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    Your ears are the first to go. The amps blow them clean off your head and onto the wall behind you, where they hang suspended in the force. Next are your eyes. In the center of the crowd your heat joins everyone’s heat. You shut your eyes against the sweat and when you open them there is only color and motion, stage lights and bodies leaping up like they’re about to show the ceiling just what they think of limits. You lose all the limits that get you through the day and all your anger spills out through your mouth, which has sprouted 900-something teeth. You realize you’re screaming in 30 voices. You have 60 elbows and you don’t know what to do with them, so you bang them around. Flesh, flesh, concrete — numbing impacts come from all directions, because you’re taking up more space than your one little body ever could. When the song stops, your severed ears fall down to the floor, but you don’t think to pick them up; you can hear just fine, but not from where you’re standing. You hear the crowd cheer as if they’re cheering at you. Up front, the two musicians wave, liquid in the low light. Red paint melts down their faces, which you can’t quite make out. And your own face? You can’t remember where you left it. Maybe it’s up there, you think. Maybe that’s me.


    GRLwood performs at Spinelli's downtown.

    It’s 6:45 p.m., and the goddamn snowflakes have 15 minutes to hit the road on time. Karen Ledford just got back from a funeral, having said goodbye to a friend gone in his 20s, so she’s accounted for. But what about the other wannabe oppressed crybaby? What about Rae?

    We’re waiting outside the wine-colored cinderblock building on First Street called the Open Community Arts Center, which serves quadruple duty as an art gallery and a venue and studios and a home for an indiscernible number of stray, punk-y artist-types, most or all of them younger than 30. Ledford and Rae Forester, the two members of the band GRLwood, which they sometimes call a scream-pop band, have a gig in Cincinnati tonight. But Forester’s still in her apartment adjacent to Open, likely in her room, which she has soundproofed by stapling and drilling scraps of carpet to the walls. Cinderblocks support a shelf in her room, and she made papier-mâché lampshades that look like shreds of catalogs to go over all her lights. Her bed is in the closet, like a nest. (She knows, she knows: “It looks like a psycho hole.”)

    “We always try to get there an hour early, but we’re always fucking late,” Ledford says. She leans against the back of her trusty steed, the blue-green ’04 Honda CRV she learned to drive in and inherited from her grandma. It’s never broken down in 200,000 some-odd miles, and, Ledford brags like a proud dad, it just got new brakes. Drums stack in the back, a few sets of drumsticks protruding from a compartment — all of them dented and toothy, one beginning to split. She has broken a stick three shows running.

    GRLwood outside Open Community Arts Center.

    Ledford doesn’t know exactly when they play tonight. But she’s ready in concert attire: a blue button-up; navy skinny jeans with a few tiny accidental-looking splotches of paint on the leg; black low-top Vans with black socks; and the floppy, flat-brim black hat that she always wears to shows. “With this shirt, I feel like…not Jim Jones,” she says, laughing a stoner-style huh-huh-huh at the thought. But doesn’t it seem like a lot of cult leaders wore rancher hats? She shakes her head. “I don’t want to be a cult leader, by any means,” she says. Who wants a ton of people hanging on their every word?

    The pair of cancerous feminists — they’ve taken to calling themselves the names haters call them, turning barrages into banners — have been thinking about that lately. Ever since that piece came out on intomore.com, which, apparently, is a website. The article that accused them, scolded them — the “queerdo” (that’s queer weirdo) femmes who’d both called themselves bisexual as kids — indicted them on one count each of biphobia in the third degree: offense by problematic song lyric. For a song they made called “Bisexual.” Which is about biphobia, Forester thinks. And also a specific yet common experience of exoticization that’s affected pretty much every queer person she knows, including herself. And, like: Yes, it is problematic. Congratulations, article writer: You got it!

    It’s 7 p.m., and no Forester. Ledford, still leaning against the car, crosses her ankles and arms, her blond, asymmetrical hair sticking out of her hat like a glow-stick, sleeves rolled up over the tattoos on her arms: a bear roaring up from a screen of hexagons, an unfinished astronaut, a pyramid eye (Illuminati!) in the center of a marbled sphere. (Having a tattoo artist for an older brother is convenient.) She synthesizes the lo-fi romance of the dreamiest skater boy you knew growing up with the severe magnetism of a cattle hand in an Annie Proulx story, which is to say: Cool. Some people have a problem with a marriage of styles like that, one that breaks down binaries. When she goes to a barber, they nail the fade on the sides, but screw up the longer lemon plumage up top. When she goes to a salon, the top’s great, but the buzz is bad.

