Interview: San Francisco’s Rachel Garlin brings activism to the forefront

Rachel Garlin

Rachel Garlin, courtesy: Irene Young.

After growing up in Berkeley, singer-songwriter Rachel Garlin ventured off to New York in pursuit of the big city life. But even after finding it, her Bay Area roots kept pulling her back. After years in the Big Apple, Garlin and her wife moved to San Francisco, which to Garlin is the perfect blend of Manhattan and the close-knit hometown life with which she grew up.

“We settled in Noe Valley, which is residential … and live music venues that you can walk to at night,” Garlin said.

Aside from the variety of live music (pre-pandemic) and rich culture, Garlin said that the heavy presence of political activism also influenced her decision to settle in the Bay Area.

“I believe there is a strong connection between social movements and music, and I grew up in Berkeley where that was very apparent,” Garlin said. “We went to protests and marches when I was a kid. All of those movements had anthems, and they had songs that accompany the messages, so that’s very much a part of my own DNA.”

Her passion for political engagement shines bright through Garlin’s latest pair of singles, “Democracy Demands” and “Road Trip Song.” She wrote “Democracy Demands” after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away in September, as many Americans raised concern over how the future of the nation would look under her replacement on the Supreme Court.

“The song came from a place of wanting to raise a hand and speak out against the political tide that was washing over the country,” Garlin said. “The song asks questions about how we can challenge authority figures who are not representing the voices of the people. I recorded it with just solo guitar and voice to emphasize the substance of the message, which touches on this idea that things are going too far with our rights getting taken away and voices suppressed.”

Now a mother of three, Garlin is passing her passion for social involvement on to the ones who will take charge in the future, and the video for “Road Trip Song” shows her doing exactly that as she takes her young daughter to the Women’s March in San Francisco.

As the song gained attention across the U.S., it even got a tweet from former Presidential candidate and Vermont Governor Howard Dean. To the artist that was a reminder that everyone is connected and facing many of the same challenges.

In 2016, Garlin gained even more inspiration to make a difference as she passed by a juvenile correctional facility on her way to a studio to record an album. She decided to call the detention center to ask if there was a way to get involved and to pass music to in-custody youths who may be feeling lost or troubled. From there she was referred to Sunset Youth Services, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps build relationships and stability for at-risk youth and young adults, which allowed her to host a songwriting program for young people.

Garlin loves not only teaching about the art of music, but building relationships with people who want to have a voice and tell their stories.

“What gets me excited is hearing people’s stories and trying to connect with them, retell them, shine a light on different aspects of people’s stories and find that resonance so that other people can connect too,” Garlin said.

When it comes to her own music and career, Garlin relishes having the opportunity to collaborate with other Bay Area artists, such as Julie Wolf and James DePrato.

Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Vicki Randle has been another great inspiration for and contributor to her own sound, as well as percussionist Allison Miller, who traveled to the Bay Area from New York to work on her latest album, April’s Mondegreens.

“Since I write songs for myself, and I’m just alone in my little writing space—I love tiny spaces for writing—but when it’s time to go in the studio it’s like this whole other level of stimulation and excitement and collaboration and community,” Garlin said.

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