The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle On Pussy Riot, Feminism, And Joni Mitchell

“You could have a woman doing exactly what I do artistically and she would not have been able to come as far as I have, period.” posted on

Darnielle at the BuzzFeed office, holding this photo.

Photo: Michael Schmidt for BuzzFeed

John Darnielle is the founder and often sole member of folk-rock band The Mountain Goats, and a frequent Twitter commentator on women’s issues, social justice, and heavy metal. He spoke to Shift at the BuzzFeed offices in New York.

Do you identify as a feminist?

I do. There’s a lot of talk right now in feminism about whether the term “feminist” has historically excluded non-white, non-straight women. But I personally would have a very had time as an old-school identifying feminist finding a new term. I do remember there was an attempt to try “womanist” in the seventies. But it’s my job to go whichever way the movement goes. If the movement decides it likes another word, then I’d be happy to go with it. I personally don’t have any problem with it, but it’s not my position to have a problem with it anyway. I’m just there to help in whatever way I can by acknowledging my own privilege. And I think about that a lot with respect to songwriting — you could have a woman doing exactly what I do artistically and she would not have been able to come as far as I have, period.

A lot of your songs deal with abuse and domestic violence, an issue that gets talked about a lot, not always productively, whenever Chris Brown is in the news. What do you think is missing from the media conversation about domestic violence?

That’s a very big question. It’s too big a question to really answer and also I’m always really reluctant to speak too authoritatively about questions like these because I’m a man. I can be beaten, that can theoretically happen, but victims of domestic violence are by and large women or people who identify as women, and children. Those are the voices that should be given absolute primacy in any discussion. It would be nice if the people who are for the most part the people who look like the ones doing the abusing could listen. What needs to happen for abuse to get a better dialogical footing in popular discourse is for people like me who speak in sentences that never seem to end and into which it is hard to get a word in edgewise to learn to be a little quieter. But that is a giant effort, not on the part of people like me, but on the part of the culture to change those dynamics.

Thoughts on Pussy Riot’s imprisonment?

As a guy whose inner twelve-year-old will never fully die, it was great to suddenly hear everybody scream “Pussy Riot” four or five times a day. I didn’t follow it all that closely — it looked like people being imprisoned for free speech. That is a feminist issue, but it’s bigger than a feminist issue. So I don’t really know what else to think about it — I think you shouldn’t be imprisoning people for playing rock and roll in a church.

Do you think musicians have a responsibility to be active in politics?

I don’t really think you have responsibility, no. It’s hard enough just to live. I do feel personally that if you are privileged and enlightened, for lack of a better term — if you are privileged and are aware that your privilege places you in a really lucky position, you should articulate your understanding of that privilege in some way, and in some way try and clear what little space you can for people who have less privilege to be able to be heard. That’s a tricky line to walk because people tend to immediately start speaking on behalf of populations that have less voice, but that doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help women for me to tell people what women want. I can try and tell men to listen. Human decency is a feminist value, so I can talk about that. But one has a reflexive resistance to saying, “yes, you must speak out politically if you’re an artist.” I don’t think you have to. I think you can just make art. Because I do also think there’s a place for things that just feel nice.

Who are your favorite female musicians?

Most of my favorite songwriters are women. Joni Mitchell is probably my favorite of all time. I love Christine Fellows, I love Tiny Vipers, I love Roberta Flack, who I consider underrated. But Joni Mitchell is one of the great geniuses of our age.

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