Interview: Michael Harren!

Underneath This had the enjoyable experience of interviewing talented musician Michael Harren. To learn more about Michael and his music, please check out michaelharren.com before proceeding to the following interview.

Please describe your trajectory to becoming a musician.

I always loved music when I was a kid and sang in various choirs. I had a kid’s electric organ back then too, I loved to play mini-concerts for my family, mainly just short songs I had figured out by ear. One Christmas when I was around 13 years old, my mom bought the family a piano and I took to it immediately. I taught myself to read music, and then I started taking lessons. My teacher and I didn’t get along so well, so I stopped taking lessons after a couple of years, but I continued playing. I played for the choir at my High School in Tyler, TX, and in a band I had formed with some friends.

After I graduated from High School I had a really hard time deciding to study music. I had gotten the message pretty distinctly that there was little chance of making a living as a musician, so I chose to study Radio Television Production instead. Of course, I wasn’t all that interested in it and wound up flunking out of college during my first year, mostly due to my preferred career as an alcoholic and a drug addict.

I played in a few bands during that time, but it wasn’t till I sobered up in 1994 that I started to take piano seriously. I went back to college and studied piano performance and music composition. First at Houston Community College, then at University of Houston. I pretty quickly became connected with some theaters in Houston and started musical directing, and got some pretty steady gigs as a pianist.

How does being based in Brooklyn influence the music that you make?

I have become involved in some really interesting work here and gotten connected with great people just because of physical proximity. Neighborhoods in Brooklyn have a surprising “small town” feel, which has really served to push me out of the somewhat introverted way I live my life. For example, I met performer and intuitive Victoria Libertore at a coffee shop one block from my apartment, and seeds of Tentative Armor was written in her Archetypal Performance class. She’s also become a spiritual mentor, much of that practice (meditation, channeling etc…) informs my music and inspires new ideas I would not have had.

I’ve found that other musicians here have a spirit of openness and camaraderie I did not expect. People are always sending each other work, and sharing knowledge with one another, where I was expecting the music world to be a bit more competitive. I’ve learned so much from others who are just interested in sharing and being excited about creating new work in new ways.

In what ways do your social and personal identities affect your art?

I want to say that being queer, sober and vegan are the most prominent identities, though I can’t really think of how they affect my art. I have gone through a bit of a journey with how I relate with mainstream gay culture. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gone from immersing myself in gay culture, then rejecting it completely, to where I am now — I feel more relaxed about needing to identify with any specific group. Truth be told, I think that process has really affected and shaped me as an artist where I feel safe to create what I am creating without TOO much concern with where this work lands. I’d be lying if I said I don’t care if this work resonates with anyone else, but I feel in a good enough place as a human to know that it isn’t necessarily my business whether other people like what I’m doing.

You skillfully synthesize aspects of classic musical with more electronic sounds. What inspired that combination?

The music I first fell in love with was what I was listening to as a teenager in the 80’s, I was really fascinated with synthesizers so I would consider that the root of my interest in composing electronic music. My first thought about my inspiration for combining electronics and acoustic instruments was Talk Talk’s 1984 album “It’s My Life.” I distinctly remember the first time I noticed that what I first thought of as a synth based album actually had some sprinklings of acoustic guitar and trumpet and various other instruments. I think it adds an interesting depth and character to the way things sound to combine the precision of electronics with the fallibility and imperfection of acoustic instruments.

One of your most recent singles, “Go” sounds like it could be in a musical. What is the story behind that song?

I was getting ready for my first reading of Tentative Armor at Judson Church. At the time, the show ended with a piece called “Five Tasks of Grief” which is the story of caring for my mom while she was dying of cancer. I wanted the show to end on a more uplifting note, so I wrote this song as an ending. It turned out to be a really heartbreaking song, inspired by a moment I had with my mom where I knew she was really suffering and I wanted to find a way to help her let go. I hope the song has an uplifting quality too in the way that it affirms that we really all are on this earth temporarily and embracing grief is an important part of embracing being alive.

I love the title, “Tentative Armor.” What does it mean?

To me, “Tentative Armor” talks about the idea of wanting to keep my distance others while still craving some kind of intimacy. Some of the stories in the show talk about just that. It could be not waking someone up on the subway who fell asleep on my shoulder, or having an anonymous sexual encounter in order to experience some level of intimacy while still protecting myself.

What was it like performing that show and making the related album?

Performing this material, especially the first time, was terrifying. I had written and composed all of the music in the safety of my apartment, and only a small handful of people had heard any of it. I had limited experience as a solo performer, having spent most of my time behind the piano playing for other people. Accomplishing that though, was really inspiring and motivation, especially considering that it was well received. Each performance of it since then has been a step toward taking bigger risks as a performer.

I am still in the process of finishing the album, and it is another set of firsts for me. The pieces on the album are like old friends by now, but I am mixing the album myself which presents its own sets of challenges. I’m happy with how it is all going, but it’s sloooooow!

How did the related book come about?

My long time friend luke kurtis had the idea for the book. He and I met on a Yoko Ono fan site in the late 90s and have been friends ever since. He came to the performances of the show and told me over coffee one afternoon about his idea to create the book and incorporate some of his photos into the book. I was really thrilled, because I felt it would be the perfect thing to pair with an album. Standing outside of the show, I was afraid the music and spoken word pieces wouldn’t work as audio recordings. The book is really going to pull things together and luke’s design is just beautiful.

What have been some highlights from performing live?

The first reading of the show was so outstanding for me. So many more people came to that performance than I expected and I really had no idea how people would react. I was really thrilled to have such a great response, especially from people who I didn’t know. There was a woman who came up and spoke to me after the show about “Five Tasks of Grief.” She told me that she was caring for her terminally ill Grandfather. She hadn’t had anyone to talk about what she was going through, so she hearing me tell the story about caring for my mom helped her feel like she wasn’t so alone. That was the first moment that I realized that there was some value to others in doing this type of work. I think speaking with that woman was the highlight of the whole process so far.

