“1, 2, 3, 4,” Alice Bag chants as she sways to the beat of the metronome. She's in the control room of a secluded recording studio in Echo Park, preparing to add vocals to a track that is close to her heart.
“No te despediste,” she sings, melodically and somberly, on “Inesperado Adios,” a Spanish song inspired by a student she taught when she lived in Arizona two years ago.
It's a chilly October night and the L.A. punk veteran is recovering from a cold. It adds a hoarseness to her voice that she wasn't expecting to bring to her debut solo album, Alice Bag, an album that, in a way, has been more than 40 years in the making.
Since the mid-1970s, Bag has been in countless bands, including Cholita, Castration Squad and The She*Riffs. Most famously, the singer and musician fronted The Bags, the legendary first-wave L.A. punk band. As if it was a marriage, Alice has kept the surname since.
Bag is quick to dismiss any misconceptions people might have about why she is releasing her first solo record now instead of earlier in her life. “It wasn't that I didn't think I was capable of writing the music on my own or getting people to play with me,” she says on a warm June day, sipping an iced coffee at a Highland Park cafe. “I've always been fond of having a situation where you have brothers and sisters and you work cooperatively toward a common goal.”
She's an icon in the punk world of Los Angeles and beyond. Ask any local punk musician or fan about her, and they're likely to share a story about how she has influenced them artistically, or how kind she was in person when they met her.
After living her whole life in L.A., Bag moved to Arizona in the mid-2000s to work as a teacher, which is where the events that inspired the song “Inesperado Adios” transpired. The mother of one of her “A” students confided in Bag that her husband, who was undocumented, suddenly disappeared one day. He had left for work, like any other morning, except this day he never came back. As they searched for him and tried to get him out of a detention center, the punk singer served as translator, helping the family navigate through foreign documents and phone calls.
The song, whose title roughly translates to “Unexpected Goodbye,” came out of the experience Bag witnessed firsthand — how detaining immigrants affects the whole family unit, not just the person being deported.
Other songs on Alice Bag address political and social issues, especially violence against women, a major theme of Bag's acclaimed 2011 memoir, Violence Girl, From East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage — A Chicana Punk Story. “No Means No” addresses date rape; “He's So Sorry” is a song about being in an abusive relationship; and “Suburban Home” explores the fear of having your spouse cheat on you when you're in a long-distance relationship.
Of “No Means No,” Bag says, “Sometimes we're socialized to think, well y'know, you're making an investment in a girl when you take her out to dinner and so she owes you something. I think they feel — not all men obviously — some guys feel, I'm going to take something back for the investment.”
Through her music, Bag hopes to send a message to survivors of abuse, and to children who remain powerless in situations where one parent is abusing the other — an experience she detailed firsthand in Violence Girl, recounting how her father beat her mother.
“It's a plea, please get out of that situation,” Bag says urgently. “Don't think that you're going to change this person or that they're going to change all by themselves.”
Another way Bag reaches out to women, particularly young women, is through her volunteer work as a member of Chicas Rockeras South East Los Angeles, a summer camp that empowers girls through music education. It's a program that Bag wishes she'd had when she was growing up because she always felt her family thought she was “kind of weird.”
Alice Bag's self-titled album is the culmination of a 40-year career.
She keeps in touch with that family, but they remain distant. She's closer to her musician family because when she visits her relatives, they say “little funny remarks about what you do and they're humorous to everybody else, but they're kind of subtle putdowns because you're living in a way that's not traditional.”
But Chicas Rockeras is also something she hopes older women experience, “because a lot of times people forget that you can still be creative in a completely different way, especially once you reach a certain age and you're not raising kids,” she says.
Alice Bag was originally going to be self-released, after the singer received enough funding to record and master the album via supporters on Kickstarter. But one day Sharif Dumani, who plays guitar on her record and is also in local L.A. band Sex Stains, told her she should check out Don Giovanni Records and suggested she reach out to Joe Steinhardt, the founder of the company, about a possible record deal.
“I wrote to him fully expecting not to hear back and then he sent me a picture of his wife reading Violence Girl and I was like, Oh my God!,” says Bag, still surprised months later by Steinhardt's response.
It didn't take much to get Steinhardt on board. “He was so, so open to everything, just whatever I wanted to do, he was like, 'Let's do it!'”
For Bag, this is exactly the album she's always wanted to make, and it came together so smoothly that the process, for her, felt almost magical. “It's just been brewing for a long, long time and everything just seemed to fall into place so easily. All I had to do was tap it with my finger and everything worked. It was pretty effortless.”
But making music and choosing to pursue an artistic life hasn't always been effortless for Bag, and perhaps that is what still drives her to push against the grain and keep being creative.
She recalls having a moment early in her career when she decided that she was going to go back to school and “stop this silly 'playing music' thing.” At the time, her friends were heavily into drugs and living life in an unhealthy way. She knew she needed to get away from that, so she told herself she would do something practical — move back home, go to school and become an attorney.
Her new plan to leave her punk life behind lasted only a month before her former roommate gave her a ring and asked, “Hey, my bass player can't make it. Can you play bass?” Bag soon started playing gig after gig until she was back in that world without planning to be. The life of an attorney wasn't for her.
“I just had to accept that it was part of who I am and I'm never going to be able to give it up, even though at times you feel like, if I was just able to give this up, I could focus on this other thing much more. It's not like that. It absolutely feeds my soul,” Bag says, clutching her cup of coffee.
“I can't live without music.”
ALICE BAG ALBUM RELEASE PARTY | The Echo, 1822 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park | Sat., July 2, 5:30-9 p.m. | $8-$9.50 | All ages | theecho.com