    Ledford is usually brighter, but she’s tired today, and not just because of grief from the funeral. She found out earlier that someone she trusted with a financial obligation some time ago wasn’t so trustworthy, and, without getting into all of it: Now, like a great many 23-year-olds she knows, she’s getting hounded by debt collectors. She looks at the blacktop. It’s 7:03. “I’m gonna call Rae,” she says, taking out her phone, which she dropped and broke earlier today. She tried to catch it and ended up smacking it down to the ground, cracking the screen — an uncharacteristic example of clumsiness. She’s never dropped a stick performing with Forester.

    She walks toward First Street, Cardinal Stadium like a big ugly, empty bowl before her, freshly shorn of Papa John’s name following his much-talked-about use of the n-word. She puts her phone to her ear, says something undetectable, and hangs up. “She’ll be down in just a sec,” she says.
     


    Rae Forester (left) and Karen Ledford.

    The first time I called Forester, she picked up but didn’t say anything until she heard my voice. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t some automated thing,” she said. She has some student debt of her own, and she doesn’t want to hear from anyone who uses her full “government name,” which is a bit of a burgeoning rock star’s secret. For this story, she’s Rae Forester, not to be confused with Rej, which is how she spells her name online so that it makes sense to her Scandinavian friends. Sometimes folks stateside call her Redge, like Reggie, and she and Ledford never correct them because, one, it’s really funny, and two, Forester says, “Reggie is the dykiest name ever. It’s even dykier than Forester.”

    Several secs after Ledford’s phone call, Forester apparates into the parking lot in a cloud of this frenetic magical energy she exudes, like espresso and weird distilled into a scentless vapor. A loose-fitting black-and-white striped shirt tucks into the front of her slim dark pants, which also sport a small, casual splotch of paint. “Good morning,” she says, 10 hours removed from any such thing. Her short brown undercut, which she did herself, has all the stark beauty of a Scandinavian fjord, and her stratospheric cheekbones frame the facets of a face seemingly excavated from stone by a diamond cutter. Every time Peter Jackson casted someone other than Forester as an elf in Lord of the Rings, he made a colossal mistake. Sure, those movies won awards. It was still a mistake. Every elf should have been Forester.

    At 26, she’s got an impressive and still growing array of tattoos herself: abstract black waves encircling her upper arm and lower leg, a blood-dripping wolf’s maw on her side, a blackwork forest scene growing up from her ankle, some abstract line work that might have something to do with guitar strings and — after that I lose count. It’s easy to get a lot of tattoos when you can tattoo yourself. She learned tattooing around age 14, but her mom made her get rid of her kit of badly made needles and unsafe inks. It was obvious something was up, all those people coming into the house. It’s not like Forester had friends. Her mom assumed she was selling drugs. Forester traded the kit for an aquarium or something. Once, she spent three days inking her own leg, went out without giving herself time to heal, and then came back and tattooed herself more. “I lowered my immune system so much I developed an abscess in my mouth,” she says.

    Forester’s also sporting a new scar, like an upside-down chevron, on her eyebrow. About a week ago, she and Ledford played a show in Lexington with a band called God Alone, which is made up of members of the Devil Wears Prada, a band that was huge when Forester and Ledford were in middle school. Forester was right up front and center, rocking out. MEAT! FOR BREAKFAST! the singer yelled, his voice a meat grinder itself, and the guitar came in. MEAT! FOR LUNCH! MEAT! FOR DINNER!!! And then Forester felt some kind of impact on her face. Her body took a few steps backward of its own accord.

    So here’s what happened: The singer straight up football-kicked an SM57 microphone — not one with a softer round top, more like a hard tube — that had been boosting a guitar amp. The mic went right into Forester’s eye. Her whole face was full of blood. Ledford thought Forester was holding her eye into her head. “I literally was like, Rae’s blind, and she’s gonna have this wicked eye patch for the rest of our career — some, like, David Bowie eye patch,” Ledford says.

    “Definitely could have gotten stitches,” Forester says. Ledford asked the bartender for a first-aid kit, and he ended up soaking a rag in vodka — this is how Forester tells it — and slapping it on her face.

    “Karen,” Forester said, “we have to go to Walgreens.”

    Ledford thought a hospital would have been more appropriate, but Forester had a lot of experience doctoring herself — she once drained her purple, infected finger with a knife. Picture it: Forester running, dripping blood through this Walgreens, maybe 11:00 at night, ripping bandages off the shelves like a medically trained wolverine and scrambling toward the bathroom. She cleaned herself up, applied some liquid stitches that trapped a bit of blood underneath, and then covered her eye with a wrap around her head. (Not quite Bowie, but an eye patch after all.) She handed Ledford all the trash and asked her to go pay for it. GRLwood went back to play the show. “Wow, you guys are so punk rock!” a fan told them. But it wasn’t exactly that. “I’m angry, and I’m broke,” Forester says. “I need the money.” The top of her head was numb for at least a week.

