Band To Watch: Cyberbully Mom Club
I usually listen to Cyberbully Mom Club late at night, with only the harsh glow from my laptop lighting up the room. It’s also, not coincidentally, usually on nights when I feel most alone. Their music is a lot like a good friend sitting down and holding you by the shoulders and reassuring you that you’re feelings aren’t irrational or weird and that’s because, hey, we’re all going through the same shit, too. The singer-songwriter style has always benefited from its ability to speak directly to the listener, to form an intimate connection. But that style has been updated for a new generation, where the anonymity of the internet can be both a blanket and a crutch. There’s a group of singer-songwriters who primarily live on Tumblr and Bandcamp and upload songs with comforting frequency. Cyberbully Mom Club are among them, as are artists like Frankie Cosmos and Infinity Crush. They all possess a spontaneous ingenuity, one where nothing is too fussy and everything feels just right. That’s not to say that there’s no thought put into these songs — one listen and you can tell that these have been toiled over. It’s just that there’s an immediacy here that feels lacking in a lot of other music. The songs are essentially photographs of a specific moment in time; each album a stack of Polaroids that you can flip through and flash back to memories, both bad and good.
Cyberbully Mom Club are fronted by Philadelphia-based Shari Heck, who writes all the songs and records most of them alone in her bedroom. She has ambitions to turn these songs into full band affairs, though, and the few demos that are scattered among her handful of releases suggest that’s a good idea. Heck knows how to write a good melody, and those are only bolstered by the theatrics of a full band. Take “How Do You Tell A Girl You Really Like Her Eyes?” for example: Compared to its bedroom form, the full band demo expresses deep longing through strained guitars and scattered drumming, something its initial version could only hint at.
As they are, though, Heck’s songs are still something really special. A lot of her strength lies in the lyrics — I could easily make this into a collection of my favorite lines, ones that make me feel warm and fuzzy, like she put something into words that I’ve been thinking or meaning to say for my whole life, but she suddenly explained it in a more concise and thoughtful way than I could ever manage. Her songs are about relationships and being shy and stupid mistakes and loss and everything else in between. A lot of her words could have served as my AIM away messages circa 2005, containing just the right amount of self-pity, doubt, and uneasy confidence. Her songs are evocative portraits, painted in gentle touches and soft whispers, with light guitar strums over wordy lyrics that are both irreverent and unflinchingly sentimental.
It’s hard to listen to or write about Cyberbully Mom Club without getting a little bit personal yourself. This is the kind of music that begs to be molded into your own life, to be identified with and celebrated and mourned. I’ve cried to these songs, I’ve smiled, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of either. Oftentimes music is served at a distance — however powerful songs are, sometimes they can feel manufactured, overthought and overwrought. Not here. Instead, Heck invites you in to share in both her joy and her pain, and it’s overwhelming at times and the best feeling in the world at others.
I talked to Shari Heck about how she started writing music and her hopes for the future.
STEREOGUM: Let’s start off with telling me how and when you started writing songs.
SHARI HECK: I started this past year because I stayed home from school sick one week with nothing to do. We didn’t have cable or internet in our apartment at the time, so it was pretty lonely being there sometimes. I started recording some silly stuff on Garageband and writing. I remember posting one of the first little ones I wrote one night really late at night and being really self-conscious and nervous about it because of my voice. (Always have been nervous and self-conscious about my voice.) But some people said nice things that I didn’t expect and it gave me a push to want to keep writing things.
STEREOGUM: What do you think compelled you to post them online as opposed to just keeping them to yourself?
HECK: I liked what I made and wanted to share it. I knew it wasn’t anything special but I was proud of the little song I did put together, and I definitely couldn’t sing it in front of anybody else because that was scary at the time, so posting it online was the most ideal way to share. Also, why keep your art secret and let it get dusty? I think art is supposed to be shared, you know?
STEREOGUM: I agree. So when did you start gaining performance to perform live and round up a full band. What was your first show like, when you brought this thing you posted online into the real world?
