The Balancing Act:
An interview with Katy Otto

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DC-native and feminist powerhouse Katy Otto on her social justice roots, community building, and art as activism.

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Lauren Denitzio | May 12, 2015

I’d like to retire the concept of a “day job” as something you do to pay the bills in order to pursue what you’d actually like to be doing. For artists and musicians this is an especially common scenario, but not everyone splits their time between their art and a job that they hate. While it’s an obvious privilege to have a choice in the matter, I am increasingly inspired by musicians who have made their “day job” just as important and worthwhile as their music. I wanted to talk with those who are also pursuing other projects and careers that aren’t always associated with their music, or as often in the spotlight, but are just as important to them as their music, if not more so.

What better person to start these discussions with than DC-native and feminist powerhouse, Katy Otto. Best known for her bands Del Cielo, Trophy Wife and now Callowhill, Katy runs Exotic Fever Records (War on Women, The Shondes, Des Ark) while also working as the Media and Government Specialist at Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania. Coming up in DC during the ’90s, the influence of things like Fugazi, Positive Force, and riot grrrl on Katy is clear, underlining the central role that social justice and community building play in the way she engages music and her now local Philadelphia music scene. Searching for the relevance of making music and running a record label while fighting for women’s reproductive rights, Katy is a true example of how many ways there are to be involved in creating music along with a better world. 

You’re in a couple different bands and run Exotic Fever Records. Can you talk about your music-related projects at the moment?

I currently play in two bands. One of them I’ve been in for seven years, a duo called Trophy Wife with my best friend Diane. She plays out of a guitar cabinet and a bass cabinet and I play drums and we both do vocals. We have put out three full-length records and a cassette tape. We’ve toured quite a bit, both in the U.S. and Europe. I have a newer band that’s been active for almost two years that’s called Callowhill, which is a street and neighborhood in Philadelphia, as well as a woman named Hannah Callowhill. She was the wife of William Penn, and basically ran Philadelphia for 60 years behind the scenes, which to me was a cool story. This woman was running the city but no one really knew it because she was protecting the image of her husband. She was pretty young too, I think she was 19. The band is a four-piece and we have put out a 7-inch. Those are my two active bands at the moment although I am taking a hiatus to prepare to have a new project in the form of a baby, in a month.

That’s so exciting.

Thanks! I’m going to give the baby a release number on Exotic Fever because my friend who I started the record label with, Bonnie, had a baby soon after we started the label and her daughter is now 13 and is Exotic Fever 007. I’ll have to write “Out of Print” though because it will be very limited edition.

Were you in other bands before starting Exotic Fever?

My first bandmate, Bonnie, and I had a band together when we were teenagers called Bald Rapunzel. As that band was ending, she started the record label to put out a record for a band called The Halo Project. Our other friend Sara Klemm was putting together a compilation for the DC Books to Prisons Project, which was Exotic Fever’s third release. Bald Rapunzel recorded a song for it. It had tracks by Thursday, Zegota, Beauty Pill. It also had a zine that included prisoner’s artwork – envelope artwork, because often times envelopes were the only thing that prisoners were allowed access to — and some information about the Books to Prisons project.

This band from Richmond that I really liked, Light the Fuse and Run, were putting out a record and asked if we would put it out. People got excited about the label and it kind of took on a life of its own. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but living in DC was so awesome because there were all these people that were interested in mentoring you. So we put out this Light The Fuse And Run record, and then people started to buy it and we realized that stores wanted it but we didn’t have a distributor. So we went to Dischord and we showed them our project and we said, “how does it work? Do you ever help distribute smaller labels?” Which they do, for local DC labels. They still very nicely distribute Exotic Fever Records even though I’m not in DC anymore. And we started distributing things through StickFigure in Atlanta, which I still do. 

If part of the start of Exotic Fever was putting out a benefit comp for the DC Books to Prisons Project, were you working on other things with them at the time that made that crossover into music more apparent? What came first?

Our friend Sara was organizing with DC Books to Prisons and had helped to start a chapter. She knew that she wanted to do a compilation and she had this idea of having a zine with it. Bonnie lived in the neighborhood and so I brought the idea to her “would this make sense on Exotic Fever?” And we all got really excited, had a bunch of meetings. I was in my early 20s and had a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I had these friends that wanted to do projects together so the three of us just started collaborating.

