Hesta Prynn on Northern State and her new Solo Project – Beat on the Street

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That said, I felt like a huge nerd interviewing her, because she’s known me for six years – mostly in the context of a totally geeky fan of her other band, Northern State, a trio of college educated white girls from Long Island who write sometimes feminist, sometimes political, sometimes funny but always intelligent rap music.  Northern State were a breath of fresh air in an increasingly misogynistic hip-hop environment, and Hesta emerged as the most gifted rapper of the group, often tackling the most difficult rhymes and the newer songs’ more melodic choruses.  As an aside, I first met Riese and Carly in person at Northern State’s record release show for their 2007 album Can I Keep This Pen? – so Northern State are very important to the Autostraddle mythology!

I knew Ms. Prynn’s solo project would be interesting, but it wasn’t until I saw her gig on the rooftop of Maggie Mae’s in Austin that I knew just how genre-free and fun her particular brand of lo-fi rock could be.  The next morning, Hesta was kind enough to sit down with me in her hotel room and discuss her new project Civil Shepherd.  In the process, we also talked about admirable women in music (including her BFFs Tegan & Sara), and somehow ended up starting a new band of our own.

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STEF: So I wrote down some questions… but I… It’s a little awkward so..

HESTA: It’s awkward cos you already know me?

S: Yeah.. it’s a little strange..

H: Well we can just have a conversation then.

S: Yeah.. So! I’m curious about why you’re doing a solo project and how it came about!

H: I basically wanted to do this because of something I’ve been hearing a lot of. On tour with Northern State – for years really, but particularly with Tegan and Sara, girls would come over – girls who were like, a younger me, and they’d be like, “Oh my God, I love you so much, you’re so awesome, I hate hip hop, I hate rap, but I really like you guys!” I feel like that’s something I’ve heard so much and something I kind of understand, particularly because in this day and age, I kind of hate commercial rap music too. I used to love it – I was like, the last man standing who liked it, and I was defending it as recently as three years ago!

S: It’s changed a lot!

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H: It’s changed a lot in the last ten years or so, and I think it’s changed for the worse, personally. I mean, when we started the band – for years I was SUCH the hip hop fan, I mean I went to sleep listening to Tupac, which I wrote about in one song, and I love Jay Z! We were on tour with the Roots and the Beastie Boys. That’s really what I wanted to do, and on the second record I was really trying to prove myself as a rapper, but that’s not really who I am anymore, you know? I think I’ve kind of grown up and moved on as an artist, so I feel like I have all these other influences. The new stuff I’m doing is kind of very 90s.

S: It reminds me of Le Tigre.

H: Yeah, and that’s great. I love Le Tigre also, you know? And it’s kind of where we were going, like my contributions to [Northern State’s last album] Can I Keep This Pen?

S: I actually said [to Hesta’s tour manager] the other day, the last couple of Northern State records had songs that were increasingly melodic, and the last album had songs that I didn’t think were even really rap songs.

H: Exactly. “Away Away,” you know, is a song I that really spearheaded… “Better Already” is another one. That’s really the direction I was going in, and I wanted to make a record that was more accessible, for the people who said those things to me. I wanted to make a record that people could like without any sort of “but..” – you know, “I love this music, I love this record, I love this show.” And that would be it – ’cause I like stuff that’s accessible, I like pop music. That’s what I was trying to do.

S: There’s that one little part (in “Seven Sisters”) where you’re rapping..

H: Yeah, there’s still rapping, it’s still me, but I think that I’m a mix of a lot. I’m a white girl rapper from New York, so I’m a mix of a lot of different influences. I wanted to make music that showed maybe more a portion of those other influences and less hip hop.

sxsw004-156S: I thought it was cool maybe for someone who didn’t know you, seeing you just bust that out.

H: Yeah thanks, cool.

S: What’s different about writing and recording yourself, as opposed to collaboratively?

