Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Santigold's New Album Cover.

I was first introduced to Santigold back when she was Santogold, and sort of by accident. I was at SxSW in 2008 and waiting to catch MGMT, when Ms. Santi White took the stage first. As I wrote in my rather long-winded recap four years ago:

Friday night began for me on the dirt behind Stubb's again, where I caught the infectious Brooklynite called Santogold.... By fusing reggae, hip-hop, club, R&B, and Caribbean and African drumming, Santogold creates a delicious brand of shiny, funky pop that is very much her own. She performed in front of a DJ and in the middle of two backup singers/dancing, who donned colorful baggy pants and plastic sunglasses, while Santogold herself bounced around in a loose tanktop, pants, and sneakers; I found these three strong, black females very inspiring.

I even wrote a cover story on Santigold for BRM, when it was still a print magazine. But then, Santigold failed me! See,  I was super excited to see her perform at Terminal 5, when she was on the bill with Miike Snow, as well as Major Lazer. As I wrote here on my blog: "The only reason I endured that hour of standing close to the stage among dancing, drunk 17-year-old girls was to see Santigold, who was supposed to perform. She came on stage for seriously one minute, 'sang' a song I didn't even recognize, and left. That was it." What a let-down...and who does that when they're on the bill, and not just a special guest? I thought Santi and I were through.

But now, with her upcoming album set for release on May 1st, I'm giving the L.E.S. Artiste whose debut album I so adore another chance...especially because she's just too cute in the video about shooting her album cover for Master of My Make-Believe. This cover perfectly encapsulates the strong, confident Santigold I stood in awe of back in 2008. She poses as three (well, four really, but two are "identical") characters on this feminist yet terrifically playful cover, and it's just thrilling to see an independent black woman continue to defy both societal and musical expectations. 

What I loved about Santigold from the very beginning was not just her almost masculine edge and catchy-yet-quirky music, but also her desire to break the mold of what the media and music industry seem to expect from its female "pop" performers. Nothing about Santigold is what one might call "typical," but it's also not so atypical as to be contrived or a gimmick. And above all else, her creativity and point-of-view always seem to shine through. So, maybe it's just me, and maybe it 's like a "duh Grace Jones!" moment, but I find this new album cover truly inspiring, especially the Revolutionary War-esque painting  with Santi White in place of a rich, white dude.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Interview Series #10: Shawn Fernando

Within a few minutes of talking with Shawn Fernando, it becomes clear that he studied both music and economics at Sarah Lawrence College. Shawn loves to tackle new projects, be they musical, political, entrepreneurial, or otherwise. Case in point: he helped campaign for Obama, began constructing a solar energy tower in his backyard, helped displaced Sri Lankans build new homes after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and started his own business in 2008, which is now a non-profit organization. That business, Square Patrol, is a donation-based designated driver service dedicated to getting your drunk self home in your own car and thus preventing harm to the Austin community. 

But more visible than his business savvy and political know-how is Shawn's musical talent. He has played keys for The Stevedores (previously fronted by Spencer Bell) since 2004, and has formed his own band, Union Shop. Shawn is the songwriter, singer, and keyboardist of Union Shop, while Maria Mabra plays drums. The band recently released an EP, The Healing Machine, along with a music video that Shawn directed and edited. And while Shawn may not exactly be "press-ready" or Facebook suave, perhaps that's what makes him even more genuine an artist. I've known Shawn personally for years and could predict some of his answers, but I still grilled him about music, business, and living with a dog named Koya and a dude named Wolf in "the motherfuckin' ATX."
Quick Look
Birthday: February 4, 1984 (or is it April 1?)
Living in: Austin, Texas
Originally from: Erie, Pennsylvania

No-Alternative: How did you start playing music, and were you always specifically attracted to piano? Do you think you exhibit any traits that other pianists/keyboardists (or musicians in general) tend to share?

Shawn Fernando:
My older sisters played, so even when I was a baby there was a keyboard that I would bang on. I started taking lessons very young, so the piano has really always been a part of my life in some way.

The piano is an architectural kind of instrument. The layout allows you to observe musical structure plainly. That sense is something I think keyboardists tend to share. It's also an academic instrument, so I think great keyboard players display a real academic insight into the structure of music. I try to have a little bit of that insight myself...that’s what I aspire to. 

You sang lead in an earlier band, then sang back-up for The Stevedores, and now you sing for Union Shop. What is your personal relationship with singing, and is it ever a struggle? 

Singing is a struggle, I think it must be for everybody. If it’s not then you’re not trying hard enough. Singing came for me after the piano and it’s a different type of control because it' a very physical act and you sing with so much of your body...the sound alters when you get into it, which is different from piano. It’s a different use of emotion and a very naked form of expression, which is hard psychologically. Ultimately though, probably because singing is hard, it is extremely rewarding.

Honestly it’s still a little bit weird. It’s much more taxing for some reason, both physically and mentally. And the writing process is certainly more revealing. But that’s my role.

The Stevedores in WI, minus Spencer Bell
Let's backtrack a minute. The Stevedores basically stopped writing new music less than a year after lead singer Spencer Bell's death, in 2006. Then the four remaining band members, yourself included, moved from Madison, Wisconsin to completely different locations. What was this transition like for you?

