On February 4, Alexis Krauss was scaling a limestone crag at Reimers Ranch just outside of Austin, Texas. The night before, she’d played an ear-splitting sold-out show at the Mohawk. This is all a fairly typical routine for the tattoo-clad, raven-haired singer: Krauss is an avid rock climber, a registered hiking guide, and — along with guitarist Derek Miller — one half of the noise pop duo Sleigh Bells, currently on tour to promote their recent politically charged album, Kid Kruschev. “I wasn’t at my strongest,” says Krauss about this particular climb. “But it felt amazing to be out in the sunshine and to be moving and feeling rock again. I get the same type of high from performing as I get from climbing.”
Before Sleigh Bells burst onto the scene in 2010, with the sugary hooks and pulverizing riffs of their hard-hitting debut album, Treats, Krauss participated in the Teach for America program in the South Bronx, where she taught fourth grade in both English and Spanish. Sleigh Bells were something of a fluke — in 2008 Krauss was eating with her mom at Miss Favela in Williamsburg, where Miller was waiting tables. When Mrs. Krauss learned about Miller’s quest to find a female vocalist for a spot on his demos, she promptly volunteered her daughter. It was a classic rock ’n’ roll meet-cute.
But while Sleigh Bells would go on to release six albums and play for millions of fans around the world, Krauss never lost her passion for teaching, or the love for the outdoors she developed growing up in Manasquan, New Jersey. Recently, however, Krauss had managed to connect her various passions. She leads multi-day hiking trips in the New Hampshire’s White Mountains with Discover Outdoors. She spearheaded a program called Young Women Who Crush at the Cliffs climbing gym in Long Island City. And last month she released the protest song “Our Land” to raise awareness of our federal land, and to benefit Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. Krauss may look like the archetype of a 21st-century indie rock singer — more Bushwick dive bar than 5.8 rock-face in the Gunks — but she recently moved upstate to the Catskills, and she has a new appreciation for bringing the outdoors to New York City public school kids.
“I do a lot of work with kids and especially girls — empowering girls to learn how to rock climb and learn how to be brave,” she says. “I’ve seen firsthand how transformative nature can be for people, not just as a healing source, but as a source of tremendous empowerment and confidence.”
As an environmentalist and lover of national parks, Krauss was deeply upset when President Trump signed an unprecedented proclamation on December 4, 2017, that would reduce the size of two of Utah’s largest national monuments — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — by nearly 2 million acres. Krauss spends a lot of time in the southwest. It’s where she first learned to climb. Two days after the news broke, Krauss took to her bedroom and penned her aching sadness into “Our Land,” inspired by the federal government’s assault on national parks and a book she’d been reading — the idyllic Desert Solitaire by Edward Abby. The song is folksy and raw and filled with heart in Krauss’s lyrical call to action: “With the desert dust we rise/Keep this land alive.”
Krauss began to ask herself if there might be space for this song to motivate and inspire others, or raise money to support the cause, like an indie “We Are the World” aimed a little closer home. In mid December, she reached out to friends she calls “do-ers and change-makers” and her protest song turned into a full-fledged campaign. Krauss created the Our Land Collective with friend and collaborator Chris Vultaggio to bring awareness to the issue. “Suddenly we were on a plane going to Utah meeting with members of the Navajo Nation, the Ute Nation, and working with this organization called Utah Diné Bikéyah,” says Krauss. “They are really at the front lines of their preservation and conservation, especially through the lens of protecting sacred Native American land.”
She calls it “the most transformative week” of her life. Bears Ears National Monument is home to sprawling deserts, gorgeous mesas, and over 100,000 archaeological sites including cave dwellings of the ancient Puebloan people that date back at least 2,500 years. Krauss and Vultaggio spent time touring the vast, diverse landscape, while shooting the music video. “We got to see everything from sacred petroglyphs, and learn the stories of the pre-Columbian people who knew that land,” she says.
The struggle is about much more than protecting wild outdoor spaces and breathtaking views, although Bears Ears has many. “These lands are sacred not just because they are rich in archaeological heritage, but because they are a living, breathing landscape actively relied upon as a source for sustaining a way of life: food harvesting, medicine gathering, grazing, wood hauling, spiritual healing, and communing with ancestry,” Krauss said in a statement.
Proceeds from “Our Land” go to Utah Diné Bikéyah’s legal fight to reinstate protection for Bears Ears in its entirety, by means of suing the government for violating the Antiquities Act of 1906. “The irony of the situation is that Trump is all about taking the issues out of the government and returning them to the hands of the people,” says Krauss. “This is about the federal government and the interior department’s completely overstepping its bounds and undoing the work of these presidents that governed public land management [like] Theodore Roosevelt.”
Krauss’s powerful video for “Our Land” amplifies voices of protest, including the Native American peoples who are all too familiar with systematic abuse and exploitation, holding signs that say “Our Land.” All the while, Krauss sings: “We said no/What don’t you understand/Tried to dig so deep to find the heart of the man/But there’s no love there/And you’re not gonna steal our land.” It also features contributions from Karen O, Maggie Rogers, Edward Sharpe, Sunflower Bean, Josh Fox, Renan Ozturk, Hey Flash Foxy, and Robbie Bond of Kids Speak for Parks.
While the deep canyons and towering mesas of Bears Ears are at the forefront of the fight for public lands, Krauss hopes to use her music to save the wild spaces she’s felt calm and at home in since childhood. “People just aren’t aware of these issues. It’s not just about Bears Ears, it’s about the 27 other national monuments that are under threat,” Krauss says.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 26, 2018