We had an opportunity to talk with Nancy Grim Kells or just plain Grim and we could just not it pass us by. They took a moment to share about their past experiences, their recording career as Spartan Jet-Plex and all the great things they are doing with Grimalkin Records which is so much more then just a label.
Q When did you first start in music?
I’ve always had a love of music and songs rolling around my head since I was a kid. I sang in glee club and then dabbled in some experimental sampling and layering in college, but I didn’t start officially writing my own songs and recording them until my mid-twenties. In the mid-90s, I got an analog portable 4-track, and I used to just write and record music for myself and I would share them on mixtapes with my mom and a couple of friends. When Myspace came along, I shared some of my songs there. Then came Bandcamp.
It wasn’t until much later that I started taking myself more seriously as a musician. Since I am self-taught, I had and still do have some insecurities about my abilities. Being self-taught is one of the main reasons why I consider myself a folk musician. I also struggle with anxiety and severe stage fright, and it wasn’t until January 2019 that I first had the courage to play my own songs live. That all got shut down at the beginning of March 2020 with the pandemic, but I did a couple of online acoustic sets after that, and then I started playing out live again in April 2022.
Q How did Grimalkin records get started?
It started out as a passion project around 2015/2016 when we did several benefit shows locally in Richmond, VA and a few benefit compilations under the name Friends For Equality. We started using the name Grimalkin Records and released our first physical release in 2018. We steadily grew over time, but I worked full time and my job was demanding so Grimalkin wasn’t at all what it is now.
I was a special ed teacher for 14 years and then a vocational counselor/disability advocate for 7 years until I was laid off from my job in March 2020. I intended to stay in that job until I retired. I am 50. When I lost my job, I couldn’t even go back to the work I was doing because it didn’t exist. After being depressed and crushed for several days, I picked myself up like I always do and figured maybe the universe was telling me to try and make Grimalkin a legitimate business and to work on making it become all the things I dreamed about that I never really thought could happen or that I could possibly do in retirement, and to be honest, probably never would have tried if I hadn’t lost my job. There is so much uncertainty in this work, and although I had dreams for Grimalkin, it wasn’t really something I thought was possible until after I lost my job and started focusing all of my time and energy into making it a reality.
I got unemployment for one year, and then since March 2021, I have been living off my dwindling savings trying to make Grimalkin a legitimate business. We finally became a nonprofit at the end of February 2022. We got some grant funding last year and increased our grassroots organizing by doing this full time, and as of March last year, I got us to a place where Grimalkin was able to pay me $500 a month and I no longer have to invest any of my own money or music sales and royalties into Grimalkin like I had been previously. While this isn’t a living wage yet, we are making slow and steady progress all the time.
We also don’t want to rely on grants because they are often restrictive and they also create a ton of work in reporting to foundations or the government. We’ve been slowly building our Patreon and I hope more people will want to join that or donate since donations are now tax deductible. I also believe that once we get more money from grants to expand our programs that it will also be a way to sustain our work.
I work over 70 hours a week at the moment, and sometimes much more than that. I basically will not be able to keep this up much longer without a living wage, and I also need help and the money to hire others because I will burn out at this rate, but we are making progress!
We received funding last year from the Virginia Commision for the Arts, Trans Justice Funding Project and the Abby Fund in addition to one-time and monthly donations from individuals. I’ve already applied for 4 grants since the beginning of 2023 and I’m in the process of working on 3 more that are due between now and April. Grant writing definitely compounds the work, but if you want something like this to be successful, it takes all you have to give to get it done.
There are folks who donate their time, and I couldn’t do this without them (especially Eli Owens who helps manage our website and Patreon and who made our website and logo), but the daily grind and most of the work falls on me, and now that we are a nonprofit and doing so much more than releasing music, it has become extremely labor intensive. There are several people that will take some of the work off my plate and do additional things as soon as we have the means to pay folks.
