At this point, there are probably a lot of people in Brooklyn who think they know Meredith Graves. As the front woman of Perfect Pussy, Graves inhabits her role as a fearless, growling darling of the noise-punk scene, unafraid to speak—scream, really—her mind onstage, yes, but also off, where she writes for places like Rookie and The Hairpin. In that way, Graves is like many New Yorkers, in that she’s figuring out how to juggle a myriad of jobs, obligations and creative pursuits all while making space for what she calls, “those little pockets of happiness.” A recent Brooklyn transplant by way of Syracuse, Graves has quickly integrated herself into the local scene. But just meeting Graves, sharing a coffee with her, or basking in the glow of her endlessly wide grin and kind, heart-shaped face, is to know only a small part of her.
We met with Graves one recent blustery January evening and spoke with her about life in the city, the difference between being alone and feeling lonely, and how many jobs she actually works.
When did you make the move here?
The second week of September. I’m very new here. I moved with twenty minutes notice. I came to New York to drop off my band’s van after we’d been on tour, and I ended up going to the Captured Tracks office to pick up my friend Hannah, the project manager there and my favorite person on the planet. I had talked tentatively about staying on for a while after tour to poke around and look for jobs, and a friend texted me right then and said, “Hey, there’s an empty room in my apartment if you need a place for the weekend.” And I said, “Why don’t I just rent the room?” Everything was out of budget at that point, but this was on the lower end. And without ever seeing it, I just took it.
And you’ve never lived in the city before?
I’ve never even lived in a city before. Syracuse is the biggest place I’ve ever lived and that’s, what? 118,000 people? It’s a city, but it feels like a small town.
How does it feel different here?
I feel very wonderfully, startlingly alone here. I love it; it’s the best place for a person like me. In Syracuse, everyone knows everyone, has access to the same resources, goes to the same places—it feels limited. Now, what we did there was boundless—the things I experienced there, what I saw people accomplishing, the way communities formed and retracted. In New York, though, it’s much less competitive. In my experience, you’re kind of left alone.
That’s surprising to hear you say, since there’s so much talk in the music business about fierce competition. Do you see less stepping on toes here?
Yeah. But then again, I’m not trying for much in that way. I don’t have many role models. I think a lot of people that did what I’m trying to do here… well, never mind. I was about to start off on some dumb tear because I’m reading Wayne Koestenbaum right now, so I’m thinking a lot about New York in the 80s.
I’m interested in that—what are you trying to do? What are you working on?
A lot of different things! I sing in a band. I’m starting a record label, Honor Press, so I can create systems of mutual support with artists I really love, making music I really love. I feel like there’s a strong underrepresentation of nerds in music (laughs). I’m looking for really dedicated, honest nerds like me that are making emotional, kind of crazy music and I want to put those records out. I want to give them the resources that I’ve been given.
Honor Press also puts out books, one of which is my own. I’m a lifelong amateur photographer—a hack photographer—so I’m putting out a photo diary of the last year of my life, from right before we started touring full time to last fall. I also write for a number of websites like Rookie, The TalkHouse, Pitchfork, The Hairpin, lots of places. I’m working on a solo record. I’ve modeled for a few of my designer friends, which is embarrassing, but those photos exist.
Oh! I also work at a record store! Like, I have a job-job. It was silly—Captured Tracks has a shop in Greenpoint and a few weeks ago I called up and said, “You know, I’m around for the holidays so if people want to go visit their families, I’ll work. Pay me in records.” And they just keep putting me on the schedule. So, now I’m the stereotypical girl listening to Dizzy Gillespie and eating cookies and writing poetry and dancing around behind the counter.
Is doing all those things unique to living here?
I wouldn’t have thought previously that I would need to be here to get anything done, because I did a lot in Syracuse and on the road, but I found that when I moved here, opportunities opened up. There’s a higher concentration of real-life contact with people that I consider to be intimate creative conspirators here, a kind of family. The guys in the band, for one. You spend a year on the road with anyone and they become your family. And then there’s the people at Captured Tracks and the music writers who have become my family artistically, who have supported me and my work over the last year. I need to be near that.
I get that.
I was made to feel like I was supposed to be here. I was asked to come here for a year before I ever showed up. I had people saying everything from “Come here and start a record label!” to “Come here and be my friend.” And I don’t think I’ve ever been wanted before (laughs). I’ve always kind of been rambling along, so being told I’m wanted somewhere… that’s super surreal.
But, at the same time, you feel alone.
I feel like I’m allowed to be alone here. People have said, “Show up on your own terms.” I don’t think I’ve ever had that much freedom in my life. And I know how lucky I am. I’m constantly trying to be aware of my weight and how I throw it around. So, with everything that I’ve been given, I feel I have a responsibility to give it back by making space for other people, people who also want to be told, “You’re wanted, so show up. And if you want to be alone, you’re allowed.” I play by silent disco rules.
It seems like you’re getting at this tension between collective energy and the drive to do your own thing, which sounds very “of this moment.” You moved here in September, when shit started to really hit the fan in terms of politics in the city. But it’s also a time when people—especially young people—are starting to wake up and mobilize, to band together in a city that prides itself on anonymity and individuality. How do you feel about that? Do you feel inspired by that energy, creatively? Or is it overwhelming?
