article, audio

Meet Tristan Carter-Jones

For many artists on their singular path, often there comes a breaking point. They can continue down the river they’re on, or jump ship and pursue something new. A bit rarer, though, and entirely more enthralling to watch, is the artist that pivots what they’ve been working on into something grander, building upon their strengths and weaknesses and veering right into new territory.

Meet Tristan Carter-Jones.

Emerging on the scene as a rock-soul singer with bedroom-pop sensibilities, Tristan released The Jones EP in November 2014. Boasting the sound of FKA Twigs and Brittany Howards’ lovechild, Carter-Jones was headed down the path of a Brooklyn solo act, hand-picking producers with whom to work. “The Jones EP was kind of fucking dark,” Tristan laughs, “The songs demanded a strange sort of isolation – the sort of spiral that happens when you spend too much time alone in your head.”

This assessment holds water. In the video to Jones EP centerpiece “Bare to Beat,” Tristan loops videos of her own performance of the song, just as she loops her vocals in the most glorious ‘round you’ve heard since counting to three before jumping in on “Row Row Row Your Boat” in Sunday School. From the strikingly personal songwriting to the production credits, she was an artist fully in control of the journey she intended you to go on – a selfish (but rightfully and intriguingly so) representation of the intricacies of her lovelorn psyche. “I was the kid in class who did every part of the group project because I didn’t trust people. I tend to have a very specific vision, and want things exactly as I want them.”

Which is why her 2016 re-emergence – as front woman to an otherwise all-male, all straight, all-white rock band Dakota Jones – couldn’t be more surprising. If you can’t take my word for it, consider that prominent indie blog Obscure Sound wasted no time making their critical imprint on this moment. “The multi-vocal layering [exemplifies] this group’s impressive grasp on both garage-rock and contemporary blues-rock,” they wrote the day of the release. And there it is – the sound we grew to love in 2014, yet pivoted into the world of rock.

“Working with Tim, Scott, and Steve has helped me let go of my obsessiveness,” Tristan explains when I bring up the newfound requirements of fronting a band – namely, working with other people. “They’ve helped me learn that collaboration is actually a lot more fun. It’s the most important part to me now. The most beautiful things come out of that place where I let go and someone else steps in.”

At this point, I’m skeptical of just how much Tristan’s enjoying letting loose of the reigns, but the fact that it’s happening is indisputable. The collaborative nature of Pt. 1 (out now on Bandcamp and Soundcloud) is evident in the first 20 seconds. Gone are the freeform improvisational meditations on family and addiction from The Jones EP (“Different Things”) and the epic pop soundscapes big enough to overwhelm your senses with masterful grandiosity (“Bare to Beat”). Each song on Pt. 1 is as tightly structured and classically produced as The Jones EP highlight (and closer) “Busy Puts.” The players alongside Tristan – Tim Greene, Scott Kramp, and Steve Ross – mix with her voice effortlessly – each piece essential, yet not a single sound extra. It sounds immediately classic. It’s where it’s supposed to be, and a listener can’t help but feel they are too when listening to it. Whereas you can feel the curtains of The Jones EP closing over the windows in the room she’s making it, Pt. 1 sounds like they recorded near a Central Park playground, on a sunny day in the middle of Spring. 

Despite the new sound, Tristan (who still writes each song) insists she’s exploring similar grounds of heartbreak. When asked about the EP’s visceral cover image – a set of white hands choking her – she explains: “Being in love was all I ever wanted. Then I got it and it terrified me to no end. At first I couldn’t eat or sleep and I literally felt a tightening in my chest that was constant. The choking imagery made too much sense to me. White hands around my throat.”

The newfound knowledge on this aspect of life seems to have given Carter-Jones a new source of power. Perhaps the power of setting free a broken heart just to get it broken again, this time wiser and ready for the fight. The power of accepting oneself a little bit more fully at 25 than at 23. “I’m a queer black woman in full control of the music, lyrically, and fronting three straight white men, which is only hilarious to me when I think about it.” She continues, acknowledging the coolness in this, “This is just some of the regular shit that women think about! I’m not special because I’m thinking about BDSM and fucking women. I just don’t think we get the pleasure of hearing these things from a woman’s mouth as often as we should.” She laughs, and suddenly I’m much less skeptical that she’s enjoying this collaborative ride.

