November 11, 2020 Interview – Kiirstin Marilyn
Some of us are content to sit idle, observing but rarely doing. Others of us continually strive to be the impetus for change—so much so that it inspires and drives us, and boldly creeps into our work. The multi-talented singer-songwriter, producer, actress, writer, and activist Kiirstin Marilyn is one of these driven individuals, a New York creative who makes art with purpose. The daughter of an immigrant, a proud feminist, animal rights activist and vegan, as well as an anti-capitalist, Marilyn draws from her experiences and diverse background, along with a wide array of influences, to create a sound that cannot be placed inside a simple box.
Packaging her socio-political messages in this eclecticism, she recently released her debut full-length, There Are No Cats in America. And if the title sounds familiar, good, it should. If for some reason it doesn’t, well, we sat down with Marilyn to discuss that very line and the Russian mice behind it. Somewhere along the way, we also covered her musical influences, the finer points of packaging her messages in song, being vegan, feminism, and why 1991’s Fievel Goes West is an American tragedy.
Cryptic Rock – As a bold, multi-talented female creative who speaks her mind, who or what are some of your inspirations and influences?
Kiirstin Marilyn – As a pre-teen, I remember going to see 311 with my older brothers, and No Doubt was opening for them. I’d never seen a woman perform like that, and never heard a woman sing about all the hypocrisy of our society and it’s treatment of women. Gwen Stefani was instantly and easily my first influence. I also grew up listening to bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Live, Rage Against the Machine, along with influences from my parents like The Beatles, The Temptations, The Shirelles, The Platters and other Doo Wop groups, and Bob Marley & the Wailers (my dad went to Jamaica once when I was 5). Also artists like Eminem, 2Pac, and Notorious BIG.
More recently I’ve been influenced by bands like Enter Shikari and Nothing More, and artists like Killer Mike/Run the Jewels who, in my mind, gave me permission to write songs about what I felt was important rather than what people expect me (especially as a woman) to write and sing about. And, of course, I can’t forget my ladies: Lana Del Rey, Beyoncé, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Adele, Erykah Badu, Lauren Hill, Jewel, Dido, Kate Bush, Sinead O’Connor, the list goes on and on.
Cryptic Rock – All amazing artists to be inspired by, and such an eclectic list, too. Obviously you’ve been making music for nearly a decade now, but There Are No Cats in America is your debut full-length. What made you hold off until now before releasing a full collection?
Kiirstin Marilyn – In the music industry, there’s always this well-meaning advice from others as to what you should do. The advice was always, “Album’s are dead – only make singles.” Even my EPs were just collections of singles and not thought out collections of songs with a cohesive message. I will say money and the fear of not putting out a piece of music for a while factored in, as well. But mostly the bad advice of, “Albums are worthless, no one cares about albums anymore.” Once I decided to make music I could be proud of, I also decided I wanted to do one other thing I had never done. And I’m so glad I did.
Cryptic Rock – We’re so glad too. So to dive deeper into the LP, let us first ask the obvious: Why title the LP There Are No Cats in America?
Kiirstin Marilyn – One of my favorite movies growing up as a kid was An American Tail (1986). In that animated film, Fievel Mousekewitz and his family are being terrorized by cats in Russia in the 1800s. Their village gets burned down (by humans actually), and they decide to emigrate to America because Papa Mousekewitz heard that in America there are no cats. On the ship to America, all the immigrant mice sing this song “There Are No Cats in America.” They all falsely believe they are going to find streets paved with cheese and a life free of tyranny. Of course when they get here nothing could be further from the truth.
In real life, many immigrants were sold this lie of The American Dream. They were told the streets were paved with gold and that their lives would be so much better when they got here. The United States must have had a great PR guy because we convinced the world’s workforce to come here and work to build this country rather than staying to build their own. I felt that the theme of “There Are No Cats in America” encompassed everything my album was trying to say, plus I love cats so I thought I could make a super cute, fun album cover with cats. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) You really can’t go wrong with Fievel and cats—although Mr. Mousekewitz might not appreciate that pairing—but the deeper parallels are perfect, as well. Also, there’s something very Punk Rock about the album and your no-fucks-given attitude toward lyrical content and genre standards. As an artist, how do you try to find the balance between staying true to yourself and attempting to package your message in a way that it’s going to find its niche?
Kiirstin Marilyn – I basically stopped trying to do that. (Laughs) I had almost left the industry behind towards the end of 2017, just before I met my current producer and the producer of the album, Adam Tilzer. I was so tired of creating music that I wasn’t entirely sure I even liked in an attempt to get the attention of others. I decided if I was going to continue creating music it was going to be on my own terms: what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. Now that it’s released, I’m doing the legwork to find its audience, but I can at least say, I’m extremely proud of what I created, and I love listening to my own songs.