The main reason for founding Grimalkin and its evolution to where we are today is that I didn’t see enough spaces that give priority to marginalized people and definitely not enough labels and music spaces that provide support and safe spaces for people like me. Most labels and spaces in general within the music industry are often led, run and owned by cis white men, even within DIY. I saw a need for artists to be supported in general. So much of the music industry runs on exploiting artists and they are used as a means for others to make money, and our survival, ability to thrive and make a living wage is not even a consideration and rarely a possibility.
It has become even worse in the age of streaming. Rather than supporting artists, more and more companies are popping up that create systems and ways to exploit and profit off of us. For example, I am talking about streaming services and pay to play publications and companies asking artists to pay to get reviewed or be considered for review, airplay or to be on a playlist, which by the way, doesn’t compensate artists because streaming pays us a fraction of a penny! On average, artists need to get 200 streams or more to make 1 dollar, and major and even some minor labels are often essentially loan companies that keep artists in debt or indebted to them.
We want to create alternate systems of support for artists and create the world we want to see. We believe it starts with community, mutual aid and mutual support and respect that is fueled from shared values and by sharing resources and skills. I myself am also trans, queer and disabled, and I personally want and strive to build a community with other like-minded people who share my values and who are more like me.
I gained a lot of transferable skills and knowledge over the years with my past jobs and experiences, and Grimalkin melds a lot of my passions and experiences- art, music, education, activism, organizing, mutual aid, and disability advocacy.
Q You have previously worked as a vocational counselor, benefits specialist and disability advocate did any of things you experienced in that job shaped Grimalkin?
I believe every single job and school experience I’ve had has shaped my vision for Grimalkin. I’ve done a lot of different jobs in my life and have been working since I was 15. Some important things I learned from my parents was the importance of having a good work ethic, being organized, juggling multiple tasks, being frugal, and saving money when that’s possible. Without those skills, there is no way I would have ever been able to do what I’m doing now. Sadly, our public school system drops the ball on teaching these things, and I feel fortunate that my parents, especially my mom, took the time to show me these things are important to your personal success in life and how to do them.
I went to art school for undergrad and have a BFA, and I realized early on that the arts are not valued in our society. In college and afterwards, I thought I’d eventually get a MFA and possibly be an art professor, but after being jaded by the art scene and gallery system in LA which is based upon wealthy people buying artwork as investments, and while having worked different retail and food services jobs to make ends meet up until that point, I realized pretty quickly that art and customer service jobs weren’t what I wanted, and that I needed a job that was more than a paycheck and that also gave me purpose by helping others. In order to feel okay about myself, the world and manage my anxiety and depression, I needed work that allowed me to help others and get out of my own head and struggles.
I came to this conclusion about myself from all the various jobs I had after art school. I did food service (bussing and hosting) and retail (a few clothing stores, a drug store, a gas station, a one-hour photo shop in a mall). I also worked for a really shitty artist for a short time organizing his work and files and assisted in the creation of some of his projects. After that, I did some temp work doing filing and data entry. All of my customer service jobs were minimum wage or slightly above, but the temp work paid a bit more than the others, and that allowed me to save enough money to eventually move to Los Angeles and hold me over until I could find work there.
Another issue about customer service work was that it only allowed me to live from paycheck to paycheck, which added to my anxiety and depression. I also couldn’t afford decent food or health and dental care, which led to a lot more health issues for me later. I saved up while doing temp work, hoping that a move to the city of angels would allow me to find and live my dreams as an artist, but as I already mentioned, that led me to being pretty jaded about the art world pretty quickly.