It was rough at first. That band was like a little family. Being without it so suddenly was difficult for all of us, I think. There was a lot more that we needed to write. Of course it was a tragedy, and I wish things had been different. But I can't complain about moving to Austin or where the journey has taken me. 

What does it feel like to perform old songs with The Stevedores during Spencer Bell Legacy shows, which serve to honor, share, and remember Spencer's songwriting with a larger audience, all while raising money for adrenal gland cancer research? 

That's a hard one to explain. A strange mixture of nostalgia, pride, sadness, and suspension of reality. When I come back to Austin after those shows it always feels like stepping out of an alternate reality. 

Your current band, Union Shop, just released a debut EP. Are there any lyrical themes or concepts that tie together the seven tracks you wrote?

It is not a concept album or anything like that, but there are some themes that reoccur. There's a lot in there about loss and searching for something new. I've been playing most of those songs for a while now. When I wrote them, I was still trying to make sense of a new life here in Texas. I was still trying to wrap my head around the circumstances that brought me there and the nostalgia for the past. I guess the central theme is learning to let go of what is gone, and learning to embrace what is here. 

The Healing Machine album cover
I know you worked with several people to create this EP --- from rapper/recording engineer Matt Weiss to bongo player Uncle Larry. What was it like collaborating from the "helm of the ship" as opposed to within the standard band dynamic?

Fortunately, when you work with the right people, you don't have to micromanage. Most of the time, it was a really natural creative process. The only real difference between being "at the helm" and being a collaborator is in the initial writing process. I had the basic structures of the songs all figured out at the get go. But just like a true collaboration, there was still a lot of room for surprise.   

Your first music video, for "The Mix," features a very happy man running himself silly! Can you talk about the backstory of "Running Man?"

Running Man is a very interesting figure. He is a real person; that isn't a character he's putting on. The dancing, the running, the shout outs to people in cars: that's his normal day. Almost every day, he wakes up in the morning, eats over 4000 calories, and runs for 12 plus hours. He's a deeply religious man in the very best way. He runs because he believes God wants him to make people happy with sweat and smiles. It's a life that only makes sense on an emotional level, and in many ways I think he's gotten it right. 

Amid the many creative projects --- musical and otherwise --- you have undertaken in the past several years, what do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

I haven't given up hope. I do damn near everything I do because I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Moving away from music, you started your own business in Austin. Can you talk about the initial inspiration and how the company first came together?

Square Patrol came about when my friend Vladic visited Austin for the first time. We had a few too many, and when we walked out of the bar, we realized our car was going to be towed if we left it in in the parking lot. Vladic remembered a news story that we had seen years earlier about a service in London that delivered designated drivers. He said we needed one of those...because we did. We ended up walking home that night (thankfully it wasn't far), but the idea hooked me. People all over town make that decision every night. If we can get to some of them before the keys hit the ignition, we all end up safer.    

Is there any personal motto you live by, or want to live by? And do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?

Always try to understand. Understand the world; understand yourself; understand the people you love. That's where music comes from. 

Last but not least: your song "ATX" is very pro-Austin! So, what is it about Austin that you love?

A lot! The weather, the bbq, the culture. It's a true melting pot here. People from all backgrounds can coexist, make eye contact, and drink beer together. It's a town full of travelers, and you can tell.

(photo of Shawn by a.dupcak, photo of The Stevedores by Claudia Ochoa)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

From the Vaults: Julianna Barwick.

In June of 2010, I interviewed Julianna Barwick on a lovely day, accompanied by photographer Kyle Timlin. Since then, Julianna has become more widely known and has released The Magic Place to much critical acclaim (it also found its way onto my Best Albums of 2011 list). So here is the article I wrote two years ago (for BRM), just before Julianna was about to head into the studio, when she still wasn't sure what she would create....
The music of Julianna Barwick seems far more profound than any one person can create. Yet Barwick spins poetic, silky, multi-layered songs alone in her Brooklyn bedroom, with the desire to sing as her central motivation. 

Sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop in Greenpoint, Barwick is rather unassuming; wearing a simple dress, glasses and a genuine smile, one would never guess that her voice engulfs crowd after crowd as she performs around town and on tour. None would imagine that by way of her voice and the most basic of equipment (namely her laptop), she transforms ordinary spaces into sonically ethereal terrains. And perhaps most remarkable part of all, Barwick—humble, modest, and with an 11pm bedtime—isn’t out to impact any music scene.  “I’ve done this since I was a kid,” she offers, “where I’m in my own world and I sing, and tears would come to my eyes. I don’t know what that is…the sound of singing.”

Growing up in Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma, Barwick attended church with her family (her father worked there) up to three times a week. She performed in choirs that sang acappella. “Some of the hymns were just so beautiful,” she says, “and I love that sound of voices coming together.” Throughout all her years of school, she continued to discover her voice, and then tried her hand at traditional songwriting, which just didn’t click. For Barwick, music means having the freedom to experiment, and not about writing the next poppy love song. “I never wanted to be in a band, I love being a solo performer,” she admits, recalling her earliest gigs, upon moving to Brooklyn about nine years ago, when she performed with an electric guitar and emitted lots of reverb; a style she soon abandoned. 