How has it been working and touring with Sandra Bernhard?

All in all it has been really fun. I was quite intimidated for the first few shows because I had been a fan of hers since probably the late 80’s when I saw Without You I’m Nothing on the big screen. One of the things that surprised me the most was how gracious she is toward me as a fellow artist. Seeing how hard she works is really eye-opening, and lit a fire under my ass. It’s really challenging showing up at different venues not knowing what to expect from the sound, the space, the piano and often not exactly sure what music she is going to want to do. That part of it especially has made me grow quickly as a musician. I feel like I am much more willing to experiment and go with the flow than I was before I started working with her. Knowing how hard she works in every part of her life, I am much less likely to allow myself to be lazy as far as what I need to do in order to get my solo career where I want it.

I love your song, “Invocation.” It seems to combine elements of spoken word. How did you put together that song?

Oh wow, this song has had a long journey. It was rhythmically inspired by a Steve Jansen song called “Captured Through A Quiet Window.” I loved the way that song has a rhythmic spaciousness. I figured out the time signature was something like 11/8 and I set to programming a drum pattern that had the same kind of feel, that’s basically how it sounds now, those big clunky drums. Once I started writing out the string parts I realized that I had made a mistake and actually written the piece in alternating measures of 10/8 and 12/8. Which gave it an even “floatier” feel to me.

A melody emerged out of that and then the different layers of synths. The first time I performed it, it didn’t have any vocals at all, they showed up for the second reading of the show, That middle part with the improvisational singing really feels like channeling to me, when I get out-of-the-way of it anyway. It’s a voice that emerges at the end of the show after all of the various challenges and realizations. the text in the beginning came to me in this moment of auto-writing, and it really is the message of the show to me. Kind of like: “you are here, perfectly ready to move on to the next thing. Let’s go!”

You have performed at Judson Memorial Church, which is known for its social justice work. Have you been involved with activist or other social justice efforts, and if so, which?

I am a pretty outspoken vegan and animal rights advocate, well aware of the fact that I need to put more action into my activism. I like to have vegan food and animal rights info at my shows, and I recently organized a fundraiser for For The Animals Sanctuary. Before I left Texas I covered some issues about the death penalty on my podcast at mikeypod.com. I covered the events leading up the heartbreaking execution of Frances Newton in 2005. I spent some time as an intern at Koinonia Partners in Americus, GA, which was the birthplace of Habitat For Humanity. I have to admit that this question has me feeling uncomfortably aware of how that work is comparatively absent in my life now. I need to open more space in my life for this again.

Did or do you have any other career aspirations outside of music?

I have been teaching music for many years now, but that’s the only other thing outside of music, and I actually teach music. Haha, I guess the answer to that is “no.” 🙂

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

Just keep making and performing and doing what you want to do no matter what!

What is next for you creatively?

I am not quite sure. I have a couple of new spoken word pieces that I will be performing at my album release show here in NYC. Those may shape up into another show. I am really interested in gathering my more musical (aka less theatrical) pieces of work and start doing more straight up concert gigs. I’ll be experimenting with what that feels like at the album release show on October 14th as well.

Thanks for the interview!

You’re welcome and thank you for having me!

-Sem

Interview: Rony Tennenbaum!

Underneath This just had the inspiring and enjoyable experience of interviewing Rony Tennenbaum, an out and outspoken gay designing jeweler striving to make a difference in and for his community. Please read more about Rony (adapted from a press release bio) before proceeding to the interview.

Rony has long served the LGBTQ+ community regardless of the law, carving the hopes and dreams of same-sex couples in gold and diamonds, and sending a strong message of inclusiveness to the LGBTQ+ community.

What makes Rony particularly current and newsworthy is his ongoing contribution to the LGBTQ+ community and how he positioned himself as a recognized and sought-after authority on LGBT wedding jewelry fashion and protocol.

As we continue to celebrate the consistent string of victories in the legalization of gay marriage, more mainstream stores are calling upon his expertise to break into the LGBTQ+ wedding market. Why? Because they want someone who assimilates with that community and can provide valuable “insider” information about the culture and ethos of an audience they know little about.

Though these retailers recognize the need for the niche, most of them do not know how to approach it.  In the optic of remaining politically correct and genuine in their marketing initiative and intention, they seek Rony’s expert understanding in the culture, tastes and needs of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the jewelry and diamond worlds.

What makes Rony stand out from the rest of the jewelry designers looking to capitalize on the current momentum created by the continuing marriage equality victories, is the fact that not only is he part of that community (he has been with his husband for 21 years); but he also comes with the whole package: the trendy high-end (yet affordable) Jewelry collection, the style & fashion, and the knowledge (education/tutorial).

Moreover, Rony doesn’t just ship his collection to be added to bridal cases across the country, he actually takes the time to visit the many stores carrying his brand to EDUCATE both consumers and retailers about the new options in wedding jewelry etiquette and consults about making educated purchases.  Often forgotten is the fact that gay couples can feel uncomfortable shopping at stores for jewelry together because they don’t really know if it’s a store that will frown upon it. Every store carrying Rony’s brand, which welcomes gay and straight couples, strive to provide a comfortable location for people to shop regardless of sexual orientation.

What’s more, unlike most jewelry designers whose collection speaks explicitly to the LGBTQ+ community, Rony’s designs go beyond the use of “stereotypical rainbows and triangles,” tweaking traditional bands and diamond rings in stylishly subdued ways, and keeping social and eco-responsibilities as the driving force in his work.

More than a designer, Rony understands the need in educating a generation of retailers as well as consumers who are facing new traditions and etiquette.  LGBTQ+ couples have few societal scripts to follow and thus find themselves in uncharted waters.

Yet so are most of these mainstream retailers – from high-end stores in the likes of Tiffany’s, to department stores (Macy’s) and local mom & pops – who are now gaining access into this ever-growing LGBTQ+ demographic. Meanwhile, with several states across the country now allowing gay marriage, same-sex couples are increasingly putting a ring on it!