Exotic Fever 003.

Exotic Fever 003.

It’s interesting to hear that work with social justice organizations was such a normal part of your life even 15 years ago. Can you talk about your main form of employment currently?

I currently work as the Media and Government Specialist for Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania, which is the Planned Parenthood that serves Philadelphia, Chester County, Montgomery County, and Delaware County. I had been a big supporter of Planned Parenthood for a very long time but my background is in non-profits. I’ve done development or communications work, or a combination of both.

I’m really committed to organizations that are focused on reproductive healthcare and also things like access to comprehensive sex education, things that are so important to us having healthier communities. I’ve been working at Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia for almost two years. And then before that I worked for two years at an organization called Service Women’s Action Network that did work around military sexual violence and also issues affecting women veterans and female service members. It had a gender justice component but I had never worked at a veterans-serving organization before, although I have family who are former military. It was an interesting way to learn about some of the specific struggles facing veterans, specifically women and LGBT veterans.

When I lived in DC I worked at an organization called Men Can Stop Rape and also an organization The Empower Program that did self-defense and gender violence prevention programs. I’ve always been interested in this kind of work and my background is in journalism, so that’s why writing and media and grant writing were all a natural fit. When I was in journalism school, a professor said to me, “We think you’d be better writing opinion pieces because it always comes very clearly through, the way you feel about certain issues. So it might be better that you not write news stories.” Then I realized that you could study journalism but work in communications and work on the other side of the story, helping journalists to understand the other side of the story and frame it.

I’m really committed to organizations that are focused on reproductive healthcare and also things like access to comprehensive sex education, things that are so important to us having healthier communities.

The experience I had in the past was helpful for Planned Parenthood because it’s very important that the media is educated about the services that we provide. There’s a lot of focus on Planned Parenthood by politicians and groups that would rather we didn’t exist. There’s also often misinformation spread about what we do. We want to make sure that people know that while we do provide abortion services, we also provide a range of other services. We provide breast cancer screenings and we provide family planning. We have an entire sexuality education department and we do STI testing and treatment. For a lot of people, we’re their only source of healthcare because we don’t turn anyone away. We’re sliding scale, we accept Medicaid, we accept private insurance. We also try to cultivate a culture that’s very welcoming and non-judgmental where people feel they can safely access care and share information that leads to them having the best care possible.

We also do advocacy. So tomorrow, for example, I’m getting granola bars and waters for a bus that we’re taking to Harrisburg, our state capitol, for a state-wide day of action. We have 300 people from across the state who will be convening in Harrisburg to meet with their legislators about some proactive bills in Pennsylvania called the Agenda for Women’s Health. It’s things like accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace, or sanitary breast feeding in the workplace. There’s such a focus on attacking Planned Parenthood and abortion providers through a range of different tactics but we wanted to take some time to work with legislators who are interested in saying, “Okay, we want to fend off these attacks but what would create healthier communities? What would be some positive legislative goals for women and their families?”

That sounds like such a positive thing to be involved in that’s not just playing defense.

I think that’s important in any sort of social justice work. It can be really hard when you’re always on the defensive to think about what kind of world you want to create. We have such little space to do that when we’re always fighting attacks and we’re always moving from one attack to the next. It’s really important to carve out the space for proactive measures of what we would like to see. I think that applies beyond these issues. It can be really hard when you don’t have as many resources, or you don’t have the money or people power. Sometimes the institutions that you’re trying to work against are so huge and so monied and so powerful. So we try to create a little space to dream of proactive resolutions.

That make me think of the kinds of spaces that people try to carve out when thinking about safer spaces at shows. I’m wondering how the ways you deal with these things at Planned Parenthood, or other activist projects, relate to your participation in music.

To me they always fell together mostly because I grew up in DC. Fugazi were huge when I was a teenager, and every time they played in DC it was a rally or a benefit. They weren’t a single-issue band. They were really accessible. I think it’s a little cliché if you’re in the punk community and grew up in DC. But it would be impossible not to be impacted by the example that they set. The other great thing was that there were so many chances to get involved. When I went to see Fugazi, the shows were usually put on by this group Positive Force and at all the shows they would announce “If you want to come work on projects, come talk to us!” So as a teenager I started going to the meetings.