Cryptic Rock – You should be proud—it’s a phenomenal album, musically and vocally, but you also have a lot of important things to say to your listeners. That said, there are some Spoken Word moments on the LP that make us wonder: Do you also write poetry?
Kiirstin Marilyn – No, I don’t write poetry. Though I guess I could see those specific parts you’re talking about read as poetry. But everything I write either comes with a melody or is inspired by a piece of music. I can’t see myself creating one without the other.
Cryptic Rock – That makes sense. Now there are two cover songs on the album from wildly different artists—Nirvana and John Lennon. What was it about those two particular songs (“Something in the Way” and “Working Class Hero”) that made you choose them, specifically?
Kiirstin Marilyn – John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” works so well with the theme of the album. An activist friend actually sent me the track to listen to while we were in the middle of working on the album, and I had never heard it before. I immediately knew it had to be one of the covers since we were looking at doing one or two. I believe Adam was the one who brought up “Something in the Way” as he later told me it’s his favorite Nirvana song. Something about the deep sadness and despair expressed in that song made me feel like it was also a really good fit for the album.
I think musically these two artists were different, but I think philosophically they were similar, and that’s also what I think made them good fits as covers for me and for the album.
Cryptic Rock – “Something in the Way” happens to be a fan-favorite Nirvana song, as well. You have quite a few guests on the album. How did you decide who to ask to be involved and what song to have them contribute to?
Kiirstin Marilyn – Everyone on the album is either a friend of mine or a friend of Adam’s. A couple of the songs like “The American Dream” and “Feminism is the Radical Notion that Women Are People” were about asking as many people as we could possibly think of to feature on the track. On “Feminism…” some of the women are Adam’s other artists, and some are my activist friends.
For “A.E.T.A. (Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act)” we wanted vegan MCs that were passionate about the issue. Three of the MCs were my friends from the world of veganism and activism, and one is Adam’s friend who he knew would research the crap out of the issue and deliver a killer verse, which he did. Though I do have to say, my friend Freakquencee’s verse is my favorite, and I’m so glad we were able to get her on the track. She’s insanely talented and therefore insanely busy so I was nervous about even asking, but I’m glad I did.
Cryptic Rock – They all fit beautifully and bring something special to the songs. Let’s delve into a few of the tracks, more specifically. “Like Ice Is” implies a stance that America is a bit of a playground bully (and it is), but you present it as a funky dance track. Is it important to you, as a songwriter, to offer up dichotomies like this that might perplex some listeners and force them to think?
Kiirstin Marilyn – The dance track idea is definitely all Adam. (Laughs) I had a completely different version of the track when I brought it to him. The vocal melody was the same, but the instrumentation was much more somber and soaring. I absolutely love what Adam did to the track. I don’t think I would have thought of making it a dance track, but I do like the idea that fusing these lyrics with a driving beat might make people think a bit more.
Cryptic Rock – Hopefully it well, because it’s such an interesting juxtaposition. Clearly “The American Dream” touches on a topic that’s very important, and that’s the endless pursuit of an ideal that no longer exists—if it ever did to begin with. While it shows your anti-capitalist spirit, it’s so much more than that. Do you think the so-called “American Dream” is also, in a sense, the American downfall?
Kiirstin Marilyn – I don’t think that the idea of the American Dream had to be the American downfall, but I think the American Dream became synonymous with unbridled capitalism which we know now is not sustainable and therefore, yes, becomes the American downfall. I think the ideals of the American Dream were the same as the ideals of pure socialism or communism. Unfortunately, humans being what they are, tend to corrupt any pure idea that starts off as a wish for equality for all, but eventually turns into a race to the top and every man for himself. I like the idea of the American Dream, but I don’t think it ever really existed or was never executed correctly, much like socialism or communism in other countries that aren’t actually socialist or communist; rather they are capitalist under a different name.
Cryptic Rock – Agreed and well said. You are also a proud vegan and animal rights activist, and you display that on “A.E.T.A. (Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act).” Personally, I’m not sure we will ever see a full-scale conversion of the population to veganism, but the numbers are definitely headed in the right direction. For those that are not vegetarian or vegan, and are hesitant but intrigued, what’s the best thing that they can do to help make a real difference in animals’ lives?
Kiirstin Marilyn — My advice is to always start one step at a time. I know vegans who say they went vegan overnight after watching footage of factory farming, and I commend them for that, but I just don’t think that’s a sustainable method for most of the population. I would say stop eating something you feel is easy. That’s different for everyone. I found it easy to be vegetarian. I had already stopped eating pigs, cows and fast food, but it took me a long time to stop consuming dairy products.