To date, 19 states plus Washington, D.C. have passed marriage equality laws and judges in an additional 12 states have issued rulings in favor of marriage equality. As  the gay marriage legalization is continuing to garner attention both nationally and globally, and the new mores are being written by the LGBTQ+ communities, “visionary” retailers looking to include same-sex couples as part of their all-inclusive accepted family of consumers, have been calling upon Rony’s expertise.

In June of last year, Seattle-based Ben Bridge Jeweler, owned by Warren Buffett’s holding company Berkshire Hathaway Inc., began carrying jewelry by Rony. In April, Rogers & Hollands –  one of the largest family owned jewelry chains in the country – added Rony’s same-sex bridal jewelry to its Chicago-area stores.  Now Rony’s presence extends nationwide including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Washington, California, Illinois, and Virginia.

In addition, Rony is continuously giving back to his own community. On top of lending his expert voice to LoveIncmag.com, and EQL Magazine; he is as well making a difference by committing to philanthropic initiatives. His collection called LVOE LIFE is about supporting bullied and troubled teenagers.  The concept behind the charity designed collection is to teach teenagers to “Love Their Life”.

At the helm of his brand, Rony is using his expertise and message behind his jewelry to be in the vanguard of a new generation of jewelry consumers, and taking with him any forerunners who wish to join forces with him and his message on the journey.

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Please describe your path to becoming a designer.

I have always been fascinated with jewelry. My mom wore lots of jewelry when I was growing up and I always loved being a part of her treasure hunts for new interesting pieces. About 25 years ago, I landed a job as a data entry clerk in a large jewelry manufacturing company in NYC and I was captivated with the process of making jewelry. I loved everything about it from the designing, to the metals used (such as gold and platinum), to the gemstones (color stones or diamonds). Everything about the jewelry just fascinated me!

I started taking courses to better understand the product I was working with. I studied the manufacturing process, diamonds, design and eventually marketing and sales. I loved the process a design took from the drawing table to becoming a beautiful ring or necklace, and then putting together the story behind it.

It was later on, while working in another jewelry company, that I faced my first customer and enjoyed the interaction with them. Learning about their needs and likes and being able to create something for them to wear based on these specifications. Finally it was working with couples getting engaged (and married), and witnessing the enjoyment they possessed in talking about their future rings that really got me fascinated with designing wedding jewelry.

You have been characterized as “out” and “outspoken.” Please expand upon what those adjectives mean to you.

I am very proud at being an openly gay man. I grew up in a very sheltered environment that did not nurture gayness or freedom to be who you are. I had to find my own path. Today I am thrilled that I am able to live the life I could only have dreamed of growing up. To me being “out” is being free.

I speak my mind and believe that there is a vast array of opinions out there about the LGBT community. Educating ignorant ideas and beliefs is how I believe we will all eventually be able to live in harmony. I speak up and proudly address how I see the norm should be. While I did not have many role models who stood up and spoke their mind while I was growing up, I only hope my ideas and thoughts will inspire new generations to be proud of who they are, and that they can become whatever they want.

How do your social and cultural identities affect what you make?

About 10 years ago when you Googled the words “gay” and “jewelry” all you got were rainbows and triangles and gaudy looking jewelry. I used to say it looked like what a straight person thinks a gay person wants to wear. Though I find nothing wrong with rainbows, or triangles, I don’t know if any of my friends who would want to wear those designs as wedding rings. I set out to design a collection of classy more elegant and timeless pieces of jewelry that would be much more suitable for such personal and intimate items like an engagement ring or wedding band. My collections stem from sentiment and not from symbolism as triangles.

For example, when I designed my LVOE (pronounced the letters L-V-O-E), the idea behind it was that love is love, no matter how you spell it. Everyone sees the LOVE spelt in the 4 letters, and people ask me for the “love” rings. But the deeper definition is that Love is Love, No Matter Who the Two People are, and I find that to be a powerful statement.

lvoe_pave setHow do you know when a design feels right?

Depends on what you call “right.” To me, all my designs feel right for someone. Though I may design several dozen pieces in a collection, there are hundreds of thousands of couples out there choosing rings that fit them. I think each ring I create is right for someone. As in fashion, jewelry can be low-key and conservative and can be fashion driven and contemporary. I never think of a ring as right or wrong. To me the feeling I get when I first sketch a ring is excitement, I have a vision. It is only when it is complete, set with diamonds in gold, that’s when I think to myself, “Nice. But would I wear this,” and if the answer is YES, then I know I did it right.

What were some inspirations for making your same- sex wedding/anniversary ring collections available online?

I am always inspired by love and the commitment two people have towards one another and their long-lasting relationship. I believe everyone has an equal right to love and live with the person of their choice, regardless of sexual orientation. That love and devotion inspires me.

I mentioned my collection LVOE earlier, which represents Love Is Love. Another one of my collections called “TIE THE KNOT” is made of a beautiful golden nautical knot. The inspiration is pretty clear, couples love the sentiment of tying the knot with a symbol of gold, and the fact that they get matching or similar Knot rings makes it a special design for them. It is probably one of my best-selling collections for both lesbian and gay couples alike.

Another collection called “BRICKS” has a beautiful line of blocks lining the ring down the center. The Bricks collection is inspired by the building blocks of every relationship. Couples relate. Relationships are built one block at a time and can take years to build. It’s a strong sentiment that resonates with couples.

From your perspective, how do matrimony experiences differ for heterosexual and cisgender couples compared to LGBTQ+ couples?

I believe the experience of falling in love with someone of the same gender and building a life together does not differ no matter what the sexual orientation of the couple is. The emotion of meeting someone who makes your heart beat faster is universal. I don’t find the genders of a couple to be the differences that make any part of the marriage experience different from couple to couple.

