Ragana Defies Genre and Gender on 'You Take Nothing'

Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly

Listen to the Oakland "witch doom" duo's brilliant new album and read a rare interview with the thoughtful anarcha-feminists behind it

The song starts out slow and quiet. It was uploaded on November 9, 2016, appearing on Ragana's Bandcamp page with little fanfare after one of the darkest nights in recent memory. A simple, muted riff slinks into earshot, weighed down by distortion and the measured thud-thud-thud of the drums; the first few moments wouldn't feel out of place on In Utero (or Live Through This)—that is, until the vocals kick in. A weary, scratchy shout soon explodes into a serrated roar—a sore throat forcing air and exhortations out of aching lungs. Exhaustion and desperation bleed from each thick, down-tempo note as the howling refrain hangs in midair, each syllable a curse—"you take nothing!"

Maria, the source of said howl, explains, "This constant power struggle is so frustrating—especially for women, especially for queer people—where people are taking so much from you all the time; women's emotional labor and queer people's emotional labor and people of color's emotional labor. I wanted to keep the lyrics really simple—just 'you take nothing' over and over again—because I wanted everybody to feel connected to it."

"Part of that song is me being like, 'Yes, you take it. I am so exhausted, but you can't actually take anything from me; I'm always gonna be my whole self with all my feeling and emotions and love for everybody and everything, and all my memories.' At the same time of writing that song was around the same time of the Ghost Ship fire that happened in Oakland, and the loss of so many friends, and I just felt like the weight of the world taking so much from all of us. I feel like that song had been just a constant process."

The song itself is a spell of protection; uploaded on November 9, 2016, its authors—Maria and her bandmate Nicole—wrote, "You Take Nothing" is "a reminder that the sacredness of our selves and our communities cannot be taken away from us." As a preview track off the Oakland-based duo's upcoming new album, it served as a first glimpse of what was soon to come; more importantly, as a defiant statement of resistance, it offered solace and inspiration for those thrust onto the frontlines of a bewildering new battle. Proceeds from the track were sent to support the water protectors at Standing Rock's Sacred Stone Camp, cementing the band's commitment to the struggle. Those familiar with the band were unsurprised to see them taking such a stand, but many others were left wondering: Who is Ragana? 

The project has its roots in Olympia, Washington, where Maria and Nicole (who trade off on vocals, guitar, and drums as they see fit) found a home within the artsy Northwestern town's robust DIY community. "We started in this weird world where there were no musical boundaries," Maria says with a laugh. As we talk via Skype video, she's seated beside Nicole on a small couch at home in Oakland, their current base, a couple hours after Nicole had gotten off work for the day. "It's a small town with a huge music scene and tons of venues and lots of house shows and [you have] lots of time to practice in your band because everybody's rent is so cheap. Olympia was this place where you'd go to shows like two or three or four times a week, all the bands play together—it doesn't really matter what genre you are. I think we were really inspired like that, and we both just kind of came together and were like, "let's do a metal thing.' So we just started creating whatever we're creating, and started playing, and people were really into it. Well, I don't know if people were into it or not, [but] they kept asking us to play shows!"

Inspired as much by Wolves in the Throne Room, Warning, and Weakling as they were Cat Power, Grouper, and Earth's sun-drenched Cormac McCarthy homage The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull, the pair cobbled together a sound that references all of the above, releasing their debut LP All's Lost in 2012. It makes perfect sense that they've played with like-minded heavyweights Thou and The Body (though according to Maria, the crowd reactions can be a bit mixed, through no fault of the bands themselves—"I think it's just part of the whole package of being a woman, you know? People look at you and assume a million things, and want to tell you to your face what they thought about you. I feel people like watching us set up like, "'Oh, they're so small and there's just two of them, what are they doing?" And then [once we play], they're like, 'Wow! What a surprise!").

Nicole also mentions experimental post-metallers Battle of Mice as a major influence, particularly Julie Christmas, the now-defunct project's vocalist. "She was the first woman that I heard screaming in that way and I just remember being like, 'Wow, I could probably do that, too," she tells me. For Maria, screaming along to ferocious punk rock was the catalyst for finding her voice.

"Somewhere in between the inspiration I felt from Bikini Kill and the brutal honesty that Mount Eerie was doing and and the beauty of Grouper — somewhere in that, I felt like I could do whatever I wanted," she tells me. "I think hearing Punch was what made me scream, or no — it was Rape Revenge. I would scream along with Rape Revenge, and I would realize I could do it!"

Despite their move south and affinity for West Coast punk rock, Ragana's sound is Northwestern to the core. Leaving Olympia for Oakland was obviously a big shift, and Nicole's longing for the Washington forests and rain is palpable, written into every gloomy strand of You Take Nothing. Its notes are rendered in shades of misty gray, starry black, and moody blue, scented with wet pine and damp earth. Atmospheric black metal, doom, crust punk, and screamo come together in what they currently describe as "witchy doom," but the music defies genre conventions as readily as the members themselves reject gender constraints. The two members' anarcha-feminist politics and staunch dedication to DIY take center stage in everything they do, imbuing the band with a sense of radical urgency, simmering anger, and stunning emotional depth. 

