AJ Haynes was kind enough to hop on the phone with me recently to talk about Seratones’ fantastic new record, Power (out now on New West), before the band makes stops at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right this Friday (9.13) and DC’s Pearl Street Warehouse this Saturday (9.14). During the call we talked about the importance of honest songwriting, and also spoke about Haynes’ decade-long (and incredibly important) work in the reproductive health/rights sphere at home in Louisiana, as well as the problematic nature of oversimplification when it comes to addressing power structures and systemic injustice. (I myself problematically oversimplified at one point during our conversation, and really appreciate Haynes’ generously patient response to that moment.) I’d highly recommend checking out our full dialogue below, and you should also grab tickets to any/all gigs that align with your geographical location this weekend. (At the very least, do yourself a major favor and download the album. Heavy rotation guaranteed in your future.)
So the last time we spoke was three years ago, and obviously a lot has changed in many ways since then. But Power is out now, and I love it. It definitely sounds different to Get Gone; of course you still know it’s Seratones, but I guess in terms of this particular record, how much of that shift was consciously intentional, and what do you feel was just a natural sonic evolution?
A lot has changed in three years. A lot of it is just getting older and wanting to try different things, and it was definitely a natural progression; I don’t think anything was forced. I really spent a lot of time focusing on songwriting as a craft, more than an experiment. I think initially, a lot of the songwriting for Get Gone was super experimental, whereas this was more measured and reflective, just taking time to really think about what I’m trying to say, you know, in the message, and really tapping into my personal life.
Have you sort of…I don’t want to say “hit a formula”, because I don’t think creativity is usually formulaic, but is there a certain environment for you, creatively, that you feel like you are at your best? Like, whether that’s a certain time of day, or in a certain environment?
Honestly, I really like structure. [Laughs] I think of it as looking at free verse versus formal poetry, right? In formal poetry you’re looking at form, and there’s more of an understanding…or, rather, there’s more of an ear to what people have done before, and kind of looking at those different structures and trying to revisit that from a personal lens. I don’t really have a formula. Definitely one of my mantras this time around was like, “Don’t fuck with the groove.” [Laughs] The groove was key. I think for the first record, that wasn’t necessarily what we were focused on, but with Power, the number one rule was don’t mess with the groove. You’ve got to have that element to tie everything in together. And yeah, I just put a lot more of my personal life into this record. You know, with Get Gone, there was a lot of revisiting of what I think of as the mythology of rock ‘n roll, kind of playing around with that and revisiting old narratives, whereas this is revisiting my personal life.
So for you, where do you sort of draw a line in terms of how literal you want to get with your personal stories, and how much you want to leave open-ended for the listener to be able to project their own things onto that?
I don’t think that’s something I’m concerned about consciously. I think just to be able to reach people is to come from a very personal, specific place, right? Like, I think that artists shouldn’t be concerned about specificity; I think they should be concerned about being honest. I think the best way to reach people is just to tell your real self, you know? And I didn’t really give a shit about whether…[laughs]…you know? Whether I was going to alienate people or whether I was being too personal. A lot of the songs for this album were co-written, so I got to work with other songwriters and people that have really developed their craft, and there’s something about that kind of dynamic that forced me to not be able to hide behind other kinds of narratives. You know, whenever you’re sitting across from someone and they’re like, “Well, tell me what you really think!” or they prod and say, “No, I don’t think that’s what you really think.” Really pushing honesty that you don’t always have to have, right? I’m not saying that all songwriting has to be, you know, like your biography, by any means, but I think that coming from a deeply personal place makes you commit to a moment during the creative process. And that can be really scary, right? But I think that’s very rewarding, and it’s proven to be very rewarding.
For sure. And that’s the interesting thing, too, is sort of the more specific, or not conscious that is…I think people will really connect with anything that comes from that sort of honest, personal place. And I think it’s been especially refreshing this past nightmare three years to just have people be honest and saying things that maybe hadn’t been said before. Now, are you still an abortion clinic counselor in Louisiana?
Yeah, 100%. Whenever I’m home I work at Hope.
So obviously a lot of the recent legislation has been pretty devastating, especially in Southern states, so I just sort of wanted to ask you about that. I think it’s easy for people who aren’t in those states to…yes, be outraged, but also be like, “Well why doesn’t everybody move?” I mean, obviously that’s stupid, that’s not an option for most people to just up and leave, but…has there been any sort of optimistic vibe in terms of the actions that people are taking?
