What's the difference between a rose and a violet?
Listening to the songs makes you feel like you are at an underground punk rock show—it’s pretty incredible that you can experience all the euphoria of being shoved into a sweaty mosh pit at your computer desk.
The Rizzos crew lean into the DIY garage rock prom aesthetic on their new release, No Parents, No Rules 2: Beneath The Planet of No Rules, a tape that could easily serve as backing music for your umpteenth re-read of The Outsiders.
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!”
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.
For more of Vardaan's music, check out his website.
“Being totally, emotionally wide-open writing every day is exhausting,” Ari Leff admits with a sigh. It’s not a sigh of exhaustion, though – it is a sigh of zeal.
MD: Welcome to Episode 2 (who knew we’d make it this far?!) of Art Collision. I am your host Michael Doshier a.k.a. Johnny Darlin in musical land. And in this episode of Art Collision, I sit down with Julia Pugachevsky, creator of the web series "Life After Fat," and Kaela Garvin, co-creator of the web-series "2 Girls 1 Asian." Julia and Kaela are both friends of mine from college, but their creation and release of these series’ came as a shock to me as a friend and fan. Somehow, despite just graduating school and carrying demanding day jobs and pursuing other artistic endeavors that I did know about, these two friends of mine were suddenly releasing these seemingly massive, highly collaborative, sleek-as-hell projects that I’ve always been deeply intrigued with. Where did they find the time and the funding and the casts and the inspiration? How personal were these projects to each of them, and what were the themes they were trying to explore? I couldn’t wait to find out the answers to these questions, but even more importantly, to see what happened when placing two strangers in a room together who had undergone similar processes to deliver very different, yet equally stunning, results. With, of course, some free-flowing Blue Moon, as always.
This is Art Collision: Kaela Garvin in Conversation with Julia Pugachevsky.
MD: Today I am here with Kaela Garvin of “2 Girls 1 Asian” and Julia Pugachevsky of “Life After Fat.” Thank you both very much for joining me today. In both of your series, you’re very much exploring the idea of identity. That’s evident from just the title of either of them. I’m curious why you chose that particular identity to explore and where that came from in your psyches and minds.
JP: For me, “Life After Fat” came from – I haven’t personally lost a lot of weight, but I’ve had friends who have, and who had sort of similar experiences where it’s sort of… adjusting to this new body, and feeling like there’s this definitive “new you”, which I strongly disagree with. I think as a society we teach women especially (but men as well) that once you transform into a new person, your life will be so much better and work out. That’s sort of the core of the show – exploring that aspect of it, and finding out who you really are in this way that isn’t being perfect all the time, or being thinner or having better skin or whatever it is. It’s a matter of finding that original person in all their new forms and tying them together.
KG: That was something I really liked about your series – and it was so subtle and cool – was that, it’s not just people who are overweight or underweight or going through weight change that face body image issues. It’s everybody. You see that in all the characters in their relationships, so I thought that was really subtle and cool. We chose to focus on racial identity because me and my friend Kelly who created it, it’s something we always talk about. We’re both half-Asian and we’re usually the two People of Color in the room – if not the only ones, there may be someone else of a different race. But we are usually the only Asian people in the room. So there are a lot of micro-aggressions that go on all the time. There’s this persistent American idea that being Asian is “other” and “foreign” no matter how long you’ve been in the country. There’s also all these other crazy things that men say to Asian women online, in-person, on the street. The other day in Chelsea, there was this guy just yelling “Ni hao” at me for forever. Twice in one day! I walked past him two times and maybe he was yelling “Ni hao” at everybody, but I don’t think so! So, yeah, for us it was the obvious thing that if we’re creating avatars of ourselves going through the world, something that we connect to as friends and artists when we’re working in a room as diverse as they get, race is a thing that comes up a lot for us. So we took that and ran with it, and took it up to 100 in the series, but it was something that was real in our lives.
MD: Both shows are based in New York City – you both live in New York City and they feel like New York shows. What does that backdrop add to the show?