Dakota Jones performed their New York debut at The Delancey on October 12th. The show was met with an ecstatic crowd and a confident debut from the band, including tight playing and Tristan’s assured vocals. One of the best aspects of a band is that each member has something at stake. I can’t help wonder if the newfound lightness in spirit and tightness in composition derives from working with individuals who feel excited, and perhaps even lucky, to be the ones providing glorious and classic soundscapes to her glorious voice and classic songwriting.

“I’m a bit gentler with myself now. On my thoughts and on my heart. I’m deeply grateful for the perspective I have now. And for the hope I have now, and for the want to be here that I have now. I never thought I’d be so fucking hopeful. I’m thankful for the patience and great love of the people around me.” She pauses, as if all is finally calm before adding, “And I’m still thankful for my strange-ass mind!” 


More Photos of People by Rachel Hawatmeh

I like taking pictures of people because it feels right. I enjoy observing people in general: the way they speak, eat, laugh, stand amongst each other, anything. I find people extremely fascinating. They are more interesting than inanimate objects. Sometimes, it's the imperfection of a person that makes the photograph beautiful. Landscapes and objects can be too beautiful and too pristine, while photographs of people have personality. The camera allows me to capture these personalities and moments of humanity, and share them with the world. Other people get to see what I see, observe, and love. It instills meaning into a candid shot, and serves as a way for me to communicate other people's stories as well as my own.

Rachel likes food and taking pictures of people. She lives in LA. You can find Rachel's first collection of Photos of People here. Find more photography by Rachel Hawatmeh on her Tumblr.

interview, audio

Vardaan Arora: How OCD and India made a popstar

I have a playlist on Spotify. It’s called “Nat’s Perfect Playlist,” and it is perfect. I don’t know where on Spotify I discovered “Feel Good Song,” but I know it was immediately added to my pristine playlist. I couldn’t help jamming out to the sultry pop song while at work; I kept it on repeat. To my surprise, the artist behind the song was my age – and an NYU alum, too. He’d done covers before this, but nothing that circulated nearly as wide. My association of today’s top pop music with reality TV singing competitions, breakout social media stars, and the status quo musicians was expunged. You didn’t need a fanbase to sing a song and get people to listen to it. Just ask Vardaan Arora.

Natalia Lehaf: I heard your song on Spotify.

Vardaan Arora: Yeah, it was on a bunch of playlists on Spotify. It was on the “Mood Booster” playlist where it is gaining the most traction.

NL: That’s really cool. Did you upload it to Spotify and Spotify picked it up?

VA: I recorded the song in June in Nashville. I wrote it myself. I had worked with a producer named Kevin Leach I met in L.A. It all happened in a day. I had lyric and melody ideas with me, but it came to me in the studio. We released it the month after, because post-production took a few weeks. I had a release party in New York, with supportive friends and family who decided to buy the song – even though people don’t really buy music these days. I think Spotify picked up on people listening to it and has an algorithm that picks up on early adapter songs, and it ended up on viral charts. It’s crazy how Spotify helped put it out there; I use Spotify to find new music all the time. In terms of gaining exposure and traction, Spotify has been the most helpful. It’s also a testament to artists in 2016 – we can release something without a label and with the help of streaming services, like Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube. So many people have been reaching out telling me that my song is playing at the bar they’re at or the store – and it’s really cool.

NL: What were you doing there in L.A.?

VA: I lived in L.A. for six months after graduating. I went to NYU for acting and the “New York vs. L.A.” decision is huge for actors. I wanted to see what it was like to live there. I didn’t really like it – I don’t love L.A. After living in New York, I can’t live anywhere else. I’m a very social person and it’s a lot easier to meet up with friends in New York than L.A. Who wants to drive for 45 minutes just to see a movie with a friend? Also, everyone there is in the entertainment industry. I like meeting people from all different walks of life, and L.A. was a little monotonous for me. Even the food. L.A. has great produce and Mexican food, but when I want different cuisines like Indian or Thai, New York is much better.

NL: But, one of the downsides to the city is the limited space. Where was your release party in the city?