I have spent the last 21 years with the man I love. Both our relationship and the way our household is run are as any relationship. I find that it is the way the couple interacts inside their relationship and towards the outside world that gives a relationship its strength and not their label “gay, “lesbian”, “straight”, “cisgender”, “heterosexual” etc.

What do you think of the current marriage equality movement in the US? In what ways can the movement be amplified?

Marriage equality laws are long overdue in this country. I find the movement is extraordinary and a pillar of Human rights, not just LGBT rights. No one person or institution should have the right to dictate who another human being should love or wed. I find that as the movement gains momentum, we will see more tolerance and a non issue of the matter.

However, I am a huge believer in education. Part of what I do today is travel around the country and talk to groups about these new social trends and etiquettes that are growing out of the marriage equality movement. As I talk with people, and this is not just retailers who are interested in carrying LGBT wedding ring collections in their stores (which of its own is a wonderful thing to witness), I also talk to groups of the LGBT community.

It is amazing how many questions and confused couples I am faced with who know they now have the right to marry, but do not know what they should or can do now that it’s here. They are stumped on the etiquettes within the community when it comes to proposals, weddings, rings etc. Of course I speak from the perspective of a jeweler, but I have witnessed questions such as women asking “Do I propose to my girlfriend?”, “Do we both buy engagement rings”, “Do we wear matching rings?” and the list goes on and on.

That shows me there are etiquettes that are still being considered and traditions that are in the making. It is education that opens people’s eyes to how vast this impacts our lives. It doesn’t end with “Ban lifted. Get Married.”

I commend you for purposefully using EcoGold, a greener substance. What motivated that decision-making process?

Gold is one of the most valuable recyclable materials there is, and there is so much existing gold in the world that is being reused. The thought is why purchase additional gold from mines, when there is perfectly ample supply of existing material that can be recycled.

I love the idea of empowering someone to be environmentally conscious or at least aware that they contribute even the slightest to a better world. It is my little gift to them.

What has been the most surprising reaction to your creative work?

Many years ago I was commissioned to design a surprise engagement ring by one partner for her girlfriend, based on a magazine image. I created a ring very similar to this girl’s dream photo, but when the ring was complete, I did not care for it. I made some excuse and told her something went wrong and I needed to remake the ring. A week later, the new ring was ready and I still didn’t like it, but there was no time for another remake, the couple was heading west the next day where the proposal was going to take place.   With a heavy heart I handed the ring over and for three days I dreaded hearing the phone ring.

On the third day, the phone rings a little after midnight. I could barely make out what the voice of a sobbing woman was saying to me. When she finally took a breath, she told me her name and though I don’t know her, her now fiancé just proposed to her with the most “breathtaking” ring she ever saw in her life. She said she had to call and thank me, even before she called her parents. I learned to never under-estimate what people appreciate in jewelry.

Who have been your most meaningful inspirations?

Warren Buffet once said: “A person is sitting in the shade today, because someone thought of planting a seed a while ago.” I love that. I can only hope that my teachings, and designs and ideas of an equal society will plant seeds in people’s minds that will encourage a better life for future generations.

What insights do you have for aspiring designers?

Stick with it. I find that if you have a good idea and are determined, you will succeed. I think setting goals are important. People who have a passion for what they are doing and push forward are usually very successful. And most important, don’t let anyone persuade you off your course.

On which projects are you working next?

 I never sit still. I have many things in the works at the moment. Besides the launch of several new collections, I am traveling all over the country and enjoy lecturing to the LGBT community on “The New Etiquettes of the Rainbow” and on “Buying Diamonds in the Age of Equality”, both from my “Rony Talks” series. I love the interaction with people.

I am also working on a few exciting ventures that I am not yet ready to talk about, but I guarantee you will be seeing a lot more Rony Tennenbaum in the months and years to come.

-Sem

Interview: Laura Erickson-Schroth about “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves!”

Underneath This had the informative and enjoyable experience of interviewing Laura Erickson-Schroth, psychiatrist and editor of the groundbreaking, “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” a compendium featuring an introduction by Jennifer Finney Boylan contributors from trans* and cisgender activists, theorists, authors, educators, artists, and health professionals.

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What were some experiences that inspired the idea for “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves?”

I grew up with the book Our Bodies, Ourselves on our shelf at home. It was something that answered a lot of the questions I had about bodies and sexuality. It was put together by women in Boston in the late 60’s, at a time when most physicians were male, and the women were turning to one another for information they needed. As I got older and met more and more trans people, I realized that in some ways they were in a similar position to those women – they were coming into contact with providers who weren’t as educated as they should be about trans health. I thought it would be great to create something like Our Bodies, Ourselves, written by trans people, for trans people.

What was the editing process like?

It was multi-layered. For each chapter, there were on average 10-15 advisers who read through and provided comments to help the authors shape the chapter. We also held an “editing weekend” where about 20 of us worked in small groups to make sure that the book was heading in the right direction. It was a lot of fun to get so many people together around a common goal.

How were the contributors and reviewers selected?

Chapter authors and reviewers were chosen based on their experience and expertise in the area. We’re really proud to have found great trans health providers, academics, lawyers, activists, and so many others to make the book what it is.

What was the process of choosing the 6 sections to focus on in the text?

The 6 sections really came together organically. We started deciding what topics were broad enough to warrant full chapters, and saw that they seemed to fall into sections.

How has your own professional work informed the content of “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves?”

Part of the reason I decided to start this project was that I was doing rotations in medical school on trans health and there seemed to be this incredible divide between trans people and providers. There was a lot of history of gatekeeping, and a lot of ignorance about trans people and trans health. I thought that a byproduct of trans people teaching each other about these issues could be that providers would read what they wrote, and learn more about trans communities.

If you wanted a reader to take one overall message away from reading this unique text, what would that be?

I think the most important take-away is that trans communities are extremely diverse. They’re made up of people from every background you can think of.

So far, have there been any surprising reactions to “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” from the press, family, and/or friends?

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People are most surprised by how big it is! It’s 650 pages long, and 3.5 pounds. Which means it represents that voices of many, many people.

