Kaitlin Pelkey, lead singer of Brooklyn-based indie rock band Big Girl, catches my eye from across the corner booth I’ve secured for us at the Commodore, a popular Brooklyn bar/eatery on Metropolitan Ave. She is wearing all black and a pink heart-shaped necklace, her long dirty-blonde hair blanketing her shoulders. We lock eyes, give a slight head-tilt of recognition, and start beaming before rushing over to one another to exchange pleasantries. Four of her bandmates Christina Schwedler (vocals), Melody Stolpp (vocals), Crispin Swank (guitar), and Michael Cohen (drums) follow suit. Their bassist Nico sadly couldn’t make it, but Kaitlin said it was very important for me to include here that he’s “an angel baby with beautiful hair.”
After we conduct a lengthy interview, we gorge on nachos and fried chicken sandwiches that we’ve conveniently washed down with beer. Later, I huddle in the trunk of their car to compensate for the lack of seating and we drive over to Windjammer, a charming venue in Ridgewood where the main bar is full of sailor knick-knacks and Rocky IV is playing on the overhead VCR. We order more drinks, have existential conversations about approaching our mid-twenties, and squeeze into the mini photo booth for some mandatory cute snapshots to close out the night.
To call Big Girl an ambitious rock outfit unlike any other band would be putting it lightly. As their press bio reads, they “oscillate between the grave tones of a preacher to the sass of a schoolgirl,” an apt description of not just their live shows, but of their output as a whole. I dare listeners to name another group who can successfully take the sludgy punk rock energy of Pixies and Dinosaur Jr., the choral theatricality of the Polyphonic Spree, the vocal athletics of Björk’s Medulla album, and Kate Bush-style pantomime choreography, and put them all in a blender.
Big Girl co-produced their debut album, Big Girl vs. God, with Justin Pizzoferrato whose previous credits include Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and Speedy Ortiz. A majority of the songwriting navigates feelings of grief and loss, as well as childlike wonder at finding magic and beauty in the mundane. Their latest single, “Black-Eyed Susan,” is centered around a rough-around-the-edges character named Susan who chooses to see the beauty in the gritty, downtrodden environment around her, an outlook on life that everyone can learn from. “Susan might not be your friend, but you want her to be. She’s tough magic, rolling around in her old car which is always on the verge of breaking down,” Pelkey told Bands do BK.
Big Girl sat down with A Grrrl’s Two Sound Cents to discuss their unique vision, writing “Black-Eyed Susan,” and working with Justin Pizzoferrato on their debut album.
How and when did you start Big Girl?
Kaitlin Pelkey: Crispin, Christina, and I initially had another band called Pinky Promise before the pandemic. When everything stopped for a moment, we had some time to reflect and I realized I had a very different vision, which is how Big Girl started. Some of the songs were similar to our old band, and we eventually found a sound and a persona that drove a much more defined output.
Crispin Swank: We were staying with our friend Dan during the pandemic, and he had a band long ago in New Jersey when he was in high school. It was four boys and their band was called Big Girl. Kaitlin was so jealous of the name, so Dan graciously allowed us to take the name.
Pelkey: I seriously woke up in the middle of the night one time and screamed, “Dammit! Why didn’t I come up with that name?” It has such a silly origin too. It was initially in reference to a teacher that Dan and his high school band mates had who annoyed them and they called her “big girl,” which feels like such a quintessentially teenage boy thing to do. I feel like we’ve reclaimed the name and put it to good use.
How and when did each of you start making music?
Christina Schwedler: My first introduction to the music world was through opera and choir. Now I feel like an “opera singer gone rogue” because I’m in an indie rock band now. I still do classical singing, but it’s a lot more fun to sing rock.
Melody Stolpp: My dad was a singer, so I’ve always grown up around music. I met Kaitlin when I was going to school for theatre and she was going to school for music therapy. We waited tables together. Music has always been a part of my life, but I didn’t start writing songs until the end of my college years, and then I really started integrating myself in the scene.
Pelkey: My parents were musicians. My dad’s a jazz pianist and my mom is a singer. So I’ve never really done anything else. Music was always it for me.
Swank: My parents are both musicians as well, so I grew up playing music. The first song I ever wrote was with my twin brother. It was a two-voices/two drums ensemble.
Michael Cohen: Music has always been a cathartic way to express myself. I live across from Kaitlin and Crispin, and when one of the drummers got sick I got the call to step in and join the band.
How did you meet the rest of the band and how did all the musical puzzle pieces start to come together?
Schwedler: Kaitlin and I taught at the same music place and we clicked immediately. I was in the middle of my master’s program for opera, and when she asked me if I would join the band I jumped at the opportunity.
Stolpp: Kaitlin asked me to play the role of an abusive, chain smoking mom in one of her old music videos a long time ago, so that was the first time we got involved in a project together. We reconnected later and she asked me to join the band. I love being part of Big Girl because it’s so theatrical and gaudy. Kaitlin has such a clear vision of what she wants to do. We’re all very silly and it’s been so much fun incorporating that into our songwriting and stage shows.
Swank: Kaitlin and I met in January 2016 in Boston. I played in an older band of hers, and that band dissolved within a year. We started a new project together in 2017 and by January 2018 I bought an electric guitar, which I hadn’t played since high school, and we’ve stayed together throughout different iterations of musical visions Kaitlin’s had.
Cohen: Kaitlin and I grew up in Miami together. We were in the same choir group in school, and we reconnected in New York after I saw her old band Pinky Promise.