JP: When I started “Life After Fat,” I was around 21 so I was super into Girls. I still am; I still watch it with a more critical eye now (especially when it comes to race and inclusivity, although I think Lena Dunham has grown a lot as an artist) but when I first saw it, I was so amazed. I think because I had never seen someone who looks like Lena Dunham portrayed in a sexual way. Or, a way that’s earnest and not the punch line of a joke. And I just love the style of it – they had these friendships that were not always perfect and even catty sometimes, which I think can happen in your 20s. The people you think are your friends are perhaps your friends for the wrong reason. There was something about the grittiness of it I loved and I found kind of real at that time. During the first season of “Life After Fat,” that’s definitely true where there’s a little bit of jealousy and cattiness and everyone’s struggling to find a job. Coming out of college, in addition to any weight transformations or personal changes, you also have the change of not being supported by your parents anymore and having to make a name for yourself, having to make a life for yourself. All of that combined, being 20 in New York is maddening; it really is. It’s a struggle.
KG: Both of our series look at being a woman in New York City, going through daily life, interacting with this crazy huge metropolis which is the best place in the world but at times super “other” and scary and isolating. For us at least, it was an obvious choice – we met here, we live here. The filming it, perhaps, in one of our hometowns (Kelly is from Maryland, I’m the from San Francisco Bay Area) – we’re both from total suburbia. So the situations we find ourselves in may even be more aggravated because they’re less frequent. I think here, there’s a fast-paced thing that makes every event seem both more significant and less, depending on how your day’s been.
JP: That’s very real. I also like that you gave that nod to Hannah Horvath in your pilot. That was so good, and I was thinking the same thing. It reminds me of the opening scene of Girls where the parents are like, “We’re actually cutting you off.” It reminded me of both Girls and Broad City – in Broad City, you have them both skyping each other, and you’re both having these Skype conversations with your parents at the same time. It’s like, surreal and hilarious but also feels so, so real at the same time. Your friends are just with you in these very strange times.
KG: With our real parents messing up their lines!
MD: That was one of my questions! Those were your real parents?
KG: Yeah, we did it before Aziz! (laughs) No, we skyped both of our parents in their houses in Maryland and California to film that scene and my dad was reading a paper and you can see it! You can see that he’s doing it. And one of my friends messaged me and was like, “So your dad hasn’t memorized, huh?” Sorry!
MD: Dad was not off-book. Do your parents watch the whole series?
KG: They did! Actually in the mid-season, it starts with an episode where we have period shits and we’re in the bathroom and Kelly’s farting a lot. My dad, when I went home for Christmas, he was really mad. He was like, “We only watched two minutes then we turned it off. You should really think before making material like that.” But then he was like, “Yeah, well, I don’t know, it’d be easier for me to swallow if it was like a dude doing it.” And I was like, “That’s why we’re doing it!”
JP: I so agree with that too. In the pilot of “Life After Fat” there was a joke that people always comment on. One of the girls talks about sneezing and her tampon falling out. I don’t know, it’s something that I’m so excited about when I see female web series creators, because I think that’s something we need to tackle. You know, like, why is it only in Judd Apatow movies you have guys doing gross stuff or being weird? I feel like Broad City is something that I’m very, very excited about for that reason too. Women being kind of like the guys, cause we are. There’s no rule that we can’t be this way. I think showing that vulnerability, both series’ have that in common where you’re showing women being themselves and fucking up and it’s okay and it can be cute, even.
MD: I wanted to talk about my favorite episode of each one. I’ll start with you, Julia. My favorite episode was “Brunch” largely because of the interaction between Lauren and Ellen. To me, it speaks to the existential dread most artists – at least myself – have which is worry that I’m not doing enough. In that scene, she was literally told she wasn’t doing enough. It was poignant and hard to watch, and weirdly inspiring because you could tell she was going to go out and do more.