It was really cool because it wasn’t any set political ideology precisely it was just a loosely focused, all-volunteer social justice organization. We’d organize shows, we’d organize rallies, but we also did service projects. We’d deliver groceries to the elderly in DC. We’d have book discussion groups and it was a really amazing thing for my political development to be able to go to the shows and get excited about ideas. The music was always integral to the political organizing and I guess that probably isn’t the case in every scene but for me in DC it was. 

It can be really hard when you’re always on the defensive to think about what kind of world you want to create … It’s really important to carve out the space for proactive measures of what we would like to see.

It was a little strange when I would then travel to other cities and see a big split in radical communities between the punk community and the activist community. I think it may be a little different now. I think Fugazi provided such a glue for the community. Of course I still think it lives on in a number of ways in DC. Positive Force is still active. I believe that this summer is the 30th anniversary of Positive Force. I know that they’re gearing up to have some activities around that. They just released a Positive Force documentary. So there are all these things that tell the story of this particular scene that I grew up with and fell in love with. There’s also a rich history of Riot Grrrl. I came into the scene a little after that, I was a few years younger but there were still people that were a part of it that I could meet and think about feminism and music. For me it wasn’t much of a stretch. It was just how things always were around me. Music was about community and community was a place to have discussions about social justice.

I think it’s a common reference, currently, to point to things like Fugazi or Riot Grrrl when we’re talking about politically engaged music. But I wonder if the current moment in music, or even the local scene in Philadelphia, can have its own impact? Do you feel like music is still another political outlet for you? Even if it’s not DC fifteen years ago, is there still that crossover?

I think so, but I think it might be in smaller pockets and in different ways. There have been so many communities that have been really important to me in Philadlephia. There’s such a strong activist community and social justice community. One of the neatest things I’ve stumbled upon in Philadelphia is this really awesome group called Rockers that puts on shows that feature people of color, women and queer folks. It’s awesome to be in punk spaces that have lots of representation of people of color and that are created and convened by people of color. That feels special and important.

I wouldn’t say that every aspect of the punk and music scene in Philadelphia is perfect. In fact there have been moments at particular shows and festivals where there are values that are being upheld that are not the greatest, but I do think there are a lot of people who are interested in creating something different from that. Trophy Wife has played this really cool event in the past called Phreak N’ Queer, an arts and music festival. There was a Ladyfest a couple years ago in the summer that was great and focused on being a very trans-inclusive space. So I think there are some pretty good ways that these conversations can happen still.

One thing that was kind of cool is that Sleater-Kinney recently went on tour and their entire tour was in partnership with Planned Parenthood. For my job I got to go and help table. Every night from the stage, they were talking about Planned Parenthood, which seems like it might be a small thing but in this political climate that we live in, it’s a huge thing. We had a lot of people come up to our table and talk to us, trying to find out how to get involved and how they could volunteer and what health services we offer. While that wasn’t exactly a local band, it did make me feel connected to some of my roots and my past, having this band that I loved as a teenager in this reunited form again, and every single show they play across the country they’re asking Planned Parenthood to table. I thought that was pretty fantastic.

For me it wasn’t much of a stretch. It was just how things always were around me. Music was about community and community was a place to have discussions about social justice.

That seems like a pretty direct overlap to me!

My bandmate in Trophy Wife, Diane, is the Program Director of Girls Rock Philly. I’m a monthly donor to them and I think they do incredible work. They do year-long programming so I get to see this really fantastic approach to youth development work and community building.

The work that the Girls Rock Camps do is pretty amazing.

I didn’t start playing music until I was 17 and when I did I had trouble finding people to play with. And when I did, I’m so lucky I found my friend Bonnie when we were both in high school. I think to myself that I wish I would’ve had something like that. Meeting these girls who are starting to go to Rock Camp when they are 8 years old, I just think that it took me so long to know what I wanted and to get an instrument!

I think about that sometimes, what it would’ve been like if I had been 10 years old and going to Rock Camp. I tried to look that up in Summer Camp directories when you still had to go to the library to find them.  I would look up Rock Music Summer Camp to see if one existed.