What has been the response from trans* communities?

We’ve had great responses from both trans communities and friends, family, and providers. There were something like 500 people somehow involved in the project, and everyone is really excited to see their stories and ideas in print.

Which projects are you working on next?

I just started a fellowship at Columbia University Medical Center. Part of the fellowship is learning about public psychiatry, which includes the recovery model of mental illness, and systems like Medicaid, housing, and supported employment. The other part of the fellowship is through the LGBT Initiative at Columbia, which has goals of improving research, clinical work, education, and policy around LGBT issues.

What insights do you have for aspiring writers/editors?

If you have the luxury, do things that are meaningful to you. It makes late nights, copyediting, and deadlines worthwhile.

-Sem

Interview: Chris Stedman!

We had the meaningful experience of interviewing Chris Stedman, activist and author. Please read some more about Chris (from http://faitheistbook.com/theauthor) before proceeding to the interview.

Chris Stedman is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, “an intimate and deeply affecting portrait… [that] proves [he is] an activist in the truest sense and one to watch” (Booklist, Starred Review). The Executive Director and Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community, Chris previously served as a Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and as the Values 
in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard (where he was previously
 the inaugural Interfaith and Community Service Fellow). He is the atheist columnist for Religion News Service, Emeritus
 Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal
 of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and founder of the first blog
 dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement,
 NonProphet Status.

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Please describe your path to becoming an activist and author.

I grew up nonreligious but became an evangelical Christian around the age of 11, when I had a dramatic conversion experience. There were two primary causal factors. A year prior, at the age of 10, I read books like Roots, Hiroshima, Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl; these were books that not only increased my awareness of the fact that I lived in a world where people treated others in abusive ways, but they also told stories about what it was like to experience those things in a way that filled me with profoundly difficult questions about justice, purpose, and meaning. As much as any 10-year-old can be consumed by those questions, I was very deeply shaken and did not have a framework to unpack those questions.

The second factor occurred was when I was 11. My parents separated and it was a very disruptive experience—not only because they divorced but also because it set off a chain of events that created a really difficult situation financially and in terms of resources. My mother worked three jobs, worked nights, and was also our primary caretaker. She took courses for insurance licensing, juggled a lot; it was a very uprooting experience, so I was looking for stability and a safe place to land during a tumultuous time. That place happened to be this fundamentalist Christian church that I got invited to by friends from school.

At first, it was a perfect fit and incredibly welcoming. I was excited to be there; the church gave me a sense of community and provided a framework to think about human suffering and injustices. So, it all felt like a great fit. However, it became clear to me before too long that the community was not as welcoming as it seemed; it was vocally and vehemently anti-gay to the point of almost obsession. People would mention homosexuality in sermons for no apparent reason besides wanting to demonize gay people; talked about it in Bible study all the time; and there was a whole section in the church library with resources about homosexuality.

Their basic gist was that homosexuality was at best a bad decision or means of rebellion and, at worst, a sign of demonic possession—which is a terrifying message, particularly for a vulnerable and confused 11-year-old.

That propelled me into a difficult time, where I was fixated on trying to change my sexual orientation through prayer and fasting. I spent every night engaging in Bible study trying to change my sexual orientation. A big irony of the conversion was that I became Christian to address suffering and community, and ultimately ended up isolating myself and my personal suffering increased tenfold.

My mother eventually found a prayer journal that I kept and she took me to speak to someone at another Christian church who told me there was more than one view on homosexuality among Christians, which was the first time I had heard this. He gave me books that explored the intersections of the two, and he helped me find a safe space and acceptance—what I had been really looking for all along.

This was a very important thing for me not, just in terms of personal reconciliation but also became this was my safe space at a time when I started to come out as queer. I was the only openly queer person in my community and in my high school.

In fact, I had profoundly positive experiences in church during high school; so much so that I decided to go to college and thought I might study Christianity and religion with the goal of eventually working in ministry, because the people who helped me most during high school were Christian ministers. I wanted to pay it forward, so I thought I would go into the ministry.

Once there, I started studying religion academically and I was challenged by Christian professors to explore the foundations of my beliefs. It was through this process that I discovered I converted not because I thought the metaphysical premises were true but because I was looking for a community that pursued justice and everyone else said God was the source of these things: of community, of justice. Because this was what I cared about, it made sense. However, as I began to think about these experiences critically for myself, I realized that those passions and interests preceded my becoming Christian. Then, I allowed myself to really ask if I actually believed in God. I read Christian apologetics and felt increasingly unconvinced. Finally, I realized I was an atheist. After that, I was happy to debate religion in the classroom—but when it came to talking to people about my beliefs, I had only two strategies: avoidance or conflict.

This was because I had the assumption that religious disagreement lead to conflict, so either I was going to go into the conflict or just avoid it. In Faitheist, I write about my work at the Brian Coyle Community Center, which I still think about a lot. I once had a conversation with a Muslim woman there about our experiences of being on the margins, on the periphery; though our beliefs and backgrounds were very different, she was inviting me into a humanizing conversation that both recognized the fact that our beliefs were different but also acknowledged that we shared in the experience of being human. That was a kind of conversation that I did not know how to have at that time.

I realized that my “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach or all-out-conflict approach to religious differences were both fundamentally limited, and I wanted to find another way forward. I wanted to go into interfaith work, so I went back to school and studied alongside religious communities. In the process, I was reminded of how powerful of a role my Christian community played when I was younger, so I decided I wanted to see what was out there for atheists and nonreligious people. Through this, I discovered a couple of things: atheists are just as susceptible as anyone else to extreme tribalism, to an us-versus-them mentality with exclusionary community politics; but I also discovered humanism. This was the first time I was able to articulate my nonreligious, nontheistic worldview in a positive sense. I was able to express what I do believe, rather than define myself by what I am not. By making strong connections with religious believers, I learned to ground my sense of self in the values that I have.