Your songs are very adventurous. In your bio, your list of references ranges from Queen and B-52s to Television and Deerhoof. Where does all this eclecticism come from?
Pelkey: It starts with songwriting for me. But the arrangements are developed as a group. The whole schoolgirl choir business is definitely where our theatre background comes into the fray. I also have ADD, so I want the experience of the songs to remain exciting and engaging. But all in all, it’s very intuitive. A lot of the arrangements are the group effort of other people who played with us in the studio. Our friend Liza Winter who’s in a lot of awesome projects played drums on the record and wrote this wild drum part for the song “Mother Tongue,” where the time signature gets all disjointed at the end. Now Mike has been learning those drum parts for a live setting, and plays it the way Liza did when we recorded!
You call your stage shows “a ritual ground for the exorcism of insecurities and the overflow of unvarnished heartache.” How does performing affect you all emotionally?
Stolpp: It’s a lot of fun! In my other projects I play a lot of softer music, so when I play live with Big Girl it feels very untethered. Christina and I do a lot of mirror work with choreography, so it’s really fun to have that synergy, while we’re feeding off of Kaitlin’s vibe. So I love being part of this big, crazy show we put on!
Schwedler: How we perform largely depends on the crowd and the environment, but it feels like a really fun manic episode. It’s one of the few places where I can really get all that energy out. There’s so much freedom in movement and sound that Melody and I can explore as we mirror each other.
Swank: With the whole “exorcism” business, there are so many odd forces in the world that lead to insecurities for people. But when you really line up all the reasons why people are the way they are, you’ll realize that they’re all really clownish and ridiculous. So onstage the band embodies that, and then we destroy it with rock and roll.
Pelkey: I’ll often be working through a lot of these issues onstage. There are so many forces out in the world like capitalism and power dynamics that are so poisonous. I think about liberation and freeing myself from these forces a lot, and onstage lean into these twisted feelings of anger and disgust, as well as euphoria from the energy being directed at me while I’m performing. Most of the time I find performing extremely freeing. I’m in a state where there’s less conscious thought and a lot of emotions at play.
Stolpp: We performed in Vermont one time and a girl came up to me and said “The feminine rage in your set was so exciting!” And it really is. We unleash a lot of that fury onstage, because that’s often the only setting where it’s appropriate to do so.
Pelkey: I feel like most of our songs feel like a one-act play. Every song has a distinct personality, and it’s so exciting to embody one character after another. And every song is genuine. What I aim for is to make the energy of each song so contagious that people can’t help but get drawn in. That’s how I get ‘em!
You also include elaborate choreography in your sets. Does this add a layer of complication to performing?
Pelkey: I would say incorporating choreography actually feels a lot more natural to us. It gives us the freedom to experiment more during rehearsals. For me, it feels a lot more awkward and stiff to stand there and strum.
Stolpp: Most of the difficulty depends on the size of the stage, but most of the time we’re just having fun. I really like to pantomime lyrics, and it’s been so fun to incorporate that into the show.
Pelkey: It almost feels like we’re possessed, because the choreography is another channel to express that rage. Melody always pantomimes the lyrics in the studio, and it’s fun to transform that into elaborate choreography.
Stolpp: Christina also does silks, so she’s a very sensual dancer. It’s a lot of fun to experiment with movement and decide when it’s appropriate to turn the knob up in terms of camp.
Your debut album, Big Girl vs. God, is coming early next year. What most excites you about introducing this album to the world?
Swank: I think a lot of the music is pretty hopeful, and everyone played really well. So I’m excited to showcase all that hard work to the world when it comes out.
Pelkey: We’ve worked our asses off for two years with this album, and I guess this is pretty personal, but my mom passed away last year and a lot of the record is about her. It feels like a great tribute to her and her life. We have a song coming out in December called “Forever,” and that’s dedicated to her. So I’m really excited to share not just my story, but help other people experiencing grief to hopefully find catharsis with these songs.
I also understand you worked with Justin Pizzoferrato on the album. What was the most striking part of working with him?
Pelkey: Justin’s the best! He’s so fluid in the studio. He works so efficiently, and it’s so nice to have that energy around when I’m working. He knows the setup that he wants, and he doesn’t overwhelm you with options either. He’s very knowledgeable and knows what’s going to work, which I really appreciated.
Swank: Justin really transformed the shape of this record a lot. He’s so brilliant with guitar tones and extremely knowledgeable about the history of these different sounds we could make. I learned so much, and I also really appreciated how unpretentious his studio was. There are many studios in New York I’ve been in that are very nice, but there’s something so personable about his spot and his setup. It’s got a warmth to it that’s rare these days, because a lot of the smaller studios here have been forced to close.
You’re about to release your latest single, “Black-Eyed Susan.” Can you tell me a little about that song?
Pelkey: “Black-Eyed Susan” has some of my favorite lyrics on the album. I wrote it on a walk in Brooklyn when all the fire hydrants were open, which led to that first line, “Creeks in the gutter.” I’m really excited to share this music with the people who aren’t in New York as well. It feels like the perfect driving song and it’s very dream-like. Those are some of my favorite elements of the song.
Stolpp: That’s one of the songs I’m most excited to perform live.
What does the rest of the year have in store for Big Girl?
Pelkey: We have a show on October 20th coming up with My Son the Doctor and Modern Diet. We’re also playing a secret cover set at some point in the future, the date is TBA. We’re playing a Christmas-themed event called “The Naughty List” and we’re also planning our album release show for early next year.
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