Be Your Own Pet's Jemina Pearl rages on
The desire to kick against the constraints of buttoned-up, grown-up, conventional, cis-het, white, patriarchal society has served as potent fuel for generations of performers. Back in the mid-2000s, Be Your Own Pet's frenetically tuneful punk sneered at the trappings of adulthood with snottily on-the-nose wit. During "Super Soaked," a particularly ferocious track on the band's 2008 album, Get Awkward, Jemina Pearl sang like she'd do anything to delay her 21st birthday, and once it inevitably arrived, she'd most definitely keep it from disrupting her uninhibited fun.
Seated at the Nashville, Tenn., headquarters of Third Man Records in an office that belongs to Ben Swank, who founded the label with Jack White and happens to be Pearl's husband, she pulls out her phone and finds the song on Spotify. "I just want to run around!" her younger self erupts from the tinny speakers with combative gusto. "I just want to party down!" Then the adolescent Pearl can be heard reeling off a list of what she's dreading with the furious cadence of a tantrum: "I don't wanna have responsibility! I don't wanna be a part of society!"
"It's funny hearing that," says the present-day Pearl, the canvas tote bag next to her overflowing with games and toys meant to occupy her two kids during the family road trip that awaits after our interview. "It also makes me feel a little sad, because I was dealing with mental health issues and I did just want to escape a lot. I wish I could go back in time and give a little guidance."
Formed by a quartet of Nashville high school buddies — Pearl, Nathan Vasquez on bass, Jonas Stein on guitar and initially Jamin Orrall on drums, until Orrall bowed out and John Eatherly took his place — the teenaged band was plucked out of its hometown scene and thrust into the indie hype machine. There, tastemakers were far more prone to fetishize the youthful abandon of BYOP than recognize how its songs made rascally use of self-awareness and how vividly Pearl, its front woman, asserted her freedom and agency at a time when she often faced sexual objectification. The band released a pair of albums in rapid succession before it all became too much.
After a 15-year hiatus, the second lineup reunited and recorded Mommy, a nervy new album, funkier, keener and more muscular than any of BYOP's previous work, for a new label, Third Man, that's intimately invested in the group's well-being. The oppositional impulse remains, but its targets are more explicit now: restrictions on abortion access; the minimizing of abuse Pearl suffered as a young woman in the spotlight; the stigma she confronts while theatrically depicting the extremes of the bipolar disorder she lives with; the way her old punk scene tends to write off women who settle down with partners and progeny.
As Pearl made evident while speaking with NPR Music, BYOP has worked out how to recontextualize its flashes of brilliance while raging on.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jewly Hight: A lot has changed in pop culture discourse since the band broke up. There's been reexamination of how figures like Whitney Houston and Britney Spears were mistreated by the media. Women in indie spaces have been heard more clearly when they talk about their experiences with sexual abuse or assault. And with nostalgia for music of the 1990s and 2000s and bands from those eras getting back out there, there's been reconsideration of what those scenes and spaces were really like, and who wasn't given credit then for their accomplishments and influence. What aspects of that reassessment have felt meaningful to you?
Jemina Pearl: It was really inspiring to me, while I was not really in the public eye, to see all of these women — in indie spaces especially and the garage rock scene and the scene that I kind of grew up in — coming out and saying the sexual assaults, the sexual abuse that they experienced and calling people out. I never knew I could do that kind of thing. That is something that I also was inspired by while writing songs for this album.
As far as influence, there's been so many people who've come to our shows and told me that they started bands because of us. That's been cool to get some recognition of how we inspired people. I felt like back then, we were a little too pop for the garage rock, punk scene, we're a little too rough for the main indie [scene], what people are calling like indie sleaze now. We were kind of in this weird, in-between space where we sometimes felt like we were battling against everyone.
You and your contemporaries like The Gossip, Those Darlins, Paramore and others, came out of the South, and had a huge impact. I also don't remember you getting a lot of credit for the way that you asserted your freedom onstage and expressed your displeasure with things that impinged on that freedom, or the smart ass, witty, playfulness of the songs you wrote, how you put them across. That was worlds away from how the emo of that moment centered male woundedness. How have you come to see what you accomplished back then?
I feel like we were the opposite of the male emo genre. We wanted to be fun. I did have a lot of rage as a young woman, and as a young woman who grew up in the South. I'd go to punk shows and people would tell me, "Oh, you can't be up front. You're going to get hurt." I always was trying to prove that I was the hardest and the toughest and the craziest.
Being on stage was and still is one of my favorite things to do, and I feel the most like myself. It was also the space where I could be totally free in a way that I was not allowed to be day to day as a young woman. It's like, "This is my time. You have to listen to me now and I'm going to claim my space and you're going to have to deal with it."
Fun and friendship seemed to be motivating factors for the reunion more than anything else. What did it take to get to the point where all four of you welcomed that?
When we broke up, it was tumultuous for me. I did not want the band to break up. I think the guys were feeling really like they were on this roller coaster. I also feel some personal responsibility, because I was not aware of my mental health situation. I'm bipolar. So that kind of played into some of the breakup, I think. I feel like the word "traumatic" gets thrown around a lot, but some of it really was quite jarring for us to experience. I think we all kind of needed to go off and do our own things and regroup.
But I had felt for so long like I had lost these really close friendships that I had. We were really good friends wanting to start a band with Jamin, our original drummer. That kind of got lost in the whirlwind of touring and all the expectations that were put on us as very young people. Getting back together, I think our goals really are, "Let's have some fun. Let's all just appreciate each other in a way we probably didn't when we were younger."
Also we've had all these great conversations about what did happen back in the day. That has been, for me personally, so healing, because they're the only four other people who understand what it was like.