It wasn’t long before Barwick's bedroom became the ideal studio: “I usually just plug everything in, sit on my bed, and make up something on the spot…everything starts as improv.” Armed with a microphone, effects pedal, and Garageband, she loops and manipulates WAV files of her voice, and then plays with as many as twenty layers per song. Although she occasionally sings a simple refrain, most of the sounds aren’t even English. On her first album, Sanguine, she played a little electric guitar, and then on her second, Florine, she recorded the piano at home for one track, and also employed a few Garageband synths. “But I think that’s it,” she said, almost surprised. “It’s mostly vocal.” Sometimes her songs do sound like a choir; all of the members with her gorgeous voice. 
When it comes to her shows, Barwick affirms, “What I use to perform is what I use to record,” which means that vocal looping happens live, with her voice as the sole musical instrument. The escalating soundscapes often move the audience to internal melancholy, but such emotional reactions take Barwick aback. “Everything is so great in my life right now and I’m super happy…but I get these messages from people being like, ‘You must be really sad! You must be a sad person!’ I’m totally not that way, I’m super positive and optimistic. Those sounds just come out sometimes." 

As ghostly loops of Barwick’s voice multiply, her songs swirl into endless, hypnotic spirals, capable of stirring anyone’s emotional core. While she's certainly aware of her power, Barwick assures me it isn’t her intention. “I want people who dig it to dig it, and you know, feel good about it, and maybe to be transported or be able to think about something that’s going on in their lives while they’re listening to it. But, I’m not trying to change anyone’s mood or emotions consciously.” Pondering the dichotomy even deeper, she reflects, "I’m not too emotional in my daily life, so maybe that’s where it comes out.”

Sanguine and Florine have been re-released by M’Lady’s, and Barwick’s third album (and first on a label) will appear later this year on Asthmatic Kitty. After signing Barwick, A.K. offered her some whirlwind opportunities. First, she had the chance to tour with Roberto Lange, of bands Helado Negro and Epstein, and visual artist Jonathan Dueck, whose work often involves collaboration. Along their tour, they concocted a record about “getting to know each other” and combining their musical sensibilities, which Barwick describes as being like an art project, especially with Dueck acting as photographer. Second, Barwick started recording her new record this summer, which A.K. will release to their wide and loyal audience. 

True to her intrinsic music-making-moral code, Barwick didn’t plan her as-yet-untitled record before stepping into the studio. With the opportunity to invite other people in and make use of more diverse instrumentation, she sought to take her process and music one step further. While Florine was more dynamic and instrument-laden than Sanguine, Barwick wanted this new record to top them both by incorporating piano, clarinet, guitar, and other vocalists. But she assures me, “I don’t think it’s gonna be like a jam band record or anything!” Of course, with her unintended penchant for melancholia, she joked that it just might turn into the Goth album of 2010. 

While Barwick loves to travel, she's also content to perform in New York; in fact, one of her stand-out live shows happened at Bowery Ballroom, when she opened for Dirty Projectors. "David Byrne played with them," she gushes, "and Joanna Newsom was in the crowd, so that one was really off the charts crazy. I walked up to David Byrne and was like, 'Hi, um Hi!' It was certainly an introduction she didn't regret. When it comes to performing and creating in Brooklyn, she tells me “The reason people who are doing their creative thing move to New York is because you’re surrounded by people doing their thing too. It’s super motivating.  I don’t identify with any kind of Brooklyn sound at all, but that’s why I’m here.”

(top photo by Carrie Villines; bottom photo by Kyle Timlin)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tavi Gevinson, the Style Rookie.

Yes I am now 28 years old, but my new "idol" is only 15. Her name is Tavi Gevinson and you might know her as that kooky little girl who dyed her hair gray, dressed like a granny with big huge bows and oversized clothes, and started her own fashion blog at age 11, apparently without her parents' knowledge. In the past few years, she's become something of a fashion icon, partying with celebs and attending runway shows galore. She also started her own magazine called Rookie, which is a website for --- and essentially by --- teenage girls, about fashion, culture, art, and life. 

When I first heard about Tavi, I was skeptical. I mean, an 11-year-old's fashion sense? An 11-year-old's writing? I also don't typically care about fashion --- it just so happens that my '90s look is in again, and I'm not even happy about it. But after researching Tavi on my own, I have to say this girl is definitely an inspiration. She doesn't just mimic things she sees for attention or to look cool; she's genuinely interested and seems to possess an innate artistic sensibility, as well as a precocious awareness. She's also just having fun experimenting...and she's allowed to.

Most 15-year-old girls today are obsessed with fitting in at school, fitting whatever societal mold, fiddling on their phones, getting boys to like them, the works. Most of them don't sit down and compose well-planned blog posts...and if they do, they certainly don't read like Tavi's do. This girl defies most of the stereotypes her generation has received (well, aside from an addiction to the internet, but I'd like to think Tavi's using it wisely)...she's hard working, ambitious, independent, and has discovered many things that came out before she was born. Things I myself love, both then and now. Things like Hole, riot grrrl, Sylvia Plath, Twin Peaks, Virgin Suicides, Ghost World, Rocky Horror, My So-Called Life etc (she has good taste). Her blog is filled with handwritten journal entries, art, musings, collections, and plenty of photographs: she takes pictures of herself wearing outfits she put together, and she displays vintage finds and little art projects she creates in her bedroom. She's a girl who's constantly inspired, and that inspires me. I hope it inspires girls her age, too.

