Name: Claire Rousay
Occupation: Percussionist, sound artist, composer, improviser
Current Release: Earlier this year, Claire Rousay released A Softer Focus on American Dream Records, which saw her moving into a fascinating world somewhere between tactile ambient and trance-like musique concrète. The album was greeted with a triumphant reception. Her latest publications, on her newly founded Mended Dreams imprint, are both a fresh beginning and a summary. A Collection compiles some of the best work of her earlier, more percussion-oriented work. And two tape-only releases, Twin Bed, a solo EP from Rousay, and Now Am Found, a collaboration with Patrick Shiroishi, show what the future holds in store. Available as a package deal with a tote bag.
Recommendations: LA Warman - Whore Foods (Impatient Press) (Book); Katherine Squier’s Women I series (Photography)
If you enjoyed this interview with Claire Rousay and would like to find out more, visit her official website. She also has a bandcamp- and a soundcloud account.
For further reading, check out our interview with one of Claire's collaborators in our feature "Patrick Shiroishi about Improvising".
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I have been playing music since I was 4 years old. I played piano until I was about 10 years old. The choice to change instruments at that age was the first time I consciously decided to alter my ‘creative practice’.
I loved pop punk music, classic rock, etc. at that time. Around 13 or 14 I started to explore more kinds of instrumental music. Those discoveries greatly expedited my journey into composing, performing, and recording.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I wanted to be Zach Hill for probably ½ a decade of my life. After my obsession with shredding subsided, I started to learn how to actually listen to the other musicians I was playing with. This newfound listening was a springboard into bebop, 20th century avant garde, & Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening practices. It was less about the music from these new (to me) genres and more about the attitudes towards listening that appealed to me.
I very quickly became obsessed with free-improvised music and the seemingly unlimited sonic possibilities that accompanied that world. I think playing improvised music was the first time I made any kind of semi-original artistic statement.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
A lot of folks want me to say that my queer and transgender identity influences my work. It isn’t untrue but I also think it isn’t as important to me as other individuals who belong to the same or similar identities. I guess I primarily identify as a broken person, a struggling person, a fuck up, a let down. Sometimes I feel like the whole world is out to get me. Sometimes I feel like the whole world is bowing at my feet.
I guess being flawed, unsure, and deeply human are more in line with whatever definition of “identity” we are talking about. If those things are my identity - I guess I just want to keep my head down and keep working. I work all day, every day. The only way to squash or maybe one day overcome these parts of myself is through working. I want to make things that connect me to other people.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In ‘the beginning’ I tried too hard to fit into niche scenes or genre-specific communities. Every single time I did this, I ended up feeling stuck and unable to be myself. I used to want to be accepted so badly. Now, I don’t give a fuck what people think of me and my creative practice. I am going to make work in multiple mediums, multiple genres, with various types of people, and not look around for external validation.
There is no such thing as ‘real experimentation’. But in my experience, the true innovators aren’t always the most extreme or outspoken. I just want to be me.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My first solo tour was me performing improvised sets on an acoustic drum kit. I would pack a 4 piece kit, cymbals, and a bunch of random objects in my car and play night after night for weeks and sometimes months at a time. I loved this period in my life.
As time went on, there were more things that I wanted to express through my work. The drum kit is a very difficult instrument to use when making a direct and accurately understood statement. I looked for other ways to communicate my rapidly accumulating ideas on and eventually settled on a tabletop set up of various amplified percussion instruments, synthesizers, and vocals. I am not a singer. I am not a synthesist. I am barely an artist. But - this is what works for me at this point in my life. I am sure it will change again.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I thought using midi controllers and Ableton Live was only for virgins. I was wrong. lol.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Connecting with other people is the whole reason I do what I do. Collaboration is everything - not just collaboration between musicians. I love to work with people in different mediums, fields of work, thinkers, non-artist friends, etc. I am open to any method. I love learning what works best for others and then adapting as best as I can to their ways of working. Learning from people who are different from you is how you grow. I hate being in control … musically at least. (laughs)
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
7:00 - Rise and shine. My wirehaired dachshund is licking my face with her breath that smells like butthole. I like to read a chapter of whatever book I fell asleep reading in bed the night before.