JP: Yeah, originally Ellen was supposed to be Russian, like an Olga or something. My parents are from the Former Soviet Union. I used to take music classes at this Russian Music Academy. There’s such a difference and it can be a lot harsher. I think having parents that are Ukrainian and not American – they would always criticize other parents of my American friends, like, “What is it with this country where we tell everyone they’re good all the time. That’s sick, that’s bad.” It’s weird; I sort of grew up in between that, being a kid of immigrants. It’s always like, “if you want to do something artistic,” and my parents have always been supportive of that, but they’d say, “You have to work for it. We won’t support you if you’re going to drink and fuck around and say you’re an artist.” So, I think that’s the message with that. Lauren is someone who wants to be an actor as so many people do, but her perception of what is trying hard is not actually trying hard. This woman, she’s older and more experienced, looks at her like, “You have everything. You have all this privilege, this time, this money to actually put into something. Why aren’t you doing every tiny thing that you can when you’ve been given so much?”
MD: My favorite episode of “2 Girls 1 Asian” was the Super Musical Episode.
KG: We sort of came up with the idea while driving around in her car when she had a car in the city. She’s now in grad school back at home in Maryland, but we’d drive around and toss around ideas, which is where we came up with the whole season. We were super excited about the musical episode. For the first season, I’d churn out a draft based on an outline Kelly would give me and then we’d outline what each scene might look like. Then I’d go back and write it and she’d give me notes and we’d go back and forth and then our director and D.P. Dorian and Tyler would give us notes and rewrites. So it was very a collaborative process. The first draft of the script, though, the lyrics were not that super different. Then we realized if you want to use that music, it has to be a parody legally. So I went back and really hacked at the songs and most of those lyrics stayed which is what you hear. Then we brought on board a couple of great musicians – one is Lance Jabr, who I went to High School with. He’s back in the Bay Area now but at the time he was at NYU for grad school. And a guy I went to class with, John Franco, who is an amazing pianist. So we recorded it all in one of the actress’s apartments, actually, cause she at the time had a sound studio set up. So it was a lot of moving parts, but I loved recording it, I loved doing all the music, and Kelly and I both come from a Musical Theatre background so it was fun to be total dorks about that. It was a lot of fun to shoot, but it definitely sucked up the most budget and time out of any episode because we had to do so much for it.
MD: I want to talk about the ending of each season one of your series, how I interpreted it, allow you to expand on that or correct me if I’m wrong, and talk about the future of what these characters are going to go through in the upcoming seasons, as much as you want to say about that. I’ll start with you, Julia, the last scene of “Life After Fat” read to me as this amazing moment where our protagonist made a decision to change her life in a radical way. In her decision to approach this group of artists that inspire and challenge her and leave this guy behind that she is hanging out with – which is not something she had done at that point, she seemed very apt to hook up or date whoever made themselves available to her. It seems like her friendship drama with her roommate is out of her mind at this point and she’s committed to going to something new in her life.
JP: She’s sort of this character that has this new body but doesn’t feel attached to it yet. Partially because she never felt people liked her or accepted her for who she was before this change. She’s bouncing from guy to guy – you never know if the sex is good for her. She hooks up and does these things because she feels like they’ll validate her in some way. Regardless of if you have this backstory or not, I feel like that’s something a lot of women – myself included – go through. I’d say the early years of my 20’s were like, getting drunk and hooking up and pretending to have this emotional barrier of “I don’t care! It’s fine!” And pretending to always be the chill girl. Her exterior is that she’s not very emotional unless she’s pushed. Her brother sort of pushes her a lot and that’s the first time you see her break, really. She’s almost like, disturbingly calm. You can see it drives her friends crazy and they all worry about her. So I think this is a chance of her – seeing this beautiful thing, this Burlesque dancer, and deciding to take this chance and try it. It’s showing more vulnerability, it’s healthier, and it’s something that could promote actual self-love, which is something I want to explore. In season 2, not to spoil too much, it’ll be the first time she actually falls in love with someone and I think that will be something where she’s really exploring these emotions for the first time and allowing herself to be vulnerable in this very, very real way. That’s sort of where I want to see her character grow and really challenge her. It’s easy to be this, I don’t know, sort of like you’re floating above your body the whole time and not really interacting or reacting to things.
MD: That’s beautiful. (laughs) I was just really moved by that! I feel the need to take a risk in my life and totally shake things up! And then, for you, Kaela, I felt that the ending of “2 Girls 1 Asian” was kind of the opposite, but just as inspiring and moving. For me, it read that they had this moment where they could radically change their lives by taking a break from their friendship, but instead the moment they decide to give that a shot, they realize they are each other’s partners.
