Interview with Musician, Artist, and Polymath Kimaya Diggs

By Deborah Krieger

When it comes to music and performance, Kimaya Diggs does it all—composing songs, playing guitar and piano and cello, crafting poetry, directing choirs, writing plays, singing songs in twenty-seven languages—and now she can add recording her debut album, Breastfed, to that hefty list. I first met Kimaya Diggs as a student at Swarthmore, where she graduated one year before I did; our first-ever conversation took place stuffed into the balcony of the college’s concert hall, with me recording and scribbling furiously as Kimaya discussed her approach to playing the iconic Bloody Mary in an upcoming concert staging of South Pacific. Needless to say, her thoughtful and nuanced understanding of the role came through on stage, capped off with her rich, warm vocals, making clear her natural affinity for performing and sharing her heart and soul with an audience. After graduating, Kimaya traveled the world with the Northern Harmony performance group. She has since settled down in Western Massachusetts, where she’s busy composing, performing, and teaching high-school students songs from a variety of global musical traditions, as well as placing the finishing touches on her record.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

How did you get started on your path to becoming a musician? Why music, as opposed to another art form?

I was lucky enough to grow up singing, and playing piano and cello, but I also loved performing in any way! Singing came very naturally to me, and because I have two younger sisters, we sang together all the time. To me, singing with someone is the best way to get to know them and maintain closeness with them, and it feels like a universally appealing storytelling medium. I also love singing because creating a sound with your voice feels like a form of intimacy with oneself. Second to singing, I love playing cello, because resting it on your chest is the next-best way to experience resonance. There’s something really special about being able to experience the movement of sound physically, firsthand or secondhand. 

What musicians, mentors, or teachers have influenced you? 

I’m lucky enough to have studied with Benita Valente for a summer, and learning from her was completely life-changing. Even at eighty-three years old, her voice has so much strength, and her technique is unmatched. Studying with her made me take my technique much more seriously, which set me up well for my second tour with Northern Harmony, the professional ensemble I traveled with performing and teaching international folk music. Switching gears among South African, Balkan, and Georgian music, to name a few, requires immense vocal stamina, and having classical technique to protect my voice was a huge help. I credit that technique to Benita and to another teacher of mine, Sally Wolf. 

Other musicians who inspire me daily are Corinne Bailey Rae, Lianne LaHavas, India.Arie, Esperanza Spalding, Janelle Monae, Solange, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and more recently, Carmen McRae. 

Can you take me through the process of creating a song? Do you write music first, or lyrics? What subjects inspire you? 

I’m not super versatile on guitar, so I tend to mess around with some chords and then start mumbling a melody on top. And then when my voice wants to go somewhere my guitar won’t go easily, I stop and struggle out the chord I want note by note. Lyrics usually come next, but finding the topic feels really passive to me. I just sing the melody until suddenly a word  or two falls out; I try to let the melody direct that moment. I write poetry and prose a lot, so it’s always a little strange struggling so much with chord structure and then being able to write ten verses, but I try to live by a “quantity over quality” rule, because in the process of paring down ten verses into two or three, the quantity usually distills down to quality(ish). Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about family dynamics, and also working through my most depressive period in years, so those subjects come up a lot in my writing. 

What is your ultimate ambition or goal as a musician? For example, do you want to sing at Carnegie Hall?

So many goals! I’m really excited to release my album—that’s been a longtime goal that I didn’t think I’d see realized so soon. I also really want to sing for a Cirque de Soleil show. Their shows use original music that draws from so many cultures, and with my love of international folk music traditions and my classical training, I feel like it would be an incredible challenge and a really amazing experience. Someone call them, and tell them to call me. 

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Can you talk about the development of Little Town in the Hills

I wrote the libretto for this children’s opera a while back. It had been written for Guerilla Opera in Boston, but production has stalled for a bit at the moment. The story is based on Chelm stories from the Jewish folklore canon, and is a story about two children born into a town in which all the adults are foolish! One morning, the kids wake up to find that all the adults have vanished, and they go on a quest to find them, encountering scary animals and solving riddles along the way. 

Was it daunting to try and compose music for Scarlet Letters—to turn a classic novel into a musical? How did you approach the project with regards to honoring the original work while still making it your own? 

I would characterize Scarlet Letters more as a “play with songs” than a musical. My writing partner, Patrick Ross, and I have been writing together for almost four years now, so our collaborative process works very smoothly. I don’t know much about writing plays, and he doesn’t know much about writing music, which has led to a process that allows for a lot of growth, because feedback we give each other is never based on aesthetic disagreements, but is focused on moving towards cohesion and trusting the other person to have the same goal.

We wanted to write a story that explored the ways in which shame and sexuality manifest as cultural concepts, both in the nineteenth century and now, which is why I used texts by Isaac Watts in an attempt to mirror the tone of condemnation and searching that the novel held while placing it in a contemporary context. Additionally, I created six loops in D minor, all inspired by different baroque guitar and recorder pieces, marrying older music and tonality with technology, as the entire play is underscored by these loops, which blend in and out in sync with the whole script. 

As the election cycle turned from entertaining train wreck into a legitimate horror show, what was it like chronicling all of that with Hillary the First?

At first, writing a farewell song for every candidate was hilarious—especially because with the sheer number of Republican candidates, I often had to say goodbye to more than one candidate in a single song! It was also a treat to write new music to pair with Patrick’s Shakespeare-style recaps of the week’s election events. But as things went downhill, we were constantly preparing for any possibility—so I would write more than one farewell song just in case. I was deeply reluctant to write Hillary’s farewell song, and in fact, the version that we ended up using is a recording of me improvising at the last minute with an abridged excerpt of T.S. Eliot’s East Coker, the poem she quoted in her speech at Wellesley—I think I recorded it half an hour before Patrick needed to post it online. To me, that song is less for Hillary herself and more a portrait of the strange, surreal bleakness of the morning after the election. (My favorite songs from Hillary the First are here). 

How did your album Breastfed come together? Why this title? What’s it like recording a whole album? 

I had always assumed that recording would be expensive—and it is!—but my husband’s band recorded two albums in their practice space, and I was lucky enough to use their setup to record (thank you, LuxDeluxe!). It started as a bunch of acoustic songs with guitar and voice and lots of cello tracks, but expanded to include some of the things they had in their space—a Wurlitzer, this old, raunchy-sounding piano, etc. For me, it was like being immersed in a magical world of infinite possibility, and it was really overwhelming and exciting. 

I did discover that I suck at playing guitar when I’m not singing, which I had to do for recording, and also that I get pretty anxious and critical while recording my voice, and that my sense of rhythm vanishes into a black hole once there’s a mic near me. Jacob (my husband) was really good at stopping me when I wanted to do a sixteenth take of a vocal, and came up with several parts that supported my guitar parts really beautifully. 

Most of the songs were written during an extended period of serious family illness. During this time, I developed an extreme irrational fear of contracting a serious illness, which manifested in intense scrutiny of my body, unhealthy eating habits, and an obsession with plastic surgery before-and-after photos, which I would look at for hours every day. Through it all, the strange shifts in caregiver/caretaker roles were changing my family dynamics, which was jarring, and I kept returning to this image of being near my mother’s heart, breastfeeding, and the jealousy I felt when my sister was born and needed that nurturing more. To me, the growing pains of shifting family needs really captured the essence of my health anxieties, which led to the title Breastfed.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Can you talk about your teaching work? What are the twenty-seven languages you sing in? 

Right now, I direct middle school and high school choirs, and I do a lot of foreign-language music with them, because I feel like one of the best ways to learn about another culture is to sing its music! I’m lucky enough to have had many years of study under teachers from the countries whose music I teach most frequently, and I’m always trying to tie in current cultural information and keep the music living and respected—a pet peeve of mine was being in chorus when I was younger and having South African choral music or a Bulgarian song be “the fun song” and be treated really topically, as if the only thing it had to offer was syncopation. Additionally, I work really hard to keep up to date with the evolution of a song, instead of presenting it as a historical artifact. 

My teaching philosophy revolves around singing as curative and connective—hat there’s nothing like resonating with someone else to help you understand them and gain a type of intimacy that has nothing to do with romance or sex. I think that learning to develop intimacy in this way is really important to school-age children who often struggle to connect with one another amid the maelstrom of hormonal weirdness.

Some of the languages I’ve sung in are Sotho, Xhosa, Corsican, Bulgarian, Finnish, Wolof, Ladino, Spanish, French, Italian...the list goes on. I like to seek out songs in languages I haven’t sung in before because I love learning how to fit new sounds into my voice!

Is your poetry related to how you write lyrics for your music, or is it a totally different process or mindset?

I’m very craft-oriented when it comes to poetry, but as a newer songwriter producing a song still feels like magic to me. Somewhere in my mysterious brain I’m probably slowly connecting the dots between poetry and songwriting, but I haven’t been let in on it yet. 

Many of your bigger projects are collaborations. Is that how you typically like to work? If so, why?

I frickin’ love collaborating! Anyone who makes anything can probably identify with the terrible spiral of self-correction that can happen when you work alone. Finding your dream collaborator is extremely tricky, but once it happens, being able to be vulnerable really opens me up to going in so many directions I’m too afraid to go on my own. It’s really hard to have an accurate self-perception, so having another mind and pair of ears and eyes is an incredible gift, whether they’re yay-ing or nay-ing ideas. I am unbelievably lucky to have collaborated with Patrick Ross on so many projects, and also with my husband Jacob Rosazza, who recorded my album and pushed me out of my self-critical comfort zone into creating something I absolutely would not have been able to even conceptualize on my own. 

What musicians are you listening to these days? Who has you excited? 

I’m hopelessly addicted to Lianne LaHavas, but it’s a very love-hate relationship, because her guitar playing her voice are amazing, but every time I sit down to write a song I find myself playing one of her songs instead. Lianne! Please leave me alone! I’m also inspired in so many ways by Solange. Her approach to musical experiences as immersive aesthetic and political moments is really incredible, and unlike anything else I’ve seen lately. 

What has been the biggest challenge as you develop your career as professional musician? Have you found support in this endeavor, or has there been pushback? 

One of the biggest challenges has been trying to figure out if I should focus my performance a little more or not—currently I perform my singer-songwriter stuff solo and as a duo, but I also sing jazz and classical music regularly, and I’m always wondering what I could accomplish if I just stuck to one thing. It’s also challenging having an income that can increase or decrease by more than fifty percent each month depending on how many shows I have and the fact that I teach freelance at four places and bartend on weekend nights. My precious, highly-educated parents, bless them, have been fantastically supportive, and have only mentioned that I should consider graduate school once or twice, because they know they got me into this situation by encouraging vain little three-year-old me to sing for their friends at dinner parties. They created this monster!

Inside Issue #20: A Conversation with Phoebe Bridgers

Photo by Morgan Martinez

Photo by Morgan Martinez

I met Phoebe Bridgers when she was touring with Julien Baker as they both passed through Madison, Wisconsin a year and a half ago. We stayed in touch, and I kept up with each song she released, increasingly blown away by her effortless and graceful talent. Changing the scenery only slightly, Morgan and I decided to take the trip from Chicago to Milwaukee to see Phoebe open for Conor Oberst, her life-long inspiration, and more recently, a friend.

The two had been touring all year together and it was obvious. There was an effortless chemistry between them, which allowed for pleasant and heart-melting duets on stage and complete comfort when we were all just hanging out.

When I saw Phoebe play for the first time, it was a strange moment of clarity. Morgan and I sat in a crowded Madison venue on the side and had Julien prep us for how good Phoebe’s set was about to be. She was right - and I have this distinct memory of my eyes beginning to water during one of her oldest songs, “Georgia.” When a person can fill up a whole room like that with light and sound and nothing else, you know there is magic in their music. We got breakfast food at a diner after the show that night, and while her presence remained ethereal on stage, she quickly became one of the easiest people to be around. We were laughing and getting along as if we had known each other for years.

Reuniting with her again felt just as natural. All of us were dressed head-to-toe in black, looking like a three-piece punk band. We started the day getting disappointing brunch. She had told us about tour and shared some gossip about the indie folk world that I suddenly felt adjacent to. In just a few short weeks, her highly anticipated record Stranger in the Alps would come out via Dead Oceans, a label that also features our cover artist Japanese Breakfast, amongst other indie favorites like Julianna Barwick, Mitski, and Destroyer.

Shortly after brunch, we sat down in the green room of the Pabst Theatre, where Harry, Phoebe’s best friend and 2nd half of her band, along with Conor and his crew were hanging out. It was quiet and everyone was friendly. Most of the members in The Felice Brothers, Conor’s accompanying band, were reading or just lounging on the nice couches, in a very nice green room, in an extremely nice theatre.

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Stranger in the Alps is Phoebe’s first full-length, meaning everything else she’s put out has been either an EP or singles. Yet, her growing popularity comes at no surprise because each of her songs sounds like an entire lifetime. They are snippets of stories from various points in her life, moments that she was able to write about and grow from. It is a classic singer-songwriter concoction but there is something special about Phoebe’s music, and there’s no doubt that it has to do with an underlying commitment in staying true to her most authentic self, something I’ve noticed in her fearlessness, confidence in her responses, and overall aura.

When I asked her about her music being rooted in lyricism and storytelling, she immediately brought up her song “Killer” off her first EP of the same name. The song is about a period in her life where she had obsessive compulsive tendencies which resulted in her digging in deep into her skull when something disturbing came up. She was having intrusive thoughts about serial killers, and found herself googling everything there was to know about gruesome murders and violence, which left her horrified with both herself and her newfound information.

“Coming into Milwaukee reminded me of this period in my life that I thought wouldn’t end,” Phoebe said, as she recalled Milwaukee resident Jeffrey Dahmer being the serial killer that started her obsession, “It is interesting to look back on a song like ‘Killer’ and think, ‘yeah, I’m past that now. That happened and I grew from it.’”

There is an understanding that once art is released, it is to be interpreted in whichever way the person consuming the art decides. Phoebe laughed, “Sometimes I think people give me too much credit,” as she referred to how someone interpreted “Killer” in an extravagant and allegorical way when in reality, it was a fairly literal response to a specific period in her life.

I asked Phoebe what she had been listening to lately and where her taste stems from. Her foundation is rooted in bands like Television and classic singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. Although recently, she said she’s been, “Jamming to Snail Mail and the new Jay Som record,” going in depth about how music right now is exploring elements of genre-bending particularly with artists like Mitski, another favorite of Phoebe’s. The wave of talented women & non-men musicians changing the game in how music is listened to and experienced has been something that, I think, everyone (particularly other women & non-men) has been excited about.

Phoebe admits a lot of her background is still dominated by men. She says specifically Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters is someone she confesses she loves, yet recognizes isn’t the nicest, friendliest, or least misogynistic guy. She understands and sees his flaws, the same way she no longer respects John Lennon, but can still listen to The Beatles. Some people are able to separate the art from the artist and for Phoebe, it’s almost a necessity. She said, “I would not allow myself to like anything if I didn’t. I do draw lines, though. You have to draw lines.”

Sometimes those lines can be blurry and it can get tricky to decide who you actively support and who you let into your ears. Phoebe knows this, though. She said, “I’m conscious of it now so I try to consume as much art made by women, POC, and trans people as much as possible because unlike theirs, music by white men is handed to me.”

This is something that a lot of young artists are aware of, especially if they started out in DIY scenes, like Phoebe. Phoebe, who was in a punk-influenced band in high school, noted that the DIY scene now is changing, and so are media outlets like Teen Vogue. Slowly but surely, important and what was once considered “radical” ideas are making their way into mainstream media (which is the Hooligan agenda!).

While Morgan took Phoebe’s photos against an orange-ish wall, complementing the golden hour that decided to grace us, I abruptly asked Phoebe, “What’s it like being on tour with essentially only men? Do you feel like you ever have to defeminize yourself to feel accepted?”

Phoebe’s immediate response: “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”

This makes one wonder about the typical tropes for indie-folk singer-songwriters. There is an overlapping theme of confessional storytelling, of emotional ties to romance and childhood and nostalgia. These themes never go away, regardless of gender, yet when I google “Indie-folk”, the first ten bands are all men (aside from The Lumineers, which has one woman). This is not to say that these bands don’t deserve great recognition because I think they do, it is just fascinating that even with all the women affiliated with indie-folk, it is still a man’s game.

So, when Phoebe and I have this conversation, it is rooted in a place of knowing what it’s like to play a game that has been a part of her life since she became involved in music. For Phoebe, she’s had producers that wore their entitlement like a badge and found ways to manipulate her agency. Luckily, Phoebe never let men dictate what she wanted and didn’t want to do with her art.

Phoebe said earnestly, with no remorse in her voice, “Taking the “feminine” out of your personality [because you are expected to] takes the power out of it.” I think my jaw dropped or I took a few steps back to let that sink in so I could understand the gravity of her words. It is this perspective on femininity that allows her to explore what it means to be a vulnerable and fairly feminine musician, yet a person who defies feminine standards.

Still, it doesn't necessarily mean she feels good about it. “Sometimes I’ll want to wear dresses because I like dresses!” She said, but we both know even something as simple as a dress can change how a woman is perceived in spaces where nobody else is wearing a dress. In modern societal standards, to be femme is to be taken less seriously and nobody wants to be taken as a joke, especially in music.

Interestingly enough, in her music video “Motion Sickness”, Phoebe is dressed in a suit singing karaoke. I asked her about the androgynous look and if she had any intention with the gender play. She said, “Honestly, I just wanted to look as nerdy as possible,” laughing, “I wanted to show someone in a suit going all out for karaoke, really into it, y’know?”

I laughed. There something pure about the image in itself, which I recognize now that that was Phoebe’s message after all. Nothing about gender or binaries, but a sense of innocence — a sincere response to what it means to have, “emotional motion sickness.”

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It was jarring to realize how much (and how little) time had passed since we all met for the first time, to think that a year and a half ago felt like a past life, to see Phoebe in a place now where she is releasing something that has meant so much to her for so long. It was a day of reflecting, one of nostalgia and recollection of where we all once were and where we are now. The same way Phoebe’s songs tell us about moments from what seems like another life, we were able to come together as what seemed like new people. It felt like a song being formed, one on friendship and growth, all intertwined with laughter and memory.  

What I’ve noticed from knowing Phoebe as both an artist and a friend is that regardless of how the politics of music and the people within it affect her, she refuses to let it become her defining feature. Phoebe Bridgers is a musician who tells stories through her music. She is someone who consistently makes music for the sake of transforming somber moments of her life into something someone can hold onto. Her work is special because it is the sound of someone’s genuine response to existing. There’s something in her songs that anyone can connect with, even if these are her specific stories, even if we don’t all interpret them the same way.

see the whole spread here

KAPPA FORCE: A New Web Series about Fighting Toxic Masculinity

By Rivka Yeker

Kappa Force, a new web series directed by Hannah Welever and created by Addison Heimann is on the horizon for things to add to our anticipating queues this upcoming spring. I was able to sit down with Hannah, Addison, and producer & cast member Emilie Modaff to discuss the show’s intentions and what direction it’s heading in. 

The series is a kitschy Scream Queens meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired satire based on the complexities of toxic masculinity specifically rooted in Greek culture on college campuses. It uses Kappa Force, the secret crime fighting team within a generic sorority, to retaliate against the patriarchy no matter the cost. 

Check out the trailer released 10/31 here:

What has been the driving force behind KAPPA FORCE's narrative? What is the underlying statement of the entire project? 

Hannah: I mean, for me, the underlying themes are feminism and upright goofiness. Might seem like a simple choice of words but I think this past year has been a really rude awakening for progressive young people, and our most common retaliation has been dishing back satire and equality on a daily basis. Kappa feels like an ode to the shows we grew up with a contemporary twist.

Emilie: And I’d say that there’s his underlying theme of “womxn working towards a total destruction of the patriarchy, through the satirical and self-examining lense of 90s comedies and pop culture.” It definitely comes across as a goofy satire that touches on some pretty serious shit.

Addison: So I wrote Kappa Force basically because I was devouring Scream Queens and rewatching Buffy and thought I could write a killer hybrid that would be funny. I love writing women and I love writing comedy and the frat/sorority life is just full of things to make fun of.

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Was there an intentional decision for it to be on a college campus dealing with college students in greek life? If so, why?

Emilie: College campuses can be a perfect microcosm of “real life.” It’s a beautiful framework for a web series, especially one that comments on the current state of humanity. Also, Greek life is literally a perfect representation of the evils and pervasiveness of the patriarchy

Hannah, How did directing the series feel? What did you gain from it?

Hannah: Directing this was probably one of the best experiences I've ever had. I rarely get the chance to have creative control in the way I did for this project. I think all anyone ever wants in life, especially as an artist, is to be trusted with something, like, listened to, respected, the whole damn thing. I felt trusted from day one- which at this point was over a year ago. Addison was a complete stranger, and if it wasn't for Em for talking me up I doubt this project would've even happened the way it did. I've been interested in directing most of my life, but I think I always put myself on the back burner because of my own doubts. I mean, everyone gets to soon publicly judge my abilities, but that doesn't take away the amount of fun I had making this thing happen. We are all just hoping this is the start of many more collaborations and projects that defy genre, structure, and of course, heteronormativity. 

Emilie: It was such a domino effect. Addison wrote this incredible script, I thought I could help bring it to life, Hannah took a chance on it, and then all of a sudden we had the most bad ass film crew in the city.

Addison: Literally Kappa Force happened because I hired women who were smarter than me.

