Casey Sowa and Maro Helgeson are partners in both love and music.
They met in 2007 during freshman orientation at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia. Upon relocating to Minneapolis five years ago, they decided to try a new project, one that cast Sowa as drummer, sole songwriter, and lead singer while prompting Helgeson to not only play synth but try her hand at bass. The experimentation proved fruitful: After self-releasing their Ghost World EP in 2013 and full-length -Centrism in 2015, Strange Relations signed to Tiny Engines in 2016. While the new Editorial You is the band’s second full-length, it’s their first album released on vinyl and distributed worldwide.
Harkening back to women-fronted bands of the '90s like Belly and Mazzy Star, Strange Relations is equal parts dark and rhythmic, vulnerable yet veiled. The breathy echoes of Sowa’s vocals simultaneously unmoor and entice.
We spoke to Sowa ahead of the band opening for Palehound at the Entry on Wednesday.
City Pages: The description of Editorial You mentions women’s bodies and sexualities as a focus of the album. How did those two things influence the songs?
Casey Sowa: If I had to describe the record in one sentence, I would say that it’s about a young woman coming into her own and learning to trust and also fight for her desires. Women’s bodies and sexualities are definitely centered throughout it. Maro and I are a couple. We’ve been together for almost ten years now, since we were 17. As lesbian women, it’s a big part of our lives. All these songs come from a really personal place. I’m not a super narrative songwriter necessarily. There are some bands that are total storytellers and they spin these yarns in their work. I really write what feels more natural and comes from my own experience and perspective.
Those topics still have plenty of room for exploration, especially in indie rock and indie pop. I feel like a lot of the time, there’s this pressure for women artists to be fuckable or perceived as such and I really am frustrated by that constantly.
CP: Your album art features a woman touching herself. How does that relate to the pressure on women to be fuckable?
CS: It was inspired by a photo of Björk that we both really loved. Maro hand-draws all of our artwork. It’s supposed to be a playful riff on these ‘70s era, all-male rock bands like the Rolling Stones that would constantly put women on their album art as objects, very explicitly so, and it was trying to play with that and reclaim it. We went back and forth and tried to get it just right so it would communicate what we want it to. She’s touching herself, her eyes are closed, she’s in her own space, in her own head, and trying to communicate the power of women’s sexuality as something that can be really empowering, something that each individual woman has to explore in her own way, and come to terms with and own in her own way. It was kind of trying to challenge that expectation of: “Oh, there’s a woman. She’s sexualized somehow. Therefore, she’s objectified.” We want to fight back against that and present an alternative to that, where’s it like, “This isn’t woman-as-object. This is very much woman-as-subject.” She’s in control. She’s the active player here.
CP: How do you feel as a lesbian musician on the local music scene? Is it accepting? Have you connected with other lesbian musicians? They certainly don’t seem well-represented in the press.
CS: It’s a mixed bag. We came up through the DIY scene and we’re really connected to that crowd of musicians. There are so many women in that world. We’ve been here in the Twin Cities for about five years. Seeing more and more women come into the mix and to the forefront of the scene has been really inspiring. I think there are more and more queer women and just queer people in general, which is also cool and encouraging. Queer artists are definitely out there. In terms of lesbian artists, however, it’s definitely different. We have a couple friends that drum in bands but I don’t know personally any other lesbian singer-songwriters or frontpeople on the scene. I’m not saying they’re not out there, I’m sure they are, and I wish I could find them. But it’s hard when they’re not represented as equally as they should be.
For the most part, it’s been very accepting. We never deal with homophobic B.S. but we also don’t deal with sexist B.S. as much as everyone else. I don’t know if it’s just how we carry ourselves? We came here from the East Coast, we’re both no-nonsense women, “don’t fuck with us” kind of women. We put that energy out there. I don’t know if that’s part of it, but I know so many women deal with so much sexist B.S. at their shows or online. We’ve always been really lucky to mostly avoid that so far. Like I said earlier, I do think this pressure to be fuckable as a woman is still so prevalent and it’s something no one wants to talk about, especially other women.
CP: Does creating with your partner put a strain on your relationship? Or does it nourish it?
CS: Definitely both. We have a really good thing going together. I’m so grateful to have her in my life as my partner. It’s really special and meaningful to be able to collaborate and share your thing together. We spend time every day talking about music or playing music. We have this shared language and understanding between each other. It’s awesome. At the same time, we’ve had other collaborators in the mix over the years. That’s always tricky. Especially a three-piece. That’s a challenge. I think there’s also the really boring, pragmatic challenges, too. Especially as we’re getting a little older. It’s hard to make a living as a musician. I think we’ve been feeling the strain increasingly, like, “How do we balance this?” We want to tour a lot more than we do and things like that. We’re trying to figure out how to accomplish those goals and how to make it work financially.
CP: A phrase associated with your music is “rallying cry.” Is that what music is for you?
CS: That’s a good question. I think all music should comfort you or move you in some way. The only reason I brought that up about this record is we tracked the whole record last fall, before the election, and it was just a really kind of stressful time and it’s been increasingly a disaster of a year from a lot of people’s perspective, including ours. This album is just something that is supposed to be one of those things you can escape into. It’s something that personally motivated us to keep going and not give in to the anxieties or depressions that can come with living in the tumultuous times that we do and turning around everywhere and seeing all this hate and evil all over the place. Some of my favorite records I would describe as rallying cries. You can take so much empowerment from music, and that’s something that I hope to give back to other people through our work.
Where: 7th St Entry
When: 8:30 p.m. Wed. Sept. 27
Tickets: $12/$14; more info here