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!

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.