Thalia Zedek has been writing and singing about the deepest parts of her heart for more than 30 years. She’s best known for her work with Live Skull and Come, influential East Coast punk bands of the ’80s and ’90s championed by the likes of Kurt Cobain. Her lyrics are personal and poetic. Her voice is a growl of pure animal passion.
Thalia has also been an out gay musician through several politically charged eras. Live Skull, in particular, was active just as the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was at its peak, and Thalia famously wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a pink triangle and the phrase Silence = Death—the rallying cry of the AIDS activism group ACT UP—on the cover of the band’s last record, 1989’s Positraction.
Since going solo in 2001, she’s recorded five albums and three EPs with a bluesy, gritty style, including her latest, SIX, out tomorrow on Thrill Jockey Records. And some of the music she made with her previous bands is now back in print: Come’s debut, Eleven: Eleven, and Live Skull’s self-titled first EP were both rereleased last year.
Tonight we’re thrilled to get to bring you the premiere of SIX, streaming right here for your listening pleasure!
I talked to Zedek, who’s currently on tour, about finding your voice, fighting for yourself, and being brave enough to fall hard.
SHAUNA MILLER: You have a very distinctive voice—it’s smoky and gravelly and not typically “feminine.” Did you ever have moments of doubt about being a singer?
THALIA ZEDEK: Definitely! I was never told that I had a good voice—ever. I have a low voice and not really a huge range. It’s perfect for rock & roll, but not so perfect for anything else. I was never in chorus in school or musicals, but I secretly loved singing. In my first band, White Women, the lead singer, Dolores Paradise, decided she wanted to play drums. It was just me, her, and Judy Jetson, who payed bass and was completely tone deaf. So Dolores, who was in her early 30s and kind of mentoring me, was like, “You’re the singer now!” I’d always written poetry and had some lyrics, and so I just started singing. They say everyone can sing, and I do think that’s true. You just have to figure out what you can do, and make the best of it.
You were about 17 when you were in White Women, in the late ’70s. What was it like to play with these older women?
Dolores was a really interesting woman. She was a high school music teacher, and she ended up [later] marrying one of her students, this huge queen named Lou Miami who had a band called Lou Miami and the Kozmetix. He was gay and she was gay and they had a kid together. Judy Jetson and her were lovers. I didn’t even know I was gay then, but I knew I wasn’t straight. It was cool to see that there were options.
Were you out as a lesbian by the mid-’80s, when you were in Live Skull?
Yeah. I’ve been out for a long time. That was a personal decision I made, and I’m glad I did. I’m lucky to have supportive family. It’s easier for some people than others. I don’t pass judgment on people about how they choose to present themselves. In some places, you can be killed for being gay. In Russia, for instance, you can be arrested. I realize that I’ve got it good.
On the cover of Live Skull’s last record, you have on a Silence = Death T-shirt. Why did you choose to wear that?
I was living in New York, and it was really in the thick of the AIDS epidemic. I was involved in ACT UP protests and I wanted to make a statement about what was going on: The epidemic was being completely ignored by the government and pushed under the rug. I wore that shirt all the time, but I wanted to wear it for the cover as my way of showing support. I hoped that people would look at it and learn more about ACT UP and what the pink triangle stood for. Because people were aware in our little scene, but not out in the heartland.
Does the slogan “Silence = Death” mean anything to you personally?
Historically, if you don’t speak up and stand up to the powerful people, they will tromp all over everybody. It’s important not to be passive or apathetic. The attitude of “Oh, I’m not going to bother to vote, they’re all the same,” or “It doesn’t matter what I do, so I’m not gonna do anything” is really bad. It’s important to realize that were all in a community together, and something that happens to someone else is going to affect you, too.
What have you learned from all these years of writing about what’s inside you?
In some ways, I’ve changed a lot. In some I haven’t changed at all. I can go back and hear part of myself that’s stayed the same since I was a kid.
You’ve been a working musician your whole life. What have you sacrificed for music? Does it bother you that passion isn’t necessarily rewarded with cash?
No, it doesn’t bother me. A lot of people struggle more than I do. There’ve been periods where I’ve made my living off music more than others, but I’ve almost always had another job. One sacrifice I’ve made is that I’ve always taken jobs I could leave for tours and come back to, so I’ve never really pursued a career. Music came first. I’ve mostly worked as a cook, something I could do anywhere. One hard thing is that the cost of touring is so much more now, but what you get paid has stayed the same. But I’m having a great time and I feel really lucky.
Your new EP’s first track, “Fell So Hard,” really struck me. Is falling hard always a bad thing?
Yes and no. There have been times in my life where I’ve gone against my instincts and ended up in a bad situation. Then I’ll think, I’ll never do that again! And then I’ll do it again. It’s hard to break those patterns, but it is possible. But it’s also important, especially in love, to let yourself be vulnerable. You have to. It’s worth it. It’s better than not opening yourself up at all. ♦
Shauna Miller is a writer and editor in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of Girls Rock! DC, a music camp for girls between the ages of 8 and 18.