Out Recording Artist Rachel Garlin Sends Out Folksy Call to Arms

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 16, 2020

With a "commander out to sea" being mentioned in the lyrics and its moody black and white photography — captured on a cell phone — the new video from out singer-songwriter Rachel Garlin, "Democracy Demands," poses some tough questions. It also sends out a timely reminder of what it takes to safeguard our nation, our way of life, and our families against encroaching anti-democratic forces.

The song is as stripped down and unadorned as the video; strumming her guitar and otherwise unaccompanied, Garlin states her thoughts in the same folksy style that characterizes much of her work:

"Don't let waves of panic drown your sense
Hold onto your history, dissent
Plain intimidation is enough to shut the gate
You'll never find the lighthouse
If you're scared to stay out late."

Given the current uncertainties around the upcoming election and its aftermath, the lyrics — which appear as text over images of water, sky, beach, and boats — sound like an exhortation to Americans not to allow themselves to be intimidated or disenfranchised.

"Sometimes democracy," Garlin reminds us, "demands a stance that topples over hate. Sometimes democracy demands a challenge to the owner of the sea. Sometimes democracy demands mutiny."

EDGE caught up with Garlin recently to hear more about where the song came from, and what it means in these turbulent times.

EDGE: Last time we spoke you were telling me about a songwriters' group you belong to, where everyone was writing a song each week to help them process the social and political turmoil we're facing. Did "Democracy Demands" come from that commitment?

Rachel Garlin: Yes, more or less. Good memory, by the way! The songwriting group definitely keeps me accountable for a new song each week, and I love the exchange with others, especially during this time when none of us can really play shows. But some of these songs I'd be writing anyway. No shortage of topics in the fall of 2020.

EDGE: You're lucky to have your music as an outlet!

Rachel Garlin: Yeah. I'm a mom of three, so during the day I'm juggling my own work with home-schooling and taking care of things, but there are moments late at night when I can tuck into my writing corner and reflect. I literally have a closet downstairs that's become my home studio during COVID. If I can get in there at night without too many stray Lego pieces stuck to my feet, it's a win. My whole thing right now is: Write, record, release. So I'm posting new songs as they come. Some are rough demos of me in the closet (while out of the closet - smile), and others are more produced. There's a lot of energy behind just sharing what's up in the moment and compiling it later.

EDGE: This video is very simple and direct, and it fits the lyrics in that way. Were you feeling that this wasn't the time to wrap up your message in deep symbolism or allegory?

Rachel Garlin: It was an intentional decision on the production side to make a recording that was very direct. It's just guitar and vocals. I wanted to present the song directly, like you said, and speak truth to power with lyrics that get to the point. Ron Alan Cohen produced the track and we collaborated on that approach.

EDGE: Your songs aren't usually so pointedly political.

Rachel Garlin: I was, like many of us, affected by the passing of Justice Ginsburg. What a life she led, and what a gap she left on the court. I was moved to respond, musically and politically, especially after the president announced, not surprisingly, that he planned to push forward with a nomination before the election.

EDGE: What's the story behind the video, and the choice of a lake for its setting?

Rachel Garlin: We're in the midst of wildfire season here in the Bay Area, but on one of the clear-ish days, my wife and I took the kids to a nearby beach and I started taking some video of what I saw, which was boats on the water drifting around. It reminded me of our political situation. Some of the boats were really active, some of them were drifting, some of them seemed stuck in their places. Some of them had no people on them or near them. There was this tall cement structure to the right, with a picnic table balanced on the edge, and some older kids were jumping off of the picnic table into the water, recklessly; the whole scene kind of struck me as similar to the political moment. So even though the song is very direct, the video points to a metaphorical connection with boats on the water. I recorded it on my iPhone and used it as a backdrop for the lyrics.

EDGE: So that's why those images have that quality that makes them feel a little shrouded and surreal. And the image of the empty boat that comes up right where the lyrics talk about a captain who's out to sea — you can look at that in so many ways because there's so little sense of leadership from the top levels of our government.

Rachel Garlin: Yeah. I gave the video that kind of slow motion, muted tone. I wanted the visuals to feel just a little off balance and to be entirely in black and white.

EDGE: Would you say this is a call to voters? Is this Rachel Garlin's "get out the vote" video?

Rachel Garlin: Well, yes. I mean the song came from the creative process but certainly ended up as an out-loud questioning of whether we're doing enough to protect our democracy. Shortly after we lost Justice Ginsburg I watched [U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]'s tribute on YouTube, and at the end, she makes a very specific call to artists, and, really, to everyone. She says if you're overwhelmed by the question what can I do, what should I do, I'm panicking, I'm frozen — if you're overwhelmed, then take a minute to just reflect on what it is that you want to give. So as artists and activists, this is what can give. Music that reflects dissent and gives voice to people's concerns and fears (and hopes).

EDGE: You take the stance in this song that "democracy demands disunity" - that built into our system is a necessity to question what our leaders are doing and what's happening in our society. I wonder if you feel that our current deep divisions could be a proving principle of democracy: That even though the process may be rough, it's durable and we're going to emerge from this stronger.

Rachel Garlin: I believe that and I hope it's true. But I also think we need to actively work to protect the integrity of democratic processes right now. This election is not just going to be about voting, it's also about the election process and the stability of the structures that ensure a peaceful transfer of power. There's a lot at stake.

My hope (or the song's hope — smile) is that it sparks conversations, dialogue, action. It was sad for me to explain to my kids that, "This is not a debate, what you're watching; this is something different" when we had the first presidential debate and it devolved. We do have deep divisions and that's part of the deal, but can we also listen to each other?

EDGE: It, unfortunately, seems to be the case that social divisions often put LGBTQ Americans right in the crosshairs. You mentioned the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the rush to appoint a new justice so close to the election. Predictably enough, the nominee is someone who has stated opposition to marriage equality, and two sitting justices have even called for there to be a legal challenge to standing law relevant to our rights and families. What's your response to this? Are you concerned for your family?

Rachel Garlin: Yes it's crazy to think that the LGBTQ movement would have to turn our efforts back to fighting for our most basic rights. We've only had marriage equality for a minute! And it's unthinkable to imagine going backward on reproductive rights, climate change, racial justice, especially at this moment when there's urgent momentum around police accountability and the Movement for Black Lives. RBG, we still need you. Things are off balance, we're teetering.

EDGE: If nothing else, this is a fertile time for songs, as you were saying before. Will you be penning songs to address those concerns?

Rachel Garlin: Yes. I'm going to continue writing and releasing new songs in real-time. Part of it is honoring the muse, and part of it is honoring the news, you know the news cycle which could not be more... inspiring?


Rachel Garlin: And there are lots of virtual collaborations brewing within our music community here in the Bay Area. Julie Wolf, Vicki Randle and I just finished a social distance recording of a song called "Home" that's getting released by Little Village Foundation in November.

EDGE It's a gift you've presented to us with your new song and video, and I'll be looking forward to seeing what you'll follow up with.

Rachel Garlin Thank you. And thank you for this conversation. I do believe we're all in this together.

For more about Rachel Garlin, go to https://rachelgarlin.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.