Because I Say So: Bent Knee Defies Genres and Expectations

Back in 2009, a group of Berklee kids met in a former swimming pool-turned cafeteria. Two stories underground, sans cell service, after moving in concentric social circles, the musicians naturally found one another. There, in Berklee’s murky underbelly, Courtney Swain met Ben Levin, a musical kindred spirit. That’s where Bent Knee got it’s start.

Seven years ago, between basement lunches and dinners, Swain felt a spark. “Ben and I have this thing, musically, where we’ll just do the same thing randomly, by accident,” she said. “It still happens, not even looking at him, not even going through the same thing, we’ll just come in at the same time, or we’ll just do the same thing. I felt that back then.”

Swain proposed a collaboration, and Levin responded with the music for “Urban Circus,” featured later on their eponymously titled 2011 album. Swain sang vocals, and Vince Welch, Levin’s roommate at the time, was inspired to produce the song. “I think it turned out better than he expected it to,” Swain said. From there, Bent Knee went through a few band members before drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth and bassist Jessica Kion. “Even early on, we were really gung-ho about it,” Swain said. “We thought there was something really special about the band.”

That special something can really only be seen live— where the band moves together as one group of misfit toys, playing off a shared energy. Sitting front-row at a Bent Knee show is like falling into a deep, tumultuous ocean. Just as the music begins to float along in buoyant serenity, Swain’s thunderous vocals crash in wild waves, carried by Levin’s guitar, Kion’s bass, Chris Baum’s violin and Wallace-Ailsworth’s booming drums. The combination verges on overwhelming, — and it would be — if not for producer Vince Welch, the great distiller and reducer of sounds: experimental, pop, electronic, and of course, progressive rock.

“We are not a prog rock band,” Swain said, sitting across from Kion and myself in a Brighton cafe. “I think we’re progressive, in terms of the adjective, in terms of forward-thinking, but I don’t think we’ve got that prog sound.”

“I say ‘dynamic,’” Kion said. “It’s really loud and then it’s really soft sometimes… it’s really groovy and then very not-groovy. It goes kind of everywhere.”

Returning to Boston after a summer tour in Europe, Bent Knee drew a German cult-prog crowd with their precision, dramatic themes, and the influence of Wallace-Ailsworth. “Gavin is our prog guy,” Swain said. “We’ve been getting a lot of love from the prog scene, and none of us know what the hell most people are talking about, except Gavin.”

That’s the beauty of Bent Knee — it is perhaps one-sixth prog rock, as far as Wallace-Ailsworth is concerned. The other fractions are just as varied; Baum’s precision and polish, Levin’s rap, musical theatre, and improv-influenced style, Kion’s experimental nature, Swain, who brings unparallelled power and intensity from classically-trained roots, and Welch, who fuses everything together. No one genre can accurately encompass the lovable weirdness of Bent Knee. “At heart we’re really songwriters,” Swain said. “We are trying to serve the story of the song, we’re storytellers. We’re doing as much as we can fits the story.”

The stories tend to originate with Levin, Swain and Kion, and then Baum, Welch and Ailsworth work out the musical kinks. ‘There is like so much toe-stepping, it’s ridiculous,” Kion said. “We have pieces of songs, or maybe the whole thing, and then most of the writing together is arranging and deciding where it’s going, and that’s where it’s hardest, because there are so many options.”

With their third studio album, Say So (Cuneiform), Bent Knee found a way to explore those options, weaving together myriad styles and stories, and knowing when to step back and strip things down. According to Swain, that’s thanks to Welch’s method of ‘subtractive synthesis.’ “We just pile as much stuff on to what we have, and then he tries to use as little of it as humanly possible,” Swain said.  “He spends a lot of time thinking about what is the least amount you need to get what’s happening.”

Compared to the 2014 album Shiny Eyed Babies, Say So is Bent Knee’s most accessible record to date. Pared-down vocals introduce “Black Tar Water,” as Wallace-Ailsworth’s drums and Baum’s violin lead the song down a complex path. Even the nine-minute mini-opera “Eve” feels restrained, despite moving from plucky violin and accordion to dramatic, sludgy, muddy rock. “Hands Up” mixes uplifting, poppy chord progressions with caustic, self-effacing lyrics. “I seem so pathetic, darling, check my phone constantly, ” Swain sings. “Texts loop like a mantra through me, buzzing blasts of dopamine.”

Bent Knee’s acerbic lyrics have become a calling-card, contradicted in live shows by their on-stage humor and brightness. As a recorded album, Say So would seem entirely dark, if not for “Commercial,” a comedic take on the negative influence of advertising. “Everything you have to say! Is luring me in closer so I’ll pay!” The band screams, “For three easy payments, I’ll get my face kicked off my head right away!”

If one character emerges from the many narratives of Say So, it is a little girl, losing her power and finding it again, this time from within. The album, as a whole, represents the oppressor and the oppressed. “It is both ‘because I say so,’ and ‘if you say so.’” Swain said. In “Good Girl,” that character finds herself trapped beneath the world’s expectations. “Don’t be a hassle, Don’t be a rascal, Great minds think too much,” Swain sings. “You’re not a scholar, Nor a philosopher, Turn that little light of yours off.”

In the “Leak Water” music video, actress Audrey Norwood represents a young Kion, controlled by outside forces. “It was influenced by my mom braiding my hair without me really wanting it,” Kion said. “Sometimes she would brush my hair too hard or pull too hard, and I would be crying, and it just felt like it wasn’t worth it to look nice for other people when it hurt me. But I did not have anywhere near the tools to say anything like that.”

In the video, Levin plays a dark, ominous monster,  stealing the girl’s agency as she is pulled in different directions. She doesn’t have a say in the picture,” Kion said. “The climax of the song, in the video, is kind of like her empowerment. All of the evil drippings of the monster are disappearing. But then the very last second her mouth is closed—it’s not over.”

On stage, Kion brings the “Say So” theme of defiance with her, in the form of frilly, bow-laden, ultra-feminine dresses. “There’s totally a thing to that,” she said. “It’s more surprising that then I’m going to play bass hard when I’m wearing an outfit like that, and I think that’s exciting for people. It’s exciting for me, with the story of being dressed up every day, to have that little girl in myself who wasn’t able to say what I thought, and then be in this amazing band that is super emotive, and kind of saying all of the stuff that I wish I had said back then.”

Though personal agency and freedom are traditionally feminist themes, Swain and Kion aren’t quite ready to describe themselves as feminist rock heroes, at least not before acknowledging their own flaws. “When you talk about women in music, our hands are just as red as everyone else’s,” Swain said. “It’s not necessarily a choice, it’s like how I feel that we’re all racist, because that’s the norm that we’ve grown up in… I think we’re all sexist to ourselves, to a certain extent. I just feel like I’m part of the problem. I’m trying to change that, I think everyone is.”

Both personally and musically, Bent Knee continues to push themselves out of their comfort zone, trying everything in every direction; from the Berklee cafeteria to the prog-loving crowds of Germany, and many more adventures to come.

Bent Knee’s fall tour stops in Allston on Friday, August 26 with altopalo and Oh Malo.