In American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, there’s a fascinating finding: that religious Americans tend to be more civically engaged, give more money to charity, are more likely to vote, and are “better neighbors.” But the complicating aspect of that finding is that a nonbelieving spouse of a religious person who participated in the community was just as likely as the believing spouse to donate money. Based on this finding, the correlation between religiosity and civic engagement seems to have less to do with belief and more to do with belonging. Being part of a community that opens up a space for you to ask what it means to be a good person, gives a place to ground that work, and encourages you to be a moral agent for change in the world. Putnam and Campbell even speculated that morally bound communities for nonreligious people can serve a similar function of helping the nonreligious be more civically engaged. I wanted to see nonreligious people become more involved in civic initiatives that orient around religion, such as interfaith dialogues, and so I rediscovered the importance of community.

If my goal was to bring religious people and atheists together for the common good of humanity, I realized that I needed to invest in the idea of community for the nonreligious. So, I made the focus of my master’s degree pastoral care and counseling and studied community organizing and building. I became interested in the ideas that colleges and universities are great places for these conversations to happen, as colleges and universities can be a microcosm of the greater diversity we see in society. College is the first opportunity that many people have to be in really close community; for many people, it’s the first time they have experiences with people who have different beliefs and backgrounds. It is a great context for establishing identity and community, and learning more about different people’s experiences. Though I struggled to have those conversations while in college, it still was transformative in that way—and because my mother didn’t go to college, it was really something that I cherished. Now, the work that I do in both the university and broader contexts is very grounded in a recognition that, in the same way that colleges and universities take other aspects of identity seriously (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status), they must also take religious identities just as seriously—including people who identify as atheists, agnostics, and humanists.

How have your social and personal identities informed your work?

I think that being a nontheist is a big element of this, because if I take seriously the conviction that it is unlikely that divine forces will intervene in human affairs and solve our problems for us, then I have to be the change I want to see in the world, if you will. As a single individual, I cannot do that alone. I have to pursue common ground and find shared values with people whose identities are located on the margins in our broader cultural context.

As a queer person and an atheist, I stand on the margins in a number of different conversations, which deeply informs my desire to understand others’ perspective. Being a white male, I benefit from privilege, and I have a strong desire to understand how my own privilege affects the experiences of others and my own limited view of the world. All of this has moved me to try to understand better others’ experiences.
After having a prolonged and profound struggle with reconciling myself with my sexual orientation, I had to learn at a young age that who I was, was not necessarily going to map onto the assumptions of who I was supposed to be. That really cracked me open in an important way to question and challenge other assumptions I inherited, and inspired me to seek intersections with others. I think that everyone’s experiences are important and that everyone has a contribution to make to our understanding of identity, values, and ethics.

In Faitheist, I end the book by thanking the reader for letting me share my story and inviting them to share theirs. The best discussions are grounded in experience. Too often, they are grounded in the theoretical and abstract. By having a window into someone else’s experience, it is much harder to argue against their freedom. Sharing stories invites people to stop and listen so that they can empathize and learn.

You quote Carl Sagan and Rumi at the start of “Faitheist” and Eboo Patel, developer of Interfaith Youth Corps wrote the forward. How have they been inspirational to your activism? Who and what other forces have been influential?

Carl Sagan is someone who has really influenced the way I think about this work, because he recognized that simply trying to argue, with data or statistics, is not going to compel people to action. He was an incredible scientist but more than anything else, he was an effective science communicator; he would tell personal stories, or the stories of others, and did so in a way that was so elegant and that invited others into learning.

Regarding Rumi, Eboo and many others – I am a humanist and nontheist, and so a lot of my worldview has been informed by humanist and nontheistic writers. It is important to also acknowledge that many of the thinkers and writers who have informed who I am and how I see the world are religious thinkers; it is important for us to not just sequester ourselves in our community and only read writers and thinkers whom we think share our views. Some of the things I have been most influenced by, that have challenged me most, are the works of religious writers. It would be silly to try to claim that I have not been influenced by religious studies considering that I have spent much of my life studying religion—and continue to do so.

So I would say there would be so many writers, thinkers, activists, people in general who have influenced my thinking. I do not know where to begin, as my influences continue to change. I like to think that I am a work in progress, and constantly changing and evolving depending on whom I am around and to whom I am exposed. I try to keep my thinking fluid in that way, which was a challenge when thinking about writing a book, because it locks you in place, at least for a moment in time.

What has been the greatest challenge to engaging in and coordinating interfaith dialogues? What has been the most rewarding aspect so far?

The most challenging aspect has been just getting people to the table—because honestly it has been my experience that, once people are at the table, it does not take a ton of work to get the conversation going. I would love to say that facilitating these dialogues requires this really specialized skill set, but it doesn’t. Once you get people to the table and introduce what we’re gathered to do, people begin finding intersections, uncovering shared concerns and shared humanity, and start to share personal experiences. The dialogue goes from there, and the people who participate are the ones who make it happen.

Contentious momentous will arise, but I think one of the hardest aspects has simply been communicating to people—particularly nontheists—that interfaith work is not only something that would include them but also that their voice is really vital.

One of the most rewarding aspects is just watching those conversations unfold; it feels like a huge privilege to be a part of that, to watch people connect, and to see false barriers began to fall way. It is so great to hear that people who have never met a Muslim or an atheist before have an incredibly transformative experience. It is really amazing seeing that “aha” moment that registers for a person, when they realize that the person they saw as really different from them is actually not as different as they thought.

Among reactions to your work, what has been the most surprising?

In the last few years, I have been pleasantly surprised by just how many atheists have embraced this idea that constructive conversation across lines of religious difference is valuable. I’ve also been really surprised to hear from a lot of people in very conservative, Orthodox, and even fundamentalist religious communities who have reached out to say that various aspects of my story connected with them. Every day there is a new surprise, and that is part of what has made this work so exciting and rewarding. I love those moments of surprising connection, and I want to be constantly surprised by how we can find connections with people who seem really different.