I needed work as soon as I got to Los Angeles so I could get an apartment and food. I drove there from Philly with my cat Sugar at the time. We stayed at a motel for 2 nights when we got there until I found a canvassing job for California Peace Action. That allowed me to get a tiny one room apartment. It all happened really quickly. I was pretty fortunate that way. I did that work for 2 years while trying to explore the art scene there. That work gave me a better understanding of grassroots organizing, and it also gave me the experience necessary to be able to speak to strangers about important issues that I’m passionate about and how to gain grassroots support. I struggle with social anxiety, and so this work allowed me to do something that didn’t come naturally to me, and I learned that although I don’t really feel comfortable in social situations and speaking to people I don’t know, that I was actually really great at doing it when I was motivated by working and organizing for a higher cause. I believe it helped me gain skills that I later developed further as a teacher and vocational counselor, and in the grassroots organizing work we now do with Grimalkin. It didn’t pay much above minimum wage though, but another benefit of the job was that I really got to learn and explore the various neighborhoods in LA and LA county.
After that job, I did some extra or background performer work for TV shows to make some extra money before passing the tests needed to become a paraprofessional and then a teacher. This was during the 90s, and so I was on a bunch of 90s TV shows- really terrible TV shows lol. This experience also shaped my perspective, especially in regard to the arts and wealth. It was truly disgusting to see so much money is wasted daily on vapid and utter garbage.
There was a program at that time in LA where you could gain teaching experience while getting your degree, and after doing paraprofessional work for a semester, I realized how much I enjoyed teaching and working with middle school aged children and so I went for it, and I started working at a middle school while attending classes and working on my master’s degree slowly over time.
I myself am disabled and neurodivergent, so becoming a special education teacher was something I was passionate about doing. It was amazing and very fulfilling for a long time. In addition, it was the first time I had disposable money and could save money for the long term future. I also finally had health and dental insurance and it was actually good thanks to our teacher’s union unlike the health insurance I had while teaching in Virginia, and was able to start getting help for some of the many health issues I had which had worsened from having no money to take care of my health issues.
Teaching also gave me a sense of pride about my work and myself, and that I had purpose beyond my own needs. I could see the difference I made in students’ lives, and teaching also allowed me to continue making artwork and music and develop those skills too. Teaching was highly inspiring in that regard.
I taught that for 10 years in Los Angeles and 4 years in Virginia. Over time as public school funding became more and more attached to kids passing a single test at the end of the school year, the worse it got and felt like the system was preventing me from actually helping my students. We were forced as teachers to spend 90% of our day teaching kids how to pass tests, and over the years all the things that help kids learn and keep them invested in learning like music, art and vocational studies were pushed out of the curriculum in favor of pushing all kids to pass things like algebra and geometry so that they could be on a path for college despite what they may have actually wanted or benefited from.
Teaching was also life changing in various other ways. I learned a lot about myself and developed so many skills that apply to the work I am doing now. It helped me learn about myself and develop more patience and empathy. It taught me how to be flexible and challenged me to problem solve in real time, shift gears and basically be ready for whatever gets thrown at you at any given time. The thing about teaching that is different from so many other jobs is that you are “on” for about 8 hours straight every day you’re working. There isn’t any downtime or time to really rest, checkout for a few minutes and process things during the day. Even my 30 minute lunch break or so-called prep-time was focused on working with students in some capacity. It’s a very challenging job and it takes a lot out of you, especially if you’re introverted in any way. If you are doing it right and are engaging your students like you’re supposed to do, it truly takes a special kind of person to do it successfully.
I had terrible experiences in school, and I strived to be the teacher I wish I had as a kid. I taught a semester of high school too, but the thing I liked most about middle school, even though it is extremely challenging to keep that age group engaged, interested and focused on learning, is that they are at a crossroads. By the time kids reach high school, it is a lot tougher to help them want to turn things around if they are already down a dangerous or self-destructive path.
Most people burn out, especially in special education, within 5 years. By the time I left, I was feeling the burn 14 years in. The most frustrating thing about teaching is that the politicians making these decisions for us and most of the administrators have very little if any classroom experience, or if they do, it was long ago in the past, and they are making the decisions and they rarely, if ever, ask the teachers for their input. Instead teachers are used as political and societal pawns, punching bags and scapegoats.
