Interview with Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells

Earlier this month I got to sit down with Alexis Krauss, one half of the noise pop duo Sleigh Bells, over tea at Bakeri in Greenpoint in Brooklyn. I’d only “spoken” to her via email prior, but I immediately recognized her sleek black hair, and she greeted me warmly with a hug. In the throes of yet another snowy storm chilling the city that week, she was bundled up in winter gear, quite different from her glam rock style on stage and in the media. Throughout our conversation, I learned just how multi-faceted and powerful this woman is – obviously a force to be reckoned with as a performer, as well as an educator and activist. We talked for a couple of hours about her journey as a performer, her Beauty Lies Truth project, women in music, and hiking in upstate New York.

All photos by Aysia Marotta

All photos by Aysia Marotta

Has music always been a part of your life?

It has. My father’s a professional musician. It’s all he’s ever done - music and art - so I grew up with it, and I started out in music primarily through theatre when I was nine or ten, and then from there I started playing instruments, singing, performing with bands. I was working in music at a pretty young age, which was surreal, and I went through a few different incarnations of a put-together pop band, which was a fascinating process, but I have to say that, ironically, by the time I was 16, I was pretty burnt out. So I took a break from music and really had no intention of going back into it as a career, not because I didn’t love it, but because I didn’t think it was going to be feasible. Or I just hadn’t realized yet how to do it in a way that felt truly empowering and rewarding. And I was equally in love with what I was studying in school, human rights and advocacy.

I read that you were a poli sci major. I was too!

Yeah! I was studying poli sci and international studies and was doing a lot of research on the right to education and children’s education, and I ended up joining Teach for America. I taught for two years in the south Bronx, and that was one of the most, probably the most, rewarding and challenging things I’ve ever done.

So how did you get back into the music scene?

On my summer break after my first year teaching I was out to dinner with my mom, and my current bandmate was our server. It was one of those weird things - he was very friendly, my mom was very talkative, and all these non sequiturs finally led to us to talking about music. Derek (the other half of Sleigh Bells) had recently quit a band and moved up to NY wanting to start a new band and specifically wanted to work with a female vocalist. My mom being my mom was like, “Oh my daughter’s a singer!” I was like “No, I’m a public school teacher…” But that night I was lying in bed thinking “Why the fuck not?” so I sent him some stuff I’d done over the years. He told me loved my voice and wanted to meet up so - long story short - that’s how we first met. We started making music together in each other’s apartments and continued doing that while I was teaching my second year. I had all these goals I wanted to accomplish with teaching, but I decided to take a chance on this band thinking I’m only going to be 22 once, so I left my job, started waiting tables, we kept rehearsing, started playing shows, and now we’re making our 4th record!

That’s wild. So this all started in 2008, and so much has happened since then, right?

Yes, a lot has happened since then. It really has been a whirlwind. Things happened very quickly, and that was wonderful. It had a lot of advantages and a lot of disadvantages too - in the sense that when things happen that fast, there’s times we’d look back and say, well we could have been more strategic about this or that, but all in all we’re really happy with where the band is. We’re so excited to be making a 4th record and getting back into touring probably this fall.

What would you say has been the most surprising and most empowering part of the Sleigh Bells journey for you?

I think the most surprising part has been the viability of it, the fact that I’m able to make a living as a professional musician. Growing up with a professional musician as a father I know how difficult that is, so I’m constantly pinching myself. The most empowering part is just the pure joy of being able to travel around the world and relate to people through our music. I really never thought I’d be able to have such intimate relationships with fans, and I think we’ve been able to keep our world pretty damn positive, which is something I really love.

Do you get a lot of time with your fans then?

Yeah, we schedule things officially like that often times, but I make it a point to meet with fans as much as I can regardless. And social media is great, like on Instagram I try to reach out to fans and respond to comments. It can be such a cool thing. Although I do think it’s a fine line with the internet when it comes to dealing with trolls and haters. There’s a way to kind of tune out the negative and embrace the positive and cultivate a space that doesn’t allow negativity. I don’t get a ton of it, but when I do, I confront it head on. I find that by doing that, often you disarm the person being negative. If someone on Facebook launches into a tirade about something, and you address it in a way that doesn’t attack them, that dignifies them with a response and justifies yourself, more often than not, their response isn’t “Fuck you,” again, it’s “Holy shit, I didn’t think about it that way, thanks for talking to me.”

Are there specific examples you can share? Is it criticism of your work, or is it just non-sensical?

