Even in the angriest yelp that escapes War on Women singer Shawna Potter’s lips, a glimmer of hope is always smuggled underneath.
Explicit, socio-politically engaged, and energized, the Baltimore punk band is long familiar with addressing deep-seated American conflicts in their music, with their last record Capture the Flag serving as a particularly thick-skinned example. The band’s new album Wonderful Hell (out digitally today, October 30), establishes a new setting for their modern riot grrrl movement and crucial calls for activism. Wonderful Hell could be a place, a country, a state of mind, a reaction; none of the above, yet simultaneously, all of it. But however the listener interprets the title, there’s a sterling hope for a better future tucked inside — hope for a world that’s rid of unjust -isms and the forces of oppression that exist today.
“Let’s raise some wonderful, beautiful hell / And make this world worth living in,” Potter announces on the title track, revealing the crux of the album. In her recent chat with Vanyaland, Potter talked about just the kind of work — and art forms — that will help get us there, right before election day. Read on below.
Victoria Wasylak:Before we get into the album, I saw you are going to be starting a podcast.
Shawna Potter: I am, yeah. I’m starting a podcast, and I 100 percent never in my life thought I would. It’s not something that ever interested me before. I also, probably like most people, got really tired of the fact that podcasts blew up so big. I was just like, ”there’s just too many. There’s too many podcasts, there’s too many people doing it. What’s the point?” I’m certainly swallowing a little bit of humble pie and remembering, well there’s also way too many bands, but we still play music, you know? You just got to do what you wanna do. And if people like it, great. If not, who gives a shit?
But I just wanted to do something different and more in-depth to share what these songs are about, [more] than anything I’ve done before. And without getting a chance to yell about it on stage and tell people “This next song is about…” then I thought, well, let’s really take our time with it. Let’s have some conversations about it. I know I’ll learn something because I’ll be interviewing experts on some of the topics. And hopefully, everyone walks away with something that makes them feel better about what they can do so they feel a little less powerless, they feel like they can help.
Was that what changed your mind when it came to your opinion on making one?
I think about it more like “this is just an addition to the album.” It’s an appendix to the album. I’m not really thinking about it, like, “I’m starting a podcast!” I’m gonna do this thing that relates to my album, and if no one cares, then I can stop, and I still will have accomplished what I set out to accomplish. If people really listen or like the format, or want me to expand and interview other singers and extend it out to other people, and it’s something I can pay my mortgage with, then yeah, why not? So I’m just trying it out, and we’ll just see how it goes, and I have no expectations either way.
The album itself, I think it was mostly finished before April, right?
Yeah, we were already halfway through, more than halfway through, recording. We just had my vocals to do, really. Yeah, the songs were finished. We were just finishing up a record and watching the world unfold. “Unfold” is not the most accurate word with how I actually feel about what’s happening to the world, but, yeah, just watching everything crumble. I think that’s one of the ways that we were all able to stay sane for a little longer, is that we had an album to finish. There’s definitely the idea that when you’re stuck at home or you feel hopeless, or when bigger things are going on, one of the things you can do is just feel productive, right? Having a task every day, even if it’s just clean the bathroom, even that can help you get through the day. And so to have “finish an album” on our to-do list I think was actually really, really helpful for us.
Did you have to change any of your plans when it came to assembling the final product? Was any of that affected by the situation?
I think the biggest thing was just how busy or slowed down are the vinyl plants, you know? We just didn’t know if they would get to our record this year, no matter how much time we gave them. There was a period where they were like, “Well, production is really slow. There aren’t a lot of employees.” Then all of a sudden they have a high demand. We didn’t know if this record would make it out before the election. And frankly, that was my number one priority, to get this album out before the election so that if people needed something to express their rage to, I wanted to help provide an outlet for that.
Is that why the physical release is slightly later? [November 13]
Listening to the album all the way through, my reaction to it was it’s almost like feeling everything I felt directly before and after the 2016 election, and then kind of reliving the three and a half years since then. It was everything I had felt crammed into this set of songs.
I feel like I should apologize that… [laughs]. That’s a lot of feelings.