VA: I got a suite at a hotel in the Lower East Side. I played the song a few times – not back to back, throughout the night – and gave a little speech about the song.

NL: What did you say in your speech?

VA: I gave them insight into the meaning behind the song. It’s an upbeat, dance-y, fun song that’s supposed to make you feel good, right? But the message behind the song is to bring attention to what it means to feel good on your own terms. Not: everyday is going to be a good day, and when you’re having a bad day, you shouldn’t be expected to feel good because other people are telling you to. A lot of pop songs tell you to put your hands up in the air, and this song is like, “No, I won’t do that because I don’t want to do that right now.” It brings awareness to mental health issues, like when you’re feeling down and depressed and people are telling you to cheer up, but it’s not possible for you to cheer up in the moment. So it’s like, “I’ll close my eyes and sing my feel good song” – so whatever that means to you, whatever you need to do to bring yourself up, you should do without trying to meet other people’s expectations about what feeling good means.

NL: Did anything in your life inspire the song, particularly its touch on mental health?

VA: Yeah, in 2013 I was diagnosed with OCD. I drew from different experiences as a result of that to write this song. It’s about taking it day by day, and knowing that the thing that's bothering you right now might not even bother you tomorrow at the same time. It’s through the institutional paths mentality of “just breathe and revel in it and acknowledge you're feeling this way but do not get sucked into it.”

NL: How has having OCD affected your life?

VA: It’s one of the most debilitating illnesses. It got to the point where it was really bad and I couldn’t do everyday normal tasks because I had to repeat certain activities and had to do compulsions, so I would never really be present in the moment. Obviously, being treated for it was super helpful and becoming more aware of how your brain works was super helpful. It’s chronic and it’s easy to relapse and fall into bad habits and do compulsions all the time, but it’s like a battle and you have to keep going.

NL: What are everyday tasks that you’d have to repeat?

VA: For example, if I had a negative or intrusive thought while I was entering a room, I’d have to walk out of the room and un-do the thought and walk into the room again. The same with sending texts or plugging in your phone. I just did a video with Project UROK talking about my OCD and reaching out to others who have it. A lot of times you feel like you’re alone, when you’re not, which is why I reach out to people on Twitter and join support groups for it. It’s nice to talk to other people who have OCD. And OCD is an illness that’s been murdered by the media because people say things like, “Oh I am so organized, I have OCD,” and it’s a completely different beast.

NL: How do you feel about people who trivialize OCD?

VA: I hate it so much. I know people who do it all the time, and I don’t say anything because I don’t want to be that guy who is, like, politically correct about a mental disorder. Because people say things like that all the time, like, “Oh, I am so schizophrenic” and “oh, he’s so bipolar.” And it’s like: Are you really? Is he really?

NL: Knowing that makes me think about the song differently.

VA: Oh, yeah, if you go back to the song and listen to the lyrics again, it makes a lot more sense probably. Because people think of it as, you go dancing to it – which is good, too, because I want people to think that. I don’t exactly want people to be going through the exact same journey when listening to it, but for me, personally, it means something different.

NL: So, you went to Nashville to meet this producer from L.A. and you knew the words and melody, but it all came to place in the studio, right?

VA: Yeah, so I’d get lyric ideas in the middle of the night, or on the flight over there, but it all came together then. He laid down a beat and I sang over it.

NL: How long were you in the studio for?

VA: I think four or five hours. We recorded the entire song in a few hours and then the next day I went into a different studio and tracked all the vocals there, so I redid the vocals. So it took one day to write the song and have a version for it, and another day to re-do the vocals. I was only there one weekend.

NL: Was that a lot of pressure?

VA: I would say yes if I thought about it, but I was so overwhelmed and excited that I didn’t see it as being a lot of pressure. That’s when I knew that I love songwriting, because it came so easily. It was interesting to see that my own song was stuck in my head a day after recording.

NL: It’s even more interesting because you have OCD and are still going through treatment for it, but you were able to create a three minute song in two days.

