Interview: Anna McClellan + Bethlehem Steel

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At first spin, Omaha artist Anna McClellan doesn’t appear to have much in common with Bethlehem Steel’s frontwoman, Becca Ryskalczyk. The soft, twangy, and slow-burning folk McClellan put forth on her sophomore album Yes/No this past spring plays in great contrast with the fuzzy and driving pop-punk hooks that Ryskalczyk has built her career on. However, after only a few listens, it is clear the two are more connected by their similarities than it may seem. 

Both known imbuing raw emotion and sharp political wit into their songwriting, McClellan and Ryskalczyk are bonded foremost by their artistic sincerity. The two have spent their last albums, McClellan’s 2018 Yes/No, and Bethlehem Steel’s 2017 Party Naked Forever, delving into themes of self-reflection, focusing on toxic masculinity, objectification, and self-image. With these shared motifs coloring many of the songwriters’ tracks, it’s no wonder McClellan and Ryskalczyk would decide to work together on a mini-tour, in which they could collaborate and play on these common themes in their live acts.

In preparation for their stripped-down solo-sets in Burlington at Autumn Records this Saturday [6/2], hope all is well talked to McClellan and Ryskalczyk about their friendship and their tour habits, while also exploring how the two navigate performing and traveling as female-identifying solo musicians. 

hope: How did this mini-tour come about? How did you two originally meet?

Anna: I think you’re the one asked me, right? Didn’t you ask me?

Becca: Yeah, like we should do this. And then we were sitting and boom!

Anna: (laughs) I guess we’ve been friends because of the internet—email.

Becca: Yeah, we were emailing, and Anna then went to my show in Omaha. It was like once a week for a while, it feels like. Then we hung out. We had mutual friends and had a really fun night together until like 5 in the morning. Yeah, it was a good time—all over midtown.

hope: You both have varying styles, what attracts you both to each other’s music?

Anna: I just play the same thing whether I have a band or not.

Becca: I have songs that are specifically just for solo stuff and I don’t ever play those with my band. So, I get to do other songs.

Anna: Oh cool!

hope: That’s nice, so you get to switch it up.

B: Yeah, usually the Bethlehem steel songs need a band. The time and tempo changes don’t come across very well.

hope: I know in your second album, Anna, Yes/No, your writing was heavily influenced by being on the road in the West. So, the question for both of you is, is touring and traveling something that you connect with and find energizing to you as people and artists? Or are either of you much more secluded writers? I’ve known people that do their best writing on tour and some that need to rent out a cabin for a week and really dig into it.

Anna: I don’t write very well on tour, I don’t think, but I find it very energizing and inspiring. To actually write or compose a piece of thought and music, it takes like a month or something for me. I feel like touring is much more external and about other people than the writing process.

Becca: I have to agree. I’ll have some writings or poetry or rambling nonsense that I’ll write in the van or whatnot but for the most part [tour] is about feeling sane. Like just being more in that moment instead of trying to create something for another moment.

hope: Becca, you’re about to start a longer tour with your band Bethlehem Steel, and Anna, you were on tour for a couple weeks, is there anything you both do when you’re on the road to not burn out or go insane? Any stress relievers or self-care tips?

Becca: Apple cider vinegar.

hope: Like straight apple cider vinegar?

Becca: Diluted. Diluted. Usually, I’ll have a little in my mouth and I’ll take a little swig of water. Then I’ll do my vocal warm-ups in the car.

hope: What about you Anna?

Anna: I try to do Yoga every morning. At least a little bit.
Becca: I’m down with that. I’m always the last person awake, though.

hope: Are you both driving a van together for this tour?

Anna: We’re taking my van.

hope: So, if you’re getting off at a random highway exit for something to eat and fill up the van — what are your go-to gas station snacks? 

Becca: Oh, those cheese sandwiches or cheddar cheese popcorn.

Anna: Always chips of some kind. Seltzer probably. Sometimes if I’m feeling spicy, I’ll get a Starbucks cold brew. 

hope: So, the question that I ask everyone I interview. If a biopic/movie is being made telling the story of Anna and Becca “Summer Tour,” who would you cast to play yourselves?

Becca: Pauly Shore. 

Anna: Pauly Shore? That’s who would play you?

Becca: Definitely.

Anna: Huh. I don’t know. Maybe Meghan Markle? 

hope: I like the idea that this is a royal-themed movie.

Becca: I’d watch that. 

hope: Summer blockbuster for sure.

