Lost and New Lives: HERS and “Youth Revisited”

by Kekeli Dawes

It’s easy to deny the realities of what we’d like to be fond memories. It’s a common and healthy technique to rewrite our traumatic pasts — but before we fly back in time to amend our own histories, we first have to face the source material.

The happiest moments of Rachel Tomlinson Dick’s youth are when she would go camping with her family. They are good memories, but she visits them often not solely because of the fondness they evoke, but because at that age, those memories with her family were rare. She remembers the “growing pains.”

“I’m very different from my family; there were a lot of difficult moments in my childhood because of that. When we would go camping, I remember there was always this kind of feeling of being happy and having a lot of fun with them. That’s something I go back to a lot. The simple times.”

But life was never that simple. The past is never idyllic. Reality was ever-present then as it is now, complexities of the past we are now left to reconcile.

HERS is a four-piece low-fi rock group, born out of Omaha, now mostly based in Portland. Once named Honeybee and Hers, after recording an album and taking a brief hiatus, drummer Cody Peterson, guitarist Rachel Tomlinson Dick, bassist Ellen Wilde and lead vocalist and songwriter Melissa Amstutz returned with rougher edge and shorter name.

Their latest 12-track album, Youth Revisited, was released last week and recorded in ARC Studios in Omaha with producer AJ Mogis.

“I think some aspects of the dark undercurrent of youth, and the feeling of being displaced in one’s environment and then trying to to make yourself fit in that, but really struggling, and failing, and starting over… those are all things that are really present in this album, and I really connect to and try to reiterate in the guitar parts I wrote,” Tomlinson Dick says.

In Youth Revisited, HERS maintains a fine balance between the light and dark.  Songs are balanced, sometimes split into even, warring parts, much like “Hell.” Amstutz rides a thin line lyrically, singing of “roller skating by” visions of hellfire and dying nations. Her voice is so pure, that “hallucinations of death” would seem harmless if it weren’t for latter half of the song, which seems to awaken to the disturbing imagery suggested at the start of the track. The song crescendos, Amstutz’s voice distorts and joins a chorus of fury formed by Ellen Wilde’s signature fuzzed bass and Cody Peterson’s driving percussion. Tomlinson Dick’s guitar licks fit as well, but almost echo the sing-song playfulness of Amstutz’s earlier backing vocals.

But the notion of balance holds more symbolic, emotional currency in the album, because the musicians behind the music are pulling from a time in their past when balance was crucial, and a struggle.

Tomlinson Dick remembers that even as early as elementary school, she found herself making decisions whether to choose between being true to herself, or being a part of the very religious, conservative community in which she and Amstutz grew up. They even went to the same church. It was the only community Tomlinson Dick really knew.

“There would be periods where I felt I was doing a better job at convincing myself that I could be in that world, and I could be that person everyone wanted me to be and there were times I felt far more conflicted,” Tomlinson Dick remembers.

For that reason, Tomlinson Dick could relate intensely to “Hold It Together,” one of the most emotionally powerful songs on Youth Revisited.

HERS // Hold It Together from Lindsay Trapnell on Vimeo.

“Even though it may not be about what I have gone through,” says Tomlinson Dick.

“Rachel and I have been friends for 23 years — and we’re only 27,” lyricist Melissa Amstutz laughs. “We also have just very similar experience growing up in our lives, so that would make sense that she would be able to connect and know what I’m saying and be able to emotionally be there, because we really understand each other and get each other.”

Tomlinson Dick remembers having to “pretend” to be someone she wasn’t just to make those around her feel comfortable. After a while, she had to abandon that way of living, “… realizing how kind of futile it is to fake the reality.”

That’s a difficult realization to come to, and “Hold It Together” is a difficult song. The track begins in stable solitude, but becomes shaky as it marches on. It becomes a struggle against some invisible tension that constantly builds. Amstutz’s opening vocals aren’t necessarily passive aggressive; they are anxious and strained, saying too little (at least in the beginning) of what is being felt.

She sings, “Under the blankets in the dark / so you don’t see me fall apart” above Tomlinson Dick’s clean guitar, just ticking, keeping time. The tension builds, then implodes. The guitar, once gently strumming, now growls over Peterson’s thundering drumming, mired in distortion and feedback.