H: I’m not really doing it myself, even though I’m the primary voice on the record. I’m not doing it myself cos I have this whole sort of cast of characters, you know? Chuck Brody is producing and co-writing, Jon Siebels, a producer from LA from Eve 6, who was playing guitar yesterday, he’s co-producing, so the three of us have really written these songs. Then Sara Quin from Tegan and Sara has really been like, A&Ring. She’s overseeing.. curating or whatever word we’ve been using.. We don’t really know, but she’s been really helpful and sort of adding suggestions and parts and even writing parts! All of her parts are always the best parts of the song, of course – because she’s just an amazing, amazing talent. The other part of the cast is Bear Hands and Tim Harrington. Everyone on this record is really an artist, even Eric who plays drums – he’s a fantastic writer. Dave from American Princes wrote one song..

So it hasn’t really felt like I’m doing this on my own.. It’s not really so much as a band – it’s just, you know, if you’re asking who’s the main band, it’s not me, Sprout and Spero, it’s me and Jon and Chuck.

I’ve enjoyed not having to compromise as much! I really actually like that a lot. I just wanted to try something where I didn’t have to make so many compromises, and if I win or lose, it’s on me. I really enjoy it and I’ve liked this kind of music. I don’t have to fit any formula – I’m not doing what I did, I’m trying something totally new for me. If I’m thinking of doing something, I’m like ‘Oh, let’s do that.’ There are songs that have more rapping than there are on this 5-song ep, and there are some that are genre-less – we’re just like, fuck it, let’s do it. There’s no one to answer to. It’s pretty cool.

S: Even playing by yourself – I saw you even kind of moving a little bit differently.

H: Yeah, well I think the shoes were a big part of it (laughs).  Um, it’s challenging, I have to say – that’s the thing. Last night was a particularly big struggle for me; there were no monitors.. It was a really hard show.

S: It was a weird setup (Last night’s show was held on a rooftop patio).

H: It was very weird; it was very stressful, and I feel very comfortable on stage generally. Last night was a bit of an anomaly for me. I feel very confident commanding the stage – [my backup singer] Lauren is an awesome person to sing with. Lauren has a gift called being pitch perfect – she’s always on key, like, ALWAYS, and it’s so wonderful to sing with somebody who’s ALWAYS on key. I feel like I’m not alone up there but I’m getting used to it and I think I’ll keep getting used to it – and it’s fun playing the keyboard!

S: There’s like, NO girls who play instruments anywhere anymore…

sxsw001-1131H: That’s funny ’cause on the way up we were just talking about Samantha Crain, there’s an example of a woman who’s a fuckin’ sick – Do you know her? (I shake my head) These are the people we talked about on the way up here – Tori Amos, who is the sickest piano player ever, Samantha Crain, who’s a tiny little girl from the South who plays guitar, harmonica and sings – she’s like, a full one-man band. Um, who else did we talk about? Erin McCarley, Tegan and Sara - I mean there are a lot of really cool artists who play, I think it’s just there’s also a lot of girls who are just the lead singer in a band. That’s actually something for me that I argued with – I have to play the keyboards! I don’t want to just be the lead singer! Cos it’s kind of cliche, you know?

S: Bums me out.

H: Yeah, me too.

S: I feel like when I was like eleven years old, you’d see all these bands – you’d see Courtney Love with Hole and all these women playing instruments, and now these kids don’t even know that they CAN.

H: Maybe it’s come full circle.. It’ll go back to where it started.

S: I hope so, I hope it starts again.. So who else are you seeing here at South By?

H: I’m gonna see Kenan Bell today, I’m gonna see the American Princes tonight, I’m gonna see Tori Amos, I’m gonna see Peggy Sue, who I’m playing with tomorrow, I’m gonna see… well I don’t think I’m gonna see Bear Hands but I love Bear Hands so I always mention them. I have a whole list of other people I wanna see, like an actual list.. I wanna see Wavves, just cos I heard it’s like, the hot thing.. Who else are we seeing? The Pains of Being Pure at Heart? Are School of Seven Bells here? I’d really like to see them.

S: They are. I think they’re great – I tried to see them before your show, over at Buffalo Billiards. There was a line all the way around and they were only letting people in when other people left. I think they’re playing the Pitchfork party on Friday afternoon..?

H: I’ll just see ‘em in New York.

I think I weirdly fit in more with gay women than straight women or men of any sexual identity. I don’t have an answer to that, but I’m into it and I hope it continues cause gay women is my peoples..

S: Who else are you listening to?