    They’re hoping for a little less gore at the show tonight. The car is as full as a Nascar dad on Thanksgiving: two amps and a briefcase full of merch in the back driver’s-side and middle seats, drums and a guitar in the back. Oh, and the dogs. Seven-year-old Yuxa, a big black bean with a blondish muzzle and paws — the “sweet old lady” Forester rescued as a puppy from a putrid box full of waste and bugs on the side of a road in Mexico — assumes her position on Forester’s lap like a judge near retirement settling into court. (It’s pronounced like yucca, but Forester spells it with an x because, she says, “That’s hip.”) Toddler Pacho, who looks like a lankier, darker German shepherd, is not so well-trained just yet. He squirms up from the back seat to join them, sprawling on top of the larger dog. “Dog stack!” Forester cries. “Can I charge my phone? I’m at — well, I don’t know what I’m at, ’cause I don’t use percents, ’cause I’m chaotic evil.”

    Ledford — who, for the record, is chaotic good — eats out most of the time but today has taken the initiative to make herself a turkey, Swiss and ketchup sandwich, which she deposits on a paper plate on the dash. “You know blood-alcohol level? With Karen, it’s like that with ketchup,” Forester says. As for her, she hasn’t eaten today, so a stop at McNoldo’s — her word for McDonald’s — will be in the near future. They ramp onto the highway, headed toward Cincinnati. The dogs pant happily. Ledford hits the gas, and GRLwood picks up speed.

     

    Everyone on the scene in Louisville knows GRLwood is blowing up. The two-piece — Ledford on drums, Forester on guitar and vocals — has been called a screamo band and a punk band and a pop-punk-screamo band, though their personal preference when I met them was “lesbian genderfuck feminist” band, or, as Ledford put it to one interviewer: “It’s like if two lesbians got really angry, and one of them knew how to play drums and the other knew how to play guitar.”

    Ledford effing lays it down and Forester tears it back up, screaming Slipknot out of the water before breaking effortlessly into a mock-operatic mezzo-soprano, whining through her nose and belting from the golden smelter of her gut, her range somewhere between Metallica’s bass and Mariah Carey’s whistle voice. It’s heady punk that gets their crowds to bounce around on each other like fleas in a jar in a pot of boiling water. NPR called GRLwood “hooky, self-deprecating, surf-inspired.” Billboard.com said GRLwood “confronts heteronormativity and conventions of gender expression alongside abrasive musicality.” They filmed a music video for their song “Bisexual,” a series of hard cuts from a sweat-slinging GRLwood house show, ending with someone resting a bouquet of tasseled fabric phalluses on Forester’s forehead.

    It all happened so quick. It was only last August when they started playing together. One of Ledford’s co-workers at Maryhurst, which works with abused kids (Ledford had a job there for a short time), had told her about this girl who drew a beard on her face, played guitar and did something weird with her feet, playing a bass drum and a tambourine or something. Ledford saw her playing out somewhere one night and got this feeling. A couple days later, they were jamming, so in sync they didn’t want to stop. They went at it for four or five hours a day that first week. Ledford had played in bands of both the rock and marching varieties, but she’d spent most of her life marooned out in E-Town or nearby Vine Grove, where there weren’t exactly scores of shows. So playing one? That was a relatively new adventure. They crammed into the Surface Noise record shop on Baxter Avenue for their first, and then — well, Forester explains it by snapping her fingers rapid-fire: snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. Kaiju, Zanzabar, the Cure Lounge, Spinelli’s, Lexington, Cincinnati, Bowling Green, a live spot for LEO. Now they’re averaging several shows a week some months, and they’re planning their first real-deal tour, with dates in New York and Colorado. (The week this story goes to print, they have a rooftop show in NYC.) Ledford got to quit her job at Qdoba, though certain questions — white or wheat tortilla? black or brown beans? — still haunt her dreams. The hard copy of their first album, 11-track Daddy, drops Sept. 1. Their music is now their livelihood.

    GRLwood was at the Cure (R.I.P.) when Gill Holland, the NuLu mastermind and owner of sonaBLAST! Records, first saw them. He didn’t leave his kids at home and go out late on a Sunday night on a whim — a friend had told him, “Gill, the best band in Louisville is GRLwood.” Holland was not disappointed. A couple minutes into GRLwood’s set, the dance floor was like a kicked beehive. Oh, my God, Holland thought, I have to sign them. “Last time I saw energy like that I was at a Frightwig show in ’79 in Zurich,” he says.