That's become my mantra.

Emilie, tell me about your character!

Emilie: My character is named Chartreuse, and she isn’t in Kappa Force. She’s a normal (kind of) chick with a gothic/cool girl style and a very sharp tongue. She’s the stereotypical “freak” archetype, but Kappa Force gives her a voice and some depth and eventually she has this dope fight scene that will probably be the peak of my acting career.

Photos by Greg Stephen Reigh

Photos by Greg Stephen Reigh

Tell me more about “Kappa Force” and the fraternity we're dealing with

Addison: So Kappa Force is a secret sorority crime fighting group in a generic sorority. We keep things generic because I love not getting sued.

Emilie:  The series opens with the youngest member of Kappa Force being abducted by The Douche, the frat king of Sigma…

And then there’s the boys of Sigma, led by basically a men’s rights activist named The Douche. Ironically The Douche is the most popular man on campus. #Relevant

Addison: In the first season we focus more on the superhero aspects and less on actually sorority and fraternity life. The story focuses more on a new girl in school, Jen who will eventually become a new member of Kappa Force. College life is new and exciting and hot and cute and it's through Jen's eyes we see everything.

Hannah: Yeah - we definitely play up the early 2000s collegiate rom-com V HARD

Addison: There are several people dressed in cargo shorts and velvet and things from Hot Topic

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What are some tough topics you explore aside from, y'know, women being oppressed by the patriarchy?

Emilie: Being closeted! Toxic masculinity!

Hannah: I think friendship is a big one too!

Emilie: And friendship yes. One of my favorite things about the show is that the two popular girls (Jen and penny who are literally MODELS) become really close and tender with the archetypal “freak” Chartreuse. Platonic love is so important.

Obviously there are a lot of queer people behind the scenes. Queer romance y/n?

Addison: Oh yeah.

Hannah: But of course. Finally made my dream of directing two men kiss come true. 

Where do you want the series to head in / what are your hopes and dreams?

Addison: CW!

Hannah: I mean, I just want people to notice the hard work that went in. We can make a really cool project with a bunch of 20 somethings and not much money. Like, frickin HIRE US ALREADY.

Addison: Ideally Jesse Bradford watches it when we post it on Vimeo and his production company which I assume he has makes it and then we get picked up by the CW and he ends up in it playing hot professor. First name hot, last name professor.

Emilie: My hopes and dreams include having people realize that young artists are the future and we deserve to have a platform to come together and play and create

I’m so sick of the politics of art. This project was a dream because we all had respect for each other. The end goal was the same for everyone—a badass piece of work that we could be proud of.

 

keep up with Kappa Force here & like them on Facebook here

Inside Issue #20: A Conversation with Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast

all photos by Julia Leiby

all photos by Julia Leiby

I was not grieving when I began writing this article. But then, as it tends to, grief swept in at a time that was neither expected nor convenient.

Suddenly my combing through of the two Japanese Breakfast albums and conversation with front person Michelle Zauner carried new weight. On a flight to Seattle, en route to visit someone close to me in the hospital, I listened to our recorded interview and found pieces of my loss-colored self in Zauner’s responses.

The first album under the Japanese Breakfast eponymous, Psychopomp, digs through the fresh mud of loss. Lyrics like, “The dog’s confused / She just paces around all day / She’s sniffing at your empty room,” dive into the immediate feelings of someone close now being gone. These raw emotions are cloaked in layers of sound — the soaring of guitar, the sweep of synth, and over it all, Zauner’s emotive vocals. Together, these elements build a place of remembrance and processing.

This space of honoring and sorting through is furthered in 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet. While Psychopomp was a fresh dealing of loss, Soft Sounds sifts through life following loss and the ways that grief continues.  

In our interview Zauner explained, “ ‘Psychopomp’ is so rooted in confusion and raw feeling. It was very much my subjective view of the world. This new album is more about taking a step back and looking at my life, and other people’s lives, and recognizing that I’m not alone in experiencing this.”

Grief is a non-linear, mysterious, oftentimes alienating process which can leave one searching for meaning and methods of understanding.

Said Zauner, “… When something very serious happens in your life that is difficult to explain the purpose of, you’re torn between these two camps. [There’s] an older generation that preaches this idea they’re in a better place and that there is some kind of heaven, and this other place which is completely nihilistic and cold. When my mom passed away, I was searching for something like that for myself, to help me through that experience.”

Mystery, otherworldliness, mysticism, and the unknown were tools that helped Zauner through this difficult time, and these elements are present on both albums. Psychopomp contains imagery of dreams and Jungian psychology, while Soft Sounds has the subtle theme of space and sci-fi coursing through it.

The first song written for the album, “Machinist,” is about a woman in love with a robot, who then applies for the Mars One project when she realizes it’s a futile affection. The song was originally created for a media company (and eventually not used by them) before Psychopomp was about to be released. It was incorporated into the band’s performances from the early stages and brought into recording when the band began working on their second album.

Said Zauner in our interview, “That’s how that album came to be. I tried to draw from the themes I had started a really long time ago; it inspired a very subtle concept that I’m happy with.”

The mysterious elements of dreams and space point to the hazy, out-of-touch state that grief can leave you in. It can cause you to feel disconnected from the world around you and yourself. On trying to reconnect to herself following loss Zauner said, “It was kind of like coming down from space and [trying] not disassociate through my reality so much.”

Grief interrupts. It disconnect and disrupts. It can change you irreversibly.

As I listened to our interview, with California passing outside the small plane window beside me, I thought of a line I had scribbled in my journal a week after hearing the news about my loved one being seriously injured. “How can I be the same again? I have been wiped so raw that I have been made new.”

Zauner demonstrated this sentiment perfectly saying, “There’s a lyric on [Soft Sounds], ‘It feels like my life is folded up in half.’ I think of my mother’s death as a marking point of who I was before and who I was after. If I look at pictures, I think to myself, ‘Oh, that was before my mom died.’ My whole life is folded in half around this moment. This album was about trying to reconnect to who I was before this terrible thing happened.”

Grief can stop your life and make you incapable of interacting in the ways you previously could. Well-meaning, kind people often do not know how to deal with it unless they too have undergone loss or a tragic event. I thought of the looks of pity I got from friends following the delivery of this news. The wanting to offer comforting advice but not knowing exactly what to say.

Zauner told me, “I felt really uncomfortable talking about it with my close friends because none of them had lost parents before and didn’t know how to talk about it. They wanted so badly to be there for me that it kind of made me uncomfortable … I felt like it was easier on all of us if I didn’t talk about it. They didn’t have specific questions about it, they would just say, ‘If you need to talk …’ and then I felt this pressure to talk about it even though I didn’t know what to say.”

So, what do you do when grief interrupts your life? When it makes it hard to interact with others? When you fear connecting to it because you sense its ability to overtake you? When you have to stay strong for others, for yourself? Where do you go next?

You sift through. You process in small doses. You give yourself projects to pour yourself into. In Zauner’s words, you, “Create these challenges for yourself that are very small, that help you survive.”

I thought of my simple to-do lists littering my desk at home. “Take a shower. Eat. Write a poem. Scan new comic. Call Nikki.” I too had instilled movement in my day to ensure that I did not fall into the looming fog which threatened to take over in any moments of stillness.

Said Zauner, “I threw myself into work and tried to push forward day-to-day … I’ve become obsessed with working and making things and sharing them. It was a very healthy way of dealing with my situation. A lot of [Soft Sounds From Another Planet] definitely explores that feeling of making it through, and putting your head down in a way.”

You find outlets and tools you can use to process. To be able to process in intentional ways and not overwhelm yourself. The song “The Body Is A Blade” goes in this: “Try your best to feel and receive / The body is a blade that cuts a path from day to day.”

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Amidst our discussion of healing outlets, Zauner and I talked about the performance of grief and constantly being placed back inside a traumatic experience in live shows and interviews. She told me that she finds healing in sharing with strangers beyond her albums and that, “When you’re doing these interviews with strangers, more than anyone else, they ask you these really poignant questions about this experience you had and your work. That felt therapeutic to me in some ways. It’s exhausting because you get asked a lot of the same questions, and you feel different ways about it on different days. Sometimes, doing interviews about it is enlightening because you start talking about it and figuring out how you really feel because so many people are poignantly asking you how you feel about it.”

I brought up Phil Elverum’s “A Crow Looked At Me” to her, mentioning how both her and Elverum have gifted the public deeply personal experiences with someone close to them.

She said, “His writing is a lot more barren. It’s all there. I think if I had said certain things, it would be harder for me. Having a band, and having so much going on sonically, it’s easier to get wrapped up in the music that you aren’t thinking about these hard-hitting details. There are moments in the songs that are really moving to me and emotional, but it must be different for Phil Elverum because the songs are speech-oriented… I have a really hard time writing that way and not hiding behind anything and re-telling the story because it’s just a lot more painful that way… The process of putting it onto a record, producing it, arranging it, brings it to a different place.”

Hearing her discuss her albums in comparison to Elverum’s reminded me that healing does not look the same for everyone. It is multi-faceted, shifting, and does not follow a rigid path.

When talking about different forms of healing Zauner admitted, “I didn’t see a therapist for very long, and I just didn’t like it… It always seem like people push therapy as this ‘be all’ cure, and I think it can be for some people, but for other people it’s okay to look at other ways of healing. It was a very scary path for me to take when I decided not to go to therapy. A lot of people were very concerned for me, but I started taking Korean lessons, I started making an album, I wrote an essay. I was meditating on placing that time and money on something else that I thought would be more fulfilling… You’re not a bad person if you consider trying something else because it’s not working for you.”

So, when grief looms and threatens to take over, you try out different outlets until you find ones that work for you, that make you want to keep going. You do what you can to not fall headfirst into the looming fog.

Zauner shared how depression interrupted her life as a teenage and left her fearful of how she would process a traumatic loss in the future. She explained, “I was so afraid that when a bad thing happened to me-and for the longest time I thought losing your mother was the worst thing that could happen to anyone- that I was going to fall into another depression like that, where I was completely unable to work or get out of bed.”

I found myself recognizing my own behavior and fears in this answer. How my life had been interrupted by debilitating depression in the past, how this made me afraid to connect to my emotions because I was afraid of the emotions again shutting down my life.

She continued, “I knew that it would be very disappointing to do that to my family. I had just turned 25 and it was a really big time in my life to figure out what I wanted to do, and to be an adult, and take responsibility. I felt like I didn’t have the option to fall into depression.”

Self-protective strategies can be powerful methods of taking care of yourself through difficult times. Sometimes, this can look like emotionally turning off. Or disconnecting. Or retreating, like a turtle hiding in its shell, into your own world of safety. While these urges to take care of ourselves are beautiful things, the difficulty lies in reconnecting to your emotions once it feels safe to do so.

Zauner told me, “I had checked out emotionally and was trying to relearn how to feel.”

Partially in an attempt to reconnect to a time of hyper-emotionality the albums pull up past instances of frustration, nostalgia, and heartbreak. They untangle past painful, highly emotional experiences as a way of remembering how to feel.

Said Zauner, “I just remember being a teenager, and even though it was a really difficult time in my life, and I was so depressed, I missed feeling so much. A lot of the songs are about past relationships, when I used to feel so much. These petty arguments with lovers used to mean so much, and now, looking back I wonder, ‘How did this ever bother me? How did this ever hurt me? I miss the days where [relationship issues] were a big deal and I was not just contemplating death all the time.”

While the intention of pulling up these experiences is to reconnect to past emotions, they also act as testaments to Zauner’s resiliency. These albums do not paint Zauner as helpless. Yes, they deal with suffering. Yes, they are sorting through loss. But, not as something which destroyed her, but as something which happened and is being worked through.

The albums twist like a conversation one has with oneself in the mirror, and while the bend into hard feelings of grief, of nostalgia, of pain, of heartbreak, they come out in places of clarity and empowerment.

“I like songs to have a narrative arc, like short stories. ‘Road Head’ is a good example of that arc. Feeling like you were taken advantage of, or that you’ve lost something or embarrassed yourself, and then at the end it’s like you’re driving away with your middle finger in the air. Like, that person kept me down in a lot of ways and now I’m leaving… ’Till Death’ is another song like that. There’s a long list of terrible things that happen in your life coupled with the thought, “isn’t it nice that this person is there, standing by through all this shit?”

These bending conversations that Zauner has with herself end in a strengthening of her resiliency and clarity. There are many layers here; many doors to open and find information behind. Zauner lays her grief out, but not to present it as something which destroyed her life.

Zauner said, “What I wanted to convey with [Soft Sounds] was not, ‘Here is this individual, unfair thing that happened to you,’ but, ‘Here is this thing that happens in life and how do we move forward from it in a productive way? How do I try really hard at staying a good person who doesn’t get so negative and lives as this person who is so upset with the world for the rest of her life?”

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Amongst all of the loss, joy is continually celebrated and created on Soft Sounds. There is gratitude given to Zauner’s husband, who she married two weeks before her mom passed away. There is thankfulness given to the small worlds those who have undergone trauma build with each other.

Said Zauner, “One thing that was interesting to me when I went through that experience was how the world just opens up to you. All of a sudden these people who have never really talked about the death in their lives are sharing this in a very natural way and connecting with you. It’s really eye-opening to see. Even going on tour, so many kids come up to me and share their experiences with loss, cancer, and illness. I’m not happy that it happens, but I’m glad we can share it together, and it’s not something we have to feel alone in.”

What Zauner gifts us is not just her experiences with grief, but all of the ways she has worked through pain, in many different forms. These albums are not only dealing with what has been lost, but with what remains. The joy, the anger, the waves of pain, the found places of connection. All of this exists in this project. As all of this exists in the multi-layered, twisting, dense, nature of grief.

see the whole spread in issue #20 here.

 

Inside Issue #20: The Black Aesthetic Collective: 'To be announced', 'to be assessed', and 'to be actualized'.

By Taylor Yates

With an organic ambition to critique and expose the underground beauty of black cinema, The Black Aesthetic Collective succeeds at creating a space for the analysis of contemporary and classic black film. When I began to research the project, I read the Black Aesthetic’s book, a documentation of criticisms and artistic reactions to the films and interviews. Somehow, it all felt familiar, I could feel it physically. This was something so special, and so private, so mysterious, and so powerful that I could feel the power of it’s discovery through the words of the authors and the passion of the collective’s contents.

I set up an appointment to speak with three members of the collective over Skype:  Leila Weefur (the grounded Leo),  Ryanaustin Dennis (the tumultuous Cancer), and Zoe Samudzi (the Scorpio waiting patiently for someone to come for her so she can gladly remind them that she is not the one). Together, we talked about the event, their processes, and what it took to create the screening and the pieces in response to the films. When the call connected, there was light surrounding them, 8pm in Chicago, 5pm in Oakland. I was welcomed by big smiles and friendly hellos. We started off by speaking about our astrological signs. Zoe, elated that I was a Scorpio welcomed me as her sister saying, “That’s what’s up! That’s what’s up! That’s what's up!” Leila, is the one that keeps everyone grounded in their ideas, and Ryan is the sweet visionary that curates the emotional vision of the project.

by Ed Nitri

by Ed Nitri


To get us started, directly from the artists, I’d like to give you the floor and sort of let you openly speak about the collective. A first date synopsis of how y'all birthed this project, in your own words.

RA: I recently moved here to Oakland. I was born in Oakland, and I came back after I’d gotten fired from an AD tech job. I think that the Black Aesthetic started out of a desire to to find community, and find black creative culture. [I wanted] to make a home for people, make a home for myself. I tried to find people that I connect with and practice with, and I found that. Through those first eight weeks and into that second season, we are in a community. This collective is seven people, collaborating with other collectives. The first publication was a lot of work, but the pleasure of being able to see everyone together in that moment was so immense and being able to bring that together. It was such a big moment to be apart of that black cultural movement that was happening on the West Coast.

Could you talk about the process of putting together the pieces you included in the book, rounding up all the work? I also noticed themes of accessibility, sexuality, black femme independence, escapism, maybe some black introversion. Could ya’ll shed some light on some of the integral themes that holds the message of this project together?

L: Drylongso (1998) is a very special film to me. It was filmed right here in Oakland, and I’m from Oakland, born and raised, which is a rarity around here. I’ve been here to see the black community dissolve. But, I think revisiting this film during the first season of the black aesthetic, I was looking for a black community. I had just graduated from college from doing my MFA program and there were no black people, and that’s in Oakland. How can I find other black creatives that are interested in film, is that really a niche? So I came to the first season and Drylongso was the first one I came to, and Colleen Smith was in the Oakland community during a time where blackness was just ever-present and that’s what inspired me to create the piece.

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Is there any advice you could give to fellow artists? Any advice for artists who are trying to form their own collectives?

Z: It’s important to have balancing forces. You need to have people that are different from you and create a balance. You also have to take your ego out of it.

L: Yeah, but it’s also vital to hash out and debate over ideas for the health of the collective as well. Get over any grievances of any issues that we have and just move through it. If you let those kinks remain there, then it’s stagnant.

R: I’m still learning how to be a team member, and how to give and take.

Z: Also with the collective the thing that’s important to remember, is that the art that you make for the collective isn’t yours. It belongs to the collective, and the collective effort and the community that you're trying to produce and make a space for. I think it can get really easy for artists to get incredibly possessive over the things that they create because they’re trying to make money, or they wanna get this award or whatever. It becomes easy, in art spaces that are ego-driven, for your work to be an extension of yourself and a part of your ego. As a Scorpio, it’s hard for me to part from that! But also, I prefer to work in groups when it comes to creative things;  as opposed to academia where everyone is wrong except me!

After laughing and talking about blackness and art and wine, I could feel the love from hundreds of miles away. I thought to myself: that this is what the project's purpose is, accessibility and community. Accessibility is the underlying force that drives this project. Uncovering the intimate and complex nature of blackness with a dialogue, and having said dialogue actually reach the audience it was intended for. 

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see the whole spread here.

&

order the publication here.


 

Inside Issue #20: An Interview with Maggie Brennan

By Jane Serenska 

“Internet addiction disorder, more commonly called problematic Internet use (PIU), refers to excessive Internet use that interferes with daily life,” (Wikipedia). Try to call to mind someone you know who may suffer from Problematic Internet Use. How would they define “daily life”? What if their daily life is on the internet? Their job, their friends, their culture? In this case, what is the internet interfering with? When we stopped treating “internet” as a proper noun it became a part of daily life. And, haven’t we already learned that everyone is problematic? Either everyone is addicted to the internet or no one’s internet use is perceived as a problem.

Maggie Brennan, Brooklyn-based cartoonist and animator, has integrated the internet into her daily life while maintaining the ability to observe it. Her work reveals the inherent flaw in separating rituals, relationships, and self-image from whatever medium in which they are experienced: No matter how we represent ourselves — cropped in a 1:1 ratio or for a fleeting 24-hour story — our experience can never fully be separated from our bodies and their longing for connection. The internet is not without critique; but neither is any other replacement or adornment for these essentials.

As a multidisciplinary artist with a vested interest in internet culture (much of her work has been published online), Maggie spoke with Hooligan about mental health, resistance, and creativity. Read the interview below.


What are you working on right now?

Right now, I'm working on a bunch of different things. I just started an animation MFA program, so I'm trying to balance school work, freelance work, and personal work. In the realm of comics, I'm working on a story about two teenage girls who meet at their parents' robotics company on a "Take Your Child To Work Day" and, you know, mild chaos ensues. I'm also working on an animated short about an older woman who falls prey to an online romance scam. These both sound extremely dark, but they have some humor in them!

Some themes I really appreciate in your work include female friendship and technology's impact on relationships and self-image ("Your Summer BodBot"). How would you say these ideas are surfacing in your new projects?

Hmm, without giving too much away:  This friendship is definitely working off the teen movie trope of Beautiful Popular Girl befriends Social Weirdo. I’m interested in the phase some teens go through where their desire to be admired often manifests in artificiality and toxic relationships (I guess some adults do this as well). I think technology and social media play a huge part in this since follower counts are an actually quantifiable measure of “popularity," as opposed to pre-internet days when it was all about perception and imaginary mythos.

via Maggie Brennan's website

via Maggie Brennan's website

"Panic Attack" really resonated with me in the struggle to balance internal conflicts while resisting injustices affecting so many people right now. How do you balance your values as an artist with stable mental health? Do you see your practice as self-care?

It'd be nice if drawing/writing felt *more* like self-care, but there's always a level of stress and frustration since it is work at the end of the day. I would say the one soothing aspect of it is that I get into a kind of flow state where  the world can  melt away for a bit. I think it's incredibly important to find the one thing that can just suck you in and help you forget about time and space for a second. Without having mental downtime, it would be impossible to emotionally and practically approach tackling any of the world's woes. All that said, I feel like I should practice what I preach a bit more!

Maggie Brennan 

Maggie Brennan 

Why is illustration your main medium? What happens in the space between your creativity and the form it ends up taking?

I think I wound up sticking with comics for a long time because there’s some removal from your actual person in the storytelling, compared to music. I mostly sing, and the voice is so tethered to your physical presence -- it makes me a bit anxious to have that level of intimacy with the listener. With comics, unless they’re autobiographical, you kind of forget about the person drawing them. That’s why I’m learning animation. I really want to make more music and play shows, but I’d love to have an animation going while I’m hiding in the shadows, ha.

Definitely gets back to what you said about finding a world where you can escape into your work. Who are you comfortable being in that world with you? How do you envision your audience?