H: I’m listening to One Day As A Lion – have you heard that record? It’s put out on Anti, it’s Zach de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine, dude from Minus the Bear on drums. I LOVE it – I have a t-shirt that I got from them cos I love them so much that I called and asked them for one! They’re putting out a full album and I’m really excited about that. I was listening to the Kings of Leon a lot until fairly recently.. I listen to the Pixies constantly, I think that’s who I listened to on the flight here. I just heard this band the Temper Trap, saw ‘em in New York last week and really liked them.. They’re kind of a hot up-and-coming band. It’s so hard – I hear so much music but I wouldn’t say I really listen to a lot of stuff. Oh, a band I fucking love right now is Lez Zeppelin (an all-female Led Zeppelin cover band). I’m trying to play a show with them. I think they’re just fantastic.

S: Why do you think – well, I know this was true of Northern State but I also noticed this last night.. Why do you think you appeal so much to the gay community?

H: (thinking) ‘Cause we’re just..

S: It’s a weird question.

H: The male gay community or the female gay community?

S: The female gay community.

LAUREN: ‘Cause you’re hot girls!

H: I dunno, what’s the answer to that?

S: Your tour manager told me that all the girls were tryin’ to get you drunk in Philly…

H: Yeah, that’s true.. They were trying to get me drunk last night too. I don’t know, I’m very grateful! I feel like that’s a community where I fit in. I work with so many dudes and I’m around dudes constantly and I think I weirdly fit in more with gay women than straight women or men of any sexual identity. I don’t have an answer to that, but I’m into it and I hope it continues cause gay women is my peoples.

S: Excellent – there’s my pull quote.

H: (laughs)

S: Civil Shepherd, is that just like, the name of the record? I think that’s awesome.

H: Yeah, it’s the name of the band, but I think the record will also be called Civil Shepherd, Hesta Prynn in Civil Shepherd. I don’t know, I haven’t even thought – I’m taking it one step at a time. I keep putting it off. It’s just like, I was on Hollywood Boulevard while they were recording drums in LA and I was on Hollywood Boulevard thinking: ‘Oh, what the fuck am I gonna call this project?’ I wanted to call it Hesta Prynn, but I didn’t want it to be just me because you know, it’s not just me at all in the writing, recording, on stage! I don’t want people to think it’s like, me with a fucking guitar. So I was walking and I saw the Cybil Shepherd star and I was like, ‘Cybil Shepherd… Civil Shepherd! Oh, that’s kind of funny, like shepherding the people!’ I asked Sara, ‘What do you think of Civil Shepherd?’ and she was like ‘That’s really funny, I love it!’ And that’s it!

S: It’s a good name!

H: It’s cute!

S: It’s a good band name, I’m always coming up with good band names and I’m a little jealous of that one.

H: Really? I’m so happy you said that.

S: I really wanna start a riot grrrl band called Tyra Mail, like, really badly.

H: (gasps)

S: Like, every time someone on America’s Nex Top Model yells “TYRA MAAAIL,” everybody’s like “AHHHH!”

H: That’s the best name I’ve ever heard!

S: I keep trying to pull people into starting this band –

H: – Can I be in it?!

S: YES, please!

H: I would love to be in Tyra Mail.

S: Excellent.

H: I’ll play whatever you want me to play.

S: Alright, I have to pull people into this. Every time I bring this up, people are like, ‘That’s the stupidest idea ever.’

H: It’s the BEST idea ever.

S: I mean, like, you could put three exclamation points after it!

H: TYRA MAIL!!!

IN UNISON: AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!

S: They totally freak out! They start crying!

H: Totally. Awesome. I think that’s really funny.

S: Wonderful. At least I have someone in my band. What else do I have? Oh! Obviously you’re gonna tour off this project – who do you wanna..

H: .. tour with?

S: Yeah.

H: TEGAN AND SARA! Um, besides Tegan and Sara?

S: That seems pretty probable right?

H: I hope so.

S: They love you!

H: I love them! They like to tour with bands that are small though, that’s the thing.. This is not a small band, as you saw. So… who would I like to tour with? I don’t know, I think the other reason I wanted to do something accessible is that I want to open up the touring base and tour with regular bands. I think we could tour with four boys in a van, and I don’t think we could have done that in my other band, really.. So I’d like to tour with a lot of people and I’m pretty open. I don’t really know who’d be the right person right now.

