Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster is out and on the mend

When she was diagnosed with mono last year, Marissa Paternoster’s world turned upside down. Even though she finally had an explanation for all the aches, pains and exhaustion she was experiencing on the road with her band Screaming Females, the queer-identified singer and songwriter wasn’t ready to hang up her six-string for bed rest. So she made the most of her downtime by writing what would become the band’s newest self-produced EP Chalk Tape.

As Pasternoster gets ready to step on stage again to play Ladyfest, a three-day event to benefit Women in Transition and Project SAFE in Philadelphia (June 7-9), we talked to her about how the Jersey band’s sound is evolving, how she’s still coping with chronic pain and if she really listens to old Judy Garland records. How have you been feeling since your diagnosis with mono last year?
Marissa Paternoster:
I have been feeling a lot better, thank you. I still struggle with a lot of unexplained muscle pains, but I’ve been to a lot of physical therapy, therapeutic massage, etc., and I’ve figured out ways to manage my pain. Living with chronic pain has granted me with an interesting new perspective. I used to take my healthy body for granted, and that’s certainly something I will never do again.

AE: For someone who communicates through music, what was it like for you to suddenly have trouble singing, playing guitar and performing?
It was absolutely crushing. At the peak of my pain and illness, I was deeply depressed. I invest so much of my own self worth and identity into performance and music making, living without it seemed like an impossibility. I know for sure that I want music to be my top priority in life, so I had to figure out ways to detour around the pain to get to what I want. I am getting closer every day.

AE: How did the experience help inspire your new seven-song EP Chalk Tape? Is that where “Sick Bed” comes from?
Yes, certainly. Segments of “Sick Bed” make reference to being ill.

AE: How are this album’s tracks different – some might even say tighter, more succinct, if not a little kinder and gentler compared to last year’s Ugly?
Honestly, not a lot of thought went into Chalk Tape. Our brainpower was invested in Ugly. We put so much time and effort into Ugly that we needed a break from the norm, so we decided to just casually slap together a bunch of fun songs, get creative, throw it out there into the world and see what people thought. The response has been quite positive.

AE: The band’s website is chock full of great anecdotes and glimpses into the creative process. Is it true you record in your grandmother’s basement?
We have only recorded Chalk Tape in my grandmother’s basement. We practice there as well!

AE: What can we find on your own playlist these days?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Judy Garland [laughs]. I’ve also been playing a lot of Sisters of Mercy, Ministry, Lucinda Williams, Tribe Called Quest and Screamers. I’m very excited for the new Lemuria record coming out this year.

AE: You’ve covered Neil Young in the past. If you could cover another great who would it be and why?
I’ve always wanted to cover “Jet Boy Jet Girl” by Elton Motello. I just love the song, but I think it’s been covered by too many other bands.

AE: As you get ready to play Ladyfest in Philly, what can we expect as you get back to the stage? It’s been awhile.
[Laughs] Well, you can hopefully expect for us to play a good set! That’s what we always try to do.

AE: Indie rock fans have loved you from the beginning. What was it like getting more mainstream attention from NPR? How has it changed things?
It hasn’t changed much in my day-to-day life. It’s nice, of course, to have more and more people appreciate your craft. It’s nice to see and meet new people at shows.

AE: Ladyfest is all about women rockers. What’s it like being the front woman to a trio in which you’re the only woman?
I only became hyper-aware of my gender when music journalists constantly made a point of it. Now I think about it quite often, but it doesn’t pilot my decision-making processes or anything. Screaming Females was lucky enough to come up in a scene that had a decent amount of ladies in it, so it wasn’t until we stepped out onto the bigger stages that I oft became aware that I was the only queer woman on the bill, or the only queer woman in the backstage room, or the only queer woman in the touring party. It only becomes an oddity if I over analyze it, but I suppose that it’s important that I keep on my toes in that regard.

AE: Chalk Tape is currently available via digital download – and interestingly – as a limited-edition cassette tape. Besides the obvious name connection, why the tape?
We chose the audio-cassette format because of the playful, casual nature of the project. For people my age, 20-somethings, tapes are something we remember from our childhood. Chalk Tape was a recall to innocence, simply having fun making up songs with your friends, just like we were kids again. You get it.

AE: What was the first cassette tape or CD you ever bought as a kid?
CrazySexyCool by TLC. It’s still awesome.