Lauryl Sulfate sets her sights on the patriarchy

Artist. Activist. Feminist.

These are just three titles that would aptly fit Lauryl Sulfate, a Milwaukee-based musician who has been performing music that’s been described anywhere from electronic new wave and dance rap to so-called “freak nasty” nerd punk for the last few years.

She wasn’t born an artist, but rather soaked up the inclination like a sponge. As a child, she sat on the floor and absorbed her mother’s record collection, then turned to her older sister’s, sneaking listens while hiding in the basement bedroom. From 1980s pop legends like Prince and Madonna to edgier punk like The Cure, The Violent Femmes, and The Sex Pistols, she listened to it all.

That musical foundation would lay dormant for many years. In high school, she was too shy to sing in front of audiences, while knowing she had the talent to do so. It wasn’t until she was a student at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design that she was drawn to the idea of being a musician, via the ideals of performance art.

“I sort of realized that I could take a punk-like attitude towards it, which was, ‘I don’t have to be trained to do this,” Sulfate says. “’I can just do this because it’s fun to do and if someone wants to listen to it, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s fine because I’m just going to keep making a lot of loud noise.’”

images - pride - LaurylSulfateEPAnd so she did — fusing elements of hip-hop and dance music to create her own self-taught style. Her first EP, simply titled Three Songs, features the first three recordings she’s created: “A Fake Performance,” “Another Beat” and “How U Livin,” but there’s much more where that came from in her live act.

This June, Lauryl and her Ladies of Leisure will be going on a small summer tour, with a planned stop at Milwaukee’s PrideFest on June 10. Before the show, WiG caught up with Lauryl to talk about PrideFest, her activism, her plans to destroy heteronormativity, and what it means to be a bedroom musician.

For those who don’t know, who exactly are the Ladies of Leisure?

For a while, I didn’t have a band and it was hard to find people to work with and click with who enjoy all the same things and the commitment level to want to do the same thing every week to practice. The band, “Ladies of Leisure,” was actually just me … I didn’t have anyone but myself. My first thought was, “I’ll just record everything and I’ll record all of the parts and when I play, I’ll always make some excuse of where the Ladies of Leisure are today and why they can’t make it to the show and it’ll be like a gag.”

A friend of mine (“Bonica Magnett”), who’s a really good singer, came in and did guest backing vocals a couple of times and we enjoyed working together so much that I was like, “Would you like to be my Lady of Leisure?” So I ended up having one backing singer for quite a while and she became a member of the band. I have been working with another friend of mine (“Lonely Son”) doing recording things for awhile and finally convinced him to be on stage to be the keyboardist for me so now I have two Ladies of Leisure (laughs).

According to your bio on social media, you’re a self-described “bedroom musician.” What exactly is a bedroom musician?

I have technology on my MacBook to make songs. I have it on my iPad. I actually have it on my phone. But also one of my band mates, he actually has a whole studio set up in his house. He has a studio space and has a lot more gear than I do so now we’ve been upped our game as far as being able to record and test things out.

Computer technology has opened up things amazingly because now there’s GarageBand and all sorts of ways for people to make noise and give it to people without having to be trained (or) having a lot of money or equipment. I actually started doing a fashion show with a friend and we always had a band play for us. For one show we couldn’t get a band so we decided to start our own band in order to have music for the fashion show (laughs). We liked that so much that we forgot about the fashion show and kept doing the band.

Your music is described as electronic, New Wave, dance rap, and so-called “freak-nasty” nerd punk. For those who aren’t familiar with your music, how would you best describe it?

Basically it’s fun music. I want to make it accessible to people and music that I’d want to listen to. I listen to a lot of dance music and I like pop music and I like hip-hop so it’s a fusion of all these things.

I was a kid in the ‘80s so a lot of ‘80s music and those records that my sister had and those things that dug really deep in me and that’s where my heart kind of lies musically. It’s kind of all swirled together. We’ve been compared to Le Tigre. It’s an apt comparison I think. There’s a feminist edge to our music and it’s dancey and punky and has a DIY sound to it.

You’ve been described as an activist and feminist. What are you most passionate about?

I’m most passionate about speaking out for women and queer people, people of color, and people who are traditionally not heard as much. Especially in the larger pop world. We’re only shown a few kinds of faces and we’re shown only certain viewpoints in the world. A lot of it is really heterocentric and a lot of it is from a patriarchal point-of-view. I think there are so many voices in the world and I’m really interested in making music by women and for women a lot of the time and for queer people and the people who aren’t thought of as the target audience.