    One perk of being on a label: air time. As in: a literal flight to New York, where Forester and Ledford spent several days and attended BuzzFeed’s annual Queer Prom. They got photographed before a big backdrop like you see at movie premieres, Forester in a metallic gold shirt under a metallic silver hoodie, her trademark black choker with a crescent moon charm on it cinching her neck. Ledford wore her rancher hat with a red-white-and-blue striped blazer that would have looked at home in a music video by
    the Ramones.

    These two queer women blazing through a historically male genre, screaming Vaccines! Made me! GAY! in one song, drawing crowds of women and queers even in places not typically frequented by women and queers, aren’t so much carving a niche for themselves as they are blowing one out of the graffiti-covered, punk-hardcore concrete edifice with amplitudes rivaling those of dynamite. Sure, people call them snowflakes and crybabies and say feminism is cancer. But GRLwood says it all back with an ironic smirk. And they’re much, much louder.

     

    GRLwood in Forester's apartment with dogs Yuxa (left) and Pacho.

    They pull into Carrollton, Kentucky, and each contributes $10 for gas. Forester leads “the children” onto a little grassy hill next to the parking lot. “Tranquilo,” she tells Pacho in Spanish. She also speaks Swedish and Norwegian, and she can read French. When she talks to the dogs, she uses mostly Spanish and Flemish — which, we’ll get to that.

    Ledford runs in to buy a pack of smokes. Lately, she’s been on a “fancy cigarette” kick, smoking Parliaments, those cigs that have a filter that extends out past the cotton, so there’s a little hollow space to bite. She’s heard those fancy cigarette filters were made for machine-gunners in the military, so they could hold their smokes in their teeth without them getting soggy as they rained hell down on the fascist hordes.

    While Ledford pumps gas in the middle of nowhere, those fascist hordes are on the rise around the world. Not to mention that, according to the Human Rights Campaign, 129 anti-LGBT bills were introduced in 2017 in the United States, and at least 28 transgender people were murdered last year. From GRLwood’s perspective, there’s bad political news in Louisville, too. The LMPD has just broken up a camp of anti-ICE protestors. This is the climate through and about which GRLwood screams. It’s why Forester scans the room whenever they play Cincinnati, especially after what happened there in the fall. “And every time there is a bald, older white dude who’s typically really well-dressed, nice shoes, and they’re there by themselves? I’m not gonna lie: I’m fucking scared,” she says. “I look and see if they have a gun on them. That’s just the reality of the world we’re living in right now, I guess.”

     

    It was back in October, and GRLwood was playing in Cincinnati at the Comet — liberal bar, upstanding, good quesadillas. A drunk guy danced into a mic stand and got kicked out, but it was no big deal. Then another drunk guy kept getting up close to one of Forester’s friends in the crowd, making her uncomfortable. She moved away, but he followed her. After this happened several times, Forester stopped the show. “Hey, dude, my friend’s obviously uncomfortable by you. She’s asked you to stop touching her three times. Now I’m gonna ask you to stop,” she said. Something like that.

    He didn’t stop, so Forester did, again, and called him out. She told GRLwood’s fans to get onstage, so that GRLwood could form a barrier between them and this dude. A crowd packed in behind them like a chorus in a Greek opera, and they laid into their prettiest, most delicate song, “Communicate With Me,” while, Forester says, a fistfight broke out in front of them. They think a table fell over, that glass broke. They didn’t finish the song, but they were glad to be done with a strange, strange night.

    Only it wasn’t over. Ledford was eating a quesadilla when a big guy with a blond buzz cut, white shirt and cargo shorts despite the late-October chill came up to her and called her a dyke. He started asking people in the crowd, which included a lot of queers, whether they were men or women. He yelled White power! and I’m a Nazi! and Trump! Trump! Trump! (The owner of the Comet confirms that this guy turned up looking for a fight.) GRLwood says he pushed people around and threatened to kill women. So Ledford flicked a cigarette directly into his eye — “I felt like I had defeated a boss in a video game,” she says — and the man decked a bartender hard enough to give him a concussion.

    After that, the Cincinnati and Louisville chapters of Anti-Racist Action, which is a lot like Antifa, offered GRLwood protection. Forester says she was “honored,” but declined. “I don’t want to welcome or create a war out of this,” she says. “I just want to play music.”

    A woman who’d been there that night reached out to Forester to say that GRLwood shouldn’t have given the man the violence he came looking for. “In a world of ideology, you’re right: Violence is bad,” Forester says. “But until words can physically protect us, it’s never going to work. If you do not meet violence with violence, you’re going to get very fucking hurt.”

