She Comes Home

Singer Tina Gassen, of hip hop duo God-Des & She, talks about the highs and lows of the music business, family, heartbreak, and the journey that eventually led her home to Madison

Idyllic upbringing

I was born on an Air Force base in Washington State and returned to Madison when I was a baby. I think I was around five when I started telling everyone I was going to be a singer. You would only have to know me for seven minutes before that would fly out of my mouth.

Growing up on the East side of Madison in the seventies was magical. Our family was the true definition of middle class before “The Gipper” fucked my life up with Reaganomics. My dad worked at Sub Zero and my mom managed a grocery store. My mom worked nights so I spent a lot of time with my pops. He was the cool dad on the block. All the kids would always play outside in front of my house because, invariably, my dad would be listening to really loud rock and roll. I got my love for music from my dad, for sure.

In high school I joined a youth group called Young Life. Although it was a Christian organization, there wasn’t much negative pressure to commit to the religious philosophy. We had a “club” every Monday night where we would sing songs (contemporary and Christian), play games, and at the end one of the “leaders” would get up and tell a story about their life and relate it directly to the Bible. It amazed me to see adults be vulnerable and honest. In any event, it kept me out of trouble all during high school. I went on to become a “leader” myself. That’s where I met Brian.

Brian was lead guitar player in the Madison band Marques Bovre and the Evil Twins. They had a huge following in Madison in the nineties. Basically, Marques Bovre was my Bob Dylan. He was such an amazing storyteller and writer that it made me almost angry. Brian always encouraged me in my singing and invited me to sing on some MBET records. This was my first taste of being a “real” musician, and it was like coming home. Marques passed last year due to cancer. I was lucky enough to put some vocals down on the last record he put out, which meant a lot to me.

An end, a beginning

I remember one day in high school Brian asked me to go get lunch with him. I sat across from him eating pizza when he told me he was gay. I was like, “Phew, I thought I was in trouble or something.” He got so serious. I was like, “Yeah? OK.” What I didn’t know is that he was about to come out to everyone and everything would change. After Brian came out, he was fired from the church. He had to stop working for Young Life because the church donated the time to YL, but they paid his salary. It broke my heart to see someone who clearly loved God and loved us be cast out. He was also the guitar player for our Monday night clubs, so the music would be gone too. This was the nineties, remember, and it wasn’t at all weird for that kind of thing to happen. Young Life was really important to me, so I decided I would learn how to play guitar so the music wouldn’t be gone. I learned from the back of a Young Life song book. Song by song, chord by chord—and boy did I suck. Then as soon as I learned three chords I started writing my own songs—and boy did they suck.

So that’s how I became a songwriter. Marques Bovre’s amazing lyrics that pissed me off and my friend Brian coming out as gay. After I wrote a bunch of songs, I decided I needed to put a band together, which is how I started Doll. We went on to play many shows in Madison. It was at one of those shows that I met God-Des.

Both our bands were playing a benefit for the National Organization of Women (NOW). Her male singer Wanda was leaving to go to grad school for opera in Boston. She approached me about doing a few songs with her. I never thought I would ever, EVER be in a rap group. But if you’ve met God-Des, you would know that she is the pushiest lesbian around. So as a lark and a “side project” I started writing hooks for her—and boy did they suck. So much so that the boys who were making beats for us told me that I shouldn’t do hip hop. That’s all I needed to want to get real good at writing hooks. Said boys have since apologized. Haters fuel me; what can I say? They certainly will never break me, so why not use them to my advantage?

Pretty much right away, God-Des & She started to get press and gigs. I remember the first time I got flown out to do a show.

I called my Dad and was all, “Dad, someone bought me a plane ticket to San Francisco to play a show!”

And he literally said, “No they didn’t.”

But they did. We got picked up at the airport city bus–style and slept on an air mattress, but I could not have been more excited. We played a music festival called “Peace Out West.” It was the first time we had been around so many other queer rappers. We all thought we were the only ones! How amazing it was to find out we weren’t. I’m still friends with a lot of those people to this day.

Loss and the big city

I lost my mom in 2001. It was sudden and shocking. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. I couldn’t even write music anymore. I wasn’t too sad to write; it was that I was just totally numb. I knew I needed to take a big risk and make a huge change.

I moved to New York City. Really, I never would have, but again with God-Des being the pushiest lezzie ever, I went to NYC with only $1,500 bucks like an idiot. That quickly ran out, and I was having a hard time finding a job because I was super depressed about my mom’s death and super freaked out and overwhelmed by New York. I was living with my best friend and quickly overstaying my welcome. So I decided to go back to Madison for the summer, earn some money, and then go back knowing what I had gotten myself into.

