One of my favorite moments as an artist living in New York are those magical, perhaps slightly tipsy, one-on-one conversations with other artists. Whether they be friends, collaborators, or strangers you just met at a party, they almost always contain at least a morsel of intense value. Being an artist can be lonely — focusing on something that is part of your soul, and giving it most of your energy, creative and otherwise. When that inward experience turns outward and you are met with someone with similar dreams and living the same confusing but beautiful life, and who believes in you and whom you believe in, it’s impossible not to leave feeling encouraged or at the very least, a bit less alone. Like you’re not being left behind.
I’ve had the idea for a while to turn those moments that happen so frequently in private, into something more public and concrete, all while also giving artists the platform to premiere some of their work. To force two artists to become experts on the other’s output, and then throw them into a conversation and see what happens.
For this first episode, I have made myself, Michael Doshier — I go by Johnny Darlin as an artist — one of the artists. And I can’t think of anyone else Johnny Darlin or Michael Doshier would rather have as my partner than my first guest, Steven Zemanian a.k.a. Francis Steakknife. If the prerequisite for this is being an expert on each other’s work, there’s no one better to join me than Steven. We know each other very well personally and creatively; he produced four out of the five songs on my first EP, Mr. Monogamy, released last year, and is producing three out of the one coming out in 2016. He is a producer who can bring out the brightest lights and the deepest darks in any song I write. He is also a solo artist whose efforts as such I have seen draw hundreds of drunk mid-20s ghouls to a Halloween party in a basement where we shouldn’t have been smoking inside but we were anyway, and where I touched the stair railing only to have my hand soaked in vomit, then stood outside a locked bathroom to wash it off because people were inside fucking their brains out. (And by the way, there is no doubt in my mind the underlying sex drive pulsing in his beats drove these ostensibly sane humans into such animalistic territory).
Despite our collaborative friendship he is also a creative shrouded in mystery for me — especially when it comes to his solo work that somehow finds itself on the Internet seemingly randomly, enlivening my newsfeed with sounds quite different than anything we’ve ever produced together. I was interested to crack this case.
This is Johnny Darlin in conversation with Francis Steakknife, and our favorite drink together is Blue Moon.
Michael Doshier: Today I am joined by Steven Zemanian, also known as Francis Steakknife. I have worked with him on several projects, in fact, most of my musical projects. I’m very excited to have his perspective today. Thank you for joining me, Steven.
Steven Zemanian: I’m excited to be here, thank you.
MD: Steven has an amazing pet bunny named Marvin who is joining us in the studio today (by studio I am referring to his awesome apartment); how is Marvin doing today, Steven?
SZ: He looks pretty good; he’s flopped out right now; you were just here and he ate dinner in front of us so he’s happy but he likes to sleep after dinner.
MD: He looks very content.
MD: When it comes to artistic physical spaces that our work together has manifested itself within, I have a surprisingly large amount of places come to mind: a recording studio in Virginia, your parents’ attic in Virginia, this apartment, my apartment, NYU recording studios. And as you’ve mentioned before, space is an important concept to you in regards to recording. I’ve heard you say things like “it’ll be cool to get a vocal take in the same space we recorded the instruments.” And this has always intrigued me because I don’t understand it myself and I find it a really beautiful concept. I would love to get you to elaborate a little on that for me — what does space mean to you in regards to recording music?
SZ: Space is extremely important. It’s an important part of mixing and recording, to make everything sound like it’s either in a surreal environment or a realistic environment. You’re trying to put the listener in the best place to hear the sound when you’re recording and mixing. You kind of want to give them the best place in the house, and that house can be either real or imaginary, which is always fun.
MD: Still in this area of conversation about space, I will say that for me the Francis Steakknife eras that come to mind are Francis-Steakknife-in-Virginia and the work you’ve produced there and Francis-Steakknife-in-New-York-City and I’m curious as to how to the change in physical location has done for you creatively. Has New York made you see the world differently in any sort of way? And has that been affecting the music you’ve been creating?
SZ: Virginia is definitely a much slower pace, and I don’t know if I’ve necessarily thought about how the living environment has affected my music; I don’t know if my music is any faster or more aggressive now. But I loved walking around Norfolk, and that’s one of the things I love about New York is you can walk everywhere; you don’t have to drive anywhere. But yeah, the walking pace and maybe our natural tempos are very different between the two [places]; you can kind of walk however you want in Virginia, whereas in New York you have to keep up with everybody and pass people. Even if you’re not really going anywhere important, you have to act like an asshole and pass somebody; it’s just the way it all works.
