Not So Quiet Anymore: An Interview with Solvej Schou

I was drawn to Solvej Schou’s Instagram profile because she posted about current events passionately alongside sharing about her life and music. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and an experienced writer, Schou has a unique insight. I knew she was a songwriter, and after previewing a couple of tracks on her Bandcamp, I definitely wanted 'Quiet For Too Long' on vinyl. Depending on what is going on, Solvej donates proceeds from her record sales to various causes. When I purchased in November 2020, proceeds went to Fair Fight.

Although the album was released in 2019, the political issues it represents all came to a head in 2020. Many Americans realizing they too had been quiet for too long. Schou had a similar revelation in 2017 as women took the streets around the #MeToo movement. Participating in Women’s Rights marches and a member of the steering committee for Turn it Up, a collective working toward gender parity in music, Schou is not only a fierce writer around these causes, but she’s also active and determined to put these principles to work.

With influences like Aretha Franklin and Patti Smith, Schou’s tenacious vocals complement the patterned rock hooks and blues accents. Overall it’s a powerful protest album, representative of the times. As a professional writer, when I reached out to Schou prior to the Inauguration with a few questions, she answered empathically (and I’m here for it).

Be sure to check out her Music:

An Interview with Solvej Schou

You started writing Quiet For Too Long (2019) before and during Donald Trump’s presidency. A lot has happened since then. Do you have some more music in the works? (if so..) Is songwriting helping you cope during the pandemic?

That’s a layered question for me. I have more music in the works, and songwriting during this pandemic has been a complicated process. A month before we first went into lockdown here in Southern California, in mid-March 2020, I had been communicating with an amazing artist and animator, Meejin Hong, about doing an animated music video for my Quiet For Too Long song No One Can Take Our Love, both a love song for my husband and a love song with universal appeal. Then the pandemic hit, and I got sick with what my doctor said by phone was likely COVID-19 (there was no testing then), and I had to socially distance myself at home from my husband. At the same time, Meejin finished the video: a swirling and powerful tribute to love and closeness in the face of hate. I waited months to debut it, aware of COVID-19’s impact on so many people. Because of my cough and breathing issues, I couldn’t sing and couldn’t play. I started writing poetry instead, something I’ve done since I was a kid. Slowly, I started singing again.

Then, the day after Memorial Day, I saw the horrifying video of George Floyd—a Black father of five—being murdered in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin, with Chauvin’s knee pressed on Floyd’s neck. I immediately thought of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man and school nutrition supervisor in Minnesota shot and killed by police in 2016, during a traffic stop, with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter in the car. The devastating live stream video she took is seared into my memory, and right after that, I wrote the song America, on Quiet For Too Long, in part about his death and systemic anti-Black racism, white supremacy, police brutality, and anti-immigrant fervor in America, also propelled by the rise of then-candidate Trump. Eerily and heartbreakingly, the day before George Floyd’s death, I started writing a new song, “Mirror World of Dreams,” about the pandemic—based on some of my earlier poems—with the chorus “I can’t breathe.” With my video set to premiere in early June, I pushed it back in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protestors around the country and the world demonstrating in support of Black lives, safety, and equality.

After premiering the video—donating 100% of proceeds from my album to the important Black-led organizations Black Trans Travel Fund, Ethel’s Club, and National Bail Out—I played some home shows on Instagram Live (I suggest investing in ring light and cell stand), and then my playing kind of ground to a halt. I’ve been cautious during this pandemic, and I’ve also been very lucky and privileged to be able to work (my day job as a staff senior writer at a college) from home during it. But when it comes to playing music at home, I’ve been conscious of noise, with neighbors, and being such a loud singer.

Pre-pandemic, I’d go to an incredible local practice space, Summit Rehearsal here in Pasadena, CA, to practice every weekend and play and rock as loud as I wanted. During this pandemic, I started living the title of my album again: quiet for too long. Recently, inspired by reading quotes from Kamala Harris, on the cusp of her being the FIRST (!!!) woman and Black and South Asian American woman to be Vice President, I picked up my Telecaster, plugged it into a tiny navy blue Fender amp I bought to play Instagram Live shows, put on some headphones and started working on a new song, also about COVID-19, and the avalanche of death and grief in this country. I also have a bunch of new songs that I wrote pre-COVID, after Quiet For Too Long Came Out. I’m trying to remember, practicing and playing at home, that I don’t need to be loud to be heard. Words carry their own power, loud or soft. There’s no room for perfectionism right now. Just express, let it out, feel grateful to be alive, with so much illness, death, and strife, and ground yourself daily in resilience and the will to survive.

How long have you been playing guitar?

I’ve been playing guitar since high school since I was 16, but I’ve been singing since I was a kid, and I started playing piano in junior high. There’s a cassette tape in a cardboard box somewhere of me as a feisty 4-year-old belting out Prince’s “Lady Cab Driver.” I grew up in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, listening to my Danish dad’s rock and blues records, from Lead Belly and the Pretenders to Los Lobos and Jimi Hendrix, plus jazz and classical music, and I love the fuzzy garage-y blues-soaked guitar. My first guitars were a classical acoustic and a black heavy, heavy ‘90s Fender Stratocaster, which I played for many years, and what I play on Quiet For Too Long. A sparkly blue American Elite Thinline Telecaster is what I’ve been playing for the past few years.

When did you start writing your own music?

