Christina Puerto Quit Her Day Job to Join Bethlehem Steel

The guitarist talks insecurity and the importance of playing music with other women.

When I was six, my little sister had her first dance recital. As she danced without a care in the world, I agonized in my seat. This was not because the performance was bad — it was a good preschool dance recital — but I was dealing with my inability to fathom a person’s willingness to perform in front of people. I was the type of kid who was incapable of eye contact, and would hide behind my mother’s legs in any room where there was someone I didn’t know, so as extreme as it sounds, even the empathic embarrassment was a lot for me to handle. I’ve worked through many of these anxieties since then, but until recently there’s remained a part of me that hesitates in the face of vulnerability. Getting to join Bethlehem Steel and spending the past year writing and performing with the band has allowed me to challenge some of the things I thought I knew about myself in ways I didn’t expect.

I got into music as an 11 year old after my older cousin introduced me to the world of late ‘90s/2000s pop punk. I immediately started playing guitar and it’s been a part of my life since. Many of my best high school and college friendships were rooted in a mutual love for music, and these have been almost exclusively with boys. I know my experience is not unique, but I found myself coping with this imbalance through competition, not with anyone in particular, more with myself to be seen as a good guitarist irrespective of my gender. As unfortunate as it is, I strived to play at a level where no one would be able to direct the cringe-y “really good for a girl” comment at me. On top of that, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of fronting a band, and felt there would be no room for me in any project unless I was able to keep up guitar-wise. These insecurities improved my playing, but made it that much harder to show emotional vulnerability.

Towards the end of college I took a break from playing and writing. I had a few really negative experiences with male friends that took the fun out of it, and I lost sight of how important it was to the core of my identity and self worth. I let my focus drift over to grad school, and a few years later ended up at an office job that I neither loved nor hated. By most standards I was doing “well,” but looking back on this time I realize how intensely the absence of creating was wearing on me, because it was what I’ve always turned to for comfort. I still feel regretful when I think about how I let someone else’s behavior get in the way of that.

Though I rarely played, I was listening to more music than ever to pass the time at work and to cope with the hollowness I felt. I got into a lot of the records Exploding In Sound was putting out, and the music some of my friends were making and this slowly fueled a second wind and inspired me to start creating with other people again. My partner, my cousin (the very one who kick-started my guitar playing), and I started a project, but with our full time jobs it was a purely-for-fun type of thing. We enjoyed practicing but didn’t play many shows. Also I never let myself finish most of the recordings we tried to make, and buried the vocals in the mix on the ones we did. I was still bogged down by those insecurities I hadn’t really dealt with.

Then last spring I was on the train home scrolling through Facebook and saw EIS had shared Bethlehem Steel/Becca’s open call for a guitarist. Normally reaching out cold would’ve been out of the question for me, but I was increasingly frustrated at my job and desperate for something new, also I had been feeling an absence because I realized the only music-based friendships I had were with males. So I somehow avoided chickening out, emailed that night and hoped for the best. A few days later we met over beers and had a fun time considering I was essentially being grilled. After learning a few songs and a trial practice, I was just part of the band. The welcoming energy Becca, Pat, and Jon showed was unlike any I’ve received and was really special. All of this made it really easy for me to finally quit my job — something I’d been talking about but not acting on for months — to be able to tour. I’m sure it seemed ridiculous to most people I knew at the time, but there was something compelling me and it didn’t even feel like a decision.

I remember one writing practice Becca and I had right after I joined. She had a new song for us to learn and showed me the chords while I figured out some second guitar parts — how I’d imagined the writing process would work. Then she told me she wanted to harmonize all of the vocals, which took me aback because we had never talked about me singing beyond back-up. I protested a little, still not really into the idea of singing more than the bare minimum, but she was insistent and a part of me must have wanted to do it I because I ended up giving in. This was not the last time this type of thing happened and it surprised me how easy it became to let go of preoccupations and anxieties. Equally surprising to me was the willingness with which Becca opened up her writing project to me, it’s not something that many people can do with such ease. I think it was the kind of thing where openness inspired openness, and created space for both of us to grow emotionally and musically. It’s a testament to the depth of the support and kindness that women can show each other. 

It’s been a year of change filled with countless hours of writing and practice, hundreds of voice memos, a lot of fun, but also sadness and discomfort, all of which are necessary for growth to occur. Becca and I have both been dealing with some painful things in our personal lives, along with the challenges and stresses that come with setting up your life to have the flexibility to tour. I’m really grateful for the friendship and support we’ve fostered, and that we’re able to lean on each other for help in working through these challenges and creating something meaningful to both of us.

If I were to look back on those early emails (which I actively avoid doing) it would seem bizarre, imagining a time when this wasn’t just how things are. That song we worked on at that first practice grew into a song on the new record, a record which also has a few songs that I wrote and sing. Contributing to that extent is truly something I couldn’t have expected of myself when we started out. At first it was me pushing myself (or being relentlessly dragged, however you want to look at it) out of my comfort zone, but through the openness and patience of my bandmates it transformed into confidence — “Oh, there’s an idea; yeah, of course we’re going to do this, let’s get to work.” This is the attitude we all embody now. The dynamic we’ve built as a band is really special, it’s a connection that comes from making something you care about with others. I’m proud of what we’ve made and excited for whatever comes next.

(Photo Credit: Edwina Hay)

Christina Puerto is a musician currently living in Jersey City. She plays guitar in the band Bethlehem Steel.

(Photo Credit: Edwina Hay)