KG: We actually rewrote most of the last episode. We shot it all in a car on the road in Sleepy Hollow, New York. We scouted out the location the night before. We were like, “Eh, this script isn’t doing it for me,” so as we were talking we started to improve a scene until we thought we had it right for the end. It was always going to be that ending, though, of them trying to walk into the wilderness with their dead car by the side of the road. But looking forward, we did three more episodes as a mid-season that aren’t tied down to any storyline. They’re basically back in Brooklyn up to their normal antics. Friends are really your lifeline, especially in New York City, so in season 2 we’re trying to figure out some of our ideas, especially now that we’re physically separated. Our series has always been ludicrously autobiographical – we’ll take what’s going on in our real lives and totally explode that into something we think is funny, I don’t know if it’s actually funny, it’s funny-ish. But we’re hoping to look into what happens – and this was an idea pitched to us in a writer’s room for the midseries – what if one of the girls goes to grad school? How do they deal with each other gaining success without the other one? Maybe not even without, but separate. And that’s something that actually happened in our real lives, and I think we’re interested in looking into that and what that means for the fictional Kaela and Kelly.
JP: Something I love about your series and am almost jealous of in a way is that they have this beautiful friendship and it’s a love story. It’s platonic, but I think you’re seeing them overcome these things together and they have conflicts within that friendship, but you can’t see one without the other. I think seeing one person succeed, especially with acting where it’s so…it can be so raw, all the emotions of pursuing an artistic career in general. Seeing one friend succeed without the other is hard, because success is so rare in general. I don’t know. I’m so moved by the friendship and I love shows where there are two women where they are so close, nice, and real with each other. They have a real genuine friendship.
KG: I think that’s why it’s so cool to see so many lady web series popping up. Institutionally, there’s not funding for women’s’ projects. I feel that in this independent arts community is where women get to shine because nobody’s giving us money.
JP: Or a chance. Women are half the population if not more, in this country at least. TV and playwriting have more space for women, but even playwriting, on Broadway you see a bunch of old white guy stuff rehashed a lot. With TV, you have Amy Schumer, you have Samantha B, you have Broad City, and you have Shonda Rhimes. You have all these women in power doing these cool things and it becomes this thing where webseries’ are getting picked up. If you are good enough, they will notice you. And I don’t feel the same way about Hollywood. And I think even where I work – I work at Buzzfeed – I love that we have so many strong women and I’m allowed to do stuff that’s content for women. I think the Internet web series realm is a really great place for female creators to thrive. For female filmmakers or aspiring filmmakers and writers – make something, put it on there, and be so good that they can’t not notice you.
KG: I think in general, artists, self-production is the way to go. It’s great that the Internet is around to publicize it. But it’s such a weird time to be an artist cause there’s so little real public funding and private funding is, you have to be commercially viable which translates into white, straight, and a dude. Which is like, so weird, that that’s…most of the world is not a straight white dude so why is that the entertainment they think makes money? They’ve shown if you make a series for Asian people or Black people or women, it’s going to do well. If it’s good.
JP: Tons of admiration for you cause you’ve done so many episodes. I was going through YouTube for "2 Girls 1 Asian", I was like “Holy shit!” They’re so long, too, with so much footage! It’s so much work, I was like, “Holy fuck, I have to get my life together!” It was so impressive and so great. I love your friendship with Kelly. It’s so cute and real.
KG: Yeah, I loved your series as well and I can’t wait to see more of it! I’m excited for season number 2!
JP: We’ve been so delayed…
KG: I feel like that’s Rule #2 of working in film. If Rule #1 is “Be Organized,” Rule #2 is “It’s fine if you’re not, cause no one else is!” Well, not really, but –
JP: It’s a beautiful mess. You have to fuck up a lot to get better. That’s the number one thing I’ve learned – you’re going to mess up two hundred times then maybe start getting a little bit better.
