When the pair of self-dubbed “Kentucky fried queerdos” — otherwise known as GRLwood — performed their song “Bisexual” at Louisville’s Pride Festival in June, a mosh pit broke out close to the stage. “A lot of times at Pride,” singer Rej Forester said, “there’s pop music — people twerking and dancing. So I was shooketh.” The band’s other half, percussionist Karen Ledford, has been going to Pride every year since she was a teenager — this was the first time she’d seen a mosh pit there.
Witnessing the enthusiasm at Pride means a lot to GRLwood. “A lot of time in history, queer people haven’t been safe to express themselves this loudly, this boisterously,” Forester said, “and have this many people support that feeling.”
GRLwood — first conceived as “Lady Boner” — is one of Louisville’s most radical new acts. Originally a solo project by Forester, 27, Ledford, 24, eventually joined on percussion, and the duo has been playing together for the last two years. Their debut full-length album, Daddy (2018), featured songs like “Wet” and “Bisexual.”
Continuing in this vein, their forthcoming album, I Sold My Soul To The Devil When I was 12, explores desire, gender and sexuality — and the power dynamics operating within these themes. I Sold My Soul demonstrates the same unapologetic passion, rebel spirit and sarcasm that GRLwood has been recognized for, but it’s cleaner, catchier and poppier than its predecessor. It’s also more overtly political, with tracks about shootings, and one titled “Donald,” that contains the lyrics, “I am afraid for my body.”
The first track on the album, a catchy song with a peppy beat, will immediately put you in a dancing mood — and then throw you off balance when you hear the lyrics:
“Mama said, ‘Be nice to sad boys or else get shot.’”
It’s this kind of dissonance that GRLwood is aiming for.
“A lot of our music is fucking uncomfortable,” Forester said. The dissonance between sound and lyrics is “where we shine.”
“When you’re uncomfortable,” said Ledford, “it makes you think.”
Anne Gauthier, a producer at La La Land Studios in Louisville, where GRLwood has recorded, said the band is inspirational and fearless.
“There is no way to watch them play and not feel engaged or feel the power and the heart coming out of those two,” Gauthier said.
I Sold My Soul contains lyrics skewering gender imbalances, but don’t mistake that for a hatred of men: “Society is what I fucking hate,” she said. “What society tells us is OK and appropriate is what I really fucking hate.”
“Everyone’s trying to live with the cards they were dealt,” Forester continued. “A lot of times, because of gender, we are dealt some very different cards.”
Being able to vocalize and satirize these frustrations, Ledford said, helps her “take a step back and laugh at how ridiculous the problem is.” For Forester, the satirical approach is a way to process what’s going on in society.
Laura Shine, a longtime radio host for Louisville Public Media’s music station, WFPK, loves GRLwood, calling the band “great ambassadors for our scene with their in-your-face lyrics and performances.” Shine says GRLwood is “unlike any band” she’s seen lately, and offers “an edge we haven’t seen for awhile.”
Deconstructing gender continues to be a prominent theme for GRLwood in I Sold My Soul, largely drawn from real-life experiences. When Forester was busking in the streets in Europe, she said, she “had to gender-bend a lot of times to be able to feed myself. When people would perceive me as a male, I would make a lot more money busking.” Even though the gender bending was not perceived in the same way when she was back in the U.S., she “didn’t want to lose it. Gender is a wonky thing for me, personally,” she said.
“Touch Me” from I Sold My Soul is one of GRLwood’s most mainstream-sounding tracks to date, reminiscent of ‘90s alt rock. In the song, Forester croons: “You always want me to give you head / But you never return it.” It’s moody, seductive and critical of the idea of sexual fetishization. It’s about “our construct of gender and sexuality,” Forester said. But “sex is not a one-sided thing… and if it is a one-sided thing, it hurts.”
GRLwood wants to be defined as a queer band. Ledford considers labels to be significant because they help connect the band with its audience. “People can search ‘queerdo,’ and they find us,” she said.
“It’s really important for people that need that,” Forester said. “It’s for them, not for me.”
Being queer isn’t just about the personal identities of the duo, it’s about their lens on the world. “Being queer is something you should be proud of,” Ledford said. “It’s a powerful thing to say, ‘We are a queer band, and anything we create is going to have a queer perspective — even if the lyrics aren’t about being queer.’”
GRLwood’s music often touches on mom/dad issues. (Side note: None of these songs are written specifically about Forester’s or Ledford’s parents.) Their first album was titled Daddy. And their latest single is “I Hate My Mom.” I interpreted the focus as typical coming-of-age frustrations with parents, but the band helped me see it in a different way — how members of the queer community often have complicated relationships with family.
The last line dishes up GRLwood’s queer perspective: “Why can’t you just fuck boys like a normal girl would?”
“Being gay,” Ledford said, “you choose your family. A lot of queer people have to cut ties with people, even if it’s their mom or dad.” Forester contrasts the experience with that of other minority groups, which she says are often “born into a support system.”
“Your family understands — you all have that thing in common,” she said. “Being queer is not like that. It does not give you a supportive environment — and often can complicate things.” Things like Friendsgiving are “consistently and structurally a part of queer culture,” Forester said. “Bonding and finding camaraderie is so gosh darn important.”
Forester hated Louisville when she left in 2010. She returned five years later and “fell in love with it” — especially with the supportive music community. Both she — and the city — had changed. “Louisville is fucking great,” she said. “It’s a small progressive pocket in an entire armpit of the United States.”
The band doesn’t shy away from performing in those other parts of Kentucky, though — in fact, they embrace it. They’ve performed in Elizabethtown, Somerset and multiple other smaller towns in the state. “We like small towns,” Ledford said. “You feel the appreciation from people in small towns because not only do they not get live music often, they certainly do not get queer or non male-identifying people that come to play music.”
When GRLwood tours to places like New York, people often say, “You’re moving here, right? You know you fucking hate where you’re from.”
“And I’m like, ‘fuck that, no!’” Forester said. “You guys don’t need this.” •