 and this was Brooklyn in 2015. The four women walked up to the make-shift stage and sound-checked meticulously. And their music: Yes, they are an all-female pop group; but they don’t exactly play standard pop. TEEN’s sound is fun but serious, passionate, and has a sense of humor. It wasn’t just about being in love, or out of love, or love-sick. It was about some of that, but more than that, it was just about life. I felt confused, and then embarrassed that this seemed strange to me. Why was it at all disorienting to see four women making music together whose message was about many things beyond love?

Titled Love Yes, the newest album from TEEN comes out February 19, and contains twelve songs that, despite the title, deliver the same robust gift the band gives listeners in concert, one of emotional ambiguity and diffusion. Love Yes expresses the experience of being a woman—confident, sensitive, self-knowing, emotional, complex, and yes, sexual—in three dimensions. And the music is incredibly catchy.

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In December, the band met me in Greenpoint to talk about Love Yes. They’d finished a whirlwind week of rehearsing and making a music video for their single, “All About Us,” a song that fills you up with happiness and makes you want to dance—a lot.

We sat in a booth at Oak & Iron on a Friday night and talked for a while and drank beer, wine, and soda water. The Smiths played in the background. They explained to me their day recording the video at Gibson Studio, telling me there must have been about 35 people on hand to produce the video, including 20 dancers. TEEN’s inspiration for their video was an “amazing Italian video from the 70s” with which they were obsessed. “It was so cool to see all these people come out of the woodwork to help us out,” said Boshra. “It all came together and it was pretty heartwarming, actually.” I asked what the aesthetic looked like. Teeny jumped in. “We kind of got into characters—kind of trashy, kind of future-y, kind of alien-70s-trash creatures.” Katherine said she thought it wasn’t trashy, to which Teeny responded, “I like trashy. I don’t see trash as good or bad. It was kind of dramatic but still pretty tasteful. Just exaggerated.”

It was something similar to this—the fact that their look could not quite be characterized but nonetheless was definitively something that drew me to them in the first place. They gave themselves parameters—wearing black and red—but each expressed that in her own unique way (some blazers were long, some short and sequenced, some wore high-waisted pants, another a skirt). Giving themselves a system to work with also made individual qualities stand out. “Stravinsky said limitations are freedom,” Teeny said, who, at that moment, was loose-wristing her wine. “Aaaas she picks up her glass of Merlot,” she continued, mocking herself, and laughing hysterically. “That wasn’t even intentional, which makes it almost worse.”

TEEN’s intentionality is a relief in a time when nonchalance—even if superficially so—is the preferred method of artistic delivery. “Yeah, when did that not become a cool thing to do, and why?” Teeny wondered. “It’s probably a post-90s thing. It’s cooler not to care, you know?” says Boshra. “Which I get,” says Teeny. “And it was a great era, actually.” But, “We work our asses off, and we spend all of our time doing something and creating something, and we pour our hearts into it,” says Teeny. Katherine says that, on stage, it’s about being themselves, and Lizzie says, “You want to communicate something genuine. But at the same time, you’re performing and putting on a character, and, you know, a uniform or costume helps.” If the uniform communicates that, says Teeny, “then maybe people will take us a little bit more seriously.”

Photo by Hannah Whitaker
Photo by Hannah Whitaker

The Lieberons grew up in Nova Scotia (like Anne of Green Gables, I guessed? “Like Trailer Park Boys,” they correct me). Both of their parents were musical. Their father was the composer, Peter Lieberson. They did not form a childhood band, but they were all musical. “We grew up singing together,” says Katherine. “We would act out Broadway plays, and dad would play piano and we would all sing.”

While Teeny ended up playing keys for Here We Go Magic, she was also starting TEEN. And when she needed good singers, she looked to her sisters. Boshra knew Teeny through music channels, and at one point almost joined Here We Go Magic. But while touring the world and playing with a bunch of other bands, not making that much money, she reached a breaking point. Her bandmate heard Teeny was looking for a bassist. “I was already a TEEN fan and keeping track and listening,” Boshra says.“Boshra came right on and it was providence,” says Katherine.

