In Paolina Massaro’s experience, singing has been the only role women have been allowed to play in rock bands without raising eyebrows. As a lead vocalist herself for Charlotte-based hard rock band Reason|Define, Massaro says she’s overjoyed to see an increasing focus on woman bassists, guitarists and drummers.
“It’s cool to see women playing instruments in bands in such a male-dominated industry,” Massaro says. “It shouldn’t be surprising when a girl walks up on stage with her giant bass cabinet and Marshall stacks, but it is.”
For their part, Reason|Define — comprised of Massaro, bassist Caitlin Rutkowski, guitarists Savannah Ruff and Shelby McVicker, and drummer Sydney McVicker — are upending the status quo in the rock ‘n’ roll boys’ club with their dynamic hard-charging rock. The band takes the stage at The Milestone Club on Nov. 23 as part of Welcome to the Family Fest, a three-day music festival hosted by the Alt Talks Podcast aimed at building connections in the local rock scene.
With their energetic 2017 debut album Far From Strangers, Reason|Define took on multiple styles of muscular and melodic rock and made them their own. In 2018, the five-piece dropped a one-off cover of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” which bristles with buzz-saw power and bite while retaining the original’s ramshackle sense of swing.
But it’s the band’s latest album that’s garnered a growing tsunami of buzz, hinting how the quintet may be the next big thing to break out from Charlotte.
Released last March, In Memory… is a quantum leap past the band’s considerable accomplishments, an introspective soul-searching collection that concentrates on the deeply personal and sometimes painful issues confronting contemporary women, which then catapults past considerations of gender and demographics to the universal.
Paolina’s mother, Kelly Massaro, says it was clear from an early age that her daughter had an advanced musical mind.
“When my daughter was growing up, I realized she was an old soul,” Kelly says. “When the other kids were listening to pop, she was rocking out to Led Zeppelin and Queen.”
Kelly says Paolina started singing at 7 years old, before joining chorus in middle and high school and trying out for showcase TV shows like The Voice and American Idol, where she almost made it to the finals.
According to Paolina, now 24, she took up guitar at 15 years old. She started with lessons from Connie Cooper, owner and director of Ballantyne & Indian Land Studios at Ballantyne School of Music. Cooper told Massaro that vocalists were needed for the school’s Jam Sessions.
“I joined for fun and that’s when I realized I really enjoyed singing rock music,” Massaro remembers. It was through those sessions that Massaro met future Reason|Define bassist and backing vocalist Caitlin Rutkowski.
“My dad played guitar and piano and sang, and he was into rock classics like Eton John, Billy Joel and The Beatles,” Rutkowski says. “He got me into music.”
Rutkowski developed a taste for heavier rock and, after learning guitar, gravitated toward the bass. “I always enjoyed the lower register,” she continues. “I like the mix between melody and rhythm that you get with a bass. It’s so important for the groove of the song.”
When Massaro started taking lessons at Ballantyne School of Music, she expressed an interest in forming an all-women rock band, but it wasn’t until she turned 18 that Cooper told her the school finally had enough females to fill the bill. Massaro already knew Rutkowski and Ruff, so the trio recruited sisters Shelby and Sydney McVicker, who play guitar and drums, respectively.
The band was supposed to be a single-session, one-and-done thing, but the players clicked and, starting in 2013, decided to continue playing rock ‘n’ roll. As the band developed their sound, they discovered that their varying musical backgrounds were a source of strength.
“One of the things that keeps our sound fresh and different is that we all are into different types of music,” Rutkowski says. “It gives us a good diversity in our songs.”
After winning Best Rock Band of the Year at the 2016 Carolina Music Awards, Reason|Define started pulling material together for their debut album, which dropped in March 2017. Looking back on Far From Strangers now, Massaro and Rutkowski agree that it took a while to get everyone’s backgrounds and preferences to mesh.
Still fresh out of the gate, the band realized that they didn’t really know each other yet.
“When we realized we were going to be doing this band thing [and that] we were going to make it real instead of something temporary, we started pulling stuff we’d already written out of our arsenals,” Massaro explains.
Given the speed bumps the nascent band encountered, the tunes they hammered out are surprisingly strong. Leathery guitar riffs snake around jack-hammer drums and Massaro’s powerful belting croon on “Kingdom,” which is accompanied by a video depicting the band cavorting on a playground complete with an inflatable bounce house.
“Start Me Over” boasts a spiraling lead guitar that coils and cradles charging, chugging riffs, while Massaro’s modulated emotional vocals cut through the textured roar. Despite these highlights, the writing process was disconnected and not as collaborative as later band efforts, Rutkowski admits.
“If you know the order that we wrote these songs, it’s obvious that we found a way to mesh all of our styles together,” she continues. “[Now] we all have our own voices individually but still sound like we’re one.”
For this reason, Massaro feels the album title Far From Strangers is spot on.
“We started out [the album] being strangers, and by the end we were far from it,” Massaro says.
