Speaking on the phone with Houston native and War On Women lead singer Shawna Potter is a little like talking to the modern voice of feminist punk rock. This is the intersection where activism and hardcore meet; for WOW, that activism is all about equality. Potter understands that punk at its truest form is challenging the bourgeois and those complacent attitudes that keep minorities marginalized.
What better way to protest than screaming your frustrations into a microphone?
While no longer living in Houston, Potter still considers the Bayou City her home. And, to top that sentiment off, War On Women will begin their tour tonight at Walters Downtown with Anti-Flag and Leftover Crack. Potter lights up at the thought of a tour that begins with a homecoming.
“Kind of amazing to me that the first show is a hometown show. I hope the rest of the tour isn’t downhill from there, because that’s gonna be a peak for me," she laughs.
It's hard to imagine that a War On Women tour could be anything but artfully provocative; that’s pretty much the reason the band formed in 2010 — specifically to address feminist issues head-on.
“At the time, [I had] an overwhelming feeling in general to do something about issues that I cared about," Potter says. "I couldn’t just read about what was going on and be like, ‘Oh, well, hope it works out.’”
Once she began getting involved, she continues, she came to understand how greatly politics can be influenced by music and art.
“I realized I actually have power and can make change, just getting more involved in activism in general," explains Potter. "It was really the result of [us] wanting to hear a band like this and not being able to find one. So we just had to do it ourselves.”
Potter's activism goes beyond just punk lyrics and performance. She's the founder of the Baltimore chapter and now advisory board member for the Hollaback! Chapter, an organization of feminists committed to ending street harassment.
While she may be a seasoned activist, Potter openly admits that she’s not a seasoned punk musician — she grew up listening to R&B and Riot Grrrl — which has been a source of criticism by some music journalists. She feels this is a completely unfair assessment, and rightly so.
“The rest of the band has punk and hard-core street cred," notes Potter. "I don’t have much, which is something that’s been used against us.”
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While all the reviews for the band's latest and self-titled LP have been very favorable, Potter is suspicious of the motivations behind music writers who feel the need to question her so-called punk purity status.
“It’s interesting to me that it would be an insult to us, because I’m in that [punk] world now," she says. "I am hardcore.”
“Like, what are these [writers] doing that are complaining about my hardcore or punk lack of credibility?" she continues. "I’m actually making music…I’d love for this band to redefine what hardcore can be and be more inclusive to everybody and talk about shit that matters.”
Potter is no loose cannon, either; she's a well-reasoned and intelligent woman. The irony of the sexism is not lost on her.
“Would they say this about a band full of men?" she scoffs. "Would they even bring it up? Why even mention that I don’t have a punk background? I have a punk foreground. I’m doing it right now and that has to have value."
It certainly does. Lyrically, WOW covers a myriad of feminist angles, and Potter’s stage presence is commanding. That’s not always what people want to see, and she understands that a feminist punk band can certainly make the status quo uncomfortable.
“We already know our music is not for everyone," Potter says. "Just for being aggressive, it’s obviously not gonna get played on the radio; of course, being women, people just aren’t used to hearing women scream and yell or have anger. They just want them to sing about boys or they just expect them to cry and be sad, you know? So, women being very angry about something is often very off-putting for most people.”
Yet the risk of offending people doesn’t stop WOW from spreading the message. They’re committed to issues of equality for everyone, no matter who gets upset about it.
“I’d be doing our band a great injustice if I didn’t take a stand on important issues," Potter says. "In my opinion, most of my opinions about [political] things are pretty middle-of-the-road but just seem extreme because the right has gone so far right that I sound like a left-wing lunatic.”
War On Women's early music, such as 2012 EP Improvised Weapons, has been self-described as sounding like “early Metallica and Bikini Kill,” yet War On Women is far more punk and hardcore. Potter describes the progression.
“We really expanded what kind of riffs we were playing, you know?" she explains. "I like to say we have the spirit of Riot Grrrl and something catchy, bluesy, loud and fast. I think we’re more hardcore. We’re punk, we’re trashy — we just try to keep it interesting.”
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No doubt that Riot Grrrl has had an impact on Potter and WOW; she looks to the Riot Grrrl movement as a source of inspiration. Describing the importance of women to acknowledge they “…deserve to take up space, and have their opinions heard, want the world to change and want the world to be more equitable for everyone.”
Potter embraces the importance of the message first.
“There are people playing Riot Grrrl right now, and I think that’s awesome," she says. "It absolutely changed my life growing up," she says. "There’s always going to be a young person out there, male, female, queer, trans, whatever, who really needs to hear the message of Riot Grrrl.”