Boshra had moved to New York for art school from western Pennsylvania, where she grew up the oldest of three to Syrian parents. For a few minutes we talk about Syria, how a “graceful” resolution seems nearly impossible. “The government is fucked up,” says Boshra. “But the people are amazing and tolerant. There’s such diversity, religiously speaking. I’m a party of a tiny minority in a tiny religious sect, and one of many others sects that co-exist peacefully.”

Meanwhile, in Canada, the Liebersons are thrilled with what is happening with Justin Trudeau. “He’s made a commitment to restore relationships with the first nation people, which is huge,” said Katherine. “It’s an actual priority—that’s why it was so weird for Stephen Harper to be in office for so long, it was not representing the Canada that we grew up with.” Teeny said, “He’s gorgeous, he’s doing all the right things.” I said my favorite part is that he pretends to fall down stairs. “It’s his party tricks. He throws himself down stairs and he’s happy to have a conversation in French, and then he pulled Canada out of air strikes in Syria,” said Teeny. “You know? He’s too perfect! I’m waiting for a severe corruption bust.”

But another thing Justin Trudeau did—one of his first acts as Prime Minister—was to create a balanced cabinet, male and female. When a reporter asked why he prioritized gender parity, Trudeau responded, “Because it’s 2015.” We all make a collective noise which means: What a stud.

With Love Yes, TEEN is striving for a similar feminist-based inclusiveness: “It’s really about balance,” said Teeny. “It’s not about men versus women, or [that] women have to take over the world. It’s like, we have to co-exist, and people work best when there is balance. Sometimes people think highly of genders working alone and separate. But I think what really needs to happen is men and women working together.”

That said, that reality is not our present, and prescriptive definitions of gender have to be challenged, says Teeny. “We get that being in an all female band. Women just feel like sexuality is the main thing that makes us human, and most of the time that’s our message—that the thing that makes us most human is having no hair on our legs, or armpits, and we’re made to seem so beautiful, and pure, and sexual, and desirable, and like unfortunately, that affects popular culture, so it’s all the more important to not do that, and just be yourself.”

Boshra says that even when she was in a band with three women and one man for six years (not TEEN), gender was always the topic, and she grew tired of those conversations. I say it sucks that I took note of them for the same reason, that I thought the fact that they were all female, and didn’t have a clear-as-day heteronormative message, was strange. “This is what changes it—these conversations and making them public,” says Boshra. “It’s still a moment of transition, and I look forward to the moment when it’s not really that noteworthy that four women are in a band together. In the meantime, I’m happy that we’re a part of the dialogue, during a transition like this, and I think it’s pretty great, and I tell myself when I get irritated that, it’s exciting!”

Teeny, too, says she was scared at first of having a platform upon which she’d have to talk about that message: how being a woman just means being yourself and giving the big bird to convention. But she’s changed her mind. “It’s like actually a total opportunity. We’re all very passionate people who care about things other than just making music, too. Things are happening that I feel like, you know, hopefully we can speak to, and have a platform to do that with.”

Boshra feels like, now, as opposed to ten years ago, there is a palpable shift and women are all over the place. And then there’s this bright note she says she’s noticed that makes the future look hopeful: Younger guys are much more gender equality-friendly. “All these young dudes say they are more comfortable working with women,” she relates, optimistically. “They’re like, ‘it’s great!’” Simultaneously, we burst into “All the Young Dudes,” by Mott the Hoople, in honor of all those gender-inclusive, new generation young dudes; and sitting next to TEEN, this future does seem pretty great.

Love Yes releases February 19 from Carpark Records; release show at Union Pool, 484 Union Avenue, 8pm on Sunday, February 14. Say Yes to Love.


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