“I can remember, as a pretty young child, thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is really the way I see the world, or the way I want to interact with the world, but I feel like I don’t have options,’” Tomlinson Dick says. “I think that was difficult as a child. And I guess the one thing I do realize looking back, now I have the perspective of being an adult, and having found the courage to walk out and into my own life and realizing, that it is not, indeed, the end of the world.”

* * *

Our youth is a formative time in our lives because its when we realize we’d like to have an identity. The lifelong search begins here. Our youth only makes sense once we have the perspective to know we’re through it. It is only then we know we’ve missed it. It is only then we can know if we’ve been deprived of one.

It wasn’t a surprise to Amstutz that one of her closest friends instantly connected with “Hold It Together” (one of Amstutz’s deeply personal songs on the album) the first moment Amstutz brought the song to the group. But the singer says she wasn’t always as aware of the conflicts in her youth as Tomlinson Dick. Amstutz finds that sometimes things go too fast to make sense.

“Holding my girlfriend’s hand in public becomes a political statement when you live in Omaha, Nebraska.”  

“I think when you are going through hard times you just have to get through it, and you can’t really stop and think about it,” Amstutz says.

When she thinks of her youth, Amstutz thinks of herself in her late teenage years and early twenties, studying poetry at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She divorced her husband at that time, and fell in love with a woman.

After the difficult process of coming out, Amstutz experienced what she found to be a sort of second adolescence. She says she felt like saying, “‘Oh my god, this is what it feels like, this is what I was missing!’”

This was Amstutz’s youth, revisited — a youth she never really had. Growing up in a devout, conservative, military family, there wasn’t much room for a queer young woman to come into her own, let alone find love.

“It was this thing where I was able to sort of get it back, and having those experiences that I wanted. I felt like before, that I felt stuck. It almost like I was subconsciously trying to move backward and stop time, and when I got divorced, suddenly my life was going forward.”

courtesy photo

Youth Revisited is a part of that moving forward. It was therapeutic for Amstutz to revisit older songs, write, and rewrite them in stages over a period of years.

“I think that was good for me, because I was able to look at this with more perspective and was able to fully understand things,” Amstutz says.

In fact, “Bad”, the first track of the album, was an assignment from her therapist. Until that point, songs just “came” to her, and she wrote whenever she felt moved to do so. This was the first time Amstutz had ever written a song simply because someone told her to. But after doing so, she found it to be a great experience, even healing.

The other eleven songs came slowly, over a period of five years. Amstutz would write songs on her own, some beginning solely on the page, some born with melody attached. She would then bring the half-finished songs and sketches to the group for them to develop as a whole.

While some creative processes call for a distillation of ideas to find truth, HERS found that building upon ideas tactfully helped fully realized their initial meaning, and expanded upon it, as well. Though the album has a simple, stripped-down feel, recording Youth Revisited was a three-year long, additive process. However, retaining the initial feel and meaning of Amstutz’s sketches were crucial.

“We started with more straightforward songs,” Tomlinson Dick says of the early drafts Amstutz brought to the group. “They felt honest, but didn’t feel like the whole truth, in a way. The more layers we added to it, the more complete and honest it felt.”

The double-tracking, various filters, layering and the distortion of vocals and guitars adds depth and contrast to the album’s most, quiet moments, but the practice of layering applied to the lyrics and songwriting, as well. Tomlinson Dick’s playing and Amstutz’s vocals support and contrast one another, echoing work by Helium; Amstutz says their album The Dirt of Luck was a direct influence to how she approached layering and distortion when recording.

After performing songs “Hell” and “Please” with the group the first time, the songs felt unfinished. Amstutz found what was missing on The Hot Rock by Sleater-Kinney.”

“I love the dueling vocals on those records,” Amstutz says. “I listened to that a lot thinking about what I want to do.”

Those two tracks were consequently supplemented with secondary, counter-verses, at least a year after the original songs were written.

“[After] getting to spend more time with the songs, I was able to really think about it, and get a little more perspective,” she says.

Songs were reworked and built upon, all at various times. Endings of old songs became beginnings for newer ones written years later. Amstutz finds that this long writing process helped fully realize the intent of the songs. Because of this gradual, staggered process, and namely in the counter-melodies, Amstutz, in a sense, conducts a dialogue with herself that spans years.

