A Protest Music Interview: Valerie Orth

A Protest Music Interview: Valerie Orth

In her latest music video, Valerie Orth shows imagery from Brazil, Hong Kong, USA. This is not surprising for those who know Valerie because she started out as an activist long before she started using music as a tool for change. Today, with her music, Valerie envisions a better world, and along with her music, she educates the young girls and women of today through the social projects that she helps to manage. Check out Valerie’s webpage where people can join her VIP club called Planet Orth.

Halldór Kristínarson: Your background lies in activism, rather than music, and you have traveled all the way to China for that work, but when did you start making music?

Valerie Orth: Actually I started singing when I was very young – 5 years old. Music has always been in my life. But once I started getting very involved in activism, I couldn’t focus on both. Grassroots organizing around economic and social justice took center stage. I was able to bring back music later, after college. I studied songwriting and formed a band in San Francisco.

HK: Not everyone is receptive to politics or activism in music. Do you consider that when you make songs? Have you ever felt resistance to your music or performances because of the message in the music?

VO: That’s a great question. I got more resistance from inside the industry (certain people I played with, managers, others trying to mold or direct me) than fans. I think my fans were instead drawn to my music because of its message, because of my outspokenness.

HK: In your home environment (where you live), are there many musicians using their talents for good, for activism or in protest? Any contemporary, protest musicians/colleagues you want to give a shout out to?

VO: Because of the pandemic, I’ve been temporarily displaced from Brooklyn and am staying with my mom in Maine. But back in NYC, yes, the very act of being a musician is a form of activism, ha, it’s such a financial challenge. And writing authentic music, music that’s really true to the artist, as opposed to what we’re told everyone wants to hear, is almost counter-culture. And being a woman in music – especially a female producer or engineer – whoosh, that is a whole other level of activism.

But women and gender-expansive artists and producers have come together in supportive collectives like Gender Amplified (NYC) and EQ Loves Music (Sweden) that have impacted me and many others. I’d like to give a shout out to all the folks involved in those groups.

HK: Can you tell us a bit about the activist projects you have going on besides your music, for example Beats by Girlz and the podcast you produce? Has this Covid year given you more time for such projects or have you kept busy performing online?

VO: I help run the Beats By Girlz NYC chapter with another great artist/activist/producer, Krithi. We teach music production to youth, which COVID has made extremely challenging, since our students generally don’t have access to laptops and stable internet, so remote teaching is difficult. We just got a grant (yay!) and are continuing to fundraise to get our chapter running again. I co-founded Song Camp, in the meantime, with soul singer/songwriter Michael Inge, to teach co-writing and collaborative production, especially in this time of isolation when kids really need community. We’ve been able to create a creative community for the kids and it’s been amazing. We’re planning on continuing with camps throughout 2021.

Last year, I launched and produced the League of Badass Women Podcast, which was an awesome way to incorporate my feminism and music (I wrote the theme music and also edited each episode). I got to have very vulnerable conversations with very powerful women.

The pandemic has given me more time to sit and do nothing, which has given me perspective. Yes, I released the album that I worked on for nearly 3 years, I produced new music (mashups, in particular, while teaching myself how to mix), and I taught production and songwriting. But I chose not to perform a lot online. In fact, I avoided being online because it felt so unhealthy for me. Instead I took a lot of walks on the beach, with my mom’s dogs. I was never good at meditation, but I think the walking and the dogs cleared my head, and allowed me space to shift priorities in my life, based on what’s most important.

HK: If young girls want to start exploring feminist music, where should they start?

VO: That’s a big question! I believe any woman really being her authentic self is creating feminist music. So it depends what kind of music you like. Ani DiFranco is kinda the mother of feminist music, and she was my idol growing up. But for youth now, there’s not one direction to point to – except maybe themselves! The coolest thing about music technology now is that a young person can start creating pretty quickly, regardless of music or production experience.

HK: You just released a new album titled Rabbit Hole. Can you give us a glimpse into the theme of the album and some of the songs on it? How was the making of this album different from previous ones?

VO: Rabbit Hole is the best sounding album I’ve released, hands down. It was a long process making it, but I’m extremely proud of how it turned out. When I wrote the album, I went away, by myself, for 3 weeks, and wrote a song every day, good and bad. I wanted to see what would come out, the deeper I dug. It was a lot of obsession around a boy, around how social media has affected me personally and changed us all culturally, and around the political state of the world. When I produced the album, it became an even deeper exploration of the disappearing lines in gender, genre, time and cultures, and how technology relates to that concept. My co-producer and I went to art museums regularly in LA, while we were working, for inspiration. I hadn’t looked to other types of art so much to inspire any of my other albums. And that’s one reason the production on Rabbit Hole is much more layered than my other work. Takes several listens to really soak it all in.

In terms of specific songs…. “I Believe We Will Win” is a stand-out song. It incorporates hip hop and folk, politics and togetherness, and voices from over a dozen countries around the world. And it was a satisfying way to tie in my activism with my music. I also love “Tourist In Nature” because there’s something hypnotic about the production, mimicking how I feel when I’m away from the city, and in nature. I wrote “99¢ Dreams” for a stranger I met, and ended up talking to for hours on my writing retreat. She had such a sad love story, and I wanted to take her and shake her and say, “but you deserve so much more!” I realized friends have said that to me, though, and I know others’ words and warnings don’t work on us strong, stubborn women. We need to learn for ourselves, again and again.

HK: What do you hope to achieve with your music?

VO: I’ve always had the simple goal of being able to make the music I want to make, and make a sustainable living from it. Over a decade later and I haven’t quite figured out the financial part of that dream yet! But I’m working on it. And I just want to continue learning, to work with producers who are more experienced than me, to always have a strong and relatable message in my music and to keep getting better – as a songwriter, artist and producer.

HK: What is on the horizon for you, music or activism wise?

VO: Throughout 2021, I’ll be releasing lyric videos for all the songs on Rabbit Hole. As singles this year, I already released the lyric videos for title track “Rabbit Hole” (my favorite video) and “I Believe We Will Win,” (in time for the election). Xavier Li is the motion designer for all of them, and is ridiculously talented. I’ll also release covers and remixes and might even release a few original singles… we’ll see! For the most part, I want to stay close to and grow my fanbase. So I’ll be starting a VLO VIP club, where my fans can subscribe to my music and get exclusive treats from me monthly, through Bandcamp. My activism will continue to play out both in my music and teaching.

HK: Thank you for participating and for the music. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

VO: Speaking of Bandcamp…. It’s impossible to stress exactly how tough getting your music heard is, as an independent artist. And very few artists get what they deserve financially from their talent and hard work.

Music lovers: When you stream a song on Spotify, an average of $0.003 goes to the artist. When you buy a song or album on Bandcamp, 80-85% of the funds go to the artist.

I’d like to give a shout-out to Bandcamp, which I see as a “fair trade” platform for independent artists like me. And I’m looking forward to coming together with more of my fans there.

Cover photo retrieved from Valerie Orth’s webpage.

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Halldór is the managing editor of Shouts – Music from the Rooftops!, an investigative journalist, audio engineer, and animal rights activist. Currently based in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Halldór H Kristínarson