Becca Ryskalczyk and Christina Puerto share how they helped each other heal on the band’s sophomore effort.
It’s a new era for Bethlehem Steel, the raucous Brooklyn indie rock band led by vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Becca Ryskalczyk. Their self-titled sophomore record is their first to feature guitarist Christina Puerto, who joined the band as a touring member after 2017’s Party Naked Forever. Their collaborative efforts are to thank for the record’s unstoppable fierceness—but the two have forged a bond that’s more than just musical.
The pair became fast friends, finding solidarity in shared experiences of trauma. A lot of Bethlehem Steel is about “bad male relationships,” says Ryskalczyk, and “it feels good to write those songs with another woman in the band.” We spoke to Ryskalczyk and Puerto over the phone while they were enjoying a day off at Rockaway Beach. They told AdHoc about how writing the album helped them process these experiences, how they “help [each other] feel stronger,” and their ongoing series of self-directed shorts featuring nutcrackers.
How did you start working and writing together?
Becca Ryskalczyk: After the first record, we needed another guitar player, [and] I wanted to find someone who wanted to write. We had put out online that we were looking for someone, and [Christina] emailed me. We met up and played some pinball and had some beers at Milo’s Yard in Queens. She came to one of our practices and basically had all the songs down, which was incredibly impressive and insane.
We liked each other and became really close, really fast. The songs that we perform on the record we [each] wrote the skeleton of, and then we would work together to write secondary guitar parts and expand the song.
Christina Puerto: I was friends with Joe from Big Ups, so I followed Exploding in Sound and had heard [and seen] Bethlehem Steel before. When I saw the post, I was like, “I’ll just go for it”—which isn’t in my nature, so it was kind of weird that I just decided to do that on a whim. But I’m glad I did!
How has working together added to your songwriting?
Becca: [Christina] adds a nice flavor. [Laughs.] That sounds weird, but something good that was missing that I didn’t even know was missing. The darkness gets darker and the things that need to be lighter get lighter. It’s a good balance.
Christina: It’s been different in a few ways. By nature of spending a lot of time with somebody and playing music with them, you start to rub off on each other. The way I write and think about songs definitely changed. Also, just having somebody else to bounce ideas off of feels better than making all the decisions in your head.
What inspired the pool party concept for the “Bad Girl” video?
Christina: Becca directed it.
Becca: I had wanted to do a party video for a while, so that concept was brought into the video because the first half is pretty cheesy [and] instrumentally lighter, but the lyrics are still slightly heavy. I was sitting on the bus, [and] we had gotten the masters back to the record, and the idea for the second part just came into my head. I kept listening to the song over and over again and seeing this video, with the lighthearted beginning [that’s] kind of goofy and weird, [and] then [it goes] into just completely fucking with these guys.
Do you have experience in film?
Becca: No. I mean, I grew up making really stupid movies with my friends and taking a lot of pictures. But I like writing videos. I’ll just have an idea and [do] a second-by-second storyboard with all the shots, with embarrassing stick-figure drawings, and build off that.
Christina and I actually have a lot of really weird videos we started making with a bunch of nutcrackers. On New Year’s, we boxed them all up to put them away because nutcracker season had ended. There are seven of them. So [one of the videos] was just us boxing them up, and one of the nutcrackers lip-syncs the entirety of “The Heart of the Matter” by Don Henley while getting put away. Two of them are chefs. They have a restaurant opening. It’s pretty stupid.
Where did these nutcrackers come from?
Becca: I just find them. A couple of years ago, I found one playing at a DIY spot in New Haven. It was in a closet and I got excited. The guy running the spot was like, “Please take it; it’s so creepy. My boss gave it to me. I don’t want it.” And then I brought it on tour with us. We were just making them talk all the time and then started filming it.
“Bad Girl” was approved by your mom. Has she always been involved in your songwriting process?
Becca: Definitely not in the songwriting, because she doesn’t approve of the “loud music.” She’s like, “Just play quiet! Enunciate! Why do you have to scream?” But she’s always been incredibly supportive. When I was a teenager, she would take me to shows that I couldn’t get into, and the bands would always end up talking to her because she’d be drinking a vodka cranberry in a sassy dress in a corner. But I send her basically every song before it comes out, in a Voice Memo. The last record that we put out, a lot of it was about me processing some things that she was going through personally. Through that, we were able to move past a lot of tense things in our relationship, so it has also helped us.