HECK: After practicing with a full band for a couple weeks, it definitely helped me realize singing in front of other people isn’t spooky. So the band helped me a lot itself! Plus, it was really fun the more we all got used to it. Our first show was at our best friend’s house and also where we practiced, so it made us, or at least me, feel a lot more comfortable. It was kinda like playing a “home” show. Our second show at the Golden Tea House was a lot different though. The space was bigger and unfamiliar and I remember my voice getting shaky and not knowing what to say in between songs.
STEREOGUM: Most of the stuff you’ve released so far has been just you, but there’s a few full band sprinkled throughout your releases. Do you think you want to transition over to a full band — I mean, the Club part of the name implies a crew — or stick to strictly solo recordings?
HECK: Definitely want full band stuff! We just all have never had the chance to record stuff together in a studio or even just collectively through our home setups. We work and go to school and only have on practice space, which isn’t even our own house. (I live in a studio in Philly and Buddy [McCool] lives in a house with a couple other roommates.) So we definitely just have had some bumps in the way. But eventually, and hopefully soon! It’s a dream to have a full band album recorded and the day it happens is gonna be so freaking cool.
STEREOGUM: What’s the solo writing process for you like? You post a lot of late-night songs on Tumblr and stuff, so I assume it’s pretty productive.
HECK: The late night stuff and most of the stuff I record and post on Tumblr are little songs that I write in one night when I’m home and record/edit in the same. I’ve been home for the summer in my hometown and most of my friends are in the city, so it’s been lonely. Instead of getting my feelings or thoughts out by talking to somebody, I usually just write a tiny song and it makes me feel better/less anxious/a little more relieved. Sometimes they feel like little diary entries. I write a lot of different things after I get home from work, which can vary from 8-11 at night.
STEREOGUM: So when does a song go from being something you post on Tumblr to something that you put on an EP or into a larger release? Is there a thought process behind that? Some songs make multiple appearances on different releases and such.
HECK: Hm, there really isn’t that much of a process! Guess it just depends on if I’m happy with the final songs. Some will turn out cool and some will just always be little tiny rough late-night recordings. Work on some more than others. I throw up a lot on Bandcamp and usually put most of the stuff that I’m happy with up eventually. Outdoor Activities was the first album on Bandcamp that I recorded with some new recording equipment that I got my hands on and that’s how that one became one of the “bigger” releases, or at least bigger compared to the others. I was really excited to use the new stuff to record so I worked hard on them and was proud of most of the tracks.
STEREOGUM: Are your songs mostly autobiographical or storytelling? Or a mix of both?
HECK: I think a mix of both. Most are pretty personal and honest and I definitely feel vulnerable, as a lot of the stuff is about my anxiety and feeling lonely a lot of the time. Probably won’t talk about most of that stuff face-to-face with most people because I have this thing where I always want to come off as a tough guy who can stand up for themselves and “not take anybody’s shit,” but I feel like that’s probably the complete opposite of how I really am. I’m a pretty closed off as a person, and my dad and step-mom actually found one of the tapes and listened to it and we had a nice little confrontation about a lot of things that we’ve never spoken about face-to-face before, so that was definitely scary but also kind of nice.
STEREOGUM: So do they not listen to your songs anymore?
HECK: They can if they want! But for the most part, they aren’t that interested in the band to begin with. My dad was really concerned about the band name choice, Cyberbully Mom Club. He said, “He just didn’t get it.”
STEREOGUM: Parents just don’t understand. I love the name. Wanna explain how you settled on it?
HECK: Hey, some parents do! I don’t want to hate on my parents or any parents — they’re great and do a lot for me. Wish that we were all a bit closer and understood each other more, but all families are different at the end of the day. As for the name: I just thought of it one night and I really have no idea how or where it stemmed from. I wish I did but there’s just not much behind it at all.
STEREOGUM: The name reminds me of some hyper-aggressive PTA moms or something like that, haha. Do you feel any pull to retreat into a persona? Kind of like how Greta has with Frankie Cosmos — put some barrier between you and the audience while still expressing real feelings?