     

    Whatever the physical setting of a GRLwood show — a dive, a stage, a basement full of moshing young women and queers — the two “Kentucky Fried Queerdos,” as they sometimes call themselves, are creating space for people to be themselves, to channel all their anger through their flailing limbs — though, let’s be honest, you might get hurt in a mosh pit. One big guy told Forester after a show that, because of GRLwood, he felt strong enough to defend himself when people asked why he painted his nails. Another started screaming back the lyrics of a song they’re still experimenting with, which goes something like, “You’re a faggot like me, and I’m a faggot like you!” He told Forester he’d never felt so seen. “What you’re doing is so much more powerful than just you playing music,” he said. “What you’re doing is helping people in ways you’ll never know.”

    It’s something Forester hadn’t anticipated when she first started putting GRLwood together by herself, improvising with her guitar in a garage space at her mom’s place, where she was crashing on the floor in the spare room. She recorded some ideas on her phone and never thought of them as anyone’s but hers. She ended up picking the name GRLwood over Lady Boner because the latter seemed too beholden to punk; GRLwood sounded like it could handle her full range, from spacey soundscapes to poppy rock to screamo. (She still makes pop music she doesn’t share with anyone.) One day, Ledford’s mom, a teacher, mentioned the possibility of GRLwood playing some kid-friendly music for children, and Forester came up with an alternative, rated-G name: Lady Lady.

    When GRLwood played a show, and a bunch of probably queer kids younger than Forester started yelling back Vaccines! Made me! GAY! so loud she couldn’t hear herself singing it, she knew the band was bigger than her. One woman had told me that every GRLwood show is a community, and another had said, “Their shows are one of the first places I have felt comfortable and safe with my body. And no matter what I’m wearing or showing, I feel totally free to dance.” But I didn’t expect to feel that kind of inclusion from them on a personal level.

    We were sitting outside Open one day in July. Misfits breezed out from the echoing, concrete-floored gallery space and into the parking lot, adjacent to a boxing gym. Forester’s roommates — the 20-something curator of Open, whose political affiliation is listed on Facebook as “anarchist”; and another young guy called “Sage,” whom I’ve never seen wearing shoes — were probably around somewhere. Signs outside advised passersby that there was no longer a tattoo shop around. It had been a front for a brothel, according to Forester.

    Ledford lit up a Parliament. We’d been talking outside for hours. I wanted to ask about both of their coming-out stories. But Forester surprised me by flipping the question on me: “What’s yours?” she said.

    I’m from southeastern Kentucky, so I told them I was your typical closeted little holler queer. “Little holler queer!” Ledford said. “I’m gonna steal that.” All three of us had known since we were about eight, but I hadn’t been able to understand it, I told them, because it didn’t seem possible to be gay — I didn’t even know what it was. “Same!” Ledford said, and Forester nodded. I told them some friends had been accepting on the face of it but implicitly not-so-cool with my stepping out of masculine norms. I told them I let my dad die last November without ever telling him. We sat with that for a while.

    We drifted inside. The gray-and-white cat Ledford rescued from Craigslist moseyed over from the pool table on the far side of the room. I turned my tape recorder off, put my notebook down and sat at the old upright in the corner. The hammers were exposed, a few keys stuck down, and the strings were about as in tune as a carburetor, but I managed to plunk out what I could remember of Debussy’s “Reverie.” Ledford and Forester started talking about how hard it is to be yourself in a world that wants to categorize everyone. “Just be yourself!” Forester said. Maybe five other people came over, a few at a time. At one point, Ledford and Forester lay down together on a rug. “Isn’t it funny how all gay people can tell if other people are gay?” one person said, and we all laughed at how true it was.

    This is a GRLwood show, I realized. A GRLwood show is feeling at home when home, well, isn’t.

    A couple weeks later, I played saxophone with GRLwood at Kaiju. Before the set, Ledford and Forester painted a single red stripe down each of their faces, like they usually do at shows. “We’ve decided you have to have a stripe if you play with us,” Ledford said. I hunkered down to Forester’s level, so she could paint it on, straight across my face. When she was done, she shot me a sinister grin and chanted, “One of us! One of us!”

    After their typically kneecap-shattering punk fest, they brought me onstage to play some of the prettier, more ambient music they’ve been working on. Here, too, they created space for me, musical space: Clear night skies over empty fields poured out of Forester’s guitar. Her voice pierced through the firmament like a slow-moving comet, burning blue. I had all the room I could have ever wanted to improvise, explore. The best way I can explain it to someone who isn’t a musician is that it’s like ephemeral architecture. Here’s your airspace, Forester’s playing said. Here’s your land, Ledford said through her cymbal. Build here the city that has been crumbling in your heart. We’ll watch it blow away into dust. Together.

