‘Break the mold / from the crown you make it gold,” the all-women alt-rock duo from Crown Heights sings in its new single, “Mind Clear.”
When keyboard player Perl Wolf and drummer Dalia Shusterman, collectively the cheekily named Bulletproof Stockings, cross the river to play their first gig on the Upper West Side on March 22, they’ll be breaking the mold for chasidic women, and perhaps even “pushing it over the ledge,” as the song also suggests.
With one foot in the world of Orthodox Brooklyn and the other dipping a toe into the wider musical world, the Bulletproof Stockings are used to the idea of testing boundaries, or at least pushing against expectations. But all the while staying within the fold, so to speak. As followers of Chabad, the musicians play only in front of other women and often get charged up before a show by reciting Psalms.
With “Mind Clear” due out this month (it’s a preview of the group’s first full-length CD, set for release in September), a just-launched Kickstarter campaign and the Upper West Side gig, the group seems poised for bigger things.
With the BPS fresh off sold-out gigs in Baltimore and Atlanta — the first time they’ve ever performed outside of New York with their full band — Wolfe told The Jewish Week in a recent interview in the Crown Heights basement apartment where they live and practice, “People are finally seeing our vision.” She described the fast-moving trip from obscurity to album as “surreal.”
“We believed we could take over the world this whole time,” Wolfe said, sounding like a strutting rock and roller, “but now others are believing we can too.”
The duo’s unlikely musical journey began in 2011 when Wolfe, who grew up Chabad in Chicago, moved to New York after two divorces left her searching for her identity. Finding Shusterman in Crown Heights was “all divine providence,” she said.
Since their start in December 2011, the BPS have attracted a slew of mainstream media attention — more for their against-the-grain lifestyle than for their music — including a segment on the Oxygen Network’s reality TV series “Living Different.”
Still, the journey has been far from smooth. Since their teenage years, Wolfe and Shusterman struggled with being labeled the “bad girls.”
“I was the one girl in our Orthodox shul who had pink hair,” said Shusterman, who grew up in Modern Orthodox home in suburban Washington, D.C. She left Orthodoxy at age 14 only to return in her late 20s. During that time, she worked as a bartender and street performer in New Orleans to support occasional music gigs. “Being a rocker didn’t exactly mesh with the spiritual life,” she said.
“I was definitely considered the bad girl all through high school,” said Wolfe, who recalled being sent to the principal’s office every day to remove her heavy eyeliner. Wolfe left Orthodoxy during her early adult years, though she returned to Chabad in her early 20s. She shed religious observance once again after her second divorce, only to return again in 2011.
“The crazy part was that I wasn’t doing anything bad — I never did drugs, I barely drank and waited [to have sex] until marriage,” she said. Still, the label “rebel” stuck. “People were always saying, ‘Where’s Perl going to end up?’” she said, “No one thought it was anywhere good.”
All of it, Shusterman said, is reflected in the lyrics of “Mind Clear.” One passage says, “Don’t dance near the ledge / They told me / Might not make it back in tact / But curiosity got the best of me.”
“There was a point when I was divorced from everything,” she said, though returning to Orthodoxy remained her goal. “The song’s about exploring — rediscovering what was lost.”
Though their personal journeys remain a point of fascination, the two rockers are eager for the spotlight to shift to their sound, which they say has been influenced by classic rock (Jimi Hendrix and the Doors) as well as by alt acts like Jane’s Addiction and the Pixies. The band is augmented by guitar, violin and cello.
“People are so distracted by how we dress and our background that they forget we’re actually good!” said Shusterman, 41, who is wearing a fitted black dress, green dangling earring, high heels and bright red lipstick. Both she and Wolfe wear long luxurious wigs barely detectable to the untrained eye, a tradition among married Orthodox women. (The band’s name refers to the thick, opaque stockings favored by frum women; for the record the two wear stockings, though not of the bulletproof variety.)
In order to clear their minds, Wolfe and Shusterman pray and recite Psalms before every show. “It gets us in the zone,” the drummer said.
Though much of their music is inspired by Jewish texts and chasidic teachings, its real focus is everyday life.
“We’re not proselytizing,” said Wolfe. “People can interpret our music however they want — whatever speaks most to their own experiences. Art doesn’t belong to any one person.”
Still, getting mainstream media outlets to shift focus from their unique backgrounds to their music isn’t easy. Shusterman described how one of the cameramen for Oxygen was shocked by the quality of their music. “He was like, ‘You guys are so modest, I never would have guessed you’re actually talented!’”
Modesty is one of the key reasons Wolfe and Shusterman decided to limit their shows to female audiences only. Though Wolfe was careful to explain that the Jewish law of kol isha restricts a man from listening to a woman, and not a woman from performing in front of a man, the two have decided to be sensitive to their community’s expectations.
“The press always gets it wrong — they say Jewish law says women can’t sing. The truth is, we can play in front of whoever we want,” said Wolfe. “But we’ve just decided to make this into an all-girls party. It’s been a boy’s club mentality for so long; it’s time to just let ladies do their thing.”
Even women with no previous exposure to Jewish law began to “see the value of women having space to themselves,” Shusterman added. “Women are totally digging it.”
And they are. During their recent sold-out tour, over 200 women turned out for their concert in Baltimore, and their sold-out show in Atlanta drew a crowd of over 150.
Shusterman, who is the single mother of four young boys (her husband died suddenly in 2011), says her sons love what she does.
“When people in school ask ‘What does your mom do?’ I’m not sure they really know how to answer,” she said, laughing. “But I know they think it’s cool. I hear them singing our music, trying to figure out the chords on the keyboard. They’re proud of me.”
Though the two stop short of calling themselves feminists (“We’re not on any political bandwagon” said Shusterman), empowering women is what gets them out of bed every day.
“When girls and young women come up to us and say, ‘Your music made me want to pick up an instrument and play,’ it’s all worth it,” said Shusterman.
And if those girls and young women attend the March 22 gig at Ohab Zedek on the Upper West Side, they’ll likely hear that message loud and clear: “Took me for a ride / I know better now / Give up this artificial way / Go out and face the crowd,” Wolfe and Shusterman sing in the chorus of “Mind Clear.”
“I made up my mind, dear / I got my mind clear.”