Hmm, I don't necessarily envision a specific audience. I do think a lot about how people parse the things I write or draw, though. I kind of agonize over being misinterpreted. So, in that respect, I feel most comfortable with an audience that gets the tone I'm going for, whether it's serious or satirical.

read the rest of the interview here.

Single Release: Emilie Modaff's "Hip Blossoms" ft. Mykele Deville


Emilie Modaff is an impassioned, Chicago-based renaissance-woman; the artist acts, podcasts, and sings. Her latest single, “Hip Blossoms” features windy-city spoken word poet, Mykele Deville. I spoke with Modaff via Google Hangout, where the radiance of Emilie’s strength in character, her love for life, and sheer exuberance beamed through my computer screen. We sat down for an hour, discussing the parts of her history that inform the record: lyrical iconography, tribulations of overcoming substance use, and the importance of supportive friendships.

Modaff’s lead single, “Hip Blossoms” is an intimate self portrait. The track uses natural imagery and symbolism to illustrate Modaff’s journey toward sobriety. Emilie leads with soft, trepidacious vocals resting on a structure of somber piano as she describes herself for the listener,

I was a fruit tree with apple eyes and lemon lips
I was a fruit tree with blossoms hanging from my hips.

Modaff describes the lyric, “[The imagery] definitely relates to the feeling of being fruitful and full of life and potential, until a certain point. For me, [that] was the moment I found my addictions. ‘Blossoms hanging from my hips’ symbolizes this potential I had, as a woman, an artist, a young mind.”

By Kalyn Jacobs

By Kalyn Jacobs

The description of herself as that tree adds a layer of public display in the listener’s mind as they imagine Modaff’s life through addiction. There was a lack of involvement from peers in the watering process, which she tells me is, the process of finding your footing existentially and self-nurturing. She says, "People hardly think to water a tree because surely nature will run its course whereas a houseplant is allowed to grow and experience strife more privately and is almost assured that watering on a regular basis." I found this meditation on Modaff’s experience to be a poignant one, which spoke multitudes to the 26-year-old’s writing ability alongside collaborator Mykele Deville.

The single is brimming with truth and lyricism.

The relationship between Modaff and Deville is one that stems from support and understanding. Modaff and Deville worked together in a band, and throughout the Chicago DIY scene. Modaff eventually left the scene in order to protect her sobriety. After leaving said scene, consisting of bandmates and friends, Modaff was unsure if she would continue to have a support system.

 “When I got sober, I had to take myself out of that DIY scene. I was afraid everyone was going to forget me and Mykele would tell me, ‘the people who matter will stick around.’”

By Taylor Russ

By Taylor Russ

Listening to the single, you hear Deville come in strongly after the uncertain beginning vocals of Modaff; this is the foundation of their relationship, “Mykele comes in hard and tells it how it is, unapologetically. The second chorus is where I build strength. And then we come together for that choppy, spoken word bit. I match his strength there.” Modaff says this is similar to her journey toward sobriety and regaining her own courage and voice. The artist leaned on others for direction before finding her own gumption and determination.

Modaff is writing an EP which is presently untitled and slated for a winter release this year. We can expect a collection of original songs that will continue to genre-bend, ranging from the raw sounds of “Hip Blossoms” to something reminiscent of Tegan and Sara in the early 2000s. She notes that Carole King and Paramore are two of her influences.

I finished the interview by asking Modaff what superpower, if any, would her music most accurately translate to:

“Truth serum. My music would make it impossible for anyone to lie to themselves or other people because they’d know that the truth is more powerful than anything.”

By Alexus McLane

By Alexus McLane

Inside Issue #19: A Conversation with Vagabon

By Amanda Siblerling 

By Amanda Siblerling 

“Run and tell everybody
 that Laetitia is a small fish.”

- The Embers

Laetitia Tamko, also known by her stage name Vagabon, is anything but a small fish.

This lyric is on the rock anthem that opens her 2017 debut album Infinite Worlds. The dynamic, versatile, powerhouse singer has the sweetest voice and most infectious confidence. The 24-year-old Brooklyn based DIY artist put out her first EP, Persian Garden in late 2014. The six-track masterpiece is something she never thought anyone would listen to, but after a slow burn it catapulted her into the world of Frankie Cosmos, Allison Crutchfield, Told Slant, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, and other indie artists changing how the scene looks and sounds. Tamko chooses her words carefully as Hooligan Mag sits down for an interview with the impressive young musician.

“There’s not a really fascinating story to how I came up with the name Vagabon,” Tamko says. “I just kind of wanted to go by something besides my own name. I think I just picked it randomly.” The Cameroonian-born native French speaker says her first name is often mispronounced, which is also why she goes by a different name. (Laetitia is pronounced Lay-tee-see-ya).

Infinite Worlds is an eight track whirlwind which explores themes such as love, loss, friendship, identity, and the true meaning of home.

“Overall, I don’t really have a descriptor for my sound yet. I mean Infinite Worlds is my first record, so I’m experimenting with a lot of different things and finding it as I release music. Infinite Worlds is very guitar-driven, it’s emotive and confessional for me, so I think that it’s easier for me to categorize genre by album or a per-song basis because I don’t think I have enough in my catalogue to really know what my genre is yet.”

Tamko is a huge fan of R&B, rap, jazz, and hip-hop , enjoying everything from early ‘2000s singers like Destiny’s Child “for all the harmonies,” to old Pharrell and The Neptunes-produced tracks, referring to it as “gold.” But she has been diving into pop music more as of late.

“Freddy, come back, I know you love Vermont
 But I thought I had more time.” - Fear and Force

There is a running theme of yearning, trying to find oneself, and where one can truly call home throughout Infinite Worlds. That could be in part due to the fact that Tamko was born in Yaoundé, Cameroon.  At the age of 13, she moved to Harlem, New York so her mother could attend law school.

“What I miss about being back home in Cameroon is the way of life in terms of being content with very little. A lot of people are just happy because they’re happy, and not because of material things. It’s a really special thing that I only realized later as an adult,” Tamko explains. “The things I miss about Cameroon are really small things, such as people gathering together. Even something as simple as leaving your house, walking to your friend’s house, knocking on their door and hoping they’re home is something I miss. I miss things like raising your own food and the whole nature aspect of living. I really miss those things. But I also love living in New York because of all the access, and all the things that are around me here, it’s really special.”

At 17 years old, after a lot of begging, Tamko’s parents bought her a Fender acoustic guitar from Costco. She taught herself how to play from instructional DVD’s, but put down the guitar for a few years so she could attend college to study computer engineering. Tamko felt she had to focus on school rather than music, but after recording Persian Garden and uploading it to Bandcamp she quickly got recognition for her work and after a few years stopped her engineering career altogether and became a full-time musician.

“Never the same, I can't go back to the place where I once was.” - Minneapolis

Tamko kept her burgeoning music career a secret from her family until November 2016 at Webster Hall in New York, where she opened for Frankie Cosmos. Amidst 1,500 eager fans her family saw her play for the first time. Hooligan asked her what her family thinks of her musical ventures.

“They definitely know about it now whether they want to or not [laughs], but it’s good. Some musicians grow up in a house of artists or someone in their family has done some sort of art so it makes it easier to be a topic of conversation. But for me, this is my thing, this is my life, and it’s my day to day. So I don’t really make it a topic of conversation. I just do my thing and that’s it.”

When she’s on tour Tamko has a mix of her playing solo with her guitar and sampler, as well as backing instruments. “I want people to feel a part of everything I’m doing onstage, and for it to be an immersive, collaborative experience.”

Tamko’s fanbase has grown exponentially in the past few years, and the experience has been humbling for her.

“I think I started to realize people were digging my sound maybe a year ago,” says Tamko. “I didn’t expect anyone to listen to the EP. I just wanted to have something out there and then work towards playing more. I toured the country a lot on my own without a booking agent or anything, just kind of with friends. It really helped me to solidify my music and my performance skills so that when people did get interested I was prepared. It’s a hard thing to explain because the EP was a slow burn. I put it out at the end of 2014, and I started playing more shows locally and people started to pay attention. Even if they weren’t listening to the EP, I think the live shows were something people really enjoyed and so I was playing live a lot. So Infinite Worlds coming out is kind of like putting out the songs that I’ve been playing live, and I’ve been getting a good response from it.”

Tamko speaks of the community of friends she has made in the DIY scene and how they have helped shape her musicianship.

“I met Greta Kline (Frankie Cosmos) through mutual friends. When we first met we hit it off immediately. The New York DIY scene has a great community, it’s really nice to be able to bounce ideas off of each other, work with each other and write with each other. I have found it very helpful to have found a community specific to a group of people who like touring, putting out music, and having that commonality with a few of my close friends in the scene as well as the community as a whole.”

“You know my kind of high.”- Mal à L'aise

Tamko worked with Jessi Frick, one half of the father-daughter team at the remarkable independent label Father/Daughter Records to release her debut album.

“I met Jessi Frick of Father/Daughter Records many years ago at CMJ Music Festival. She would always collaborate with another small tape label and they would do a joint CMJ show. I played it for two consecutive years. So when I finished my record Jessie DM’ed me. I was tweeting a lot throughout the recording process because I do stuff alone and I don’t have bandmates, so it’s kind of my outlet to not losing my mind. It’s my chance to talk about something or get it out of me. Jessi DM’ed me on Twitter and said, “Hey, I’d love to hear it,” and from the first listen and her reaction I could tell that she really got it and got what I was trying to do. She didn’t just see what I put in front of her but the foresight and the long haul sight of what I’m capable of. That was really cool and really set her apart from other labels that I was talking to. Just knowing that she understood it and really connected to the songs, and I knew when someone really loves something they’re going to do a really great job with it so that really settled it for me.”

Tamko continued finding people to cultivate her creative vision when it came to her first music video for ‘The Embers,’ which was directed by Mooj Zadie and features her dancing by herself in an aquarium and a bus.

“‘The Embers’ was my first music video and we shot it on 16mm film which is really cool,” Tamko says. “While film is expensive, it also has a restriction on it. Without a budget or a lot of money, there is a restriction on how much film you can use. So, making this with one take per shot was really cool because once we got it, we got it. It felt really authentic. As for the concept, what I was really adamant about bringing to the table was color palettes and this song was one that I saw colors for very intensely. Mooj had really loved this song since it was on the EP when it was called ‘Sharks’, and came in with some really cool concepts, and it was good to work together.”

Writing and recording albums, releasing them, and shooting music videos is only part of the hard work Tamko does. The other bulk is touring, something that she enjoys immensely.

“I love being on tour because I get to meet so many people and have a different experience with my music with live shows. I’m a human being like everyone else, so regular things will affect me whether I’m on or off stage. I’m very shy and being on stage is vulnerable; so I like to talk to people afterwards and see how my music has affected them in a positive way. I like seeing people who are inspired by what I’m doing and to come back for more. It is worth everything of being human.”

That human aspect is crucial to how Tamko relates to and represents her fans. She has fans who have never seen themselves represented in the DIY music scene, especially men and women of color, who are so often lost in the extremely white sector. Tamko is determined to create a space for underrepresented groups. Or in her words, especially weird black girls, girls who are not celebrated, black men, and women of color. Though her natural inclination is to hide, she is determined to be visible no matter how uncomfortable it gets. Tamko has a desire for black girls to be able to see and hear her, and know that no barriers can stop them from doing the same.

“You didn't know it was falling apart.”- 100 Years

“During the process of recording Infinite Worlds it was a pretty long and grueling experience,” recalls Tamko. “I would go to school and work during the weekdays, and record the album on the weekends. I learned so much though about what I would want to do differently the next time. For example I wrote a lot of songs in the studio, so I would do different takes 15 times or 1 time, which wasn’t a very efficient use of my time. Now I write more while I’m on tour, so it was all a great learning experience for me.”

There were several songs off of the Persian Garden EP that Tamko remastered for her debut album. As Tamko explained to Hooligan:

“For the Persian Garden EP I was much less confident in my creative voice, creative vision and creative ideas. So, there were not too many hands on it, but way more hands than my process is now.  It was a lot of ‘Everything sounds great!,’ I’m really excited my songs just sound like something. After touring Persian Garden for two years on a DIY scale and then trickling over into recording my first album, the dynamic of how I make music was so different. At first, I really wanted to be in a collaborative band, and then very quickly I realized that wasn’t working for me, or wasn’t working for me then. I just really felt like these songs had a lot of life left in them. I wanted to recontextualize them and reintroduce them, which is why I named them new things, because I wanted new and old listeners to approach the song differently, and not feel like it’s a remake but that I actually just remade it.”

Along with remaking the songs, Tamko learned how to play drums, synth, bass, and other instruments to create a fuller sound for Infinite Worlds.

“Guitar is my first instrument, but with Infinite Worlds I didn’t want to allow much creative input from others,” Tamko says. “For me, if I’m going to ask someone to do something, I want to make sure I can do it myself. Even to delegate a task such as record these drums or record this bass, I wanted to be able to show them what I wanted instead of talking about it in a way that might go misunderstood.  It really minimizes how much compromising you’re going to have to do.”

“What about them scares you so much?”-Cleaning House

This iconic line from her song “Cleaning House,” is a showstopper in the center of her album. The heart-wrenching question leaves us raw and truthful.

“I keep a notebook on me at all times so I can write down ideas and lines as they come to me, and work on them continuously,” says Tamko about her songwriting process. “I don’t like to force writing. I know there are musicians who can sit down and write for two hours every day, but that’s never been me. I need for it to pour out of me organically, I think it would be very obvious if I made myself write every day.”

Tamko found inspiration for Infinite Worlds from award-winning poet Dana Ward’s book, “The Crisis of Infinite Worlds,” the title coming from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

“I found Dana Ward’s book through a friend of mine who is also a writer. He suggested it to me, and we were going to read it together. We were both on separate tours at the time, so we just had this idea to read this book on our tours and to talk about it over email, kind of like a virtual book club. I was reading this book as I was writing songs for Infinite Worlds and recording them at the same time. It’s a strange book, I haven’t gone back to it yet. It’s kind of a difficult read but I really enjoyed it. Another poet that I just started diving into is Fred Moten. He has this book called The Feel Trio that I’m parsing through, it has really beautiful lines. To my knowledge it hasn’t really seeped into my songwriting but it is good to see how other songwriters more in the literary sense than musical are creating imagery and a broad use of words.”

“We sat on my cold apartment floor where we thought we would stay in love.”- Cold Apartment

Tamko says that her drive, ambition, and capacity to love all stem from her astrological sign.

“I’m a Scorpio sun and moon with Gemini rising. My sign plays a big part in my identity. Every person has a different history and characteristics. Scorpios are seen as fierce, scary, intimidating, and self-deprecating, but we have a lot of drive. I’m very driven and ambitious, once I set my mind to something no one can stop me. I do have those debilitating moments when I can talk myself down by writing and creating music. Creation is subjective, and as I’m growing and trying different things I don’t let the ridiculous statements from people bring me down. I just don’t agree with them, I feel confident. As a Scorpio I know when something feels right for me, and when I get that feeling nothing can stop me.

“Water me darling,
Take what you need before it runs out.”

-Alive and a Well

“The lyrics off Infinite Worlds that I’m most proud of are from Alive and a Well,” says Tamko. “I always go back to that song. It represents a person as a well of water, the imagery stemming from trips back and forth to the well while I lived in Cameroon. A well of water isn’t strange to see, and metaphorically one must check in on the well to see if it’s okay, if you’re taking more from it than it can give, and if you are reciprocating what you take.”

As for the future of her music as Vagabon, Tamko has a lot planned but can't say too much yet.

“I’m working on two cool new projects right now, so there will be new stuff from me before the year is over. I’m excited to share what I’ve been doing, like writing and recording music. I am going on my first headlining tour this fall. I think it’s important to assert myself and what I do.”

As for advice for up and coming musicians Tamko says her words are really simple.

“Don’t be afraid to be curious. In music there are nuances to playing, so play and write often. Work with people who impress and inspire you, and absorb their genius. Never settle for just being satisfied, it’s going to yield something for you that way. Trust your gut and keep working because no one is the best at every single thing.”

View the entire spread in issue 19 here.

Inside Issue #19: A Conversation with artist HTMLflowers

By Rivka Yeker 

Illustrations all by HTMLflowers

Art is something that is often a reaction to pain, yet it is not necessarily always a reflection of it. Grant Gronewold, who has gone by HTMLflowers for a decade now, produces work that explores illness with a slight influence of nihilism in its rawest and most abrasive forms. His illustrations resemble truth, a sort of semblance of ultimate reality. A raw statement rather than a sugar-coated one. While his approach to life plays as an integral part of his art, the work itself isn’t meant to intimidate anyone, but rather show life as it is for someone who has seen and been through and experienced so much.

Disabled and/or chronically ill people are often expected to look at life with constant optimism and a sense of glory. People don’t want to see the sick being sick; they want to see the aftermath, hear about the recovery, witness the progress, but only the happy moments. HTMLflowers simply refuses to give into whatever it is society expects of him. His work is a retelling of his life and the way he perceives the world.

HTMLflowers’ work tells stories through single images alone. Addition to his comics, he prints his work on mugs, t-shirts, pendants, and other things that people can display and wear. The images printed on these objects aren’t necessarily ones that people would expect to see on items for sale. They don’t have any catchy phrases or fun slogans. They are mostly drawings of people. People in their element, in their most natural states, existing regardless of what systems may put them down. It is in this work that HTMLflowers’ artistry comes out, in the work that captures vulnerability and the loneliness of the human experience. It is through his lens that we are able to find solace in sickness, even if it is not happy or optimistic. Even if it doesn’t say things like “It is going to get better.”


Your work is self-reflexive and eery, a sort of powerful glance at the human experience through simplistic yet complicated illustrations. What do you want people to take from your art?

Fear, revulsion, uncertainty, hopelessness, terror & the unique species of callous bliss that accompanies those disabled truths.

What is your favorite artistic medium when it comes to your own practice?

I like thinking a thing and then making it real, I don't care what form it takes, no favourites, just a compulsive need.

How did you get into illustrating?

My mother wanted me to be a painter & I couldn't stand real life.

You have a very specific experience as an artist with disability. Do you want that to come out in your work?

I am disabled & I want to empty my entire heart, I won't hide anything about myself if I feel it needs freeing. I think that can be a tool to expose disabled truths to the world but the most important thing for me is to be honest with myself.

Are you someone that likes to publicly talk about your disabilities / illnesses on social media?

Constantly, nauseatingly. I'm still not over being ignored as a child.

Who are some of your inspirations?

The doctors who talk down to me, the nurses who use unsanitary techniques risking my health, the government that makes precise moves in the dark to ruin what's left of our public healthcare system, the mutation that transforms my body & destroys my life, the people I date that can't be patient when I disappear into the wards.

Your online store is titled "No Visitors." What does that come from?

I don't like having visitors in hospital, this building is a loveless machine that can only be survived, I will not endanger my love by bringing it into this place. a lot of art comes from there, loveless survival. the hospital is inside me and when I started writing the comic series "No Visitors" I named it after that place inside me where I'm always alone.

What could you say to other aspiring artists, especially those who live with disability and/or chronic illness?

Your mutation is your weakness, your mutation is your strength, never relent.

Inside Issue #19: Ellen Kempner of Palehound

via bancamp

Palehound’s Ellen Kempner is no stranger to love and loss. On her recently-released sophomore LP, A Place I’ll Always Go, the Boston-based indie rocker explores the depth of these experiences, and the storms that accompany them, via poetically simplistic yet acutely intimate narratives. The tracks transport listeners to everyday places – Dunkin Donuts, the produce aisle in a grocery store, even Kempner’s bedroom – and attach to them heartfelt meaning and melancholia, tinged with hopefulness regarding friendship, romantic relationships, and queer identity. The album is stunning and, in parts, sob-inducing, while remaining as grounded and conversational as the 23-year old musician herself.

Hooligan was elated to have the chance to chat with Kempner about the band’s latest release and tour, as well as queerness, personal growth, and mental health for our 19th issue.


So, you just got back from tour a few days ago, right? How do you feel it went overall? Were there any highlights or wild stories worth sharing?

Chicago was the highlight, honestly. We got to stay there for a few days and familiarize ourselves with the city more than we have in the past. We got to eat at Chicago Diner, which is always amazing. I love that place. I guess the highlight was playing at West Fest – that entire set was a blast. The whole time, there were these two old men sitting in beach chairs in the very front. They were just lounging, kinda rocking out, but still sitting in their chairs. At the end of our set, though – “Molly” was the last song we played – one of the old men got up and started dancing manically, just like crazy, erratic movements. It was like the Six Flags guy … I don’t think I could dance that hard if I tried [laughs]. Also, because it was an outdoor show, there were A LOT of dogs there. I looked up at one point and there was this woman with this fat, fluffy corgi and he was just “borking” away and it was SO cute. So, that was a major plus. That entire set/trip to Chicago was a highlight, for sure.

What’s one thing you really miss while you’re on tour?

I have really, really bad anxiety when I’m tour. I get really anxious before every show – especially when we headline a show –  and constantly I worry that I’m not good enough or that I’m going to fuck up … That paranoia is the worst part of tour for me. Having my mental shit act up in a room full of people who are expecting me to perform for them, and do so flawlessly, it’s just such an immense pressure. It weighs on me. Also, being without my vices, my partner, my cat.