VA: So, OCD – what it does is try to give you intrusive images and thoughts that aren’t true but feel true when they’re in your head. If I get a thought, like, “everybody hates your song,” I would have to do a compulsion and make a list of all the people who like it in my head until I feel better. And that would make me feel good for about ten minutes until the thought popped back into my head again. The more compulsions you do, the more it reinforces the obsession. So while I was there, I needed to be on the phone with my therapist, but because I was so excited and passionate about writing this song, it helped me overcome the OCD. When something exciting and big happens, the OCD takes a backseat – because it plays with you when your mind is a little empty, too. People like to think about OCD as a monster that’s always yelling things at you, and if you entertain what they are yelling, they get bigger and bigger.

NL: So you recorded one song; are you working on more music now?

VA: I was in Nashville again last month. I recorded another song. It’s a little slower – still pop, still catchy – but I am using more of my lower register. It’s cool. I’m also working on a music video for “Feel Good Song.” That’s what’s next before the next song comes out.

NL: Where are you shooting the music video?

VA: In New York. I don’t want to give too much away, but I think it’s in a parking lot in Queens. The director is finalizing dates and locations now. There’s going to be a dance in it, which is cool.

NL: You’re from NYU acting, I am sure you have a lot of friends trying to break into this industry as well. How did they receive the song, and are you working with any of them on anything?

VA: I’m not working with anyone at the moment, but I am seeing a lot of people make their own stuff, which is awesome. I think that’s what people need to start doing – especially in the acting industry – you can’t just wait around for the phone to ring. It’s easy to forget why you chose to do this thing anyway, especially when you start to look at it as a business than an art form.

NL: I feel like so many people are waiting for their big break, but here you are putting your song out there on your own – no label, nothing.

VA: Yeah, you can get attention for your work. Obviously, you need to have the finances for it, which is the hardest part, but it’s possible.

NL: How much does it cost to record in the studio?

VA: It depends on the studio, but I know the studios in Nashville are a little cheaper because they are so many of them. It’s usually an hourly rate, like $70 or $80 an hour.

NL: I love the idea that in 2016 you can put your music out there, and I know there is some controversy with Spotify because they pay their artists very minimally.

VA: Yeah, I can’t say anything bad about Spotify because if you are up-and-coming you can’t afford to not be on a certain platform because they don’t pay you enough. You know? Because you don’t have the influence, you’re not Taylor Swift – Taylor Swift doesn’t have her music on Spotify and she says she is doing it for up-and-coming artists, but I don’t believe that. I almost owe my entire career to Spotify. Yes, they don’t pay enough – but think about all of the other great things they do for you, not just as an artist, but as a user. People would be listening to music illegally a lot more often without Spotify; people are listening to music legally in 2016 because of Spotify.

NL: Before this all erupted and you got this big break, what were you doing? Are you still pursuing acting?

VA: My student visa expired shortly after I moved to LA, because I am originally from New Delhi. So I moved back to India and I lived there for 6 months and then I got a green card and was settling back into New York City. While I was settling, I decided I really wanted to write a song and thought that if I didn’t do it now, when would I ever do it?

NL: You grew up in India and then came to New York for acting school?

VA: Correct. And through acting school, I’ve been able to get rid of my accent. I switch back whenever I am talking to my mom, though. America has always been one of my favorite countries to visit. I always felt like I fit in better here – with my sense of humor and taste in music, although now with this election I am not so sure.

NL: How did you decide on acting?

VA: I was always creative and always loved singing and acting from a young age. It’s something that’s always been a passion for me.

NL: I am first-generation and growing up with parents as immigrants allowed me a cool perspective of watching people acclimate to the American culture. What was that like for you?

VA: It wasn’t as hard as you might think. I found more like-minded people here, especially at NYU. I connect much better with people here than India. I also grew up watching a lot of American TV shows. What I am doing is not the norm in India. This industry is different from Bollywood – it’s more about the work than the glamour.

NL: How did you feel when you moved back to India? Were you depressed, after coming all this way only to have to go back?

VA: Yes – exactly. I was in limbo. I was just waiting for my green card to go through, and I hate waiting for things to happen. I applied for a green card when I turned 21 and got it when I was 23, so about two and a half years. I got lucky with that, some people have to wait a lot longer.

NL: Wow, and then you came here and got right to it.

VA: Exactly.

For more of Vardaan's music, check out his website.


