Profile: GRLwood is here, they’re queer, and they’re going to steal your girlfriend
“Uh hey, we’re GRLwood” announced the band that followed GRLwood, jokingly hoping to reclaim a bit of the energy that had drawn a rooftop full of people into a punked-up frenzy ten minutes prior. GRLwood, a self-described “2 piece band of Kentucky fried queerdos,” had performed a selection of songs from their debut album Daddy. The 11 tracks on display are a manifesto of snarky, feminist anger, and queer rebellion that criss-crossed between sounds and riffs about as often as its narrator criss-crossed between perspectives. One minute she was singing as a lesbian womanizer on “Bisexual,” and the next she was a dominant male figure on “I’m Yer Dad.”
These lyrics were penned by GRLwood’s sole guitarist and vocalist, Rej Forester, whose technical abilities never ceased to impress. She doesn’t just string together complicated riffs, she simultaneously scream-sings her lyrics with a remarkable amount of control over the tone in her voice. The other half of GRLwood is Karen Ledford, an equally energetic and performative drummer, who guided the songs through their meditative lows and breakneck outbursts. She cites both Hole and Nirvana as equal inspirations.
GRLwood’s songs can be rambunctious, woeful, precarious, apocalyptic, and horny all at once. All of these moods are held together by Rej’s use of distortion pedals on her guitar, and a dynamic echo on her voice that creates a larger than life sound — more than making up for the lack of a bass guitar. The studio recording for their album only hints at the expressiveness with which both members of GRLwood exert while playing. Rej seems to feel every riff on her face, like she’s on the cover of a King Crimson album — twisting her expressions into visages of anger, disgust, and sadness during even GRLwood’s goofiest moments.
I went to interview Karen and Rej a week later for their performance at Trans-Pecos, a more conventional bar/music venue in Ridgewood, Queens. This time, the glorious late August weather and the wide-open soundscape weren’t present, but there was enough space to mosh. At this show, I got more of a taste for the natural showmanship Karen and Rej carry both on and offstage. Before they went on, they could have been confused for the opening band’s biggest fans, standing right up front, cheering them on through their whole set. Once the duo got on stage, Rej used the soundcheck to rile up the audience, belting out some incredible vocal range and riffs for what was just a technical rehearsal before their first song.
Before this passionate mayhem all went down, I accompanied Karen and Rej as they traversed Ridgewood looking for fried chicken. Every time we passed by cars or restaurants playing music they’d take the opportunity to dance.
So, how did this duo come together?
Rej: GRLwood used to be a solo project, it used to be just me, and I ran into Karen at one of my performances and she said she played drums. We actually rehearsed once, and vibed really well, and we’ve been a two-piece ever since.
Have any wacky things happened to you throughout this tour?
Karen: Tinder-game strong!
Rej: Karen’s on Tinder!
Karen: You can find me on Tinder! Whoooop! Last time we came to New York, I got to make out with a couple gurls on the dance-floor. That was wacky! (In a good way)
GRLwood, is very salacious and passionate, and very unabashedly queer. The funny thing is you’ve pointed out though that it’s not just about making out with girls-
Karen: Well that’s just cause I don’t write the lyrics! So I mean, if I wrote the lyrics it would be like, “Makeout, makeout, serious stuff, makeout, makeout”- Just kidding, it wouldn’t be. *laughs*
So, what would you say GRLwood is about then?
Rej: So, I’m not an author to an agenda. It’s not supposed to be purposely, sociopolitically fueled, though [the music itself] is. It’s just about my experience, that’s it. It’s just about my experience as a person and my facetious point of view about everything around me right now. And me being queer is something to talk about, because it’s a big part of my identity. I also navigate queer culture in my hometown. I don’t have a lot of friends that aren’t queer to be honest, and I’m very privileged that I can be in a situation like that, that I can have a space that’s that strong and that supportive… but yeah that’s my life, and that’s what I’m around, so that’s what I sing about. [Louisville] is a progressive pocket-city, but we’re like, still in the Bible-Belt. So there’s always really strong dualistic-type ideologies that are always present in any space I’m in because my existence in itself happens to be a radical or extreme thing. Not that I’m choosing to be socio-politically fueled or driven, but it just happens to be that way.
Karen: We’re surrounded by sharks, basically. Louisville is like that little pocket of water… All around is really conservative country area.
A lot your songs, they’re unhinged and full of screaming and shit. Where does that energy come from?
Rej: Uh, frustration, and I wouldn’t say anger, but just like passionate feelings. A lot of my feelings are geared towards my experience, you know. So there’s a lot of holding yourself back and “maybe I’m too much,” and oppression. Things like that, that need to be accounted for. Things that are really stressful… I haven’t always been able to scream. I haven’t always been able to have this kind of technique and skill with my vocals. Feeling like I’ve been free and able to do such, I’m not hindering or holding anyone else back. I’ve played with other bands before, but none of them [gave me] the space to really present my full potential, you know? So this is my coming-to. Does that make sense?