When you become a mom, especially in the punk world, it's like you're dead. You're a nonentity. You no longer exist to a lot of people. I really wanted to push back on that, but also talk about that experience.
There are examples of artists in pop, rock, R&B or country who entered the spotlight when they were young, or young-ish, eventually became parents, then made music reflecting how they experienced the role or how they related to their kids. I'm thinking of Beyoncé, Brandi Carlile, Erykah Badu, Margo Price. It's fascinating to hear how you're approaching it, because you're focusing not so much on motherhood as the social barriers that parenthood has erected between you and people you used to hang out with in the scene. How did you find a way of depicting motherhood that felt right?
Nothing has made me feel more empowered than when I became a mom. I felt like I knew who I was more than ever when I became a mom. I mean, obviously, you go through that new baby phase and you're just like, "What the hell is going on?" But I just felt like, "Yes, I am a strong person. I'm in control of my life." I wanted to bring that side to the record that we made. There's songs that aren't necessarily about being a mom, but I wouldn't have gotten to them if I wasn't a mom, if that makes sense.
I'm very protective of my children's autonomy and our relationship. I don't want to necessarily share too much in a way that they possibly wouldn't consent to. I don't want them to listen to some song I wrote in 20 years and be like, "Whoa, mom, that kind of hurts my feelings." So maybe the way that I viewed it was more about the exterior, the social barriers. When you become a mom, especially in the punk world, it's like you're dead. You're a nonentity. You no longer exist to a lot of people. I really wanted to push back on that, but also talk about that experience.
The way that you tapped back into the physicality of your performances grabbed me right away, but I think it was even more remarkable to hear how you've also tapped back into that ability to make very irreverent fun of things that you're writing about. What did it take to get back in touch with the tone of Be Your Own Pet, and apply it to what you're interested in writing about now? Since punk is still known, to a degree, as music of hanging on to unencumbered youth and delaying responsibility, how have you found room to depict maturation?
I kind of put that girl away for a long time that I [once] was in Be Your Own Pet. She was very wild and very brave. Now that I look back on things that I did, I'm like, "Oh my God, I can't believe I just went out there and did that." I also was immature. I was getting in fights with people all the time. Becoming a mom, I felt like I had to compartmentalize some of that stuff. It's been really, really amazing and very freeing to be like, "I want to give my baby self a hug and take some inspiration from her, because she's very fearless." But do it in this way that embodies everything that I am now, because I'm not the same person that I was 15 years ago, thank goodness.
I wanted to sing about some serious subject matters of politics and talk about my own experience being sexually assaulted and my experience as a mom. But I also felt like something that was very quintessential to Be Your Own Pet was our sense of humor and our irreverence and being kind of a smart ass. I didn't want to lose that spirit of our songs. I didn't want to come back and just be like, "We're super serious now," because that's not really a reflection of who I am either.
In the past, people didn't really see Be Your Own Pet as a particularly political band, although I think the way you carried yourself as a front person and occupied space on stage was inherently political. What do you feel like the stakes are for the band doing more explicitly political material now, like "Never Again" and "Big Trouble"?
I always had very strong political beliefs when I was younger, but I didn't necessarily have the vocabulary to express them in the way that I do now. And yeah, there is something kind of inherently political about [those performances], especially at that time, maybe not so much now. The baton passed to other people, like the LGBTQ community. It's like it's their time to say, "I'm going to take up this space."
I mean, it's hard to not talk about this stuff right now with everything going on in the world and especially in America. For me and who I am, it would feel wrong to not talk about it and just write a party album. Half the country can't get abortions anymore. How do we not talk about that?
When I hear you sing the line about being as emotional as you want to be on this album, I hear that as pointing back to some things that were radical about what you were doing all along. Your performances were often described as primal, instinctual, those ways of talking about music like it doesn't have intentions or ideas behind it. What worth do you see in being able to put a new frame around the band's original work?
I always felt like people kind of treated us like, "Isn't it such a fluke that these songs are good and she's a great front person?" I'm very intentional with what I'm trying to say and what I'm trying to do. I had a lot of thought process around it, so it wasn't just this totally random [presentation]. I had this exaggerated character of myself as a teenager and trying to act that out on stage.
I felt like if I spoke up and said anything political in my local music scene, everyone was like, "You're being a bummer. Don't talk about how that person said something racist. You're ruining everybody's fun." At the same time, I would have people be like, "Why are you so angry all the time?" I didn't quite understand it, but I just knew that there was so much injustice that I was up against all the time.
I feel like it's all connected. There's all these social issues and political issues in our country and that plays into the little things that happen to you every day of someone saying, "Calm down. Don't make a scene right now. Be smaller. Don't speak your mind."
The power of the band was so frenetic in your earlier years. Now that power has settled into grooves, solid backbeats and muscular riffs.
I feel like we've obviously all gotten better at our instruments and we understand songwriting a bit more. Back then, we'd be like, "This is a cool part. That's a cool part. Let's throw them all together." It's just kind of all over the place, which is awesome. But I don't think we could tap back into that beginner mindset. We kind of condense the power into one really great punch instead of just flailing around on stage.
You dabbled in girl group influences on your solo album. And you end this one with "Teenage Heaven," a callback to songs that played out heightened, teenage melodramas, matters of life and death, in three minutes or less. But in your version, it feels like you're reaching toward a fantasy of youthful escape from a distance.
I thought the title "Teenage Heaven" was kind of funny, since we were teenagers when we did the band originally. And then I was thinking about The Shangri-Las or Everly Brothers — these ballads of young teenagers and tragic accidents. They die in their youth, and they're forever young and they go to teenage heaven. What does that mean?
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