Interview w/ Lois Maffeo
One-Half Of The Acoustic Act Lois
"I think that feminism and being a feminist is even more important now than ever," says Lois Maffeo, one-half of the acoustic act Lois. "I remember, like, even before the Riot Grrl movement, when I was doing my all-girl radio show at Evergreen College, I was really hoping that there’d be this day that happened where women would become recognized in rock'n'roll for their power and their potential, a day when people would be forced to reckon with women as professional musicians and people who knew what they wanted to do, who were engineering their own albums and stuff like that. The riot grrls were a dream come true to me, and there need to be more women out there providing positive images for young women to aspire to."
To Maffeo, whose parents were actively involved with farm relief and labor demonstrations throughout her childhood, politics are as important part of everyday life as anything else. Throughout her musical career—spanning 13 years and three different bands (Cradle Robbers, Courtney Love, and Lois)—Maffeo's songs have reflected her personal politics without ever getting pedantic or preachy. Her newest album, "The Union Themes," is a series of fictional portraits of women in different stages of relationships, ranging from initial blissful contact to the resignation that comes just before the end. Co-written with Fugazi's Brendan Canty, "The Union Themes" has a beautifully melancholy feeling to it, with the lyrical candidness that has trademarked Maffeo's work from the beginning. "In a weird way, I think the album's about marriage," laughs Maffeo. "I'm a cynic about marriage, and Brendan is a lot more optimistic about it. The album came about through nearly two years of us just talking about all the different ways people connect and disconnect, and those discussions eventually became these songs."
The fact that "The Union Themes" came about at all is just short of incredible. Maffeo and Canty first began playing together in the early 90's, when she moved to Washington, DC from Olympia after Courtney Love (the band) broke up. She had met Canty years before through his sister, a coworker of Maffeo's; after Maffeo relocated to DC, she and Canty struck up a more professional relationship, with Canty performing on several of her albums released under the band name Lois.
In 1994, though, Maffeo felt as though she had gotten everything she possibly could out of DC and moved back to Olympia. She released one more Lois album, "Bet the Sky", and hung up her guitar in exchange for a career in journalism. "I think I just got kind of tired of music and touring and all that stuff, and I thought I needed a break," says Maffeo. "That was my first decision. And then my second decision that I needed to make was: what was I going to do to make a living? And I figured, well, I had all this music knowledge in my head, so I might as well do something what it." Using her knowledge of the music industry, she managed to land successful writing gigs with Salon, CMJ Music Monthly, and a few regional Seattle newspapers.
She continued her friendship with Canty and his wife, and made a few cross-country trips out to see the couple and their new baby. "Every time we got together, we ended up making music," says Maffeo. "I don't know if our friendship is exactly based on that, but it's certainly a really big part of it. We really communicate well with each other musically, so it's always really fun to mess around and come up with songs." The duo recorded a series of demos during these visits that eventually became The Union Themes, and, joined by guitarist Pete Chramiec, went into the studio to lay down the final tracks for the Kill Rock Stars release in late 1999.
Maffeo feels that her stint as a working writer helped shape the music on The Union Themes. "I'm a lot more concise, and I articulate things better now," she says. "On this record, I really explored a lot more voices and characters outside of my own experience." But if there's a theme to the new record, it's the same theme that has permeated Maffeo's work from the beginning: "Believe in yourself, and love yourself, because you're all you have," she says. "The better you like yourself and trust yourself and know yourself, the better the world's going to be, for you and for everyone around you, because they'll be able to trust and believe in you—you project those feelings outward, whether you meant to or not. It's a struggle, I know—I don't mean to make it seem easy—it's incredibly hard to stay positive and keep believing in yourself, but it's wonderful mission to be on."
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