Naomi Poesel is the lead guitarist for Babe Haven, an all-girl queer riot punk band. She recently moved to Durham, from Boone, N.C. During the day, she works as a behavioral technician with children who have autism.
We got to talk about music, food, activism, and how she finds community as a 24-year-old creative living in Durham.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
So you’ve described Babe Haven as being about music, but also being about activism and making space for marginalized people. For you personally, how does that kind of show up, that intersection of activism and music?
Before, Ashley, our previous bassist – she was also Asian, so before it was kind of like half the band was Asian, and that was kind of nice on my behalf. Just me being a little bit selfish, just wanting to see more representation, people like me. Then to kind of like, I don’t know, put more fuel to the fire of the anger I had in the music industry, until I came to Durham and played a show recently, I saw one other female Asian guitarist. Since then, I have not seen that.
And then, just the whole stereotype of like, “Oh, you’re a girl in a band, you can only play the bass, or like, the f–– keys.” So someone came up to me and was like, “Oh, the bass and the keys are the only instruments you could possibly play and stuff.” And I was like, “Okay, awesome.” And growing up, I never saw someone that looks like me doing the music that I really enjoyed. So I wanted to be that person and I didn’t want to be afraid, because I know in the Asian culture or community being more modest and soft spoken and polite is more like the way to go. So I feel like being very loud and chaotic and disruptive. And I feel like that’s how you get people’s attention.
I feel like you hear it all the time, but it’s like, yeah, you never see anyone who looks like you in those spaces. And I feel like sometimes it feels kind of passé to talk about, but it’s true.
Yeah, yeah it is.
You know I’ve got to talk about “Kung Pow.” Can I ask kind of about the feelings and process of writing that, and why you chose those words?
So for Asian American [Heritage] month, I wanted to make sure that song was released by then. It was actually a year prior to that, I was working on it and I first started more, very “oriental,” like a cleaner type of intro. I don’t know how to describe it – like “oriental” music that’s more [stereotypically Asian]. But I couldn’t figure out a way to translate it the way that I really wanted to. So then I just had to scratch that. And one of my biggest inspirations is Nirvana. I kind of wanted to go with a very simple, grungy punk chord progression. So it took me a while and I figured something out like that, and then I was like, “You know what? I have to sing about the Asian American experience.” I was like, okay, this is going to be, for us. For the people. This is going to be for my mom because she’s an immigrant from Thailand. And growing up, I just saw how she was treated by other people, kind of making fun of her accent.
I would hide my school lunches because I was so afraid of how it would smell and I would scarf it down really fast before anyone could even see what I was really eating. And just like, you know, just having a rounder face too, and having the chubbier cheeks and in middle school being nicknamed “Asian monkey” and all these things. So it’s like, you know, literally, f— you guys, like this is so f— annoying.
And the lyrics are not even that crazy. I started off with like “sawadee-ka,” which is like “hello, how are you” in Thai. And the “kung pow,” just more so like a play on words, but I kind of wanted to have that visual effect of just kind of like being pissed off and punching someone in the face.
Then “White is so boring, I wish I was foreign” – how many times have I heard that statement, especially from white people? And they’ll get like, the little “oriental” tattoos, and try to pick up some kind of Asian culture. And I’m like, you can have appreciation for it, sure, but there’s a lot more to it that you don’t quite understand. You know what I mean?
Every single time I do that song, I get off the stage for at least the ending, so that people feel the frustration, that’s the biggest thing. For me, emotion is so big of a deal. And I’m going to go deaf from it because – I don’t know if it’s my ADHD, my neurodivergence – but it’s like, if I hear the music, it needs to be loud, it needs to be prominent, it needs to be in my face and everyone else’s face. So once they get to the chaotic part, I go out around the mosh pit and just try to stir up what I feel inside. And I feel like that’s been the healthiest way to go about it, right? I don’t know, I can’t really paint, I can’t really draw and do all that kind of stuff, so being loud and proud has been my go-to.
Did you say you grew up in Florida? You came to Boone for college?
Yeah, so I was born in Georgia because my dad was in the military. And we moved, and he got stationed near Tampa, Florida, where I grew up until I was like, 14. I went to high school in Fayetteville, North Carolina, near the military base there. Then I went to college [in Boone] and then I lived there for about six years.
Can I ask a little bit about your relationship with Boone, N.C.?
So it was between UNC-Chapel Hill and App State for me. And just hands down, as soon as I walked onto [App State’s] campus, just the mountains in itself is hard to compete against. So that blew me away. I was just like, I need to be outside for aesthetic purposes, and just for mental health, the fact I could just escape and stare out into the mountains and be in a silent space was so huge and cool because I’ve never had that before. There’s just something so magical in these majestic old mountains that have been there for millions and billions of years.
So it’s hard because when I was there, I was grateful to experience it as what it was, and being a small town, and now it’s being gentrified and the football program is raking in all this money, and the athletic program – that’s how it always goes, and it’s so unfortunate to see that happen.
But then being there for a long time, I got exposed to this very DIY music scene community, which was amazing, and got me into who I am as a musician today. Also meeting the real true hippies in Boone – there’s people that go through their phase, like I did, with my tie-dye pants and listening to psych rock all the time. But then I met the actual community that’s right outside of the mountains that is just this holistic health, jam band kind of stuff, which is actually the reason why I became part of a band, because they gave me the power to be a musician and everything.