     

     

    Forester didn’t fit in with anyone growing up. She came out, in Oldham County, at 12. Let me say that again: She came out, in Oldham County, at 12. She told her mom she was bisexual, and, according to Forester, it didn’t go well. She remembers her mom saying something like, “No, I always knew you were gay, and you are a lesbian.” “She thought that the word bisexual was dirty,” Forester, who has never kissed a boy, says. “That really, really, really upset me, that my sexuality was perceived that way by my mother.” (Forester is still in regular contact with her mother, who lives locally. She says their relationship has improved now that she’s an adult. Her father also still lives in the area.)

    Forester says teachers picked on her because they read her being out as being a troublemaker who wanted attention. Kids would tell her things like, “I don’t think gay people should be able to have kids.” They’d sexually harass her: “Well, you’re gay so it doesn’t matter.” “Girls still do that to me,” Forester says. When you’re queer, Ledford says, boundaries go out the window.

    Things weren’t good at home, either. “(Child Protective Services) tried to take (her and her younger brother) so many fucking times,” Forester says. She says her mom kicked her out of the house.

    As Forester tells it, her mom ended up with this guy who would go on to inspire much of “I’m Yer Dad.” Sample lyrics: “Feed me food while I watch sports / In my man cave made for sports.” “I was a threat to his dominance in the household, because I was older than my little brother,” Forester says. “So he more or less came home one day, and he, like, takes his shirt off and starts chest-bumping me, trying to fight me, and he’s grabbing the garbage can, throws it.” She says he told her mom to choose: him or her daughter. Forester was 14 or 15 and angry, more than happy to go live at a friend’s place where she could do drugs.

    For the rest of her adolescence, Forester alternated between living with some other misfits at a friend’s single mom’s house and crashing in cars. She did a stint with her dad, who, she says, also ended up kicking her out. She took Xanax. She drank. She worked at Taco Bell and sold pills and weed to get by. She was in and out of school.

    One story from childhood has stuck with her. She was 15, visiting a friend, lying together in bed head to feet, scrolling through their Motorola RZRs in search of the perfect ringtone. On MySpace, the friend posted about hanging out with Forester, and apparently the friend’s sister in California saw it and called their mother. “All of a sudden, the door flies open,” Forester says, “and I hear, ‘Get out of my house! Get the fuck out of my house!’ I don’t even see her face I’m so scared. And she picks up a lamp and throws it (at me), and it smashed against the wall. I felt like a boy who just got caught balls deep in somebody’s daughter, and I wasn’t even doing anything….I’m not gonna lie: We did make out earlier that day.”

    So she hauled ass down the stairs, without her jacket, and out into the winter. Forester says the mom grabbed her friend by the hair. Forester ran and ran, out through the identically massive estates in the gated Oldham County community. She called her mom, and asked for a ride.

    “What happened?” her mom asked.

    “I don’t want to talk about it,” Forester said.

    But she already knew. According to Forester, her mother had told her not to hang out with kids whose parents didn’t know she was gay, and not to get involved with any closeted girls. She knew it was dangerous. But if she only hung out with kids who were out, she wouldn’t hang out with anyone.

    “Pretty much the next day, her mom put her on a plane to California so that she could live with her aunt and uncle, where, honestly, she had a really intense upbringing the rest of the time,” Forester says. “And I blame myself for that. I thought it was all my fault. From then on, that was actually the end of me ho-ing around.”

    As Forester got closer to graduation, she considered her options. One was to stay in Oldham County and do more of the same. (She no longer drinks, smokes, or does drugs of any kind, and in fact, the first time we met for this story, she took a chug of what she thought was orange juice that turned out to be full of vodka, and it was enough to give her a headrush.) The other option: Flight. So she ended up in Honduras. Trying to get details from Forester’s travels is like trying to pull salt out of the ocean with your hands. So many of them have been lost to the ether. The one about the Belgian guy who tried to poison her, the one about when she almost froze to death, the one about waking up to a stampede of bulls or contracting dengue fever and spending who knows how long steaming naked on a tile floor while someone periodically poured cool water over her.

    Her dad had given her a black acoustic guitar with when she was 10. The strings were high over the fret board, and she had to press hard, playing calluses onto her fingers. Her dad showed her the chords to “Stairway to Heaven,” and said, “That’s all you need to know.” Now it was her lifeline. She busked for money, folky stuff, reggae, things she picked up on the radio, sometimes Björk — though that tended to scare people away — and hiked or hitchhiked her way around. This probably influenced her songwriting process, which isn’t a writing process at all: She rarely writes anything down. She just jams with Ledford and things happen.