Maybe I'm giving Tavi too much credit...certainly it's also true that Tavi reminds me of myself. I wrote my own magazine in tenth grade, called Punky. Unlike her, I printed mine on paper and distributed it at school for 50 cents. Unlike her too, it did not focus on fashion, but I researched and wrote about music, films, and plenty of other things that interested me, like she does. I also loved to decorate my room -- one of my favorite forms of self-expression -- as well as my self, though we had different ways of going about it. Tavi also reminds me of two particular girls (looks-wise and mind-wise) that I thought were cool when I was around her age (well, I still think they're cool). The first of these girls had pink hair at age thirteen, and she was as artistically inclined and intelligent as Tavi. The second of these girls had a funny haircut; she was also an artist and a writer in the making. I guess sometimes we never grow out of our former mindsets...

In case you need convincing about how intelligent Tavi is, I want to share something she wrote on her blog to accompany a recent photo of herself; a photo she hesitated to post because she knew she looked good in it, as opposed to looking like a "grandmother on ecstasy at Fashion Week." I'll skip some bits for the sake of brevity (as indicated by an ellipses), but here are her own words:
First, let's talk about beauty privilege real quick, just so we're all clear and so I don't sound like a jerk:

When I say good or pretty or attractive, I mean by the standards that dictate our society, which usually start with being thin and white. I'm not saying I always like how I look, and you may look at the picture above and be like "what are you talking about you resemble an opossum," but through the very narrow lens of mainstream media, pop culture, etc., I possess some beauty privilege.

The general voice of my blog has been very much against the idea of those (or, in a way, any) standards for a long time, maybe not in so many words, but definitely in spirit. I once relished in an email I got saying I was an ugly boy because it felt like proof that I hadn't given in to societal pressure to be pretty that girls usually feel affected by. I got all self reflecty on Tumblr about creating my own ideas of beauty. I wrote simply during September's No Makeup Week that I never felt the urge to wear any. I used to dress much more frumpily and goofily, on here and in public real life. Which was great, and I loved it. But, as is the point of this blog, my style has changed a bit.

I would be lying to say it ends at simply wanting to try a different aesthetic of dressing, though. With one's freshman year of high school comes a new batch of insecurities and a new kind of self-awareness. Except...I would be lying to say it ends there, too, because I know I'm smarter than that, and I know I have a good bullshit filter when it comes to conformity pressure in high school and women's magazines and men's magazines and industries that thrive on their female demographics' insecurities.

Before I got contacts in March, I just never really counted myself in the general pool of people who might be considered attractive. I wasn't insecure about how I looked, I just made peace with the fact that I wasn't, to me, an attractive person, and decided to milk my charming personality instead. The glasses were an easy way to isolate myself from even having to consider keeping up some kind of face. Then I slowly came to feel that, well, maybe I did want my face to be visible. Maybe I liked my face. Is that not okay?

Right now, I could pretend to be an archetype of a feminist superhero and say I never want to be a conventionally attractive person. But, while I have so much respect for the people who can say that truthfully, I'm not there yet. I think it would be, in my case, much more effective to be honest and willing to have this conversation instead of signing myself to a stereotype I can't fit. I admit to the basic human desire to be attractive. That's certainly not all I want to be, and I'm not bending over backwards every morning for it, but it's there.

I don't know if I'm trying to justify this to readers of this blog or to myself. I do know I'm uncomfortable pretending, on a blog that is, on a certain level, about appearance, and my personal ~journey~ with it, that I can keep up with a set of principles developed when I was younger and different and 12 years old. But I mentioned earlier my bullshit filter, and I think it's that awareness that makes it easy for me to know that my new almost-daily makeup routine and glassesslessness and etc. are for myself and no one else.  --- Tavi Gevinson.

"Wrinkles and scars and imperfections are signs of life, not of being young and naive and sexy and nonthreatening, so if an aging woman doesn't take measures to erase indications that she's built character through experience, if she can no longer be viewed as a sex object or as recently discovered and relevant, she may as well just disappear. It's subversive to age as these women do, making themselves present, because they want to be. I know now that I'd rather keep all my life scars and be erased for doing so than have to erase them myself." -- Tavi Gevinson.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Nirvana, my history.

Anyone who knows me knows how heavily Kurt Cobain has factored in my life. But maybe you don't know how that came to be. Today, on Kurt's 45th birthday, I thought I might try to figure out, for myself, how and when and why he made such an impact....

It all started in sixth grade. Prior to this, I was more of a pop girl, like most kids. In early elementary school, I was obsessed with Madonna and Michael Jackson, since I grew up listening to them in the mid-to-late '80s and early '90s (I do still stand by how great those songs are). Even though my dad was a jazz keyboardist and my mom was a huge Beatles fan, I wasn't exposed to much of that music. Instead, I listened to the car radio and thus heard music that was popular at the time. I also really liked The Cars (and, um, Ace of Base!).

