Dirty Mae on Dancing Through the Dark Spaces

Photo by Shaun Mader

Earlier this summer, New York trio Dirty Mae announced the upcoming release of their debut album, Holy Mama. Coming this September, it will serve as the first full-length exploration of their signature brand of rich, dynamic indie-folk dripping with bluesy, New-Orleans swagger.

Cassie Fireman, Ben Curtis, and Robbie Frost are all considerable talents in their own right, and in the year since they released their self-titled EP, they’ve only grown stronger–for Fireman and Curtis, as a married couple, and for all three, as friends and collaborators.

By combining their backgrounds in folk music and drama, the trio has developed a singular spin on theatrical narrative songs. Their latest single, “Brown Water,” casts the Flint water crisis as the opening of Pandora’s box. An earlier single, “Big Red,” reimagines the story of Little Red Riding Hood as a feminine power fantasy.

Fireman has also used “Big Red” as a jumping-off point to make a difference, from filming a music video with other female creators to founding the annual Big Red Fest, an all-female arts showcase benefitting organizations that support survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking.

As the band continues an Indiegogo campaign to fund their album release and fall tour, Dirty Mae talked to The All Scene Eye about recording Holy Mama and organizing the inaugural Big Red Fest.

You released your self-titled EP last year. How did you know it was time to make a full-length debut record?

Curtis: Basically, we were a really new band when we did that, and that was our first time putting music out in the world. Since then, we’ve grown a lot. We’ve created a lot more music, and as musicians and people, we’ve been through a lot of different experiences and really taken our music to the next level. We kept meeting awesome people–other musicians to collaborate with–and we felt like, yeah, our community was expanding and it just made sense. It was time to show the world what we were capable of and the stories we had to tell. We really felt like we were in a place where we could give the music what it deserves–like our stories were finally fleshed out and we were ready to tell them the right way. We also feel like it’s time that the world really needs to hear some of these stories.

Fireman: After the EP came out, we couldn’t stop making music. It was flooding out of us, and we needed a container for it. I personally had never recorded a full-length album before, so it seemed really exciting to do that together, and it just sort of became the way the group captured the magic that was getting created that we were so excited about.

Frost: We had hit, like, 20-some songs, like, “we need to get this out.” Also, I just really, really wanted to put some horns on the album. That’s something I always wanted to do, and we met some really amazing people in Trumansburg–Archie Cohen and TJ Schaper, two seriously pro musicians–and they finally added this touch that we’d been looking for.

Curtis: Also, to that, we had gone to the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival in Trumansburg, and it was like the community literally swallowed us there. That was where we met Christopher Ploss, who just–it was a no-brainer to record with him at Sunwood Recording. He really got us and our music. That’s where we met Rosie Newton, who is such an amazing fiddle-player, and I’d always wanted fiddle on the album. We had gotten to know Driftwood through that experience, and we had become friends with Joey Arcuri, the bassist, and he was just going to be free for two of the days we were recording. Then, as Robbie said, we had met these incredible horn players, so it was like our dream team came to the surface. It was this incredible synergy, and it was a no-brainer at that point.

Fireman: It was so much fun to be in Chris’ recording studio. It’s this big barn, and the acoustics are really cool. You’re just in this beautiful place, there are animals and dogs running around, and there’s, you know, all these famous musicians. It brought our music to life in a new way, and for me, singing in the studio, hearing Joey on bass, having the fiddle, it brought all these beautiful colors and nuances that had all of us play a little bit differently.

The three of you are all singer/songwriters and musicians in your own right. How has working together as a trio changed the way you approach writing?

Frost: I think we all come from a very different place in our songwriting, but when we get together, things gel really easily. Sometimes I’ll make an arrangement, or a chord progression that I like, and then Cassie comes up with lyrics and melody, and it seems to fit really easily. We all have a different style, but it comes together to make this unique sound.

Fireman: Yeah, predominantly my sort of message will be, you know, I’ll have a strike of thunder and an idea, a story, a feeling for a song. I’ll tend to come in with the story and the melody mostly written, but when I bring it to the rest of the band, it takes on a life of its own and becomes something even better than I could have imagined. We have very different musical backgrounds and styles, and coming together, it creates a tension. We don’t always see eye-to-eye necessarily, but I think that tension actually creates a unique sound, which makes us stand out. 

Working with that tension has been something that’s challenging and that has helped us all kind of grow up. All of us are skilled and unique and creative in our own way, and the biggest learning experience for me in this band has been carving room for all of ourselves to be heard and be self-expressed. I think the respect that we have for one another to make sure everyone is getting that really has us be strong in our teamwork and keep showing up to protect the longevity of what we hope to continue to create.