I miss my partner so much when I’m on tour. Not having someone who knows me like she does, or having someone to really lean on, it’s hard. I’m so used to my cat and my partner and just living this quiet little gay life back home together – I definitely miss that the most.

How did you get involved in music? Who or what inspired you to pick up an instrument?

It was absolutely because of my dad. My dad and I are super close – we always have been. He was always playing music around the house, so I grew up playing guitar with him and totally idolizing him and his musicianship. He was never professional, but he played drums in college and such, and he was good at guitar. So, I took a few lessons from him, starting when I was only seven. It’s always crazy to me when I say aloud that I’ve been playing guitar for sixteen years. I’m an old fucking lady. That’s like an entire lifetime for some teenagers who ask me this question, and that’s fucking rough. I always hate that [laughs].  

How much do you think your experiences as a queer person influenced A Place I’ll Always Go? And in what ways?

The content is basically, actually, very-much about queer friendships and relationships that I’ve had. A couple of the sappier songs are about my partner. They’re love songs in which I’m using she/her pronouns, instead of trying to mask it as a guy by using he/him pronouns, because, admittedly, I kinda used to do that due to shame surrounding my queerness.

I guess a big influence was finally finding someone and being in a loving relationship with them – that was a new thing for me. So, I went into the writing for this record with this new experience. Before, I was like, I know I’m gay, but I don’t want to come out super publicly. Ya know, because there’s the ever-present fear of being alienated and whatnot. It was a great decision, though, and I’m really happy to be more out and proud now. As a result, there are a lot more queer people at my shows, which is super cool. And all of my friends are queer, pretty much, so I’m really grateful for my support network and queer community.

Oftentimes, especially recently, I hear Palehound being labeled as a “queer band.” Do you feel your identity is intrinsic in your art, or does it ever feel separate? If not, do you ever wish that it was or could be?

I think it is very intrinsic. I write songs that are overtly queer, but also, I feel like a lot of the way I perceive myself and the world around me, and the way I sit in it, stems  from my queerness. Since I was a kid, I’ve been writing songs about anxiety. Anxiety and depression are things I’ve always struggled with, and they’re rooted in feeling very out of place, which stems from being queer and having to dig longer and harder to find your identity. So, even when my songs aren’t blatantly queer, the roots are still there. I think that’s what I’m trying to say. But I don’t wish it was separate. Like I said, before this album, I was more cautious about being labeled as a gay artist, but at this point, I have no regrets about embracing it.

How do you feel you’ve grown – both as a musician and person – since releasing Dry Food in 2015?

Yesterday, I was thinking about how long ago that feels...It’s only been two years, but I feel like I was a totally different person in a lot of ways. I feel like I have grown more as a musician, but not technically, really. If anything, I feel that maybe I’ve gotten worse at guitar because I don’t practice as much as I used to. I used to practice every single day, and I definitely don’t do that anymore [laughs]. I also feel like my tastes have changed a lot. I went into this album with a very different idea of what I wanted to make, and how I wanted to sound, while trying to stay true to things I’ve made before.

In terms of personal growth, I feel that I’m finally ready to talk about myself, my identity, and my struggles fluently. Because, you know, as a musician, you’re put in a position where you’re expected to perform and be really vulnerable while you do it. I used to be more nervous and self-conscious – and I still am, but less so. I’m more OK with my true self now, which allows me to be confident getting on stage and talking about my shit. But it has its downsides, too. Being vulnerable is one of the scariest feelings, but overall, it’s been really beneficial for me.

Can you talk a little bit about the [record label] switch from Exploding in Sound to Polyvinyl?

I absolutely loved being on Exploding in Sound – they were so, so wonderful to me. There’s no bad blood there; I love them and everyone who works there. That said, I think Polyvinyl is also an amazing label, and I just wanted to spread my wings a little bit and work with new people, and as many people as I can. It’s a bigger label than I’ve ever been used to, but it runs like a smaller independent label. It’s actually really cool because Matt [Lunsford], Polyvinyl’s co-founder, came to the Palehound show in Indianapolis recently, and he was so personable. He told me how they started in the ‘90s, printing zines, forming bands, etc. They come from authentic DIY roots and exhibit that, even still, and that’s important for me. Those are ideals that are near and dear to me. So, I thought Polyvinyl was a perfect fit.  

This album, compared to your past releases, seems to have a more distinct narrative. What inspired the story you’re telling? What would you say were the prominent emotions involved?

The reason this album has more of a narrative is because I was writing the songs alongside what was happening in my life. It was more contained, whereas before I was writing songs that were written over three years and dealt with different, more random things.  This record was a response to certain events that were happening over a shorter period of time. For example, some of the songwriting on this album was in response to a dear friend of mine passing away, and attempting to process such overpowering grief. And then, transitioning from grief to finding love with somebody. It was this really weird time in my life where I went from a deep darkness to a really bright light. It was all over a short stint of time, and the record reflects that period.

Does the story have an intended audience? Or would you say it was written more for yourself?

It was definitely self-indulgent to some extent, but at the time I had a lot of close friends who were also dealing with loss, and some of those experiences were more intense than what I had gone through. So, it was kind of for them, as well. I was fortunate to not have much contact with it this much pain and loss before all of this. But since I was confronted with it, I was like, I’m sure everyone out there is dealing with, or has dealt with, similar things. So I wanted to write something that people could connect with – kind of like a support system, of sorts.

So would you says songwriting serves as a kind of remedy for you?

Yeah, for sure. I think that, because of my anxiety, it can be difficult for me to process things in a healthy way – it always has been. So, to write a song is to sit down, be my own therapist, listen to myself, and provide a platform for processing and healing. It’s definitely a remedy.

Do you believe that queer musicians (who are “out”) have a responsibility to raise awareness and speak on behalf of the LGTBQ+ community?

I don’t know, I kinda feel like, my answer here is no...I don’t think that just because a band has queer members means they have to speak out and represent themselves as a “queer band.” I think that’s kind of tokenizing, in a way. Like, just because someone is queer doesn’t mean they need to organize their thoughts or anxieties into something political. I feel like that’s a lot of pressure.

Also, I don’t feel like that kind of stuff is never demanded of like, straight people -- even though that might be a bad example, because they don’t have issues like queer people do. I don’t know, that’s just such a personal thing for me. I feel like sometimes I’m not outspoken enough. But, I’ve just decided I’m going to say what I’m articulate enough to say. Obviously, I’m very concerned about the state of queer politics and trans politics and stuff, but I feel like I’m not usually confident enough in myself, or even educated enough, in a lot of ways, to speak on it. But there are definitely a lot of people who are, so if those people decided they want to say things, they should. I just don’t think anyone should be pressured into talking about things they aren’t comfortable with, especially if that topic could be triggering for them.

In addition to queerness, an overarching theme in your music is mental health. A lot of songs on A Place I’ll Always Go address your struggles with anxiety. How important do you think it is to have conversations about mental health in music?

Hmm, this kinda goes down the same road for me [as the last question]. It is definitely important, because mental health is something that is so prominent – it’s an everyday thing and so many people struggle with it. It took me a long time, but I just recently became more outspoken about mental health issues. I had never really seen them as issues before, because we’re raised to see them as minor problems. We’re told they’re not a big deal, that we just need to “suck it up and deal with it,” or that we’re being overdramatic. I wasn’t really raised with role models who provided positive representations of mental health and self-care, and I feel like people could benefit from that. I wish I had someone like that to look to when I was younger so I could recognize the legitimacy of it all. So yeah, I think it is really important to be outspoken about that kind of thing. But again, you have to be careful because there are certain subjects that can be really triggering for individuals.  

The response to your new record, and most of your work, for that matter, seems to be overwhelmingly positive. On the off-chance that you receive negative criticism, how do you deal with that?


[laughs] That’s a really funny question, because lately I’m realizing that I’m really lucky to not have seen anything negative, really. I mean, I haven’t seen anything overtly negative, but I also think I care too much about what other people think. I have this horrible habit of reading a good review, but then picking it apart and looking for anything that hints at criticism. I’ve always been like this – even when teachers would grade tests or whatever  I was always that really annoying kid in class. It’s awesome to see overwhelmingly positive reviews, but yeah, anything bad, no matter how small, destroys me. I’m definitely my harshest critic. I do a lot more battling with myself than anyone, and that comes from anxiety, I think. Like, today for example, I just laid in bed for a few hours feeling bad about literally everything, even this record that’s doing well. It’s weird. Very weird.

Finally – do you have any advice for young queer people who want to get involved in music, but aren’t quite sure how to do that?

I don’t think I’m the best at giving advice, but I’ll try. My advice would be to find other queer musicians, because I didn’t do that for a while. For a while, I was in a show-bro zone –  not like shitty bros, they were nice guys – but they were pretty cis-het. It took me a long time to find a queer community that I felt totally comfortable in. I didn’t really find one until I moved to Boston, but I’m so thankful for it now. It’s critical for me. It’s so important for anyone who is starting out. Find other queer artists in the community, make friends with them, start bands with them, and don’t isolate yourself. That’s my best advice.  

See the whole spread in Issue #19 here.

 

Inside Issue #19: Astrology of Disability ft. Johanna Hedva

Photo credit: Pamila Payne  Nails by The Nail Witch

Photo credit: Pamila Payne 

Nails by The Nail Witch


Johanna Hedva is a Taurus, performance artist, practicing witch, and writer. Their piece, “Sick Woman Theory,” details the daily frustrations of living with chronic illness and living alongside a non-normative body. In the essay, Hedva recounts being unable to attend a Black Lives Matter protest due to being bed-ridden writing, “I listened to the sounds of the marches as they drifted up to my window. Attached to the bed, I rose up my sick woman fist, in solidarity.” It is images like this that present the reader with an immersive account of existing with chronic illness or disability.

Last summer, I stumbled across a video of Johanna giving a talk concerning sick woman theory, with their cane resting beside their chair. I was struck by visual presence of the cane, a visual signifier of disability, coexisting beside Johanna, the person giving the talk and thus, the authority in the room. It is a rarity in the mainstream media to see people with disabilities existing in positions of power, rather than those of scrutiny, especially within Westernized medicine which emphasizes cures and linear paths to healing. When we are given mainstream representations of disability they are predominantly white (or they serve as inspiration porn.) Oftentimes mainstream narratives concerning disability pivot on an axis of triumph, wherein disabled characters learn to triumph over their disability rather than live with it. My favorite phrase in “Sick Woman Theory,” is, “My body is a prison of pain so I want to leave it like a mystic, but I also want to love it and want it to matter politically.”

I think about how one’s experience of reality is often grounded in the experience of the body. In my case, my body is grounded in experiences of pain, muscle tightness, soreness, and other instances of discomfort coincide with other everyday experiences like buying falafel or writing this piece. I think of how often I’ve longed to leave my body like a mystic, even just for a minute, and how strange yet validating it is to allow someone else to articulate these feelings.

As a narrative tool, Hedva gave our resident astrologer, Jillann Morlan, a copy of their natal chart, in hopes that it would better explain aspects of themself and their work. Hedva explained their relationship to astrology and storytelling over email writing, “Astrology was a family practice for me; both my mother and aunt taught me as a child. i drifted away from it and rebelled in my early 20s, but found it again when i became sick and bed/house-bound during the first year of my saturn return. i started giving readings during this time, and now do it for a living. my relationship to it is always changing, but i can say that right now, i'm getting into the whole-sign house system (i was trained in placidus), and thinking a lot about fate and how the "malefics" work, or have been seen throughout history.”

Jillann explained further, noting that Astrology is not a question of fate, rather it is one of understanding. Stating, “No matter how difficult this astrology may be, it is not good or bad. Rather, these planets and aspects serve as a road map to Johanna’s personal mastery. This astrology tells a tale of deep and much needed healing across generations. People with such aspects may seem to have a somewhat fated astrology to work with, but they are also gifted with an incredible amount of resilience, passion, drive and intuition. In the midst of despair, this astrology can actually help attune a person to the gifts that reside within a catastrophe, health crisis or debilitating heartbreak or loss. Such pain and despair can often show us our truth, and this astrology will certainly lead one to truth, albeit through initiations by fire.”

Experiences of chronic pain or disability can be physically, or emotionally isolating. You start thinking about the strange and specific nature of pain itself. You try to translate it for well-meaning doctors or friends, and a look of confusion streaks across their face, and you are hit with a sense of profound loneliness, but also doubt. When pain is shared, reality is formed. When it’s just you and your pain, you start to wonder if it is real. Pieces like “Sick Woman Theory,” help cement your reality, but they also work as a source of resilience and strength.

Hedva posses a stelium in their twelfth house of Scorpio, Mars, Saturn, Pluto, all lie within the house creating three oppositional forces. As Jillann explained over email, “The 12th house signifies the subconscious, the hidden and the unseen.  It can relate to the past, suffering, spirituality, sexuality, the metaphysical and the occult, all of which play an integral role in Johanna's work.” Similarly, Hedva’s moon is in Cancer.

Said Jillann, “Cancer is the sign most known for its sensitivity, intuition, and complex emotional life, so the expression of feelings and emotions will be incredibly important to a person with this astrology.  We see the theme of transformation showing up again in the 8th House, which is the house of other people’s possessions, taboos, sex, death and rebirth.”

As a whole, Jillann relays that “The need to deconstruct, recreate, renew, and rebirth is all inherent in Johanna’s natal chart.  They appear to be a prime example of a person who knows how to work within and around the confines of pain and trauma. But, more importantly they are a beautiful example of a person who is committed to rising above. This fight isn’t about winning; it is about evolving.”

Ultimately, Hedva’s work is indicative of the non-linear path to healing. “Better” is not a concrete destination, rather it’s a shifting state, it weaves out of our lives like a mystic or a moon in Cancer. When one’s sense of wellness constantly shifts, from week to week, or even, day to day, seeing a similar narrative reflected in the media is a rarity. This is why “Sick Woman Theory” matters, it is both a manifesto and a mirror, a sweeping declaration that this pain is real, it is palpable, someone else can see.

See the entire spread in issue #19 here.

INTERVIEW: Adult Mom

Two years ago, as I was on my weekly pursuit for new and noteworthy musicians to add to my go-to crying playlist, my eye was caught by album art that appeared in my “suggested for you” sidebar. The aesthetic was simple yet arresting: lush green leaves poked through a safety orange construction fence, seemingly hand-painted and boasting visible brushstrokes. In small block letters were the words “Momentary Lapse of Happily.” I clicked play. The first three songs were enchantingly raw. I bobbed my head in time with the catchy reprises, goofily grinning and congratulating myself for stumbling upon this band. I texted a couple of my friends, eager to share with them these stripped-down yet bubblegum-sweet tunes: “Hey, listen to this band – you’ll love them. Their name is Adult Mom.” Then came the album’s fourth track, “Told Ya So.” About a minute into the song, my overpriced mascara was streaking down my cheeks. A velvety voice confronted me with a question I didn’t know I needed to be asked until that moment: “Has anyone ever told you that it’s OK to cry?” I sniffled. And then, a few bars later, my typically stoic self was hit by a truck: “It is OK to feel the world/It is OK to kiss girls.” I was blubbering. At the time, I was a closeted queer, too timid and ashamed to emerge from my unconvincing heterosexual façade. The fear of rejection, not only from loved ones and peers, but from my perfectionist self and the “straight is great” sentiments that I had internalized for years, seemed to melt away in that fleeting moment of listening. The lyrics were candor, matter-of-fact, cogent. And yet, they offered an unfamiliar sense of comfort. A nameless voice had just granted me permission to live as my authentic self – as grossly cliché as that sounds – and I needed to know who it belonged to. The answer: Steph Knipe, a gender non-conforming musician (who uses they/them pronouns) and front-person of New York-based indie pop group, Adult Mom. Knipe seems to make a habit of crafting addictively intimate lyrics which teeter between reassurance (“If you feel like nothing, I’ll tell you that you are something”) and commination (“I set fire to abusers/like a war, I am a terror”), all while remaining unabashedly queer.

That said, I made it a goal to see them perform live, and, though it took an excruciatingly long time for that vision to come to fruition (two entire years!!!), I was finally lucky enough to see them a few weeks ago while they were on tour promoting their sophomore LP, Soft Spots. As if seeing them weren’t enough of a privilege, I also had the honor of interviewing Knipe over a pre-gig cup of coffee at my favorite café. There, we engaged in lively, cackle-filled conversation about crushes and heartbreak, our mutual obsession with Twitter, kooky tour stories, and of course, the new album (which, for the record, is flawless). Check out our conversation below and be sure to hit-up Adult Mom’s Bandcamp where you can give Soft Spots a listen.

 

You’ve been on tour for your new record, Soft Spots, about a month now. How’s it been going?

Overall, it’s been amazing. A lot of the shows have been fantastic – especially playing along the West Coast and experiencing all these new places and meeting all these new people, and having crowds in places we’ve never played before. It’s all been really validating.

I’ve seen some tweets about how exhausted you are. How do you take care of yourself while you’re on tour for such a long stretch of time?

I guess a couple of days ago I was just on a major dip of like, “I’m so ready to be home.” But a lot of this tour I worked really hard to make sure I was on top of myself and doing what I needed to do and getting what I needed. It comes down to such little things on tour, like just eating better, that’s important. Also having friends to check-in with who aren’t in the band – people from home or others. Oh, and journaling and writing a lot and being like, “This is what I did today,” and taking a lot of space to myself [away from the band] to just process. But yeah, we’ve been really lucky. We’ve been sleeping really well – most of the sleep set-ups have been pretty comfy. Overall, it’s been good. It’s hard to even think about what are the good self-care tactics for tour because it’s day-to-day. It constantly changes. And it’s such an intense environment to put yourself in, especially if you have depression or anxiety or you’re mentally ill in any way. But it also helps to be in a band with people who are my best friends and who communicate well together.

Can you talk about the driving force behind Soft Spots? Is there a certain emotion behind it that you can pinpoint?

I feel like I was writing it when I was falling in love, and also dealing with residual trauma. So, going into the record, I was trying to articulate what it feels like to put yourself out there again and feel love without it being traumatizing, which is really hard for people [like me] who have PTSD. So, writing the album was just me trying to process that, and trying to be happy and normal, in a way [laughs]. But also, like, recognize that I have my shit and have to deal with it.

I really love Momentary Lapse of Happily, but this album feels a little more curated, or perhaps more full-bodied. Can you talk a bit about the differences between the two in terms of writing and recording processes?

I think with Momentary, I wasn’t directionless, but I wanted to throw a lot of things into the pot. I was like, “Woah, I wrote all of these songs, let’s record them!” But this album was definitely more curated and edited-down. I think I presented fifteen songs or more – I have so many written – and I did a very heavy selection process with the band and with Mike, who’s our engineer. I was like, “Yeah, OK, I want to make an album that is cohesive in its content but it also woven together,” which is really hard to do, especially because I feel like I’m a reactionary songwriter. I’m not a concept or themed songwriter. But yeah, it was my last year of college and I was working on my senior thesis when I was finishing it, and my mentor at the time [my professor] was like, “You have to treat your thesis like you treat your music. It’s a cohesive piece of work with purpose.” And so I was like, “That’s exactly what I need to do with this record.” So, I tried to do that. But I think the recording process changed it, too. Working with Mike – he’s recorded all of our albums, and we work really well collaboratively – I kind of opened myself up more to true collaboration and let go of a lot of ropes and stubbornness.

[laughs] Stubbornness – aren’t you a Taurus?

[laughing] I’m VERY much a Taurus. I feel like that has a lot of influence, too, in terms of being collaborative and working really hard to make things sound good instead of just being like, “We’re going to record this in two weeks.” It took us about five months, sporadically, to record it. I took my time, which was hard.

So were you just writing songs as they came to you, and then after-the-fact you revisited them and tried to find a unifying theme among them?

Hmm, not necessarily. I think it was a little more organic than that. I feel like, for some reason, every year of my life has a different theme that separates itself. So that was just a year of my life that I was writing about and thankfully it was cohesive in a way. Actually, it might have been more like two years. Some of the songs are older, but they’re all things I needed to figure out.

Do you have a favorite track on the new album?

Mhm. My favorite is “Drive Me Home.” I loved writing that song. It was like an out-of-body experience. It was one of things where I just wrote the melody so fast, and the lyrics just came out of me like, I don’t know, a bird [laughs]. It was just like butter, it just happened. It was such a cool writing experience for me, and I felt like it sounded a lot different than anything I had written before.

So, the song “J Station” – is that about the J-Train in New York?

It is!

OK, having lived off the J for a few months in Brooklyn, I have some strange stories from that train [laughs] – do you have any? It must be significant if you wrote a song about it. 

Well, I guess the full-story from the song is a weird one. It wasn’t in Brooklyn, though, it was in the Lower East Side – like, Essex St. area. Basically, I got pick-pocketed the night the story takes place. It was the fucking weirdest day of my life…

OK, this is how the story starts: I’m coming back on the bus [from Massachusetts] after we played a show, and Rolling Stone posted an article about Sometimes Bad Happens, which was our first tape. They put us on some list, and I was like, “Oh my God! Woah!” So, I texted my ex-boyfriend [who the tape was about] because we were on friendly terms, and I was like “Ha ha, look what I did with your shitty shittiness,” and he was like, “Ha, that’s hilarious. Also, I’m in New York City right now, do you want to meet up?” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s go!”

