Gillian Grogan’s music is woven with intention, and imprinted with the places and people she’s come across in her travels. A self-described engineer, sustainability geek, musician, and human, she wields the power of her songs as a call to action for the environment, and the people who inhabit it.
Cross-legged in the September sun, I talked with Grogan about activism, her musical process, and making space for joy and opportunity.
What does it mean to be a “musical activist”?
For me, it’s an evolving state of openness and continual learning, of digesting and storytelling, of bridging gaps, building new communities and inspiring change, however little. That’s a lot to say that I’m just trying to inspire folks to team up and celebrate a healthier future for everyone. I try to encase important or inspirational stories in songs, to be passed on through generations, some as warnings and others in celebration of our human nature. I hope that these songs will bring comfort to some; they’re not alone in their sorrow or frustration. For others, I hope my words stick like a thumbtack to their shoe and finally click into action, when they’re ready.
All these issues are connected—environmentalism, human health, gender and sexual freedoms—I think we have to chip away at all the injustices to release freedom and joy. We’re on this earth together, there’s just no escaping it.
You’ve mentioned that you utilize storytelling as a tool for social change – how can sharing our stories drive change?
People are so much more likely to act if they’ve personally experienced something traumatic. Storytelling is a way to share that life-altering experience, to expose the raw imagery so that the emotional repercussion can be felt, that a person could bypass the need to experience everything directly to inspire personal growth. I’m pretty sure that’s how I ended up this way.
Storytelling is a simpler platform than science. It appeals to our emotions, which, for most, is a much stronger motivator for change than pure hard facts. It sets the stage for someone to imagine different futures, worse ones, better ones, to really visualize themselves in those places, those conditions, and then go home to decide for themselves, “Which future do I want?”
How does sense of place factor into your work, your music? The natural world?
Sense of place is everything to me. I am super visually affected, so I’ve been trying to surround myself with beauty ever since I was a child. I also think most people are very visually affected, even if they aren’t terribly aware of it. So I try to make things beautiful, with sound and sight, to create atmospheres that inspire joy and comfort, to lift the mood to a place, where we all become more open—openness is the foundation of social change.
When I hopped out of the minivan at Twin Lakes in CO to film that video for Silver Lake, it was absolutely for myself. It was a quiet morning, the road was mostly clear, the view brought me so much joy, and that was it—I just had to pull over. Once I did, the celebration began. I wanted to make a flower wreath—not very LNT, I’m ashamed to say—throw on my favorite dress and sing my heart out. Maybe half of the times I create these spaces and events, it’s for others, and the other half it’s for myself!
What are some of your other jobs right now?
I’m working full time over at Industry Lab managing the coworking space, the solo music career—releasing a live album in a week—it has 22 tracks with a live commentary track introducing each tune, courtesy of Club Passim. I’ve decided to charge $15 dollars for it, so if you want to hear me make fun of myself on repeat, you have to pay up! (laughs) I just decided I’m worth it. My band Honeyfoot, playing and managing artists for the Acoustic Ascent series at Brooklyn Boulders. And, I’m in a class! I’m studying land conservation practices, because I’m considering that as a potential career path.
I’m also organizing a folk festival—the third annual Honeypot! It’s a benefit concert—I’m teaming up with my friend Mary Canning who owns the local honey shop in Harvard Square to support the program she’s launching at Franklin Country House of Corrections, “Prison to Work Project: From Perpetrate to Pollinate.” Inmates are going to have a place to learn therapeutic and fruitful—pun intended—beekeeping skills and make change for themselves, and the hope is that when they are released, they will be trained enough to get jobs at apiaries or work with Mary herself.
I think one myth is that folks can compartmentalize their various roles, passions; that we can exist as separate individuals rather than a single complex being. How do you think your different roles influence your music?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that I can’t hide from myself. I can develop or progress more in one direction than another, but I don’t compartmentalize very well. My background in engineering and my MIT network always push me to try something bigger or better. That’s good and bad. It means I might do something amazing, but it also means that I sometimes feel a bit like a disappointment when I stick to something small. WIP: Work In Progress. This woman right here.
