With 'MeTooMpls,' 17 local songwriters find strength in numbers

Album Cover

Album Cover

MeTooMpls couldn’t be more timely a project.

Maybe the combination of righteous unrest in the streets and pandemic-induced isolation at home was what sparked another kind of uprising here in June. Across social media, musicians and music fans alike began sharing stories of abuse and harassment in the Twin Cities scene that had been hidden away or dismissed for years.

For once, there were at least some repercussions. Rhymesayers dropped two of its artists and faced calls for boycott; Doomtree was shaken. And local hip-hop was hardly the only site harboring abusers. There seemed to be no genre of local music where some predator, gaslighter, or plain old creep wasn’t revealed. Just this past week, a thwarted MPR investigation into harassment led to 89.3 the Current dismissing a DJ.

Even if they’d planned it, then, the team behind MeTooMpls couldn’t have picked a better time to release a compilation of 17 great Minnesota songwriters addressing this ongoing moment of reckoning. (Proceeds are being donated to Planned Parenthood.)

But in fact, the project’s originators, musician Mischa Suemnig and publicist Krista Vilinskis of Tinderbox Music, thought up the idea a ways back. They asked a bunch of female and nonbinary songwriters to write original songs centered on the concept of “Me Too,” with no further guidelines. That left the parameters open wide enough to allow for personal reflection, character studies, and general observations on the moment.

For Mayda Miller, who records as Mayda and rocks a funky synth on “Oxygen Tank,” this open-ended-ness is the strength of the project. “Everyone has their own experience; everyone is trying to look for their own way to tell their truth,” says Miller. “Obviously women are trying to do that now and find that they’re not alone.”

And the results, while typically excellent, do vary by approach. Some, like Lydia Liza’s “Apple in My Pocket,” are ruminative; others, like Mary Bue’s “How to Forgive Your Rapist,” are blunt. Bluesy singer-songwriter Annie Mack contributed “Judge and Jury,” which addresses the scrutiny that women face, whether they’re entering a Planned Parenthood or coming forward to name an abuser.

“I’m a pretty blue-collar writer,” Mack says over the phone, while her three-year-old son competes with her interviewer for attention. “I wanted to capture that outlaw country vibe, where they weren’t afraid of making political statements.”

For some of the participants, this was an opportunity to branch out in a new direction. Ro Lorenzen, known for her work with indie pop-funk crew Static Panic, approached her song “Sides to Lonely” from a more personal angle.

“It’s about not being taken seriously,” she says—in several contexts. “Not being ‘woman enough’ or not being taking seriously when I reported an incident to HR, the ways that your family responds when you share hardship and you want to heal, being told that you should have gotten over it. But you need your own time to heal—there’s no fast track to that.”

Tina Schlieske, who’s been at this longer than maybe any of the other contributors here, assumed another woman’s voice for “What Would You Pay (Dear Harvey).” “I was reading the transcript of Jessica Mann, the letter she wrote to Harvey Weinstein, and tried to convey the learning curve that women and men are going to have,” she says. “I wanted to give a voice to a woman who was trying to move up in her career and encountered a predator who knows how to take advantage of that.”

An album release party featuring all the contributors on stage together was originally in the works, but the pandemic scotched those plans. What’s happening instead still sounds like quite the event. Three of the performers—Schlieske, Mayda, and Sarah Morris—will livestream sets from the Hook and Ladder this Thursday, with the other songwriters contributing prerecorded sets. Andrea Swensson of the Current will host.

After this tumultuous summer, MeTooMpls offers an opportunity to take stock on what has changed—and what hasn’t.

For Schlieske, who remembers days when it was hard to find a female sound engineer or even a woman who could drum and wasn’t Lori Barbero, this was an opportunity to reflect on how the scene had grown and expanded. “There was more competition back then,” she says. “Bars wouldn’t want to have too many women on the bill, labels wouldn’t want to sign too many women. We were treated as a side genre. It set us against each other so we weren’t networking like we should.”

“I’ve seen things change for women, but more importantly I’ve seen a lot of change in women,” Miller says. “Especially within the last few years. Women gaining more power and more numbers together, banding together to sing their truth and say this is not right. Women are finally being heard. People being fired over things that would have been swept under the rug. We’re slowly chipping away at it. We’re actually making things happen now.”

Mack notes, however, that women are still expected to shoulder all the burden. “The music industry is male-dominated, and men are not accountable,” she says. “I’m tired of the silence from men, of men unwilling to hold other men accountable.”

She sums it up simply: “If you have a man in your life you wouldn’t want a female friend to do business with, then you have to ask why he’s in your life.”

Lorenzen has crafted an elegant metaphor to sum up the moment. “Every time I was seeing a new article or someone coming forward, it’s like they were pulling handfuls of cement out of this cracked lot in the middle of the Twin Cities and filling it with the soil that would allow this community garden to grow. We have filled that lot with something beautiful, and now it’s time to water it.”