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Gretchen Menn: Overachieving to Avoid Recreational Self-Loathing

Breedlove’s featured artist for February, Gretchen Menn, might be described this way: humble virtuosity. Her music is a constellation of dedicated practice, meticulous form, scrupulous perfectionism, creative ambition, and raw talent. Gretchen, however, would never describe herself that way. She’ll just tell you she’s lucky. And, in many ways, she is. Her day job—honoring Jimmy Page in the all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band Zepparella—pays for her groceries, allowing her solo projects complete creative freedom. Abandon All Hope, an instrumental concept album based on Dante’s Inferno, paints face melting guitar riffs onto a canvas of classical and orchestral composition. We stole a few minutes of her time to learn about her background, dream jobs, and how the fear of public embarrassment can drive exceptionalism.


Gretchen Menn on Her Musical Origins
My first instrument was the flute. The music teacher at my elementary school told a cautionary story about the flute being really difficult. And because I was feeling especially petulant that day, I decided I was going to play that instrument. I played for about three years, and then I went to a Joe Satriani show with my dad. Eric Johnson opened for him, and I heard “Cliffs of Dover.” I was like, “That’s it… I need to pick up that instrument.” 

Her Hesitation about a Music Career
I intended to get a responsible job after college because I knew music was a difficult way to make a living. I also noticed many musicians were completely jaded about music. While I wanted their skills, I didn’t want their attitudes. I decided to make decisions in furtherance of growing my love for music, learning more, and expanding creatively. I hoped that if I took the expectations of making money off the table, I could keep loving it and pay the rent some other way.

Getting and Giving Up Someone Else’s Dream Job
Because I graduated from college a year early, I felt like I owed myself another year of education. I assumed a relatively fun, interesting day job would help maintain the purity of my love of music. Turned out that flight school was about a year, if I worked hard, and about the same price as another year of college. So, I went to flight school, then right into flight instruction, and put in my resume to airlines as soon as I had the minimum hours. Mitch Hedberg has a great joke about baked potatoes: They take so long to cook that sometimes even if he doesn’t want a baked potato, he just puts one in the oven because by the time it’s ready, who knows? I didn’t expect to hear back for months, maybe longer, but I ended up getting a call the next week, and an interview a couple days later. I got hired at the interview. I figured, “I gotta give this a go. Even if I don’t want to stay at an airline, somebody’s going to pay me to learn how to fly a jet? Sign me up. That’ll be a more interesting chapter in my life than the time I didn’t do that.” 

Four months later, I was really bored. I stuck it out for about a year, and then it occurred to me that flying jets was not my dream. Music was. Moreover, I was occupying somebody else’s dream. So, I decided to step away and pursue my passion more directly.  

The Origins of Zepparella
I’d studied classical guitar in school, which I still love, but I wanted to play rock, and I wanted to play lead, and I wanted to force myself to learn stage presence. I met Clementine in the first professional band I played in, AC/DShe, an all-female AC/DC tribute band. We played in that project for about a year before we realized that we had different goals from some of the rest of the band. Clementine said to me, during a drive to a gig, that she had always wanted to learn the music of Led Zeppelin and was thinking of starting a band. She booked our first gig eight weeks later. I locked myself in my room and just learned Led Zeppelin songs like a maniac.

It’s wonderful, honoring Jimmy Page’s part of led Zeppelin’s music. Not only do I get to play heavy, iconic, in-your-face guitar riffs, but I get to play interesting modal solos. I get to play beautiful ballads, and heartfelt blues-based stuff, and gorgeous acoustic pieces. I have to play with a slide, and I have to beat the crap out of a Les Paul with a violin bow. It’s a guitar education with immense accountability, because I’m doing it on stage for fans. And it actually helps me buy my groceries. Isn’t that awesome?