I think most of the time it’s criticism of the work, but I’ve also gotten into debates about fracking on my Instagram, haha. Compared to when we first started out, I don’t engage with negative press or comments nearly as much as I used to. I enjoy reading press to a degree because I find it enlightening. I’ve realized sometimes the press that hurts the most is the press that has some truth to it. I’ve been able to learn more about my flaws as a performer and use it as constructive criticism in that way, but then of course there’s stuff you just have to laugh at. It doesn’t phase me, I understand that I’m a person that exists in somewhat of a public space, and I’m subject to criticism, and that’s fine. Certain things you really have to have a thick skin about; like body image, which you really shouldn’t have to consider, and most men don’t have to contend with in the music industry, but women always do. When someone on twitter tells you you have a fupa, you just have to be like alright, cool dude, whatever. I’ve talked about this with other female musicians, and the bottom line is that there are double standards - people feel they can objectify us and treat us a certain way, and you just have to rise above it.

So for something like that, would you respond?

Oh, no. I mean if somebody had the balls to do it on my personal account I would definitely respond to it, but most of the time those types of things exist in anonymous spaces in comments sections somewhere. There’s this awesome op-ed  in The Guardian by Lauren Mayberry from CHVRCHES that talks about just that - how the internet has become this space for people to just say whatever they want with impunity, and that’s not okay. It’s not okay for men to attack women or be sexually aggressive. Yes, there’s freedom of speech in this country, so like anything, it’s about finding balance, that happy medium, and being strong enough and calm enough to let the haters hate. But I would say for the most part we (Sleigh Bells) have been really lucky - there’s just a lot of positivity, a lot of great things coming from our nurturing fan base, and I look forward to growing that.

There’s a palpable feminist momentum growing right now in pop culture, do you feel like you’re an active part of that?

I mean we’re not an overtly feminist band, we’re not Bikini Kill, we’re not a band that champions feminist issues in our music, but that being said, I don’t think feminism is something you turn on or off. I have no shame in saying I’m a feminist, I was raised by a feminist. I’m committed to women’s rights. I think empowering women is one of the most important things people in this world can do and must do.

I think within the music industry, there’s this real camaraderie between young female musicians, and that’s really important, and something I’m happy to be a part of. It’s a great atmosphere, and the more we support one another, the more empowerment that exists among us, the further we’ll be able to rise. We’ve come a long way, but I’ll still realize things every now and again like we’ll be at a festival, and I’ll realize, “Wow. I’m the only woman on this bill.” It doesn’t happen often, but there are things that make you realize this is still a very male-dominated industry - as are most industries.

I love that our (Sleigh Bells’) musical space is one that men and women can share equally. When I’m on stage I just want people to feel uninhibited and for women to realize that they can do anything and everything - that there are no stereotypes.

Is that an active consciousness you have while you’re performing, something you want to exude?

I want to exude confidence, joy, energy, and a whole range of emotions, but I definitely want people to leave our show feeling they’re invincible. There’s a real sense of building them up - not breaking them down.

So recently I read this Pitchfork interview with Bjork - The Invisible Woman

Yeah! Derek and I were talking about that recently - that even though she spends all of this time working on her music, towards the end of the process, it suddenly becomes the work of the male producers involved.

Yeah, and of course, she’s not the first female artist to come out and say this -Joni Mitchell, Taylor Swift, Solange Knowles - does this resonate with you at all? Have you ever had this experience?

My relationship with Derek has always been an exclusively merit-based relationship, and yes, he does produce, and I’m the vocalist, so we do fall into that stereotypical paradigm, but for us it’s what our strengths are. I have no interest being in production, and he has no interest in writing melodies or singing, so for us it’s just the perfect marriage of our strengths. Our process has become so much more collaborative since the beginning though, and the lack of collaboration in the beginning had everything to do with the fact that I was a teacher just coming into the music business, and he was the one writing the music. Initially I was working with him as more of a session singer, which is something I had done when I was younger for many years, so I was used to plugging myself into someone else’s work. Some people perceived that as being disingenuous, but for me, I hadn’t been spending the past ten years writing music. But then when the band became my life, my full-time occupation, it became very important for me to assert myself creatively, to start writing, and now we have this 50/50 relationship where I feel completely uninhibited and able to tap into my own potential. For us, there’s no sort of oppression.

In the industry there are a lot of male producers and female singers, but I think part of the issue is that people have a hard time giving credit to women pop stars and really acknowledging how much time they spend in the studio. I’ll be the first person to defend someone like Britney Spears or Taylor Swift or Iggy Azalea or Beyonce or Katy Perry because I know just how fucking hard these women are working. And many women artists work with producers and other writers, but they’re doing that because they understand the power of collaboration. They’re not doing it because they need it, I think they’re doing it because it’s smart. I think this sort of paradigm is really changing also, but at the same time I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it if it’s a role you’re playing because you want to be playing it - if you don’t feel like your full potential is being diminished by the other person, or you’re being put into a certain box - as long as you’re doing what you want to be doing.