How would you describe the themes of the new record?
Becca: A lot of it’s about bad male relationships and trying to let a lot of those things go and process them. [Trying to] appreciate the good men I do have in my life, like our other two bandmates who are incredibly supportive, while trying to let go of other people in my life who have made me not feel supported, whether in music or other parts of my life.
It feels good to write those songs with another woman in the band—[and see] the importance of having someone like that in your life. Sometimes in music or just growing up, [you’re] taught to think you need to compete with other women in order to survive. We’re at a point right now where a lot of women are like, “That’s fucked,” and are coming together more. So it feels great to have someone to share that with, and the artwork on the record shows that too, with the dual women: It’s a support system.
Christina: Mine are somewhat similar, but written a little earlier in the process—pre-letting go. They’re a little more angry, or less resolved. [But] I think the songs as they stand [are] kind of me letting go of a lot of angry things. Trying to figure out how to consolidate your thoughts from a lot of pages of writing into the lines of a song is a good process for me to think through things. Now they exist as snapshots of those times.
Did the two of you intend to explore similar themes?
Christina: It was mostly a coincidence, but then we leaned into it. We both had separate things we were dealing with, but having somebody to talk through those things made me feel compelled to write and process. Every week after [band practice], we’d have beers and talk for hours and hours at her house.
Can you tell me more about the cover art?
Christina: Nicole Rifkin designed the cover, and she had been doing a lot of different mockups for us. We had a whole meeting with her and were centered on the idea of having two women in it, one way or another. This was one of the ones that jumped out to both of us immediately. I’m still not entirely sure why we were both like, “Yes!” From that point on, it was just a matter of figuring out the color scheme.
Becca: We wanted it to be all one color and wanted to see it in all red, because it feels like a theme of the record—with the darkness, and [that] it could be the color of love, or blood.
How do the two of you support each other?
Becca: We have a quickly formed, strong bond because of some similarities and also differences in the way we operate, which I think is helpful. I’m someone who overthinks a lot of things, whereas Christina is someone who is more straightforward and thinks logically and can say what she’s thinking easily. Being around that energy helps me feel stronger.
Christina: The flip side of that is, being a logical, straightforward person, you can end up being a little too serious. Becca is not like that at all, so she helps me take things less seriously. There’s a lot of similarities and things we have in common, but then the differences are what makes it special.
A lot of the record is about processing other people’s bad behavior, but “Bad Girl” is about having worries about your own behavior. How do you move forward from that?
Becca: I’m trying to work on that. All the things I think about are things that aren’t actually real. I just have a lot of anxiety about letting other people down. I’m just in my head and thinking, “Oh no, I couldn’t make it to this thing; I’m a terrible person,” and [then I] stay up all night thinking about that. I usually will go to Christina, or my partner, and ask them a million times, “Am I a bad person?” And no matter what anyone says, I’ll still stay up all night thinking about it.
Trying to write things out more [and] journal every negative thought as much as possible [does] bring clarity to it. It has to come from within you, which is part of what “Gov’t Cheese” is about: trying to take care of your own thoughts, and not thinking that taking care of yourself is being selfish, but something that everyone needs to be doing.
What helps you decide when you need to take care of yourself and when you need to reach out?
Becca: Turning off your phone at night and first thing in the morning [helps]—just being with yourself a little bit, first and last thing, instead of jumping directly into answering emails or talking to people. Setting yourself up to be able to rest, or be able to start your day not in an anxious state or thinking negatively. [But] I don’t really know—I’m still figuring it out.
What do you want your listeners to take away from the record?
Becca: Processing and feeling things is good. The only way I can process something is by writing about it and making something out of it. I hope that hearing it, people [will] feel like it’s OK to feel dark things and sadness and know that there are things they could do to try to get out of it.
Christina: We wrote these songs as something we needed to do for ourselves, [but] if it makes someone feel better to relate to those experiences and helps them process and get through, that would be great.