Brooklyn, NY’s Bulletproof Stockings are an all-woman rock band who churns out complex piano-rock in the vein of Fiona Apple’s later work. They’ve got a few sure-bet rock band bona fides: A former member of a hard-touring alternative rock outfit (Dalia Shusterman, who spent years touring with psych-rockers Hopewell), a charismatic, forceful rookie lead singer who discovered songwriting after escaping a failed relationship (Perl Wolfe, who had never been in a band before), a couple of seasoned producers (Marc Alan Goodman and Howie Feibusch at Brooklyn studio Strange Weather). You know the type. Sounds like an easy sell, right?
Except this rock band hails from the Chasidic Jewish community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They adhere to numerous religious laws, observe shabbos, the Sabbath, meaning they don’t play on Saturdays or Friday nights. They adhere to modest dress standards, covering their knees and hair with dresses and wigs. These laws, known as tzniut, also include a prohibition called kol isha, which prohibits a man from hearing the female singing voice unless it is that of his wife or family members.
To someone like me, a liberal non-religious New Yorker, this all sounds a bit scary. Religious impositions? Modesty laws? How could you possibly form a rock band under these awful conditions? Aren’t religious orthodoxies full of narrow-mindedness and stricture?
These pre-concieved notions flooded my head until I had a chance to speak with Bulletproof Stockings over the phone (another stupid assumption was that they wouldn’t be able to speak to me, a non-jewish man. um, they did. And they were really cool). I discovered that it was I who was being narrow-minded.
The women in Bulletproof Stockings seem to delight in the laws laid out by their faith. Their clothing is Patti-Smith cool, and their bearing is badass. Their restriction from playing to men has become the ability to crank up the volume in an all-female space, something full of feminist strength, a space rare and special. It hasn’t stopped them from touring, playing real rock shows, and building serious buzz. At the beginning, they pleaded with NYC alt-rock temple Arlene’s Grocery to book them despite the venue’s hesitations to sell tickets to only women. After securing the date, Bulletproof Stockings sold out the show.
“It was never to exclude men, it was just the idea that it’s cool to have a space for women to let loose and have their own time and in a rock-concert setting. It’s never been done before. As a rock-concert goer, I thought it would be totally rad to have only ladies just rocking out.” said Perl.
“It worked out.” quipped Dalia.
For Dalia and Perl, their faith was a place to turn after years spent in the secular world. A liberation from the weights of past lives spent growing unhappier by the day.
“10 years ago, I had played all over the place, at SXSW, CMJ, Leeds, Reading, and Pikkelpop. I did the whole rock-n-roll thing, and then I took a turn. I needed to address my spiritual self. I’ve been searching, obviously, my whole life. It wasn’t an overnight thing, but I still didn’t have a platform to learn about it and express it in a way that made sense to me. Then I ran into Chabad. I met these hipster Chasidim [EDITOR’S NOTE: religious hipsters? yup. NBD.] in Crown Heights who were the bridge between that and my rock-n’-roll life. They just invited me to hang out in Crown Heights, and in one swell foop, I find Chabad, and I met the man I ended up marrying.”
This is another question I had. What is the relationship Chasidic men have to this music, this band? Rock music in general? Dalia continued.
“I was one step off the tour bus, and he was one test away from becoming a rabbi. He was a star student, a genius. People knew his name in Crown Heights. When they heard that he was contemplating being with me, this modern girl, they couldn’t believe it. It was a beautiful love story.” Dalia’s husband has since passed, but he supported her to the end. “I left my band and I left all of the rock world behind to explore this new life. We got married, we moved to LA, and he sat me down and said ‘Dalia, you are a drummer. you must play.’ He had bought me a drum set, which is the one I still play now.”
Perl approached Chabad, the sect of orthodox Judaism to which the band belongs, in a similar leave-the-old-life-behind way.
“I started writing music in 2011. I had just gotten divorced. I was going through a difficult time in every way, spiritually and emotionally. I quit my day job in New York and moved back to my parents house in Chicago for a few months. I was planning to stay there indefinitely. I didn’t know what my plan was going to be.
“After going through this divorce and this religious confusion, I was trying to figure out my life, and all of a sudden all this music started flooding into my mind. It was kind of weird. I wasn’t a plan, it wasn’t ‘oh, I’m going through a hard time, let’s try to write some songs,’ it was more like ‘SONGS!!! That’s so strange that there’s music in my mind.’ I spent three months at home working on this music, and trying to find a job. I tried to figure out who I am and what I want, and I came to the conclusion that I definitely really do believe in Torah and Chasidis, and this is the way I want to live. I knew I also wanted to pursue this music as part of something bigger, and specifically I wanted to go back to New York and start a women-for-women band. Which, of course is totally crazy and not a smart idea at all. My parents were rightfully very worried.
Perl’s parents in Chicago tried to talk sense into her.
“‘What? A women-for-band? That’s probably not a financially viable option at all, you sound terribly unstable Perl, please don’t'” They begged.
But Perl had a talk with the guy upstairs.
“G-d, I believe this is what you want, and I really want to do it, but I really hope that you’re going to find confident female musicians for me to play with,” she says with a laugh. She can laugh, now that she’s in a band of pros. “who get the music and get what we’re doing. The music itself, the specific genre, isn’t going to be geared towards only Jewish women, or only women at all. It’s just music.”
Perl moved back to the Chasidic community, got married, and booked a show.
With no band.
“Shortly thereafter, I ran into someone who knew Dalia, and she asked what I did and I just said ‘I’m a musician!’ Technically speaking my job was working as a makeup artist, but I had just booked this gig. The woman said do you need a drummer?”
And the band was born. Dalia had also been seeking a band and had been emailing using the name “Bulletproof Stockings” in her email address. For a group of women who wear stockings due to religious guidelines, the name was perfect.
Now, Bulletproof Stockings have played Webster Hall, been featured in New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, VICE, and are about to release their debut LP, entitled “Homeland-Call-Stomp,” due out on Dec 18th. The album bursts at the seams with powerful vocals, sliding between bluesy wailing and complex, polyrhythmic twists and turns. The band is rounded out by snarling rock guitars played by the producers and strings played by full-time new band members Elisheva Maister (Cello) and Dana Pestun (Violin).
What it always boils down to is the music. No matter what differences we think we have with people, we’re all human, and rhythm and melody is hardwired into every single one of us, religious or non-, regardless of assigned gender, percieved race, or land of origin. I took a deeply emotional journey as I took my first listens to Homeland-Call-Stomp, feeling the connections with Perl and Dalia as a lover of good old fashioned rock music.
“I love everything Jack White does. Literally anything he touches.” Perl says emphatically at the end of our interview. The rest of the band members murmur agreement. We’re not so different, them and I.
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