Gina Favano

Come Holy SpiriT


June 17, 2017
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Maggie Negrete

“It's only when it's been birthed and completed that I can look back on it and see what it's about in a conscious way. That's something that I put a lot of effort into as an artist and musician - trying not to get in the way of the work.”

How did you start playing in bands? What initially attracted you?
I was given my first bass when I was about 18. A friend gave it to me. I picked up right away. It was easy for me. I played everyday for hours. I was passionate about it, but it was still a few years before I played in bands. I lived in North Jersey for a while, outside New York. A group of friends used to jam in the basement, messing around, doing mushrooms and stuff. It was fun, but the logistics of actually being in a band didn't really seem attainable. A few years later when I was living in Philly, I was in a band with four other ladies. That was the first band where I actually started to compose regularly and learn how to record and play out. It wasn't until years later that it occurred to me that it being an all-woman band was probably a really important component in me finding my feet as a musician. It was uninhibited. There was this strong sense of camaraderie. It wasn't something we talked about explicitly, but it kind of set this underlying tone of acceptance. It was a great place to write my first few really clumsy songs and turn them into something. It was called Beware the Blunted Needle. We were together for six years, so there was a long stretch between me learning how to play and me being able to transmogrify that into being in a band because they're two totally different things. And even prior to me learning how to play an instrument, I feel like the whole first chapter of my life was spent researching. I went to every show. I saw so many bands. I would go into the city all the time and see the Sun Ra Arkestra, Rufus Harley, the jazz bagpipe player. I'd see John Zorn's projects every weekend. I got to see Nina Simone, a ton of punk bands. That was what I spent my money on, tickets and records and that was it. I saw Nina Simone at the Tower Theater in Philly and it was the same night as my best friend from high school's wedding. We drove back and forth between the show and the wedding twice. It was crazy. It was this impossible decision. It sucked, but it was great. I'm glad I showed my face at both of those things. I saw New Order and The Sugarcubes and The Cure a bunch of times. It felt like research, like I was studying what I liked about music. It felt really important. It felt really worthwhile, like what I was supposed to be doing.

Is that how you were viewing it at that time?
I don't know, I don't think I had the objectivity. I was so young. It was just the thing that I was most passionate about. I was the kid that would stay up all night and watch MTV, like 120 Minutes, which was the alternative music video show. It was the only time you’d see and hear stuff like that. It was way, way, way pre-internet. I took notes of all the bands and who was in them and the next day I’d go to the mall to the Sam Goody store to try to find those people. I was really driven about it. It just felt like there were a lot of steps that had to happen before I could put it all together because I didn't know anybody that played in a band. That was a totally foreign concept. I went to a giant catholic high school and was just this lone weirdo. Maybe there were some people playing in bands but I didn't know who they were.

So how did Come Holy Spirit start?
I had been trying for almost two years to cobble a band together in Pittsburgh and it was really, really, confusingly challenging. I would approach people to play with and say, “I play bass, I write songs, I wanna do this thing.” It took a while. And I might be projecting and it's impossible not to if you're a woman and you've been dealing with misogyny your whole life. How do you not project that onto a situation? It was really hard. There was another short lived project that I had in Pittsburgh called Grackles. That lasted for a minute. So, I asked [guitarist] Aaron [Lindberg]. He was still playing in Lungs Face Feet at the time. He was the tuba player and he had actually been thinking about asking me so it was serendipitous. We got together with our original drummer, a guy named Ken and that ended up not working out and he moved away. Then I just kept asking Sam [Pace]. I used to think of Pittsburgh as this little enclave. In some ways, the music scene feels like it's like ten years behind the times. It's so quaint. It's starting to shift though. There's Girls Rock! Pittsburgh now. That was unheard of and that's a more recent thing. If I hadn't been so dedicated to my musicianship, I don't think it would have happened. I was pounding the pavement every day saying, "Come on! Who want's to play? Come on!" So I feel fulfilled that this project is doing what it's doing. It's what I wanted, especially because with this project I feel like I'm making the music that I want to hear and that's not my ego talking. That's the kind of music that I want to listen to and there's not a lot of it. I'm just trying to manifest that.