Enter sixth grade: 1995. Alanis Morissette released Jagged Little Pill, which was essentially the beginning of my 'alternative' fixation. I didn't understand the depth of emotion in some of her songs, but I had inklings. One girl in my class, Christina, was a little more "advanced" than the rest of us. Our teacher let us play songs in class and share the lyrics, and Christina shared Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit" and Hole's "Miss World." In our Catholic school classroom, I followed along with the lyrics. Holy fucking shit, I thought. This is awesome. I didn't know what "libido" or "mulatto" meant; not that it mattered. I knew that Kurt Cobain had killed himself, but it hadn't meant anything to me before...what 10-year-old would have gotten that, anyway? 

So those two songs, perfectly coupled, etched themselves in my brain, though I didn't understand why. There was just something about them... something raw and broken and perfect, something that spoke to my future self, the self I wanted to be, or the self that was already taking shape. I saved those lyrics and, the next year, they wound up in a binder I kept under my bed: a binder I filled with poems and lyrics and other things I liked. Not long after, I bought Nevermind on cassette and listened to it on my Walkman. Live Through This would follow.

When you're a girl in junior high --- at least in my case --- you need something that represents you as an individual and also as a member of your particular social group. Nirvana would become that something. Christina was so "cool" that she kind of stole the show, but her something was Pearl Jam, while my best friend Rachel's something was The Smashing Pumpkins. By eighth grade, my friends and I were fairly well versed in '90s alternative culture, even though we were all born too late to appreciate grunge in its prime. We got the leftovers of that era...but those leftovers were good enough. We were also getting into classic rock, each in our own ways. You could find us eighth grade girls sitting in a circle on the grass, Christina and Rachel playing "Stairway to Heaven" on their electric guitars. While my sister + friends danced around to The Spice Girls, we were the hippie class...and we would be remembered as such. 

Getting back on track, it was really ninth grade that amplified my love of Nirvana/Kurt and turned it into a bona fide obsession. By then, I owned all of their albums on cassette. I started "decorating" my bedroom with Kurt's face, turning it into some kind of shrine. I wrote Nirvana lyrics on everything --- "Let down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back" --- and I read books and watched videos about Kurt's life, buying pretty much anything I could learn from.

Tenth grade was another turning point, since it was depressing as hell. The songs with which I was already so familiar took on new meanings and burrowed deeper in my heart. Kurt's symbolism sank into my poetry, and I took an interest in the things that had interested and inspired him...I read William S. Burroughs because he was Kurt's favorite author; I read Perfume because the song "Scentless Apprentice" was based on it; I bought little turtle and seahorse objects because Kurt liked and related to those creatures; I listened to The Vaselines and The Meat Puppets and The Melvins and other bands Kurt liked, covered, or performed with; I tried to learn Nirvana songs on the guitar; and I named things after his songs: "Polly," "Marigold," etc.

In other words, you couldn't get much more obsessed with Nirvana than I was, from tenth grade until sophomore year in college. Kurt Cobain helped me define myself; he served as a comfort and an inspiration. His voice (among others) was my personal soundtrack for many years.

When I started dating a boy named Jason in eleventh grade, I ended up getting him back into Nirvana too. He was the one who bought me the acoustic guitar on which I learned those few Nirvana songs. Jason and I loved to wander around flea markets and conventions and stores where we could find rare items for our personal collections --- for him, it was horror films; for me, it was Nirvana bootlegs. So in Generation Records and Stormville and a bunch of other places, I pieced together all 6 Outcesticide CDs, plus recorded live shows, interviews, singles, b-sides, imports, and I also re-bought their albums on CD. I got the import In Utero CD with "Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip" listed on the back. I bought No Alternative (so now you know!), on which a secret Nirvana track exists, and the DGC Rarities compilation album on which "Pay to Play" (an early version of "Stay Away") exists. I knew all of the tracks that had multiple names, and I knew all of the names Nirvana had once used, and well, I knew a lot! By the time the Nirvana box-set, With the Lights Out, was released, I already owned many of those songs.

19-yr-old Amy at the muddy banks of the Wishkah.
My knowledge grew when Jason surprised me with tickets to Seattle! As an East Coast grrrl, I had never been that far west. I started preparing what I would deem my "pilgrimage." I planned our entire trip and managed to find addresses to some important locations, mostly thanks to Heavier Than Heaven. So in June of 2003, we squeezed an incredible journey into six days, visiting Aberdeen, where Kurt grew up. We went "underneath the bridge, where the tarp has sprung a leak." We visited houses where Kurt lived or just crashed. We even visited his schools and walked through the halls (though his high school had burned down). Of course, we visited the house where he killed himself, and wrote on the bench where people had left flowers. In Aberdeen, we found an unsuspecting muffler shop that housed an elaborate Kurt statue that the town refused to erect in the park. The trip was highly emotional for me, more so than I even expected. All of these names and places I had read about for years were suddenly in front of me. I took nineteen rolls of film, enough for two albums. It was...intense. 