One line that really grabbed the eyes of the NPR folks was on “Bisexual.” You scream “I wanna be your boyfriend,” and I remember when I first listened to it, I was kinda taken aback by how the album really speaks from the perspective of different sorts of gender identities throughout, and in a way it’s kind of like, a genderfluid album…
Rej: I’m glad that you can see that, cause that’s how I feel about myself, so I hope that something like that would come out. “I wanna be your boyfriend’s” about that desire for normalcy… Because even even though I’ve been out since I was twelve years old I had to struggle with [internalized homophobia] for most of my life. That still affects me every day when I’m interested in a person. I feel that. So “I wanna be your boyfriend” is a way of trying to declare normalcy in some manner. Because even in the queer community everyone feels that [desire for normalcy] to some degree or another. We’re all products of our society, so to say you’re absolved completely and totally of being homophobic is more problematic than becoming aware of thought-processes you might have [in order] to better them.
I was trying to think of a good way of phrasing this, but I just wanted to know - that song “Communicate With Me”. It sounds like the sky is coming down. Just, where did that come from?
Rej: So that’s actually one of the first songs that me and Karen wrote together! Karen doesn’t necessarily write [the lyrics] per se, but different things come out with different people you play with… something based on your vibes and my vibes, something different that I never would have made otherwise would come out. So me and Karen started doing that, and we were like “this is good,” cause up until then we’d mostly rehearsed playing hard stuff that I had already written.
Karen: I mean, I remember, we were sitting in this garage… this practice space in Indiana. And I think I was trying to say something, and Rej couldn’t hear me. She didn’t understand me, so she just started singing at me “Communicate with me!” And like, she just started playing the riff, and I was like “Dude, that was amazing! We need to keep that!” I have recordings of that on my phone of us hashing that out originally, and it was like, an 8-10-minute recording originally and we were like, “Oh my God, we could make this song ride forever,” and it’s one of the longer songs too. A lot of our songs are like between a minute-and-a-half to two-and-a-half, but I think that song’s like, five minutes maybe?
Well it definitely necessitates the length.
Karen: Yeah, both the “pretty” songs on Daddy are also our longest songs. And they’re some of my favorite, honestly, the pretty stuff.
Rej: Yeah, I agree, “Communicate With Me”, the lyrics are like, “Relax, it’s not like you remember because if you did, you wouldn’t be here, and so it’s not like you’re communicating with me, because you won’t communicate with me.” So it’s kinda about being upfront with someone, and they’re like, “Hey what’s happening?” and you’re like, “Oh nothing” even though you know exactly what’s going on. Someone’s lying to you essentially. They’re not communicating. And then the last part is like, “I know where you’ve been hanging, and I know what you’ve been saying, but still you won’t communicate with me, even though you’ve been “communicating.” Yeah… I got chills… I feel it.
What also makes most of the other songs stand out is that they’ve got these pretty sarcastic sorta tones to them, and comical themes like “vaccines made me gay,” and whatnot. Were there any motifs that were just a little too wacky or rediculous for Daddy?
Rej: Uh, yeah!
Rej: When we joke with each other within the comfort of what our safe-space is, we get foul! Like, we’re very ridiculous. We have one song that didn’t make it on Daddy, but will make it on the next one, it’s called “Get Shot” and it’s about violence in school. It’s like, “Be quiet in class, or ‘get shot, get shot,’” and that’s the whole thing, but it’s a really fun bouncy song that makes ya go, “Whoo!” Ya know? So you can hear the song and be like, “Yeah! Woah woah!” But the second you hear the lyrics it’s like, “Fuck.” So there’s a part of me that’s like, “Maybe this is too fucked up. Maybe it’s too soon to start singing about this kinda thing.” Kinda like “Bisexual.” When we wrote “Bisexual,” I thought long and hard after we wrote it. I was like “Dude, what if this is taken as a hate-song,” and we both decided, “No, we’re not meaning it to be that way. If someone’s gonna perceive it that way, that’s their thing, but that’s not how we made it.”
I found one idiot on the internet that had that hot-take.
Karen: Yeah, we’ve seen it.
Rej: Yeah, my favorite thing is that [the writer says] like, “It’s violence against women,” and my other favorite one is “These lyrics are problematic.” Like, yeah! They are! That’s the point! That’s what it is!
Karen: Every point that person made that you’re referring to we were like, “Yes, you got it!”
Rej: I learned more about her, and her internalized feelings about homophobia than what her take on the song actually was. And she went on to say like, this song is “biphobic” and yadda-yadda. And then went on to say, “It’s a tale as old as time: Lesbian and the beast” and I’m like, “What the fuck does ‘lesbian and the beast’ mean, first of all!” If you’re trying to declare that this is not a trope, then why are you backing it by saying that it’s clearly a trope? A “tale as old as time”?
Karen: They’re saying that we’re a trope! That we’re a lesbian trope! Who’s being -phobic!?
Rej: Yeah, honestly, but it’s like, whatever. She has her own thing, and that’s good for her. And, the good thing is she starts a conversation. That’s the whole reason we even wrote the goddamn song. It’s like if we wrote “I’m Yer Dad” and somebody were to like, not catch the irony or the satire of it and go like, “This is really fucked up! They’re talking about the subservience of women to like, the patriarchal throne!” I’d be like, “Yeah, we are. That’s exactly what it means.” But at that point, do we confront this person, and like, not really, because art belongs to you, and it’s gonna be whatever it needs to be to you. And I’m not going to fight you about that.