In your cobbled streets
And in your alleyways
I’m singing to the breaking dawn
And if you’re willing to die a little
You’ll hear my song
Since the late 1970s, Penelope Houston has been making the kind of music that sticks with a person. First as the buzz cut sporting blond fury at the helm of justifiably revered San Francisco punk rockers Avengers, but then through an always-compelling solo career that’s found her plying acoustic folk-rock of the highest order and most recently a mature, skilled kind of rock very much in line with the best work of Aimee Mann, Michael Penn and further back to Carole King and James Taylor. What remains at the core of every one of Houston’s evolutions is a powerful sense that one is being spoken honestly to, where the vicissitudes of life are held up to the light and explored for good or bad, and no one – most especially Houston herself – is spared unflinching scrutiny (and increasingly compassion for our shared failings). Combine that with a feeling soaked voice unique in its quiver and cadence, songs that stretch from pissed off howl to hushed intimacy, and a knack for choosing empathetic players to realize her work and you’ve got one of the strongest women to infuse rock with kicking life since Patti Smith took us breathlessly up to the 25th floor.
Houston’s latest release, On Market Street is arguably her single strongest solo effort to date, a song cycle of great subtlety and immediate grip, an appealing sound delivered by a kickass band – including longtime collaborator Pat Johnson (lead guitar) and Danny Eisenberg (Hammond and Wurlitzer) – where the real depths of the set sink in over time. It’s real music played by real musicians serving the material with real care, navigating the many themes of separation and what love will make a person do with impressive nuance and controlled force. In many ways, On Market Street is a tonic for all the over-processed, industry rock served up today. This is what a fine slab of pop friendly rock sounds like when it has real feeling, real talent, and most of all, that Houston honesty that extends to the feel of the performances and not just what’s spelled out in the lyrics.
We caught up with Houston to discuss her new album, the rejuvenated Avengers [who recently reissued the long unavailable classic Pink Album on May 29 with a whole disc of ace bunny killer bonus material], San Francisco and more.
This is the kind of record one makes only after a lifetime of experiences, often hard, complicated experiences, in fact. A real pro’s album – smart, well-crafted rock ‘n’ roll in every way.
Penelope Houston: Wow. Well, I’ve had a lifetime making music, so there’s that. I feel really good about it, too. I just wish I wasn’t the record label [laughs].
There’s a lot of life in these tracks, and the kind of things that don’t come out very easily when one sits down to write about them.
Penelope Houston: It did take a lot – seven years to record and put it out – and between my last record [The Pale Green Girl (2004)] and this one I went through lots of life changes – divorce, reengaging with the Avengers and performing and doing tours with them, as well as a gigantic lawsuit involving the Avengers’ Pink Album, plus going back to school and the botany classes I took [laughs]. I decided to go back and get my B.A. Being at university is mind-broadening anyway, and it got me back into my first love, visual arts, too. That lead me to do the painting for the cover of [On Market Street]. So, a lot has happened in the last seven years.
I was feeling overwhelmingly busy but at the same felt this group of songs incubating and wanting to come to life. So finally, on a summer break, I decided to finish them. I figured since it took me twice as long as a normal release I could throw twice as much money at recording it and see what happens. In a way, this was different because with other albums I’ve recorded four songs here and four songs there, sometimes with different people, and there’s a more patchwork quality. This one was done completely at Fantasy [Studios in Berkeley, CA], and the basic tracks were done in one week’s time, which I then work on over time, adding strings, vocals, and other parts. That all adds to the solidness of the record.
The record is satisfying from a sonic perspective. From the first spin, well before the songs sunk in, I thought, “Wow, this is nice coming out of the speakers.”
That’s nice to hear. I’m really happy with all the performers on it. There are other records I have where I love the songs but I listen back and think, “We’re speeding up here! Goddammit! How did I let this get on a record?” But we recorded in situations where I wasn’t in a position to do whole new recordings. This time I was determined to do it right.
When one lives through the kind of intense times you describe, what comes out in songs can sometimes be sharp and a little hard for listeners to digest. However, you exhibit great empathy and self-honesty on this album.
I would hope at this stage in life I’ve gained some insight and compassion towards humans [laughs]. Now that I have the Avengers again, I have this outlet for screaming at the top of my lungs and being angry. But for my personal stuff, I think I’m a bit more low-key and non-histrionic because I have both outlets.
Both outlets are exposed in their own way. In one breath you say you can’t bear another love song and then you’re screaming about Jesus. There’s got to be a catharsis to both angles
I guess. It’s interesting that I’m not writing new Avengers songs. The songs I’m writing in my mind aren’t for them. In some ways, I’ve moved on from the righteousness it took to get up there and shout at people and create that. I even say that in one song [on the new album], “If You’re Willing,” which goes, “My words are not so righteous anymore.”
That might be my favorite song you’ve ever written. I find myself shaken up by it in the best of ways no matter how many times I hear it. Truth can get into you either by piercing you or it can seep into us slowly. This one’s more of a simmer. It wasn’t until the fourth spin that I started to see how much was going on.
Well, thanks for the fourth listen! That song was one of the first I wrote for this album, and it was a breaking free kind of song for me. I wrote while on tour in Hamburg supporting Pale Green Girl. There’s a lot of ideas in there, and some of them are borrowed ideas like the idea of a crack being where the light gets through borrowed from a Leonard Cohen lyric. I realized I’d come to the point in my life where I can see that imperfection is one of the attractive parts of life and I had to embrace it in myself and the rest of the world. There will always be people that say this is right and this is wrong, this is black and this is white, but I think the longer an individual is on the planet the more they see there are a million shades of gray and we need to accept life as it is. Not that we can’t change things but we need to find a way to live. No one has directly asked me, “What does that song mean?” It’s more about an attitude towards living than anything else.
