Shout out Hattie Lindert for the following interview with Jolie M-A of New York power trio Ribbon Stage, whose Hit With The Most was one of my favorite guitar albums of 2022. Go check Hattie's other Finals interviews with Juan Wauters and Jockstrap, and these days you can also read her as associate staff writer at P4k. Thanks Hattie!
I spoke with Ribbon Stage’s guitar player and songwriter Jolie M-A in Queens in April 2023. At the time, she was preparing to book a 2023 European tour with the band in support of Hit With The Most. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you talk through Ribbon Stage’s origins, and how you all connected?
I knew both of them separately. David (Sweetie) moved to New York in 2015 maybe? And we met through music stuff, punk shows. Anni (Hilator) is a bit younger and moved to New York for school. We met when she was in the end of college. We had other mutual friends kind of, through a different crew. But we had a lot in common musically, and she also spent time online in a similar way as I did. Her references were similar. I was playing music with both of them separately, and then David and I were looking for someone to play bass; we had written the songs already on guitar and drums. I don’t know, no one really wanted to do it (laughs).
Were you looking specifically in New York at that time, or anywhere for the right person?
I feel like most of our friends are in bands, so it’s kind of a weird dance of like, oh, is that band touring or active? Who has time? Who lives close enough to the practice space? There’s all these underlying criteria: someone we both know, or one of us knows. But it casts a pretty wide net, as far as our particular scene with punk music. Anni was a little bit outside of our immediate group of friends. (She and David) hit it off when they met, and she ended up singing.
Had she done that before?
This was her first band. I think she had learned how to sing opera songs when she was younger. She has a really nice voice. You know, maybe she did some home recordings in her e-girl high school era…(she was) definitely online and into really cool bands. I think that’s probably when she was listening to K Records stuff. We all listened to K Records stuff when we were younger, and came to it in different ways. We just all kind of went to the same shows and were around that kind of thing.
Did that influence your decision to sign with the label eventually? What was it like doing that after starting independently?
It’s kind of crazy to think about the very immediate period that the band started, wrote, and recorded, because it was the last six months before COVID. So we just had a really different perspective on our goals. A lot changed. We initially wanted to put out the songs just as a tape, very small run, but Hayes (Waring) at K (Records) convinced us that we should do a 7-inch instead. He had to convince us to accept that it was good enough to stand on its own as an EP and we didn’t have to put out a tape for no one to hear. But we had a lot of back and forth, because some people in the band were like…you know, none of us collect records. Do we really need to do that? And Hayes was like “Yeah, you do.” He then helped us understand the process, with mastering and mixing. David had recorded it, but we transferred it to tape and mixed it analog when I was in Olympia, (WA). I guess I have kind of segued off-topic, but it’s somewhat relevant. Part of why we did eventually become kind of convinced was to be able to do one of the International Pop Underground 7-inches. The history of that we all were very into, so to be able to be a part of that in 2020... We recorded December 2019, at David’s practice space, and then January 2020 is when Hayes and I remixed it with an engineer in Olympia. So the trajectory has been a little bit weird with timing and goals and all of that. We really thought we were going to play shows, obviously. Our goal was to have a tape and a show demo release in May 2020; that’s what the plan was in January.
How did you recalibrate at that point? I can imagine the world changing also changes the way you work together.
It was really hard. We didn’t agree on a lot of stuff, and we had to endure conflict because it was such a crazy time and we were in different places. Everyone had their own struggles. A lot of things changed in really radical ways, but maybe the space and separation and unintentional consequences, maybe we wouldn’t have been able to do all that we did had I stayed in New York during all that time. My birthday is in March, so I was on a birthday trip when COVID happened, and then ended up not going to New York. All this stuff. It just made it so that we had to plan strategically, and not just see what happens, we all live near the practice space. We had to make more intentional time and space, and that’s why we ended up recording in Olympia, which is where I live now. We had to just set aside a week to do it and make the album instead of letting it happen because things had changed so much. We had to either do it or…
Do it or don’t.
I read in another interview with you guys, you talk about pretty much sticking, when you’re writing, to a basic 5-6 chords, and just playing around with those. You described yourself as newer at guitar. Do you still think of yourself that way?
(laughs) Oh, yeah, I used the whole pandemic to get really good at guitar, and I’m not an amateur anymore…no. I mean, I try to get good at guitar. The songs that I’m writing are still quite similar, but maybe have more frills? But it’s pretty hard to level up, I think, if you don’t have a really intense commitment and dedication. I’m just doing some other stuff.
Is there another instrument you haven’t tried you’d want to learn?
If there’s any I could possibly not be bad at, and not have to work really hard at learning. But I’m just not coordinated in that way.
I took piano lessons for years and it never materialized into anything, so I feel you.
If there was another instrument I could use, it would be my voice, because I think singing is cool. But I just can’t do it.
Would you ever, on a record?
Yeah, I guess it just depends on what it is. I would have to have some training in how to use it.
So many of your songs are sneaky earworms; I felt like before I knew it, I’d listened to the album four times, like “I’ve just been hanging out here, I’m kind of attached to these sounds.” When you’re writing, are you thinking about making stuff hooky, or does it happen like a happy accident?