What happens if you’re in a bad mood and you have to perform? I’m thinking of the Katy Perry documentary Part Of Me, and there’s this scene where she’s really upset about what’s going on in her personal life, and she just turns that off and goes out to perform even though she’s crying moments before - have you ever had a situation like that where you’ve had to just put personal things aside?

Definitely. Shit happens, and you have to deal with it and put on a happy face - the show must go on. I learned it doesn’t matter that the sky is falling, people in the audience don’t know, and it’s your job, I believe, to ensure that they continue not to know, unless that’s your music, of course. I watched Cat Power recently, and I think part of Chan’s power and mystique is that she’s incredibly vulnerable on stage, most of the time that vulnerability is so raw and so necessary for her songs. For Sleigh Bells, our live show is not a reflection of my personal state of mind or Derek’s personal state of mind. It’s more about this bombastic sensory overload, this intense experience, so if we were to bring our own troubles onto stage, it would be detrimental to the show, and I think it would be selfish to give the audience anything but our best. It’s our job.

I don’t want to make it sound unsentimental. I know a lot of musicians have a hard time turning it on or off because they feel like they’re acting, or it’s not a reflection of them, but I’m a performer first and foremost, so that’s what I’m doing when I go out there. I’m not Alexis Krauss. I’m kind of stepping outside of myself, occupying this space above me, and not everybody can do that, but I totally agree with Katy Perry, you just have to put everything you’re doing in the back of your mind, go out there, give the best show, and just be completely in the moment. Then afterwards, go back and deal with it.

Our shows have suffered when I can’t get fully into it and that’s because sometimes I’ll go out on stage, and I’ll get a weird vibe, or my confidence will kind of crumble, and I just want to go out there, scream, and crawl into a ball on stage. Derek has had those moments too, but you can’t do that. You can’t have a temper tantrum on stage. I think that’s a really crucial part of being a good strong performer, whatever happened ten minutes before doesn’t matter.

I like what you said about being completely present and in the moment, especially if it’s empowering for you to interact with your audience like you described, and they’re giving you all this joy and energy, then you can just focus on them.

Precisely. If you let it in, chances are, you’re going to be happier immediately. Being on a stage in front of a thousand people, that in itself is a phenomenal gift. I get on stage, I count to three, I have a little mantra that I say.

You do?! Can I ask what it is?

I’ve never told anyone before, ha. It’s really simple, just a three-word mantra: I’m beautiful, I’m peaceful, and I’m strong. And not beautiful in this superficial sense of the word, but more like I am this beautiful being - physically, mentally, emotionally. It really helps me.

That’s a great affirmation. So, I know that you performed with Cyndi Lauper…what was that like?!

It was really surreal. We had a rehearsal the night before and Annie (Annie Clark of St. Vincent) was there as well, and her and I were so excited, almost thinking like is she (Cyndi Lauper) real? She walks in, and she has this incredible New York accent, she’s larger than life, everything you expect her to be and more. She’s confident, she’s on top of everything, she’s so in command.  She and I performed “Money Changes Everything,” and the three of us performed “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. On the last harmony, she looked at us and said “Is that all you got? You gotta have balls when you sing it!” She’s so badass.

During rehearsal she told me to really give it to her and get physical, to improvise, to go off and give her everything for the live show, and that fully manifested. She literally grabbed me and pushed me down on stage during our performance. She was singing standing over me, and we were wrestling and singing in this very awesome physical thing. She gave 200%, and I was so lucky I got to do work with her, this performer who has that ability to be a total chameleon and work with whoever. It was great, it was really fucking crazy. And it was for a great cause, her True Colors Fund.

Amazing. I know you have your own cause too, Beauty Lies Truth. I think it’s so awesome because through this project you’re really equating beauty not only with health, but with awareness and understanding for women, and women empowering women. What motivated you to take this particular platform? What’s the driving force behind it?

I was hungry to do something to reengage myself with activism and to reconnect with my passion to educate and encourage sustainability. I think what we’re doing really is this sort of internal environmentalism. It’s about making smarter consumer choices that are better for your body and for the planet. I wanted to use my platform as a musician to engage with issues important to me, and the beauty industry wasn’t something I was necessarily intending to focus on, because I was pretty ignorant about it - just how unregulated it is, what exactly we’re exposing our bodies to, and what those chemicals do not just to our bodies, but to animals. I was doing research about micro-beads and face wash and that led me to learning about all these petrochemicals and plastics, which I had no idea about, and I had no idea micro-beads were detrimental to ecosystems, so I emailed my friend Nora who works for Fair Trade USA, asking her about natural alternatives, and she recommended S.W. Basics. Through S.W. I met Jess (her partner in Beauty Lies Truth).

