When it came time to write their highly anticipated follow-up to 2018’s Capture the Flag, Baltimore-based rockers War On Women dissected the political and social landscape, eviscerating a system steeped in racism, misogyny, injustice and oppression while also inspiring listeners to stand up and fight back against wrongs big and small. The resulting album, Wonderful Hell – out digitally on Oct. 30 and physically on Nov. 13 via Bridge Nine – serves as a call to action and a rally cry to keep fighting for what’s right.
Wonderful Hell was written pre-pandemic and the group, comprised of vocalist Shawna Potter, guitarist Brooks Harlan, bassist/vocalist Sue Werner, guitarist/vocalist Jennifer “Jenarchy” Vito and drummer Dave Cavalier, was putting the finishing touches on recording – with producer J. Robbins, who recorded, mixed and produced along with Harlan – when COVID-19 shutdowns were ordered back in March.
In a time where the news moves at hyper-speed, and one week can simultaneously fly by in the blink of an eye, yet 24 hours still feels like an entire year, War On Women managed to capture the urgency of now while also creating a timeless record with lyrics that speak truth to power and riffs that rip. We got the chance to chat with Potter about Wonderful Hell and staying sane – and creative – during a pandemic that has halted touring across the music industry.
“I’d say that I have stayed sane by staying productive, staying busy and working on things that make me feel like I’m contributing to the world a little bit. Also, when it all becomes overwhelming and I remember what the f*ck is going on I let myself feel those feelings. I don’t try to push them away,” said Potter by phone earlier this month.
Potter details a spectrum of feelings through the lyrics of Wonderful Hell. There are songs that rage against the patriarchy and call out institutions that put one group ahead of the other, as well as tracks about personal growth and human emotion. On “Her?,” a raucous, thrashing, four-minute assault, Potter’s lyrics expose the unjust treatment placed upon anyone “who is not a cisgender man in politics.”
“No matter what they do, in the public eye, it’s not right. It’s not good enough for what other people want because the rules are always changing. I wanted to illustrate how it’s not about the specifics of what they do, it’s about the fact that they’re not men,” she explained.
Potter illustrates this at the end of the track by listing the names of several high-profile Democratic, Republican and Independent women who have been judged more on emails, wardrobe or makeup than on policies and records.
“I went back to the very beginning, the very first woman ever known in the United States to run for president, Victoria Woodhull, to show this hasn’t changed,” she said. “There’s plenty to pick apart on people’s political beliefs, that’s one thing that I’m happy to have more conversations about, but this song is about the sexism that women face no matter what their politics might be.”
The beginning of “This Stolen Land” borrows from the often misinterpreted Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” and goes on to detail the hypocrisy of a nation built on stolen property and its leaders who now persecute refugees. Elsewhere, “White Lies” condemns the cycle of systemic racism, and “Aqua Tofana” takes on misogynists who don’t understand the true nature of feminism.
Each word Potter sings and screams on Wonderful Hell is weighted with clarity perfectly hitting its intended target.
“It’s a delicate dance. I don’t want to be so obvious that it’s not interesting. That’s the challenge to say what you mean and make it overt while still making an interesting song to listen to or talk about in a way that maybe people haven’t thought about before,” said Potter, who also reveals her personal and poetic side on songs like “Big Words” and “Demon,” the latter of which is a new take on an old song from Potter and Harlan’s previous band, Avec.
“We always look to our past to see what did we do in an earlier project or what old demo makes more sense for this band than when we originally wrote it. I handed ‘Demon’ to Brooks to rework, compose and arrange in a different way and I really love what we’ve collaborated on. That song is really cool to hear big and loud instead of one guitar and drums like it was years ago. I love the way it turned out,” said Potter. “I’m really stoked that we got Janet Morgan – who was in the band Channels and is married to J. Robbins – to do some backups in the choral part of that song. I’m really glad that she’s on the record. She sounds angelic.”
Along with revisiting the past, Potter is looking to the future, one that for the time being does not include touring. Connecting with fans is something Potter loves to do, and without live shows, she is finding that bond by launching a brand new podcast, But Her Lyrics…
“With the utter lack of socialization, and true communication that is impossible right now – at least for those of us who are staying safe – I thought, ‘Maybe I just want to have some conversations and acknowledge that I don’t know everything about every subject.’ There are definitely people that are on the ground working on these issues every day and so I thought, ‘I bet I’m not the only one who wants to learn more and wants to learn more about what to do to help,’” said Potter. “I’m sort of combining that behind-the-scenes aspect of figuring out how bands put a song together, what it means, who was there, how it felt and then combining the activism that we try to put into our band as well.”
Wonderful Hell will serve as an engaging starting point for candid conversations when But Her Lyrics… launches in December and, further down the road, War On Women is looking forward to a time when they can safely reconnect with fans in person and on stage.
“It really sucks to not be able to tour on a record. We’re obviously not the only band to deal with this. A lot of my friends are like, ‘What the f*ck do we do?’ We’re not rich people. We don’t have the time, resources or money to get together a high-quality livestream that looks and sounds as good as we would want it to.”
She added with a laugh, “Plus, we basically just created a high-quality performance that we’re proud of. It’s the f*cking record.”