The music world is very masculine. I think there’s a lot of derision towards female pop aficionados and female pop stars in general. Look at Beyoncé and how hard she’s had to work to get recognition for her work. She does amazing work and she’s really an artist now that Lemonade is out and people can see what a great artist she is.

There are still people who want to take the music that appeals to women and the music that women make and say, “This music doesn’t mean as much because it’s not, you know, Neil Young.” I think if a musician makes a song that’s on the radio so frequently because everybody loves it so much, then it’s obviously a song that’s important to people. To sort of dismiss it as being worthless because girls like it is really doing everybody a disservice.

I read on social media that one of the band’s interests, among twerking and fun, is “destroying heteronormativity,” the pressure to adhere to traditional gender norms and roles. Could you elaborate on that idea, and talk about how you implement this activism in your music?

I feel strongly about it. I feel like heteronormativity is this myth that we’ve been taught to live with and the gender binary is a myth that we’ve been taught to live with. … In some ways I’m coming from a heteronormative position because I’m a cisgendered female and I have that level of privilege. But really, I think we’ll eventually look at history and we’ll be like, “Why did we try so hard to put people in boxes on who they are and who they want to be?” There’s no risk to it. There’s no threat to anybody else in letting someone be who they are and that includes gender. I think we will look at history and see how damaging those gender boxes are to men and women and everybody between.

I think we’re getting to a point where we’re starting to understand how damaging the patriarchy is not just to women because women have been pushing really hard to have a voice for themselves for a long time and that’s when feminism has been, but I think we’re realizing that feminism can help men and male-identified people push out of those boxes as well. You don’t have to be a certain way. You don’t have to be macho, you don’t have to be tough, or anything else that we tell ourselves are male characteristics when they’re not necessarily male characteristics.

The most recent public debate over heteronormativity has been in relation to anti-trans bathroom laws, which require people to use the restroom of their birth-assigned gender rather than the one they identify with. How do you feel about those laws?

I really feel the anti-trans backlash is not surprising at all. Queer people have been pushing really hard for acceptance for a long time and we finally have it now where marriage equality is a thing. We no longer have to push for that. Gay men and lesbian women have a lot more acceptance now than they did 10 years ago. Now, suddenly, it’s not okay to be homophobic. It’s not okay socially. If you exhibit homophobia, people around you are going to be like, “That’s not cool.”

The most vulnerable population that people can kind of turn their homophobia on is trans people. It’s not surprising to me at all that there are these laws that are trying to limit transness are coming around because they’re trying to step up their game because now it’s no longer okay to make fun of “regular” queer people. It’s all out of fear.

It’s like homophobia is shifting itself.

Yeah. It’s shifting further and further and deeper and deeper in order to try to hold its ground against the tide of social change.

Let’s talk about PrideFest for a little bit. How important do you think it is for Milwaukee to have an LGBT-focused festival?

I think it’s very important for Milwaukee. Every time I go, it’s been a beautiful place to be for a few days where you’re surrounded by people who are like family I think. People who are being themselves in a space where those gender norms we were talking about have been exploded more. Last year when we performed at PrideFest, it was the first year that they had gender-neutral bathrooms. I think that was a really great step forward and I’d love to see more things like that.

You’ll be starting a new tour this June with your Ladies of Leisure with a stop at PrideFest. What are you most looking forward to with this show and the tour in general?

I’m looking forward to playing. I love being on stage and I love connecting with people in the audience. It’s really fun to me. It’s where I feel the most comfortable, the most happy, and the most when I feel myself. So, really, the thing I’m looking forward to the most is actually just getting up on stage and playing songs for people. It’s a little corny, but it’s true.

How would you describe one of your shows?

They’re fun! I think they’re a little surprising. I don’t think people don’t know what quite to expect from us because we’re an unusual band in Milwaukee in particular. I don’t think a lot of bands in Milwaukee gear towards electronic dance music. I do rap and I don’t think people expect me to rap unless they know what they’re coming for (laughs).

Do you have any new music planned for release?

We’re going to be releasing a second EP, probably three more songs, before we go on tour. We’re working on a single that won’t be on either of the EPs. We’re hoping to make a video for it and release it on YouTube or Vimeo. The goal over the next year when we get back from the tour is starting to work on an actual album. The range of music that we’ll be putting out on the EP will be a little bit broader. A lot of what’s going out on the EP is songs that we’ve been playing out for a while now. When we do an album, it’s going to be more narrowly focused. It’s going to have a theme that rides through it.

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