So, we meet up at some Cuban place, and I get kind of drunk, and it was just so emotional. I was so in love him, even still, and this was a year after we broke up. We were talking, and I was just so wrapped up in the whole thing that literally someone just pick-pocketed me [without me realizing] outside of the J station. It was January, so it was really cold, and we were running around the city trying to find my wallet. We thought maybe I left it at the restaurant, or at Dunkin Donuts [laughs], but it was freezing, like, my fingers were falling off, and I was with this person who I was so in love with and who ruined my life… And then we had to take the J back to whatever connecting train to get to Harlem. Then he drove me home through New Jersey – and there’s more to the story, if you can believe it. So we’re at a 7-11 because I was like, “I need beer, please buy me beer.” So, we’re drinking beer in the parking lot, and then a cop comes up and we get yelled at, and my ex almost gets arrested because I don’t have my wallet on me, and there’s no proof that I’m 21. I was also wearing ripped stockings, and the cop was like, “Did that happen tonight? Or is that fashion?” [laughing] I told him it was fashion and proceeded to give this cop my sob story, and then my ex drove me to my parents’ house, and he held my hand and was like, “That was wild.” And I was like, “OK, I gotta go…”

But yeah, that was maybe the most intense night of my life. So that’s what the song is about.

How do you feel about the term “bedroom pop” as it’s applied to your music?

[sighs] OK, I think it’s…interesting. I guess when I was doing bedroom recordings, like, straight-up bedroom recordings, the label made sense. It was applied to bands like Frankie Cosmos and others because they were just doing home recordings. But I think it’s kind of funny because… [pause] Well, I mean we mostly do still record in bedrooms. The majority of Soft Spots’ vocals and harmonies were recorded in bedrooms, so, OK. And I write all of the songs in bedrooms, potentially. But yeah, it’s this weird thing, because who doesn’t write things in their bedrooms? Don’t most people do that? Or, I don’t know, I think it’s supposed to be about an intimacy, which I like, but it’s just weird. It’s just like a silly genre definer.

Yeah, I feel like a lot of people have been labeling bands as bedroom pop who record in studios… I also feel like it’s a bit of a gendered term and that it’s usually associated with femme people and non-men.

Right, it’s like, “How do we categorize these people, because I don’t know how to talk about non-men in music?” [laughs]

Yes! Sometimes I feel like it can be reductionist, just throwing all of these musicians into this single category.

God, yes. I think my least favorite is the genre “DIY…” It actually makes no sense, and it’s always bands with women and non-men in them. Critics are always like, “It sounds a little scrappy, which means it’s DIY,” or something. And I’m like, most music is “do it yourself” because you’re literally making it. I’d much rather just be an indie pop genre. That’s fine with me, let’s just leave it there.

I get that. I feel like music writers (and I can be guilty of this, too) are always trying to find new ways of saying things, so sometimes they’re inventing genres or using terms like “lo-fi…” They kinda drive me nuts sometimes.

Ugh, I’m really relieved that we’re outta that whole lo-fi business. I feel like it’s being used less and less, thank God.

Alright, this next question is fun, too. I like to get into some potentially controversial questions. I hope you’re ready.

Well I love to talk shit, so.

We already talked briefly about Twitter, but how do you think that social media impacts the indie music scene? A lot of artists that I follow closely are fairly active on social media. What kind of roles do you think that plays?

Twitter is the music social media, I feel. I think Instagram is more visual arts, fashion, graphic design, or whatever, but Twitter is primarily musicians and writers. I cannot get a handle on how it has either helped or hurt my band [laughs]. I think it has helped? It has a super intense influence on who I know and how I make connections with other artists. I’ve met so many artists through Twitter. I’ve been able to book tours and play shows with other musicians through Twitter, and it doesn’t feel like slimy networking. It feels more just like, “Hey, I really like your band, let’s chat.” So, we wind up chatting via direct messages. I have people who follow me who I thought would never interact with me in my lifetime; and that’s kind of the beauty of social media. I think it’s definitely had a huge impact on us, and I think it’s good. I think it’s good that we can keep up with what other people are doing. And, I think Twitter is so funny because – since I am technically a writer – writing tweets is something I love doing. I love putting them out there. I wouldn’t say it’s a part of my art, like, definitely not [laughs], but it feels like a part of my band, or something. I don’t know.

I feel like it really enhances fan-to-artist relationships. For example, I remember Carrie Brownstein responded to one of my tweets last year and I almost went into cardiac arrest…

Um yeah, I would have had a heart attack too. It really bridges this hierarchy that I always feel in music. Like, this person is cooler than me, and they liked my tweet, so I’m COOL now [laughs].

Social media also plays a huge role in call-out culture. A good reference would be your stream of tweets after the incident with a *certain* queer band that occurred last month… Would you say that’s beneficial? Or, more generally, how do you feel about call-out culture in music?

Woo, that is a loaded question… I think I have a super difficult relationship to it. I enjoy call-out culture when it is directly helping the people who have been harmed in situations. I think there is a lot about call-out culture that can be criticized. Some of it can feel very performative and reactionary in a way that’s not serving the purpose it’s supposed to serve, if you know what I mean… This is so hard to explain. But say someone is like, “This person is an assaulter, someone posted this on Facebook” –  I guess that’s callout culture, but then the turnaround from it is like, “Great, so what are we gonna do about it?” And then no one actually does anything. I guess my point with the whole thread after the PWR BTTM fallout was to ask how we heal from these things and how we learn.

What I’m getting at is this: call-out culture can feel very black and white, like, “You’re wrong, I’m right” in a lot of situations, which I think are totally valid things to feel. But I think learning from that whole PWR BTTM thing is like, we all have the capability to harm and to do things that are not good. I mean, maybe most of us are not going to harm on that level, but it’s an important reflection process to be like, “How do I keep myself in-check? How do I keep my friends in-check? How do I continue to be a safe person or act safely, like, forever?” So, it’s complicated, but I support call-out culture 100 percent, I just think it needs to be extended more.

Right. I read an interesting piece recently that conflated call-out culture to mass incarceration – it was a bit drastic, but it was talking about how we throw people away after they do something wrong, rather than attempting to heal them or help them. So how that plays into the music scene is really thought-provoking for me. I feel like the line is blurred when it comes to who we decide to rehab and who we decide to just do-away with, you know?

Yeah, and it’s hard because abuse is a heavy word. There’s a lot that goes into what that is. There is so much about abuse that is like, “Does this person have legitimate power over somebody?” And this is not even in an attempt to silence anybody’s abuse, but I think that a lot of times, people see things from the outside and are like, “I don’t like that, that’s a bad person, fuck that person, that’s abusive.” But my thing is, we should take a step back and try to figure things out. Abuse is so intertwined with our culture. I’ve been abused probably millions of times by so many people. Even by friends, I have felt/been in situations that have been manipulative, but most of the time those situations are mendable. You can just say “Hey, this was pretty manipulative of you,” and then they’re like, “Oh my god, I wasn’t even thinking, I’m going to change how I do that now.” But then there are some situations where it’s just impossible, because a lot of abusers are impossible to reach and to get them to understand… I feel like I’m going on a crazy tangent. Nothing in this world is cut and dry, is what I feel. I hope that these conversations can continue to be had instead of being like, “You’re out, goodbye, you’re cancelled,” and having people believe that they’re on some sort of moral high ground for that, because we’re not – as people, we are not. Most of us will fuck things up.

I do feel like a lot of people use call-out culture to appear more “woke,” and its only for their own gain.

Right. It’s this moral high ground and like, listen, I get it. In college, I worked so hard at trying to make a safer space in our student center, which was a music venue, and it was the most difficult thing in the world. I was very reactionary. Oftentimes I was like, “You’re bad, you’re out,” and I still feel that sometimes, and I think every survivor should have the power to decide what happens to their abuser. Then it’s up to the people who aren’t harmed to figure out how to heal and grow, because if we keep casting people out, it turns into this weird witch hunt. I don’t know, there are levels to all of this. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to silence anybody’s harm. In short, I don’t really care what happens to a rapist – that’s up to the survivor to decide – but I do care how a community heals from a rapist’s actions.

So what are your post-tour plans looking like?

Honestly, the past six months have been some of the worst of my life. But now I’m on the upswing – it’s been a lot better. I’m just trying to figure out where to move after the summer. I want to go to California sooo bad. I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s a desire that is stronger than like anything I’ve ever felt. I was there and was like, “I need this.” We were there on tour for four days, and I have a lot of family and friends who live there, so I’m really thinking about it. I was also very serious about moving to Chicago for a while. I love Chicago, it is one of my favorite cities. But if I were to move there, I would feel like I was making a half-step and not a whole-step, because where I really want to be is the West Coast. I’ve always wanted it, so we’ll see… It’s hard, because [while touring] we’re in new places all the time, and I’m such a sucker. I’m always just like, “This could be me… That person in that coffee shop? That could be my life.” I romanticize the shit out of everything… That’s my Leo rising. I just fall in love with places so deeply, and it’s so wrapped up in the idea that my life could be amazing and beautiful. So, I’m just trying to ground myself. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt totally settled in a place. I thought I did for a little bit while I was living with my ex, but that all went to doo-doo.

Woof, yeah. I lived with an ex of mine for about four months before my flighty Aquarius ass got bored and decided to scoot on outta there.

My Venus in Gemini ass is… a nightmare. In terms of my love life, the only people that can quote unquote “keep up with me” because of my Venus in Gemini tend to be Scorpios and Leos. I just need a lot of difference and variation. Scorps and Leos are both just so passionate and present; I think they’re great. I have a theory that you’re supposed to be with someone who is your Ascendant sign rather than your Sun sign. I could never date another Taurus – I would lose my fucking mind. My problem is my Taurus self is so dedicated and loves commitment, but then my Gemini Venus makes me crazy… I don’t know. I love being in love – it’s probably my favorite thing in the world, which is why I’m in a relationship all of the time. This is actually the longest I’ve been single since I was 14 years old, and it’s only been six months.

Oh my God. I cannot comprehend that. I can last for (maybe) three months if you’re lucky. I have a theory that, within a vein similar to “dog years” exists “Aquarius years.” Like, two months of dating for an Aquarius is the equivalent to one year of dating for non-Aquarians. After two months I’m horrified and feel like I’m married, so naturally I flee the scene.

Ok but for me, after two months I’m like, “Why AREN’T we married yet?” [laughs]

If I’ve learned anything in this shit year, it’s that literally anything can happen. Even if you have a crush who’s like, a million miles away, you can just fly out and see them. Or [laughing], you can book a tour.

Yeah dang. I should start a band so I can land cute tour crushes. That’ll be my main motivator.

[Laughs] OK, so right now I’m writing the next album, and last summer, I wrote a song about our guitarist, Mike, who had this really intense crush on somebody. And I was in a relationship at the time, so I was just witnessing this. And you know, they would be sitting on the couch and like, their knees would be touching, and all of that little stuff that made me think “Aw, I remember what that feels like.” So, I wrote a song from his perspective of the situation [for the new album]. And then I wrote another song from another friend’s crushing perspective, and I have like four other songs about my crushes, and the rest are about leaving my ex. So, it’s going to be an interesting curation of content [laughing]. But, writing about crushes is so fun, and so beautiful. It’s awesome. I love that shit.

Crushes…ruin my life.

I get so wrapped up in that shit. Actually, I think that’s a big thing about me [in general]. I think this is one of the reasons why I write – I get so overwhelmed with things, especially when I’m happy. I just want to shoot myself to the moon, or I wanna be a firecracker. If I’m feeling joy, I need to harness it. It’s almost this feeling of like, “I could be unhappy in five minutes – how do I figure this out?” So, writing helps me feel as if I’m making it last – it’s like a way of memorializing those emotions.

Do you have a favorite tour memory that you would be willing to share – whether it be just a shining moment or an occurrence that was particularly strange? I love weird tour stories.

There are so many, it’s hard. Hmm. I can think of two: one weird one and one really good one. The first one happened recently when we were in Olympia, WA. We were staying at a friend of a friend’s house. The person who lived there wasn’t home, but they were like, “The house is yours, the door will be open, help yourself.” We were like, “OK, great!” But they gave us the wrong address, so we drove around for a while until we finally found the house with the correct address. So, the front door is open, we’re going inside, etc. But then, we open another door and there was just a person sleeping in there. So… We had walked into the wrong house, and we just ran out so FAST. I was so embarrassed. My face was beet red and I was so stressed and nervous, and then the woman came outside and was like “WHAT THE FUCK!?” So, we had to apologize and explain what had happened, and she told us that the house we were supposed to be staying in was across the street. So, we went over there and we were finally getting settled, and then that same woman came and knocked on the door and was like, “Hey, someone left this sweater in my house.” And we apologized, but she was totally cool at that point and didn’t really seem to care. But, yeah, apparently people don’t lock their doors in Washington. That was totally horrifying, but whatever, we’re over it. 

And then… Actually, you know what, I’m just going to tell another weird story, because that’s funnier. So, my first tour ever, ever, ever [in January 2014], we were driving to Kentucky, and we went a weird route because roads were closed, so we had to drive over a mountain. It was the middle of January, and the fog was so thick, we couldn’t see any signs for miles – literally miles. We were running out of gas, and the service kept dropping, so the GPS signal was fading in and out, and we had absolutely no idea where we were going. We couldn’t see anything – I seriously cannot dramatize this enough. It was horrifying. We kept calling the promoter and asking them to help us navigate this mountain, and they were yelling “WHAT?” into the phone, and then the call would drop, and we were all just screaming “IT’S NOT WORTH IT!” and considered turning back. But eventually we wound up convincing Bruce, our bassist, to drive over this fucking mountain. We were in the car debating this for an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Finally, we start to move in this thick-ass fog and encroach over it, and then we just see a golden McDonald’s arch illuminated. We got out of the car and I wanted to kiss the ground. By the time we got there, we were just so thankful to be alive. I mean, that’s like the twisted tour shit that people don’t talk about that much, those near-death experiences. But it’s great – tour’s great. I love what I do. 

The Many Faces Of Polly Jean: PJ Harvey’s Evolution in Fashion & Music

by Nico Shreibak

Over the course of nearly three decades, Polly Jean Harvey has morphed into one of pop culture’s most chameleonic forces. From a rabid “Joan Crawford on Acid” to a lace cocooned wartime poet and every archetype in between, Harvey’s style has evolved as much as her music throughout her storied career. A confluence of personal politics, self-awareness, and allergy to repetition, PJ Harvey’s artistic evolution has cemented her place as a fashion icon, feminist hero, musical dynamo, and pint-sized powerhouse. 

With a keen eye for detail and a hard-wired aversion to litany, Harvey recruits a team of collaborators to realize each album’s unique aesthetic. Harvey’s braintrust, a group tasked with realizing the visual and aural styles of each album, boasts photographer Maria Mochnacz, cinematographer Seamus Murphy, producer Flood, and self-described “musical soulmate” John Parish. 

A one-woman tour de force, the many faces of Polly Jean Harvey have defined an entire generation of outsiders, from sound to style. 


DRY (1992) 

“…Essential feminist distinction between egoist blurrier and honest irruption outpouring…and of course by her postrockist guitar, where she starts to reinvent her instrument the way grrrr-punks reinvent their form…” — Robert Christgau for ‘Village Voice’ (1992)

Every musician is afforded an entire lifetime to write their first album, and Harvey approached her band’s debut with the appropriate degree of intensity and austerity. Wholeheartedly believing that ‘Dry’ would serve as her first and last imprint in music, she poured all of her blood, agony, and ire into the 11-track LP. 

Not only did the divinely abrasive album serve as Harvey’s grand entrance into the global rock scene, but it also introduced her feminist canon. The album’s most commercially successful track, “Sheela-Na-Gig,” was penned about eponymous exhibitionist statues scattered throughout the U.K. The raw and flayed track challenges the unrealistic expectations projected upon women and their resulting fits of self-loathing.

While fashion was not yet an element of focus in her art, Harvey expertly wielded her body as a manifesto early on. Around the time of her debut album’s release, Harvey ignited controversy with her first NME cover, which featured her topless, back to the camera and defiantly gleaning an unshaven armpit. 

RID OF ME [1993]

“I don’t even think of myself as being female half the time. When I’m writing songs I never write with gender in mind. I write about people’s relationships to each other. I’m fascinated with things that might be considered repulsive or embarrassing. I like feeling unsettled, unsure.” —PJ Harvey to the ‘Sunday Times’ (1993) 

After a meteoric rise to the global zeitgeist and non-stop touring following the release of Dry, Harvey began internalizing all of the transgressions of fame. Drained by a tortuous stint living in London, a poor diet, relentless exhaustion, and a messy break-up, Harvey suffered a nervous breakdown that flung her back home to the countryside in Dorset. It was during her convalescence that she would pen Rid of Me a manic rumination on revenge, devotion, and self-preservation. 

Drawing from the dynamism of performance art, Harvey crafted her most complicated songs yet atop a bedrock of unconventional time signatures and cavernous song structures. The title track—written in the crux of her mental unraveling—attacks masculinity with the mercy of a junkyard dog. With each track, Harvey just sinks her teeth deeper into the jugular. 

This year marks the last for Harvey’s tried-and-true goth fashion sensibilities, mostly comprised of slim black turtlenecks and beefy combat boots. The album’s cover (shot in photographer Maria Mochnacz’s bathroom) piggybacked on the preceding year’s nudity “controversy,” showcasing a nude Harvey whipping talons of drenched hair across the stark, monochromatic frame. Despite outcry from Island Records, the warts-and-all photo served as the crowning jewel to some of the decade’s most love scorned songs. 

TO BRING YOU MY LOVE [1995] 

“It’s that combination of being quite elegant and funny and revolting, all at the same time that appeals to me. I actually find wearing make-up like that, sort of smeared around, as extremely beautiful. Maybe that’s just my twisted sense of beauty.” —PJ Harvey to SPIN (1996) 

After retreating from the spotlight for two years and using album royalties to buy a house in the English countryside, Harvey decided to part ways with her trio and go it alone as a solo artist with a little black book of collaborators. With Flood manning the boards to produce her swamp stomp blues masterpiece, Harvey ushered in her most theatrical era with To Bring You My Love. Harvey continued to wax poetic on themes like love and loss, this time adopting the perspective of a woman willing to sacrifice anything—and anyone—to satiate her carnal desires. 

Despite never being baptized or immersed in religion, TBYML houses Harvey’s most spiritual imagery, rubbing elbows with Heaven, God, and Jesus Christ along her hedonistic warpath. These otherworldly subjects are complemented by expansive soundscapes speckled with bells, organs, vibraphone, and dueling guitars. Hell is other people, but for Harvey, it’s also where she finds the man she loves most. 

Dubbed the “Joan Crawford on Acid” phase by Harvey herself, the TBYML era ushered in bawdy costuming, from show-stopping ball gowns and smeared makeup to hot pink catsuits and bouffant wigs. Harvey’s discomfort with fame manifested itself in her hyper-femme persona, and its contrariness only fueled the public’s fascination with the young songwriter.

IS THIS DESIRE? [1998]

Recorded during what Harvey refers to as an “incredibly low patch,” her fourth studio album is remembered as her most vulnerable work. A departure from her previous full-lengths, both lyrically and sonically, Harvey approaches her tried-and-true subjects of love and all the bullshit that comes with it from a landscape of keyboards, electronics, and acoustic guitar. 

Many of her songs are told through a dominant female perspective, including the monstrous hit “A Perfect Day Elise.” As the first PJ Harvey album to have its lyrics printed on its sleeve, ‘Is This Desire?’ is pocked with emotional pinpricks and land mines alike, and no one is safe. 

Remaining faithful to the album’s air of self-possession, Harvey’s fashion throughout the late ‘90s exemplified a woman becoming reacquainted with herself. Sporting Bettie Page bangs, mussed hair, and light-handed makeup, fans found Harvey in recovery from the bombastic ‘To Bring You My Love’ years as she ruminated on her next transformation. 

STORIES FROM THE CITY, STORIES FROM THE SEA [2000]

Harvey’s jangling, howling interpretation of pop music was met with overwhelming acclaim and nabbed her the 2001 Mercury Prize. Stories greets a new collaborator in Harvey’s tight-knit circle of friends—Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, who lent his trademark falsetto to the gossamer background of “Mess We’re In.” Power ballads like the gloriously billowing “Big Exit” and thumb thumping “Kamikaze” remind us that the trademark Harvey spunk is still bubbling beneath that freshly ironed pantsuit. 

Trading primal rhythms and ham-fisted manifestos for slick urban landscapes and electro sheen, Harvey’s foray into the new millennium meditates on the dangers of modernization, the pangs of aging, and the incessant fight for individualism. With ‘Stories’ Harvey confirmed that she is one of the greatest artists of both her time and all time. 

Harvey greeted the new century with a city slicker style that matched the sonic luster of her new sound. The album’s cover surmises her newly adopted Americanized aesthetic, wrapped in a couth black dress accessorized with a gold satchel and steely stare. Harvey also briefly revisited her exposed lingerie look of the mid-90s, this time utilizing dark tones and surprising pieces, like a glitter, transparent black turtleneck. Donning mostly monochromatic ensembles and contemporary silhouettes, Harvey flaunted her ability to adapt to the times, in respect to both her career and her closet. 

UH HUH HER [2004]

Harvey took her hands-on approach to soaring new heights with her self-produced album ‘Uh Huh Her,’ opting to play every instrument (save for drums, a duty eventually relinquished to Rob Ellis). Recorded over the course of two years spent pin-ponging between East Devon and Los Angeles, Harvey’s restlessness is palpable amidst the album’s murky tales of displacement and dissatisfaction. Revisiting the dirt and grit of her breakthrough debut, Harvey harnesses the intimacy that made her such a wunderkind in the past in electrifying new ways. 