Thank you so much to both Julia Pugachevsky and Kaela Garvin for joining me for a cross-web-series discussion on Things Created By People’s Art Collision. Season 1 of Julia’s “Life After Fat” can be viewed in its entirety at lifeafterfatseries.com. Season 1 and the mid-season episode-thruple of Kaela Garvin and Kelly Colburn’s “2 Girls 1 Asian” is at 2girls1asian.com.
Both are moving forward with their second seasons in 2016 and have laid the groundwork – available right now for you to watch - to be exploring very enticing territory this year. Both shows come highly recommended from your loyal host here at Art Collision who would never steer you wrong.
As always, please hit me up if you are interested in being paired up with another artist and coming over to share a few drinks with me and another artist. It would truly be my pleasure and just an FYI – I ALWAYS provide the drinks, so you get to drink for free and talk about your own shit!
All original music featured in this episode - outside of the music in the web series clips - was by the amazing JULIAN, and you can find JULIAN’s work at soundcloud.com/jalapeno_boi.
Until next time.
intro by Adam Cecil
I’ve known the members of Morning Comes Early for a long time. In fact, I was the manager of David, Patrick, and Jeff’s middle school band The Almosts (later renamed Kevlar Tuxedo). While the line-up has shifted throughout the years, these boys have been playing music together for over a decade. It shows on their latest release, Vision Quest EP. This is their tightest release by far — the songs fit together like puzzle pieces, even when they’re exploring different facets of their sound.
Take a listen. If you like pop punk or have any level of angst, you’ll probably enjoy it.
The title of the EP stems from an inside joke, so I thought it was only appropriate to ask the boys of Morning Comes Early to look into their own mind’s eye and take us on a vision quest through the songs on Vision Quest EP.
Harry Llewellyn Schroeder IV, Bass guitar
Uh, I wrote this song and I recorded a demo of it on a bunch of pirated software.
David Atkins, Guitar / Vocals
I'm not sure how well I'll be able to articulate it — even though it's a feeling all of us have felt at some point, to an extent. Succinctly put, Erase is about a tough breakup, one that the other person doesn't seem too torn-up about. It doesn't make any sense, and it hurts, to put so much into a relationship, only to realize that the other person simply wasn't as invested as you were, and they move on right away. And any time you see her, it strikes a nerve. A cut reopened bleeds.
Patrick Infurna, Vocals
Brooklyn is a song we wrote to kind of take a different approach to our sound. Harry had written that song a really long time ago and it was always one of those songs that we would listen to even before it had any lyrics or any real arrangement, just on Harry’s Soundcloud. It’s funny, we actually had a big debate on whether or not to put this song on the EP and I’m really glad we didn’t put it on the back burner for one of the others. Lyrically, it’s a transitional song; it represents a point in my life where I was moving in both body and in mind. I was in a new place, I was meeting new people, I was falling for someone, someone that made me feel really central and focused and at home. This song makes me feel relaxed, which I think is a big contrast to the energy of our other songs, so this is a personal favorite of mine.
Patrick Infurna, Vocals
Civil War is another one where we just did something different. We grew up playing with hardcore bands and listening to hardcore bands but we’ve never really been a hardcore band. This song is a lot of things: it’s a tribute to a style of music that we adore but don’t usually play. It’s such a perfect song for our live sets because we can just stop everything and go absolutely nuts for a second. We can have a show where everyone’s just nodding along or we can have a show where people are piling all over the place, but no matter the energy, when this song is played live everything goes up a level. We had recorded this really poorly at a friend’s years ago, but we knew that it had to be redone because it’d become such a staple in our live sets. Lyrically, I think this song is really special. We get caught up singing about a lot of things that maybe don’t matter – I mean they matter to us – but this song really hits the larger issues that we as a band aren’t always outwardly thinking about. This song tackles political issues close to us and the themes we see in the political atmosphere: greed, violence, all of that. But the second part of this song is a little more specific; we wrote those lyrics at the height of the Syrian Refugee crisis as well as the Central American migrant crisis that was buried in the news. We live in communities that are literally built by immigrants, and none of us have ever had to live the horrors of displacement. From the soccer stands to our live shows we wanted to make it clear: Refugees Welcome.