“We’re real frigging close now,” Rutkowski continues with a laugh.
Nowadays, the band’s writing process is far more cohesive, but still different from what many people would expect from a quintet fronted by a fearless outspoken front woman, Massaro says. People think she’s the sole writer of lyrics but she’s not. Other band members contribute just as much as Massaro.
“If there’s something anyone needs to get off their chest, we’ll take those words and make them into a song,” Massaro says.
“It’s not one thing or one person’s voice,” Rutkowski continues. “It’s all five of us speaking through the words and the music.”
This culmination of sympathetic viewpoints and experiences has resulted in Reason|Define’s most mature and incisive vision to date. While In Memory… looks forward to a day when universal empowerment is a given, it’s also something of a throwback to the 1970s golden age of progressive hard rock.
It’s a concept album that revolves around the groundbreaking work of psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her examination of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s a testament to the band’s strengths that this heady, heavy concept can also rock out.
“In the past few years, we’ve all experienced a lot of loss, whether it be family members, friendships or significant others,” Massaro explains. “As we started to write we realized there was a lot of stuff we wanted to get off our chests that we weren’t able to do otherwise.”
The concept for In Memory… came to fruition when Rutkowski’s father, Tim Cassell, died.
“The girls were all there with me at the hospital when the shit was hitting the fan,” Rutkowski remembers. “Not only did it bring us closer, but I think it also informed a lot of our creative process going forward.”
More than mere catharsis, Rutkowski feels that recording the album enabled her to walk through the process of grief and to figure out how to be a better version of herself through all of the craziness that was converging in her life.
Standouts from the album include “Mirrors,” a song that illuminates the depression stage of Kubler-Ross’s continuum. In the accompanying performance-based video, Massaro resembles a classic torch song chanteuse as she essays the soaring ballad over plaintive piano accompaniment by the online Berklee College-trained former child prodigy Sydney McVicker.
The tune confronts hitting the lowest low and not knowing who you are anymore before embracing the realization that the only person who can pull yourself out of a hole is you, Massaro says. This paean to personal agency has struck a chord, she continues.
“That’s the song where we have the most people coming up to us and [saying], ‘Thank you. You’ve helped me so much.’”
“Pointing Fingers” is another song from the collection that pulls no punches. As a steamroller rhythm section holds down the low end, bright keyboards and herky-jerky guitars hover over the top while Massaro channels some elemental power to deliver fervent support of the #MeToo movement.
“That’s a heavy one for us,” Massaro says. “It’s absolutely about some of our experiences with sexual harassment.”
According to Rutkowski, the blistering rocker ties in with Kubler-Ross’s examination of grief because it deals with loss.
“It’s about the loss of your own voice in a crowd or in society,” she explains.
Given Reason|Define’s focus on individual empowerment, is it fair to say that they’re a feminist band? Yes and no, Massaro and Rutkowski agree.
“We’re feminists as people, but it’s a quiet thing,” Massaro says. “We’re not shouting feminism from the rooftops.”
“It’s not like we’re doing, ‘Fuck the Patriarchy!’” Rutkowski adds. “[But] we write what we want to write about.”
One subject the band does not shy away from is support for their fellow female musicians and enthusiasm for more women in rock. Rutkowski shares a distinctive memory from the band’s recent tour: At a stop in Florida, Reason|Define shared a stage with Parallel Motion, an all-male combo, save for a badass female bassist.
“She just got up there and didn’t give a shit,” Rutkowski says. “It was so empowering to see her up there. I hope that eventually it won’t be quite so rare to see more females at shows.”
A recent gig in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, featured two other female fronted-bands, Flying Jacob and After the Broken, Massaro says. The women in each band told Massaro that they seldom played shows with other women and that it was exciting to see their rock ‘n’ roll sisterhood in the lineup. “It’s cool to have that kind of camaraderie with other female musicians,” Massaro concludes.
Rutkowski maintains she finds more female musicians in Charlotte than elsewhere. She’s baffled that among the states Reason|Define has toured, an itinerary that includes 13 states from Florida to Indiana, there are few females visible in the music scene. But she holds out hope.
“Everywhere females are becoming more prominent in the music scene,” Rutkowski says, optimistically.
With perseverance, talent and a little luck, Reason|Define could be on the cusp of a scenario not seen since the protest era of the 1960s — a time when rock music will become the soundtrack for social change.
“My father always said, ‘Use your power for good,’” Kelly Massaro remembers.
She says she thinks about that often when she looks at the young women in her daughter’s band. “Each of them have brought their stories to their music, and they want to use their powers for good,” Kelly continues. “Their goal in life is to help somebody through their music.”
“We’re out here using our voice and our platform to speak out about what we believe in and release all these pent-up emotions we have,” Paolina says.
“In a healthy way,” Rutkowski interjects.
“In a healthy way,” Massaro echoes. “It’s not just about empowering women. It’s about empowering everybody,” she continues. “We’re doing our own thing and inspiring people to do their own thing with confidence.”