As lesbian-identifying youth both growing up in conservative communities, Merilou Salazar and Jessie Meehan found solace in punk; it was their loud escape from all of the noise elsewhere.
In recent years, the two have united to create the self-proclaimed “riot pop” punk duo WASI (We Are She Is), and they are determined to create safe spaces for others -- be it through their lyrics and party-starting sound, their excitable live shows, or the feminist and LGBTQ activism that they engage in within their community.
From throwing concerts like Women F--k Shit Up Fest, working with the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls in L.A., and creating infectious beats combining underground DJ-like production and the inventiveness of a garage band, WASI is here to spread joy and proclaim the need for change now.
Following the recent release of their EP Coup, Billboard spoke to the defiant L.A.-based duo as part of Billboard Pride. With bombastic tracks like “P---y Grabs Back” on their latest release, WASI are not here to sit back silently. Instead, the group is well-equipped to be a part of the resistance, providing sounds and solace for young people coming into their own, just as music had helped them before.
As lesbian-identifying artists, when you stared out, you have said that you were kind of boxed in and people assumed that you were "coffee-shop singers" instead of a punk/pop electronic group. Why is it important to refuse to box in LGBTQ artists as just one thing?
Merilou Salazar: I think a lot of it is that we were boxed in before we were able to identify who we were as artists because we were also still learning and trying to find our community. I think just in general for progress socially, politically, and artistically, in order to create communities and an energy that can really encourage people to connect and grow and to really think beyond what is at face value, there needs to be the first movement, the first wave to do something outside of the box.
For me, I grew up in a family where nobody did art and I essentially turned down college to continue pushing this punk music movement. I didn't know any other queer artists in Orange County that did the same thing. I was also first-generation [Asian American], so that was also very hard for my family to understand, and it was an incredibly painful experience.
I essentially found myself -- now we’re WASI and we’re doing our thing -- but I think to help others who have to go through the same thing, knowing that I had to do that to hopefully be a role model or to connect with other people that probably find themselves doing that ... that’s what makes it worth it for me.
Jessie Meehan: I grew up really homophobic because of my upbringing -- not because of my family, but because of the friends and the people I associated with were very religious, so I grew up really homophobic. So when I came out, that was really hard. It was through music that I was able to cope with it.
Merilou Salazar: Also, bringing in Asian American artistry, to be quiet and to be a coffee-shop artist, I think that’s what society wanted me to do as a queer artist. But to be louder than that, to have my voice heard -- the anger and the resentment and the anxiety and the depression -- I needed to just let it out through just a really loud, s--tty guitar.
What was it about punk that touched you as a young person?
Merilou Salazar: For me, my sister grew up in the '80s queer L.A. scene, so she introduced me to a lot of that music. One of those artists was [early punk band] The Clash, and I held onto The Clash.
Jessie Meehan: Blink-182 was a big one for me, and I don’t necessarily know what it was, because I couldn't relate to their lyrics being an awkward, bullied [teen] ... [but] for some reason, something about Blink-182 made me forget that for a minute. Another artist that got me through that time is ['00s singer/songwriter] India.Arie. My first tattoo was lyrics of her on my arm. Her positivity really got me through those rough times.
You guys called yourself “riot pop,” so what does that mean to you and in what way does it embody “the resistance?” You have a song called “Pussy Grabs Back” and you both engage in a great deal of activism.
Merilou Salazar: We were trying to -- as every band [does] -- give ourselves a genre, and I think we decided on the words “riot pop,” because riot really entails the punk-ness in us. Growing up when I found out about the riot grrrl artists and movement, I latched onto that. I think if I found those artists at a younger time, it would have shaped me differently. [The "pop" embodies] our love of pop music. We love Top 40.
Jessie Meehan: In terms of being part of the resistance, that is everything that is part of our core in general. We do a lot of stuff with the Girls Rock camp, and a lot of the women that volunteer time with that too are very punk and activist-oriented as well. Putting your actions to where your words is very important, because you could sit there all day and be like, “I’m this and I’m that,” but not do anything about it -- and a lot of the people that we hang with like the Girls Rock camp, we get the opportunity to work with young girls and workshops.
Having role models to be like, “It’s not cool for people to treat you a certain way,” and to really instill a lot of self-confidence and good values at such a young age, can make such a profound difference throughout their lives, so I think the riot in our music is taking action. Our music is pretty happy and poppy sounding, but lyrically and at our core, we take a lot of action to really try to make a difference the best that we can in the community that we’re a part of.
Merilou Salazar: I think we are really lucky to be in a city that is so diverse, where we can connect and hear these other stories... that is essentially what saved us. So, I think we try to focus on writing songs that can speak to those people that need something to connect to, because I think that’s who we were. That’s definitely how the pop comes into play. These are the songs that would have driven us in our angst, in our loneliness in finding ourselves and finding community.
Pop has long been a safe space for the LGBTQ community, but now you’re making it a queer narrative with what you’re doing. Why is it important to continue to make a safe space in pop?
