Hot Licks: Girlyman
The harmonic musicians talk love, music and mortality.
“I’m a firefighter—and I like your music!” That was one fan’s response after seeing the Atlanta-based band folk-pop foursome Girlyman perform. Despite the potentially controversial name and the fact that all four of its members are openly queer, Girlyman has a way of winning even the skeptics over. That could be because their music is easy on the ears and rooted in traditional forms. Or maybe it’s because the band members themselves are just so likable.
Girlyman features three members—Doris Muramatsu, Ty Greenstein and Nate Borofsky—who all sing, write and play various instruments as well as JJ Jones, who joined the band in 2010, becoming not only their first full-time drummer but also Muramatsu’s partner. But that wasn’t the only significant change between the release of their fourth studio album, 2009’s Everything’s Easy, and the recent follow-up, Supernova. In the fall of 2010, Muramatsu was diagnosed with leukemia. “We had done a U.K. tour, our first, in September,” she recalls. “I didn’t feel right on that tour and I just thought that I was really jet-lagged. But after three weeks of feeling jet-lagged, we came back to the States [for] another tour. I started dropping all this weight and was sleeping all the time in the van. I had this low-grade fever and bruises all over my body. And I kept craving anything that was flavored with mint. Like, I [wanted to] eat the toothpaste! So JJ looked it up ‘person craving mint all the time’ online and they were saying that people who are anemic sometimes crave [it]. So I was like, I’ll just take some iron and I’ll feel better.”
“It got to the point, though, where I was really, really sick,” she continues. “I could barely walk up a flight of stairs without feeling completely winded. So we finally went to an urgent care [center] and the doctor there was like, Oh my God. You have to go to the emergency room right now. We rushed to the emergency room and the doctor, after examining me and doing a blood test, basically said, ‘All signs are pointing to leukemia. We’ll need to keep you for the night and we’ll do tests tomorrow to confirm it.’ I was shocked because I’m a really healthy person! I exercise and I eat well. This is the last thing I thought would ever happen to me. And I was really resistant to it. It was just the beginning of a huge nightmare.” Fortunately, that nightmare is now on the wane. Muramatsu did endure some chemotherapy and she is now on a medication called Sprycel, possibly for the rest of her life. But the good news is that by late 2011, she was in full remission.
While Muramatsu’s brush with cancer doesn’t inform Supernova directly, it does seep into some songs—including the title track. Jones explains to me that at Girlyman’s current live performances, “Doris kind of comes out at every show”—not about her orientation but about having survived leukemia. “She introduces the song ‘Supernova’ that was actually written by Nate,” says the drummer. “The supernova is a dying star, and she did feel that way at certain points. But supernovas also give birth to new stars. It was like this rebirth of Doris and the band and [our] music—spiritually, emotionally, all of that. [For awhile] she would also talk about being really depressed about it and then coming out of that. That was a whole other form of rebirth. And at every show, at least one person, if not multiple people, come up and say, ‘I’m a survivor.’ ”
Supernova itself runs through a wide range of human emotions. Album opener “Nothing Left” was written and sung by Borofsky with a harmony vocal from Muramatsu that will take your breath away; the song, about receiving a life-changing phone call, is sadly beautiful in its simplicity. But by the album’s final track, “Best I Could,” the mood has lightened considerably. To these ears, the upbeat, folky “Best I Could” sounds like a love song from Muramatsu to Jones. In between are other strong tunes like “Michaelangelo” and Greenstein’s “Empire of Our State,” which features a cameo from Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls. “We grew up with their music,” says Muramatsu of Saliers and Amy Ray. “They were idols of ours. Ty had written [that] song and we were trying to think of people we could ask to guest on it. And she was like, I would really love to have Emily on the album. So we contacted her. It was so great to have her on our album and on that song in particular.”
Girlyman is now back in full force, touring behind Supernova. And even though they went through hell to get to this point, they’re focusing on the positive these days. The love between Jones and Muramatsu, in fact, is one thing that helped the couple get through such a turbulent time. “JJ really stepped up and dealt with all my doctors and nurses and paperwork,” she says. “She was an amazing advocate for me when I was sick. I couldn’t have had the recovery I had without her.” For her part, Jones adds, “[Doris] was so fortunate; if she was going to get cancer, this is one of the most treatable [forms]. Literally, months before she was diagnosed, the drug that she’s taking had been OK’d by the FDA. She may even go off this drug at some point and stay in remission. After the diagnosis, there was almost no other bad news. So that certainly was a different kind of experience. Just really uplifting and life-affirming.” Kind of like the members of Girlyman themselves. (girlyman.com)
Watch their video for “Nothing Left” below: