The New Female Rocker Both Punks and Swifties Will Love
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your Spotify playlist can always use more female rockers.
By Michelle Bruton
Standing onstage at the iconic Subterranean club in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, Zoe Reynolds — who fronts the solo act Kississippi — giggles as she sips tequila from a plastic cup. Reynolds is opening for rockers Have Mercy in support of her first full-length album, Sunset Blush, and with her custom pink Fender with the sprinkled doughnut design slung over her shoulder, she’s nailing the task of warming up the crowd.
You may not have heard of Kississippi, but you likely will soon. Reynolds is one of contemporary emo’s most promising female artists. With this album, however, she’s mingling post-hardcore with pop. That’s not an easy balance to maintain, but there’s something for punks and Swifties alike in her sound, which she’s preparing to show off this month on Kississippi’s first-ever headline tour.
A career as a singer-songwriter wasn’t always an obvious choice for Reynolds, 23, who hails from Oreland, Pennsylvania. Aside from piano lessons with her grandmother, she has no formal training outside middle-school chorus, where she’s sure her instructor thought she was “mediocre.” Her cover of “Gold Lion” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was rejected from a sixth-grade talent show — prompting a few tears in math class. “I really don’t have any music theory knowledge and have mostly just played what feels and sounds right to me,” she says.
That authenticity is what makes Sunset Blush such a powerhouse debut. It has a punk sensibility shrouded in a bubblegum-pop exterior — down to the record’s hot pink sleeve. Reynolds’ quirky voice soars above the synths, electric guitars, drums and bass, a sound so pretty that it takes a moment to grasp how heartbreaking the lyrics can be.
We have to work 10 times harder to get even that opening spot on an otherwise all-male show.
Zoe Reynolds, Kississippi
Reynolds moved to Philadelphia proper in 2013 and started performing in the local DIY scene — where artists largely eschew industry professionals to create and perform their own music. She met Colin James Kupson on Tinder for a platonic musical hookup the following year, and in 2015 the two recorded an EP, We Have No Future, We’re All Doomed, under the Kississippi moniker, working with Modern Baseball’s Jake Ewald. Sunset Blush is a marked departure from their earlier sound on the EP, in which dissonant, lo-fi songs are better characterized as emo, a genre enjoying renewed growth in the 2010s. But after Kupson left the band following the EP’s release, Kississippi and Reynolds became one and the same, and the project began to reflect Reynolds’ desire to chase a poppier sound.
“Artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and Lorde have given me a better understanding of song structures most of all,” Reynolds says, adding that she listened to more radio pop music while writing Sunset Blush “to get a better understanding of how to keep a song interesting.” When asked if the album, which she produced, is a nod to the Franzia boxed wine of the same name, Reynolds answers, “Hell, yes!”
But while toeing this line between rock and pop, Reynolds has to fight to earn her place. This spring, Kississippi supported Dashboard Confessional — those venerable veterans of the singer-songwriter genre — on tour. But she’s seen other male-dominated tours engage in tokenism, bringing on a female opener to check a box. She wants non-white, non-male musicians to earn their spots thanks to the quality of their music. “We have to work 10 times harder to get even that opening spot on an otherwise all-male show,” Reynolds explains. It’s easy, then, to imagine that when she sings “I’ll make myself easier to want/ Easier to love” on the track “Easier to Love” — which she wrote after being sexually assaulted at age 17 — she means it in myriad ways.
That’s a running theme in Sunset Blush — Reynolds exploring the ways she’s been hurt by others and attempting to reclaim her voice and her sense of self. “I want every record I make to be a learning process,” she says. That weighty introspection is why she chose the moniker Kississippi — a Parks and Recreation reference — to give herself a “safety blanket” to pen her feelings. She describes Kississippi as “a barrier that’s just fragile enough to break through.”
Of the female-fronted rock bands that have achieved mainstream success, Reynolds considers Cat Power, Liz Phair and the Breeders among her inspirations. And while sonically she can’t compare herself to the male-dominated emo bands of her mid-2000s youth, “I’m coming to terms with being labeled as an emo artist, recognizing that it’s not about a sound or an image,” Reynolds says. “It revolves around shared experience, identity and vulnerability.”
One of Reynolds’ best friends, Eric Butler, sings in the band Mom Jeans and lauds the impact of her relentless touring. “Men have as much responsibility to create space for non-men in the scene as women have to step up and take that space when it’s offered to them,” Butler says.
As Tom Mullen, a vice president at Atlantic Records and the host of the Washed Up Emo podcast, explains, the genre is more diverse than ever. Female-fronted emo bands “were always there,” says Mullen. “And now I think it’s amazing to have bands care most about having a good tour, and everyone’s all together.” Now that she’s headlining the tour, Reynolds finally has the power to meaningfully champion inclusivity.
Despite its pop aspirations, however, Kississippi decidedly still resides within the world of DIY. Many of today’s active DIY bands are close friends — to wit, in late October, at the Fest, an annual DIY punk festival, Kory Gregory of Prince Daddy & the Hyena proposed to Reynolds during his band’s set just before hers. (She said yes.)
While Kississippi’s sound may grow poppier, it’s hard to imagine Reynolds fully giving herself over to the pop industrial complex. And if she doesn’t, she may never enter the mainstream consciousness in the same way as Lorde, Regina Spektor or Taylor Swift, even as she’ll likely draw comparisons to their sound. But as she continues to see where this new direction takes her, Kississippi, finally, is all Reynolds’ own.
- Michelle Bruton, OZY AuthorContact Michelle Bruton