Being Called an Overachiever
I’m not an overachiever. I’m incredibly lucky—lucky for the parents I have, the opportunities that have fallen in my lap. I didn’t graduate early from college because I was an overachiever. I was uncomfortable socially in high school and spent a lot of lunches studying in the library rather than dealing with social politics. I got advanced placement credits without really thinking what they meant, and started college with a year of credits. Yeah, I work hard, but I don’t minimize the advantages I’ve had. 

I get embarrassed easily—I always have—so going on stage and screwing something up probably upsets me more than somebody who doesn’t have that tendency. I prepare for things a lot and try not to botch opportunities given to me.

The Rock and Roll Lifestyle
I’m the most un-rock and roll person you’ve ever met. I’d be a huge disappointment for anybody who thinks that hanging with me is going to be a raging party. My dad’s a writer, my mom’s a psychologist, and my sister’s a doctor. None of them are heavy drinkers, and all of them can drink me under the table. I’ll enjoy an after-the-show drink with my friends or bandmates, but I’m very, very moderate. 

Deciding to Base an Album on a 14th Century Italian Epic Poem
Zepparella has become a fun day job that earns me the ability to do whatever the hell I want for my own music. Ultimately, we all have to decide what are we meant to be as artists, as humans. Until I embraced the direction for Abandon All Hope, I felt this duality between my two musical sides: the geeky side—my classical background, studying classical guitar, earning a degree in music—and my love of screaming electric guitar and more modern styles. I realized I don’t have to pick or apologize for either. Our contrasts make us interesting. 

I also love literature—I come from a family of writers and academics, and was raised reading Shakespeare and other classics. The idea behind a concept album based on Dante was not to be edgy or difficult. It was a genuine creative offering, a merging of influences. I inhale inspirations, and this is what comes out when I don’t have to edit myself with commercial aspirations. I’m not in danger of having a massive, commercially-successful album, and that’s never been my goal. 

Maybe Being an Overachiever After All
I enjoyed part one of the Dante journey so much, and I was having some postpartum album release depression. Then it hit me: The Divine Comedy! I have Purgatory! I have Paradise! 

I’ve been making good headway on the next album, which will be based on Purgatory [part two of Dante’s Divine Comedy]. It feels so right, because I’m not a dark person typically. Tapping into a darkness [for Abandon All Hope] in order to honestly portray Dante’s underworld was a little uncharacteristic, but it happened to coincide with a very difficult time in my own life, so it became an outlet. 

With Purgatory, I’m excited to explore material that may come a bit more naturally, and this pandemic has felt decidedly purgatorial. I am excited to write something unabashedly pretty for Paradise [part three of Dante’s Divine Comedy] when I get there. 

I certainly don’t make things easy for myself. I didn’t just decide to make a concept album…It had to be super long and really intense, and now there’s gotta be three of them. 

Maybe I am a bit of an overachiever.

Her Relationship with Guitars
I think my relationship with my instrument is as complex and as nuanced as my relationship with myself. The best moments express my higher self and allow growth—personally, musically, even spiritually—but it’s not an uncomplicated relationship. The lower self is always there, ready to jump in with ego or insecurity. As a guitar player, faced daily with amazing guitarists, it’s easy to succumb to negative self-talk. I really try to avoid recreational self-loathing, and yet discerning critique is essential for getting better. It’s a delicate balance. I do my best to see my guitar as an opportunity for growth rather than some cruel beast presenting insurmountable challenges. 

Though I primarily play electric—at least in public—these days, classical guitar was where I started. Playing acoustic takes away all the excess stuff. It’s just your hands, your ears, and the sound of the instrument. I love that. I really love that.

Why She Plays Breedloves
I play Breedlove guitars first and foremost because of the sound. They’re beautiful sounding instruments. Combine that with the mentality of the company—eco-conscious manufacturing, making guitars accessible to beginners as well as immaculate, top-shelf instruments for professionals—I love that they’re non-exclusive. I’m a pretty rational, science-based person, but I feel like Breedlove instruments have a spirit that somehow comes through. Maybe it’s the people who build them, and maybe it’s the forests from which they were harvested. They just have a wonderful feel, sound, and vibe.