New York City was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. It taught me to hustle. I quickly lost the enormous amount of entitlement I didn’t even know I had. I got stronger. The saying “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” is real—SO real. I learned many lessons. So many stereotypes were broken. I found out what I was made of. I’m so grateful to God-Des for being pushy. Sometimes that’s all you need. I learned that I am always going to be afraid. If you wait for fear to leave, you will be waiting forever. It wasn’t until I shook fear’s hand that his smile begin to fade.

I worked a variety of jobs in NYC, mostly waiting tables. My last job before we got on The L Word was slicing meat at an Italian deli in Queens called Rosario’s. I bullshitted my way into that job because it was two blocks from my house, and I was tired of taking the train to work. It was one of the best days of my life when I went in to tell him I was quitting to become a rockstar. I bought his fresh mozzarella that day and drank a bottle of champagne.

Living the dream

The L Word was super surreal. They flew us first class. It was most definitely the fanciest thing I had ever done. We stayed at the Whistler resort in Vancouver, Canada. It was all so dreamy. The day after the episode aired we had over 200 requests for shows in our inbox. It was like a dream come true. We were flying all over the country, finally getting paid, and loving every minute of it. We rode that wave for two years.

An appearance on a hit TV show can do a lot for you, but that kind of “fame” doesn’t last. So we started to build God-Des & She like a business, growing our fan base by touring almost nonstop for eight years. We stayed after every show, every time, to take pictures and sign merch. We have given thousands of hugs, signed hundreds of boobs, and touched a million hearts. We love our fans, and they know it. They are WHY we get to live our dream and no record company can take that away because WE did that. It’s the connection we made and continue to make at every show. It was always my goal to inspire. I get emails from fans all the time that have me in tears and let me know that I’m on the right track.

I lived in NYC for about six years. I was making money as a musician for the first time but just really getting by because New York was so expensive. It wasn’t just the expense that was hard though; it was also quite lonely. You create community at your job. I was on the road most of the time. When I was home I was so tired, I didn’t want to go out to bars or clubs. That’s where I worked when I was touring and the last place I wanted to be when I wasn’t. I wanted to slow down a bit. Maybe even be able to save some money. So we decided to move to Austin, Texas.

Austin is like New York and Madison had a baby and named her Austin. I lived there for four years, and the first year it was over 100 degrees for something like 45 days straight. I could not believe it. How do people live like that? I’m sure they think the same of our winters. It was hard for this Nordic girl. Austin, however, is a great town with an amazing music scene. Live music capital of the world. We were officially accepted to SXSW every year. We had the opportunity to play with some greats like Rakim, Public Enemy, Questlove, and more. Plus, it was just a really chill place to live. It was nice to have a little security.

Coming home

Last June God-Des and I were coming to Madison to write our sixth record. I was excited to hang out with my dad. He was doing so great. He had lost a bunch of weight with his friends at work. He was happy for the first time in a while. I was so excited to hang out with “happy dad.” It took him a long, long time to get over my mom’s death, but I felt like he finally was okay again.

I put my stuff in storage and was loading up my car in Texas when my dad called to tell me he had cancer. I cried the whole drive home, which took three days because we had to go play a show in Knoxville, Tennessee, before heading to Wisconsin. I got to Madison and just spent every day I wasn’t on tour with him. We went on three trips: Vegas (on his birthday), New Orleans, and Chicago. We cooked together and laughed a lot. He told me stories about my family I had never heard before, and a lot of things became clear. It was such a special time, and I’m so very grateful I have the kind of job that allowed me to be with him. He passed away on November 19, 2013. I miss him so much every single day.

This leads me to where I’m at now. It was a long, hard, COLD winter, right? I did a lot of grieving. I’m finally starting to write and process it all. I’m working on a solo record now. The first song I wrote after my dad’s passing is a narrative in his voice called “Working the Line,” and I’m very proud of it. I think he would be too. I hope to have my record done by the fall, and I will do some solo touring to support its release. I’m excited to show you all my heart. The other thing I’m doing in Madison in partnership with Sarah Hagedon is creating a queer women’s night called “She Said Party” at Plan B (facebook.com/shesaidparty). We have hot lady bartenders, amateur go-go dancing contests, lube wrestling, and more. No better way to spend a Friday night.

Madison is my home town, and I love it. I’m happy to be here healing up my broken heart. I’ve changed so much in the ten years I was gone. I really like who I turned into. I really like being here as I am now, remembering how far I’ve come. I like being reminded of the five-year-old who knew she was going to be a singer. There truly is no place like home.