Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff – Taking Care of Business and Her Health
by Jennie Ruggles
During the early 1980’s in New York’s lower east side, the Rock Lounge, the Roxy, and The Mud Club hatched a new generation of talent babies. In the club culture, where the stylus is mightier than the sword, DJs like Anita Sarko held sway over the proceedings. At a tender age this is how Jill Cunniff, Kate Schellenbach and Gabby Glasser of Luscious Jackson spent their nights.
“We were like 14, 15, and sometimes we wouldn’t even get into clubs, just hang outside. We’d make up hand stamps and stuff like that to get into places,” says Glasser.
In their club hopping heyday the girls’ closest buddies were Adam and Mike D. who are now members of the Beastie Boys – a well known association that some attribute to L.J.’s success. The fact that drummer Kate Schellenbach was also in the Beastie’s first incarnation lends itself to headlines tagging Luscious Jackson as “The Beastie Girls”. And in the three years since Gabby and Jill produced their first 1992 LP, In Search of Manny, Luscious Jackson has been dodging that tag.
Nowadays Luscious is well past those days of the first LP, and instead of thanking the Beastie Boys and Grand Royal for the assistance, this time Jill Cunniff, L.J.’s singer and bass player, thanks ’70s feminist writer, Mary Daly, the author of Gyn/Ecology.
Cunniff’s nod to Mary Daly barely scratches the surface of her foray into feminism and women’s health issues, which started around the time that her life as a touring musician was causing her physical and emotional health problems. To combat the wear and tear of stress, she studied her health and strengthened her physical well being. To combat the put-downs in the press that used to drive her nuts, she came up with an alternative reading list on goddess culture and creativity.
“I just started studying goddess culture, and I’m collecting books. Today I was reading a book about one of the earliest witches who was actually put on trial for her beliefs.”
Any great band’s story is that someone else’s music fomented in their collective style. For Luscious Jackson it was most of the bands on England’s Rough Trade label circa 1977 – bands like The Raincoats, X-Ray Specs, Delta 5 and The Slits. “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” and “Typical Girl” are the spin on Luscious Jackson’s rotors, and still are to this day. “The song Pele Meringue (on Natural Ingredients) has tribal drums and the guitar sound is pretty Slits-y,” says Cunniff. “It’s definitely in there.”
The amalgamated L.J. style also stems partly from the club scene. “We use similar influences as trip hop, so I guess we can be put in that genre even though we aren’t really,” says Cunniff. “We get very little airplay because we are not in a genre.”
However, Luscious Jackson continues to capture music fans’ fancies; Snapshots of L.J. at Rock for Choice and political benefits frequently appear in major entertainment magazines, and their touring schedule is jam packed through next year. But the demands of success have only strengthened Cunniff’s resolve to be completely in touch with her health – a lifelong goal. “I’d like to start some collective for women’s health, and reprogram ourselves to function without being crippled by our cultural upbringing,” she says.
Jill learned a lot about this fear and stress from her grueling experiences touring. “When you’re a female musician, you’re constantly struggling against something, and you’re not conscious of it. Everyone you deal with is male – the sound crew, the lighting crew, managers of the club – and what happens is you have to swallow a lot. You’re struggling unconsciously and it causes a lot of stress.”
“Touring Europe is probably the hardest part of being in a band,” she jokes. “I had to cancel a show in France last year. They put on the poster ‘El chanteuse es malade’ (The singer is sick). I had a horrible throat, lung thing. I couldn’t speak. In Europe all you eat is bread and cheese, which causes a lot of mucus.”
“But seriously, in the last year, our keyboard player Vivian’s been sicker than in her whole life. The physical body starts to manifest your mental stress. I’ve worked really hard to totally reorganize my health and make it a priority in the last year and a half.”
Jill is a strict believer in finding solutions and studying gives her the resolve to find better ways to live. “By reading this literature about the female realm of creativity I’m reassured that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s a huge relief.”
Before Jill gets back to her voracious reading, she has some parting words of wisdom about surviving the life of a musician. “If you don’t take care of your health you will have no career,” she cautions. “You will get so sick so fast. You have to do everything you can within your power to provide a way to stay healthy. Make sure you sleep, double check your itinerary because booking agents will try to book you insanely. Calculate drive times, and get a draft of your touring schedule. Make sure you have days off, if you can afford it. Booking agents get a percentage so they want to work your butt. Especially in Canada– they kill you.”
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