MD: I was listening to Delusions — the first album I ever had of yours. That I noticed had more jazz and blues influences in certain songs than I have in more recent work you’ve created in New York. What are your thoughts on these first Francis Steakknife productions?
SZ: The point with Delusions was I really wanted to make music with a lot of my friends, so most of them are featured on it from college. It was a lot of fun; the whole point was Vincent Van Gough — I loved and still do really like his artwork. So, all of the tracks are named after Vincent Van Gough pieces and I tried to think about how musically to interpret the artwork. The blues and jazz influences come from me being very much interested in strange chord progressions back then, and still am but have tried to reign it in a little more, because some of the things were a little far out.
MD: I want to talk to you about sequencing and cohesiveness. I remember when you asked me my thoughts on Groucho Karl before it had been released, one of my notes was how cohesive the album was from track to track and from beginning to end. As a playwriting student, I come from the world of storytelling and trying to get the story “right.” When we were working on Mr. Monogamy together, both sonically and lyrically it was important to me to put the songs in an order that told some sort of story.
SZ: As far as Groucho Karl goes, I really lucked into a three-act structure. It’s three failed concepts I smashed together, and I used gapless playback to drive that point home further; all the songs go into one other. The songs themselves are little sketches from my notebook I had at the time and I was really into the idea that it should be incomplete; I would sometimes try to make complete songs out of them but it wouldn’t work, so I’d just leave them how they were in little one minute and two minute things that lead into one another. When I ended up sequencing it, I was in New York and had a bunch of material (some of it wasn’t very good) and I tried to take the best parts of it and smash it all together.
MD: In that way, it’s a collection of ideas and thoughts and musical inspirations you’ve had throughout a long period of time in multiple areas. You didn’t sit down and say “I’m going to release this record in this amount of weeks,” it’s more a matter of you being in multiple areas and while you were in New York, finding the ones that worked together. You were building a cohesiveness instead of creating one from the get-go. That’s interesting that it’s something I consider very cohesive and it’s literally an album construed of things you consider failures.
MD: I have a sort of selfish question. I am curious as to what your favorite track we’ve done together is and if you could tell me why and what that process was like for you.
SZ: “You’ve Quit Praying for Me, Babe” is not out yet, but it will be.
MD: So what’re your first steps? For a lot of our collaborations, we A) work together in a studio and come up with melodies we like, B) sometimes you’ve done full productions on your own and are curious what I can add as a songwriter and vocalist on top of it, and C) sometimes I write songs on my own and send to you and see where they take you as a producer and you turn demos into full songs. So I’m curious what that latter option is like for you.
SZ: So I listen to it and give it a good think and think about what the overall message of the song is, and maybe go from there. If I can use some sort of element to add to that and drive home that this is the message of that song. And then I’ll think about what’s the main instrument of the song — a lot of times with you, it’s the piano, so I will build something around the piano and leave space for the piano that you will eventually play and work my own production around the piano.
SZ: There are a lot of things I don’t know about your process. I know with “Nervous Girl/Whiskey Shot” I ended up recording most of the instrumental to that in the Catskills. I really didn’t know what to do with it; I knew I wanted to make a banging pop song (which is sort of a weird thing to do in the middle of the woods). I had no direction lyrically, so I’m wondering what the song is even, broadly, about.
MD: My actual favorite part of the Mr. Monogamy creative process was “Nervous Girl/Whiskey Shot” and “~MaGiCaL! ;)~” because the challenge was that I would be writing to a beat like Ester Dean or some other titan in the pop industry who is given productions and asked to turn them into the biggest hit ever, so that was a very fun role to play. It’s appropriate that I’m getting a little bit drunk now because I did write that song in the shower. All my roommates were gone, I brought my laptop into the bathroom, I had a few pregame beers by my lonesome, and I took a shower and just played “Nervous Girl/Whiskey Shot” the instrument on loop over and over again, while at the same time having my phone on record so whatever I was singing in the shower would be recorded.