You could say this was the peak of my obsession, though sophomore year of college continued the trend. On the tenth anniversary of his death, I listened to KRock all night long as they played the entire Roma (live) album and other songs. One of my teachers, who was from Seattle, gifted me with a Seattle newspaper about the anniversary. Another one of my teachers (for a sociomusicology class), allowed me (with some hesitation) to write my conference paper about grunge culture, generation X, and how Kurt Cobain became an inadvertant icon. The paper ended up being 40 pages long, with about 40 sources. It consumed me, but I loved working on it. If there was one thing I had become an "expert" in, this was it. Between that paper and one for the Seattle-teacher about "the concepts of zero and infinity in medieval science and religion," it was a brutal semester!

I wasn't supposed to take this picture at the Museum!
Eventually, my Nirvana obsession slowed down. Naturally, I wasn't only listening to Nirvana this whole time, and other bands and artists who were both similar to and completely unlike Nirvana swirled around in my ears. After my friend Spencer Bell died in 2006 and his music gained followers who had not known him personally, I had to sit myself down and question my Kurt fandom. No, I did not actually know him. What I do know about him comes from what he wrote and sang and painted and said and did, and from what others said about him. No, I am not actually an expert on who Kurt was as a person. 

But, getting to "know" Kurt, along with other artists/poets/musicians, taught me more about me. He allowed me to bond with others, to express myself, and to explore my own creativity. The biggest thing Kurt taught me -- and something I continue to value --- is authenticity. His music, if nothing else, is authentic in its origins, its delivery, and its power. I will always be the kind of grrrl who values the authenticity that grunge culture, and Kurt himself, inherently represents. And I will forever remember, from a sheet of lyrics in sixth grade, that "Smells like Teen Spirit" contains nine "a denial's." 

o well, whatever, nevermind.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Somebody That I Used to Know.

In keeping with my apparent fascination with symmetry, I was intrigued when I first heard about a Gotye song called "Somebody That I Used To Know." Instantly, I wondered if it was a  cover of a not-so-popular Elliott Smith song, from 2000. But nope, Gotye created his own song, 11 years later, with the very same name, having nothing to do with the Elliott version aside from the obvious thematic similarity.

I have been a huge Elliott Smith fan since before his death, and I have devoured all of his records, including the truly dynamic Figure Eight on which "Somebody That I Used to Know" appears. On the other hand, with Gotye (like most people), I'm an absolute newcomer...and actually, this song, featuring Kimbra, took a few tries to truly grow on me. But now (also like most people), I am seriously addicted. I've always been into the idea of camouflaging one's naked body (in time-lapse stop-motion!) against a wall, a la Wednesday Adams. I'm also into how bright and vibrant his (very large) mouth looks when he belts out the words. 

So here I present two songs with the same title, the same sadness in the midst of self-preservation and a forced sense of indignation --- a forced happiness, a forced "I don't need you anyway" even if I still love you --- which is basically as relatable as it gets.

While Elliott did not have a video for this song, you can at least listen to it!
I had tender feelings that you made hard
But it's your heart, not mine, that's scarred
So when I go home I'll be happy to go
You're just somebody that I used to know

And now for Gotye's video...
No you didn't have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
I guess that I don't need that though
Now you're just somebody that I used to know

...I have to say: Elliott has the better lyrics! No surprise there.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

No.Alt Recommends, February

Published in August of last year, Helen Schulman's latest novel is incredibly topical, as it explores the relatively new role that technology/internet/media plays in the family dynamic. The family in question lives in uptown Manhattan, carrying out of those "privileged" lives like only Manhattanites can fully achieve...sending their kids to a selective, top-dollar private school and babying them every step of the way. 

Until, that is, fifteen-year-old Jake receives an unsolicited email from a girl he drunkenly made out with at party in her Riverdale mansion, for lack of anything better to email that becomes known as "Daisy Up at Bat," starring thirteen-year-old Daisy and her you-know-what. All it takes for the "child porn" video to reach thousands, possibly millions, is for Jake to forward the email to just one friend. 

And thus we have entered a new era, where nothing is private, secrets never go away, blame gets tossed where it doesn't belong, money can get you out of anything, and lives are destroyed from the single click of a mouse. Switching points of view and fully exploring all angles of the incident, as well as its effects on each character's psyche, Schulman's novel raises many questions about how we should navigate the modern world. Also, Helen was one of my fiction teachers in The New School's MFA program, which makes reading the book extra special for me.

Wristcutters: A Love Story
I'm a little late in viewing this indie gem, but I am so glad I finally did. The 2006 "comedy-fantasy-romance" is about life-after-death for those who commit suicide...a new existence where no one can smile (try as they might), the sky's devoid of stars, and you're pretty much destined to live out your days wishing you hadn't killed yourself.

Such is the case for Zia, who slit his wrists after his girlfriend, Desiree, dumped him. Life post-suicide completely sucks until Zia learns that Desiree also killed herself, leading him on a quest to find her.

Zia sets off with his Russian pal Eugene, and the two pick up a hitchhiker named Mikal --- she insists that she entered this land by accident, since she overdosed unintentionally. Her own quest is to find the "people in charge" and hopefully return to her actual life, but Zia and Eugene aren't sure those people exist.

Hitting more than one bump on the road, their journey gets stranger and stranger, especially when a character named Kneller --- played by none other than Tom Waits! --- shows up. And while Zia is hunting and pining for Desiree, he becomes closer with Mikal, who keeps trying to make this mopey world a little brighter. The ending is super-sweet, and the film is quirky in all the right ways, maintaining a potent sense of emotion while also poking some (mostly harmless) fun at what makes people want to die.  