Come Holy Spirit (L-R: Sam Pace, Gina Favano, Aaron Lindberg) photo by Gerty Tonjum

Come Holy Spirit (L-R: Sam Pace, Gina Favano, Aaron Lindberg) photo by Gerty Tonjum

We were listening to a couple songs on the way over here. The first Come Holy Spirit song I ever heard was "06 Female." You had mentioned that 06 Female was a wolf?
Loosely. Almost all of my lyrics are about something but I try to be indirect. I tend to fuse more than one idea into each song because I think it makes for better art. I don't like it when art is super explicit. I think you can be opinionated and political and you don't have to sacrifice your creativity to do that. That's not to say you have to obscure it or make it palatable. To me, there are just more interesting ways to present an idea. “06 Female” was the name of a wolf in Yellowstone National Park. This wolf had been living there for years. She was collared. They'd been keeping tabs on her. She showed these problem-solving skills that were above and beyond all the other wolves in the area. She was this evolutionary link. Anyway, she was shot by a hunter and there was a big public outcry by all of the local ecologists and environmentalists. I remember hearing that story on the news and being really touched by it, but it's also about ecofeminism. A lot of our songs are about how we are animals and the kinds of animals that we are. It's about transposing those kinds of ideas onto these stories. These real life stories that just permeate the day if you have the news on. So it’s about the sadness of that and how that's not valued.

Your work has many references to this idea of “the beast.” As the song builds, your vocals become so raw and animalistic, like a wolf howling. Maybe that's where it's coming from?
Yeah, I think that you're right and I also think that it's not always something that I strive to do consciously. It's usually in hindsight that I realize it. So with this band and with this recent body of visual art, it's been building for the last few years. Now I'm at this vantage of looking back at it all and realizing it's about this. I'm noticing the theme and I'm at a place where I can articulate it and talk about what it's about but when the work is emerging, that's not what I try to do. I try to stay out of the way and let it happen. It's the same way with my songwriting and I think that's a real skill that everyone has to foster as an artist or musician or whatever vocation. It's only when it's been birthed and completed that I can look back on it and see what it's about in a conscious way. That's something that I put a lot of effort into as an artist and musician, trying not to get in the way of the work. What comes out is what comes out. I think you’re right. Something about the beast and how we're so divorced from that as a culture. It's about me personally, too. It's definitely intimate. It has a lot to do with my own story, but with everything I do I try to invite people in. I don't want it to be so personal that it's this cryptic, coded poem that doesn't mean anything to anybody because it only means something to me. I think the role of the artist is to be a communicator. Your idea doesn't need to spell it out for everybody. You can have people read between the lines or work a little bit to get the idea, but ultimately I think that's the responsibility of the artist - to communicate and to get good at that. People don't have to like it. That's fine.

Do you write on the bass guitar?
I do. I write on the guitar similarly to how I write on the bass guitar. I play them similarly. I'm definitely a bass player first and foremost. My guitar skills are rudimentary. I'm kind of a one trick pony on the guitar. I know some chords but that's kind of all I need it for. I just need a bed of sound for my voice.

A lot of bands consist of bass, drums, guitar, vocals, but as I was running sound for Come Holy Spirit a couple weeks back, I felt it was useful to have seen you at least fifteen times because it's not a traditional balance of those instruments.
It's guitar, bass, drums, percussion, and vocals, and it's all up front but at different moments. The dynamic shifts are abrupt. I imagine it would be difficult to mix sound for live.

I didn't think it was difficult, but it was helpful knowing Aaron’s guitar is not supposed to be loud and up front the whole time.
He's so tasteful. He's so Minnesotan! He just does what's needed.