I wish it had!

Do you feel like you’d work on a larger project like Girls Rock Camp in the future, if you could start something that would combine more of your activities now?

The thing that I continue to try to figure out is how to make the record label relevant because I do still do the record label and I have the good fortune of having some pretty fantastic bands. The most recent bands I’ve had on the label are War on Women from Baltimore and The Shondes from New York and this incredible band from Berlin, The Dropout Patrol. We just put the Callowhill 7” out as well. It has been a bit of a challenge to try to figure out how to make doing a record label relevant when we live in such a digital age and some of the things that I used to know how to do and do well are changing all the time.

One way is through the artists we choose to work with. I haven’t explicitly sought out bands with women and queer people, I just have sought out bands that I like and that’s who I happen to know and like, so it has been very organic. But I’ve also gravitated towards bands that I do share values with. One thing I’ve done with the Shondes that has felt like a great process is trying to create language for how we would work together and how the relationship would function that reflected shared values. Nobody will ever be obliged to work with someone or be in the situation where they feel like they’re being mistreated or discriminated against.

We try to find ways to use our working relationship to uphold our values. Like we won’t work with a distributor or manufacturer that is homophobic or racist or classist, as much as humanly possible, even if it means spending a little bit more to work with someone else, those will be things that we prioritize. So one of the things that I try to learn is how to have what is essentially a very small business/hobby label that it does still have relevance for people and does still uphold these values that I have.

That’s one thing I wanted to ask about, the extent to which the label intentionally works with bands that are actively putting forward a certain set of values.  

When you do a label and you’re investing your resources and relationships into people, you want to have some degree of trust in them that they’re not going around saying things that would make you cringe. And possibly vice versa is true. It has been hard because in some ways I’ve always moved a bit slowly with the label and tried to keep a good infrastructure in place but I know that there are other ways that I might have been able to grow the label faster or work on more licensing kinds of deals or be a little more entrenched in an industry.

I’ve never been interested in the way that the music industry as a whole functions and I don’t think it really upholds the values that I have. But I don’t like it when people are unwilling to try something because they don’t think it fits into their framework of punk. I’d rather try things for myself. For example, when I was younger I created a SESAC account, a publishing company, so that I could see what happens when I register a release that I’ve played on. I tried to understand how royalties work and things like that. And then if I don’t like them, or things that are impossible to get around, at that point make a decision to not do them. But I do like to learn for myself and not just avoid something because it “isn’t punk”. I think it’s better to sort those things out for yourself.

I think it’s exciting to work on a project like that and just have it grow organically. You cross those bridges when you come to them.

One example is that I’m not wild about Spotify as an independent label. Mostly because they pay out a different rate to major labels versus independent labels, and I feel that we should get a fair rate. I think they’re going on the fuel that people want their music to be heard, which I think is understandable. At the same time I don’t want to be so strict about that. Clearly from a band’s perspective, you want to be on Spotify because you know that people are listening to Spotify and it may be a way that someone discovers your music. It’s complicated. But even though I’m not wild about how that company works, I’m interested in having discussions and critiques of them and I don’t want my personal view to make it so the bands that I work with can’t pursue something. Even my own bands are on Spotify because I decided that with my bandmates.

Even just booking a show or booking a tour is a much different process than it used to be. People look up things on Facebook or through texts and it does make me sound like I’m 100 years old but the first tour I booked was using the zine Book Your Own Fucking Life, and a regular land-line telephone. We’d bring a big binder on tour with directions of how to get everywhere, which seems so silly now because people just have GPS but there are certain things that I think about when I think about DIY touring that are so different now. Trophy Wife has had good experiences with DIY touring mostly because we’ve had organic relationships develop along the way. The DIY punk booking world is a shadow of its former self in many ways, but I do think the network of people who are interested in booking shows for bands with women and queer folks remains in tact. I think that network has a really vested interest in protecting itself.

I definitely feel that and see that when booking shows.

For better or worse, I have more energy to put into shows for people who have historically and traditionally not had as much space afforded to them. I like to put on shows for bands that I think are great, and there are plenty of bands that I think are great that are all straight white dudes, but I also will have a little more energy if I think I can put on an event for people who haven’t always had as much access to those spaces.