"Definitely every song we write will come from a feminist, anarchist perspective, and we feel it's important to be political and to make statements and feel like there's meaning to our songs. I'm not against apolitical music but I don't really get it," Nicole tells me. Maria adds, "Yeah, it felt like our music really comes out of our experiences in this way. I don't think you need to know our politics to listen to the music, but it's always been a very integral part of making music together. We'll play shows with, like, Downtown Boys, whose politics are like 'This is what we fucking feel and think and let's do this thing right now!' while a lot of our lyrics can be more up for interpretation. But in general, I think a lot of people already get it with what we are saying, where they're like, 'Oh, yeah, you're anarchists, you're feminists.' Which is nice."

Another song on the upcoming album, "Spare No Man," taps into those politics in a more explicitly personal way. Nicole wrote the lyrics after one of her coworkers was sexually harassed at work and faced indifference and condescension from management when she stood up for herself. The song's lumbering tempo, ragged vocals, and overall tension are a perfect conduit for the rage it portrays—rage at a situation that, for far too many women, will ring painfully familiar.

"I wrote it inspired by this intense rage I felt about this situation; I was just like, is it really 2016 and people—men—still talk about things like this? Like 'she was asking for it'? That happens every single day, and it just sucks when you are made aware over and over again that basic attitudes about people, about women, about femininity and gender have not actually changed as much as people want to think they have," she says. "It's a song about rage about the power these gendered lies have over other people's lives and how much that destroys people and how much I wish that that all of the rage we feel could just eliminate it. It's obviously more complicated than that, but I want other people to be able to feel some kind of catharsis, too; naming it and feeling the anger with others can feel really helpful and powerful." 

That power reverberates throughout the album—which also features artwork created by Nicole, who handles all aspects of the band's visual presentation. You Take Nothing was mastered by Greg Wilkinson and will be released byAn Out Recordings, a Portland-based anarchist, queer, feminist, and anti-racist label focusing on black metal, doom, drone, and noise. In keeping with their generally all-DIY-everything approach, most of Ragana's past albums have been self-released, but the duo seem extremely happy to be working with An Out's Anna Vo. They describe the label head as "perfect" (Vo's stated ethos seems basically tailor-made for Ragana, with their politics-first mentality). An Out also released the band's 2015 album Wash Away after some careful consideration on the band's part.

"We talked to someone on a different label a few years ago who was interested in putting out our last record, but ultimately we decided not to," Nicole explains. "We just felt like the label didn't have a really strong political sense, and it just seemed possible that they would put out something that we thought was fucked up, and we didn't want to have to deal with that. I think we've always been conscious of that, and critical of a lot of the shitty stuff that happens in metal communities."

Ragana occupies a curious position with said metal community—they're a black metal band that loves Courtney Love and Ursula K. Le Guin, a witchy doom metal band with an appreciation for Silvia Federici's Marxist feminist analysis of the origins of gender and capitalism, a "siqq ass skramz" band with a Warning obsession who run in anti-fascist circles. Their very existence is a form of protest, and finding a band like them is a rare and precious feeling for those who have felt alienated by the genre's more reactionary proponents.

Nicole emphasizes the importance of community building when I ask the pair about how we can do better to support the women and LGBTQ people in metal, and Maria brings up their own "fuck you" attitude toward those who resist that kind of inclusion.

"Nicole and I are kind of similar in that we're both very much like, 'Oh, women aren't doing this as much? All these big metal bands are men? We can do this. I'm definitely going to do this. If you think I'm not going to do this, I'm 100 percent doing this," Maria says with a grin. "And we're gonna do it in, like, whatever way we want. We're gonna blast beat and then, like, be completely quiet, and then we're gonna have no instruments, and then we're gonna sing. I think we both have a real 'fuck you' attitude about it. I want the metal scene to grow and become more diverse and to feel safer and to not support fascist bands anymore, but I don't know how to do it, you know? We're in this band, we play shows, people like us sometimes, and we'll be there to support anybody else who wants to play metal."

Ultimately, Ragana's music can be thought of as a tapestry woven with the fragile, multihued, constantly shifting threads that bind us together as music fans, as political beings, and as humans. Every note and every syllable screams resistance, defiance, and community, their intensity borne of anger as well as love. Ragana's songs sound real in a way that escapes most metal bands, and near the end of our conversation, when talking about the forces that drive their creation, Maria inadvertently sums up why that may be.

"Metal is so intense. It's so vulnerable. It's so intimate. It's so beautiful. It's so dark. Women and queer people should be making that music. It just makes so much sense to me. And they do, all the time, and it is really metal."

Kim Kelly is somewhere on Twitter.