Anna: For sure.

hope: This spring, hope all is well did a concert series focused on bringing non-binary and female musicians to the Burlington area and we’ve been trying to continue that focus further. Being two accomplished female-identifying musicians, do you think the industry has been doing enough to be inclusive of women and non-male genders? Or could it be doing more?

Becca: It’s hard because we’re kind of in a very special and lucky pocket where within our community; we see people actually trying and I think getting out into the rest of the country, it’s still surprising when people are like Oh you’re a girl in a band! Or things like that. 

hope: So, you mean outside of New York?

Becca: Yeah, like Burlington is really good about it and I figure [other] bigger progressive areas. But specifically, like down south and other pockets of the country.

Anna: Yeah, I experience it everywhere. It still just feels so masculine. I’ve played so many shows where I’m the only woman performing and it’s partly on me too. I think there’s a lot of work to be done by everyone.

hope: I asked this question because both of you touch upon the ideas of toxic masculinity and objectification in your works, Anna this came in your most recent LP Yes/No and Becca in Bethlehem’s Steel’s debut Party Naked Forever.Becca this comes up explicitly in your track “Untitled Entitlement” when you sing “The only people who have truly made me feel uncomfortable are middle-aged white men, fathers of my friends, their fear, and repressed sexuality” and Anna, it materializes in a more thematic way of your search for male attention and validation through multiple of your songs. You both show think a lot about your identities as women and how it affects how you navigate through the world. How have these themes come up in your time as musicians—especially touring as two women alone? Have there been any instances or experiences that have been eye-opening for you both?

Becca: I like to count how many times on tour, male sound engineers show me how to use the mic stand. It’s not a big deal but it happens all the time. Like I know how this works. [They assume] you have no idea what you’re doing.

Anna: I haven’t had anything like that really. But just in conversations, [with] everyone, but mostly men, [the conversation] will turn back to them. And it’ll always be about men and what they know. I feel like it’s an insecurity thing. 

Becca: I’ve seen it happen a lot when you go to go play a show or you arrive at the spot, [the workers] will talk to the men in your band [first]. Without really addressing you, I’m gonna explain what’s going on to one of these guys. Like actually, hi. I know what’s going on. I was going to speak to you about how to set up the show. They don’t know what’s going on.

hope: Yeah I was going to ask you, Becca. Because you are touring with men most of the time—if that sort of thing happens to you and it seems like it does.

Becca: Yeah. It can be a lot, but I’ve been playing with my band for a long time and they’re very sensitive to it. They’ve been trying to learn more and pick up on it. And, just making sure that I’m comfortable. They get it. We recently had a woman join our band, so this is going to be the first tour having two females.

hope: In terms of having such a white and male-identifying dominated industry, how do you think artists, promoters, booking agents, PR people, journalists, etc. could do better? Even if just focusing locally on the New York DIY scene that you both participate in?

Becca: It’s good when you see more diverse shows. It’s not just based on race or gender but also sound because it doesn’t happen that much. You gotta get intermingling between different genres.

Anna: For sure. This a question that I ask myself a lot and feel responsible for too. But it’s really hard conversation surrounding race in general because you don’t want to force anything. 

hope: It’s definitely a situation, from what I’ve noticed, where people will put a band with a person of color in it or a female fronted band on a bill so there are those checkmarks are fulfilled but there’s still an all-white dude band headlining. So, it’s just checking off these seeming “requirements,” which ultimately tokenizes women and POCs.

Anna: I think it’s about being aware of how much space you're taking up and trying to take up less. Leave room for other people.

hope: So, taking a step back?

Anna: And not saying something because you think you have to. 

hope: For this tour, however, you’re coming up to Vermont and Vermont’s obsession with maple syrup is not a stereotype or exaggeration. Since you’re coming up to play in such a maple-obsessed state, what food are you putting your syrup on? (blueberry pancakes? french toast? Something else?)

Anna: I’ll put it wherever.

hope: Everything?

Anna: I was in Montreal and they put it in coffee.

Becca: Oh yeah. Yep

hope: Or if you’re feeling spicy, a Starbucks cold brew? 

Anna: Oooh yeah. 

Anna McClellan & Bethlehem Steel play Winooski, VT on Saturday, June 2nd with Adam Wolf at Autumn Records. Entry to the event is $5-10 // RSVP to the event here.

- hope all is well

This Article Was Graciously Contributed By:

Amy Garlesky is a philosophy/political science student and freelance writer based in Cleveland, OH and Burlington, VT. Follow her ramblings on twitter: @ayygarl.