Road Trip: Photography by Anna Lynch

These photos are from a road trip I took this summer with my sister and a friend. We traveled from Texas all the way to California, hitting Dallas, Austin, Marfa, Santa Fe, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas.

Anna was born and raised in New Jersey and currently lives in New York City. She studied Photography and Global Studies at Parsons the New School of Design and recently graduated in May 2016. She loves to travel and her dream is to travel and photograph people around the world and share their stories. She hopes to move back to Florence, Italy soon where she studied abroad last year. For more of her work, check out her Instagram and website.

interview, visual art

New York on a Canvas: Art by David Bransfield

New York City is not a place. It’s an experience. The buildings are high, apartments small, and streets overpopulated – but it never feels claustrophobic. Artists have tried to replicate its paradoxical beauty for as long as both the city and art have existed. And although the New York experience can’t be framed, artist David Bransfield has managed to bring his experiences of New York to life.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Natalia Lehaf: How do you describe yourself as an artist?

David Bransfield: This is a totalizing question that is never easy for an artist to answer, especially because at this point in time I seem to be interested in many contrasting ideas and mediums. Overall, I would say that the common thread of my interests is the experiences and memories involved in the creation and immersion of a space. My previous work has spanned from ideas about geometry to urban landscapes to extremely conceptual depictions of surreal spaces, and I think that all of these ideas have a very specific relationship to the individual viewer.

NL: What’s your background in art, both academically and personally?

DB: I have always been extremely curious as to how things are made, both from an artistic and architectural standpoint. My interests in both art and architecture turned into a career choice around 9th grade. I began attending an after-school art program on Long Island called the Huntington School of Fine Arts, where for the first time I was trained in the classical mediums of drawing, painting, and sculpting. I spent a couple years there and grew exponentially as an artist, and then from there I attended NYU as a double major in Studio Art and Urban Design & Architectural Studies.

NL: Your sketches and paintings of New York City are very lifelike and precise. What is your relationship with the city?

DB: I grew up on the Queens/Long Island border only 20 minutes from Manhattan, so New York is my home. New York has always had an intense influence on how I think about art and architecture. Coming from such a rich and diverse place, I have always been interested in the makeup of communities as an insular composition of like-minded people, especially in New York where there are still many ethnic and religious-based communities. What interests me is how each of these communities come together to form a larger area that many people consider the “melting pot” that is NYC, yet there is still a definite division between neighborhoods, each with their own character and influence on each other. It is the dissection of “micro” versus “macro” in terms of the individual and the community that I have been trying to dissect in my more recent work. I am also extremely interested in this in terms of architecture and urban planning as well.

NL: What’s your process like?

DB: I’ll talk about the process for my most recent series of paintings, which were 6 to 10-foot urban landscape oil paintings. I began by assigning myself a large urban area to explore, which in this case was Chinatown. Then I wander. I find that wandering instead of trying to seek specific spaces can sometimes be more rewarding. If you have too specific of a goal, you will lose all sense of exploration in an attempt to find this goal and you may miss many unexpected opportunities. I had a set of guidelines to follow (finding spaces with rich color palettes, graffiti, and interesting people) but I let myself explore within these guidelines. For my first several wanderings I simply walk around and document spaces. I then go through my photographs and choose spaces which I believe have the most rewarding compositions and environments, and revisit these sites several more times for extended periods to capture a specific scene I wish to convey in my painting. After I decide on a composition which I believe makes for the best painting (this could be a single photograph or an agglomeration of several), I then make a series of sketches to resolve any compositional issues. This entire process generally lasts about 2 to 3 weeks before I begin the actual painting. The paintings themselves usually take about the same amount of time, and I try to stick with just one to two paintings at a time so I can focus on them without too many other distractions. I find that, personally, if I do not complete a piece within a reasonable amount of time or if I stop and revisit the piece later then it often turns out fragmented. Other than that, I do not focus too much on setting rules for myself while painting. I often find that the painting itself will dictate the rules of its creation, and I do not set these rules until I have already started painting. Stylistic rules will sort themselves out as the piece is being created. In terms of completion, I never feel like my paintings are truly finished. It is really just a matter of reaching a point where I am comfortable stopping, which I know is coming when I begin to get sick of the painting!

