Political at Play: A Duo Interview by Elle PF and City Counselor

“All good art is political” says an oft-repeated quote from author Toni Morrison, and music is no exception to this rule. Artists across the world and throughout time have carried forward the torch of social change, crystalizing political messages through the medium of music. Among the artists taking up this mantle in Minneapolis are Ranelle LaBiche, the creative force behind Elle PF and Nicky Steves, who heads up City Counselor. In advance of a dual release show at The Cedar on Friday, October 19th for Elle PF’s debut album, She Wrote It, and City Counselor’s sophomore EP, The Work that Tools Do Ranelle and Nicky exchanged interview questions. Read on to dig deep into their shared passions, processes of creation, and hopes for what art can change.

Get tickets to Elle PF and City Counselor Double Release Show with Mike Queenz on Friday, October 19th, 2018 here.

Ranelle LaBiche (elle PF)

Interviews Nicky Steves (City Counselor)

The issues we are facing require all of us to be using every ounce of our abilities for social change.
— Nicky Steves
City Counselor - from L to R, Nicky Steves, Antoine Martinneau, Jared Hemming, Amy Hager

City Counselor - from L to R, Nicky Steves, Antoine Martinneau, Jared Hemming, Amy Hager

City Counselor is a Minneapolis-based electronic pop band making music about the sorry state of the world. Initially the solo project of composer and community organizer Nicky Steves (Lunch Duchess, BOYF), the group now includes Amy Hager (Fort Wilson Riot, Pornonono) on keys and vocals, Antoine Martinneau (Moors Blackmon, 2018 Cedar Commissions recipient) on bass guitar, and Jared Hemming (The Florists) on drums.

The Work that Tools Do is City Counselor’s sophomore EP, a collection that speaks to the moral ambivalence of the structures and practices of our society. Drawing on orchestral, funk, and dance-pop traditions, The Work that Tools Do is filled with satisfying swells and soaring vocals. Think Kate Bush if she ran for office with Stereolab and Anohni managing her campaign. 

Ranelle: What key factors influenced your creation and vision for the album?

Nicky: The Work That Tools Do speaks to the moral ambivalence of the structures and practices of our society, and the damage that results from that lack of accountability: unending gun massacres, those terrible “luxury” apartment buildings, and more. While some of the songs were inspired by specific people or issues (such as “Guns” and “Don't Ask”), others were more general - like “Mull It Over,” which is about the danger of the current culture of the strongman. I wrote that thinking partially of how Trump’s supporters absolve him of sexual assaults, terrible job performance and whatnot. It was striking to feel how much it resonated with other recent developments, like the Brett Kavanaugh hearing.

Ranelle: As someone who is passionate about both making political art/music, and also has dedicated your full-time career to working in politics and community advocacy, how do you balance the two? What are the challenges? Rewards? What do you do for self care?

Nicky: I see my artistic work and organizing work as different pieces of the same whole. I’m lucky to have a job that lets me think creatively about how we’re trying to reform systems. I’m also lucky to be the sort of person who does best when I have a lot on my plate. Funny enough, City Counselor began as a form of self care from my work-work. It has since grown into a much larger project, but it’s still a space where I can process my feelings, find better ways to be honest, and push for a cultural appetite for social change.

The issues we are facing require all of us to be using every ounce of our abilities for social change. I couldn’t imagine a better type of self care than seeing the world be slightly better than we found it.

Ranelle: This album is different than your debut album, Public Record, in that you started out as a self produced solo project. You recorded this new EP with a full live band. How did this decision come about? How was this process like for you?

Nicky: After receiving the Cedar Commission last year, I got to experience for the first time what it was like having a full group backing me on songs that I’ve written. It was really sad to think of going back to performing solo after feeling the depth and nuance that a full band gives to these songs.

Recording my first album gave me a ton of perspective on how I wanted to create The Work That Tools Do. After recording drums and bass with Jordan Bleau at Future Condo Recording Studio, Amy and I spent a few weeks cooped up in her basement workshopping the synths and vocals. I highly recommend having privacy to try new and weird things.

Ranelle: What do you want audience members at The Cedar to know before your performance?

Nicky: Working for social change can be fun! And art is a big way of how we accomplish that. I hope that audience members will join me in responding to the current moment not in fear, but in joy about we will build together. Come dance!!!

Nicky Steves (City Counselor)

Interviews Ranelle LaBiche (elle PF)

Moving forward, I need to have hope that these songs are not timeless.
Bury them. 
— Ranelle LaBiche
Elle PF - From L to R, John Acarregui, Ranelle LaBiche, Jenessa LaSota, and Tyler Phelps

Elle PF - From L to R, John Acarregui, Ranelle LaBiche, Jenessa LaSota, and Tyler Phelps

Orchestral rock and electronic production come to a head, birthing the cinematic sound of Minneapolis-based band Elle PF. Led by songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, & producer Ranelle LaBiche, band members Jenessa LaSota (bass/harmonies), John Acarregui (drums), and Tyler Phelps (guitar), help forge a soundscape where vocal harmonies that flow over symphonic-like movements with a rock sensibility.

