At August's Unite for Justice rally against Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, San Francisco singer-producer Lapel stood in front of hundreds of demonstrators at San Francisco City Hall to perform her song "Less of a Woman." The elegant indie pop tune, with a big, soaring hook designed for singing along, offers an affirmation that Lapel never heard growing up, but wishes she had: that whatever choice a woman makes with her body is valid.
As Lapel took the stage, exhilarated, a group of older protesters took her by surprise. The women lined up in red robes and white bonnets from The Handmaid's Tale, the Margaret Atwood novel and Hulu series where female characters are reduced to birthing machines with no say over their own bodies. The robed women stood in front of the stage ominously, underscoring the rally's message that, with the newly seated Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, a woman's right to an abortion and affordable birth control is in jeopardy.
"It was really powerful. The mayor spoke. All these incredible people spoke," Lapel recalls, still breathless. "When your music can be combined with that, that's very, very special."
Lapel, aka Debbie Neigher, makes smart, subtle pop that is informed by her past as a social worker and present as a concerned citizen. Though her music fits just as comfortably at a music festival as does at a protest, she doesn't package it as a hipster-feminist soundtrack of the #resistance; instead, her warmth and genuine empathy are palpable in the lyrics.
Lapel's new, synth-driven indie pop album, Periphery, works like a conch shell: though pretty and delicate at first, a deeper listen reveals a howling wind of grief and rage. The Kavanaugh confirmation and its surrounding saga—Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's emotional testimony, the hasty FBI investigation, the female senators submitting their "yes" votes—is a recent source of Neigher's frustration. When she and I meet for coffee the Monday morning after Kavanaugh was confirmed, she says she's recovering from a stress-induced cold.
"I've been telling my friends the patriarchy crushed my immune system," she says. "I've been so angry for weeks."
Lapel's upcoming release show for Periphery, a Noise Pop production at San Francisco's Cafe Du Nord on Oct. 11, is one way she's taking action. Sales from her merch table benefit Planned Parenthood. The abortion rights advocacy organization NARAL will also have a table at the show informing concert-goers of volunteer opportunities.
Neigher's activist approach to her art stems, in part, from her previous career as an advocate for homeless youth. Upon moving to San Francisco after graduating from Tufts University in 2009, she became an employment counselor at Larkin Street Youth Services, where she also led art and music classes.
"It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life that I think totally rewired my brain," she says. "It taught me how to listen to people. And just like, the resilience and courage of these young people and to know that there's people like that all over the country is just—you know?"
Neigher left social work in 2013 to pursue music full time. She released two piano-driven solo albums under her full name and became a backing vocalist and keyboardist for a variety of local and national indie rock and pop artists, including Ezra Furman, Curls, The Family Crest, Andrew St. James, King Dream, The Sam Chase and the Untraditionals and Kendra McKinley.
Neigher, who is classically trained, says she gave herself a "no piano" rule for composing Periphery, her debut as Lapel. Though the album is a testament to her voice and vision, several collaborators helped her electropop compositions feel dynamic and alive. She enlisted Tiny Telephone Studios' Beau Sorenson, who has worked with Death Cab for Cutie, Tune-Yards and Superchunk, as a co-producer and "synth wizard." Jazz Mafia leader Adam Theis lent his expertise to the horn arrangements; KQED Women to Watch alum Minna Choi of Magik*Magik Orchestra composed gorgeous, sweeping string sections.
On Periphery, Neigher processes large-scale social issues, but the album delves into pockets of pain. Much of the album alludes to Neigher's high school boyfriend, who died of an overdose several years ago. The two had kept in touch; the last time they spoke, he asked Neigher for sheet music to one of her songs.
"The title Periphery has a few meanings, but one of them was that I felt like he and other people battling addiction kind of live on this periphery between life and death," she says. "[The album] kind of my own personal arc of healing and processing around his death."
On the thumping "Stop Opening the Door," danceable yet wistful, Lapel wrestles with haunting dreams that remind her of her ex. On "Fumes," she clings onto fading memories of him: "My memories spit out random pictures like a broken slot machine / Skinny wrists and spotted arms trying so hard to cover me."
As Periphery traverses personal and political topics, Neigher modulates her voice from quiet whispers to frustrated screams, making audible a quiet, private pain and transforming it into a collective catharsis.
Lapel performs at Cafe Du Nord on Oct. 11. Details here.