NL: You’re out of the city and studying architecture at Yale now. Are you continuing to paint and draw?

DB: I am still practicing art here, but I guess it depends on your definition of art. I am doing a lot of drawing (not as much painting because it is not as relative to the practice of architecture) but the drawings I am doing now serve more of a utilitarian purpose in that they are meant to convey the essence of my architectural projects. I would definitely argue that this is still an artistic form because there are infinite possibilities about how you convey your project, which will ultimately determine how the architecture is perceived. In this way it is almost just as important to have a strong representation of your building than to have a strong building itself. I am also learning to become extremely proficient with computer programs and to bring together multiple mediums in a single drawing which is exciting. I hope that after my time in architecture school I will be able to mix my skills and concepts learned from both art and architecture and find a truly intriguing and original artistic path for myself.

For more of David's work, check out his website.


The Rise and Shine of Amy Leon

Amy and I met at Friedman’s in Midtown West, both of us so insistent on eating chicken and waffles that we requested our waitress check again that the waffle machine was broken. We met just shortly after Amy’s audition for a play called The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World by Suzan-Lori Parks. Amy was in a euphoric state–one that even a broken waffle machine couldn’t curtail.

This would be the case regardless of a great audition, I would later decide.

“The casting director had already bought tickets for my show in August,” Amy said in a naturally booming voice. (Her show at Joe’s Pub, two months after our lunch, was a sold out performance.) This blandishment did not grant Amy a sense of security that would silence her prayers about the role. “It’s such an important piece,” she explained. “I haven’t been acting since I graduated, and this is the first role that I’ve ever wanted. I was like, ‘Wow. I can go be black somewhere?’ It’s not about me–and it’s important. It was written in 1989, which is crazy, because there’s a whole section of it that’s like, ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ She wrote this twenty years ago and here we are talking about the same shit.”

In 2015, New York University asked Amy to perform at an event where Trayvon Martin’s mother would be speaking. As a gifted raconteuse, Amy felt a crucial obligation to say the right words–or more importantly, for Trayvon Martin’s mother to hear the right words. “Something that you see a lot when somebody dies–my mother just died in February–is people being very apologetic about your situation when they don’t know the full story. The situation demands pity. I don’t like pity.” She spoke with an élan that seized my motor skills and had me nodding along in consensus, deserting my ignorance of grief and its surrounding characteristics. It was not until a few months later, when I experienced a loss of my own, that I could understand.

“This is a testament of faith,” Amy continued. “The fact that this woman is going around the world and talking about her situation right after it happened. She woke up the very next day and had the same job; she didn’t win the lottery, nothing changed. She’s wearing the same clothes. She still has other kids. She still has to wake up everyday, sleep everyday, eat everyday. And suddenly everyone’s talking about her son, making t-shirts about her son, making fun of her son, making Halloween costumes out of her son. So what does she want to hear?” This wasn’t a question. She left no time for me to answer. “An identification of resilience.”

Amy performed her song “Burning in Birmingham” at the event. The song evokes the events of September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, a day when members of the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamites beneath the front steps of 16th Street Baptist Church. Four girls died that day. “But there were five girls in the bathroom,” Amy said, voice still booming. “And Sarah Collins is alive today, under 70, still missing her right eye. She lost her sister and her best friends all at once. Didn’t even get to go to the funeral because she was at the hospital. She’s still paying medical bills today. And she’s watching this shit go down? How dare she have to watch this shit go down. How dare she have to pay for this. Nobody knows about her because she survived. The black woman has been surviving all this time and nobody’s looking at her, and she’s continuing to see all this shit.”

Amy’s pain was exacerbated by the negligible status of black women in the country, a matter she portrayed in the music video for “Burning in Birmingham.” She released the music video for it a few days before our meeting in June. “When it came to making the video, I knew I wanted black women because we are invisible–black women are last on the totem pole.” Her argument was simple: at least the death of black men is televised. “That’s why at the end of the video there’s a lot more bodies than those four little girls because the death is cyclical. It’s still happening. It’s still going. I don’t know when I am going to see a day when it’s not happening, but I am prepared to speak about it. And that’s why it doesn’t end on all the bodies–because I am not going to be crying forever, I am going to melt, breakdown, and then I am going to come back here and talk to you. And even if that’s the only time that I am healing, when I am talking to you about it, that’s what I am going to do.”