Recorded and produced by LaBiche herself, She Wrote It will be the band's debut album; 12 tracks confronting the issues of social frustration, rage, loss, and melancholy. LaBiche’s musical style of writing wallows in the careful little details, inviting the listener on a linear journey using wide-stretched dynamics and influence to convey content ranging from political commentary to existential apathy.

Nicky: This is not a lighthearted album. The subject matter ranges from the deeply personal to the overtly political, all wound up with cinematic orchestrations and catchy pop melodies. Tell us about the thematic content that runs through this body of work.

Ranelle: I wrote most of these songs individually, some within recent years, and a few dating back 5-7 years. They are not all connected, but I can say there is a general theme of ongoing frustration. It is a bit discouraging, in that some of the songs I wrote years ago have become even more relevant today. A song being "timeless," is not always a good thing. Each song comes from a personal place and experience. Several of the songs engage in political commentary spoken through this personal lens.

In recent years, issues such as police brutality towards people of color, rape culture, general ongoing racism and sexism, the acceptance of these things in our society, and the lack of accountability across the board, have finally started to appear in the forefront of public awareness to the credit of organized social movements and public protest.

The first track on the album "Perennial Bygones" describes making movement towards social change, then experiencing the push back....the frustration and feeling that some things remain the same. It is right now reflected in our appointed and elected government, to the highest levels.

This is touched on in the track that me and my cohorts wrote in response to the 2016 election, "Drums/Guns."  Like a slap in the face, the outcomes bring me back to bitter reality and the truth that there is still so much to do.

The track "Slumber" speaks on social complacency and its role in perpetuating oppression.

"(I) Tiger" is a song speaking on very personal experience of sexism and rape culture, which I think most womyn can relate to.

Pushing past political (although political is personal), the album explores my existential apathy, complications with love, and experiences with addiction. 'She Wrote It' as a whole is inherently dynamic due to the catharsis of all content.

Moving forward, I need to have hope that these songs are not timeless. Bury them. 

Nicky: Your songs touch on the internal conflict of not wanting to, but having to participate in a hostile and violent society. As someone who writes, arranges, produces, and records all of her own music, could you speak about the connection between the DIY ethos in your artistic practice & the importance of individual action for social issues?

Ranelle: Empowerment. Participating in the creation of something whether it is art or music....for ourselves or to share with others....is empowering. It gives us a voice and a platform. It gives us the opportunity to express an idea or experience that is non-threatening and accessible.

I work in mental health and I often talk to people who feel discouraged, unheard, and powerless when it comes to politics or personal and social well-being. It can be difficult for me to respond, for I often feel the same way. I found that for me and others, taking action through creating something and/or becoming engaged in the local community is a way to not only feel connected and heard, but to take the power back in a way that feels tangible and meaningful.

I think that it is a healthy practice to accept who we are and who others are. I don't think we should ever have to accept the way things are. 

Nicky: Building on that, what is the role of art in pushing society forward? What should artists contribute? 

Ranelle: I don't like to put a definition on the role of art and what it should be for I think it is very versatile. With that said, I do think we can do better to intentionally utilize art and music in our society.  Not undervalue it's impact. Art plays a huge role in influencing politics. It can also greatly benefit medicine.....physical, emotional, cognitive and social well-being. It teaches and practices collaboration, communication, creativity and resilience. Yet it is still the first to be cut from education programs. It is always considered as "alternative" to other things. I would like to see this change. 

Nicky: Where are you hoping to develop/deepen your artistic voice? How does that relate to your political voice?

Ranelle: Through the process of preparing this album to perform live at The Cedar, I ended up scoring a string quartet. It has been awhile since I have practiced these skills and I ended up really enjoying it. I would like to dive back into doing more classical composition and writing some instrumental pieces. I've always wanted to write music for film. 

As far as my writing for Elle PF, I would like to continue to write from a place that is personal, genuine, and true to my style, while increasing my collaboration with the band. In music, I always strive to push boundaries. Same for politics. 

Nicky: Tell me about the process of self-recording and self-producing a record with so many moving parts.

It was an indescribable amount of work. I lost a bit of sanity in the process. I learned some things along the way. And I’m about to begin round two!

Nicky: What man can we give credit to for this album instead? (hahahahah i couldn't resist) 

Omg. Keep this in here because it is too real. You have no idea how many times I have been outright or inadvertently asked this question, hence part of the reason for the 'tongue and cheek' album title She Wrote It