So, I like games. And this game is so addictive that the boyfriend and I play it almost every day. A "tile-based German-style board game for two to five players," the goal is to strategically place land, castle, road, and cloister pieces in all the right ways in order to earn more points than your opponent. 

The game is aesthetically pleasing, puts your spatial/ reasoning/ and even math skills to the test, and the "board" actually looks different every time you play. With expansion counts, it can also get more and more complex. It's especially fun to play with three other people, though one-against-one doesn't take nearly as long. Either way, blast some music, eat some cookies, drink some coffee, spread out on the floor or a table, and place your monks, farmers, knights, and thieves onto the tiles! Then do it again. 

happy reading, watching, & gaming,

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: Elizabeth's photo exhibition.

Two ladies I've interviewed [as part of the series I started on this here blog] held very special events this week, one after the next. So here, I shall review their shows, one after the next ;)

Elizabeth amid the crowd, with her friend Max
On Monday night, 2.6.12, Elizabeth Gordon-Tennant held her very first solo exhibition in a swanky apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. With the help of a few pals (myself included), Beth prepped the space and hung/positioned 8 of her framed photos, projecting about 40 more onto a white sheet. The result: a very cool and perhaps unexpected photography show! Who needs an art gallery anyway?

While laptop-wizard Ari was DJing (Radiohead, Phantogram, Joy Division, etc.)  in the main room, speakers were also set up in the master bedroom, which lent a different moody atmosphere perfectly suited to the pictures displayed. Inspiring photos aside, I was obsessed with the view! And with a constant stream of guests -- those involved in the fashion/art worlds and beyond -- viewing photos, drinking beer, talking art, and just generally enjoying the vibe, the 2-hour show was a complete success. Elizabeth proved herself to be quite the lady of the hour! Here are some of my own photos of the event...


(all photos from Beth's show by a.dupcak)

Review: Please Don't Let Me Die Alone

On Tuesday night, 2.7.12, Amanda Miller performed the dark comedy show she created with Shawn Shafner, Please Don't Let Me Die Alone, at the Magnet Theater in Manhattan. Amanda and Shawn --- who met studying theater at NYU --- created the show together several years ago. They have performed Please Don't Let Me Die Alone on or around Valentine's Day for three years running, with the play gradually evolving, changing shape, and becoming even more potent. This year's show was directed by David McGee.

The symmetrical main characters, next-door neighbors Susan and George, are both hitting major roadblocks in their lives: job-wise and, more so, romantically. Susan was recently dumped, and George has hit a serious slump; with added pressure from their mothers (grandbabies!), both become so desperate that they not only consider throwing themselves out of their windows (literally!) but also jumping into whatever the dating scene may offer. From a matchmaker to, from speed-dating to blind dates, and from casual sex to pathetic booty calls, the two embark on parallel paths that soon merge when they (woops!) end up in bed with each other! But being neighbors, they, as Amanda put it in our interview, "assume it won’t work out and things will end up awkward and uncomfortable, so they make things more awkward and uncomfortable by looking elsewhere for something that already exists and cannot be replicated."

Seasoned actors Amanda and Shawn play every single role in this hour-long production, relying on only a handful of props: two chairs, a sheet, cell phones, and a condom. The actors, and the show itself, are outright hilarious...even in the darkest and most emotional moments. Inherently relatable, the show illuminates our basic human desires (and neuroses!) while poking fun at the absurdity of our culture.

One of the best moments is the speed-dating scene, where Amanda and Shawn play at least six characters each...all of them crazy yet accurate caricatures of people you've probably met (or hope to never meet). Battling rejections, insecurities, and some true-blue weirdos, Susan and George finally manage to come out on the other side...but not without a little guidance from one homeless man, appropriately named Jolly. Amanda and Shawn both play Jolly, who sometimes thinks he's two people! The show constantly maintains momentum, and while it is speedy and rife with characters, there's never a moment of confusion for the audience. An all around fun and enlightening experience.

(bottom photo from Amanda's show by Max Yochum)

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Some things appear to happen synchronously...images speak to other images, words to words, experiences to experiences. Whenever you turn on your awareness, you start to notice how the things around you connect in ways that may take you by surprise. 

My friend, the poet-artist-musician Spencer Bell (who died in late 2006 and about whom I have extensively written), left behind a myriad of journals filled with art, doodles, lyrics, poems, and dreams. He allowed me to view a couple of journals in person, but I was only exposed to the rest after he died. Some pages became available on the website dedicated to his artistic/musical legacy, and one such image struck me because it seemed fact, it seemed more like drawings I used to do. No one really knows for sure if Spencer drew it, or if someone else did (sometimes he let friends doodle on his pages), but the thickness of the lines and the little notes make me think it was indeed him.

