meet ruth b8r ginsburg: milwaukee musical activists

Ruth B8r Ginsburg

They picked the name Ruth B8r Ginsburg to promote female empowerment—and help people be a little more informed about politics. Notorious R.B.G. is a pretty fabulous role model!

“I feel like I dropped into the middle of this blossoming place, and it’s been amazing.”

“This is sort of therapeutic for me, a safe haven.”

“I feel like this is also a vehicle for messages. We can help!”

These uplifting thoughts bring to mind some of my favorite parts of life—activities that work toward my goals, within my passions, with people I love. While Ousia, Danielle and Johanna said them in the context of their melodically harmonizing, lyrically inspiring band, I feel like they could’ve been talking about anything. A new community, a calling, a group of friends.

That makes sense because Ruth B8r Ginsburg is all three. This week’s interview took me to a kitschy, cozy, eclectic third floor of a home in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. It was filled with warm tones and temps, low light and laughter of a bunch of inspiring women. Plus community bottles of local mead and a round of Brie literally being nibbled on made it feel a little extra Wisconsin-y. I liked it a lot.

My friend Quinn Cory invited me to a rehearsal of Ruth B8r Ginsburg, a Milwaukee band known for its mesmerizing harmonies. (Check them out here!) Practice was at the home of Johanna Rose, upright bassist extraordinaire, and I sat on the floor with them and got a really special glimpse into the energy that flows between this stunning ensemble. I even got to be there for their very first recording session.

So before you hear from them, please meet the musicians, activists and Renaissance women:

Ousia Whitaker-DeVault, Violin: Spanish interpreter in the social service field around Milwaukee, passionate about immigrant justice

Cori Wiesner, Keyboard (or whatever else they need): In the environmental health department at Sixteenth Street Community Health Center—and soon, grad school

Danielle Meyer, Vocals: Community organizer, activist

Quinn Cory, Drums: Writer, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee employee, creator of Explain.News

Johanna Rose, Upright Bass: Musician in several bands, community organizer

Treccy Marquardt-Thomas, Guitar: Milwaukee School of Engineering student, Lakefront Brewing employee—“Beer. Knowledge. Music.”

People with Panache: How did you start making music together?

RBG getting ready to sing

“My dad basically tried to make a family band,” Cori says (front middle, with the scarf). “My first Wisconsin ancestor was a musician. He was the first Czech elected to office in the US as coroner, and he would ever-so-neededly brighten the atmosphere by playing the accordion.” Bonus awesomeness: Her parents were in the Crusty Nostrils and Fabulous Naselles.

Johanna: Quinn, Danielle, Treccy and I were at a bonfire and all started singing and harmonizing. We sang all night and went to the Public House and started a singing circle outside.

Ousia: Then, the day I moved to Milwaukee at the end of June, they were singing in the living room in my house with Cori. I didn’t sing with them—yet.

Treccy: Then one day, we met Fidel Verdin outside when we were roaming around by Public House after practice.

Quinn: Treccy was there with her guitar, and Fidel asked us if we were musicians. He asked us to play the #FirstThurs in August. So we had to get a set list. Everything felt pretty serendipitous.

PWP: Oh, and that show was absolutely gorgeous—I’m so, so glad Fidel asked you.  How do you come together to create such a beautiful sound?

Danielle: One thing that brought us together is the respect we brought to the table for each other. I was somebody who always made music but haven’t played out very often. Surrounded by people lifting me up rather than tokenizing or phasing me to the back, I felt more confident to be able to grow musically.

Treccy: I came from a completely different mindset. When I started playing music, which was like six months ago, I didn’t really know what I was getting into—and then I met y’all. I wanted to come together with a quartet of people from four different walks of life and make it sound like one voice—I’ve never had that with male vocalists and instrumentalists. I wanted to be united voices from a woman’s perspective.

Quinn: For me, this has been a good learning experience because it’s not the music I’d traditionally play with my instrument, the drums. Co-finding a new sound has been kind of like a renaissance in music for me, because I’ve been playing the same kind of muddy punk music.

Johanna: I used to play in a band called the Calamity Janes, and now I play in New Boyz Club—an 8-piece band with two women and six men. This is the only all-girls band I’ve ever played with, and I like that it’s a really supportive environment.

Danielle: Showing women that we can make music together and hang on to our own identities is good for other women trying to be brave and do their own thing.