Is there a particular moment or a song from this album that stands out to you as a place where there was tension?

Frost: Well, there were many changes to the song “Hollow,” which was kind of tension for me because it would just keep evolving, you know? It’s hard to lock something down, and it’s like, “oh, it’s new again!” But it ultimately made it really great.

Fireman: Right.

Frost: That’s part of the tension–it’s like all the songs are growing. I definitely remember that one.

Fireman: I would agree; “Hollow” has evolved. It’s one of the songs that has evolved the most, right? To where it kind of has taken on this rock element. There’s, like, explosions in it. It really has a journey.

Frost: Yeah, no doubt. I think there’s a lot of songs like that. I remember, like–I’m bringing up the horns again, but initially–

Fireman: Oh, yeah.

Frost: A couple years ago, I was talking about wanting to bring in all these people, and Cassie was like, “I just want to keep it simple,” you know?

Fireman: Yeah, Robbie wanted to bring, like, every single musician there was into the band, and I was like, “Come on, let’s get our three-person dynamic down. Let’s find our sound and slowly add people.” Then at one point, we completely reversed roles, and I’m like, “Where’s the horns?” I wanted a parade on everything, and he was the one stripping it down, so that was pretty funny. I remember that.

Frost: Working with three people on one song, everybody has their own ideas, and you can get tensions from that, but when you overcome them, it makes the song stronger.

Curtis: One thing I really pull for, I’ve always wanted to be in a band with great harmonies. I feel like when harmonies are locked in, something happens energetically. I feel it in my soul and my heart, and there’s this incredible feeling that gives me goosebumps. This is the first band I’ve been in where I feel like it’s all there; we all have that. We’re able to do all this together, so when we’re pulling for these parts that are challenging, like–we do some difficult stuff, and we have some really dynamic arrangements, and it can really challenge us. In the studio, when you’re going for, you know, what you might call perfection, it can get tense. I remember on “Brown Water,” Robbie was really pouring his heart out, and we were like, “I don’t know man, I think you can do better.” But what I love is that we all pull for each other to be our best. We don’t let each other off the hook, and that’s something that I really love about these guys. I’ll also say that anyone that can be in a band with a married couple is a saint.

Fireman: Oh, yeah.

Curtis: We’re always grateful for Robbie, and we’ve–you know–

Fireman: Basically, we bicker, and then Robbie gets really good at whatever instrument he’s playing. He’s figuring out some really cool piano solo, and Ben and I are like, bickering. Basically, he’s just becoming an amazing musician [laughs] while we argue.

Curtis: I think tension comes from caring about something, and that’s probably what’s most challenging for band dynamics: when there’s multiple people who really care about something. The fact that we’re all able to collaborate on almost every song and give each other the space to be heard is really incredible, and it creates tension, but it also creates the magic.

You’ve said that you chose the song “Holy Mama” as the title track for this album because it shows the range of this album. Can you tell me a little bit about some of those different directions the album goes?

Fireman: Like I said earlier, I think what makes us unique is that we have different backgrounds musically, so when we come together, there’s a wide range of different sounds that get expressed. We chose “Holy Mama” because it kind of takes you on a journey through different rhythms and energy, and we thought that sort of represented our album. We have some slow, sexy, bluesy songs, we have the high energy songs that really pick up the pace. We’ve got a mix of–

Frost: A lot of tempo changes in our music in general.

Fireman: A lot of tempo changes.

Frost: I think “Holy Mama” the song showcases our album as a whole really well because it has that really detailed storytelling from Cassie’s lyrics and it also has a lot of dynamic changes with the rhythm and the feel, so it’s like plot points going up and down constantly, and our whole album goes like that with our stories. The beginning of “Holy Mama” is this reggae feeling, and then there’s a strong bridge that slows it down and adds this swing beat to it, and it’s really ethereal and, you know, spiritual. Right after that, you go into this Latin rhythm that’s really fun and upbeat. I thought that was a good showcase because a lot of our music has those big dynamic changes. 

Curtis: People try to fit us into one category, and we’re really not one genre, which is something we love. We have a lot of different stories we tell through a lot of different characters that take you on a journey, and I think a lot of this album is about what we’ve been through as humans, what we’ve been through in our country, like, going into those dark spaces, swimming around in them, and trying to find our way out into the light, whether we do or not. On this album, each song does that in a different way.

Fireman: I often write from this place of living somewhere between the light and the dark and starting to find peace inside the struggle. A lot of the songs that I write don’t have a happy ending, and it’s okay. “Holy Mama” has that. It’s like, how can we dance somewhere in the in-between world, and for that to be okay? That story shows up in a lot of songs.