Jeff Bruce, Drums
“Resolve” is the final track on our new EP. I wrote the music about two or three years ago. I had originally written lyrics along to it that were based on my personal encounter with being cheated on; however, the lyrics were more about moving on to the next chapter of my life rather than anger towards my ex. When I finally got the song to a place I was happy with structurally, I gave Patrick the reigns to the song lyrically because I feel that his lyric writing is far better than mine. His lyrics describe the winter “tour” (three-day road trip, essentially) that we went on with local hardcore band Get A Grip, as well as reflecting back on the past, most noticeably referencing Sharkfest (Group of kids / punk as hell / screaming out in grange hall heaven). I, of course, can really connect with this song because it describes all of the thing that we as a band have done in the past five to six years (and ten or so years with David and Patrick). I also see it – same as my thrown away lyrics – as a song about moving onto the next chapter as a band. This EP is different for us and we have tried things that we never would have been comfortable with two or three years ago. I think this album is a fitting conclusion to this EP, as it signals a new direction for this band.
You can find more music by Morning Comes Early on their Bandcamp.
Matt Bravmann, under the stage and recording name of Brave the Night, is rounding the masses and taking them on a spiritual journey with his debut album, Mind on Fire. The album, which was released in early September, features a unique combination of bluesy and jazzy melodies. Matt’s fingers dance along piano keys and his voice distracts listeners of all else occupying their minds. The intimacy and vulnerability in his music can turn audiences into eavesdroppers; but, ultimately, this soul-reaching music invites self-reflection and contemplation. Mind on Fire is comprised of those overwhelming feelings weighing you down. His music is to be felt. It demands to be felt.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Natalia Lehaf: I wanted to start with your background in music. When did you first start having an interest in music?
Matt Bravmann: I started taking piano lessons when I was about four years old. I took them for a while and loved it at first and then I hated it. You know, I was a little kid; I just wanted to be outside and play sports. So I quit. My parents kept making me practice but I didn’t want to. I got back into it later on when I started playing songs I wanted to play as opposed to songs they wanted me to play. It was a lovely 360 because through playing shitty pop songs I had gotten back into playing the songs I originally didn’t want to play, like classical music. When I was eighteen I started taking serious jazz lessons with a really great teacher. I started playing gigs in high school. I played at –
NL: Nursing homes, right?
MB: Right, nursing homes and restaurants, because I didn’t live in a city so I couldn’t go and play in a bar. I traveled to New York City once to play at Brandy’s Piano Bar on the Upper West Side when I was seventeen. I remember that being a huge deal for me. When I went to college I started having steady gigs at coffee shops.
NL: Is your family musical?
MB: Yeah, my dad plays the piano. He gave me lessons for a bit.
NL: Do you play any other instruments?
MB: No, I tried. I tried the clarinet and the guitar, but I didn’t like them and I wasn’t very good. With the guitar, you develop terrible callouses on your fingers – especially when you’re first starting. With the clarinet, you need a tremendous amount of breath, and even from a young age my parents always thought I was a smoker because I couldn’t even hold my breath under water.
NL: Was music a big part of your life as a kid?
MB: Yeah, definitely. First of all, I grew up Jewish. Music is a big part of Jewish services. There are also a lot of minor chords in Jewish music, which is a little sadder but also more personal. At a young age, when I heard “Moonlight Sonata” or The Beatles or classic pop rock music, it was ingrained that this was important – beyond pop culture. There was something there that stuck with me.
NL: What triggered your return to music?
MB: I think just growing up and becoming more mature in my musical tastes. I would start to listen to music that I could play and wanted to play. We always had a piano in our house, sometimes two, so I would be playing every now and then even after I quit.
NL: What would you qualify as more mature music?
MB: I would say older artists. So much music has had an impact on me. When I heard gospel music for the fist time, my life changed. It was serious, it wasn’t fun. When I heard “Border Song” by Elton John, that was the first time I heard gospel music applied to rock ‘n’ roll, pop, and other elements. And that was something I wanted to do – I wanted to play that. Pink Floyd was another big one for me, when I heard The Wall and also The Beatles. Some songs have that rare quality where it’s like, “this is a big deal.” They hit you at the core and are spiritual experiences.
