Dispatch from Spain: Be Your Own Pet are back, baby

It’s a real pleasure to shine a spotlight on Nashville Artist of the Month Be Your Own Pet, a group that made a huge splash in indie-punk circles early this century and then disbanded within a couple of years, all before Music City was an “It City.” Living out of state at that time, I’d heard of BYOP but never got to see them live and figured I never would.

In early June this year, just a couple of days after the band announced the release of a new LP called Mommy — their first original music in 15 years — I got to chat with BYOP’s iconic frontwoman, Jemina Pearl, yet not here in town. Bizarrely, we Nashvillians convened 1:1 for the first time in Barcelona, in advance of the band’s set at Primavera Sound Festival. This was only the second Be Your Own Pet gig since the group reunited last year and opened for Jack White two dates on his Supply Chain Issues tour, an opportunity that pushed up their timeline for writing new material.

Before they even took the stage together again in Atlanta and Nashville in spring 2022, the buzz around the BYOP reunion was massive. On the sunny, coastal-breezy day at Primavera Sound 2023, I asked Pearl how it felt to be so demonstrably missed after all this time, and how the band responded to the hype around their comeback.

“It was surreal,” she said, “because I always kind of felt like in Nashville, people were kind of like, ‘Oh, Be Your Own Pet.'” [She mimicked a local music fan in a snarky, skeptical way, as if her nose was turned up.] “I didn’t feel like they loved us in Nashville. Especially being on the road, we were always trying to win people over because we were such a hype band that people would begrudgingly come to be like, ‘What’s this band’s deal?’ And then maybe we would shock them by actually being OK.” Pearl laughed.

Perhaps Be Your Own Pet’s reception in their hometown, when emerging as rowdy teens with their 2006 self-titled record, wasn’t as feel-good to the band at the time as Nashville locals might like to remember, with reverence and/or some old guard “you had to be there” bragging rights. But their impact was huge here and elsewhere, especially because of Pearl’s stage presence, which she now knows encouraged other female vocalists to do the thing.

“We were just at SXSW,” Pearl told me, “and I had all these women close to my age or maybe a little bit younger than me being like, ‘You’re the reason I started a band. You’re the reason that I now work in the music industry.’ And I can’t even describe what an honor that is to have someone tell you that. It made me realize, ‘Oh, I think we touched a lot more people with our band than we realized at the time.'”

In so many words, Pearl indicated that being a young woman in the music industry in the early 2000s was not always easy nor pretty. “I don’t want to say someone, like, forced us to play a show every night,” she clarified. “We wanted to tour. But I think when you’re young, the lines of consent are a little blurry.” Pearl’s departure from music was deliberate, so stepping back into this out-front role has taken a lot of discernment. But now, she says, making and playing music with Be Your Own Pet is fun again. “This is who I am. Being on stage is my favorite place to be.”

As I watched a mid-30s Jemina Pearl yelp and writhe around on stage in Spain, I couldn’t fathom that she’d ever taken time off — she’s a captivating, high-energy performer. Yet in the years since Be Your Own Pet’s 2008 break-up, the bandmates have all, indeed, grown up.

Pearl started a family with Ben Swank, co-owner and runner of Nashville-based label Third Man Records, which releases the aptly titled LP Mommy on August 25. On the album’s singles so far, the BYOP quartet seems older, wiser and (musically) tighter. But these songs prove they’re also still brash, boundary-pushing and super funny.

Guess I’m just a little bit jealous
It’s like they’re in high school

And that’s another thing, no one ever calls me
Is everyone hanging out without me?
What the f**k?!

I don’t want to be left behind
When everyone else is having a good time

Be Your Own Pet, “Goodtime!”

Pearl and Swank’s two children are elementary school-aged, and I asked the singer back in June what the kids think about all this, considering they’ve never seen their Mommy in quite this mode. She said they’re pretty “unfazed” by the name of the record and its contrasting cover imagery. They like to see her perform but don’t love that she’s been traveling. There’s the rub. “They’re like, ‘Mom’s going out of town? That’s what Dad does all the time! Mom’s the one who’s holding down the fort,'” Pearl said. “So it’s a lot of new territory for all of us.”

Pearl is hopeful the kids can tag along when Be Your Own Pet soon returns abroad for a “proper tour” in the U.K., where the band’s always had a fan base and where Third Man has a London outpost. After the European dates, BYOP plays a headlining hometown show at Third Man Nashville’s The Blue Room space on September 16, then jaunts across America for more celebrated, reunited rocking in October and November.