I began to wonder why I wasn’t reading more about any of these issues, so I submitted articles to various sites, but I kept getting feedback like, “This is great, and we didn’t know about this, but it’s a little too political, a little too much for our readers.” They wanted me to temper my writing with more frivolous, playful things. But to me these issues aren’t playful or fun, these issues demand careful, subtle, thoughtful analysis. I didn’t want to have to deal with an editor or advertiser or a site that has to watch what they say, so Jess I created this uncensored space.

A lot of people know when they’re buying pork that comes from industrial farms, that these animals live in certain conditions; most people know when they fill up their car and buy gas, they’re contributing to greenhouse emissions, and they make that choice; most people don’t know that the shampoo they’re using contains sulfates or parabens and petrochemicals, and that was the issue for me. Think about when you eat breakfast, you know what’s in your granola bar. Why would you treat your skin any differently than you treat the rest of your body? Why is it that we’ve been conditioned to think that these truly natural food-grade products that we put on our skin are somehow wrong and that putting compounds on our skin that we can’t even pronounce is somehow right?

The whole Beauty Lies Truth blog is about educating people, showing them there are alternatives, and then making them comfortable with those alternatives. And then the next step is supporting brands like S.W. Basics and entrepreneurs that are being transparent about their products. And yes, these products can be expensive, that’s a problem, and I understand not everyone has access, but the great thing with skincare and the whole DIY culture is that you can easily make a lot of these products yourself. Beauty Lies Truth isn’t about being hip or trendy, it’s about creating a lifestyle of sustainability and consciousness. It’s been really exciting.

Who are some female role models that you have that inspire you?

My mom. She’s one of the most tenacious, incredibly badass, straightforward, determined women I know.

I’m a big Kathleen Hanna fan. I think she really embodies determination and perseverance, and she’s so smart and talented. I really look up to her.

I really like Zephyr Teachout. She just ran for governor against Cuomo (in NY state). I’m very much on the same page as her and her politics. She’s incredibly smart and really a force to be reckoned with.

In terms of the work I do with Beauty Lies Truth, Theo Colborn, a scientist who actually just passed away, has been really inspiring to me. She was one of the pioneering scientists in the area of endocrine disruption and really started opening up the doors of getting people to think differently about the fact that we live in a world saturated with chemicals - that things are changing so rapidly, and we’ve never seen this kind of exposure to synthetic compounds before. Her work is really fascinating, and she was doing it until she was in her eighties!

I’m also a big Beyonce fan. I’m so enamored with her work. She works so hard, and her passion and drive are really motivating to me. I think she’s done a beautiful job in her career. I mean when we’re talking about taking back the power in a male-dominated music industry - she is on top of every decision that is made, and yes, she has a big team and a lot of people she trusts to go out and help her execute her vision, and I think she’s very gracious in acknowledging that. I went to her show at Barclays, and there were so many women, all ages, just celebrating being women, being flawless. I just think she’s great.

She’s definitely part of a movement, and I think in a lot of ways re-energized this idea of feminism, which unfortunately had become really taboo - this dirty word – she’s owned it and shared what the true definition of it is through a mainstream medium. It’s not anti-anything.

Exactly. It doesn’t have to be something that men have to be threatened by. You can have strong men and strong women.

What or where or who is home to you?

Nature. I’m kind of obsessed with the outdoors, being out on a trail, or on top of a mountain. And living in a city makes it that much more rewarding when I get out there. I love the fact that you drive two hours out of NYC, and you’re in the Catskills or Shawangunks. I’m a huge John Muir enthusiast. The mountains are calling, I must go! That’s my spiritual home. It brings me peace, joy, happiness. I could totally go live in a tent in the wilderness.

I just finished the book Wild (by Cheryl Strayed), all about the power and serenity of nature. Have you read it?

Yes! My mom and I read it together. We loved it. We saw the movie together too.

Haha! I saw it with my mom too! It’s such a great story. She’s definitely a role model for me.

I love her Dear Sugar stuff too. She’s so great about not being judgmental, giving this sage advice, and being really empathic.

Definitely. Okay, last question! What’s one of the best shows you’ve ever been to?

I have to say Fleetwood Mac. To see a band that’s been through as much as they’ve been through perform with the most unfiltered beautiful chemistry between Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham - talk about just baring their souls. I love when you see bands that big who have had such phenomenal careers being humbled by where they’re playing – I saw them at MSG (Madison Square Garden). It was really emotional. It made me realize even when you reach goals in your career or in your creative pursuits, and you think there’s going to be some ceiling, or it’s going to stop somewhere, it’s really endless.