Now for the synchronicity...I bought myself a dance calender for 2012 because, as you may know, I wish I were a dancer. February's image reminded me of that one page in one of Spencer's many journals, which I then found to compare...

 photograph by Lois Greenfield

artwork by Spencer Bell

While the similarities are evident, here comes the strangest part. If the copyright on Lois's page is correct, then she took that photograph of Natalie Lomonte and Marcus Bellamy in 2010. Spencer's art, obviously, was done several years prior. It makes me wonder if he was inspired by something else Lois has photographed (she's an eminent dance photographer), or if there's some kind of cosmic understanding of the human form floating around in the ether. The images themselves are inherently synchronous (two things happening, or existing, at the same time), or at least they represent a very fluid duality --- a dance of romance. A give and take, in either direction. 

And in more synchronous news, I am soon embarking on a new writing venture as a blogger for The Ballerina Project, which I absolutely adore and have already spotlighted here, on my blog. On my birthday last week, I happened to come upon The Ballerina Project in action when I spotted Dane Shitagi photographing a girl in pointe shoes in my own backyard: Washington Square Park. I couldn't believe my luck! When I got back to my apartment, I eagerly wrote Dane for the first time (in a state of giddy birthday glee). Since then, we have met in person to discuss how I will contribute my writing to the blog aspect of his project. So far, only one image has emerged from that Washington Square Park photoshoot with a young dancer named Emma...

"All motion is cyclic. It circulates to the limits of its possibilities and then 
returns to its starting point."  --  Robert Collier


Friday, February 3, 2012

From the Vaults: Drew and the Medicinal Pen.

Since my actual website needs remodeling and some of the links to articles and reviews I wrote for BRM are currently expired or in the process of migration, I will occasionally post work "from the vaults" --- all in the name of making sure certain articles still have a place in the beautifully chaotic world of the internet.

I interviewed Drew, Anna, Missy, and Zach in Brooklyn back in the late fall of 2009 (I think!). The band has since gone through many changes and mutations --- resulting in other musical and artistic endeavors --- but I'd like to think that I captured them in a particular moment in time, a moment worth remembering. . . . .

Drew and the Medicinal Pen
began as Drew Henkels’ solo project, but eventually evolved into a full band; first when he lived with bassist Anna Morsett on McKibbin in Brooklyn, and then with the addition of Missy Liu on violin and a host of instruments, and drummer Zach Arlan. Combining their diverse musical backgrounds as well as an overlapping love of punk rock and Neutral Milk Hotel, they began creating organic, uplifting songs with darker undertones.

Of this dichotomy, Drew explains, “They’re melodic and hopefully enjoyable to listen to, but they’re not typical pop songs because they’re full of some harder things to talk about and some smarter things to think about and that’s what gives it its real content, its real grit; the poppy fun sound is an optimism embedded inside all of us, which has come out more playing with Anna and Missy.” He continues, “That kind of makes this pill a little more swallowable and digestible, it’s good because the content hopefully gets through to people later. You listen to the song and you’re bobbing your head but then you pause and say, ‘Wait, what did he just say?’ Stop and think about the lyrics twice.” Anna adds that the lyrics are “rooted in something you really care about.”

The band released their album, dream, dream, fail, repeat, on their own label, which is stationed in Drew’s cluttered, art-covered bedroom in Brooklyn. The epitome of DIY, the album was recorded in a homemade space (“The Sex Dungeon”) in a warehouse in West Philly. They camped out there during the dead of winter, with no heat or hot water, cooking on a hot plate, and going back and forth from New York to Philly for several days at a time. Discomfort aside, Drew assures, “This just felt like where this record needed to come out of.” A creatively rich environment, they smashed 200 glass bottles during the end of “Sleepy Don’t Cry,” sang through a heating vent for “Hey Chanae,” and also shot off fireworks for sound effects.

The DIY ethos extends to making posters, stickers, buttons, t-shirts, album cover art, and even films that add to the thrill of performances. Drew explains, “It’s all just kind of in between reality and dream world; there’s this whole plateau I’ve been building of images and thoughts and fragments of sentences and films and dream logs, and often these show up in lyrics.” 

The ultimate dream is to quit their day jobs, live off the music, tour full-time (“The van can only go so far,” says Missy), and share their songs with as many listeners as possible, but they’re also content to continue playing house shows and hanging letters from fans in their “office.” However, for a little extra cash, they do have a plan to sell raffle tickets for fans to see Anna’s boobs; “you’ll need to buy two to see both boobs!”

All kidding aside, the band loves where they are right now. While it would be wonderful to be rock stars, Drew assures that they’re perfectly happy playing house shows, art shows, and basements, and thus sharing the music on a personal level. “If you make something you want someone to hear it. But at the same time, I have a lot of issues with commercialism. I do like that we have build up and momentum.” Anna adds that the goal is to sustain themselves from the output of creativity, as well as to “rise above where we’ve been and try to jump over it.”

It doesn’t hurt to make some friends along the way, like Brent Green, who puts the band up on his farm whenever they come through Pennsylvania. Drew says, “He's a filmmaker, but also one of my absolute favorite lyricists.” They’ve also been inspired by bands they’ve shared a bill with, such as Endless Mike and the Beagle Club. The four voices of Drew and the Medicinal Pen will continue to sing and maybe even scream their way around the country, state by state and house by house, bringing their own talents and emotions to every chord strummed. “That’s when it’s really transcendent,” Drew says, “and really worthwhile.”

(photos by a.dupcak)