HECK: Buddy’s dad loves the name, haha. I remember him telling us he thought it was cool in the car one time. And I don’t think I will retreat into a persona. I think the barrier is writing under Cyberbully Mom Club for the most part, you know? Despite how a lot of the stuff on Bandcamp is personal/are personal recordings, we are still a band and people refer to the Cyberbully Mom Club as “they.” So I think that’s the you/audience barrier, maybe.
STEREOGUM: What’s Buddy’s role in the band?
HECK: We play all of our live shows together! He’s really great at guitar and figuring out really cool riffs quick. Once we’re in the city together, I hope we can start writing things together from scratch. He’s also a really nice bandmate to play music with, patient, and before I started playing songs he would inspire me with the stuff he’d write on his ukulele.
STEREOGUM: Back to the songwriting a bit, I wanted to touch on something I really appreciate about your music. The way you talk about sexuality and romantic feelings really frankly and in a way that addresses all of the overthinking/desire/shitty feelings/whatever that come along with it is really great. There are a lot of lines I really love, but this one part from “Not Your Pretty Boy” really stick outs in my mind as something really special: “And I’ll ruin my body if I want to/ And maybe I’ll have a kid, or maybe just two/ And if my boy wants to be a girl, my girl will be so sweet/ And if my girl want to be a boy/ I hope he’s not discreet.” Want to talk a little bit about those lyrics and that aspect of your songs in general?
HECK: I have been really confused with my gender identity for a long time and still am, and a lot of my friends have too. It’s a really hard, confusing thing to deal with after most of us have been told from birth that we have to kind of fit into either a blue or pink box, and then obey the policies of those boxes for the rest of our lives. But that’s obviously some brainwash bullshit. What if I feel like I fit into a green box? Or a box with some cool gradient of pink and blue and purple? Gender identity is something that I think a lot of parents, mine included, have a hard time grasping/understanding/accepting when their children try to address those kind of things to them, and I guess those lyrics talk about that in a sense.
STEREOGUM: As someone who’s struggled with the same sort of stuff, I feel like gender identity is something that isn’t talked a lot about in music and, if it is, it’s sort of treated as some “other” or “big statement,” rather than just being a natural part of life. The way you approach it is really comforting. Do you think there’s enough representation of queer issues in music today?
HECK: Definitely not. There’s always room for more. I mean, I wish there were more because having that connection to an artist is nice. I wish it wasn’t such a big statement. There are a million songs written about a boy like a girl, or a girl liking a boy, and then when a girl writes another song about a girl or a boy writes a song about a boy, it’s either “a big statement” or “wow, brave and inspirational,” but in reality, I don’t know. It’s just one person writing about another person they like, and there’s nothing crazy behind that. It’s all really simple.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to touch on the whole Bandcamp/Tumblr world for a second. I feel like there’s a whole world of singer-songwriters out there that are constantly sharing their feelings via home-recorded songs. Why do you think the ability to have something out in the world the second it’s finished so appealing?
HECK: I guess it’s the same as making a blog post or Twitter status, maybe a bit more vulnerable, except through a song. People can instantly respond, instantly connect, give you feedback, etc. Plus, who wants to wait to share something they’re proud of? Finishing up something, anything, that you’ve worked on is sooo exciting. Once you post it, immediately it’s like, “Here it is! I finished this. It’s here. I’ve been working on it and now it’s done and I’m feeling proud of it. Check it out if you wanna. If not, that’s okay, but here it is.”
STEREOGUM: How do you react to shitty comments? If you post anything on the internet, you’re bound to get some.
HECK: Ya win some, ya lose some. Everybody’s different.
STEREOGUM: Where do you want to take the band from here?
HECK: Would love to obtain a van or vehicle so we can start playing shows outside of Philadelphia. That would be so cool, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon because of school. But that’s the goal! Also, would love to write more with Buddy as soon as possible. Like I said, we’ve been apart most of the summer so being together again will definitely cue some brainstorming and new ideas/plans for the band. Just totally going with the flow for now.
[Photo by Maclyn Bean.]