Alicia Jo Rabins: Creativity, agility and stubbornness

Alicia Jo RabinsScholar, poet and rocker Alicia Jo Rabins talks about the road to becoming a cross-genre artist. 

By Anita Lo '16

Violinist, poet, composer and singer Alicia Jo Rabins has toured internationally with the indie-folk band Girls in Trouble singing about Biblical women’s lives, composed an award-winning chamber-rock opera about fraud on Wall Street (A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff) and written Divinity School, a book of poetry that was released in the fall. She’ll be speaking and performing 7 p.m. Monday, November 16 at Harvard Hillel.

I chatted with Rabins between tours, talks and art-making. Below is an edited version of our conversation that covered the Suzuki method, authenticity and how to tell if you’re doing your job as an artist.

You’re involved in so many different forms of artmaking. How did you get started in them all?
Alicia Jo Rabins
When I was three, I saw a TV show about the Suzuki method. I went to the local branch of the music conservatory, and that was that. But writing was the opposite of violin for me. It was something that I always just loved doing for myself throughout high school, and after that, too. As for composing and singing, there was a music composition camp in New Hampshire that I started going to at age 11, so I ended up having a very deep composition training at a young age, sort of a fortunate accident. And I sang through the chorus at that camp, but I didn’t really start singing in publicly alone until quite late.

How did all these interests come together?
I was doing a masters in Jewish women’s studies in New York, and for my thesis, instead of writing a paper, my advisor allowed me to write songs based on my research. And once I was writing them, I had to sing them.

That’s amazing that your academics turned into your art. Were you surprised when it took off as more than a thesis?
On one hand, I was a professional musician in New York, and I was playing with a Klezmer punk band at the time, so it wasn’t exactly surprising. But I certainly didn’t intend for it to take off like this in any way. Then, it was more, “Oh great: I’m not going to have to write a 40 page paper no one will read.” Even the record label that signed me was a small Jewish nonprofit label. This sounds like an interesting boutique project, but when we got into the recording studio, they said, “This is actually marketable!”

Is it ever difficult to combine and balance all these forms of art and all your interests?
I am a person who’s really interested in authenticity and have never been really good at having a professional face to the world and a personal face to my friends. I’m just who I am to everyone, and that’s the same in my work. I had this music life, and this writing life, and this life of Jewish practice and study, but they never were that separate. I’d study ancient Jewish texts all day long, and at night I’d play at rock clubs. It was just a different way of expressing the same ideas. 

What’s your advice for students who are wondering how their academics fit in with their art, or how to pursue art after college?
I once heard that if you’re an artist and you’re not getting nine “no’s” for every 10 pieces you send out, you’re not doing your job to get your work out there. You’re applying to grants and fellowships and pitching stories and booking shows, and there’ll be a lot of nos before the yeses. But seeing the rejections as aiming high enough instead of not being good enough—that’s a healthy perspective. I also think that in an artist’s life, the creativity lies not only in the art that we make, but also making a life in the arts, which itself is an art. It’s one of those things where you have to make the road by walking. Go to your professor and propose a creative project; footnote a painting, footnote a song. Whether it’s an artistic career or just integrating the arts with daily life, it’s something that requires creativity and agility and stubbornness to make that space.

This project is supported by the Peter Ivers Visiting Artist Fund.

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Alicia Jo Rabins will read from Divinity School and perform songs from Girls In Trouble’s new album Open the Ground 7 p.m. Monday Nov. 16 at Harvard Hillel’s Rosovsky Hall. The event is presented by Harvard Hillel, in association with Learning from Performers, the Jewish Women’s Archive, Harvard Divinity School and the Woodberry Poetry Room at Lamont Library. Admission is free and open to the public.