Poetry and songwriting, for me, go hand-in-hand. I started writing poetry in elementary school, before and after my mom died of breast cancer when I was 9, just a week before my 10th birthday. Even then, the writing was the main outlet for my childhood grief—a safe space that was always mine. My dad is a talented guitarist and singer, and my late mom was a great piano player and singer, so I grew up in a household steeped in music. In junior high, I pushed my piano teacher to teach me blues chords instead of the usual classical tunes. My poems easily morphed into songs. In high school, I wrote my first song, “Just Call Me the Bitch,” a rock-blues-punk half-shouted feminist manifesto of teenage rebellion, and I was in an L.A. teen duo called Bitch & Moan. I loved music by PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Etta James, Billie Holiday, X-Ray Spex, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, L7. Women whose songs subverted patriarchal norms and who unleashed their souls unapologetically. The first time I heard PJ Harvey wail and groan, listening to her first album Dry, in the bedroom of my best friend, who later was in Riot Grrrl, I was completely in awe. “I want to do that,” I remember thinking. And I’m grateful to my L.A. public school teachers—from elementary school through high school—who supported my writing and music.

I’m impressed by how you cover so many issues on your album: police brutality, immigration, gender equality, love, mental health, and hell, even David Bowie. I’ve followed you for a little while on social media, and clearly, these issues don’t stay in the music. What do you have to say to people who tell artists/musicians to “shut up and sing”?

Would those people have told Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Sharon Jones, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Prince, Public Enemy, Alice Bag, Kathleen Hanna, Woody Guthrie, Kendrick Lamar, Rage Against the Machine, and so many other artists to just “shut up and sing”? Protest music has been the soundtrack of civil rights movements throughout U.S. history, and speaking out about injustice and inequality—from institutional racism and xenophobia to sexism, anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry and ableism—means speaking out both on and off stage, both in one’s music and in one’s life. I grew up listening to artists who were vocal in their own lives about what they sang about. Silence = being complicit. My newer songs, written after Quiet For Too Long, and during Trump’s presidency, include songs about mass shootings, reproductive rights, feminism, and our next-door neighbor’s murder.

Do you think that it is important for artists to discuss politics?

YES. On Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump white nationalist anti-Semitic insurrectionists—incited by Trump and his baseless conspiracy-fueled lies about the 2020 election—violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, leading to the deaths of five people. They waved Nazi and Confederate flags, shouted racist slurs, beat journalists and Capitol police, and were also enabled by police and GOP lawmakers. The rise of Trump as a dangerous, extremist, racist, xenophobic, transphobic, sexist, anti-democratic, anti-press, anti-science, anti-environment, anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Muslim, anti-Latinx, ant-Semitic, and authoritarian president, emboldening white supremacist extremism in the U.S., as well as his failure as a leader during this COVID-19 pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of Americans dead from the coronavirus, has made it very clear that NOT speaking out is not an option, and also for artists. I’m a Jewish American woman and writer-musician with lighter-skinned privilege. I’m also the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and refugees to the U.S. whose families were slaughtered by the Nazis. My late mom was born in a relocation camp post World War II and came to the U.S. as a baby. I thought of that every time I saw photos and video of children separated by the Trump administration and torn from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. I thought of that with the anti-Muslim travel ban and crackdown on immigration. I’m extremely aware of the dangers of anti-Jewish anti-Semitism both here and abroad. In 2016, a week after Trump won, I wrote an essay about my Holocaust survivor grandma and about my fears with Trump as our president. I traveled from California to the Women’s March in D.C. in January 2017, four years ago, to peacefully protest. Artists, especially known artists, have an enormous platform to speak out against injustice and speak out for democracy, voting rights, Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, disability rights, LGBTQ+ rights, POC rights, environmental rights, equality, and progress. Megan Thee Stallion and Alice Bag are two artists I deeply respect who’ve done that. And the day that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election (I phone banked for them for 2.5 months), I danced and cried with joy. Alice and I are in the L.A.-based collective Turn It Up!, working toward gender parity in music with other musicians, DJs, writers, and more.

You wrote “Stardust Hero” for David Bowie; he must be special to you. How has he inspired you?

I grew up listening to David Bowie through my dad, who played me his records, starting with 1983’s Let’s Dance. I discovered his earlier albums—Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust—on my own. He was groundbreaking: a music and fashion icon, twisting gender constructs and melodies into beautiful pretzels. I loved the way that he could co-write a powerful universal anthem-like “Heroes” and write a surreal shimmering intergalactic hit like “Space Oddity.” I wrote “Stardust Hero (for David Bowie)” the night that Bowie died, just 24 hours after seeing Patti Smith—another hero of mine—perform her first album Horses, for its 40th anniversary.

In addition to composing music, you’re also a writer. You’ve interviewed some of your heroes like Aretha Franklin and Patti Smith. How cool was that? What were they like?

I’ve learned, with interviewing heroes, that it’s best to keep your emotions in check, and it’s hard to fully reflect when you’re in the moment. I was so nervous and excited to interview both Aretha Franklin and Patti Smith. I’ll always remember when I interviewed Aretha Franklin—a short in-person interview many years ago, long before she passed away—that I anxiously and kind of randomly complimented her on her purple nail polish. I then looked down more closely, and her nail polish was actually cracked and chipped. I remember thinking about how the Queen of Soul, whose soaring voice, piano playing, and civil rights activism were gifts to the world, whose life and legacy had been filled with both strength and tragedy, had cracked nail polish, and that it was a reminder that heroes are human. She was both gracious and direct—a professional of the highest caliber. When I interviewed Patti Smith years ago, for a small intimate show in L.A., I told her about giving her a rose and a high school poem I had written about her when I saw her play at CBGB in New York City when I was in college. That was a moment I’ll never forget. I’ve covered her songs since high school, and I’ve written about her multiple times, including an essay on her for the 2018 anthology Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, edited by Evelyn McDonnell. In her signature raspy voice, hunkered down sitting next to me, she thanked me for those modest tokens of fandom I had given her many years earlier, and then she talked about who she would want to play her in a movie about her life.

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