Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
My first record, the Withdrawing Room, is still pretty special to me. It only has three pieces on it and is purely improvised. I had just finished touring with Thurston Moore and his Demolished Thoughts band and was a little rootless, feeling a little adrift. I remember telling Kurt Vile through text that I felt like my dream had come true and I couldn't think of another dream to have and his reply was "You'll Be Fiiiiiiiiiine", so that's the title of the first song from this first record. I went into the studio (Uniform Recording in Philadelphia) with a determination to have a sort of cathartic exorcism of feelings and these pieces came out of it, recorded in one take. Jeff Zeigler, improvised some synth and this was also the beginning of a synth/harp duo we have. This record for sure was the start of my solo playing and of really improvising and making loops and working out weird sounds. The finished work was basically a real-time experiment of sounds and solitude and self-reliance.
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?
I really enjoyed this artist residency and I think it's remarkable to be in a zone with minimal cell phone and Internet service. I get really distracted by social technology and have a pretty chatty/party side, so to be away from the computers and all of the blinking icons and things really gets my mind going in a healthy way. At the Headlands last summer, I read 14 books in 6 weeks and having that arsenal of evocative language and reminder of the richness of vocabulary really got my mind going too! I think I get real dumb when I'm watching a lot of TV (although I love it) and spending a lot of time on social media and the Internet. The simplicity of getting back to nature and basics is really helpful. This August, I'll be going to an arts residency at UCross, which is a 20,000-acre cattle ranch in Wyoming, population 25. Gotta bring a lot of books!
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Aside from the first record and other peoples' projects where I'm writing overdubbed parts, I don't work much in the studio. I usually just record myself, so I'm writing the songs while recording them at the same time. The live version comes out of my finessing the parts to make them into chunky loops with structure. I love playing live because I can really get lost in it. My songs have the option to stretch and mutate and if I get really into it, it'll change into a happy surprise I never saw coming, like a change in rhythm or some wild sound I didn't know could be made. The fact that the songs are so malleable makes for a cool balance between improvisation and composition.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
The sound and the compositional aspects are ideally supposed to feed off each other. I try to find far-out sound techniques and they're the source of the compositions, depending on how long a delay lasts or if a loop is pitched down to a slower, lower version. Some of the loops are intentionally composed to be strange at a normal speed but psychically, music-box-beautiful at double the speed. So, there's intentionality there, incorporating the cornucopia of small sounds into the bigger picture. It's all impressionistic, so every sound adds to the bigger composition/improvisation/idea.
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? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I really love playing live scores to accompany film. I love how music and images, especially on a big screen, interact and feeling the connection between the tones and the shades of colors. One of my favorite collaborations was when I got to improvise with the late Paul Clipson. He was a filmmaker who would layer his Super 8 and 16mm films in this beautiful, improvisatory way which he described as "playing" the films like one would play an instrument, working with light and color in this very unique and musical way. I think to be aware of your senses is the coolest thing, to be amped for them to activate, as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We can't get numbed to it. When you can ignite a couple of senses together, it can create a much more evocative experience, as the audience of that show and I experienced with Paul. I'm not sure what happens to sound at its outermost borders. I haven't been there yet, I guess! Someday.
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 artisy?
I was really awful at school and sitting at a desk and doing homework. I was really bad at working in an office, too. I let people down and I didn't care very much about the business and it was hard to fake it, even though everyone was nice and I was nice too. My mom is a professional harpist, traveling all over North and South Carolina, Tennessee, playing weddings and in orchestras and for events and things. I grew up knowing that it was a valid career, albeit a hard one where you had to be gone a lot, put your lipstick on in the car on the way to the gig, then change in the McDonald's bathroom for another gig and have your husband heat up the dinner for the kids because you're not getting home till really late. It's sometimes missing fun because you're playing for someone else's party.
But, I think the idea of being a professional, working musician has always held a sort of glamour, solitude, independence, rebelliousness, and a love of the hustle. Being a harpist in 2018, the most fun part for me is bringing it to people who have never seen one in person before. My approach to art and being an artist is to always be loyal to my instrument and to make my own rules about style and to be my own boss. Ideally, it's cool to see life as an art project/collage/experiment and try to say yes to a lot of stuff unless you feel like somebody's taking advantage of you. I love talking to people who are curious about the harp and bringing it to bars and clubs and places the instrument has never been before.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
It does feel like music is such a base human instinct, that people have always been compelled to express themselves through visual art and music. It's amazing that the compulsion to make something artful has transcended a lot of centuries and borders. I feel like we should hold on to what we still have, mostly, and the intimacy and connection we feel when listening.
Streaming music for free through Spotify and other services has really taken away some of its power and I am probably a great-grandmother for saying that. I do wish that in the "beyond its current form", the beyond could actually mean a stretch backward, taking a breath, going to the record store to the “Staff Picks” section and buying something cool-looking, not knowing much about it but trusting the taste of the person working there, and playing the whole thing from beginning to end as it was intended to be listened to, while looking at the album's art and weighing how it makes you feel. The complete listening, the recommendation, the record cover, the vibe of the store, the paying for the beautiful object, it's all intent and heart and curiosity. It's community and it's also recognizing the importance of musicians in our culture, as having a valuable career, as people who bring us worthy contributions that are complete and thought-out through every step of production. There are so many choices that go into making music and so many people behind-the-scenes who might go uncredited in the computery/phoney formats.
Re-appreciating the analogue formats might be taking a step back as far as ease goes, but it's also carrying something special forward that I feel we're losing bits of right now. Also, harpists, including myself, are replacing the MIDI harp-robot sounds in TV and film scores a lot these days, which is a cool step back too, but it's beyond and it's forward! The MIDI robot replaces the cumbersome, ancient instrument only to be replaced by the instrument in the end. It's a real thrill!