* * *

It is difficult to harness feeling, to create it. As a group, HERS captures an array of raw emotions on Youth Revisited: the longing of “Warm and “Never Mind”, the pain of “Bad”, the quiet passion of “C & S (Youth Revisited)”, or the frustration and anxiety of “Hold It Together.” But they do so in such a deceptively simple way, much like the pop music Amstutz admires. In her eyes, pop music is simple in its accessibility in two ways: it’s easy for a wide range of people to understand, but is well-written enough for many to find themselves in it.

Amstutz wasn’t surprised when songs became something entirely different when performed live to a crowd of people, because it was possible for each person, then hearing it for the first time, to find truths of their own in the songs.

“It’s that awareness of other people around that make it different,” Amstutz says. “There’s something about it where I will think of different meanings — it will be a different meaning to me sometimes, performing it.”

Such is the nature of deeply personal work: it transforms in the hands and ears of others into something more. However, some aspects remain constant.

“All the songs on the album are very deeply personal, but there is a lot of political voice that comes out, as well,” Tomlinson Dick says.

She remembers the band discussing sexual harassment in-depth, something Tomlinson Dick says herself, Amstutz, and most women she knows have been through. It’s the subject of the seventh track of the album, “Big Bad.”

“We talked very openly about how it embodied that experience in an empowering way that clearly people could connect with but could also feel empowered by,” Tomlinson Dick says.

Rarely did HERS think directly of their possible audience or how they would be received when putting songs together. “Big Bad” was one of the few moments they found themselves writing with an audience in mind. But for such a political song, the band found it necessary to do so. And it wasn’t as though these weren’t conversations they weren’t already having: before shortening the group’s name from Honeybees and HERS, Amstutz and Tomlinson Dick formed an Omaha-based, feminist punk duo called The Wayward Little Satan Daughters.

“In our band, we’re all pretty politically engaged, and I think that it sort of comes through naturally,” Amstutz says. “There’s something about our dynamic now where I feel like we are in a good place where we feel we can be really open about things. We are all very adamant about various social causes, and I think it definitely informs my songwriting. I think it even comes through in an attitude.”

How Amstutz sees it, the political and the personal are one in the same.

“Being a queer person, the personal becomes political,” she says. “Holding my girlfriend’s hand in public becomes a political statement when you live in Omaha, Nebraska.”

HERS is a political statement, as well. Amstutz says she took cues from Tegan and Sara, an openly gay Canadian rock duo Amstutz admired as she growing up as a musician. Though it may not be in the songwriting process, the group talks about the message they are sending.

“We talk about … how we want to help create space in the world for women to feel inspired and capable of doing what they want to do,” Tomlinson Dick says. “For a lot of people, having visibility is kind of permission, so having or knowing people who are doing something you you want to do, to look up to, kind of gives you permission to try it.”

Once she started playing shows and talking about her songs, Amstutz started thinking about the closeted, queer kid from rural Nebraska who could be right there in the crowd, watching her perform.

“That’s when I really did think about younger kids growing up didn’t know any gay people, or have anyone to look to, and they were confused, or wonder if they were gay, because the only gay person they know is Ellen DeGeneres, and they’re not like her, ‘So what about me?’” Amstutz says.

Amstutz could imagine going back in time and telling herself in her late teens, early twenties, or even earlier than that, these same words, now that she has this greater perspective, but that’s the problem. Life looks differently onstage that it did on the diary page. It looks differently offstage, too. Time’s lens can warp life’s trials, the further away you step from it, the clearer it becomes. It’s a bitter irony; it’s a shame we can only look backwards, that we can’t simply turn the clock back to regain time robbed from us. It’s not as if the need and longing isn’t there.

But there is a loophole. Feeling and emotion transcend time.

“I think a lot of the chaos and confusion I was feeling around its time made it’s way to the record musically, and so I think the energy from something can get in there, and it did,” Amstutz recalls.

It’s even possible to reach beyond your own past into someone else’s youth to try to quell some of the chaos and calm some of the confusion.

Maybe that’s the source of the simplicity of Youth Revisited; maybe that’s why some of the songs have a certain familiarity to them; as if lifted from our high school diaries or first love notes. The style seems to capture a time in life when even the most complex emotions, so frighteningly vivid, and conflicts so chaotic that they feel larger-than life, can be expressed by the first humble words that come to mind.

Kekeli Dawes is a Hear Nebraska editorial intern. Reach him at kekelid@hearnebraska.org