I’m definitely thinking about it, just because when I’m messing around, I only remember the progression enough to keep doing it if it attracts me. I only know a few chords. There’s only so many combinations. It has to be catchy for me to play it enough for it to be a song. I’m not thinking about it consciously.
On the last album, were there songs that came really easily? Or songs you had to chip at for a while?
My process usually happens all at once, where it can be very frustrating. But some of the more rewarding songs on the 7-inch and 12-inch happened because I couldn’t get it in one go. It’s cool layering on the other parts because it brings such a different dimension to it that I never could do on my own. There’s just a shared meaning behind all of them that’s way beyond.
Once you bring a song you’ve written to David and Anni, is there anything specific you can pinpoint that pushes you forward, or pushes the song forward?
Definitely. I’m just a hooky person, and I really appreciate how we can create counter-melodies together, because it’s really not intuitive for me. There’s a thing that I can do, and then when I try to write lyrics or melodies or bass lines it's really hard for me to stray from the tattooed melody that I do. The way that I strum my chords has a very particular…it’s hard to explain without a guitar. But you can take my word for it that I really struggle coming up with a separate hook or a separate line because I’m very attached to the initial chords and strum pattern that I’m making. (Anni and David) are both very good at using that as a jumping-off point, but then they can contrast it and make it more interesting with something else. I’m so bad at that. With the basslines that David and I do, it’s really interesting to pick certain parts, where I’m like “I want this to follow what I’m doing, to emphasize it.” But then there are other parts, where it’s something way more interesting and experimental and not obvious. So there is a contrast, of simple and straightforward but trying to be thoughtful and below the surface. Because when Anni adds vocals, she doesn’t just follow the bass or me. There’s a third part. So I think I’m able to get away with being a fairly straightforward songwriter because they are able to complement that.
What were some of the bands and sounds you guys were initially connecting on, or wanting to build on?
Definitely the early K stuff, and kind of the scene that was built around that reciprocal relationship between the U.S. underground indie and punk scenes and the ones in the U.K. Those kinds of people making music, the ethos around it, the aesthetics, the sounds. We’d all see each other at shows that were for heavier music; David and I both played in punk and hardcore bands. Anni really likes harsh noise. We definitely like stuff that is more intense, but then we came together on this very specific and kind of more indie side of our influences, where we don’t necessarily get to have community in the same way that we do with punk. It was very fun to be sharing those similar references in addition to the ones that we had through our primary mode of socializing.
How would you describe your own sound? I’ll say: when I heard it, my first thought was of Max in Where the Wild Things Are, like this could be a good soundtrack for when he’s headed out on his sailboat to the rumpus.
Oh, that’s so cute. Thank you. I love to hear other people’s interpretations. For me, we try to occupy a kind of dreamy space that sounds old, but also it could be right now. I think of the music as being pretty emotional but also mimicking the way the noise pop groups of Britain also had a sense of detachment and nihilism. It’s emotional, romantic, sweet, but then also there’s a level of despair and existential dread. The music itself is pretty catchy and upbeat, but the drums are pretty punk; kind of like blast beats, lowkey. A little bit like Power Violence meets The Shop Assistants doing their standup drums, and The Jesus and Mary Chain too. But I’m definitely a punk guitarist. I don’t really know how to play, like, indie songs. I tried to learn a Pavement song and was like, “Oh my god, my fingers don’t do this.” It’s so hard.
Is there anyone else right now you’re excited about, either that you’re working with or seeing in the scene?
I do stuff with K now, so I always like to boost the bands that we have in the community. We have been focusing on more contemporary stuff, that’s doing something new but also can connect with the international pop underground lineage. Allowing experimentation, but no adherence to specific genres to be making independent pop music. The term pop being used really liberally. So some of those people and friends and stuff that I like what they’re doing would be Daisies from Olympia, Big City from Vancouver. There’s a group of people who I really like in the Bay Area who make music in a bunch of different bands; they’re kind of connected to a 7-inch that we did on K from the band Almond Joy! But they’re in this whole scene of groups that include Children Maybe Later, Cindy, Spiral Dub, people who were in the bands Raze and The World. Galore. They have a lot of cool stuff happening right now. Field School in Olympia; he puts out tapes with someone who has an office in the K building named Jimmy (Ulvenes), and their label is called Small Craft Advisory. We have some friends in south Seattle in a band called Star Party that are really good; they also really like the Shop Assistants. They put out an LP on Feel It Records last year. Who else? My friend Winston Hightower has been releasing a bunch of tapes for a long time out of Columbus, Ohio. I’m excited to put out a retrospective of his stuff; we’re working on a compilation. He’s kind of a prolific home recorder, so we’ve been going through his tapes and trying to make a little comp for K of all of his greatest hits, in a way. That’s what I’m excited about right now!
That’s dope as hell that it’s such a vast community.
Oh my god, I could name so many more, and I know I’m gonna be really embarrassed, like “Oh my god, why didn’t I say that, they’re gonna kill me, I’m so dead.”