NL: When you were performing in high school, were you performing covers?
MB: Yeah, I only performed covers. I started writing music in college.
NL: Did you ever want to start a band?
MB: I wanted to start a band, but there was no connection with anyone where I thought starting a band was a realistic endeavor.
NL: So, you’ve spent a lot of alone time working on your music.
MB: And in general.
NL: How was that?
MB: I don’t want to say I was a lonely child, but in a lot of ways I was. I think being a performer, the alchemy is, you are sitting on stage and divided, literally, from the audience. The mass of people is looking at you and you are up there alone. It’s very symbolic of the process. There is an inherent separation between you and mass society. The alone time I spent as a kid was traumatic at times, but at the same time – this is going to get philosophical quickly, which I tend to do – all of my pain and weakness is also the source of my strength, creativity, and inspiration. You know, I needed that to write music. I never would have written music if I didn’t have that pain and solitude to look back on.
NL: I read that you started writing music to share your pain.
MB: Right. I don’t think that is unique to me at all.
NL: Is there anything in particular that you write about?
MB: It was more of a general sense of insecurity, and the pain that a lot of people experience but that you don’t know they are experiencing. You know, when you are growing up, you think you are the only one who has these problems – and in some ways you’re not, but in a lot of ways you are. There was never a specific event or incident.
NL: Do you think your music comes from a lonely place?
MB: Yeah. It’s interesting, because I started writing this album when I was twenty years old and didn’t finish it until I was twenty-four, twenty-five. The next album is going to come from a much different place, which is a tremendous challenge for me. It won’t be a place of desperation and loneliness, but of satisfaction and confidence and appreciation of myself and for others. That’s the way it should be: I think you need to evolve as an artist. I have no interest in making a sequel or follow-up to the last album. I want my music to evolve, but at the same time it is going to be difficult doing that. In the past, I’ve found my way of tapping into what I found to be my best stuff is tapping into the pain and the same melancholic places where I used to think inspired the creativity. I’ve started writing new music and it has not been easy.
NL: Was there a message you were trying to put out there with this first album?
MB: There wasn’t a coherent message. The message is in the title, Mind on Fire. The album is an identity crisis. It’s about contradictions and fear and insecurity and vulnerability. It’s about growing up. I’m on fire. It’s just very overwhelming to be a young twenty-year-old in New York.
NL: What was your song-writing process like?
MB: I wrote the first batch of songs while I was in college and about two years ago I wrote the second batch of songs. This album is the best of those batches.
NL: It’s very lyrically-driven. Do you have a favorite lyric or song you are proud of?
MB: You know, songwriters too often say, “every one’s my baby.” I don’t have a favorite lyric. I very rarely listen back to it. Sometimes I’ll listen and be like, “that’s a good line.”
NL: That’s interesting that you don’t listen to it, because I added the EP to my Spotify playlist. I find it really comforting.
MB: Interesting. I was very self-conscious when I released it - and still am - that it’s a downer, in the sense that it is kind of depressing. You know, “does it bring you down? Does it lift you up?”; almost universally, it doesn’t do either of those things. It’s more optimistic than I give it credit for.
NL: “Long Way to California” is one of my favorites, that one is cheerful.
MB: That one is a very optimistic song and I initially wanted to end the album on that. A big theme on the album is contrast – even the cover: a dark background with a very bright imagery up front. And a lot of the lyrics are melancholic but also hopeful.
NL: How did you choose the cover art?
MB: I had an idea for what I wanted the art to be and I hired an artist who took it from there.
NL: I know that you have a demanding job as the Digital Strategy Manager at the digital marketing, advertising, and publicity agency Brigade. How do you balance your music with your other obligations?
MB: My job is very creative, too, and I feel like there is a tank of creative energy that you fill up sometimes. It’s been hard and it’s not something I’ve conquered yet. I finished this album before I got this job. So my next challenge is writing my next album from a new mental and spiritual place and balancing this with my day job.
NL: Do you have any big dream musical ambitions?