No, no, I think it serves as a really good time capsule for someone who might in 50 years, think, “What was it like to live [in this time period]?” And, well, you wanna find out?
Play this album. Amazing.
Especially with a song like “Her.” That really took me back. What did it feel like for you, assembling all of these songs that are so rooted in the past four years?
Well, you know, it actually makes a lot of sense, you saying that. It was not my intention by any means. But music is a magical thing like that, right? Writing lyrics is a magical thing. I often find that I’m predicting the future with my lyrics, because I’m talking about social justice issues or oppression, and I’m talking about the past, and it keeps repeating itself, and so it’s also the future. It’s a really wild thing to see where your lyrics fit with people and even yourself once an album is finally out, which could be a year after you wrote the lyrics in the first place.
And so I have spoken about this, how on our last record, Capture the Flag, I didn’t want it to be a Trump record. In my mind, I always think I didn’t wanna give him the satisfaction. [It’s] really silly to think that he would know who we are or care. I don’t mean it in a narcissistic way. I just mean, that’s how much I couldn’t stand him. I didn’t want to make a record that I had to look back in time on, and instead of being proud, I just think of Trump. I didn’t want him in my life! I didn’t want him connected to my life any more than he already forced his way in. I avoided thinking about him on the last record. That also came out pretty shortly after the election, but I think since that election I’ve been pretty dejected and just kind of, not depressed, but just exhausted not knowing what I can do to help. If what I did all these years before didn’t prevent this, what can I do? And I think a lot of people are feeling that feeling of hopelessness and being lost. Maybe you’re right. Maybe on this record I’m finally processing all the feelings of the last four years that maybe I couldn’t right after the election. I just didn’t have the strength to do it yet at the time. And now I have [processed that].
It’s interesting to hear you talk about what emotions you were feeling when you were working on this, because a question that I had was, what emotions for you were the driving force for this record? I think there’s a misconception from people who either don’t like punk music or they don’t listen to punk music, that it’s just all angry. And anger is definitely there, but I think to say it’s just angry, it’s just people who are pissed off, is a gross oversimplification of what goes into this kind of music. For you, like, what were the driving emotional forces when you were assembling this whole package?
Well, I think, again, feeling productive helps ward off any acute depression or feelings of hopelessness. So that was one thing. Also, no matter how much trouble I might be having writing a record, because my heart is not in it, there’s always going to be some issue or topic or story that comes up that really interests me, that’s just a little easier to write about. That’s something that I always do. I’m always writing down ideas or little one-liners or researching this thing or highlighting passages in books that I think are interesting, stuff like that.
But I’d say overall, writing this record was a little slow-going, and I say that just in comparison to Brooks [Harlan’s] writing. He’s very prolific. And it’s not fair! You can’t keep up, you know? I’ve always got that in the back of my mind where I’m just like, “Goddammit, Brooks, slow down. Let me listen to what you’re doing, see if I’ve got anything.”
Once I can get over the fact that, of course I’m not going to be as quick as Brooks is on writing. But even that aside, I was still just barely chugging along. I’m probably gonna talk about this on the upcoming podcast, actually — I had a conversation with an acquaintance and friend and fellow activist Ryan Harvey, who’s a Baltimore guy, and we were just talking about being too sad to write songs. Or, the songs we were writing, no one would want to hear because they’re just like, “ugh, fuck this.” Just by having that conversation and putting language to how I was feeling and knowing that someone else was feeling the same way, all of a sudden, it’s like a veil was lifted, I was able to write more. All of a sudden I felt like, “Okay, Shawna, like, you’ve wallowed enough. Let’s get back to work.”
I think that I didn’t know it consciously at the time, but looking back, I feel like there are these moments of hope throughout the record, too, that are saying, “We can do this.” Like, yeah, we had a setback. And setback, it minimizes it, right? People are fucking dead because of this president. It’s bigger than a setback, but we can change that. We can change that now. Get back to work. That’s the feeling that, other than just being fucking pissed or fucking sad and exhausted, it’s like, okay, you felt your feelings, now it’s time to put those feelings into action.
