Four smiling people sit huddled together in a hug.

‘Keep being weird’: Emilee Petersmark finds truth in folk rock

The Crane Wives’ co-lead singer on how songwriting is helping her embrace her identity as a queer, Korean-born adoptee

Courtesy of Loren Johnson

Words by Winter Qiu

Sometimes a battle cry, sometimes a lament, The Crane Wives’ songs unapologetically encapsulate the rage of a person forced to stay hidden.

As an Asian youth in a conservative community in Michigan, the band’s co-lead singer Emilee Petersmark felt like the odd one out. The closest person nearby who shared her identity was her band teacher, whom she suspected was queer even though he never said as much. Petersmark recalled feeling the same pressure as her band teacher to stay hidden about her own queerness.

But her band teacher did come out, and so did she. Years later, microphone and guitar in hand, Petersmark makes the decision to stand under the dazzling stage lights where she is seen by all.

The Crane Wives is an indie folk rock band originating from Michigan, consisting of the members Emilee Petersmark, Kate Pillsbury, Dan Rickabus, and Ben Zito. Just as the pensive moon complements the smiling sun, their lyrics show a painful side of human nature that make the weary listener feel seen. If you are feeling afraid, filled with rage, and don’t know how to rest, this band is for you.

In preparation for their upcoming tour, I spoke with the band's co-lead singer Emilee Petersmark about her work as a songwriter and visual artist, her experience as a Korean American adoptee, and how the band found its current audience through an unexpected route: fanfiction.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Four people look towards the camera with their bodies facing to the left under blue lighting.

The Crane Wives: (from left to right) Ben Zito, Dan Rickabus, Emilee Petersmark, Kate Pillsbury.

Courtesy of Loren Johnson

Winter Qiu: What was it like growing up a queer Asian kid in Michigan?
Emilee Petersmark: A very loaded question. I feel like given the circumstances, it was actually pretty okay. I was lucky enough to be adopted in a community with other adoptees, which was really nice. My parents had a lot of intention making sure that I grew up with people who were having similar experiences.

Growing up in a pretty homogeneously white area, they made sure to try to find other Korean adoptees specifically, so that I wouldn't be completely isolated, which was really nice. That said, we still went to a Catholic church, and I feel like I was very much encouraged to assimilate in a way that I'm only now, over 30 years later, trying to undo.

WQ: I can't imagine it was easy to feel seen in a time where you not only look different from most of the people living there but also felt different for being queer.
EP: Exactly. I feel like so much of my life, I've tried really hard to be digestible for other people. Less visible and “good.” But the older I get, the more I realized that all of those were arbitrary things, and they didn't necessarily represent who I am. And it's very freeing. When I was younger, I didn't realize how many constraints were pushing me into this little box. And now that I have the opportunity to be with people who don't have the box, it's amazing to start stretching my limbs and standing up for the first time.

WQ: You're trying to reconnect to your Asian American culture. How's that journey been?
EP: Last year, I went to Korea for the first time, and that was an incredibly intense and moving experience. I've been digging into the latent trauma that comes with adoption and how that has informed my whole life in ways that I hadn't been able to really confront. Especially being raised by white people, there was this mistaken assumption that I would no longer be accepted by Asian people. I was told through my adoption agency that native Koreans would be very unwelcoming to an adoptee returning to Korea, but thankfully with my experience, that was not the case. A lot of people are very understanding and really welcoming. And it's been a really beautiful journey trying to reconnect.

WQ: I'm really glad to hear that! I know one of your songs, “Never Love an Anchor” was about your adoption and reconnecting with your heritage by inventing what your birth mother would have said to you. How was your experience writing that song?
EP: It was one of the first times that I ever really tried to confront or tap into that trauma for creative purposes. [With] adoptee trauma, there's this overarching gratitude narrative. Obviously, I love my parents and I'm happy with my life, but I feel like there's this assumption that you can’t also feel pain from that experience because you're supposed to be grateful.

This idea that I was loved from the beginning, which may or may not be true—that’s the sad thing about adoption—and I think the thing that creates the most lasting trauma is the fact that you're never going to know what the real story was. So it's been very helpful to invent my own story to make that whole thing feel a little less painful. So “Never Love an Anchor” was trying to give me the comfort of just knowing that I was loved.

WQ: What are some other favorite songs that you’ve written?
EP: Well, that's a really hard question. Like, “What are your favorite children?”

I'm working on this new record and it's supposed to come out later this summer. The first track on this record is called “Scars.” I like to call it a companion piece to “Never Love an Anchor.” It's taking a look at the same trauma less from a less fictional perspective and more, “Here's the reality of how that trauma affects me every day.” It feels like a big moment in terms of where I'm at as a songwriter, being able to talk about these things that, up until this point, had been really scary. I felt like there was a wall between me and these feelings, and now finally breaking down the wall and sharing it with people is really freeing and really exciting.

WQ: Was that song [“Scars”] influenced by your time in Korea?
EP: Quite a bit actually. I did a lot of self-reflection during and after that trip. And Korea is amazing. I don't think I was really prepared for how good it would feel to be a Korean person in Korea. It's not something that I've really thought about until it was happening to me and then you realize, “Oh, this has been missing this whole time.” And I really wanted to write a song that touched on how you can still have trauma without necessarily naming it or looking at it. It can still live inside of you. And yeah, therapy helps you deal with it in a healthy way, but it doesn't mean that it's not still there. A big part of Korea and returning to Korea has been allowing myself to hold space for that, and let it be what it is as opposed to trying to push it away with a metaphor or trying to distance myself from it. Just kind of leaning in [to it]. 

A folk rock band performs on stage under orange lighting.

Since their formation in 2010, they've toured endlessly, bringing their stunning performances all across the nation.

