Groupie is the explosive post-punk project of Ashley Kossakowski and Johanna Kenney. Like many good stories, the group formed on Craigslist, and has since evolved into a hard-working Brooklyn-based quartet with Aaron Silberstein on drums and Eamon Lebow on guitar. After harnessing their sound over two EPs, Groupie is about to introduce themselves to the world proper with the release of their debut album Ephemeral, due out later this year.
(Photo Credit: Jeanette D. Moses)
My mother recounts that when she first arrived in the States from communist Poland, she remembered everything about her old home, down to the trivial details like the cost of products at the grocery store, the long lines to buy bread, and the hoops she had to jump through to get her hands on something as simple as a pair of jeans. 40 years have passed since then and many of the details have since faded away, eroded by the forces of time and place. Even though she still talks to her mother for hours every day, she says sometimes it feels like talking to a stranger, with distance driving a wedge, forcing some things like expressing “I love you” to feel like a routine.
I wanted to write a song about distance — the distance I have always felt between fully understanding my heritage, knowing my grandparents and extended family, and comprehending my parents’ experiences and how those experiences impacted the way they raised me. “Daleko,” which means “far away” in Polish, became a song largely in Polish about separation and longing as a result of immigration, one that I knew I couldn’t write alone — so I co-wrote it with my mom.
My parents left behind a deteriorating economic state and oppressive government in Poland during the Cold War to move to Chicago in the early ‘80s, fleeing right before the enactment of martial law. My mom took a flight at the early age of 20 to a country that she had never been to before to join my dad, who had moved there a few months prior. They had to leave Poland before their wedding; whenever my dad talks about it, he laments the fact that “we even bought all the vodka!” In addition to the alcohol, they left behind their families, their language, and the culture they knew in search of a better life.
As is the case for many first-generation Americans, I have always felt a disconnect in fully understanding the culture of my family. I can never understand what it must have been like to be uprooted at a young age, or what it was like to learn English perched on top of a toilet like my dad had done during his first job in the States, first scrambling to clean all of the toilets in a building as fast as he could so that he could spend the remainder of his shift learning in secret. I had the immense privilege of going to college, something neither of my parents were able to do. And though I am very thankful that my parents were able to provide me with many privileges they didn’t have growing up, it means there is a distance in which I can never fully understand what they went through or the people they left behind.
I find it difficult for my relatives to know me too. It’s hard to describe daily life and culture to someone whose life is so starkly different in a language that is not fully your own… How do you explain grimy basement punk shows to very Catholic grandparents who live in a quiet home in Warsaw with no internet, just M Jak Miłość on TV? These feelings found their way into my verse of “Daleko” — “Czasami myśle, że nie wiem nic o twoim życiu, i tak samo ty o moim,” which translates to: “Sometimes I think I know nothing about your life, and you know nothing about mine.”
“Daleko” is the story of feeling distant from family — physically, emotionally, culturally. While my verse is clunky, reviewed for grammar and spelling multiple times by my mom (much like all of my homework in Polish school — and even still, one grammatical error made its way into the vocal take), my mom’s verse flows smoothly, in a way that is the perfect metaphor for the immigrant/first generation relationship to our home country.
Here is an excerpt of her verse:
Odległość, czas, tęsknota, zapomnienie
Taki jest człowiek,
że musi iść do przodu
a za chwile zapomnienie
nas zawsze musi dzielić?
Distance, time, longing, forgetfulness
This is how people are,
we must go forward
But after a moment, forgetting
Why the distance
must always divide us?
When arriving in a new country, people take different approaches to acclimating — some people want to cut themselves from their old lives because they are happy they are daleko, but others can’t help but look back. The song paints a somber picture of moving on. There is a long instrumental break in the middle, the spookiness and emptiness of that break symbolizing distance. A staccato bass line cuts through the break that I have often referred to as the “heartbeat bassline,” both reflective of how it sounds and what it symbolizes — a lifeline trying to maintain connections across time and place.
It feels all the more apt to be releasing this song in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, where the permanence of distance is claustrophobic and travel is not an option. My mom often talks about her mother, who now lives alone in Warsaw after my grandfather passed away last fall. While my grandfather was ill and in the time after he passed, my mom would spend long amounts of time in Poland. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, she has no idea when she will be able to see her mother again or if she can be there for her if something goes wrong, a pain that too many families have felt this quarantine.
When I asked my mom why she wanted to help me write this song, she emphasized the humanity of immigrants, remarking on the injustices that immigrants, especially immigrants of color, face while trying to achieve a better life: “I think the bottom line is, no matter if you are Spanish-speaking, Polish-speaking, and so on, no matter what country you come from, us immigrants have this feeling of sadness and longing that unites us. With everything going on in America right now, kids in detention centers and people getting deported, we need to stress how immigrants help make America beautiful, because we have to learn from each other and our cultures, you know?”
This song is dedicated to Stanisław Czarniecki, my grandfather, who passed away in Warsaw September 12, 2019.
(Photo Credit: Jeanette D. Moses; album art by Johanna Kenney)