Amy spoke of the place black women have in society not as an emotional or moral burden, but as a token of their longanimity. Their skin is dark–but more importantly, it is thick. Racism exists, but still, so do they. Amy had been called a nigger three times in a week once; an experience she could never share with her mother. Her mother, white, Jewish, six-feet-tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes, would never experience someone rolling down their window and screaming that word at her before driving away. Their different exteriors created an internal divide. “I wrote this poem called Learning this Skin and it’s an analysis about how my mother will never be able to identify with me. At no point in her life will my mother walk down the street and be called nigger. And that’s my mother. That’s my blood. And she will never be able to identify with me as a black woman.”

I imagine this disconnect to be more of a venial offense, one that neither Amy nor her mother can help. Still, Amy’s relationship with her mother is complicated.

Amy grew up in the foster care system. She had lived in 13 different homes by the time she was 7 years old. Her mother would visit until she was 9, when she lost her visitation rights. Each visit, Amy’s mother searched her body for bruises, and subsequently pulled her out of homes with every discovery. “I had a lot of shit go down on me in my sleep. I’ve experienced every type of abuse there is,” Amy said. This abuse continued throughout Amy’s life, until she was 18 and matriculated at NYU.

At 13, she was adopted into an impoverished home by a 75 year old lady. There were other foster girls living there. Along with the girls were other inhabitants Amy described as “dangerous people.” These people abused the girls, a cycle many of them have been unable to escape.

“There’s a pattern of sexual abuse as if the world knows that that happened to you without you saying anything; it’s like an energy,” Amy said. “I’ve seen so many of the people I grew up with get taken advantage of and not know that they can change their minds or get taken out of these situations. For a lot of people, they can’t get out of these situations, because if you don’t have money and the person who is housing you and feeding you is also abusing you–then what are you expected to do? I’d rather be abused than be homeless sometimes. What’s worse? I don’t know.”

Amy did not tell anyone she was abused until the adoption was finalized. Despite feeling unsafe at home, Amy was going to school, she had friends, she planned to go to college–she didn’t want to risk these normalities for another home. “I lived with my abuser until I was 18. When I said something, [no one] believed me. He went to jail for touching another girl and then they let him out and let him stay in a home with foster children.”

And what of the social workers tasked to protect her and the other foster kids? “No one was checking in on us, nobody asking the right questions… I understand that keeping tabs on all of these foster kids in impoverished neighborhoods is difficult, but that's your job. They make these important jobs impossible to handle.”

Amy arranged to meet her mother once when she was at NYU to get baby pictures of herself. She had never seen pictures of herself as a baby before then. That same year, she received a Facebook message from a short Dominican man. The message read, “Soy tu padre.” That’s how Amy found out who her father was.

Amy had God: “I’ve experienced a lot of things in my world and time, and just knowing that there’s more than me has been incredible. God to me is the moon and then sunrise and the sunset, that consistency. No matter what happens, the moon will be there. The sun will rise. And the sun will set. I can’t even rely on myself to be consistent in anything, so to be able to see that everyday is like, ‘Yo, God has to exist ‘cause who’s doing that? Who’s pressing rewind?’”

Amy had poetry: “When I was in the 10th grade, I joined an acting company called MCC, and their whole thing was writing about your life and making your life into art. My first performance piece ever was through it. It was my autobiography in 1 minute. Afterwards, adults came to me and said, ‘Thank you for saying things I don’t know how to tell my children.’  I remember that day like it was nothing. These two women came up to me, gave me a hug, and broke down in my arms. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I am still going home to this abuse but you just broke down in my arms and I’ve never done that before.’”

With these two counterparts, Amy had reason to celebrate the human existence. In this celebration, she is unapologetic and unfiltered. She talks about her shit, hoping that more people will do the same. And if they do, then she believes there would be a lot less shit in the world.

“If we could be more honest about all of our emotions and not just talk about joy–joy is amazing and happiness is incredible–but every single emotion is equal. If we paid the same amount of attention to the moments that bring us despair as the moments that bring us joy, then we remember so much more. You know when someone’s not really smiling–it’s scary that we can see that in each other, but refuse to acknowledge it.”

