Evan Greer on having fun while creating art that makes progressive impact
Despite performing on her own with just a guitar on most stages that she rocks, Evan Greer might be the loudest musician in Greater Boston. With a voice that often reaches even farther than artists with twice the clout and thrice the followers on social media, Greer is the ultimate modern acoustic embodiment of multimedia impact.
The last time we checked in, Greer had just organized a major tour in protest of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and was packing venues nationwide beside artists like Talib Kweli and Evangeline Lilly. Other times, the Dig has proudly covered and supported Break the Chains, her all-ages, all-gender radical dance party. As I’m inclined to note for ethical reasons, Greer has even written for the Dig; that’s technically a disclosure, but it’s also a humblebrag since our respect for her hustle is endless.
Greer may live and spend most of her time in these parts, but she’s by all means a national figure, collecting props from the likes of Billboard and Vice. Between clocking wins related to net neutrality, Chelsea Manning, and SXSW, the latter of which Greer helped push to drop the “deportation clause” from its artist contract, she’s also been a guest on countless TV shows, making her the only subject or contributor in Dig history who appeared on Good Morning America and still returned to do an interview with us.
With Greer’s new album, She/her/they/them, finally out after a long recording hiatus, I threw some questions at the standout activist-musician.
Before you were Evan Greer the solo artist, what kind of bands were you in early on? I assume they were punk bands, no?
I’ve always been too much of a diva to really keep a band together. It’s really mostly been a solo project. For me, music and activism has always been linked. I started playing guitar in high school, and I was getting into all of my dad’s old records—Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel. It was around the time the US was beating the drum to invade Afghanistan after 9/11, and that was kind of my political awakening. The first song I ever wrote was about that. I was like, “I can’t just say these things if I’m not going to do something about it,” so I went and found like the one kid at my high school who was always making announcements about protests and stuff at assembly.
I pretty quickly got involved, and helped organize a walkout that was the biggest student walkout in Boston since the Vietnam War on Boston Common. That was the first time I ever played music for more than 20 people, and that was when I saw the power of organizing and of using music and art for bringing people together and inspiring them. Now a lot of people affiliate my music with punk, but really I didn’t like punk at all in high school. I was more into like Pete Seeger. I found punk through politics basically.
What was the next step after that?
I dropped out of college after two years to do music full time. By my second year I had made my schedule so I only had classes on Tuesday and Wednesday and then I would basically tour on Thursday through Monday. I would make it as far as St. Louis all the way from Philadelphia. I was playing like 200 or 300 shows a year in basements and bookstores and living rooms for a while. I had a tiny but dedicated following. I could sell out your local feminist bookstore, but that was about it.
These were pre-Napster days, and [the collective Greer collaborated with] was one of the first to just kind of like putting all of our music online and then ask for donations. … Sort of like early alternative economics whereas now a lot of people are doing this stuff and there’s Patreon and Bandcamp. We were using archive.org to post all of our stuff. Riseup.net was our domain host and they kicked us off because they couldn’t host all of the MP3s.
What’s your full music diet these days?
People always ask about my influences, and they assume that I am going to say Anti Flag and Against Me and Public Enemy. And it’s like, yeah, all of them, but Alanis Morissette and Melissa Etheridge too. I’m a ’90s kid. All that ’90s alt rock and girl rock like Hole and Breeders—I still love it today. Lately I’ve been listening to like Rilo Kiley and a lot of women-fronted music and indie rock, but really I’m influenced by a wide range of music. Salsa too, classic salsa, and a lot of hip-hop. The only music I know how to dance to is like Destiny’s Child. I’m also super into a lot of Boston artists like Anjimile and Brandie Blaze.
Do you feel that contemporary mainstream music is more righteously political these days than it was when you were younger?
I think there’s always been people making political music. I can also get into like early 1600s English peasant songs. The internet isn’t all good, but for one thing it’s tremendously broadened the range of musical and cultural expression that can gain a mainstream audience and changed what the gatekeepers think is cool, sometimes in favor of bands that have a bit more of a political message. The voices of people who have largely been left out or at the fringes are starting to gain more recognition and clout and bigger audiences.
The last time I put out a record, in like 2010, no lefty queer folk musician even bothered to send their record to Rolling Stone, whereas now you’re seeing artists with more independent spirit getting recognition. And I think we’re just at the cusp of it—we’re going to see an explosion. Music and the internet are colliding in this way, and we’re at the intersection of that collision. … I think it’s going to lead to more sustainable methods of creating art and being compensated for it and being able to do it in a sustainable way. Obviously it’s going to take some figuring out, though.
As someone who has been an effective organizer, is there musical activism that you see as being superficial? How is the musical element most effectively woven into a movement?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that being right never made anything change. You have to channel that anger into real political power in order to get things done. You can get a crowd of a thousand people throwing their fists in the air to your song, but if you don’t leverage that collective experience into political power, then to a certain extent it does become noise. When I organized the Rock Against the TPP tour, we did a few things to make sure it’s more strategic. We did it in places where there were members of Congress who were on the fence and who we thought we could flip, then we made it that in order to get into the concert, you didn’t have to buy a ticket—you had to write a letter to your member of Congress.
After eight years and all that you have done in the time since your last album, what kind of songs made it onto a project like this?
It’s not like I was toiling away on this thing. I was just busy and trying to book one tour while I was finishing the last one. The studio has never been my biggest strength—I’m much better on stage than in a booth. But [Gaetano Vaccaro and Taina Asili], who produced the album, really helped me translate what I do into the studio. Some of these songs I wrote more than 10 years ago, and it was cool to see which ones stood the test of time. It gave the songs some room to breathe, and for them to grow and change along with me. It’s an opportunity to share these songs with the world in a more intentional way. My live show is more vulnerable—it’s usually just me and a guitar connecting with people. This is a different kind of expression, and I’m thrilled with how it came out.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.