Harvey dabbled with the punk aesthetic of her early days, hacking her raven locks into a textured shag and slipping into skimpy minidresses trimmed in garish colors. Though Harvey began to shed skin onstage and dabble outside of her elemental black-and-white getups, she would never trump the glamour of her mid-90s frocks. 

The UHH period was a very self-aware one for Harvey, and it was reflected in the album’s packaging, whose inner-sleeve was decorated with a long set of self-portraits and handwritten annotations gleaned during the album’s recording process. These scribbles included notes like “Scare yourself,” “Too normal?” and “All that matters is my voice and my story.” 

WHITE CHALK [2007] 

“I work on words, mostly, toward them being poetry or short stories, and then some become songs. They all find their place in the world, but they all start off in the same place…I’m not quite sure what the next project needs to be until it presents itself, and then I know. I just follow dutifully while I’m being led.” —PJ Harvey to The A.V. Club

After whispers of retirement rose to grumbles, Harvey defied naysayers and loyal fans alike with ‘White Chalk.’ Ditching her favored guitar for piano—an instrument that she was barely familiar with at the time—and the autoharp, Harvey cobbled together her bleakest songs yet. Striving to expand her oeuvre both topically and musically, Harvey weaves the history of her home country one bereft melody at a time. 

Stemming from her learning curve with the piano, Harvey’s melodies are feather fingered and fragile. Trekking in the high end of her contralto range, Harvey’s voice sounds windswept and glassy, whether she’s lulling through a slow waltz (“Dear Darkness”) or echoing across a bed of reverb swaddled autoharp (“White Chalk”). 

For the White Chalk era, Harvey continued her partnership with Maria Mochnacz’s sister Anna, which began during the Uh Huh Her tour. In order to bring Harvey’s concept of sprite poet to life, Mochnacz sourced her fabric from vintage shops and adapted 18th century dress patterns. The resulting frocks, through hardy and amor-like, were adorned with delicate details; one dress was stitched with snippets of Harvey’s lyrics, while another featured a hemline made of mirror shards. The fastidious costuming mirrors the theatricality of mid-‘90s Harvey while bringing her interest in her country’s roots to the forefront. 

LET ENGLAND SHAKE [2011] 

An album thriving on innovation and alternative history, Let England Shake is an epic triumph in Harvey’s robust catalog. A critical achievement, as well, LES nabbed Harvey her second Mercury Prize, making her the most successful artist in the prize’s history. In the album’s 12 tracks, Harvey assumes the role of wartime poet, retelling the history of her homeland, one that is tilled and toiled by the blood of its own. 

Throughout the album’s arduous two-and-a-half year writing process, Harvey culled inspiration from poets including Harold Pinter and T.S. Eliot, along with Salvador Dali, The Pogues, and the Velvet Underground. She continued the vocal experimentation that began with White Chalk in order to reinforce her role as the story’s narrator, breaking free from the confines of character. Harvey’s fixation on politically charged subject matter (militarism, the Afghan War, the Gallipoli Campaign) and continued collaboration with cinematographer Seamus Murphy laid crucial building blocks for Harvey’s newfound journalistic approach to songwriting that would become fully realized with Harvey’s next release, ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project.’

Continuing to draw inspiration from fashion of centuries bygone, Harvey’s stage costumes were modeled after sensational Victorian fashion. Many of the tour’s pieces were designed by Ann Demeulemeester and were complemented by matching feather headdresses. Stiff and simple compositions, the ‘LES’ ensembles traded the filigreed armor of the White Chalk era for more simple and stunning machinations. 

THE HOPE SIX DEMOLITION PROJECT [2016] 

While weaving through Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Wasington D.C. alongside Seamus Murphy between 2011 and 2014, Harvey compiled material that would birth The Hope Six Demolition Project and a poetry book titled ‘The Hollow of the Hand.’ Harvey shook up her artistic method by opening her recording process to the public in the form of an art exhibition at London’s Somerset House (aptly dubbed ‘Recording In Progress’).

The album’s title is a reference to the HOPE VI housing projects, which Harvey saw firsthand while touring Washington D.C. alongside Murphy and ‘The Washington Post’ reporter Paul Schwartzman. The project is directly reference in the LP’s opener and lead single “The Community of Hope,” which drew hearty criticism from Capitol Hill. The entire of the THSDP is viewed through a voyeuristic perspective and focuses on relaying the stories of those affected by war in global landscapes previously unexplored by Harvey’s authorial gaze. 

Harvey resurfaced in the limelight with a demure, all-black and navy wardrobe. Embracing her newly adopted citizen journalist role, her outfits enable her to settle into her characters’ landscapes and shirk any rockstar gleam. Sporting slim-cut blazers, long and unkempt locks, and lax silhouettes, Harvey’s new wardrobe bears an undeniable resemblance to that of her contemporary Patti Smith. While Harvey’s current fashion choices seem forgettable and homogenized, it is no doubt an integral facet of the next character—and world—she is striving to build one song at a time. 

Songwriting, Astrology, and DIY: A Conversation With Told Slant's Felix Walworth


via Bandcamp

By Gabrielle Diekhoff

There are innumerable nameless bands out there who can prick a tear or two from listeners’ eyes. The recipe for musically-induced water-works is a simple one – slap some classically sad-boy “come back and drink coffee with me in the rain, my sweet ex-girlfriend” lyrics atop abysmal chord progressions, and voila, you have a certified bummer-of-a-song that’s universally vague enough to result in some salt-soaked faces. (In other words, we have all cried to Bon Iver at some point in our lives, whether we want to admit it or not). But, there are those kinds of digestibly depressing jams, and then there are those which, in stark contrast, repeatedly punch you in the gut, rip your heart out with their fist, proceed to stomp on it, and leave it to wither like a raisin the sun. Told Slant is one of those rare bands that falls into the latter category – a category which, all jests aside, is a realm that revels in its sheer poetic vulnerability, and thus, is worth cherishing.

So far, the Brooklyn-based bedroom punk band has released two full-length LPs: Still Water in 2012, and Going By, which was released almost exactly a year ago in June 2016. Quite frankly, both have managed to ruin my life (in the best possible way, of course) with their stunningly radical honesty. The band’s frontperson and drummer, Felix Walworth (who uses gender neutral pronouns), manages to pave paths which permit access to the seemingly inaccessible facets of human emotion. I’m sure that, until I stumbled upon their Bandcamp, I had never encountered such deeply personal, romantic lyricism, simultaneously tinged with an unthreatening urgency, a yearning unfulfilled, a loss and a rawness that listeners would be forced to experience alongside Walworth. To me, the project was flawless. So much so, in fact, that after attending their sophomore album release show in Brooklyn last summer, I impulsively decided to tattoo their album artwork onto my body using a push-pin and some ink courtesy of a local craft store. I was hooked.

Fortunately for me, Walworth’s recent tour-dates with Hello Shark and Anna McClellan included a stop in Madison, Wisconsin, where they would play a harrowing solo set to a room full of teary-eyed listeners – including myself – sitting cross-legged on the floor of a co-op. Before the show, Walworth and I grabbed some coffee and perched ourselves near the lakeshore for what turned out to be more of a free-flowing conversation than a formal interview. Check out the conversation, which covers topics ranging from shitty piano lessons, astrology, and Blink-182, to the concept of safe spaces and the commodification of queer culture, below.


How long have you been on tour this go-round?

This is the 7th day – we left this past Monday. It’s a very short tour though. It’s an 11-day tour, very tame. I’m being nice to myself this time.


And this is a solo tour, right? Can you talk about the differences between being behind your drum kit and performing with a full band vs. being on stage with only a guitar?

There’s a huge difference in the feel of it and what’s possible to convey. It’s the same songs, regardless of the arrangement, and the words stay the same, so to a certain extent the content and the message remain the same. But, playing solo feels a lot more nerve-wracking and vulnerable. There’s no one to really hide behind, whereas there’s a veneer to the live band. First of all, when I’m with the band, I can trust the songs are going to sound [more or less] the same each night. I’m playing an instrument I’m more comfortable with, with a steadier sound system in venues that are well-equipped. So, that allows for shows to be more emphasized on performance, which I really like, and I think other people tend to like it [more]. But solo has a different, special quality to me. I can’t hide. It’s the way that the songs were originally written – performed in their barest state, where the focus is almost entirely on the lyrics, which is mostly what I emphasize in the songwriting process in the first place, or what I labor over most. So, sometimes it can feel like the full band is a really intentional, well-curated iteration of my music, but sometimes it can also feel like bells and whistles. It’s nice to be able to perform these things with no frills, knowing that even without excitement and energy that these songs still have meaning. And, maybe you can hone in on the somberness of them, more so, if you’re in a solo set. Also, whenever I play solo, no one talks, which is pretty amazing.

The main difference to me feels like, one of intimacy vs. polished-ness. The people who really appreciate the songs for what they are and what they have to say might actually prefer the solo sets, whereas the people who like guitars and, I don’t know, being a punk, prefer the full band. Not to disparage the full band – I like them both – but I feel like I always have to justify the solo sets.  


How did you start making music?

I took piano lessons when I was really young … I suppose that’s important information? But I’m pretty awful at piano to this day. Because I was instructed in it, I have this relationship to the instrument as work, like obligation, which didn’t feel particularly creative to me. So, you know, I would learn classical pieces and standard songs, and I wouldn’t write. I was also remarkably bad at sight-reading. I never had a knack for that, so a lot of what I would do at piano lessons was ear-training stuff. You know, sort of developing a sense of melody, chords, and a more abstract side to music, which I definitely do find applicable to what I do now.

I do think of myself as untrained, despite that early instruction. I picked up guitar by myself, picked up drums by myself – that was all self-taught. I guess I owe a bit of that to these piano lessons, in some way, but not in a classical sense … if that makes sense.
 

Yeah, I totally get that. I took violin lessons for 13 years and sight-reading was a total shitshow for me, too. I liked the violin at first, but after a while it just felt like a job, and I hated it, so I finally called it quits.

Yeah, I took piano lessons till I was in 9th grade, maybe? I forget when I started, but I was entering the time in my life when I was like, “I don’t wanna play piano, I wanna drink 40s and smoke blunts in the park…like, I have bad shit to do. I don’t wanna be a pianist, that shit is for nerds.” [laughs] But now you look back and like, how sick would it be if you could shred the violin and I could read music? I would be really employable. Another true story of 40s and blunts and stuff like that, leading us to make bad decisions. [laughs]
 

Can you tell me a little bit about The Epoch? I don’t know if this is still a project, or if it disbanded, because I’ve heard different things … but how did you get involved in that?

No, it’s not still a thing. It’s sort of, well, it’s a bit of an unclear thing from the get-go. I grew up with a lot of the people that I still collaborate with. We were all making music together in high school, and we had shitty rock bands that we would play in together, but we also had individual song-writing projects and we grew up sharing our songs with each other and critiquing each other. And, ya know, we were showing up for each other not only to encourage each other to make stronger work, but also just to be friends. We were all around the same age, and most of us went to different colleges when we were 18. So, the Epoch began as a way of keeping in touch and maintaining that feel of community and connectedness even though we were living in different cities. So, we were like, we’re still these really similarly-minded songwriters, but we no longer play all of these shows together. It was more of a promise, if that makes sense. Then, from there, we all ended up moving back to Brooklyn [4 years later], and it was just this umbrella collective-thing. We were like, our projects are all related, people ought to know this.

I thought first and foremost that it served as a good model for people, especially people in other cities where collectivity is more important or rarer than it is in New York. It was a way to say, hey, you can very easily get together and make art together and be supportive, all you really need are a couple of friends and the will to do it. We would get funny messages where people would be like, “How do I join the Epoch?” And it wasn’t like that. There was no joining or not – it wasn’t a label, it was just like, we’ve been doing this thing together and have formed a bond in this way. So, if that’s a useful model for you, you can do something similar. I guess the other thing that was sort of unique about it was it was that it was just a small handful of bands, but also a small handful of people. Everyone was rotating around a primary songwriter. So, having a model where everyone came together to fully articulate one songwriter’s vision was a really cool idea. The arrangement there was that, sure, you may be taking a backseat on this project, but you know that the person you’re backing up is also going to take a backseat in your project when you need them. So, yeah. I think it served as a non-hierarchical organizational model, which I liked.

But, as a result of it being this sort of vague entity that was more or less just friends who did this thing together, it didn’t really survive conflict and bad communication.  I don’t really want to get into the nitty-gritty of it, but I think that when it started to become this thing that resembled more of a brand than anything else, and there became power and social capital attached to it. It became this unwieldy machine that made people feel hurt or excluded, which was the opposite of its intention. So, you know, it became this thing that was like, “how is this even functioning anymore, is this doing any good? Or is this just making it harder to communicate with each other?” So, we were just like, “let’s not.” If that makes sense.
 

Told Slant’s sound is so unique. I’ve spent so much time scouring the internet for similar-sounding bands, but aside from other musicians you work with (Bellows, Small Wonder, etc.), it’s super difficult. From where do you draw inspiration?

A lot of it comes from people I’ve been collaborating with forever. Like, Oliver is someone in particular. I feel like our styles have bounced off of one another a lot, over the years.
 

Yeah, I dig Bellows too.

Oliver is…an amazing songwriter. I think he has definitely taught me how to take more risks. I don’t know if he knows he has taught me to take more risks, but sometimes I feel like Bellows is a riskier project, in a lot of ways. He does a lot of strange things that, you know, a lot of songwriters would be afraid to do, but he really succeeds. And I think that’s really pushed me to try different ideas out, rather than playing it safer. But, in terms of other people, Lincoln from Hello Shark has been a huge inspiration. And another band that has been super formative for me is Attic Abasement. Mike’s songwriting is incredible.

Also, I used to write more “traditional” folky music, and it was a bit wordier, in that sort of Kimya Dawson/Jeffery Lewis vein, when I was in high school. There were a lot of fast chords. I’m hesitant to call it folk punk, because I never really felt like a folk punk. But, hearing songwriters who allowed their songs to take up a lot more space and who approach writing lyrics with heaviness that felt emotionally risky – that was pretty formative for me, too. You know like, Phil Elverum, or Joanna Newsom when she drops an intimate lyric bomb on you. Artists like that showed me that there was space outside of cleverness or wordplay or craft. It sort of ceased to be about rhyming or meter. I don’t know, I think just used to try to be a little bit more clever, and now I’m more interested in…. [pause]
 

Vulnerability?

Yeah! Vulnerability is a good way to put it. Also just like, trying to find secret paths to feelings that we have and don’t exactly know how to describe well.


Sounds like an Aquarius thing of you to say.

[laughs] You know what I mean, though? It’s so easy to fall into cliché or to say something like, “I miss you,” for example. “I miss you” is this huge thing as a songwriter. Probably 25 percent of songs in existence are trying to say, “I miss you.” And, I think usually, “I miss you” doesn’t cut it. You can’t really just say it. I mean, Blink-182 did it [laughs]. But like, how do you get at that feeling of longing or sadness in relation to a person, like a lacking feeling, without treading where so many people have already tread? I think I’m interested in things like that.


I mean, you do that well. One of the first things about Told Slant that caught my attention were the lyrics. Especially when it comes to ideas of identity and self-expression, you manage to articulate the feelings associated with that so successfully – a lot of your songs just hit the nail on the head. I know that, as a listener, I lean on them. I use them to feel and express things that I don’t exactly know how to, otherwise, like gender identity, sexuality, etc.

Sure.


Do you rely on your own songwriting for that kind of thing? Do you use it as a tool for self-expression?  

I don’t know… that’s an interesting question and a question I hear from people a lot. Like, this relationship between writing and self-therapy, almost. You know what I mean? Like, “is songwriting helping you?” And I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if I rely on songwriting to articulate things to myself; I think I rely more on other people’s songwriting for that, honestly. My songwriting isn’t necessarily revelatory for me. It’s satisfying. There’s that moment when you’re like …. [pause] OK, is it tacky if I use one of my own lyrics as an example? Or my relationship to writing a lyric, recently?


No! Go for it. I’m here for this.

Ok, so I wrote this song recently as a collaborative project with my friend James, who makes beats under the name JCW. I sort of just wanted to write a sappy love song, which I don’t usually do. I feel like most of my songs trudge through something, but with this one I was in a place where I was like, “this is appropriate right now,” and I wanted to write something that was going to shine a little bit of light in a more blatant way. You know, I was trying to convey this feeling of like – you know when you’re hanging out with someone, and you have these really strong, exciting feelings for them, but you haven’t really established them? Like, you haven’t kissed or anything or you haven’t said “I like you” or anything so you’re just like, “unnghhhhh.” It’s like one of the sweetest, nicest feelings but it’s also very difficult to articulate. Like, how do you convey that giddiness without saying something stupid like “giddiness.” I would never say that in a song. And, no one would care if I did because it wouldn’t be an interesting way of saying that. But I ended up on this lyric, which was “I want the space between us on the couch to be the loudest thing on earth, to be so heavy that it hurts.” Do you know what I mean when I say that?


Yeah, I do. It just melted my heart a little bit.

[laughs] Thanks. But, I mean, this is why I feel tacky, because I’m using my own lyric, feeling as I’ve succeeded, but in that moment I was like, I found this secret access point to this feeling through this smaller image. I was able to say so much more than I could have by being more poetic than that, or something. Getting at the biggest possible feeling through the smallest possible description just makes me feel really good. I think it’s much more impactful to sneak up on people.


Right, more memorable, too. Though I guess you can lump those together.

Yeah. I’m hesitant to say ‘relatable,’ because I feel like relatability has to do with that, and a lot of good songwriting needs to leave space for the audience to write onto it, and to be in it. But, it’s a different kind of relatability. It’s not this instant recognition of like, “Oh, that’s me.” I prefer to use specific details about my life, or sort of mundane feelings or images that are too specific on their own to be relatable, but in the context of the song or the melody, can trigger a feeling or something. It’s difficult to talk about.


So, as an artist in the DIY community, how important is it to you that your shows are a safe space? Are there ways in which you try to ensure that they are safe?

That is really important to me. But, it’s also such a difficult thing to create. I’m not sure I believe that I can say that my shows ought to be a safe space, or are. I would never claim that. I don’t think it’s responsible to claim that because I think that anyone has the capacity to do harm. I don’t really believe in safe people. I’d like to believe that there are certain ways or directions that my songwriting would steer a listener toward that preclude certain behavior or discourages it, or encourages other ways of interacting with each other that are outside of harm, manipulation, and all of the things that, you know, we try to have alternative communities to combat ….  But there are people who interpret my music in ways that are out of my control, too.  I’ve had people at my shows where I can tell that they relate to certain songs in ways that I never meant them to, and ways that make me feel like the space isn’t safe – particularly songs that can be read as more bitter or aggressive. When certain people respond to certain songs – well, let me use a specific example. Do you know the song “Ohio Snow Falls?”
 

Yeah!

I feel like that song can be read as a sort of, “fuck you.” And, I think that can be useful sometimes, like, “fuck you” doesn’t necessarily mean that “I’m going to cause you harm,” but I just get a little uncomfortable.  It’s happened a few times – when like, a cis dude in the audience requests the song, or I’m playing the song and he responds to it in this really physical way. The song has a distorted guitar in it, and it’s a bit heavier, and I feel like I have to be responsible for the fact that I could writing a song for him to hate his girlfriend to or something, you know? Obviously, that’s not the song that I wrote, but at the same time, it’s his to take and do something bad with. So, when that’s happening at a show, I don’t know whether or not I can call it a safe space, exactly. The way that I’ve chosen to respond to that is reading the room, gauging the way I feel that people are responding to my music, and planning sets that won’t allow that kind of energy to be present. I’ve had to deny that song to people before because I’m like, “I don’t trust you and this song isn’t for you.”
 

For sure. I was at the Going By release show at Shea Stadium last summer, and that was, for a lot of reasons, so beautiful, and it really did feel like a comfortable space. But when I saw y’all later at the Bowery Ballroom show [with The Hotelier], there was a totally different vibe due to all of the cis white men in the room who were taking up so much space. I wasn’t able to be as present during your set because of the people who were around me.

Yeah, and I feel like I can confidently say that if I’m curating a show, that the space won’t have that kind of energy in it. But, you know, sometimes those guys will show up to a show that I’m headlining and, luckily, crucially, that’s a small demographic of people who listen to my music because it’s not written for them. Like, aside from the distorted guitars and the occasional “woe is me” lyric, there’s not a lot for them to relate to [laughs]. So, that’s good. I think that’s a victory. But to circle back and answer the question as it was asked, I believe in doing everything that is possible that you know how to do to create a culture of good communication and responsibility to one another in our spaces. But, I don’t believe that purity [of that] exists anywhere.
 

What are your thoughts on the notion that queer bands are “selling out” and commodifying their queerness?

Well, I want to tread lightly, because I want to assume that most people are not trying to sell queer identity. And, I don’t think that queer identity has much transactional value – except for when it does, which is strange and corrupted. I mean, as soon as capital is attached to anything, you’re going to get people who are trying to cash in. I think about this quite a bit because of the way in which my music is framed. Like, sometimes Told Slant is a queer band, sometimes it’s just a band; neither of those things make me uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t want to be “THE queer band,” you know?  