If teachers were respected and paid properly, I think that would have helped me stay in it longer. I left in 2012, and it felt like teachers were being attacked from all angles all the time and blamed for so many things, and it just wasn’t rewarding anymore. The last few years I taught, my students did amazing on the SOLs, and all I felt was dread and disgust that this was what mattered to most by the people controlling the system. It started to take its toll on my mental health towards the end of my teaching career and I knew it was time to move on so I resigned.
I left teaching in 2012 and became a vocational counselor and disability advocate. A lot of what I did was helping people gain life skills and find and maintain employment that fit their individualized goals and needs. I also helped people understand their benefits if they received them and how work affects them.
This work helped me continue to grow and build many of the skills I gained as a teacher, but apply them to real life situations in people’s daily and work lives. A lot of the public school system and being in a classroom, isn’t really how life is, and it doesn’t prepare kids for life in the ways it should, and having an opportunity to help young and older adults in their real lives was very rewarding. All the teaching and skill building you do with vocational counseling is being applied directly in real life situations either in their daily lives and in their places of employment. It further helped me understand myself better and develop my skills as an advocate, educator and mentor.
I started Grimalkin while I was doing that job, and it was during this time that I also started taking myself as a musician more seriously. I founded Grimalkin during this period and I started playing my music out live too. I had intended to keep this job until I retired, but after being laid off in March 2020, it led me to doing Grimalkin full time.
Being laid off during the pandemic was initially a huge setback in my life at that time, but it’s now become one of the best things that ever happened to me. It sparked a very specific set of circumstances at a very specific time in my life that led me to do what I am doing now, and that in turn has truly enabled me to be my most authentic self. I’ve never had a job previously where that was possible.
Every life experience and job experience, good and bad, has led me to do the work we do with Grimalkin and it has informed our mission and vision.
I also constantly had to hide parts of myself in every job I’ve ever had until Grimalkin. I don’t think I really knew how much that hurt, hindered and affected me until I was able to live as my full self. My wish is that every queer, trans and neurodivergent person gets to experience that in their lifetime.
Q Grimalkin is more than just a label, its an art collective what other initiatives do you engage in besides just putting out music?
Our mission at Grimalkin is to mentor and support trans and queer musicians, particularly BIPOC and disabled artists, using an artist-centered holistic approach to break down barriers, create new systems and structures of support, and expand the reach of marginalized voices.
Grimalkin is transforming the music industry, our world, and documented history with artist-centered structures of support through education, mentoring and production services provided through our ever-growing international network of trans, queer, BIPOC, disabled, and neurodiverse creatives.
You can learn more about our Grim Works services here and about releasing and joining our collective here and here.
We provide trans, queer, BIPOC, disabled, and neurodiverse artists support and access towards living authentic, healthy and fulfilling lives through partnerships and connections with other individuals, collectives, organizations, and nonprofits.
We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit designated as a public charity 509(a)(2).
We envision a world where dedicated artists, especially marginalized artists, can make a living wage and have access to resources that allow them to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. We are creating new systems of support in an effort to set an example for new standards in music and art. View artists we’ve supported here.
Grimalkin was founded on the premise of marginalized artists supporting each other. We also believe art and music have immense healing powers and our work helps transform society’s perception that art and music has great value and is essential to our lives, well-being, and for the health and welfare of our community.
Q Running a small business is tough even in good times, and in the current climate having it be a queer company is just another layer of difficulty, how do you keep yourself motivated during all the hard times?
I consider the work I do with Grimalkin a dream job but it isn’t like I always knew what my dream job would even be. It was an evolution and it took me doing all my previous jobs and living my entire life prior to being laid off from my last job to attempt what Grimalkin is doing and understanding how these ideas and dreams could become a reality.
As I mentioned already, I started Grimalkin while doing my last job, and over the years as well as now, those of us within our community and I are continuously having ideas on how to improve things and evolve our work to be what and where we are now and what and where we hope to go and achieve. That’s still happening. It’s an evolution. We have a solid mission and vision, but getting there and how we do it is an ongoing journey.
