AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS PUREKA: Feminist. Lesbian. Singer. Guitarist Extraordinaire
In June 2005, off our backs collective member Angle Young interviewed emerging singer/songwriter Chris Pureka over email. Pureka released her second album, Driving North, last year.
oob: In “Porch Songs,” you reference experiences you had touring with fellow Wesleyan grad, Alix Oison. What was it like to work with an established feminist, lesbian icon and absolutely awesome spoken word goddess?
CP: Well, when I first started working with Alix, she wasn’t “established” yet. I met her when I was in college and she was just starting out on the poetry scene. She asked me to come along on tour with her in the summer of 2001. It was her first national tour. And, it was really amazing to witness the impact that she had on people at the time when she was first getting her name out there. It was totally inspiring to witness her revolutionizing a medium and politicizing and motivating audiences all over the country. For me, it was an important opportunity to test out the waters, so to speak, of a career in music and to experience what it is like to be a touring artist. Further, musically it was a great experience to collaborate with Alix. Since my music is not inherently political, I love that collaborating with Alix allows me to exercise my political voice, so to speak.
oob: In addition to being an amazing singer/songwriter, you’re a technical master of the guitar. Performing Songwriter magazine, Peter Mulvey and Pamela Means, just to name a few, have commented on your incredible skill as a guitarist. How did you get to be so good?
CP: Hmmm. Well, thanks! I really think that it comes down to sheer time spent playing. I started playing guitar in high school and all through high school and college I would average a couple of hours of playing a day. Playing guitar is something that I need to do to stay grounded. It is a very important way for me to express myself. I think that a lot of my “skill” comes from just putting in the hours. In addition, I did take several years of lessons in both high school and college, which was helpful mostly for pushing me in new directions and exposing me to new techniques. Also, when it comes to writing, I have always admired songwriters who take the guitar to a new level. It is really very easy to strum chords on a guitar, but it is the artists that use the guitar as its own voice that I most look up to and appreciate. Pamela Means, Peter Mulvey, Patty Larkin and Ani Difranco are just a few of those artists who do that in my opinion.
oob: What artists have inspired you musically in your life? Is there one artist in particular that has been particularly inspirational to you?
CP: Well, I touched on this a little above…When I was growing up I listened to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens. In high school, I listened mostly to alternative rockCounting Crows, REM, Live, and my favorite band was Toad the Wet Sprocket. Then, someone gave me my first Ani tape, my junior year in high school and that was pretty revolutionary at the time. I had just started playing guitar then, I had never even heard of Ani, and didn’t know a single out queer person. I went to a ton of Ani shows. I don’t think that she is someone who shaped my musical style much actually, just more someone who set a precedent and created a space for me to write. In college, I mostly listened to a lot of singer-song writer, folkie types: Peter Mulvey and Kris Delmhorst became quick favorites. Later Patty Griffin, David Gray, Martin Sexton, Patty Larkin, and Tom Waits. I think it was these artists that really shaped my writing style. Also, lately I have been listening to a lot of Americana/Alt-country: Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams are two of my current favorites.
oob: What CD is in your CD player right now?
CP: Old Crow Medicine Show. They are a bluegrass/old timey/alternative country string band. I have been covering one of their songs on tour, a song called “Wagon Wheel.” So that’s what’s in the player. Other stuff I have discovered recently: Kathleen Edwards has a new album out called Back to Me and it is really solid. I am a big fan. Andrew Bird’s new album is brilliant. The Weepies (Deb Talan and Steve Tannen) have been in heavy rotation. Also Amy Ray’s new album, Prom has been getting a lot of play on the road.
oob: What’s your favorite guitar to play on stage?
CP: Well, I really only have one that I play out on. It’s a Martin. Honestly, I’m not in love with it, but it gets the job done. I used to play a Takemine too, but the electronics in it broke and after many attempts to get it fixed I sort of gave up. But I really liked that guitar. As for the Martin, I think it sounds pretty good but eventually I would like to get something a little more high-end.
oob: Have you played at any women’s music festivals? If yes, where and how did it compare to playing music in other spaces?
CP: When I toured with Alix in the summer of 2001, she had a slot on the day stage of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. So I was there and I ended up playing back-up with her on a piece or two. So I feel like I had a taste of that experience. And, given that, I think there is something pretty amazing about an all women’s space. I think that it is very liberating for both the performers and the audience, the feeling of playing in such a safe and supportive environment. And while I think that there is a need for a space like Michigan, I am also acutely aware of the problems associated with exclusionary spaces. While Michigan is an important space, I think it is also really important for there to be women’s festivals and queer festivals in which heterosexuals/other genders are allowed and encouraged to participate, because otherwise the progress is only taking place inside a bubble. I think it is part of the necessary progression of marginalized groups to continue to try to integrate and expose their culture to further encourage education and awareness.
oob: What does feminism mean to you? Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
CP: I don’t know how any self-respecting woman could not consider herself a feminist. Yes, I believe in equal rights and opportunities for all genders, sexes, races, sexualities.. .Even though my art is not inherently political, I think that what I do is political in nature-being a gender-queer woman making music in what is still a male/straight dominated industry.
oob: DIY rocker Emm Gryner once said “you will never make money doing what you love until you have to make money doing what you love.” What’s your secret for balancing making music, touring and practical survival?
CP: I think that everyone has to create their own way of making it work. The same formula is not going to work for everybody. For some people, the best thing to do is to take the plunge. And that can really work for some. For me, I have tried to slowly fade in more and more music and fade out supplementary income. For me I am taking it as a gradual process and that has worked really well for me. Now I have gotten it to a place where music is my main focus.
oob: Faux Pas Productions is an incredible womanowned and run production company doing amazing things in a field that is generally regarded as male-dominated. How did you become involved with Faux Pas Productions and how has the experience been working with a woman-run production company?
CP: I met Christen Greene, a few years ago, when Faux Pas Productions was in its beginning phases and I have been involved with the company ever since. Because of Faux Pas’s grassroots approach working with independent artists, it is the perfect company for me. Furthermore, yes as you said, it is great to be involved with a women-founded, owned and operated company in a male-dominated industry.
oob: We’ve taken an informal survey of people who listen to your music, and the vote has been overwhelming clear: as far as rock stars go, we think you’re hot. How do you feel about being a regarded as a lesbian sex symbol?
CP: Well, shucks. Umm. Thanks? Well, as long as people still come to my shows to hear the music and not just to ogle, then I feel great about it.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jul/Aug 2005
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