And, again, people who don’t listen to punk music might be surprised to hear this, but I don’t think punk music can exist without hope, because it’s always pushing for something to change. It’s always saying, “We need better, safer conditions for these people. We need better treatment of this group of people.” And if you don’t have any hope that that could happen, then it’s like, what are you yelling about? I mean, I guess you’re just angry. You’re allowed to just be angry and express just the anger, but…
Right, yeah, there’s room for all of it! There’s room for all of it, I’d say. And I think the best kind of punk is obviously the kind that is challenging a status quo and is not the kind that’s just “I’m another angry white dude.” I don’t give a shit about that anymore. I don’t care about what they have to say, what they are fake angry about because it’s fun. I don’t care about it. But there’s certainly room for every human being to sometimes feel angry, sometimes feel sad, sometimes feel hopeful. That’s the human experience.
I try to explain this to people who don’t listen to punk. People associate punk with just “I’m gonna break shit, and I’m gonna wear leather.” That’s not what it’s actually about. It’s about advocating for issues that you face and other people face and trying to change that.
Yeah! And sometimes you do that by just being angry about the thing that’s bothering you and raising awareness. Sometimes you don’t have the answer. Not every punk band has the answer. We’re just shedding light on something and hoping someone smarter than us can do something about it. But I think you’re also speaking to something that maybe prevents some women — and people that have grew up and socialized as women — it prevents them from giving us a listen in the first place. They don’t think punk is for them because it’s supposedly just angry men, and not everyone is into that. A lot of people have bad experiences with angry men, and rightfully so, they avoid those themes to help protect themselves. And they’ve also been told that anger is not for them, period. One of my hopes is that people who don’t really listen to punk music, or metal, or whatever, would give us a try and see that there is a space for them.
When you were growing up and coming into your own as a musician, what was it that made you feel welcome and that made you not feel like that? Or maybe you did feel like that in the beginning, and then you saw that there was room for you, and it wasn’t just an angry white dudes’ genre?
Well, I think I’ve said it before that I’ve always loved music. I was always singing. I was always dancing. You know, putting on little shows for my family. I was always doing stuff like that, trying to entertain people, whether they wanted me to or not. I always loved music. But one day, on TV, I saw a woman playing guitar. I saw Courtney Love playing guitar in a music video. And that’s when I realized, “oh, girls can play guitar?” That’s the only time I ever thought I could play an instrument and not just be a pop star. That obviously changed my life, the trajectory of my life. War on Women is the first band I’ve ever been in that I don’t play guitar. So there’s that moment. Then I definitely listened to Bikini Kill a fuckton and was, upon first listen in junior high, being totally shocked at, “oh, my God, they’re just saying it.” They’re so angry. And it’s fun, you know? That really stuck with me.
I think that just by growing up with a single mom and being the kind of person I am, when I started going to clubs — or not even clubs, all ages spaces — and started going to shows and seeing bands playing, and my own band started playing, obviously I was outnumbered a lot. But I was in a band with women — well, we were girls — so that helped. And then I think just I’m just someone that was like, “Well, fuck you, I deserve to be here.” I often did things in spite of sexism, not because of it. I did it in spite. But I maintain the view that that is an unreasonable thing to ask of everyone. That is not something that everyone can do. That is one way to deal with hardship. And to assume that every woman or non-cis man should barge their way into a space like this, it’s just not gonna fucking happen.
I feel lucky, I guess, that I was able to be like, “Fuck you, my band is awesome.” Even if I was singing flat the entire time, I had that teenage like, “I’m great. I’m invincible. I’ll never die!” All that stuff. But my hope is that by being on — well, I was gonna say being on stage — but by being in a band of people in your age that don’t fit into a pop star mold and how we look, that we can show other people that there is a space for them. That they’re safe with us, that they can come along for the ride.
My favorite song on the record is the first track, “Aqua Tofana” . . .
Oh my God, I love “Aqua Tofana.” I fucking love this song. I cannot wait to play it live!
It’s such a big, big opener. I wanted to give you the chance to talk about it because I’m almost afraid that people who aren’t familiar with the band will hear it and misunderstand what the point of the song actually is.
Well, you tell me what you think the point of the song actually is.