MB: Yeah, to get better. I want the music to evolve paralleling my personal identity. As I evolve as a human being, I want my music to evolve. I make music for music. If I get paid for it, that’s great. But I don’t need to make a lot of money off of it. Five years ago, it was “do or die, make or break.” But now, I’ve made peace with it. I do it on the side and I don’t get the fame or notoriety from it — not yet — but there is nobody telling me what to do. I write what I want, I do want I want and that freedom is not something I take for granted.
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.
This past May, Amanda Steckler, under the moniker of Blonde Maze, released her debut EP, Oceans. Oceans is a collection of indie-electronic assembled beats – a departure from the alternative rock music Steckler first remembers enjoying as a kid. Even though she started making music when she was thirteen, it wasn’t until 2013, at the age of twenty-one, that Steckler decided to seriously pursue music. Her decision came after she attended a show that made her cry from euphoria – “music tears,” she calls them.
Though she was a member of a rock band as a teenager, Steckler creates the music of Blonde Maze on her own, with melodies primarily from a mix of MIDI instruments, such as bells and tuned percussions. Steckler doesn’t record vocals until first creating the right instrumental sound. With a firm belief that success isn’t about the end result, but the work put towards getting there, the two years it took her to give life to Oceans was well worth it. Steckler transformed her feelings of longing for people seemingly out of reach into melodies whenever inspired. Her motto throughout the process was “a song isn’t finished when it is perfect; it’s finished when it’s done.”
As opposed to releasing music under her name, Steckler reasoned that her music – and the unmistakable vibe it carried – deserved a name in itself. And with a trademark head of blonde hair that playfully falls upon her face in a messy “maze,” her signature was born. Steckler’s brand of music is refreshingly heartfelt. Each song is oxymoronic by nature – intense, yet gentle; romantic, yet heartbreaking; distant, yet relatable. The songs speak a harmonious universal language. The music is so rhythmic that the poetry in her lyrics can easily escape the listeners. But please listen closely. Hear the words she penned of a romance across oceans while she journeyed between New York and London, and get ready to swim, drown, and then float along.
After years of honing her voice in talent shows and in cover songs uploaded to YouTube, Meghan Irving is ready to make music her life. On her recently released EP Under The Influence, Irving sings "I don't want to wait no more." While it's addressed to a lover, one can easily imagine her singing to the Gods of music, telling them that she is here and she is ready to sing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What artists or albums influenced your sound and songwriting?
I have so many different artists and styles of music that I love, but some of my biggest influences would have to be Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston, and Sia. Sia in particular is a big inspiration when it comes to songwriting. She writes catchy songs but they still have meaning and are relatable, which is something that I try to do. My writing is very personal, but I also love clever writing, and lines that make you go "Ooh that's good" or "that's a clever line.” The type of lyrics people get tattooed or put on a poster, or the type that just make you go “Yes! I've been through that, I know what she's talking about." I put a lot of thought into what I want to say in each song.
Vocally, Whitney and Christina are just incomparable and are two singers I've always been inspired by. Both of them are versatile and have very diverse audiences and their songs can be heard through various musical outlets. I never want to be pigeonholed into a particular genre, and that idea has definitely influenced my sound. I like all types of music so I try to create music for all types of people that can be played in various places.
Overall, the ability to convey emotion through my writing and my voice and make people feel and relate to something, and at the same time have songs that are memorable is the ultimate goal.
You wrote your first song at age 11. Who and what inspired your early songwriting?
I remember the first song I ever wrote was called "Fly.” It was quite a while ago but I vaguely remember it being about following your dreams and trying your hardest. It wasn't really that good, but it's the thought that counts, right?!
In the beginning I was mostly inspired by movies. I would watch different films and write songs to go along with what happened in the movie. My friends and everything that was happening in our lives at the time also inspired me. I would also just make things up sometimes and create stories about things that I found interesting.
The lyrics came pretty naturally for me. Creating melodies was the hard part. When I was younger and just started to write songs I would use other songs I knew as a template and write my own lyrics. I knew that in reality it didn't work that way, so fast-forward to my teenage years, when I finally began developing my own melodies.