I had an idea called “Moody Girl/Whiskey Shot” because I liked the combination of those two phrases separated by a backslash, based off one of my friends who was the life of a party and everyone’s favorite girl at the party, but was getting drunker and drunker and messier and messier throughout the course of the party. I thought “this is a very typical image of anyone our age and of my relationship with her specifically, but I find something poetic about it.” So I channeled my own anxiety that I experience and substituted “moody” for “nervous.” So it’s a combination of that story and my own anxieties and how I act those out by drinking and turning up, which is fun and deals with anxiety in the moment, but I think the song on your end has a darkness to it that musically drives home that it isn’t necessarily the healthy option.
SZ: The next song is “My Sister Went out on a Date Tonight.” Walk me through the sentiment behind that song.
MD: My actual sister was getting ready for an actual date, and I was coming to terms with the idea of coming out to my family. So those anxieties were mixed with my sister who was going on dates that she did not have to explain to my parents, but not only that, they were excited for her and helping her get ready for it. I played a drum loop in GarageBand and started singing over it, literally telling the story of what was actually happening.
SZ: Marvin is freaking out in his crate.
MD: Yes, Marvin is ready to come out and talk to us about his debut album coming out soon.
SZ: I recorded the instrumentals for what came to be “Nervous Girl” and “~MaGiCaL! ;)~” both in the Catskills, at the woods in my Uncle’s house. I didn’t know what to do with it from there because it was a big maximalist pop song, and I sent it to you and you sent it back with something awesome. I really wanted the song to be a very happy instrumental but a very sad lyrical juxtaposition. I actually don’t know where you were mentally when you wrote the lyrics and melody to that song.
MD: As a queer person, I feel like romantic and sexual development for a lot of us is delayed, in the sense that minor crushes and romantic things that hit your heart and interests may take more of a toll on you than had you been dating and kissing and fooling around as a young person. A lot of queer people don’t do that because they’re repressed until they can do that on their own. So the chorus is “How magical that feels, after all these years.” And the line about “I wanted you to meet my family” is supposed to take on an extra weight, for me at least, because that’s a very lofty goal for a lot of queer people: to feel so strongly about someone else that you’d risk the awkwardness of introducing them to your family. So, it was sort of about, what it feels like when a relationship goes wrong in the context of this delayed development.
SZ: That leaves us to the final track of the EP, “Try (For Me).”
MD: I wrote the first version of it as a part of a musical I wrote in middle school. Then, I kept it in my head long enough for it to be there for the Mr. Monogamy process so I revamped it. It’s weird to hear eighth-grade Michael’s melodic thoughts and some of the same lyrical thoughts be released as twenty-three year old Michael’s output into the world and artistic space.
Because it was our first song working on together in person, it was highly collaborative. I remember you teaching me things about how the piano syncs to the computer and how we can manipulate the piano to sound like other things. That was a challenging thing for me to play the piano as if it was going to be the bass. Those were exciting moments for me to grow as a musician at twenty in your attic; it was our first real in-person, teaching each other things, expressing ourselves creatively, which adds an extra layer of it being special.
Thank you for joining me, Steven. This has been awesome and it’s so cool to talk about the past we went through together, but go into a deeper arena as to what we were going through individually in the process. I learned a lot about what you were going through throughout the making of our EP, so thank you for joining me.
I’m going to let 13-year-old me continue to croon as I say thank you to Steven for joining me today. Francis Steakknife’s prolific collection of music can be found at francissteakknife.com or francissteakknife.bandcamp.com.
And I want to also say that, as fun as it was getting to talk about my own process, I am excited by the opportunity to invite other artists — friends or strangers to each other — into my home, so that I can sit back and watch inspiration-via-engaging dialogue enter the room, as it did between me and Steven. I invite anyone interested to join me in this journey, whether you have an EP, a play, a web series, an art show. Whether you work as a vocalist, an actor, a writer of long form narratives, non-fiction, or poetry. Whether you’ve been reviewed by enough publications to gather a Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes or just finished your first song yesterday and have a stage name no one has heard of but yourself. No matter what you do or where you are in that doing, you’ll make two new friends who will become experts on your work, and you’ll have it featured online through the amazing Things Created By People. If you’re interested, reach out with a link to your work and your favorite thing to drink over conversations like these. Until next time.
If you would like to contact Michael about participating in the next Art Collision, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.