I would also say don’t stop once you’ve started and keep looking into it. There is so much information and misinformation out there about nutrition, and I knew so little of it when I was first transitioning, but you cannot deny the horror of animal agriculture as it pertains to animals and their autonomy. Once you see the footage of the awful things that are standard practice on all farms, even “local organic” ones, you can’t deny the suffering. So one thing at a time, but also never stop researching. Never stop learning.
What I would like to see in our lifetime, though it is a tall ask, is the idea of eating animals being socially unacceptable. I think people will still do it, but it will be more frowned upon than it is now. I think of it like human slavery today. Not comparing it to human slavery, but just to say that we have not abolished human slavery completely. The world over, humans are kept as slaves and commodities for all different kinds of enterprises. But as a global society in 2020, we do not accept human slavery as being moral, and many work tirelessly to root out this evil and squash it.
My hope is that we will eventually do the same for non-humans, as well. Some wild non-humans have these kinds of protections already, but I would like to see these protections extended to all animals, human and non-human, the world over. We all have a birthright to live our lives free from harm and suffering, and though we may always have to fight to maintain that birthright for all, I hope that fight continues to get easier.
Cryptic Rock – Let’s hope so. It would also be nice to see all companies be forced to go cruelty-free over the next few years, because there is absolutely no excuse for testing on animals in this day and age. But to move onto the next question, “Feminism Is the Radical Notion That Women Are People” is blatant. We’ve clearly reached the point in the fight for gender equality (and racial justice, as well) where we have to speak simply so the little people can understand. Do you think listeners take more away when you don’t sugar coat your lyrics? And are you bothered at all by the thought of offending some listeners?
Kiirstin Marilyn – I do sometimes worry that the people who need to hear this message most will scoff at how plainly I’ve put everything. Though I’m not really concerned with offending anyone because the other side has been so blatantly and unabashedly offensive that this is just my reaction to that. I mean, I have probably zero reach to the most misogynistic among us, but my hope is that it will inspire others to speak up more about this issue, especially men who might agree with me. I also hope it gives a bit of insight into what women, and those who are female identifying, go through on a daily basis. The way we structured the song was that the beginning is what we actually say out loud, and the second part, the “crazy” part, is everything we think in our heads that we want to say but don’t.
Cryptic Rock – Hopefully speaking those thoughts and ideas outloud is what helps to inspire a change in society. Plus, some of us are very bad with self-censoring. Ahem. Now it’s time for the most important question anyone will ever ask you: An American Tail or Fievel Goes West (1991)?
Kiirstin Marilyn – An American Tail… that movie was a masterpiece. I’m not sure what drugs they were taking when they made Fievel Goes West, but they missed the mark on that one. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Talk about a wretched sequel! And this is actually a perfect segue, because on top of being a phenomenal singer-songwriter, you are also an actress and TV host, as well as a TV and film writer. Firstly, where do you find the time? And secondly, do you have any projects coming up that we need to watch for?
Kiirstin Marilyn – As much as I’m anti-capitalist and anti-all these things we’ve been sold as measures of success, I still can’t stop feeling like I always need to be doing something, like I need to be productive. (Laughs) But also I started my career as an actor. I went to college for acting, so I could never fully put that behind me either. But I try to focus on one thing at a time if that’s even possible. Right now I’m very focused on the album and getting it out to as many ears as possible, but once that starts to slow down a bit, I’ll probably go back to writing and shooting things.
I don’t have anything major coming up right now, besides the album, of course, but if you follow me on Instagram that’s definitely the best way to keep up with everything I’m doing. I had a small role on the show Hightown which came out in May on Starz, so the album and that have been the highlights of my year amidst all the COVID time-warpiness.
Cryptic Rock – Well, the album definitely made 2020 brighter and 2021 is beginning to look promising already. Last question. If you are a fan of Horror/Sci-Fi films, what are some of your favorites?
Kiirstin Marilyn – I’m definitely a super fan of Horror, but the supernatural, not really the gory stuff. My all-time favorite Horror movie is Sinister (2012). Mr. Boogie has to be one of the scariest characters I’ve ever encountered. Of course there’s always a bit of gore in the supernatural since clearly someone has to die, but it’s never as overt as things like the Saw franchise, which I’m not really a fan of. I don’t love violence just for the sake of violence.
I also love the Insidious movies, and I’m loving these Haunting of series on Netflix, Haunting of Hill House and Haunting of Bly Manor. And, of course, American Horror Story. I can’t remember exactly when the Horror genre went from culty to mainstream, but I remember the moment I saw what I considered a “very serious actor” in a Horror film, and I thought, “We’ve arrived!” (Laughs) I even created a music video that was my own little homage to the Horror genre.
Sci-Fi isn’t entirely my thing, though I did love Battlestar Galactica and the Star Trek movies.