Merilou Salazar: I think it’s interesting, because we didn't really understand what a safe space through music was until way later. Even when we were learning our instruments, our space to learn and to perform was so small that we thought there was something wrong with us. I think now knowing what a safe space is, now knowing what a DIY community is, we know how important it is to provide these opportunities with voices.
Jessie Meehan: We are really lucky because we live in L.A., but for other cities and other countries even, it’s not so safe. So, even if you can’t make it to the show, they [can] just have our music to listen to [and find a safe space in]... As long as we can provide that, just between your two ears is where it starts in your head -- if you feel safer within your head, then you’re going to feel safer out in the world.
Merilou Salazar: Back to the pop music, I think having pop music be a safe space also lets other people put something out there -- and know that, yes, there will be haters, but this can connect to the right people -- and provide that safe space. If you just put yourself out there, there are so many communities [online and in reality], that hopefully something will connect. Even when we were still learning to play our instruments and write, we recorded our first EP Bleed Pop and then we got a random email from someone saying their partner --
Jessie Meehan: -- had passed away, and this one particular song that we had written helped them get through that.
Merilou Salazar: Like, this song we had written in my mom’s garage -- my mom who also gave me a really hard time of coming out. So, I think music is its own safe space, once you can make it.
Do you feel like it is a calling for you both to be activists and talk about politics in your music?
Merilou Salazar: Yes.
Jessie Meehan: For sure. I think it kind of came about. Like Merilou said, it didn't start that way for us. When we first started, we had nothing to judge our music against because we didn't even know how to play our instruments when we booked a show and started a band.
We were trying to figure out where do we fit into this world, where do we fit into music, and I think the more that we did that, the harder it got for us, and in doing so, we found DIY communities And especially I think moving out to L.A. is what really changed things for us -- just meeting these people and seeing what they’re doing. I think that that’s really when the calling started.
Merilou started her own music festival called Women F--k Shit Up Fest, and she has that with a few of our friends... You can create positive energy with people saying, "You know what, this is kind of f--ked up right now, but none of us are alone and we have each other." I feel like that’s kind of what we have grown into with moving out here, and just seeing so many awesome people doing great things.
What advice do you have for allies or members of the LGBTQ community to get involved in activism?
Merilou Salazar: I think the first thing to do is to start talking about it and start listening beyond your own experiences. A lot of minority groups can get wrapped up in one individual issue, and you forget to connect with other minorities. As a singer and a queer duo as well, I think hearing stories from the Black Lives Matter group, first generation immigrants -- just really hearing stories, telling stories, I think that’s where you can start connecting beyond yourself, and that essentially can move each movement forward.
Jessie Meehan: Also, a big thing, too, is finding areas in which you can volunteer your time. I think that’s a big thing, too, taking an act of selflessness just in general because it goes such a long way. A lot of the time, you get more out of it in the end than probably the people you’re helping do. But then at the same time, not going around and saying, "Well, oh, I volunteered once this one time," through your actions, you will change, and your community will change, just by making it part of your life and not just doing it for a badge or something.
What are your hopes for WASI going forward?
Merilou Salazar: We just released our EP, but we are writing a lot. I think releasing that EP empowered us to write even more. We are so psyched about that because a lot of the songs started recorded or written right in our living room, our tiny, little space, so it’s pretty scary starting something so intimately and putting it out in the world. But I think doing that and getting this awesome feedback has encouraged us to write even more. We’re also doing more collaborations.
Jessie Meehan: For several years, we have been to hundreds of Prides -- literally, we have been all up and down the coast, and it was all for music ... So for us, for probably five years we went to every Pride on the West Coast and basically hustled our CDs, and we got such an overwhelming response and feedback from the LGBTQ community. This time around, we felt like instead of implanting ourselves into Pride, why don’t we create something new that implants Pride into us?
Merilou Salazar: So, we went to the L.A. march and festival and we brought a white board with us, and we asked everyone that we could what Pride means to you. It was pretty awesome, and we took those responses and we wrote a song. We partnered with a DJ, and we wrote a song with the responses as the lyrics, so we’re working on that now. And it’s funny because right before going in, Jesse had this incident --
Jessie Meehan: I was in Hollywood and I used the restroom at Walgreens and they refused to let me use the women’s restroom because I was wearing men’s clothes, apparently, and I got into a big argument with the manager about it, and she told me how it’s a policy and a law that I have use the men’s room because I look like a man -- which is total bulls--t. Long story short, it turned into a big thing, and right now I’m at the district-manager level [at Walgreens], but I’m pushing to get to the corporate level of them changing their bathroom room policy, or [even] having a bathroom policy.
Merilou Salazar: I think that fueled a lot of it, because we got to talk to people ... I think that helped bring us to the core of what Pride is about, because I think sometimes you can get lost in the parties and everything, but talking to these people individually and having them write individual answers of what Pride means to you, it was a different connection. We’re really psyched [about] the song.
WASI said their upcoming song is set for release in the near future. Listen to their new EP Coup below.