How do you find time for self-care among your various practices?
That's totally non-negotiable. It makes touring really hard, especially for someone like me that that has chronic health conditions that require a special diet. I have multiple allergies. I can't sleep in a moldy space. There's a laundry list of requirements but as long as it's giving more than it's taking, there's nothing like it. It's the ultimate joy to get to share something that you worked so hard on and want people to hear and then people hear it and they're stoked on it. That's the best feeling in the world. It just means that there's extra work that needs to go into making it possible, like planning things way in advance. Planning days off is really important and figuring out where you're going to sleep in advance.

It's wild to me how many people don't do that.
You get to a point where you just have to. It's not because I want to or I'm a planner. It's just not sustainable if you don't. It's nice to know that you can crash on the floor if you have to, but say you're on tour for just a week; it's not sustainable and not worth it. As you age and you want to keep doing this and decide it's important, you just figure it out. That also includes making boundaries and figuring out what situations are worth your times and what aren't, and then you get to keep doing it, and that's the good part. I don't think it's realistic to have the expectation that it's going to be like it was twenty years ago.

Who are your musical influences?
Different artists influence me for different reasons. I think when I was coming of age, like late teens and early twenties, I was drawn to more obscure, complicated experimental music and started listening to Silver Apples and Daphne Oram and Krautrock bands. Lately I’ve been super into the human voice. People that can do it right, that's just such a gift and skill. I listen for artists that are committed to what they're singing about. Conviction is what I'm most drawn to. When Roky Erickson sings about goblins and demon, you know he means it. He means every word. Janis Joplin did that, too. She was in it. Every part of her body was in it the whole time she was singing. Performers like that really influence me. The band that I'm in now, it's kind of easy to hear where my influences are as far as what I'm doing in the band. If you listen to Come Holy Spirit, those influences, as much as we're not trying to sound like those bands, you can tell that we all really have been listening to those bands for a long time, like the intricacies and the carefulness of that music. I'm really drawn to music that crosses genres. There's an artist from the Bahamas called Exuma. He was most active during the ‘70s. He had three really good albums. His voice is just amazing. It kind of has everything I've been looking for. Oh, I've been really into Sam Cooke. One of his first projects that was released is called the Soul Stirrers. It's mostly a cappella gospel music. It's just so beautiful and really honed but also really raw at the same time; it's amazing. I've been listening to a lot of early, early rock ‘n roll like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. It's funny - I've come full circle. I'm not interested in complicated, math-y, loud. Just not into it right now. But I don't know, that super early music kind of has everything you need. You don't need to take it anywhere else. I have a theory that all songs are "House of the Rising Sun", like tragic, pathos, ennui or "La Bamba", which is like the joyous victory, or different ratios, but they're one of the two formulas. I just want to listen to really simple music like that or old gospel. I love the Dead Kennedys and Crass. The singer from Crass, Eve Libertine - I learned a lot about how to use my voice from listening to her. Mia Zapata from the Gits, I love her voice. She sang explicitly about rage. She sang about rape and being attacked and feeling rage about our society. How she met her end is just crazy. Part of what I love about her voice is the female voice in the contralto range. You don't hear it often. The female voice in a lower register really speaks to me. I'm just drawn to it.

What have your recording experiences been like as a band that records themselves in their own space?
With this band specifically, I think this is the process that makes the most sense. We don't even know what our songs sound like necessarily until we record them and hear them played back. It's not a straightforward songwriting process. There are a million tweaks. We're lucky that we were able to do that but I think it would actually be more expensive if we went into a studio and tried to do that because it would still take us a month to record an album. We wouldn't be able to pay for it. That's not even an option, so it is what it is. We just apply layers and pull things away and experiment and listen back and pull more things away and then add more. It's just our process. I don't think that every band needs to do that. It's just what works for us in this project. In my first band, I recorded our first album on a four track, which I still love. It's really intuitive and malleable. It's interesting to me that all the digital stuff that came after that is designed to look like a four track. It has sliders and dials and stuff because people want to turn dials and move sliders. It's just how we're wired.
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Since this interview was published, Come Holy Spirit released their third album Asters and Disasters on Water Wing Records, featuring guest appearances from G.W. Sok of The Ex. Purchase it here.

- Women in Sound 2019 -