It’s not all heaviness on this record though. Songs like “Scrap” and “USSA” have a Brill Building skip to them.
“USSA” almost didn’t make the record. It’s a very, very, very old song – pre-Birdboys lineup – but there’d never been a recording of it. There was one television cable show we played it on, and that was the only recording of it I had. I thought, “This song is pretty funny so it might be fun to try it.”
You settled on calling the album On Market Street, so what is it about San Francisco that draws you in? The Bay Area drifts in and out of your songs all through the years.
In almost all of America – for me – it’s one of the most livable places. I love being by the sea; I’ve always lived by coasts; I’ve never lived in the Midwest. And there are actual physical things about the geography in California that I notice. Whenever I’m driving to L.A. I take photos of the foothills as we go by on I-5. I love those shapes, and I don’t know why! San Francisco’s size is something, too. It’s 7 x 7 miles, and it forces everyone close together, and then they have to cope with living together and that causes them to have more of that empathy that maybe comes out in this record. There are other aspects of America I find shocking and hideous.
Well, as you said, you have the outlet of the Avengers to help with those feelings. What is like to revisit that mindset?
There’s a part of me that still wants to belt out some righteous lyrics. I think the world still needs shaking up. I think people still need to be told, “Open your eyes and look at what’s going on. Don’t accept passivity.” Despite the fact that my attitude toward life now is focused on being a more empathetic person, I know now that most of America will just think I’m a freak or something weird [laughs. There’s a lot in Avengers songs that’s really still vital. And there’s a lot of people those songs have special meaning to, and they enjoy hearing them performed again. I don’t have any problem getting into that persona and revisiting that attitude. It’s actually quite satisfying. I remember one point in my folk-rock/acoustic career when people asked me about the Avengers and I said I missed having the opportunity to scream. Now I have both [laughs. There’s people who might say, “Grow up,” but that just makes it all the more bratty. Well, I’ll do whatever I want [laughs].
There’s your impetus to sing “Fuck You” right there. Is it fun to have a place in the punk pantheon? I’ve talked to some of the old school punks like Keith Morris about this, and I get the sense no one making this kind of music in the late 70s/early 80s thought they’d still be listening to and fired up about Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Avengers etc. in 2012. There didn’t seem to be a conception of longevity for this music.
It was really like the flyers you made – they’d exist for a week or two, just as long as necessary to promote the gig. We made stuff not thinking about it being looked back at. It’s quite interesting, and I recently gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver for this big punk exhibition with all this great stuff in it. It seems crazy that people are really looking at this stuff. But then you look back, it was a cultural movement that made us turn a corner and really changed things, not unlike the sixties. These are the kind of corners – or cornerstones really – that other stuff that comes after it is based on. Punk is getting that recognition now.
At the time, we thought we were an eraser on the chalkboard of popular culture, wiping out a lot of what had come before us and we were sick of. We wanted to start new with a blank slate. At the same time we were wiping things out we were creating a style that has endured. Maybe for me, the most important thing was the DIY aspect where anybody could do this and take popular culture back. You didn’t need three semis and five tour buses full of junk to do a concert. You just need your friend and a bunch of equipment and you get up and do it. I think that aspect of it is one of the important, enduring ideals punk inspired.
The sense of community was something I was really drawn to, especially in the dawn of the Reagan era where I felt no part of mainstream American culture. You had bands like the Minutemen sketching a tour map for other folks stuffed in station wagons and shitty vans that told the next band where they might play a gig and maybe get fed and grab some floor space for the night.
Unfortunately for the Avengers that all happened after we broke up in 1979. Touring across the country was unheard of at that point and probably not possible.
That’s part of the kick for any old punk (present company included) to see a band like the Avengers because we weren’t able to in 1979.
It is interesting to revisit that. For me, some of the most important parts of doing these shows is hearing from people how they were influenced and touched when they were younger. People have told me, “You’re music got me through a difficult part of my life,” or women will tell me, “I was so inspired by you I started an art career (or a band) that I never thought I could do.” That’s really gratifying, and a great part of doing the Avengers now.
Then as now, there’s still not a lot of women in punk rock or rock ‘n’ roll in general. There’s more than there used to be – I guess – but it’s still a valid topic of conversation that comes up a lot when I speak to women musicians.
I think it’s true of a lot of our creative arts in America. You have to work harder as a woman. And it’s also true for African-Americans in the art world, where you constantly have to prove yourself. It’s just a fact in our society that being male and white is gonna open more doors for you than not. It’s changing, overall, but there’s some backtracking, too. When society starts to get more conservative again there’s a backlash against women and minorities. I think we’ve seen that during the eight years of Bush Jr. which certainly pushed us back a lot in time.
And the current right wing of the country is even more rabid. Do you think we’re in the kind of environment now where you could see yourself writing new Avengers material?
It is pretty amazing. There is one song we do live with the Avengers – “I Believe In Me” – and I make up three verses completely new every time. So, I’m often inspired by where we are and the present moment each time for the lyrics. There’s definitely room for people to be speaking out.
Who do you see coming out to Avengers shows? Is it the grown-up versions of the same faces you saw back in the day reconnecting with their roots?
Sometimes I see that, but other times I see a lot of nostalgia for a moment in life where they felt this youthful belonging. That’s always a little bit mysterious on how to deal with people who are just nostalgic. But the number of people who come up and say, “This music changed my life,” make it worth it. However, there are an equal number of people who come up and say, “I had such a crush on you!” and I just hope they don’t go into detail! And it’s like, “Oh, you just did. I’m walking away [laughs].”