I have the privilege of having a press release so I know that it’s satirical and that this is what some people think that feminism wants. “We will just kill all men, and then it’ll be fine, and we’ll all live happily,” which is not what any of us actually want. And if you actually know anything about feminism, you know that it does benefit people other than women.
It benefits everybody. But when I was listening to it, a piece of me was like, “oh my God, imagine if someone who cannot read between lines got a hold of the song.”
Yeah, let the rape and death threats commence.
I wanted to let you talk about it, and ask why you wrote it in this very hyperbolic way. Are you afraid people will misunderstand it?
I don’t give a shit if people misunderstand it. I don’t. Whatever. I don’t care. But, yeah, I think you’re exactly right. I honestly was thinking “well, men’s rights activist or misogynists, what do they think a band like War on Women really wants? What do they think feminists really want?” Why are they okay with listening to other heavy bands where men talk about all kinds of fucked up shit, but they’re like, oh, War on Women, that’s too extreme. Which, I assure you, we are not that extreme. It was just like a thought experiment of saying, “is this what you think we want? Okay, let’s explore it.” But then, also, what if every man died? What would happen? What would we be thinking? How would we feel about it?
Nothing in the song is necessarily how I personally feel. It’s not about that. It’s a story for sure. I just thought it was just a fascinating idea. How do I present this idea in a way that’s tongue-in-cheek, like we like to do? The funny thing is that I had another song idea just about Aqua Tofana, about this woman who helped women poison their husbands, and I was trying to work that into a song. I was trying to work this other idea into a song, and they just weren’t going anywhere. I feel like at some point I was like, “wait a second, what if they combined? What if this is how we get to how all the men died? What should we do with this?” Then all of a sudden the song was just showing itself to me, showing its form to me. It was so easy after that. I think that’s one of the reasons I really like this song, because I feel like I put in this work, and it was hard and easy at the same time. I just feel really productive, almost, on that song.
But, yeah, I don’t know. I just thought it was an interesting experiment. I assume that this is what some people think about us anyway. And I don’t care. And so I thought, “let’s try it out.” Then of course I got to do something that I’ve been wanting to do for years, which is reuse and repurpose the lines from that Shellac song, “Prayer [to God].” There’s just some records that get played at work a lot, wherever you work. Brooks and I work at Big Crunch Amp Repair. It’s his shop, and I’m not really working there during the pandemic if I’m being honest. But anyway, over the last few years, that’s just one of those records that would get played. I just really love the [lyrics] “Kill him, kill him already, kill him.” I just thought it was so fucking tough.
I do like the way you described it as a story, because it’s not actually you in first person singing. It’s the story’s first person singing it. My concern would have been, what if somebody takes this and genuinely thinks it was serious, and then uses that to further think, “Well, this is why I don’t like feminism, and this is why I really can’t support it.” And not even in a stubborn way, but in a really dense way.
Well, I mean, that’s already happening. It’s not just happening to us, some little punk band. Anything that non-cis men do on the internet or in real life will be used against them. It doesn’t matter if you have fun by playfully engaging in misandry. The oppressor class will never fucking understand the importance mentally of engaging in some fake and fun misandry, right? That is for us to survive and to have a laugh when we deserve one, and that’s all we can have sometimes. It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen no matter what. I mean, I guess call me when some dude shoots up a school and blames it on our song. I’ll give a different thought then. But the thing is, that could have already happened with any of our other songs. And it’s all about that guy and the radicalization of white men in this country. That is absolutely not some dumb punk band from Baltimore’s fault.
You just said one sentence that was really moving, “no matter what you do, it’s gonna be used against you.” I see that in politics all the time. Women can be as professional as humanly possible, and they’re still saying “She’s just so unpleasant,” or —
Yeah. If that’s the case, then we should just make the best record we possibly can, and we should make the best art we possibly can. And sometimes art is sarcastic or it’s satire, or it’s a thought experiment. It’s not always perfect and pretty. It’s supposed to make you think. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. That’s the best art.
Another song I was really interested to learn more about was “In Your Path,” because the lyrics were adapted from the Chilean grassroots feminist collective [Las Tesis]. How did you know about them?
