FROM GIRLS ROCK TO GERTRUDE: A Conversation with Melanie Fuest of Gertude Atherton – interview by Ella Rosenblatt
Melanie Fuest is the drummer in local band Gertrude Atherton – who will be playing in the upcoming AS220 Estival Festival on July 20th, . She also happens to work for AS220. Frank, friendly, and open, she tells us about her unconventional life trajectory, Girl’s Rock and Gertrude Atherton’s beginnings, and her consistent love for the dark and twisted. Come see Melanie’s band at Estival Festival–and her decorations too!
Can you talk a bit about your background?
I moved to Providence when I was in my early twenties, I think I was twenty-two? So I’ve been here for over twenty years. I worked in restaurants a lot, and then when I was in my late twenties, I think I was twenty seven, I ended up getting a job at AS220. I ran the cafe before it was renovated. And I didn’t know a lot of people in the city at that point, and I didn’t have a lot of friends here. Finding that place opened my eyes up to a lot of things that I was not aware of in Providence and gave me a lot of connections and very close friends. I grew up playing the clarinet, and I met somebody while I was working at AS220 that was really into rock music and had just moved here from Fargo, North Dakota. So she was like “I wanna start a band here, you’re gonna be the drummer.” So that’s when I started playing the drums, and that’s what I still do now. That same person, myself and maybe five or six other people started Girls Rock Rhode Island, which has become a huge part of my life as well.
Can you describe what that is?
It’s an international organization, and there’s chapters all over the US, one in England and some in Europe, but I think it was started in Portland Oregon. It’s a place where young girls and women are able to go and learn drums, bass, guitar, vocals, keyboards. There’s also a lot of workshops focused around women and women’s issues, empowerment, diversity, and gender equality. It basically started out with us doing women’s camps, and those were three days long. You go to the camp, and then within three days, you get placed with a band. You have lessons, practice with your band, and write a song. And you have a performance at the end of the three days. It’s really empowering, community building. I don’t think women have a lot of opportunities to feel safe in the music community–I never feel threatened when I’m playing music, but I think you can feel like you’re inconsequential talking to men. Or say you go to Guitar Center, and they talk to you like you’re dumb.
After AS220,I went back to school. I started working in the social work field, so I did that for the past fourteen years. I worked primarily with people with developmental and intellectual disabilities in various programs around the state, one of which is partnered with AS220, now, it’s called RHD. I’m really lucky and grateful, but about a year ago, I was just like I can’t keep this up emotionally. I found that it wasn’t very easy for me to have good boundaries with that stuff, so I would just hold on to things. It was affecting me in ways that weren’t great for my mental health. Luckily enough this job that I have now came up, and I applied, and I’m back at AS220. It feels really special to be here and working for this organization again because it really did change my life. It introduced me to people that are so passionate and talented and intentional.
What exactly do you mean by intentional?
I feel like sometimes people just go along with life, and they do whatever comes along. They don’t really think about like what do I really want to do? What am I trying to achieve with my life? Who do I want to be surrounded by? And what do I want to put my energy into? How can I make a difference in the world? I had not seen a concentrated amount of people that are living with those principles of integrity and passion and artistic expression and the common good of humanity. I’ve had issues with alcoholism and drug addiction, and when I worked here in the early 2000s, I met people that became my very good friends that were in twelve step programs. I’ve been sober for like 12 years, and I wouldn’t have gotten there unless I met those people at that time. That has really allowed me to have a completely different perspective than I did when I was younger. I was very angsty [laughs], and kind of “doom and gloom.”
Why did you choose Gertrude Atherton as the name?
[laughs] It’s not the easiest name, doesn’t just roll off the tongue. Shannon was like, “Oh I was in this book store, and I saw this book called The Isle of Lost Skulls, so we were originally gonna call it that. But then we were like no that’s too long, so then we just settled on Gertrude Atherton because she was the author. Then we started reading her books, and they’re really trashy romance novels from the 1800s. We used pieces of her stories for lyrics because we couldn’t really think of lyrics right away.
Do you think you draw inspiration from other forms of art?
I am definitely drawn to things that are a little bit more gothic or darker. I’m not drawn to bright-shiny-fun type things, and I think Shannon and Nicole are very similar. I am definitely more drawn to like the realness of photography and writing and things that people have gone through or seen.
That seems to kind of relate to sort of social work and your experiences in the past with addiction–do you think that was always the sort of thing that you were drawn to or more a product of your experiences?
No, even as a young person I was always drawn–like I read the Amityville Horror when I was in fourth grade! Maybe part of why those things happened–because I glamorized addiction and alcohol, like Beat poets and writers. You hear about artists that are so fucked up all the time. For a long time I didn’t realize I had a problem because I was “free spirited” doing “the real thing.” But you know that’s [laughs] not a good way to live.
So you’re planning on recording more?
We are! We actually were talking about it a couple weeks ago. We’ve done two recordings at Nicole’s house–her husband and she have a recording studio, but we’re thinking about going to a real place because if we have some place to go that we’re gonna pay, it’s like okay we gotta get this done. We don’t play any of the songs that are on our last record anymore.
Do they also have other jobs–music isn’t your primary thing?
We’ve talked about going on tour a more than a couple of times, but we all have really full outside lives. Nicole’s a mom-she’s married. She works for the secretary of state. Shannon’s in grad school for social work and works part time. It’s definitely not like a super priority, but it’s not something that any of us want to let go of by any means. We have a great time together. We really love each other. We feel really good when we do it. It’s not like we’re you know super motivated to make this a thing that’s anything other than what it is, which is nice there’s no pressure. I know people that you know professional musicians and tour and do all that stuff, and It’s not what any of us want. We’re really happy the way it is.