8:00 - After laying in bed for an hour catching up on instagram and the 1000 emails I seem to wake to everyday, I get up and make coffee in my miniature french press. ½ size because i don’t want to have a panic attack.
9:00 - I start to reply to emails. I text Jordan Reyes who I co-run a label with (Mended Dreams Records). I text Forest Juziuk who is my manager and advises on all the things I am too ignorant to understand fully about the music world. After that I text all my hoes “gm sunshine” and hit my yoga mat for 15 minutes of stretching and 30 minutes of High Intensity Interval Training sessions.
10:00 - I plop my slowly ripening ass down in my office chair and start actually working on music. I typically will write and record from 10am until 2pm.
14:00 - Lunch is usually a salad, a beer, and an orange. I eat quickly and then head to the dog park, river, or my backyard to play with the dog.
15:00 - Back to work. I’ll usually schedule any phone interviews, zoom meetings, or rehearsals I have between 3pm and 6pm. This is either my favorite or worst part of the day.
18:00 - I’ll start making dinner around this time. I like to have a glass of wine and listen to Nick and Alec’s Flavortone podcast while I cook. Usually, this meal is my most involved cooking experience of the day. I’ll have another glass while I eat.
19:00 - If I have plans, which is rare, this is when I go out and perform as a social individual. I have actually been on a few dates recently which is bizarre to me. If I do not leave the house, I’ll get into more comfortable clothing and read something or watch something very intellectual on my laptop, like 90 Day Fiance.
22:00 - Oh shit, I just watched 90 Day Fiance for 3 hours. Time to smoke ½ a joint and pass out while reading something way beyond my stoned comprehension skills.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I made a 20 minute piece called “it was always worth it” about my ex and our breakup. People seemed to like that one a lot. I was recently in the NYT’s T Magazine which a lot of people that weren’t me seemed to care more about.
I don’t know if either of these things felt particularly special to me but they definitely allowed me to connect with new people and start collaborations with artists I’d admired for a long time.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
This is actually what the new record A Softer Focus is about. That record was a collaboration with San Antonio visual artist Dani Toral. She knows so much more about her craft than I do about mine. You should interview her. (laughs)
The album’s title comes from the experience someone can have when you are so focused on one specific thing that the rest of the world fades away. This could be the Flow State you enter when working on a creative project, an experience with meditation, or being blackout drunk at a party and only being capable of addressing things moment by moment.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I suffer from pretty extreme bouts of depression and anxiety. I’ve never found the right rx cocktail but the one thing that always can tide me over until the next morning is music. I specifically listen to more melancholic songwriter type stuff when I am in that mental zone. It helps to hear someone else, as cheesy as some of it is, going through the same kinds of things as me. Connecting with others, even if you don’t know them, is healing as fuck. That is what music can do.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I’ve almost been sued for using samples, recordings of recordings, etc. It is a tricky world.
That being said, cultural appropriation is super prevalent in experimental music. White people using indigenous instruments is super common and probably not a good move. White people playing styles of music created by Black People and giving no acknowledgement to the creators - also very bad.
This is not to say I haven’t fucked up in the past or will fuck up in the future. I rarely collaborate with non-white individuals. It is a real problem. It is my problem to fix - no one else's. I’m working on it.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I am not the best cook but I love cooking. Learning in general is important to me and the kitchen is a place I have historically struggled. Cooking requires you to tune in to your senses much like creating other kinds of art. I think that tuning in to multiple senses at the same time can enhance an experience that would otherwise not be notable. Senses are the first step to a lot of emotional experiences. Seems important to me.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I don’t like speaking for anyone or to any experiences outside my own. My art addresses my own life and my view of the world. I get in trouble when I speak for or about others and have learned to keep my mouth shut and my head down. I love the banal, the routine, the everyday. Watering the plants, drinking a beer, playing guitar, letting my dog lick my face. Those are the things that I want to share with the world. I stopped asking the big questions a long time ago.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I don’t think I can answer this question. I lived a lie until around 3 or 4 years ago. I haven’t died. Plus, words mean a lot to me. I like what words do more than music.