I have done events at very, very conservative Christian colleges where students have to sign a waiver that they believe in God, abstain from sex before marriage, and won’t “practice homosexuality,” and I have been amazingly surprised by some of the realizations that have arisen in those moments. There is always a surprise, which is one of the one greatest parts of this work.

Sem: I commend you for taking on this work.

It can be very intimidating; I am intimidated by speaking in front others, I actually do not love public speaking at all – I kind of hate it, actually, but every time I push myself to do it, it’s always worth it. I have learned to really appreciate and even chase after the things that make me afraid. I want to pushing myself to grow as much as I can, and to go into those spaces where these conversations may not be happening already.

How have your family and friends responded to your work and writing?

I am really lucky to have such a supportive family. It was definitely a little challenging when the book came out. They got some threats but they took it in stride and even made jokes about it; I was angry on their behalf and probably got more upset more than they did.

As I have walked down different paths in life, I am so grateful for my family, and the same goes for my friends. I have a loving group of family and friends. I could not do what I do without supportive family and friends, so I am very grateful.

My family does not share 100 percent of my views but it is not about whether we are 100 percent on same page all of the time. We recognize that the love we have for each other is the most important thing.

How has your work been received in particular by queer communities?

That has been one of my favorite aspects of this work. I think that many queer people recognize the power of personal storytelling, and I have learned a lot from the queer movement. The queer community really understands that in order to make change we need to build relationships and share stories. Harvey Milk called us to come out to loved ones, and the queer community really understands that. My approach to this work has been informed by that perspective.

Many queer people have complicated relationships with religious and religious identity. So queer interfaith conversations can be so important. I am really happy with how I’ve seen these discussions unfold in queer spaces.

Some of the earliest and most prominent support for my work was from queer publications and book stores; I feel really grateful to be embraced by the queer community.

When I was in school, I interned in a queer drop-in shelter, and went to one before that. So much of my early experience of the church was in queer spaces. They have a lot to teach about identifying areas of shared humanity through bridge building and storytelling.

Do you maintain communication with people you knew from Teens Encounter Christ and the Brian Coyle Community Center and if so, what has their response been to interfaith dialogues?

I have a very good friend whom I met through Teens Encounter Christ and when I told her that I was an atheist, it was a struggle because she sincerely believes that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. She was legitimately concerned about my well-being and what would happen when I died.

Admittedly it would have been easy for us to go our separate ways but we stuck at it, maintained a friendship, and kept talking. We still have different beliefs but last year, I gave a reading at her wedding. She and her husband gave me the one reading in the service that was not from the Bible; they picked it on purpose so that I could read something that reflected my different worldview, which I thought was really thoughtful.

Most everyone that I still keep in touch with has been so supportive of this work. It says so much about why that was such a supportive community for me in high school. We love one another.

Because I kept a distance and had this wall up during my time at the Brian Coyle Community Center, where I was unwilling to have certain kinds of conversations, the people whom I worked with there didn’t know me very well. I didn’t ask them very much about themselves, so we didn’t keep in touch. But my work there influenced my desire to reach out, listen to, and learn from Muslim communities later on in my activism, so the Brian Coyle Community Center will always have an important place in my heart.

You describe yourself and your friend experiencing a hate crime while in Chicago. I am glad you are okay. How did you get through that experience and what can towns and cities do to make safer spaces for LGBTQ+ identified people?

Thank you. It was not the first time nor the last that I’ve experienced expressions of anti-LGBTQ hatred in my life. There have been many. Some have left me feeling defeated, like things won’t change. When I get into that headspace, I remind myself of the times in my life, where I have had positive encounters and have seen people’s perspectives change, and that reminder gives me hope.

I think it’s important for LGBTQ+ identified people to be careful. I was recently harassed by a stranger on the bus; they followed me for a while, and it was very scary. This is just a part of my reality. Regardless of what others do to make spaces safer, we have to be careful on our own. We have to prioritize our personal safety. And this is of course not just limited to LGB folks; in fact, 1 in 12 transgender people are murdered in the U.S., which is inconceivably horrifying, infuriating, and tragic. Trans people are incredibly targeted, and it’s a huge problem that needs to be addressed now.

Regarding what people can do to make cities, towns, and the broader cultural climate safer: This starts by creating spaces where people can share stories and speak honestly about who they are. I believe that when people are given an opportunity to identify with someone very different from themselves, they can more easily challenge their preconceived notions and biases. These conversations have a butterfly effect; they ripple out into society and make it safer for all people.

I’ve had surprising conversations with anti-gay activists, such as with a group of people who were proselytizing outside of a gay bar. I can’t say I think that people should always have those conversations, because they have to prioritize their own safety. I don’t think you have to build bridges at all times, because of your own safety, but also because I know I can’t always be my best self all the time. I can’t always meet people more than half way, and sometimes I’m just not up to the challenge of these risky conversations. But the more that we as a queer community can step out and have those conversations, the more society will be a safer place for people at large.

The experience you describe of being at the assassination site of Monsignor Oscar Romero was quite powerful. What was it like writing about the experience?

It was very strange; the process of writing personal narrative is strange in general because our experiences are not these rigid, unchanging things. Our connection to our experiences change as we change. It is an interesting experience to place yourself in your own shoes at a time in life that feels very separate from where you are now.

That experience in El Salvador embodies a larger phenomenon. When I stepped out of Christianity, I wanted to compartmentalize myself and say that I am not that person anymore; but we are deeply informed by all of our experiences. I am not a Christian anymore, but I will always be a person who was a Christian.

It was very difficult at times to put myself back in those shoes and try to remember what it felt like to have that experience in El Salvador, or to have an adolescent conversion experience. We are often so busy looking ahead in life to what’s next, that we just move quickly past experiences and put them out of our minds, so writing Faitheist was a very helpful experience for me. Revisiting and remembering enabled me to make peace with those things; I did not realize how much I was carrying around a lot of that weight with me. In El Salvador, I felt this powerful connection to the Christian beliefs I had moved beyond, but because I was uncomfortable with those feelings, I ignored them and pushed the experience aside. So it was very powerful to go back and write about it – to reclaim and revisit it. I am not just going to push those or any other feelings aside from now on; I am going to sit with and explore them.