Absolutely. I mean, we’ve had way more support; I’ve been working in reproductive health for ten years now [laughs], so…I mean, I’m 31, so what, a third of my life I’ve been working in reproductive rights? And so I can faithfully and with confidence say that we have more support from networks like Abortion Care Network, from the ACLU, from the Center for Reproductive Rights…you know, we have this amazing network of providers. There are even things like Catholics for Choice, right? That are coming from religious standpoints, and the Unitarian churches are all really supportive. I definitely want to give a shout-out to Sister Song, who provided us with a language and a framework to think about reproductive justice versus this really myopic binary of pro-choice vs. anti-choice, or pro-life. So I don’t say “optimism”, because I don’t know if that’s the right word, but I think a diligence and a commitment, right? It’s definitely something that I feel the reproductive health community, and everyone who’s working for access to safe abortion, is working towards. I definitely feel lucky to be a part of that. Is it terrifying? Yeah, 100%. The fact that we’re still having to argue for our own physical fucking autonomy is insane.
I mean, I feel like (for example) the song “Power”…it was like, the daily struggle of every patient I’ve encountered, whether they come from privilege, whether they’re underserved, coming from underserved communities…everyone’s got their struggles that they’re waking up and dealing with. And then I was thinking of, “How do I wake up every day?” I was working at the clinic full time pretty much, and there are days when you’re exhausted, but you get up and you do the work because it needs to be done. Who else is going to do it, right? And I think people who aren’t coming from Southern states or who are coming from communities in states that have legislation that protects them…I think that they tend to oversimplify what our experiences can be. Or just don’t understand because they’re not there. And we shouldn’t leave home. Like, why the fuck should all of the crazy people who do not have an understanding of everyday struggles, and are trying to erase what our experiences are…why should they have the state? You know what I mean? Actually, my stepsister just published a book that’s coming out soon about advocacy in the Deep South, and how…you know, why should we leave our home?
Absolutely! Even just how people have reacted to the current administration; yes it’s a nightmare, but this has been a lot of people’s reality for a long time, and it’s only now that some people are having to look in the mirror and see that this is America.
People live in a post-Roe v. Wade world already; that’s like…you know, because of all these TRAP laws, there’s no choice without action, right? Whenever we don’t have access to things that we need, and abortion is a health necessity, we suffer. We collectively suffer.
Exactly. And this is one of the reasons…I mean, I think music in general has been very therapeutic, but I especially love this record because there are so many anthems. “Power”, especially, and I love the video for that.
Did you plan the narrative for that, or did someone pitch to you? How did that come to be?
It was a collaborative effort between Danielle Calodney and I. She’s fucking amazing; I’m so lucky I’ve been able to work with her for two videos. We just wanted to revisit where we come from. She definitely understood what it means to come from the Deep South; she’s now based in Brooklyn, but I wanted to revisit home from a lens that was empathetic. And honestly, I think I couldn’t have had a better experience, because she just understood that “This is our home,” and we were looking at it from a place that wants and demands more than what we have. We want better for our communities, and we’re not going to pretend that everything’s all good when it’s not. But we’re also not going to not celebrate our victories, right? Like, we have to make sure that in the face of uncertainty and legislation and these power structures that erase our experience, that we celebrate our experience. That we celebrate dancing on a rooftop with all of our beautiful friends. It’s that juxtaposition, I think. Or, not juxtaposition…it’s just the reality. You have a hard day, you’re dealing with systemic injustice, and then you have to keep moving and celebrate the fact that you’re still here, and no one can erase that, you know?
Yeah. It’s like that saying “There’s no good without the bad.”
Umm…I don’t know, I don’t like hearing that shit. [Laughs] Yeah, no, fuck that. I think systemic injustice is a problem. Fascism is a problem. Racism is a problem. They’re not bad, they’re power structures that erase people and deem us unworthy of resources and love, right? So when people are like, “There’s no good without bad,”…no, no. I think that’s oversimplification that justifies or seems to justify the fact that bad shit happens. It’s not just that bad shit happens, it’s that they are entire power structures that screw us over, that we didn’t have any say so in. And that’s fucked up. [Laughs]
And progress is a process, right? Progress is…it’s like the song says, “Two steps forwards, one step back,” and it isn’t always a very upward trajectory. It’s a struggle. And it’s a struggle because of things that were set in place before, right? I think that in this era of…I think it was the Third Reich, one of the propaganda leaders who said something like, “If you say something enough, it becomes the truth. If you repeat a lie, it becomes the truth.” And I think it’s really important in this era of “fake news” and this misremembered past, that we pay attention to our lineage. Part of what the album is dealing with is, “What do we think about soul music? Where does soul music come from?” Oftentimes I think it’s viewed as one-dimensional, and I think our experiences, especially the Black experience, and being a Black woman…it’s not one-dimensional, right? It’s intersectional, it’s complicated, and I can in the same album advocate for our physical autonomy, and part of advocating for our physical autonomy is pleasure, right? And is celebrating sex. I think that looking at all the songs, like “Power” and “Permission” are definitely a part of the big conversation, right? “Permission” is about “What does consent look like? How do we celebrate sexuality?” As Audre Lorde says, erotic power, right? I’m just talking about my real life, which is not overly-sanitized; it’s complicated and it’s messy.
Featured photo by Dylan Glasgow Guice