Usually in mainstream markets, queer art is still undervalued, and queer voices are underrepresented. Especially queer people whose identities are even further out on the margins, they’re even less able to turn those perspectives into actual material support from markets. But then, there are certain ways in which queer identities are tokenized in those markets and given some kind of value as commodity. The notion that there aren’t a lot of queer bands or that there is a scarcity of queer art is simply untrue. There’s this idea that there can only ever be one, that there’s one group that’s called upon to represent an array of lived experiences. That model, which is definitely a capitalist model, is responsible for disappointment. Like, what are you to do when a mainstream market, or the music industry, is only willing to give a voice to one queer perspective? And then you as the listener find the perspective doesn’t line up much [or at all] with your lived experience? Where are you supposed to turn? So, in the name of representing queerness, I think capitalism is super limiting, or provides this really limited feel. Then there’s the question of like, who is responsible for that commodification? Is it an industry? Or is it the artists involved in that? Or both at the same time? If the industry wants to tokenize a certain brand of queer identity, and an artist fills that certain narrative for media, I’m not sure that… Well, actually I don’t think assigning blame is the solution. It’s just kind of sad situation in general. That’s the process of commodification.
 

I know from personal experience that your music can be majorly impactful and meaningful, especially to members of the queer community. Do you have a lot of fans telling you how much your art means to them? If so, how do you react in these instances?

I get quite a few people who have come up to me and told me that the music I make, and specifically the words that I write, have helped them through a lot of confusing relationships that they have had with gender, sexuality, and other things. And I don’t know, I never feel like – and I think this is a good thing – I don’t feel like people look to my music as representative of THE queer experience. There’s a difference between finding a queer voice that speaks to you, and looking for some kind of all-encompassing map for how to live. People don’t ask me for advice or things, really. People don’t really come to me with their problems, though that’s happened a few times …  I mean, OK, there’s a fair share of people who will lay it all out there for me, and I try to be helpful where I can, though those expectations aren’t always realistic. Like, a lot of what I’m writing is about confusion and uncertainty, it’s not coming from a place of having things figured out. I don’t record with an understanding of myself or my relationship with other people, I just like talking about them, if that makes sense?
 

Yeah, I think so. So do you ever feel like you’re put on a pedestal?

I don’t really think I’m put in an uncomfortable spotlight with regards to the things I’m trying to talk about with my music. I’m not trying to speak for anyone. I think people understand that. I’m not saying that my lyrics don’t coincidentally speak to others’ experiences, but I’m not really on a pedestal. And that’s good. I think there are a lot of dangerous things that can happen when you’re put on that pedestal and you don’t reckon with the responsibility that comes with being on it.

If/when I have a relationship to certain artist’s lyrics, and I feel like this person truly understands me or something, like they’ve lived my experiences and their words can serve as a map for me, a lot of those times I don’t have access to those people as people. They just exist as voices in headphones. But I’m like, fairly easy to hunt down if you want to find me, and I’m open to talking to people. So, sometimes people do talk to me when I’ve been able to reach them artistically, and I think people might expect me to know how to comfort them. Like, if someone is going through something really rough, and if they have a connection with my songwriting, then they think that talking to me is going to help, which is weird. I don’t think that’s really true. I mean, maybe it could be sometimes. I get some weird stuff though. Sometimes people will tell me deeply personal things that I shouldn’t know, and that I end up carrying with me, and they’re extra heavy … And it’s hard. But, I also understand why people do that, I guess. If people have a relationship to the artist’s words, I understand why they would reach out. Sometimes it’s like I just know a lot about a lot of people who do not know me at all. People know a very specific part of me, a part of me that is put through so many filters and curatorial processes, and somehow there’s trust. And I don’t know why. That’s dangerous – really dangerous. And it has something to do with cults of personality around people who have any level of publicness with their art. People project things onto celebrities, but they also project them onto DIY musicians. People think they can trust DIY musicians because they feel like they can trust the art. I think it’s strange that anyone would trust me because of my art. I just see a projection of certain ideas onto people because of the art that they make, or the ways they exist in the public sphere, which are so curated and performative.  I see it with so many artists where there is potential to cause real harm.
 

Totally. This has been a major point in the whole P*R B**M debacle.

Right. I’m feeling very cynical these days. I think it’s a very cynical time in DIY Hell. I’m just feeling like, I don’t trust people to not project unrealistic things onto artists, and I don’t trust artists to keep those narratives in check. I’m kind of a nihilist at this point, but I’m still holding on to some hope that things will get better.



You can keep up with Told Slant here and stream both Still Water and Going By on Spotify.


INTERVIEW: Kamikaze Girls' "Seafoam" and The Healing Power of Punk


COURTESY OF KAMIKAZE GIRLS

COURTESY OF KAMIKAZE GIRLS


By Rosie Accola

Kamikaze Girls’ first full-length record, Seafoam, is aptly named it crashes into the listener, a direct confrontation of feedback and lead singer/ guitarist Lucinda Livingstone’s powerfully raw vocals. This is a record that demands to be heard, Livingstone’s lyrics address societal and personal perceptions of mental health, without so much as a flinch.

Hooligan was lucky enough to catch up with Lucinda over email to talk about the new record, her zine “Ladyfuzz,” the healing power of punk, and pedal-boards.
 

I hear a lot of riot grrrl in your new record, and you reference Robert Smith at one point in “Seafoam”, who are some musicians that inspire you? What were some of your main inspirations for this record?
A couple of big ones for us are The Cure and Sonic Youth. We both really enjoy both bands, as their discography is so varied and they reinvent themselves each album. Both bands are very experimental, yet remain melodic and catchy in their own ways and that's what we take from each. Early Riot Grrrl like Bikini Kill, Sleeper, and L7 is also a big influence, as well as a lot of grunge and Brit pop. I think for me personally, this time around I was hammering the new Touche Amore record, plus revisiting Dirty by Sonic Youth.

How do you think you grew as musicians between the release of “Sad” and your full-length record?
I think the main thing we did was tour and play a bunch. We didn't practice once in 2016 I don't think, we just toured. Everything became muscle memory, and I don't regard myself as a great guitarist or a good vocalist by any stretch. So, from touring I got a whole lot better at playing guitar and singing. I can't really say I've become great, but I have definitely improved in those areas. I think Conor got super tight as a drummer as well. I suppose we'd like to think that when we both got back in the studio and into writing we were both more accomplished musicians. I know one of the things I felt is that I wanted to get out my own head a little more with lyrics. Everything I write is super personal, and although I don't see that changing as it's my writing style, I feel more socially aware and a little braver talking about things that are affecting our generation and our music scene.

Since your zine is called “Lady Fuzz,” would you do me the honor of walking me through your pedalboard set up?
Honour? More like misfortune! I won't go into it too in depth as it'll take up the whole page, but here's my current chain:  Fulltone Drive 2, Blues Driver, EHX Pog 2, Boss Super Chorus, Boss DD7 Delay, Strymon Blue Sky Reverb, Boss RE20, EHX Freeze, EHX Switch Blade (A/B Splitter). This is pretty much identical give or take to what was used on Seafoam. My set up for SAD was a little more modest, haha.

Tell me about “Lady Fuzz.” What’s your favorite thing about making zines?
I like showcasing all my friends work, and that's what “Ladyfuzz" is. I round up creative friends for each issue and ask them to contribute, be it art, illustration, photography, music. I also interview a lot of my friends in bands, which has made for some really great features in previous issues and I see a different side of them. The next best thing is going to pick it up from the printers and praying that I've not made a million mistakes — and that even if I have, it still looks great aha.

How did you discover zines?  Do you have a favorite zine?
I can't really remember how I discovered them to be honest. I remember all the old Riot Grrrl zines from the ‘80s but I never actually owned any of them, I just enjoyed reading about them. I think as I started to get more into Riot Grrrl music and look deeper into feminism and the culture of non-males in punk, I discovered more and more people making zines. As an illustrator and musician, I think a zine fuses these two things together perfectly, so it was a chance for me to have a project based on the two things I love.

One of the tracks on the record is called “Teenage Feelings,” how do you think ideas of teen angst and just being saturated with emotion translate into your twenties and life beyond being a teen?
The song itself is about struggling with sexuality and being confused, and that confusion taking you back to square one — like when you had your first crush. I was in a situation last year when this happened, and caught myself thinking, “My god, how is this happening to me again?” I think, in a way, when you get new feelings about something or someone you almost revert back to the first time that happened and act in the same way. So, for me at the time I had a lot of angst, and confusion and shyness that I didn't expect. I don't think that's a bad thing though.

I love that you wrote a song about cat-calling and feeling unsafe at bars, because that’s such a common experience and people are reluctant to talk about it. Do you find that music helps you process instances of misogyny and sexism?  
“KG Go To The Pub” is a big “fuck you” to every predator out there that's caused a survivor harm or discomfort in any way. The song is to get that anger out. For every time you've wanted to shout something back, to call someone out, or just express that you're hurt by someone’s actions. I think music can help. I think going to a show and getting out your anger and sadness can heal you. We feel things, often very deeply, and sometimes we need an outlet for closure.

You write a lot about your own mental health, and in “Deathcap” you refer to yourself as, “one of those nervous millennials,” how do you think attitudes towards mental health have changed over time?
I think it's becoming less taboo, but I also feel that it's often glamourized in the media. I don't think there's a right answer for how increase awareness for a younger generation without making it either sound stigmatic or beautiful. The truth is that a lot of people suffer with mental health and they deserve the help people that suffer with physical health receive. I think people need to see the reasons why someone might suffer with depression, anxiety, or PTSD so they can understand if they are suffering themselves. I was diagnosed with depression when I was a teenager, and I didn't understand the symptoms or why the Doctor told me that. I just took the pills they gave me and did what I was told. There was no educational piece around it, and my school was just more worried about me passing my exams and not getting pregnant than how my brain was behaving at the time. I really hope they start to bring more mental health education into schools. It's important.

Do you find music and writing to be healing forces?
Yes, completely. Music was my thing growing up and it stayed with me. I was the kid that walked around all day with my headphones in, or put my headphones up my sleeve in class so I could listen to my favourite C.D. instead of paying attention to science or something. If I didn't have headphones, I used to sing my way through albums in my head. That sounds weird now that I think of it, but everything I did revolved around music.  The second I got a guitar and started trying to write songs, I knew it had a healing power for me. I don't think it makes a difference what age I am, or if I'm in a band or not, the art of writing songs will always be therapeutic for me.

What part of this record are you the most proud of?
That’s a tough question— probably the vocals on “KG Pub” and “Sad Forever.” I did them both in one take in the middle of the night on the last day in the studio. Bob, Conor and myself were stressed. It didn't seem like we were going to finish the record, we'd run out of time, and Bob had people coming in to track another record straight after us. We were all at the end of our tethers, and I did them both in one take. I came back into the control room and they were both beaming at me. I think the emotion and anger in both those songs really affected me that night, and I don't know if it will come across on the record, but I was physically shaking after I'd done the vocals on those two.

You can stream Seafoam on Spotify today. You can snag a copy of “Ladyfuzz” here.


Restoring Queer Narratives in Art with Re-gayze

Interview by Deborah Krieger.

When I heard that Blake Oetting, a member of the Swarthmore Class of 2018 and an art historian, was working on a project that aimed to shed a light on queer artists’ identities within the contexts of their works, I was immediately intrigued. Featuring artists ranging from Mickalene Thomas to Jasper Johns to Michelangelo, Re-gayze uses Instagram (and an eponymous website) to share thoughtful, informative blurbs on these artists whose queerness has been erased or censored by time, by history, or by design, in the world of academia and education. I reached out to Blake to talk about his development of Re-gayze, and why the project is vital and necessary for art historians, artists, and art enthusiasts alike.

How did you come up with the idea for this project?  

The project arose chiefly out of my own frustrations with my own art history education not making room for queerness as a thematic consideration within the work of queer artists. Often, an artist’s sexuality is offered as a coincidental and biographical tidbit of information that stands separate from their works’ meaning. Intuitively, I assumed that this was reductive and chose to investigate whether there was any scholarly work standing at the intersection of queer theory and art history. There certainly is, but that work exists within the work of academia mostly, so with Re-gayze, I was hoping to disseminate that information done by scholars in a more democratic fashion. 

What made you realize that there was this pedagogical and historical gap, and how did you decide on this project to fix the problem? 

I also saw a number of articles and talks given by Jonathan David Katz who presents queer art historical work within the context of censorship from museums and other arts institutions. I thought that distilling that spirit of his work, of exhuming the importance of queerness to queer artists’ work, and presenting it as a form of resistance to institutional censorship on a widely available platform like Instagram could potentially get a discussion started around issues of representation in museums for not only queer and trans people, but also for women, people of color, and any marginalized community that falls outside of the dominant milieu. 

On a larger note, how do you feel like queer artists and their lives should be better incorporated into existing canon? (I know women in art history have this kind of question thrown at them all time.)

I think that part of this movement will naturally “out” artists who are deceased, which often stands against the wishes of these artists’ foundations and families but nevertheless must be done. It seems that this process of “outing,” however, has been appropriately centered on understanding their work more fully and not about making a spectacle of their closeted live just for the sake of it. More importantly than focusing on the outing of individual artists, however, is that curators must center shows on issues of queerness in an unabashed, fearless manner. Because of course, the issue of queer censorship in museums is not only a lack of representation, but also the idea that queer identity can not be mapped onto artwork in the same way that issues of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. are done freely.  

Due to the lack of this kind of focus on queer artists specifically in traditional education, how did you begin your own investigation into the lives of these artists like Johns, etc? 

There really is a lot of scholarship on queerness and intersections of verbose queer theory and aesthetics, which is fascinating. Much of what I do on the blog is try and read as much as I can on a specific artist or queer theme within artistic production and distill that into a succinct caption. So, in general, I would say that process of researching the work to producing a blog post is figuring out to best democratize rather esoteric scholarly work.  

How did you come up with the title? 

Every art history student will (hopefully) learn about the male gaze at some point in their career. At some point though, after hearing the term so many times, I began to think people were saying “the male gays,” so the name really came from a joke! On one hand, it reference the queer gaze, which comes up throughout the blog, but also be re-casting this gayze, by re-gayzing, I am making explicit the idea of the blog being a revisionist consideration of modern & contemporary art with a queer lens.  

How do you choose which artists to feature? 

I have a whole set of books in my room that I consult every day to seek out potential artists, but I also receive ideas from my friends and professors about people to feature. I highly encourage submissions! There are so many amazing queer artists that, as a product of their erasure by the art world, are not discussed as widely as they should be, so I depend on people sharing their knowledge with me. 

How far in advance do you plan posts? 

I don’t plan posts ahead of time at all! Every day is a bit of a scramble to fit all the moving pieces together. It really is a lot more work than I thought it would be when beginning the project and I can’t post every day, but I try to. 

Do you want to move Re-Gayze into a more physical form, such as an exhibition or installation, or do you think it really relies on being digital? 

At this point, I think it is most appropriate to stay digital. While it would be amazing to publish a physical production at some point, the platforms on Instagram and Facebook are the most able to reach a large audience I think. 

What made you choose Instagram as a platform? Have you considered Tumblr? I think it might be really good for getting people to share the posts (better than Instagram anyway). 

I chose Instagram and Facebook as the initial platforms to pursue because I was most familiar with them as places where other social campaigns functioned. I have definitely considered expanding to Tumblr, the only issue being I don’t know how to advertise there as effectively. 

As you amass more images and posts in your collection, do you plan to curate it further in any way (creating a section related to AIDS art/activism specifically for example)? 

I have definitely considered doing special projects as offshoots of Re-gayze once I assemble enough material, but I don’t think I’ll know what those will look like thematically until farther down the road. 

Are there media you find yourself drawn to more than others for this project? 

While I have definitely tried to maintain a fairly equal distribution of painting, photography, sculpture etc., the medium that I have become the most invested in is performance, mostly because it is brand new for me. I find that the performance pieces I have looked at are able to articulate entirely new meanings through their incorporation of movement and space in ways that are impossible in a static context. Similarly, video pieces [like those by] Jacolby Satterwhite have been highly influential for this project. 

Do you hope to continue Re-gayze after Swarthmore? How does this kind of academic work factor into your future goals?

I would absolutely love to continue the blog after graduation, as I think there are many avenues to expand and improve it when I have more time. After Swarthmore, I definitely plan on getting a doctorate and working to be a curator of 20th century art, so Re-gayze is also, in some sense, preparing me for my professional life but it chiefly a project for the art world and queer communities searching for representation throughout visual history.  

Photo courtesy of Blake Oetting.

Photo courtesy of Blake Oetting.

What kind of feedback have you received on your work so far? How have you taken it to heart, if at all? 

I have received a lot of support from friends, professors, and some of the featured artists. It seems that my suspicion, that queer people have been looking for an account (like I was) is indeed the case. This support has been so encouraging because, again, the entire point of the blog was situating queer people within art history, so the fact that this made queer people in and out of the art world is incredibly satisfying for me. 

What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with Re-gayze? 

The goal with Re-gayze has, and always will be, dissemination and (an attempt) at education. It is absolutely crucial that queer people understand themselves as a part of art history, both as subjects and artists. Beyond the important issue of representation, however, Re-gayze also hopes to literally and metaphorically queer the art world as a means of bringing queer themes into formal art history discourse. The reason the captions are quite lengthy and attempt to cover a lot of scholarly ground is that this account is really aimed at speaking in the language of the art history discipline to show how queerness has been and can be a part of that discussion. 

INTERVIEW: Emily Blue

By Cody Corrall

Emily Blue is a force to be reckoned with. Her debut album, Another Angry Woman, was a vulnerable look into rape culture and being a woman in this day and age. Another Angry Woman was entirely nonprofit, with all proceeds going to R.A.C.E.S: the Rape Advocacy, Counseling, and Education Services in Illinois. She is also the frontwoman of two Illinois based Indie bands: BOYCUT, and Tara Terra, who just released their newest album Where’s Your Light? n May. 

Since then, Emily Blue has been on a musical evolution. Her newest singles, “Blackberries // Rico Acid” have a more summer pop flavor, but don’t hold back on the messages from her earlier work. We sat down with Emily to talk about growth, her advocacy work, and her love for Chicago.

Photos by Emily Blue

Photos by Emily Blue


Your music has really evolved since Another Angry Woman, how has your growth as an artist changed and/or evolved your sound?

After Another Angry Woman came out, I felt absolutely drained. I had put all my time and effort into raising funds for R.A.C.E.S. + the album, in addition to talking repeatedly about multiple traumas. So honestly, I wanted to move toward an outlet that felt joyful, empowered, and fun. 

I went to Chicago partially because I wanted to run away from the things that had happened to me -- I was overwhelmed and needed a change. I met my friend Max Perenchio and we started working on these crazy pop tunes, and I fell in love with production and pop music all over again. I’d say I evolved into an artist that wants to spread joy and move forward, to dance around and be silly. There’s so much value in being able to have fun, laugh.

You strive for activism and social change, especially with your work with R.A.C.E.S. Do you think your music is political? Do you revel in that label or do you try to distance the art from the activism?

I think my music is extremely personal, but you know the expression, “the personal is political.” I view my traumas as a reflection of a society that perpetuates very similar traumas. I don’t try to make it inherently political, but of course art always plays a role in the political climate.

At the end of the day I want Another Angry Woman to support survivors, to resonate with them. I want it to challenge rape culture and gender inequality.

I really respect how you acknowledge other experiences and identities, specifically in the "No Pain" video. Why is that so important to you as an artist who speaks on issues like this?

I think that it’s vital to acknowledge that our experiences differ based on our identities. For example, I have the huge privilege of being white and cisgender. This means that I’m less vulnerable statistically to certain types of violence and discrimination. In the video, I just wanted to open it up to anyone who was dealing with the pain of sexual assault. Sexual assault rates intersect in very complex ways based on identities, with trans people of color being perhaps the most vulnerable. We definitely don’t talk about it enough.

How does Chicago act as a home-base for your work? What do you love about the music scene here?

Chicago is beautiful. In my heart, Chicago is this electric entity with tons of different personalities and infinite avenues to explore. I love the hip hop scene especially, because everyone is so genuine, so supportive. I love the artists in the city and cannot wait to dive in even more.

You can buy Another Angry Woman, Blackberries // Rico Acid, or see her live in Chicago on 6/16 at Martyr's supporting Matthew Santos and Christopher the Conquered.

Artist Profile: Udita Upadhyaya

Words & Cloth, An Afternoon with Udita Upadhyaya

By Allison Shyer

Vibhajan II: Revisiting the Line

Vibhajan II: Revisiting the Line

I feel like I’m always performing everything even when nobody’s looking.

Udita Upadhyaya and I are in the living room. We are both slightly disheveled and drinking cold coffee. The first time we met was at a symposium on art and labor at Hume Gallery, Trump had recently been elected, we were all feeling exhausted and inconsolable. As I would grow to know Udita better, I would come to understand that she sees her work as both labor and play, a practice that allows her to be in touch with the unfamiliar within herself and outside.

An Inventory : Remnants from a constellation of lived performances

An Inventory : Remnants from a constellation of lived performances

The day of our interview Udita and I took a walk around gloomy Humboldt park. The air was humming with newness as well as uncertainty; I have often felt that it is the ability to thrive in this climate that has brought Udita and I together as artists and friends. 