Johanna: There’s an uplifting-ness to it.

Johanna's journal

Pictured: Johanna’s journal—a 3-D masterpiece always in progress.

PWP: I can feel that at your shows—there’s depth and positivity to your music. Substance.

Cori: Something I’ve personally seen traveling with other bands is when you say you play music, people hold a different kind of expectation—that if you hold a banjo you’re going to sing a soft tune about love, squirrels, trees and some bullshit. You shouldn’t headline, because it’s not going to be powerful enough, a strong enough impression.

Other bands didn’t get these opportunities. And we’ve gotten to close out shows so far.

Ousia: When people haven’t heard us yet they think, ‘Oh, it’s a girl band.’ I completely resent that. I personally don’t like ‘ladies’ or ‘girls’ in reference to full-grown women. Oftentimes people have an expectation of what we’re going to sound like—‘I can pin you into this box’—and then they hear us: ‘Oh, this is a band—damn.’ I like putting people in their place.

Treccy: I’m a little shocked by the attention. I just want to sing with people with voices that sound good together.

Quinn: I would say the scene within the past couple years has been inspiring for me and others. I notice people will watch us; I know they play, and I know they don’t play out. I hope I can make them more confident.

Johanna: I’ve been playing this thing [upright bass] for 18 years and doing bands for 10, and I’ve come across a lot of shit in my time that just makes me work harder. I don’t want anyone to be saying ‘She’s a really good bass player—for a girl.’

Cori: This is the first band I’ve been in where pretty much everyone writes songs—it’s true collaboration. In that sense, it’s a magical experience because all of our voices are heard on stage.

PWP: What about this work is most fulfilling?

Danielle: This is sort of therapeutic for me, a safe haven. We all work with people and in the world, and I’m someone who is highly sensitive; I take on a lot of the things I’m working on. This allows me to release it in a really productive way, express things I can’t by writing, talking. Sometimes singing is the only way.

Ousia: I had just moved to Milwaukee from Madison, and this happened as soon as I got here. It has been a huge defining part of my experience in Milwaukee and Riverwest so far. I think my life here would be very different if this band didn’t exist. I feel like I dropped into the middle of this blossoming place, and it’s been amazing. It’s energizing. A lot of people finish college, go somewhere else and have trouble finding a spark that engages their mind and spirit. That hasn’t been a problem at all for me.

Johanna: I feel like this is also a vehicle for messages. We can help! I want music and community causes to connect more and more and more. We have a lot of things in Milwaukee we want to work on. In order to do that, we need to bring more and more different groups of people together—and music can do that.

All of us are nonprofit goddesses, and we care about the world and our community. This can help us do something with our music.

Ousia, Danielle, Quinn and Cori

Quinn thought her dad was a Beatle when she was little, Treccy started playing guitar when she was 9, and Johanna was the lead singer of the Cranberries for Halloween when she was 6. Every one of them had a fun story of growing up musically and made me want to get back to violin, piano or one of the many instruments I played growing up.

Cori: When you have a bunch of people who don’t necessarily have the social means to tell each other what they’re upset about, or what they feel, music becomes an important collective feeling tool. If you have someone who thinks ‘If I say this, I might be judged,’ but you can say it with music, it’s okay—and then other people know it’s okay. Some of the most poignant lyrics or greatest sounds come from people saying things you wouldn’t necessarily think to say.

Danielle: For example, one of Cori’s songs is about being unemployed. And a lot of people’s favorite song is ‘Sugar,’ about foreclosure and losing a home. In a sense, our songs are about accountability, responsibility and connectedness to issues our city is facing.

Johanna: We don’t sing pop-y songs about shit that doesn’t mean shit.

Ousia: We’re not afraid of emotions—and delving into them, too.

Johanna: We all have each other’s backs. I feel so much more supported as a person with this band and this group of people. Today is the six-month anniversary of my father passing away, and I met you all this summer. So many times, I was able to call one of you and feel okay.

Cori: Our band’s about being women and keepin’ on keepin’ on.

Johanna: My father always said: “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” and we certainly don’t do that.

We’re marking our calendars for the New Year’s Eve Minibash at Company Brewing (with Siren, Seshat Queen-Tut and 8 other bands) and FemFest, when RBG will be be joining 54 other female-fueled bands: January 21-24, 2016.

Have you seen RBG play yet? Share in the comments!

[Photos by Alysse.]

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