My art makes me messy on the inside (and sometimes outside). It’s in my nature to express myself, but that’s not always welcome or practical. For example, after studying the German language, my English changed drastically to allow for a more exact expression of how I’m feeling or what I’m seeing. It freaks out about half the people I meet, but brings me joy, laughter and “umami”.
What do you want to do next? Are there any projects near and dear to your heart?
I’m dying to find a way to tour sustainably. I mean that on every level: financially environmentally, socially, and I have someone really important in my life right now, and how is that going to affect him, and whatever future we might see for ourselves. I might surprise myself one morning and try to get in touch with Jack Johnson to fund a bio-fueled or solar bus tour. But that’s not a solution to the problem, musicians can’t afford that, it doesn’t scale. But music still has to travel, music is so important. You could also focus on offsetting the damage touring creates, which might be what i try to do first. My partner suggested planting trees as we go, and I said “well that’s good, but what if someone cuts it down? (laughs) Maybe we should cover our bases, plant trees and pay to offset carbon.”
I have a dream to travel a bit more with intention to find, discover, or simply encounter half a dozen to a dozen injustices that cross my path, whether current or past or even foreseen in the future, that i could write songs about, and then curate an activating tour experience. This is a young project, because you can’t just have a concert where you sing twelve sad songs, like twelve devastating songs, right? There’s got to be balance, and hope, and celebration.
It feels really tricky when you combine music directly with activism, with calls to action. Part of me wants people to come because they’re curious about the cause, and the other part of me doesn’t want to alienate people right off the bat with too loud a call. If you, with your regular stressful work life had the choice between a folk concert, or what might seem a lot like a rally, which would you go to? I mean, most nights, even I’m going to go to the concert! So what am I expecting of other people? There’s got to be some mitigation of pressure. Pressure, preconceived judgement, expected judgement…those are not good foundations for social change. I learned that really early on. Making somebody feel badly about what they’ve already done is very different from helping them understand how what they’ve done had a negative impact or how they could do things differently to have a positive impact in the future. It’s really hard to fight that instinct to shame someone because our society breeds shaming! It’s really hard, but it’s really important.
A lot of people are looking for one person to devote themselves to or share their life with, and I wonder if there aren’t a small number of projects that people are meant to devote themselves to, that we’re kind of perfectly coupled with, and when i think about this, justice tour, (laughs) oh my gosh that sounds so pretentious – that’s doomed to fail with that name. I just think about that, and i don’t think about doing ten other things, it doesn’t even cross my mind, like when you jump in, this is it. I could picture something like that taking my full focus, and like, easily two years of my life. Bold. That’s like, full attention bold. That’s ‘do it right.’ That’s a soul project.
So many of your songs discuss traveling, wandering. As a life traveler, what does Misadventure mean to you?
To me, misadventure sounds like being okay with being human. It sounds like getting a parking ticket on street sweeping day as much as a stinky fart in the wrong place or taking a wrong left turn in the Dolomites and having to rap back down the 70 meters of chaucy, mossy, pebbly 5.5 you just scrambled up in old Tevas, you know? I think misadventure is a time you say “oops!” and crack a smile. Misadventure is a mistake quickly forgiven and gives way to joy and laughter, it’s making the best out of any scenario because, let’s face it, life is super messy. Life is messy, but we aren’t meant to be miserable about it.
Where can people go to learn more, catch a show, or get involved?
I have a website where you can sign up for the mailing list to hear new album and larger tour announcements, freebies and generally be a part of the community I’m hoping to cultivate, Facebook for following tour schedules and events in your area, Bandcamp for previewing/purchasing full albums (I’ll be releasing a live album on bandcamp with commentary/introductions on my birthday, October 3rd!). Soundcloud for silly, free cover tracks and weird sound projects, and Instagram for all the stories.
Olivia Kefauver is happiest with dirt on her boots and salt water in her hair. She is a farmer, writer, and New England Team Leader for Outdoor Women’s Alliance.