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?
I don’t have a fixed schedule. I’m not really a “show up every day and work no matter what” type of artist. I try to keep it seamless and fluid, though it’s also just messy sometimes. I like to roll with inspiration when it’s there and rest when it’s not.
I walk my dog every day and do other non-musical activities, but often walking or just doing other things are prime times for ideas to flow. I always keep my phone near in those situations, because if it wasn’t for Notes app and Voice Memos, I’d forget 99% of my ideas. I try to remain open to creativity at all times, no matter what I’m up to throughout the day. It relieves the pressure to “show up” a certain way every day, and it invites the world in to my creative process.
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?
My song “Good Man” was a big breakthrough for me on a few levels.
It was one of the first times I mixed concepts from my two musical poles – Afrobeat/Funk and Pop. Those two worlds, which I’ve studied in depth, had stayed relatively separate for me until then. There are a few rhythmic concepts within that song. The first is the Afrobeat percussion that starts off the song, which is based on Fela Kuti’s use of percussion in his tunes like “Open and Close” and “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am”.
That percussion is joined by a Maestro drum machine, the drum machine that Sly Stone famously used on the There’s a Riot Goin’ On album. Those elements form a halftime groove. Then, the kick and snare drum enter three seconds in, adding a double time beat on top and forming the main beat of the song. That concept of putting double time on top of half time, or vice versa, was pioneered by Prince and other more poppy songs like “Take On Me” by A-Ha.
The guitar is inspired by Fela’ Afrobeat guitar style rhythmically, with a more open harmonic field. The melodies and chords throughout the song are pop inspired, ranging from Bowie to Backstreet Boys. Then there are the lyrics, which were also a breakthrough for me in terms of embodying a character in order to communicate a point.
So, all in all, “Good Man” definitely opened the floodgates, and many songs came in the wake of its creation.
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 don’t think about entering and exiting the creative state of mind. Everybody’s creativity is different. Mine is fluid. Sometimes it flows fast, other times it morphs into something different.
For example, one week you might feel creative in writing songs - other weeks you may feel creative in making videos - another week you might feel creative in just staying home and doing “you” things. I do believe in taking walks if you need to take a breather during a creative moment. That works almost every time. But if you need to stop for the day, then allow yourself.
Beware, if you think of creativity as something you “enter” and “exit”. You are opening yourself up to the idea that you can hit a block - you can’t get in - instead of just seeing it ALL as part of the process.
Oh, and … in terms of distractions? Social media - that’s a no brainer!
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?
In summer 2020 I assisted a friend in starting a music collective for protest organizers to access if they needed musicians for a Black Lives Matter action. I personally became involved with Stonewall Protests, which at the time was lead by Joela Rivera and Qween Jean.
I witnessed firsthand how music has the power to push people toward movement and dance, even in the face of distress and anguish. We would march every single week, forming a circle in major intersections to have runway battles and just hold space. They were these intense moments of exaltation and even at times joy, even though we were there to protest police brutality.
Music and rhythm has the power to push us forward and keep us moving.
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?
Cultural exchange is in the fabric of what music is. But “exchange” is the key word there - there is a give and take. Appropriation is just taking - and it has become commonplace for white artists to engage in.
I have engaged in it throughout the years. Most of the music that Americans listen to every day originated in African-American musical traditions. Those musical traditions have roots in Africa itself. This was a big talking point in 2020, and it changed the way I and many others thought about our own music. Lots of artists were sharing memes illustrating this. I was one of them. After that, though, generally white artists didn’t follow through and went back to appropriating (though maybe with a little more sensitivity and self-awareness).
I think acknowledgement is an important first step - to give credit where credit is due. But I also believe that white artists have a moral obligation to actively engage in some kind of antiracist work (and, for white male artists, anti-misogynist work), including (if possible) regularly donating to causes that are close to them or their music.
This is likely a pipe dream but I am personally working under those principles. At the very least, for everyone - acknowledgment is essential.
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 think about the pandemic, and how COVID has robbed us of seeing live concerts in their full glory for the time being. People are now experiencing music through their phones or various devices, whether it’s on their phone / computers through YouTube, TikTok, Spotify, Instagram etc, or listening to a vinyl record on a turntable. It’s all ears and eyes. We NEED to see music live, to feel the music hit our bodies, to make our bodies move together, to feel the energy of a musician playing their instrument in the same room.
It was glorious to return for a few months in 2021 and play some shows again, and get back in touch with people, human-to-human. To get out of our brains and into our bodies more. Music is how I communicate with the world. It comes out of my body and into the song, and from the song into people’s ears. That direct line naturally gets compromised a bit when it goes out into the world, into people’s feeds or record players, and into their ears. But when you’re at a live show, that direct line is preserved. I think we’re all missing that.
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?
For a long time I operated under an unspoken rule that artists exist alongside the political or social moment - the keyword being alongside. Even if an artist makes explicitly protest music, they still aren’t leaving their personal orbit or really getting their hands dirty - they are just making the music, in support almost from afar. Artists tend to get a pass of sorts, under the explanation that “we all need art” - so artists serve a unique purpose within the larger fight towards equality and equity. I believe this is true, but only to an extent.
To put it plainly, I do not believe this an acceptable point of view for white male artists. I think white male artists have a duty to situate themselves in the moment politically and be actively antiracist and anti-misogynist. Now, active can mean different things. It doesn’t mean their music has to be a certain way, but it can come outside of the music. It can be a private effort. As long as the effort is there. There’s no reason for it not to be, considering the state of the society we live in today, when white supremacy and misogyny are very real forces in our world.
I am non-binary, but I have male-passing and white privilege. This is an evolution of thought I’ve gone through over the last two years about what kind of artist I really want to be - but like I said, before that, I was not engaged in that way. So I am not on any high horse about it. These things take time, and it is work for us to do together.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I wish I could play music to answer this, instead of typing words! Music is greater than it all. It’s all interconnected. Words put “life” and “death” into their respective corners, two separate words that have distinct meanings.
In music, life and death are the same, they coexist and tumble around together. When we connect with music, we connect with everyone else who has connected with it, and we connect with everyone who will connect with it in the future. I’m not a “god” person, but for me “god” is two things: music and nature.