When you mentioned a scene being the remnants of DIY touring, the folks who need those networks of support and who want to create and carve out a specific type of space are the ones who need to know who to ask. You need to maintain those relationships and ask friends of friends and people who can vouch for one another and who you know are on the same page. That’s not going to come from a Facebook search of random venues in a  certain town.

Maybe that’s another way in which I’m old school. I’ll always be more receptive to something I’ve heard about word-of-mouth than something that’s coming at me completely cold.

But it is hard too. Now I’m 36 and a lot of the people that I grew up playing music with, they either stopped playing it or they play it in a much more formal and professional way. So trying to figure out a good way to balance that is another thing I’m interested in. Now that I’m going to be a parent soon I’m excited to think about what kind of shows or spaces might be appropriate for kids to be at. That’s something that’s pretty cool about The Evens. They play shows that children can come to. I don’t know that I’m totally in that camp. I think that even after I’m a parent I will find value and space in shows that might not be the most appropriate for kids for a number of reasons. I like that it’s a conversation. I like that people are figuring that out.

Trophy Wife recently played a Positive Force show in DC and there were so many kids. It was at the Wilson Center. They can occasionally use it as a show space. It’s a charter school now. It was a very positive environment. Some of our friends really appreciated it because they didn’t have to find childcare.

For better or worse, I have more energy to put into shows for people who have historically and traditionally not had as much space afforded to them.

When you talk about balancing it all, and having major life events like becoming a parent on the horizon, I’m curious how you address the misconception that if you play music or pursue something creative that your day job or other form of employment is something that you don’t necessarily care about. Or that you would necessarily want to leave your job to go off and tour for the rest of your life. Is there one that you’d rather be doing? Do you see one existing without the other?

It’s interesting for me because I have friends for whom playing in bands and touring was their life and their job for many years, and some who still are. That number is dwindling as the years go by. Often they were doing it in a way that was financially viable, but they had to trade out so much about how they wanted that to operate. They had to create such an infrastructure around themselves that some of my favorite parts of touring disappear. Being on big package tours where sometimes you’re playing with bands because your booking agent has a relationship with or owes a favor to another booking agent, you have to let other people be in control of a lot of aspects behind the scenes and the business management of the band. A lot of that was not interesting to me. So I was never that envious of it. I felt like a spectator looking in at it. I loved the parts of touring that have been building relationships and meeting people in other communities. Yeah, sometimes it has meant that I’ve played shows in really strange spaces where I didn’t always feel safe. There’s a lot that went to chance. But when I look at the way that professional artists and bands tour it seems almost like a McDonaldization of tour, where you know what’s going to happen every single night. Maybe the kind of beer or soda you have in the green-room is a little different but it’s so standardized and rote.

I liked the adventure of touring. I liked the unknown. I like meeting the people that I’ve been corresponding with for the first time in another state and seeing what things are like. I have toured for as long as 6 weeks at a time, but I also like being a part of a community and I think that can be hard if someone is touring all the time — to be able to have grounded time in a community. Then again, I know folks who have had not been able to tour because they had jobs with limited vacation time. That’s one benefit to the non-profit world; you might not always be paid the most but usually you’ll find places of employment that have more flexible vacation and leave policies. That was always a good trade for me. I have something that I actually put value on that has flexibility of time and space. I won’t be touring any time soon with this baby on the way but I would like to think that my time playing out of town shows are not gone forever either. It’ll be a new challenge to figure out. My friend Meredith who plays drums in the Providence band Whore Paint has her due date the day before or the day after mine, so all we have to do is figure out a way to have a tour nanny. Just thinking of a new adventure and what that might look like.

Are there other projects that you’re excited about right now?

I continue to be really inspired by things like Afro-Punk or Martin from Los Crudos. They are a couple of voices that have been so inspiring to me through punk. People who occupy spaces in the culture at large that are marginalized, who have found value in punk. Things like the Afro-Punk documentary, or the film about Latina Punk, Beyond the Screen, they helped me understand why this way of creating and art is so valid even in a different landscape of blogs instead of zines and downloads instead of CDs.

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