I sat across from Amy, stunned. Learning about her life made me unconsciously compare our narratives, wondering why the same God gave me my sheltered existence.

But, I knew what she meant–sensing sadness in others, surmising that something isn’t right, and choosing to ignore it. It always seemed easier that way.

I commented on this wisdom and bravery, referencing her past and alluding to her future–but before I could finish, she stopped me. “You’ve been through some shit, girl, it wasn’t the same, but you’ve been through some shit, too. I’ve been sad and you’ve been sad, we’ve both been sad. I don’t think there’s a range. And I don’t think I work harder than anybody, I think I am living my life and everybody else is living their lives. I try to emphasize to the kids I teach [at art workshops]: you are not your situation. Your situation does not need to define you. My environment didn’t stop me from living my life. The difference is just knowing that. Everyone can take the train from 110th street to 42nd street, everyone can do that. There are people I know who’ve never left the block, who’ve had four generations of their family in that one place; and while that’s amazing, I was just like: ‘When I was 16 I went to Paris and I found out that people look different, I wish you knew!’”

Last year, Amy got sick. She told me about her chronic migraine disorder, how it causes her to pass out and have seizure-like and stroke-like symptoms every single day. She’d seen seven neurologists in the past year. None of them had any clue what was wrong with her, where her problems began and where they ended. She had performed with this condition, and managed to continue performing while having seizures on stage.

At one point, she had to quit: performing and teaching, for fear of passing out on stage or in front of her students. When she wasn’t performing, she’d go to her roof and watch the sunset. The consistency of the sun coming and going, clockwork in the sky, was her obsession, her piece of God.

Amy had published two books when me met, and was about to start touring shortly after. She’d coordinated the tour entirely by herself, using Twitter to reach out to venues that follow other artists.

She’d been writing every day, for upcoming shows and a third book. She stressed that she doesn’t like submitting anything because she refuses to edit her work. “I will not edit my work. You are going to take it the way I want it. Absolutely not. I have no time. You can give me a suggestion, but I am not going to edit anything. A lot of people allow themselves to lose their spirit when things are edited, and I don’t do that.”

I asked her what exhausts her.

“The work. It’s really heavy. I feel everything so much. I become a sponge when good and bad things happen. It exhausts me but is also the most exciting part of my life. I want to speak to everyone after a show, but I need five minutes because I just threw up–literally–on stage.”

I couldn’t help but clarify. Do you really throw up?

“No. My experience on stage is a blackout experience. I don't really know what happens,” she said, before adding, “I feel so fortunate, I just started seeing words to music. You know synesthesia? Seeing colors? I did improv a few weeks ago and I felt like I was reading the air. I saw words in the air.”

Amy was flushed with excitement when we met. The prospect of acting in a production with words as profound and familiar as her own autobiographical work thrilled her. “If I die and no one has ever seen me anywhere in more than a 200 person venue, I don’t give a fuck, because it was permanent in your life. It was permanent in mine. That’s all I need. Thank you for letting me make things permanent for myself as an artist. You can’t tell me that I don’t exist if I am right here. And that’s why I need this part in this play! In it, there’s a character that keeps saying:

‘You should write this down. You should put it under a rock. Because when they find the piece of paper that you wrote it on, they can say it didn’t exist. But if you put it under a rock, they can’t say the rock didn’t exist. That’s nature.’”

Amy’s words, performances, and influence have an everlasting quality that bodies don’t. I realized that Amy’s reliance on the sun–its comings and goings–was a reflection of her. Amy was a beam of light. She fights the darkness of social inequality with honesty, faith, and love. Her egalitarian convictions are melodized in her performances. But she claims the base of her work is something else: “As artists, we are trying to recreate the colors of the sky changing–whether it’s in poetry, music, dance, or paint.”

Amy’s always looking up to the sky, her God, and reflecting it back down to us.

Amy's album, Something Melancholy, will be available on November 15.  A release party for the album will take place at C'mon Everybody in Brooklyn the same day at 8pm. For more information about Amy and her work, check out her website.