Courtesy of Loren Johnson

WQ: Hearing about your background gives me a lot of insight as to why The Crane Wives’ songs have such a strong feeling of catharsis and angry femininity. I'm wondering how coming from a background where you needed to suppress your identity has affected your music.
EP: I feel like it's our whole lives, having been squashed down, [a lifetime’s worth of suppressed emotion] just comes out so aggressive and angry. But I also feel very strongly that music is the appropriate place for those feelings. 

But it's been really wonderful to be able to have music as an outlet and to be able to use that to connect with other young queer people and fem [presenting] people specifically. I feel like society as a whole wants us to be quieter and smaller. And we are very fortunate to be able to use our music to flip that perspective off. It's been really wonderful to be able to connect with other people over that and I feel like so many fem people have that rage.

WQ: Fem people, trans people nonconforming people, minorities.
EP: People who society wants to put in a box.

WQ: When you started making music with The Crane Wives, was that the target demographic that you guys were going for?
EP: Honestly, when we started making music, it was just for us. I don't think that we ever had an intention of finding a queer audience specifically but it has been such a gift to have found them. It's like finding somebody who finally speaks your language.

WQ: When do you feel was the turning point that you started finding the community you have now?
EP: It was definitely 2020, ironically. We had started our hiatus in 2019. We had decided that we were going to pull back on touring a bit. We have been on the road at that point for eight years. And touring is exhausting. It's definitely not for everybody. But for a really long time, it was the only way for artists to make any kind of money. So for the majority of the year we'd be on the road.

A band performs at the left, while a crowd cheers at the right. Blue lighting illuminates the stage.

Contagious joy lights up the faces of the band members when they perform.

Courtesy of Loren Johnson

The pandemic hit and we kind of lost our way a little bit. I was diagnosed with a rare disease and was on immunosuppressants for some time so I was incapable of engaging with my community, which was really, really hard. But during that time, someone had made an animated music video [using our song “Curses”] for some fanfiction of a cartoon. And they had a million subscribers and that video blew up. And then ever since then, the YouTube algorithm has been subtly feeding our music to queer people and that's been amazing.

So it was during the pandemic, when ironically we're doing the least we could possibly do with music, that I feel like we actually found our community. And I think that so much of our music is about seeking that catharsis and because of that, we caught people at a time that was really tumultuous and uncertain and scary. And the catharsis felt extra good during that period. And that has been the best possible gift to be able to meet our people and see our people and feel seen and understood.

WQ: I'm wondering if you remember the name of the fandom?
EP: It was Hell Park, a South Park fanfiction. I think that the YouTube username is Extra Ballz with a Z, so it's a very unconventional story. [laughing]

WQ: I love unconventional stories.
EP: I used to write fanfiction back in the day. I was a huge—I am—a huge nerd. That is still true. I'm not engaged in a lot of these fandoms that our fans are but it is exciting to see them be passionate about the things that they love. And I feel very honored to be part of all of these animated music videos, and to know that our music is representing D&D characters and telling a story for somebody else. It's really, really cool.

WQ: How was the process of working between mediums in “The Well”?
EP: Oh I really love blending art and music. I’ve been a visual artist my whole life. Before I did music professionally I was a freelance artist, so I would do logos, and graphic design, and illustrations. I illustrated a couple of children’s books.

WQ: Which ones?
EP: (laughing) None that are well known. All that is to say, I love visual art as a medium, and to translate that into an animatic, that felt very natural. So much of music lends itself to art. I feel very lucky that my bandmates let me doodle all over our music. It’s been very cool to be able to express myself through these multiple outlets and try to tell the same stories in different ways.

WQ: To the non-conforming queer youth who are making these animatics, listening to your songs, being inspired by The Crane Wives, what would you like to tell them?
EP: Oh, goodness. Keep being weird. That's the best thing you could possibly do. I feel like it took me so long to embrace my weirdness. And now that I have, I'm so happy. I don't feel like I have to tell them this though. That's the beauty of the youth and especially queer youth. I feel so inspired by them because I don't feel like they're as afraid of being seen as different as I was when I was younger.

Keep being weird. That's the best thing you could possibly do. I feel like it took me so long to embrace my weirdness. And now that I have, I'm so happy.

Thanks to the Internet, queer people can find other queer people, even if there are no other visible queer people in their neighborhood. Because of that, I think that they're becoming more comfortable being themselves as they are. And that's incredible. I would love more of that if they would like to share that with me, that would be great. But yeah, I would just say keep doing that. Keep being weird. It's the best. Don't let anyone tell you how to be. There's no right way to do it. I'm so inspired by the kids.

WQ: What are you looking forward to on your upcoming tour?
EP: I'm really looking forward to playing to some more diverse communities on our upcoming tour. During our tour along the West Coast, I was blown away by how it felt to perform to an audience more representative of the Asian diaspora—being able to share music that reflects my feelings about my adoption trauma and disconnect from my heritage is such an incredible gift.

It's also been wonderful to go into these spaces and see that there are so many young AANPHI artists entering the scene. It makes me feel so honored to be part of making room for them in the music industry. I look up to artists like Mitski and Japanese Breakfast and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for elbowing their way into the room where mostly white artists have been recognized. It's so important to me to continue to make space for other queer BIPOC artists in the music community—there's room for all of us, and it's our turn to be recognized!

The Crane Wives will be touring in the United States beginning April 3, with a new album aimed to be released later this summer. Tickets for their tour are on sale now and can be purchased on their official website.

Published on March 28, 2024

Words by Winter Qiu

Winter Qiu is a first-generation Chinese American born in New York. When they're not playing board games or watching cartoons, they can be spotted in the wild with a cup of milk tea. They probably could've become a doctor like their parents wanted if they didn't like the creative arts so much, but then again, most likely not.