It’s complicated. I have no sympathy for a youth gentrifier culture—of which I am a part, in a way—who needed death on the streets of New York to see systemic racial injustice. I’m speaking about a specific subset of culture with the privilege of never having experienced that injustice. Obviously there are people in the streets who are part of the communities that are being targeted, and that’s one thing. What I’m not here for is the back-patting, self-applauding, white hipsters. There’s a lot to be said about the performativity of protest; it’s really creepy and complicated. I see rare instances of white people showing up and not messing up in these situations. More often than not, I see young white kids distracting from the voices of people that actually need to be listened to. Like Katy Perry and Iggy Azalea, these disastrous white artists who want all the trappings of black culture without actually being black, and then when people are literally dying, they’re silent. It’s ridiculous. I see a lot of otherwise aware young people acting like assholes and it’s really disappointing. I have to imagine that it makes people feel that much more helpless, and that’s not what’s needed right now.
In that vein, how do you see your role as someone with a public voice? Do you consider yourself a political artist?
In some ways. I’m thrilled to be alive in a time where political art and personal art are so often the same thing, and people are openly discussing their identities and the way they’ve been marginalized and privileged. So am I a political artist? Yes, and I’m existing in relation to other political artists that I’m lucky enough to witness. It’s a globally volatile time, and it’s inspiring as hell to see brave people in mainstream music with strong politics. I don’t want to talk over anyone; all I want to do is learn, listen and read. It’s tricky because capitalism sets up this cycle where the only way to participate is to help some people and harm others, but there are ways to show up and participate without stomping all over other people.
So, I’ve been writing for Rookie, and over the last few weeks I’ve tried to talk about current events in a way that young women from all over the world—young people from all over the world—can access. I’m linking out to other stories, too, trying to make sure different voices get highlighted. There are so many women at Rookie that are doing such an incredible job of spotlighting national and international politics on that level, and I’m really proud to be part of it.
Yes, Rookie; being a teenager can be intense and scary, which is why I think Rookie’s so great, because it’s honest and intimate and helps kids feel less alone. As someone who thrives on loneliness, what’s your connection to these kids like?
When I was 14 or 15, I was very sick and deeply depressed, a complete outcast—think Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. Kids were scared of me, and with good reason; I was walking around covered in blood all the time. I would write these weekly 8,000 word manifestos and I would have these amazing, elucidating epiphanies, like suddenly it would hit me that the reality of life is that all you can do is be good to the people you can reach. And that stuck with me. Being a sad, depressed, crazy kid that’s turned into a sad, depressed, crazy adult living her dream life—there’s a lesson there. You don’t have to change who you are fundamentally. There’s this whole culture that honestly believes that success is reliant on one’s ability to be happy, and that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Well, a) that’s now how capitalism works, and b) that’s not how being human works.
That’s definitely not how New York City works.
Right. I can love what I do and still be a miserable, weird, anxious person. Humans aren’t that cut and dried. But finding those pockets of happiness—that’s being in New York for me. There’s a higher frequency here.
I’ve never felt this much like I belonged anywhere in my entire life. And that moment happens to everyone, everyday—that’s the 32 ounce styrofoam cup of beer at the bar across the street, that’s the guy playing the accordion on the L platform, that’s kids on the scooters that almost ran me down on my way here. When I see people going full PDA on the subway? A plus. Especially if it’s old people or teenagers.
I was on the verge of tears yesterday at the record store. I was listening to Cannonball Adderley and then I switched over the best of Oscar Peterson which gets dismal really fast. So, I’m in the shop and Oscar Peterson is on and it’s snowing and I’m wearing felt shoes. And there’s this café around the corner from the record store, a bakery called the Cafe Riviera that I found about a year ago which is my favorite place in the entire city. It calls to me because they use these yellow light bulbs and it’s like why? They make food look bad! But it’s so beautiful. So I leave my little Oscar Peterson hole, and I’m walking to the train and I know I need to buy a notebook and I stop in three drugstores and I can’t physically bring myself to buy a notebook because I’m not going to write in one unless it’s the right notebook, and I throw my hands up and I go to the Cafe Riviera and I buy a half dozen macarons and I get a cup of coffee and I go out into the sleet and somebody walks by with a three-legged dog in a sweater. And I’m about to cry! And I take out my Wayne Koestenbaum book and my bag is full of baked goods and I’m soaking wet and I get on the train and I know that it doesn’t matter if I cry or not because everyone is alone, really, and no one cares if I cry.
And I’m standing against the door and this woman comes up to me and she’s like, “Can I film you reading” And I’m like, “Yes.” I vowed to myself that I’d just go back to reading and I wouldn’t let this woman down — this lovely, beautiful woman with a beautiful camera. It’s not like I didn’t want to cry on camera, because I’ve cried on camera before, there’s pictures of me on Pitchfork this summer crying, sobbing onstage, sweating — it’s the worst, even my mom was like, “That was embarrassing.” It was just that for some reason I felt this strange allegiance to this woman — she wanted to film me reading, she didn’t want to film me crying. So I didn’t cry. And in that capsule, in that time travel space where I’m reading and I’m not crying and I’m listening to music and I’m not crying, and this woman comes up to me and shakes my hand and tells me she makes videos for this website— that was the moveable pocket of happiness. They’re everywhere. That’s New York as I know it. That’s Joan Didion, that’s Wayne Koestenbaum, that’s Frank O’Hara. That’s New York.
That’s a lunch poem.
Yeah. That’s it.