What struck me first about Udita was her brash vulnerability, her ability to navigate her own emotion and where it fits into the climate of art and the broader world. Udita’s work exists at the intersection of the body, language and material exploration -- her recent work  An Inventory: Remnants From a Constellation of Lived Performances exists in synchronicity with its viewers, who are instructed to stand in front of the large panels of scattered text and read them out loud. The language of the piece--bodily and intimate--exists in English with scattered flecks of Hindi, words that were important to the feeling of the text but lacking in English translations that did them justice.

Instead of flattening their meaning, Udita chose to include them as they were to her and without translation in her body of text. Translation, and the mystery and pain that can lie on either side of that process, are a driving force for Udita. Language itself, a churning mystery, an inheritance, a wound, a body.

Udita: English is our language too and English is as much mine as it is anybody else’s. I have been feeling guilty about losing Hindi and I have been trying to figure out why, and I think it comes from [the feeling that]  “oh that’s the language of the colonizers.” that’s an important thing to talk about in post colonial identity -- I'm not speaking someone else's language, I am speaking my own- there’s a complicated history with it but it's mine.”

Much of Udita’s work exists as an inventory of what is hers and what is not quite hers, what is available to her as an artist who exists between two languages is a sense of mystery and mutability. This yearning leads Udita to deconstruction. The intimate textile work You Gift Me Your Spine is a process based exploration of a material through its undoing. The material, treated with utmost care, still diminishes with every time the work is shown.

You Gift Me Your Spine

You Gift Me Your Spine

Udita: I thought of it as a performative process where I was unmaking it with my hands and giving myself permission to interact with it and it started to become very much like text, and this idea of loss and language and I started thinking about how I’m losing my mother tongue--which is not my first language. When I talk about it, it sounds super nostalgic but for me, it comes from this place of feeling frustrated that I could have access to this entire literature from this language because I can’t read it anymore

In this way, the fabric, much like a language slipping from memory, remains familiar while becoming unknown, the structure, laid bare, gives hints in its undoing towards its former use and retains its own obtuse beauty. Udita’s poetic approach to material and abstract approach to language let her treat every object that she encounters like a poem. Later in the day she asked me “do you know how to make rope?” The process for her was so simple that it was revolutionary: wind thread around two pencils and twist, but the exercise must be done by two people in unison. Udita has taught me that an object can be a performance, a performance can be a poem and a poem can be an object; the alchemy of an artist is to learn how to live in discomfort and in grace in-between.

The Psychological Damage of the Bathroom Predator Myth

By Jason Phoebe Rusch

Content Warning: mention of suicide, mental illness, & internalized transphobia


When most people think of OCD, they think of repetitive, compulsive actions- rituals- undertaken to neutralize irrational worry. There’s less awareness of Pure O, a form of OCD in which these rituals are mostly, if not entirely, mental. For example, checking to see whether one is sexually aroused, then interpreting any physical sensation as proof of arousal.

I can’t say whether the right-wing demonization of queer and trans people as perverts and child molesters ultimately determined the content of my OCD obsessions. There are many straight cis people like British journalist and memoirist Rose Bretecher who have had debilitating POCD, or pedophilia OCD, which is similar to harm OCD in that a person is consumed by the fear of hurting others.

When I dropped out of Princeton University in 2008, I had been suicidal for half a decade. If I saw any child, whether a baby or an adolescent, I would have a panic attack, so I tried to stay inside my dorm and avoid anything off-campus. I had trouble sleeping and eating. I was failing all my classes.

In high school, I’d periodically gather my cache of Tylenol and rubbing alcohol to reassure myself. I daydreamed about wandering into the snowy Michigan woods at night, stuffing myself full of pills and lying down by a tree. I’d put out matches on my arms, believing myself deserving of punishment, then judged myself for being an emo cliché. I held pillows over my face (I felt like I was made wrong, a thing that deserved to be smothered) but always chickened out, always came up for air. My mom would kill herself if I died, I knew, and so I couldn’t.

When she drove to Princeton, New Jersey to pick me up and take me home, I smashed a wine glass against a table, on purpose, in the middle of an expensive Italian restaurant, enraged I think by the debt compelling me to stay alive. My mother, though raised on the North Shore of Chicago, has worked her whole life, often multiple jobs, in food service positions that have left her with fallen arches, a high risk for blood clots, sciatica and knees that will need to be replaced this summer. She never finished college because she had to take care of her own mother. I think she was wondering how her impeccably polite and people-pleasing Ivy League daughter, whose accomplishments she bragged about while bartending parties for rich women in Kenilworth, had been replaced by this petulant, disgruntled monster with no gratitude for sacrifice. But honestly, I don’t remember smashing the wine glass so much as I remember her telling me about it, because all I wanted at that point in my life was to be unconscious enough for the pain to go away.

I have a distinct memory of being twelve or thirteen and listening to David Sedaris read an essay about feeling nervous around little boys, not because he was attracted to them but because of the stigma toward gay men. This was on the Walkman my grandmother had given me, my grandmother who I adored and who agreed with my father (a dead-beat, though I don’t hold him entirely culpable for his low level of functioning, his inability to provide care without devolving into rage) that gay people were mentally ill and employers had reason to discriminate against them.

Their homophobia was casual, garden-variety. Neither would be rude to a queer person to their face, except the child they didn’t know was queer. Both my father and grandmother were socially liberal; they tolerated queerness with forbearing distaste so long as it wasn’t “flamboyant” or “shoved in their face.” I’d realized by then that I was more attracted to women than men, but resolved to only date men, to make my life easier by killing the wildness inside me. My mom, though heterosexually identified and not consciously gender non-conforming, was a woman as big as a man who had to work harder than a man to make up for what my father couldn’t or wouldn’t provide. I knew she wanted me to someday meet a nice man like her classmates from New Trier (the high school Mean Girls was based off of) had. She didn’t want me to have to struggle.

Blockbuster still existed then. I rented Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped and murdered in Wyoming in 1993. My heart beat in my whole body while watching it. This movie was the only representation of trans-masculine experience available to me growing up. My early sexual fantasies were vague on particulars but I always pictured myself in the male role, another inconvenience that, like my attraction to women, I thought I could suppress. I developed mental rituals to overwrite the “wrong” sexual thoughts (ones that involved fucking women and having a male body) with the “right” sexual thoughts (which is confusing these days because as a trans guy being vaginally penetrated, especially by cis men, is no longer something I’m “supposed” to enjoy, although I very much do.)

The possibility Brandon Teena represented- the pureness of that freedom, like wind rushing on skin, before it was snuffed out- stirred something in me, but I couldn’t be trans. I just couldn’t. It seemed too improbable, too outlandish. Being trans was a story someone else told while holding a flashlight up to their chin in the dark, but actually being the story yourself. Everyone thinking you were a freak, but acting polite about it. I was the one who felt bad and acted polite, not the freak. Who could know what they felt, these strange people who mutilated their bodies? Of course, I knew exactly what it was like to experience phantom body parts without being an amputee.

Despite or perhaps because of my rationalizations and internalized transphobia, living inside my skin felt humiliating. At school, the boys called me a faggot (somehow, mysteriously, affirming my gender even then, perhaps because eleven-year-old me was in the habit of wearing a red beret with a single clip-on earring and singing loudly to myself in the hallway). The popular girls mock-flirted with me just to laugh at how red my face got. Being a boy without a penis, though I wouldn’t have articulated it that way at the time, felt like something to be ashamed of.

One night a friend of my mom’s came over to dinner with her small children. What if I was a pedophile? I thought, then why would I have that thought if I wasn’t? These thoughts multiplied into a solid mass, an alarm that never stopped ringing. Sometimes it was like the thoughts had a face. They were a voice inside me, relentlessly judgmental and cruel. I processed each of them as data, rather than thoughts; as meaningful, rather than random. Those next five years I hardly felt alive. I truly believed I was evil, that I held the essence of evil inside me. I wondered if I was possessed by demons. The pain rendered me absent, so that people in my life always commented that I seemed to be “in my own world.” My erratic and inconsiderate behavior alienated many.

Now that I am twenty-eight, I have been on Luvox, an SSRI specifically tailored to OCD, for seven years. In 2010 I was able to return to Princeton; in 2015 I finished graduate school. Though mental illness has undoubtedly impacted my academic performance, I am higher-functioning than before. Knowing that you’re not a pedophile unsurprisingly improves one’s quality of life. I’m out as a non-binary trans guy attracted to people of all genders. However much progress I’ve made, rhetoric like that of our new assistant secretary of health and human services Charmaine Yoest- who has referred to trans people as “crazy” “creatures,” told parents they should worry about having trans people around their children and dismissed health care for trans people as a “joke”- still has the power to hurt me.

Besides the massive advantage of growing up in a tax district like the North Shore, I presented as a feminine woman for most of my life and dated cis men. Some trans people would say I’m not really trans because I’ve socially but not medically transitioned. Dysphoria, like anything else, is a spectrum. People suffer from it to varying degrees, often concerning different parts of their body. While most trans guys have severe top dysphoria, I think my breasts are pretty cute. Growing up, I actually felt ashamed of how small they were, because I thought their size made me less attractive to men. Phalloplasty, or more colloquially, dick surgery, is not a solution to my fairly intense genital dysphoria, both because of cost and because science is not yet at a point where I’d be comfortable with the process or results. My life as a bisexual man who looks like a femme lesbian (I don’t make a very convincing butch) may be existentially strange, but this surreal sensation isn’t the hell other trans people describe, not exactly; it’s more like purgatory, or a really trippy, disconcerting dream. Like walking on a fractured ankle that only hurts if you focus on it, that might set wrong if you tried to fix it.

Since losing my job as an adjunct professor at a Big Ten university, I’ve been struggling to find full-time employment and living with my mother. When I broached the subject of starting a low dose of testosterone, more with the goal of seeing whether it relieves my anxiety and depression than of transforming into a bearded beefcake who posts his #gains on Instagram (an ideal which seems so impossible to reach anyway), my mother brought up the trans women she’d seen performing at a friend’s burlesque show, who “looked weird.” This is her way, of course, of saying that they didn’t look like cis women. “I would not hire them,” she continued. “I just want you to be employable.” She doesn’t want me to “ruin” my life.

When she says we don’t have an extra thirty dollars a month for testosterone between us, it’s not a lie. I’ve tried confronting her regarding trans-misogyny, but she grows defensive, as if her unexamined prejudice towards trans people who aren’t her son, trans women in particular, shouldn’t matter. She’s supporting me as I tutor part-time and search for jobs. Campaigning for hormones I’m not even certain I want indeed seems selfish.

Because I am read as a cis woman, no one polices me for using the women’s bathroom. If I go to the gynecologist or the doctor’s office I can use the legal name I haven’t changed and be treated with dignity and respect. My license and passport photos more or less match my current appearance, so I can travel unencumbered. I am not gawked at or harassed or a target of violence. When the right-wing invokes the rhetorical bogeymonster of the trans bathroom predator, they are invariably demonizing trans women and femmes. Celebrated cis feminists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are not asked to weigh in on whether trans-masculine people have been socialized female or possess male privilege, as many of us do after a year or two on testosterone. Straight cis men, it seems, neither want to fuck trans men nor kill us, so we’re mostly left alone. Since this January one trans man and ten trans women, all people of color, have been murdered. A shockingly high percentage of people seem to believe that “panic,” i.e. uncomfortable feelings occasioned by encountering the other, is sufficient reason to take a life.

I have a pink, pleasantly round face and a sweetly girlish voice, so the world is mostly kind albeit often condescending to me, which is another way of saying I benefit from white cis female privilege. Still when I think back to my early attempts at making sense of myself, of the way I experienced sexuality and related or didn’t relate to my body below the waist, I don’t remember having the thought I’m supposed to be a boy but rather the thought that I was somehow a threat, a monster. I tell people I don’t want a family because children can be annoying and exhausting, but that’s only partially true. Though I haven’t suffered from intrusive thoughts about children in years, being around them still triggers anxiety. During the twelve sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy my mother was able to afford for me seven years ago, my therapist used exposure techniques similar to treatment for phobias. During one session, we sat by the kid’s pool at the local water park for an hour and I tried not to hyperventilate.

I have parsed apart my OCD and myself enough to know that I would never prey upon another person, nor desire to, but I sometimes feel that my very existence as a trans person is inappropriate. I get too nervous to wear a packing penis in public places, even though no one can see it, because I’ve internalized the idea that my gender is disgusting, an affront to common decency. Shame accumulates upon a body, hunches it inward, estranges it from its inhabitant, causing the teeth to grind at night, the jaw to clench.

Maybe in a different world my OCD would have centered on fears of contagion or blasphemy, and though I would still struggle as a parent, I’d feel like having a family was an option. Maybe those obsessions would still have led to intense suicidal ideation, academic failure and personal derailment. But also, maybe in a world without transphobia, I’d have had more space in my brain for schoolwork. Maybe I’d speak another language. Maybe I’d be more financially stable by now. At least I wouldn’t have to wonder whether writing and publishing essays about gender identity and mental illness, doing work that’s important to me, negatively impacts my employment prospects.

Some of my teaching reviews from my former students, who were all outwardly respectful when I asked them to call me Jason, might still say that I was erratic, at times underprepared, or politically biased, but not that I centered the “irrelevant” reading materials and lectures around my own sexuality and gender identity because, in 2017, I assigned several essays written by queer and trans authors then led discussions on their writing. The idea of me openly being me, of asking students and colleagues to use my correct name and pronouns, wouldn’t be radical or controversial. Maybe I wouldn’t have the wide hips no amount of hormones can change, the vocal inflections that turn the ends of statements into questions, the years of self-loathing and denial to undo. Sometimes we don’t need bigots to yell slurs at us. Sometimes the slurs just seem to be there, at a subliminal level, in our own minds, and we hurl them at ourselves.

I’m glad I felt indebted to my mom to stay alive.


Photo of Jason

Photo of Jason

INTERVIEW: Kate Flynn of The Winter Passing On Growing, Creating, Mental Health Awareness, and "Double Exposure"


COURTESY OF BRIXTON AGENCY / SEAN CAHILL

COURTESY OF BRIXTON AGENCY / SEAN CAHILL

Following the release of Double Exposure, online editor Rosie Accola sat down with The Winter Passing's Kate Flynn to discuss the creative process and transition from the bands 2015 release A Different Space of Mind, collaborative writing, musical inspirations, and more. Check out the Q&A below and also read Rosie's review of Double Exposure here.


Hooligan Mag (H.M.): How has your sound grown between your first and second record? What did you learn while making your first record that has helped you the most as musicians?
Our sound has grown a lot since A Different Space of Mind. We did a lot of touring after we released ADSOM, so from that alone we became a tighter and more confident band live. That helped a lot when the time came to write and record Double Exposure. Also we are a couple of years older with different life experiences and different mindsets so I feel that comes into play in the music we wrote for Double Exposure.

Personally, what's changed for me since recording ADSOM is that I feel more confident about myself as a musician. When we recorded ADSOM, it was my first time in a real recording studio which was a big learning curve for me. I wasn't all that sure of myself as a musician and it all felt very new.  I was more involved during the writing period for our new record and that really helped when it came to recording it. I felt more sure of myself and a little more confident when we were recording Double Exposure. We all got a little bit more wondrous on what we could do with these songs—individually and collaboratively—so we are extremely proud of what we've created with this EP.
 

H.M.: What’s your favorite part of the music scene in Ireland? How does it differ from other music scenes throughout Europe and the U.S.?
Ireland's music scene has always been really transformative and truly inspiring to the music we write and the people we are. It's a very special scene to be apart of and one I'm very proud to be apart of. There's so many different music scenes active in all the capital cities around Ireland across so many different genres of music. I was introduced to the hardcore punk scene by my brother when I was about 15 years old. My first ever local show was a day show called Life & Death Fest in Dublin. There was about 20 hardcore bands from Ireland and the UK playing in a small and very warm room in a venue called The Tap. I had never been to a DIY/hardcore punk show before so I remember being completely inspired by it. It was the sort of feeling that left me counting down the days in school until my next trip to Dublin to a local show.

I guess how it differs from Europe and the US is that the Irish music scene is small, especially in the DIY spectrum. Everyone knows each other and supports each other. Chances are if you're in a band in the Dublin scene, you're probably in like ten other bands too! In comparison to Europe or American punk scenes, the shows and community in those areas are much bigger, more spread out and divided also into smaller sub genres within punk music. But for the most part, shows still feel like shows to me everywhere I've been so far!
 

H.M.: What made you want to start playing music? What drives you to create?
Music for me was inherited. I grew up in a musical house, my dad has always loved country music and always encouraged my brother and I to play from a young age. Our parents would send us to music lessons and we would perform music pretty much every day! My real love has been and always will be singing. I've been singing since I was extremely young. My dad brought me home a Britney Spears live in concert video tape and since the first watch of that I've been throwing my voice around.

My drive for creation is really a personal thing, I suppose. I find great satisfaction from performing music and writing music with TWP. It's a personal development sort of thing and that drives me to always surprise myself. I want to see how far I can go and what I can do next. To be honest, I'm laughing as I write this, but music has been the only thing I've ever put my hand to and stuck with. It sort of stuck with me too. We've been fortunate enough to experience some amazing opportunities over the past few years and I guess that also drives me to continue our musical journey! If you told 15 year old me that playing music was going to open doors such as traveling the East Coast of America in a van - that shy kid would have told you that you've probably got the wrong kid.
 

H.M.: Who are some of your favorite artists (musical or otherwise)?
Musically I've always been really inspired and in awe of artists like The Distillers, Jimmy Eat World, Björk, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bikini Kill, Patti Smith. Recently it's been artists such as Bleached, Julien Baker, Mitski and Frankie Cosmos and Cende. I also really loving reading. I'm slowly but surely getting through every Stephen King book there is. Reading "IT" is still one of my biggest achievements.
 

H.M.: The lyrical content of your latest E.P. deals with the daily struggles of living with anxiety, do you have any tips on how to deal with anxiety that you’ve found to be helpful?
Double Exposure is definitely a journey in the daily struggles of anxiety so thank you for getting that. Everyone is different and how I deal with my anxiety may be completely different to how another individual may deal with theirs and that's okay. The most important thing is to find the thing that you feel most comfortable with when dealing with feelings of anxiety.

First off, even though it's not the easiest thing or tip, talk to someone. Anyone! We live in a time where, thankfully, we talk about mental health. The more often we open dialogue about mental health, we break down the taboo and normalise mental health. Sometimes I write to my best friend and just explain this existential anxiety that I get and she just gets that and that's sick to have that communication.

For me, I like to write it out. I always have. I've been writing a journal since I was a kid. When I write something out, I feel like that's part of the journey for me when dealing and processing feelings I may be having. It doesn't mean the feeling goes away or is magically fixed but it starts the process of me dealing with thoughts, worries, etc. I like to take my feelings and make art from them. I used to hate when people said "exercise" when I said I wasn't feeling too great. Sometimes, the motivation to leave the house or exercise is just not there for me but what I will say, from the times I did muster the motivation, it does help. Even if it's a walk with your dog for a couple of minutes, exercise to a YouTube video on your living room floor, dancing to your favourite record or just sitting in fresh air.
 

H.M.: I read that the writing process for this record was particularly collaborative, can you describe it? Have you tried writing songs with other people before, or is writing more of a solitary practice for you?
The writing process has always been pretty collaborative when it comes to the TWP. Rob and Col work together on guitar music all the time, that's how we get the skeleton of the songs together and then the band come in at rehearsals and we collaborate to make the music come to life!

Lyrically with this EP, Rob and I both brought a lot to the table. We sat down, put lyrics together from each notebook to each song and that's why we called it Double Exposure, in the end. Most of the songs, in some sense, are two stories. I found that a really interesting aspect and concept of this record. That all being said, I have to write my lyrics alone and Rob writes his lyrical content alone also. Writing lyrics is cathartic for me. So I like to write alone before I even think of putting melodies to the words.
 

H.M.: Do you have a record that has helped you deal with anxiety? What do you think about music and its ability to explain mental health struggles?
I'm not sure if I have a stand out record that has helped me through anxiety because to be honest, a lot of records have and continue to help. I guess I could say Futures (Jimmy Eat World). Now, that's a record I always revisit when I need a helping hand from an old pal. It never gets old and every time I listen to it, it brings me back to a place that I like to go. Or sometimes I need to dance the sadman away, so in those times I put on some Blondie (or Beyoncé when I feel I need to exercise too) and I go wild.

In other cases, I need to cry. I've always really liked sad songs. Sometimes, I need to let the sadness sit with me, long enough for me to make sense of it and there are particular records that I have to listen to when I'm sad. A few being being Manchester Orchestra's Like A Virgin Losing A Child or Owen's No Good for No One Now.

I've always felt a real connection with a song that can make me cry. If a song makes me feel something so much that I cry, it's done it's job.

Whether it's writing music or listening to it, there is no doubt in the fact that music serves us in struggling with mental health and also explaining it. Sometimes it's just listening to a song and being able to resonate with it better than you could explain the anxiety, yourself. That's the thing about mental health struggles. Sometimes it's too hard to actually explain the feelings. Sometimes a song just does it for you and that's amazing. That's how I feel about the new Paramore record, actually. Every lyric had me literally saying "heck, that's literally how I feel”.

I feel like writing and playing music has helped me so much in terms of understanding my own anxiety but also understanding other people's struggles and that's important. When writing a song, it's like putting all your insides out. Playing that song is letting others see that we all look and feel the same. It's the greatest gift that keeps on giving.