Every job and experience I’ve had in the last 50 years has informed how I got here and what we are doing. It’s also a collaboration with our community members, and I hope that by the time I need to retire or die that Grimalkin is in a solid financially sustainable place and continues to grow and evolve into something better and stronger in a continuous and ongoing process long after I’m gone.
I think between being a workhorse and being neurodivergent, I am laser focused on the work, which can sometimes be a hindrance to my personal life and my own music or personal goals outside of Grimalkin, but I get a ton of intrinsic reward and motivation from doing it. It is inspiring work and it challenges me to constantly want to be a better version of myself. I thrive from seeing other people achieve their goals and from facilitating that and collaborations that are happening between people in our community, especially creatively.
I’ve also poured a lot of my own money into this project initially, and far more of my time and labor, so I am invested in its success, and that takes a lot of hard work, dedication and persistence, but it also keeps me motivated to keep going!
Like any job, there are definitely a good number of things I don’t enjoy at all about the work, but they are necessary for us to be successful and that keeps me going. There is no such thing as a perfect job. That’s why it’s called work. While work can be fun and exciting, it isn’t always going to be fun, easy, exciting, or pleasant, but we also have steadily and continuously been moving forward and seeing that upward growth and trajectory motivates me to keep going even when it feels tough, exhausting or futile.
Working with the amazing people I work with in our collective, board and community is inspiring. Seeing how our work has actually made a difference and has had a positive impact on people’s lives is motivating. The faith and confidence that people, especially Eli and Carla, have in me and Grimalkin and the work that they contribute to this project has been critical to our success and keeps me grounded and motivated. Both Eli and Carla are great friends and advisors and they have pulled me back in a few times when I needed the help to keep going when times seemed dark and difficult.
Lastly, being able to facilitate and celebrate queer and trans joy on a daily basis is everything. The existence of Grimalkin and our growing community and the partnerships we are building with other organizations and communities is an ongoing act of defiance and resistance in the face of all the attacks we’re constantly facing. It’s also critically needed, not only within the LGBTQ+ community and Grimalkin’s community, but for our world. We are quite literally transforming our world.
Q Who are your favorite Queer and Trans artists that you think don’t get enough press?
Every one of our artists.
Check us out here, here, and here.
Q} if people want more info about you or the label where should they go?
Our website is amazing thanks to Eli. Check that out to learn more about everything we do. If you want to watch a 5 minute video to get a quick feel for who we are, check out this amazing video that Eli made for us.
Final four questions –we ask everybody
Q) When the zombies take over the world where will you be?
Probably exactly where I am now in rural Virginia. Hopefully sweet Death will have taken me before that happens.
Q ) What is your favorite Fandom
If I am being honest, it’s probably soaps and B movies, especially horror and sci-fi. I could list a bunch of far cooler and edgier things I enjoy, but I won’t.
Q) What piece of art, be it in the form of music, a book, a film or picture, do you think people must experience before they die?
Having an art and music background, I have a lot of favorite sculptors, painters, authors, filmmakers, musicians, and other types of artists, and I could mention one of their works, but I am going to instead say to experience a submersion in wilderness or nature. Backcountry camping. The experiences I had doing that in various places in California and Alaska were on another level. If that’s not possible or accessible, then regular camping or spending time in nature, but with the intention and experience of allowing yourself to take it in with all your senses, feelings, emotions, and body. It is a kind of spiritual and humbling experience, which grounds and centers you in a unique way, and if you can truly experience that kind of submersion, it is life changing, especially in terms of perspective both internally and externally, spiritually and physically.
Q) Give one fact that most people would not believe about you?
I’m not sure if this is hard to believe or surprising, but despite being a musician and performer and the community building work I do with Grimalkin, I am very much a homebody and love to spend time alone. Of course I also like spending time with my partner, and I’m grateful to have a partner who also enjoys time alone so it works for us. We both are people who need to have our alone time and space, and that’s something that I’ve found can be difficult to find in a partner from previous experience.
Photograph by Mx. Bex for Bandcamp