Stephanie Rearick feels no need to draw distinctions between her art and her politics.
"I don't feel like anything is 'just musical,'" she says. "I don't feel like I can separate my music from anything in particular."
Maybe that's why Rearick is as well known for her community activism as she is for her musical accomplishments. She's a former co-chair of Progressive Dane and co-owner of the vegan-friendly Mother Fool's Coffeehouse on Williamson Street. She currently directs the Madison chapter of Time Banks, a nonprofit organization that promotes the direct exchange of labor in lieu of cash payment for services.
By her own account, Rearick is about to release her most "politically focused" album to date.
"With everything that's going on in the world right now," she says, "I wanted to make this for my own peace of mind."
Democracy will be officially released on May 31. It's Rearick's fourth solo studio album, complementing her involvement with the local bands Your Mom, the Your Mom SRO, the Coma Savants and recently the ManSisters (which reunites the original 1993-95 Your Mom lineup).
Like Elliott Smith, Rearick can take piano chords and turn them into a dream. Her mastery of the keyboard isn't just technical, it's emotional.
She conjures otherworldly feelings right from the start of Democracy. The opening track, "Flyboy," is pure childhood innocence, wrapped in the whirling excitement of carnival music.
From there the album gets edgy and nervous, referencing the macho arrogance of the president: "And if you had a market for a category hurricane, you'd rev up the motorcade and show 'em what you've got."
On "Birthright," Rearick openly confronts our collective acquiescence in a not-so-new world order:
"You taught your children to breathe free and now they're gasping/If they could get the air to speak they'd be asking/Where were you, when you knew?"
Red streaks of watercolor lie horizontally across the cover of Democracy. Painted by Rearick, they are abstractions - possibly the stripes of an American flag, possibly rows of blood trailing off into tiny crimson circles.
Against that background, three flowers frame the lower right-hand corner. Yellow and blue and purple, they are the "cosmos and asters" Rearick sings about on the disc's seventh track. "You know nothing," and "you're made of nothing," are the sparse lyrics of this one-and-a-half-minute song. The track begins curious and quizzical, like a Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown tune. Then it quickly cascades into an overflowing river of sound.
Rearick covers John Lennon's "Across the Universe," singing "nothing's gonna change your world." The recurring reference to "nothingness" is Rearick's ode to activism, the invisibly potent force that brings real democracy to the U.S.A.
Though Rearick says she only recently became comfortable referring to herself as an "activist," it was Greenpeace that brought her to Madison more than 15 years ago. She moved here in 1990 with her then boyfriend, Jon Hain. The couple met in Ohio in 1988, when they were both canvassing for Cincinnati Greenpeace. Rearick worked for the Madison Greenpeace chapter her first six years in town.
Rearick and Hain were married in 1992 and have shared a commitment to art and social justice ever since. They formed Your Mom in 1993 out of the basement of their East Wilson Street house. They became the owners of Mother Fool's in the summer of 1995. For nearly a decade, they've operated their own indie label, Uvulittle Records.
"Jon has played a huge role with my music," says Rearick. "He's the one that first got me in a band, and he still handles all the marketing of my records."
Democracy is good enough to stand in the company of the best independent music being made right now. By all measures, it deserves to find its way to Pitchfork and to Seattle's tastemaking KEXP radio.
Not that Rearick spends much time plotting a path of musical fame and fortune.
"I'm not aiming for mainstream success," she says. "And I don't think about how my music stacks up to other records. I just enjoy listening and enjoy recording."