When you were young—like, little kid—when did you feel like you first decided you liked music? What was the first stuff that caught your ear?
I didn’t listen to that much music as a kid outside of what my parents were playing, the rock music they were into. The first time I heard pop-punk when I was ten, I became so obsessed with it. Changed my identity.
Did you take on the whole look?
Yeah, I just loved it so much. And then everything in my life became about listening to music. I tried to get away from it for a while, but now I’m more immersed than ever before. Like, how did this decision that I didn’t even make over 20 years ago make the trajectory of my life end up in Olympia, Washington, doing label stuff and trying to be in a band in 2023, when it’s such a deeply inhospitable climate for artists? Continuing to stubbornly have community around all of that, and trying our best. But it is funny, that hearing Green Day in fourth grade just flipped my world. It sucks, but it’s what happened, and it’s been a funky ride.
Are there any other aesthetic inspirations that are big for you? I know you’re also a filmmaker.
There are aesthetic references, but I think they mostly just go back to the music I have been listening to. I don’t really watch that many movies, or know about that many visual artists. I kind of just see what bands do to rip them off, those references, whether TV or literary. I very much grew up going on Tumblr, looking at album art. I didn’t collect records, but I was online, so I saw this really big trawl net of imagery, just so much shit. I got kind of attached to certain analog aesthetics, as far as the color quality. I shoot 35mm film because I like the way that it looks; you don’t have to color-correct it. I’m also just lazy, so I’m influenced by that. I don’t know how to do videos that aren’t Super 8 film, and Super 8 just looks really good, so I only shoot stuff that looks composed in the way…I’m just doing the minimum. But those limitations become aesthetics in their own way. Just trying to hope that nobody gets too sick of it, because no new tricks really, for the time being.
What’s different about being a working musician now than when you first started, versus now?
I would say we weren’t a working band before and aren’t a working band now. But I would say I have more infrastructure to be committed to working on it in Olympia than it would be in New York, because it’s just so hard. Everyone’s so busy, and it’s hard to do your own thing sometimes unless you’re so committed and disciplined. But I think we end up having to say no to a lot of stuff, but at the same time it means that when we do say yes and decide to do something it’s really intentional and we’re excited about it. Recording the record was really fun. Having David and Anni in Olympia, we just had such a good time, and I want them to come back. I wrote another album…please? Lets go.
What are some of your proudest moments so far, with the band?
Just making the album as quickly as we did. I wanted it to happen, so I expected it to happen, but it was not easy, so I’m proud that we accomplished that and saw it through. We got it together to have a live show somehow (Ribbon Stage opened for Bikini Kill in July 2022). The road to it being done was so insane. Just being able to do that was excited for terrifying. I will be proud of myself for not having a mental breakdown booking shows in France (Ribbon Stage went on a European tour in 2023). So hard. Truly heroic task on behalf of my email warrior-ing. But that’s even to be seen yet, if I’m going to accomplish that.
Sometimes there’s nothing worse than sending an email, for real.
Especially when they don’t get responded to for three weeks! And you’re like, please just let me play a show somewhere and sleep on your floor.
What are some of your favorite venues? Whether you’ve played there, or just gone.
We’re playing at Audobon in Berlin, that’s exciting. Pretty legendary punk spot. A lot of our favorite venues are…not legal, or have been shut down. We would love to play pretty much any venue in Japan. In New York, we would maybe try to play Maria Hernandez Park from there.
I live right by there. I would be there.
David’s band played a show last there last summer, and it was amazing.
If you ever stop doing music, what would you do?
Music is kind of a chunk of other stuff I’m doing in general. I would definitely spend more time writing, and doing other visual art, like photography. Probably do more video stuff, too. But I’m trying to do it all at once, and I also have worked in different capacities volunteering and organizing or doing paid labor for different organizations involved with incarcerated people. I’ve taught at jail, and been involved with various efforts to do stuff related to parole, to education. And just general prison abolition. So that’s kind of a long answer to that.
Important work. Do you prefer to have your hands in more than one project at a time?
Yeah definitely. I have to. I get distracted somewhat easily and like to be thinking about multiple things at once. I can be a little impatient too, so especially if I’m collaborating with others it’s good to have multiple things going on. With putting out records, it’s just like that no matter what, because you’re always doing different parts of the process for different projects. There’s no such thing as any of them ending because there’s just another one cooking. It’s completely endless; you kind of have to be able to switch between things.
Do you ever get writers block, or get stuck?
Oh yeah. I didn’t play guitar for like five months just now. I grew my nails out.
How do you get out of it? Or is it that one day you wake up and it’s done?
I guess it depends how bad it gets. If you need to do it, and it’s more of a compulsion. But also through collaboration; just doing something different, with someone different. Doing psychedelics. Just doing stuff to keep mental health in check, to have an open mind to whatever form expressing might take. At times when I’ve been more depressed, I’m not able to follow my instincts or appreciate what I’m doing, because I’m just like: “I suck.” You have to do all the maintenance of helping yourself not think that you suck, whether that’s going for walks or cooking food or whatever. If you’re stuck, you really have to do that, which easier said than done. But that’s part of it.