S: I feel like I’ve really seen you guys (Northern State) like, everywhere… I saw you guys play at Maxwell’s in ’03 to maybe 12 people, and I’ve seen you play to 3,000 people at Webster Hall.

H: You were at that Irving Plaza show we did with Le Tigre.

S: Not with Le Tigre.. I was at Girlz Garage.

H: Oh yeah, we dropped off that tour like the week before.

S: Yeah, that tour was a mess. Oh man, LILLIX!

H: I’m a sucker for that kind of shit. I liked it – power pop!

S: Those contact lens commercials they did were pretty great. I found that girl on MySpace and was like, ‘Dude! I love Acuvue too!’

H: That’s funny.. You know I’m in like, a soy milk commercial?

S: Are you really?

H: Yeah.

S: I don’t have TV anymore, I’m that punk rock now.

H: That’s hot.

S: Yeah, I moved to a new apartment and it was like, all punk rock vegans and I was like, this is perfect, so I didn’t want to rock the boat really.

H: Are you vegan?

S: Yeah.

H: Wow! I’m sorry, you’re gonna have to leave now. Just kidding (laughs) So I wanna give you a t-shirt!

S: Is it weird for me to wear one with your face on it?

H: No, it’s awesome – I always wanted one and I was never allowed to have one in my old band. On that LAST tour I was like, ‘Can we PLEASE have one shirt with our faces on it?’ So I was like, ‘This is my band, I’m putting a HOT picture of myself on it!’

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Let’s be fair – the picture on the shirt is awesome.

Hesta’s next shows are both in NYC – April 2 at Highline with Tigercity, and April 15 at the Mercury Lounge.

As of this publication, TYRA MAIL!!! had no shows scheduled.

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Stef Schwartz is the Music Editor and self-appointed Vapid Fluff Editor at Autostraddle.com. She's a rock'n'roll jack-of-all-trades, vegan crusader and legit professional weirdo. She lives with her cat Scully in the wilds of Brooklyn, where she plays a bunch of instruments in some bands or whatever. Follow her on twitter.

Stef has written 109 articles for us.

25 Comments

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    Great interview Stef! You really get a feel for both her music and her personality. I love Hesta. I got to meet and take pictures of her with Northern State last year. Don’t you love when talented people are also adorable and nice? I wanna t-shirt!! :)

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      hey bren – it stands for “artist and repertoire” – it’s the people who find, sign and nurture talent. in this case you could say sara quin is acting as the creative director? according to an actual book i just pulled off my bookshelf (“all you need to know about the music business” by donald s. passman) in search of a better definition, responsibilities may include matching songs to singers, runing recording sessions, matching producers and artists, and generally overseeing projects. they used to do more of the producer-y stuff, but today that’s not as common.

      hope that helps?

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    Dope interview, Stef. Conversations are the best kind. Especially when they’re with fun people. Hesta gets a BB seal of approval. Looking forward to the TYRA MAIL!!! record.

    PS
    Of course this is what gets me to pop my autostraddle cherry, ha.

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    AAHHH!! I was so excited when I found out that Hesta Prynn was interviewed by a writer from AS. I can’t even tell you how much I’m loving the EP right now. It’s been in my car CD player for weeks now and on repeat on my iPod.

    I loved this interview. Hesta, always seemed really laid back and down to earth. I feel like sometimes you can hear it in her voice when she sings, she’s just a damn cool person. Love this girl.
    And the shirt. Yeah, it’s hot!! She’s a genius! She knows what’s good.
    “gay women is my peoples” <3

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    I’m quite behind on this, haha. But after reading this she sounds like a pretty dope chick. nice interview..! It’s cool that she listens to One Day As A Lion, not many girls are into it, one thing though.. I’m dont know much about minus the bear but I do know that the drummer for ODAAL is Jon Theodore, like The Mars Volta Jon!
    Nice work.

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    Gotta say, I’m gonna miss Northern State. I’m glad she’s doing things on her own and that Sara Quin is going to be involved. Nice person to have watch her back!! But I wish NS would have given it one more try… but what do I know? Love One Day As A Lion too!!

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