There are some bands that form out of kindred musicianship. This phenomenon is especially true of Boston, Massachusetts, where many ensembles forge their roots through the collective impromptu of a Berklee School incarnation. The focal point, more often than not, ends up being the instrumentation and technical prowess of those involved.
While it’s always great to hear people who can play the hell out of their instruments, virtuosity should never eclipse the heart of a good song. By heart, I mean poeticism; by poeticism, I mean the resolve and feeling behind the words. Lyricism is only as powerful as the conviction from which a line can spring.
Then a band like Tomboy rolls around and blows the fucking walls off of expectations and any kind of timidity. Precision and clarity are eschewed for a fulminant acidity that’s punk yet stylized with razor sharp commentary. With their debut album Sweetie, these four girls make more noise than a raucous self-detonating bomb. But it’s a bomb with intent.
“When we first started, it wasn’t a band that was supposed to sound like something, that had a specific musical vision,” says Madeline Burrows, drummer, vocalist, and lyricist of Tomboy. “It was more idea driven; we wanted to write these songs about experiences we’ve all shared.”
When Ali Donohue, Hanna Negami, Meghan Hynes, and Burrows all sat down together for the very first time back in 2012, they were all fairly new to playing live and collaborating. The little experience they did have, they soon found out, was soured by an industry saturated with sexism.
The common thread began to form a knot, which soon wrapped itself around the very concept of the band. Before long it was entwined into the first songs.
Burrows was hardly a stranger to activism’s call. An actress and writer, she helmed her own one-woman play entitled Mom Baby God that she toured the country behind. The production honed in on the pro-life movement with the character Jessica Beth Giffords–a devout counselor-in-training at her parents’ crisis pregnancy center who wants to marry Justin Bieber. Her vows of abstinence are suddenly challenged, however, when she meets a pro-life rapper that she’s uncontrollably attracted to.
Giffords is just one of six right-wing characters inspired by a year that Burrows spent undercover attending anti-abortion conferences, fundraisers, and rallies.
While there are more oddities and disquieting stories from those days than there is room to print, one of the most surprising encounters Burrows recalls is meeting an all-girl Christian rock band.
After one of the rallies, Burrows asked the band about what their experiences were like being a part of the movement as female musicians. To her chagrin, they admitted to encountering sexism all the time.
“‘Guys ask us if the only chord we can play is G’–that was what one of them told me,” says Burrows.
“They listed off all of these experiences within the Christian rock community. Which was fascinating; I was struck that they were identifying with sexism as musicians yet contributed to a movement that I very much see as stripping away women’s rights.”
The sad reality is that the girls likely have no idea they are allowing themselves to be manipulated, as Burrows sees it. It’s the reason why she invests herself so wholeheartedly into both her production and Tomboy. She believes that we’ve lost so much ground particularly on the topic of abortion, that the matter is no longer a matter of women’s rights, but rather an issue of life. It’s been reframed by the right wing so much that now people on the left are becoming wishy-washy about where they stand.
It’s hard to believe that this passionate defiance could be maintained with such veracity while writing the record Sweetie, touring, and staying busy with a sizable list of side projects. It’s why the album took close to two years to complete.
Burrows isn’t the only busy one, however. Donohue is a member of the wildly successful group Perfect Pussy, and members have been active in raising awareness through participation in events such as Smash It Dead Fest (dedicated to sourcing money for local crisis centers) and Girls Rock Camp–which helps girls build self-esteem through music education and performance programs.
“It took us a year and a half, sure,” adds Burrows. “But I think it added to our songwriting, and gave us a bunch of layers to revisit the material and not just bang it out in one sitting.”
Layers indeed. Some tracks come ripping out of the gates in two-minute brash conniption fits, like the bite on “I’m in the Fucking Band” with the four-member unison bawl of “I’m in the fucking band/I’m not his fucking girlfriend.” Others, however, lean on a more subdued melodic approach. Take a listen to a cut like “Emma” and tell me you don’t hear doo-wop and breezy ‘60s pop float into the harmonies.
While Sweetie is certainly brazenly unapologetic about its “fuck you” attitude and message, Burrows remains hopeful that the scales are being tipped towards equality. She mentions a recent conversation that music journalist Jessica Hopper started on Twitter, where she called out to all women and marginalized folk to recount their first encounters with the music industry where they felt singled out and demeaned.
Burrows acknowledges that it’s horrible to read the responses and to know how pervasive these hostile sentiments are. But the very fact that we have so many alternative outlets available to tell them, whether through playwriting, journalism, or music, gives strength to awareness and the movement itself.
“The role we can play as activists and political artists is to push the conversation in a more radical direction and not just accept it in the kind of superficial, commoditized way that it will always become in mainstream circuits,” says Burrows.
“I’m optimistic, things are moving in the right direction, but it’s not inevitable–we have to keep the conversation going.”