We started talking about how she went about finding community in Boone. We got to talking about the lack of authentic Asian food there, and how she had difficulty finding stores where she could get the ingredients to make the type of food that felt like home to her.
Did you ever get to make that kind of food?
Yeah, I eventually did. I got to the point in the last few years where I really honed in because I was feeling empty within myself and wanted to embrace who I was because I was going through this whole thing, and like, not feeling like I was pretty enough, and you know like something just felt like missing. And so I tried starting to learn the language, too, still only know a little bit. But I got the ingredients that I could, and I would make papaya salad, I would make sticky rice with all the different kinds of meats and stuff like that. Like pad kra pao, pad thai. Just a lot of things that my mom would make growing up.
If there was someone in a similar position, an Asian person or a queer person who’s living in a small town, what kind of advice would you give to them?
Well definitely, you’re not alone. Because there are definitely a lot more people there than you realize. There are groups that are through student organizations, but if you’re not a student, it’s like how do you meet people? I’m still currently trying to do that, but I feel like if you can find some kind of platform – or you need to start something yourself. I was sort of thinking that recently because I was looking on the internet literally yesterday, trying to find some kind of community, and the only thing that really came up, I noticed [NCAAT’s] website came up and stuff like that.
If you can find one other person so that you don’t feel so lonely, like do a little meet and greet, I don’t know, you’ve just got to find something. I don’t know, I still struggle with that. Just the best thing that I could tell someone like me is that there are people out there.
Most of the time, I feel like people want to be approached, you know what I mean? It’s scary because you think like, oh, I’m going to be a freak weirdo and be like, “Hey, do you want to be friends?” Unfortunately most of the time I do stay a little bit quiet, but I find my ways to kind of integrate myself in the conversation if I can. Yeah, but you’ve got to make a step forward; you’ve got to put yourself out there.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get more involved in activism or organizing? Is there something that’s been helpful for you to think about in your own journey?
I’d say it’s one thing to just repost things on your story. That’s kind of like the bare minimum I feel. Five dollars goes a long way, just doing what you can. I mean, if you can’t spend money, make signs, create a space. It doesn’t have to be a whole big thing, but it could just be a conversation just like you and me, just talking about the issue in itself. Yeah, just have a conversation.
I think that’s the best we can do with activism. Then by there, depending on what you’re surrounded with, you can only go up. Create your own group, create your own space. There’s community everywhere. You’ve just got to find the right ones or make your own. And I think that as long as you’re willing to do that, other people want to hear it, be a part of it too.
If someone’s first getting into Babe Haven, what’s the song that you recommend they listen to?
I think “Uppercut.” That’s the title track of our first whole album that we’ve released. And not just because it has the most streams. It’s not because it’s the first song that you hear on that album too, but it’s like, that song in itself is just about punching perverts in the face, essentially. It’s just about being women, being in any space that you’re in, being oppressed by men, being sexualized and all this stuff. It’s like we’re pissed off, and we’re not going to f—- take that s––. We will fight back. It starts off so dirty and low down and with Lillie’s screams, and especially at the end, it’s like, “I want some revenge in my city” and all this stuff.
I think it just encapsulates our energy as a whole.
What’s your favorite song to play on the guitar?
Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name,” that one’s been pretty fun to do. But my favorite song from Babe Haven, I’d have to say either “Kung Pow” – not just because I’m singing it, but it just means a whole lot more to me in a way. And like I said, I love to be out in the crowd too, and being chaotic and stuff. But then it’s [also] “Uppercut,” those two. It’s just something about that raw energy that just goes a lot harder.
Is there an artist you’re really enjoying right now that you want to share with other people?
I love Beabadoobee so, so much. It’s so funny because I have this soft girl side of me that’s like, huge. She’s been my top artist, and then with my other top artists being like Deftones and Nirvana. So it’s funny because people think I only draw inspiration from the heavier stuff, but it’s not true. If I can figure out a way to blend genres together, I would like to do that. So I would say Deftones is always up there with Beabadoobee and System of a Down.
A person can feel many feelings.
So many things.
Is there anything else you want to plug?
Yeah, we’ve been on two tours this year so far on the Northeast and then the Southeast. We just opened up for Matt and Kim that we just came back from. But over the springtime and March, we’re planning to go out west for the first time, so hitting Texas and all that. There’s the SXSW showcase that happens for artists. Yeah, we got a lot of new material.
Anything you learned from the past two tours?
Oh yeah, it’s such a stark contrast. The first tour we did was DIY. That was all us. The second time we were invited because Matt and Kim – they saw us – we played in Brooklyn and it was a last-minute show. There were only 25 in the crowd, and it was a day show at 4 p.m., and it just so happened they were there and invited us out on tour because they loved our image and what we stood for.
So the two things I learned from that, it was like you have to perform like it’s the last time you’re ever going to perform. You never know who’s going to be in the crowd, and who cares if there’s only five people. And it’s crazy because I feel more uncomfortable playing in front of five people than I do in front of hundreds. And I don’t know, you don’t have to be afraid of anything. You just do what you can do best.
And I think for any artist, you’re your own harshest critic. People love your stuff for a reason. Just stay true to yourself and do that, and the people that’ll like it will stick by you and support you.
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