    She learned you can stop bleeding with paprika. She ate wild avocados and papayas, says she survived something like three weeks on coconuts. Her mouth found its way around Spanish, then fluency. She camped at night. “Tramping,” it’s called. Like backpacking, only you’re actually homeless.

    In 2012, she met her wife-to-be, Iza, in Guatemala. Or was it Panama? No, Guatemala. After about three years in Central America, Forester thought Europe sounded pretty cool. It seemed like a good place to work on Ink Elk, the band she started with Iza. Forester followed her to Sweden, and they lived in a house in the middle of nowhere, a vacation village they had to themselves because no one was on vacation. Forester fished the ocean for mackerel and foraged for berries, and they recorded a whole album together. They talked about building a house.

    Forester’s main source of income was still busking. She bounced around Europe, trying to keep from losing legal status, which did not work. She took to commuting from Sweden to Norway to busk. She had friends, a place to stay other than a tent in the woods. She could have kept it up a long time. Then, it’s a long story, but on a train into Norway, officials took Yuxa. When Forester recounts the tale, she starts crying. It’s the first time I’ve seen her show so much emotion offstage. When she got her dog back a few days later, she knew she couldn’t risk living in Europe illegally any longer. It was time to go back home.

     

    Long before Ledford slept on a mattress on the floor in her windowless room at Open, downstairs from Forester’s apartment, she lived in Vine Grove, Kentucky. She grew up on her mom’s Aerosmith and developed an enduring love for Black Sabbath. She’d been in her school band, and she always had great hand-eye coordination, enough to get a bowling scholarship to Lindsey Wilson, a United Methodist college in Columbia, Kentucky.

    “I’ve always had crushes on girls,” Ledford says, “but I always felt like it was a mental illness, like something was actually wrong with me.” Then, when she was 12, she saw the girl.

    She came running onto the soccer field for the opposing team, and every time her cleats dug into the ground, they also dug into Ledford’s heart. “Oh, my God,” Ledford thought. “I think I’m in love with her.” Then the game was over and the girl was gone.

    Middle school was a difficult time. Ledford had moved to a new school in E-Town and went weeks without talking in class. “I learned to hold my sneezes, because even if I sneezed, someone would bully me about it,” she says. But her first day in that new town, she saw the girl again. She sat down next to her in class and complimented Ledford’s studded belt. That carried her through until they had a German class together her senior year. “Hey, Ledford,” the girl said, “you look really, really good.”

    Wow, did that get Ledford tongue-tied. Not to mention nauseous. This girl she’d liked since she was 12! Flirting with her! She was not going to miss this chance, and that left only one option.

    When Ledford’s sister, who is a year older, came out, it was a really bad ordeal, Ledford says. Ledford was 13 at the time. “My mom cried, and the first thing my dad said was, ‘I raised you better than that,’” she says. They’d warmed over the years, but she was still scared. And the idea of coming out to everyone? How do you even do that?

    Well, it was 2012, and the answer was obvious: Facebook. She made a post saying she was bisexual, and then she texted her mom. (She now most often uses the word “lesbian” to describe herself, though she thinks all those little boxes we put ourselves in are pretty silly.)

    There is not a queer person alive who doesn’t live with shame, and that includes Forester and Ledford. You hear someone arguing with their parents about whether you can stay the night, and it leaves a scar. “We all have inner homophobia,” Ledford says.

    “I still struggle with internalized homophobia myself,” Forester says. “Not toward other people — just myself.” If she’s attracted to someone, especially if they’re not explicitly queer, she sometimes feels dirty, perverse.

    After high school, Ledford fell into a not-so-healthy, on-again-off-again relationship with Soccer Girl, who became her roommate. Ledford had a friend who could get LSD from Sweden or Canada on the Internet’s so-called Dark Web, and knew a few people who grew mushrooms, so she got really into psychedelics. She experienced “ego death” a few times, a flight beyond the self without language, history or time, seeing everything through the eyes of a newborn. It changed her life.

    “For the first time I was able to look at myself and think, Wow, I love myself, and I should take care of myself….It pressed reset on a computer, and I got rebooted into a way better headspace.” In the afterglow of temporary psychosis, everything became clear: Ledford needed to get the hell out of Lindsey Wilson. She transferred Qdobas and schools, and though she didn’t stick with U of L, she stuck with the city. Thanks, drugs, for GRLwood.