The first single you released from this album was “Big Red,” where you’re retelling the story of Little Red Riding Hood. What drew you to that particular fairy tale, and how did the idea develop?

Fireman: I had just watched a music video produced by Amanda Palmer–she’s an artist and an activist–and it was a commentary on the #MeToo movement. She made a very powerful music video with only women, and it really pulled at my heartstrings. It inspired me because I have not been okay with, you know, politically, what’s going on; the way women are treated, especially our bodies. I personally relate to the #MeToo movement and I wanted to do something, and for me, what feels like the best thing to do is to create art.

I had never made a music video before, and by–I don’t know why Little Red Riding Hood. We had started writing the song a while ago, and as we were creating the song, I remember we were all standing in the studio, and it really just felt like I wanted to howl, you know? I just wanted to scream, and it sort of just turned into the feminist tale of Little Red Riding Hood. The retelling of the story felt very empowering, and it felt like a way to bring other women that I love together to create art.

It felt like an appropriate single for the time, and it actually led to the Big Red Festival that we produced together, which ended in all the funds going toward survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. We went to the center and did a private concert, and just hung out with the women there–I can’t mention the name of where we actually went, it’s confidential, but it really felt like a way to give back directly. It felt very healing, and it was a safe space to do it with my band. What I love about being in a band with these men is that they’re men who really love and support women, so it’s a safe space for me to share and be vulnerable, so I was very grateful to have their support in creating this festival and giving other women a chance to get on stage and shine and express themselves.

The music that you make is very story-driven, and in a lot of ways, very theatrical, so what was it like taking this project and turning it into something visual?

Fireman: Well, I have a theater background and I’ve always been a very visual person, so getting the Little Red Riding Hood costumes, the red, the color red itself, like, a very powerful, bold color–it was very exciting. We had a very low budget to work with, so I spent hours walking around Riverside Park, in the graveyard, into different tunnels, writing down all the sites I wanted to visit and shoot at. It was an all-female cast minus Ben and Robbie, so–women were the videographers. It felt–it was just really fun. I had a great time.

Curtis: I think you really enjoyed torturing us too.

Fireman: I really enjoyed turning Ben and Robbie into sheep. It was very cathartic, I have to say. Like I said, we had a low budget, so I literally got to glue cotton balls all over their bodies with Elmer’s Glue, which doesn’t work, so, Robbie–he was a sheep, and his whole beard kept falling off, so we had to shoot that over and over again.

Curtis: I just remember how happy Cassie was at the final shot when she had her fangs and her leashes around us, and we had sheep heads on, and she was just like–

Fireman: I was in heaven.

Curtis: She just wanted to keep doing that over and over. Watching it, it just seemed like it was super liberating. It was fun just to be the guy running around behind the scenes to make sure these women had what they needed because it was freezing out.

Fireman: Freezing. Freezing. It was the middle of winter, and we had to pretend to feel sexy and free and dancing, but really, we were freezing our asses off, and Ben was running and bringing us blankets and getting us coffee. He was so great. All of us, we have a sense of humor, so this music video, it’s kind of campy. It’s humorous. It’s not meant to be a tearjerker, but it still has the same point: women bite. We’re strong, we’re aggressive, we come together, and, you know, don’t mess with us. That was the message, and it was playful, it was fun, and we enjoy having a sense of humor together as a band.

Curtis: We are theatrical, and that’s one thing I love. I mean, at least–yeah. We’re theatrical. [laughs]

Fireman: Robbie’s not, but he’s slowly becoming more theatrical.

Curtis: I like that you mentioned theater backgrounds because I think it also sets us apart. People mention that. It started to become weird that we weren’t using that as performers in our music, so that’s why we love live shows so much. We get to really let loose and do the storytelling on stage visually as well as through the music.

What is it like taking a song like that on stage? How do you present it to people?

Fireman: If the space allows for it, it’s really fun to put on my cape. At Big Red Fest, I got to come down the stairs wearing the red cape with the hood, and I got to do a little burlesque-y movement to it. I’m not a burlesque dancer or anything, and I say that because burlesque dancers are so skilled. I’m a little more clumsy, so I kind of minimize my movements. [laughs] But so, I wear the cape and I gracefully try to at some point take it off and hang it over the microphone, and–yeah, a cape is really fun to play with. You can hide inside of it.

Curtis: It looks like Cassie really enjoys putting a spell on people while she’s in the cape. She gets everyone in her clutches, so to speak, and then takes it off, and, you know, unleashes the–

Fireman: Yeah, unleash the beast.

Curtis: We have some fun ideas for future shows, so we won’t talk about it too much because we’d like people just to come see. There was one show where I put on the wolf ears for that song, and that was fun. We like to have a good time.