Well, I saw clips of these protests when they were happening on my Facebook feed. I think I started seeing clips when it was already being replicated across the world, this protest. A little part of me was like, “how come I didn’t know about this? I want to be in a protest!” They did such a good job of having that unified look. And seeing all these people wearing black, red lipstick, some with veils over their faces, it’s striking. The image is striking. It was hard not to be interested in, “what are they doing? What are they protesting? What’s going on? What the fuck is going on in Chile? What do we need to know here?”
I just read more about it. I read the chant, and I read the translated version. I don’t speak Spanish fluently. And I’ve done that before, where I don’t think it’s weird to rework a piece, or art, or text that exists to make it a song. I think that’s a way to put the message in a different format to reach different people. I could just see it in the chant. I was like, “this could be a song. This could totally be a song.” There’s just a perfect little song the band was working on, all fast and shit. I was like, “Yeah, let’s do this.” I reached out to them, I just wanted to give them a heads up. I wanted them to know. I didn’t want them to be taken by surprise if anyone ever notified them. And so we got, not permission, but kind of a “yeah, go for it,” that kind of thing.
We will be making a music video for this. And so, again, we just wanted them to know “hey, we’re doing this thing, hope that’s cool,” and they’re totally cool with it. We hope to spread the word. I just don’t think that a lot of people got a chance to really hear about it. There are so many experiences out there that aren’t mine that deserve to be heard or talked about or recognized. And so how do I, as a white woman, a cis woman, how do I talk about a topic in a respectful way? How do I make sure that I don’t talk over anyone or erase anyone, but still acknowledging, well, it’s still my perspective? It’s still my band, my song, my lyrics. It’s still coming from me. This was one of those times where, well, how on earth could I say it better than how they’ve already said it? Maybe the right thing to do is just to present their words in a format that makes sense for a punk song, and then let people know, give them the credit in the album so that people can do more research on them. That just seemed to work.
The last question I wanted to ask, and it might be one of the things I’m most interested to learn about, is how you came up with the album title “Wonderful Hell.” It’s just so fitting in so many ways.
I have felt that for a long time, yeah. We always consider, “is there something in the lyrics that we could reference [for the album name] that makes sense?” That’s what we normally do. It doesn’t have to be a song title. It just has been a lot — I guess two out of [our] four albums it has been. That’s the song, like I was saying, where I finally got it out of me; I got it over this, like, slump I was in. I just felt like it perfectly described what I had been feeling since 2016. But then also as the pandemic started coming on, and we’re trapped indoors, and we’re trying to stay safe, and the first responders are inspiring, and the essential workers are inspiring, but they’re not paid what they should be. They’re not protected or supported by this administration.
There are such good things that come out of human beings when we face adversity, but that doesn’t mean the adversity isn’t there, and that someone isn’t in charge of it or making it worse. I just felt like I’m living in this wonderful hell where I have food, I have a roof over my head, I have a partner that I love, but there’s so much shit going on. How do we fucking deal with this? And remember that there is good, and it’s worth fighting for?
The other meaning of that idea that exists at the same time on this record is the idea that we need to raise some hell. We need to raise some “wonderful hell.” We need to fight back. We need to do more than we’ve done before. We need to not be afraid in the face of fascism. The only language they understand is violence and property damage and numbers. We need to be prepared. To just know that some shit might go down after the election. What are we willing to do? What kind of hell are we willing to raise when it’s for the greater good?
In the former meaning you described, do you see it as “Wonderful Hell” is the country, the world, being alive? Maybe it escapes narrowing it down to just one thing.
I would say it’s different for everyone. I’m happy to let people interpret it for themselves. Maybe this is just the only child in me talking, but I was thinking my own personal wonderful hell. How am I existing in the world, and how does the world around me affect me? Yeah, that might be me being an only child, just thinking about myself. But also I think it comes from literally sitting at home alone for so, so long. How could I not think of my own little microcosm and what permeates it, and what doesn’t? I leave it for everyone to define for themselves.
Pre-order a physical copy of Wonderful Hellhere, and view the Patreon for Shawna’s forthcoming podcast here.