     

     

    When we get to the Northside Yacht Club in Cincinnati, Ledford heads inside, but Forester has other plans. She lets the dogs out, puts Pacho on a leash, and heads down the street. “Cruza,” she yells (“cross” in Spanish), wandering through quiet residential streets. We circumnavigate a couple stray cats and find an open, grassy area surrounded by woods. A small trail opens in the tree line, and the dark leavens as we hike upward. Forester lets Pacho run free, and he bounds ahead of her, sending small rocks tumbling. Earlier, I asked Forester if she was nervous for the show. “No,” she said. “Cute girls make me nervous.”

    She’s getting the most amicable divorce ever from one such cute girl. After the episode with Yuxa, Iza came to the U.S. with Forester, and they got married in Louisville. Finally, they didn’t have to worry about legal status.

    Forester says she doesn’t remember if they had a ceremony, but that she had a fight with her mom that left her crying. Kentucky was a big culture shock for Iza. Due to her Green Card status, she had a hard time making money, and the environment at the daycare where she worked was not exactly Swedish. She couldn’t believe they washed dishes with bleach, that people yelled at kids, that the kids could be so mean.

    Forester thought her home turf of Louisville gave her too much of an advantage in the relationship, so when an opportunity arose to rent a house in Asheville, North Carolina, they took it. They swung $1,100 in rent doing nothing but busking, every single day. But that’s about all they did together. Forester lived in the basement and Iza lived upstairs.

    Back in Sweden, they’d played festivals in the woods for families. That made Iza happy. But Forester, well, she’d never told Iza this, maybe hadn’t told herself, really: Forester wanted more. Forester wanted the stage. One night, they talked it through. What did Forester want? A career. And what did Iza want? A house. A house and friends and family. Around the same time, Forester says, despite how distant they’d grown, they tried to have sex. “It was just this really distant, dissociative thing in which our bodies were moving but we were both very much…” she says, trailing off. “And we just fucking stopped. And she was like, ‘I’m gonna go back to Sweden.’ And I was like, ‘You should.’ And then we cried and we held each other, and that week we had big breakup parties.” They went ice skating. Once the divorce is final, they hope to have another party in the States.

    On the walk back, Forester gets a call. “It’s K-hole,” she says. Ledford says they go on soon. When we return to the venue, she leaves the dogs in the car, windows cracked, and they nap. Forester picks up her guitar, and Ledford looks in the rearview to paint a red stripe down the center of her face, where it won’t sweat off as quickly as it would on her cheek. Then she passes what looks like a tube of lipstick to Forester so she can draw her own stripe over her eye.

    I once asked Ledford why she painted the stripe. “I always tell people, ’cause it’s my body and I can do what I want with it,” she said. “If I wanted to slather peanut butter all over my titties, that’s what I would do.”

    When they take the stage, there’s maybe 10 people hanging around, but a song in, the floor is full as a matchbox, about to get lit. A woman in a flowery dress headbangs up front, and three guys, all bearded, move with all the predictability of electrons, swinging their arms around each other. One turns a not-quite-prima-ballerina pirouette. If you looked into this room, you’d think the floor was hot or something. In a lull between songs, Ledford starts playing the “Cha Cha Slide” on the drums. “Twenty-nine hops this time!” she yells, and bangs the snare, but she only makes the crowd get to eight. Forester screams for so long it must be a world record, and after, a young woman swarms their merch table with her friends and says, “I love how her eyes roll back in her head.”

     

    It’s about 4 in the morning, and we’re on our way back from Cincinnati. Forester’s driving, and Ledford’s in the passenger seat, the red paint melted off their faces. The rain is coming down like a vengeance, and we can’t see to go faster than 50 mph.

    When they get home, Ledford and Forester will have to figure out how to pay an electric bill that’s way higher than anticipated. Their merch briefcase, which holds drawings and fake teeth and stickers and various trinkets, got them about $60 tonight, and they earned something like $100 from their percentage of drink sales. Money’s not exactly abundant. People assume they’re living large. “But at the same time,” Forester said one day, “(Sometimes) I can hardly pay my rent. And I don’t have a high rent.”

    But who cares about all that just now. As the Louisville skyline comes into view, they’re blasting Bring Me the Horizon, a band that sounds like a demon and a banshee having a debate about jackhammers. The low-gas light has been on for a few miles. But not to worry, Ledford says. “This thing can go a long way before it’s empty.”

    An earlier version of this story appeared in the September 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine on page 76, and has since been updated. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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    Part of "33 Reasons We Love Our Arts Scene."

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is an award-winning poet and essayist based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as web editor of Louisville Magazine.

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