Fireman: The cape has kind of become a symbol of empowerment, and we now actually sell these capes as part of our merch. There’s a dance in the video, so we’re actually working on having people who are purchasing the capes join us in performing the “Big Red” dance, which is really, really fun.

You’ve referenced the Big Red Fest you put on, featuring all kinds of different art by an all-female lineup. As an annual event, how do you feel about the first run and what’s your vision for the second Big Red Fest?

Fireman: I was blown away by the first. It exceeded all my expectations. Ben hired–what was the name of the horn band?

Curtis: Oh, the Hungry March Brass Band. We actually didn’t hire them; they volunteered their time.

Fireman: Before the event started, we had a women’s march in Washington Square Park, and the Hungry March came, so we had, like, 15 horns, and we all wore our red capes. People off the street followed us, we had our signs, and we marched from Washington Square Park over to Bowery Poetry Club.

Curtis: Two places where a lot of art, protest, and activism have taken place in New York, historically.

Fireman: We sold out. People were crying, people were dancing, people were already asking when the next one was. Everyone was really lit up, and it really was so exciting. Women in the cast now want to do their own Big Red Fest where they live–out in Queens, or in Brooklyn, so a lot of women were inspired to lead it themselves, which I think is fantastic. I can only see this growing and getting bigger. Next year we may move it to a larger location. I think I would have some of the performers help me expand it; I had never produced a festival before, so I think I’d like some more help next time. I don’t know, guys. Do you have anything to say about that?

Curtis: I think you said it.

Fireman: It was just so awesome, right? 

Curtis: Yeah, there’s a lot of women who want to step up and do more with it.

Fireman: Yeah. We did a screening of our music video. I think we’ll keep the same structure. Like, I think next year we’ll have another music video where we do a screening, and, you know, there’ll be spoken word, and poetry, and song, and movement.

Curtis: And visual art.

Fireman: Visual art, yeah. And a marching band.

Curtis: It was powerful. I mean, It was incredible, the space that Cassie created for women. It was a lot of power and strength and joy and resilience.

Fireman: Also, besides being there and performing, we were raising money for a cause that everyone believed in, and that made it even more special. The struggle of being an artist is a lot of times, you don’t see money in terms of the work you’re creating. The value that we have to find as artists doesn’t necessarily show up in dollar bills–we have to find it for ourselves–so to come together and know that you’re doing something for a purpose feels very valuable.

What’s your goal for your debut album, Holy Mama? What do you most hope for from this release and what are you most looking forward to?

Frost: Just to get us to as many people as possible. We’re about to go on tour for a month and a half starting in mid-September to promote the album, so I think that’s one of my main goals–to get outside of our friend group in New York and to get people listening all over the country and hopefully the world.

Curtis: For me, it’s really similar; just having our music heard. I’m really excited about the tour as well. Every time we get outside New York and outside our immediate audience, the response is overwhelming. It’s really affirming for why we do what we do. People are really moved, so I’m also looking forward to hear what people say about the album, and I’m really looking forward to what songs touch what people for what reason. I can’t wait to hear, you know, someone come up and say, “oh my god, this song, I related so much to that” and probably the next person is going to be something totally different. I’m excited to hear the feedback and finally give this album the space, the time, and the platform it deserves–I feel that it deserves to be heard.

Where are you most excited to go on your tour route?

Frost: Vermont, for sure, just because it’s so beautiful and pristine there.

Curtis: Going to Atlanta and Chattanooga, where I grew up. I’m really excited to bring this down south because for a lot of us, our families haven’t seen us play, so I’m excited to bring all our communities together. We’re trying to hit towns where there are specific communities that we’re connected to as well because we really believe in our community, so I’m excited for that. Also, I’m excited to also take this to Ohio, where Robbie is from, and to see where each of us grew up. Unfortunately, we can’t make it out to Washington State, where Cassie’s from, or California, where she grew up, but–

Frost: Not yet.

Curtis: Not yet, that’s right, but we’re hitting up communities of our friends along the coast, and I’m really excited to show these guys the south a little bit and the beach towns around there. Also, we’re working on a gig in Trumansburg towards the end of the tour to do a CD release party in the place where we literally recorded the album, so I’m excited to bring together all the people who helped make it possible to celebrate.

Fireman: I’m excited to go back to Cumberland and perform at the Discover Downtown Cumberland Festival, organized by Dave Love. He just loves musicians and music so much. He puts us up in a hotel, he feeds us really well, he just really takes care of the artists. We’ll have a full band for that show. It’s outdoors, and I love being outside. And it’s very family friendly. I’m excited to see some of the people we met when we played there last time.


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