I’d recommend that everyone go back to challenging or confusing moments in life and reflect on them, through writing or talking with someone about them. It’s a very helpful exercise f. I do not think that everyone needs to write a book to do this; I was lucky to get to publish a book, but there are many other ways to reflect.

From your perspective, what forces led to the rise of the New Atheism?

Some “New Atheists” identify 9-11 as the emergence of New Atheism as a movement. What I think led to the rise of New Atheism is the fact that many atheists for many years had been excluded from participating in broader public life. Atheists have been marginalized and demonized. I think that, combined with very legitimate frustrations that a number of atheists feel about abuses done in the name of religion, led to his pushback.

I believe that much of the “no” of atheism has been said, and that it’s time to speak more publicly and positively about what atheism and humanism are, not just what they aren’t.

How has Interfaith Youth Corps and other interfaith activists responded to New Atheists critiques of interfaith dialogue particularly that these movements do not sufficiently address religious privilege?

I think interfaith work is a prime forum to address religious privilege; that by participating in interfaith conversation, atheists can demonstrate that religion does not have a monopoly on morality—and that in and of itself is incredibly powerful. I think interfaith dialogues are really excellent spaces to have those difficult conversations about religious privilege—if those conversations are grounded in personal relationships. I think it’s much easier for people to hear and understand religious privilege when the explanation is coming from people whom you know and understand and like. Similarly, I’m a realist, and I know that some people will not hear me because I’m queer, or because I’m an atheist—and I can speak until I am out of air and it won’t matter, because they won’t hear me. But they will hear someone from their in-group, someone who shares their identity. So it’s important for me to have friends and allies in religious communities who can go back to their communities and relay what they have learned in an interfaith space. I hear the critique that interfaith dialogue does not address religious privilege, and I think sometimes interfaith groups have done a bad job, but I think that the factors are there for interfaith dialogues to address incredibly powerful forms of religious privilege—and I see it happening already, and it’s going well. When it’s done well, interfaith dialogue is an ideal forum to have these conversations.

What are some insights you have for aspiring activists?

I would say that I have really benefited from taking time to listen to and learn from other activists. I have ideas and opinions, but it’s not wise to barge into conversations without taking time to learn from others, particularly those who have been doing this work for a long time.

I try to think about it this way: for every minute you talk, spend at least 5 minutes listening; for every piece you publish, read 10 other pieces. You really just can’t do enough listening, learning and reading other people’s work. I feel like I have really benefited from that, and I try to continue doing that as much as I can.
Part of why I was nervous about writing this book and doing this work was because I am young, and I know that there is a lot that I do not know. But knowing that shouldn’t stop you from being a part of the conversation. I helped create a website for emerging young thinkers and activists because I think it’s so important for people to know that it is okay to be a work in progress while doing activism. That you can use your voice while still finding and refining it. I fully expect that I will keep growing and improving—but if I let that stop me, I wouldn’t have learned all that I have over the last few years. So I would say, start doing the work and allow yourself to make mistakes and keep learning. You may write something or participate in something, and later look back and say, ‘Wow, I was really wrong on that’ or ‘Yikes, that was not nuanced’—but that is okay. It’s a part of the process.

On what projects are you working currently?

I was the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and now I’m transitioning into the role of Executive Director and Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community. I have been working on getting this program going for the last year and I am incredibly excited about it!

Also, I am continuing to work with organizations within the movements I participate in. I have been part of Interfaith Youth Core for years and I am so thrilled that they have had a huge impact on this conversation. Years ago, when I was first getting involved, I did not encounter many other nontheists—now, based on their alumni survey, about 20 percent of [the Interfaith Youth Core] alums identify as secular humanists, atheists, agnostics or non-religious, which is much higher than the national average of people who identify with these labels.

I am also involved with Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charity organization. The Challenge the Gap program, part of Foundation Beyond Belief, empowers atheists and humanists to give to religious organizations that engage in work that does not proselytize but improves the conditions of life for others; this also enables us to build relationships with religious groups and people.

I am also continuing to write—I write a regular column for Religion News Service. And I am trying to find the work-life balance. It’s an amazing challenge. I am so passionate about this work, I can always find a million reasons to be up working into the late hours of the night. I feel so privileged and grateful that now this work has gotten to the point to where there are too many different things that I can be contributing to, helping with, or learning from – I feel so fortunate to be in that place, it is truly amazing.

-Sem

Interview: Arborea!

Underneath This had the soulful experience of interviewing Arborea, a band that makes beautifully moving and meaningful music. They are also involved with activist causes. Before reading the subsequent interview, please read some more about the band in an adapted bio penned by them. Also, check out the visually and sonically compelling (and official!) video for their song, “After the Flood Only Love Remains.”

Shanti and Buck formed Arborea in 2005, released their first album in late 2006 and they are now touring on our 5th album ‘Fortress of the Sun’. Buck also produced two various artist compilations….one of which is ‘Leaves of Life’ (2009) an album that included other artists like Alela Diane, Mariee Sioux, and Devendra Banhart. ‘Leaves of Life’ was started to raise awareness and benefit UN World Food Program; quite a lot of what Shanti and Buck do involves building community. Another example is that they have worked with an instrument maker in Tennessee who created a guitar inspired by their song ‘Red Bird.’ Money from the sales of each guitar have went to aid various charities like the Red Cross in Japan which provided crucial aid to communities in the wake of the earth quakes that triggered the tsunamis in 2011.

Jeanne Madic photo

Jeanne Madic photo

How has living in Maine influenced your music? Which other geographic locations have had an effect on you? What is it like working together musically? What is the collaboration process like?

Buck and Shanti – Maine is where we first came together musically, where we started following our own musical path together, apart from any outside influences. The music evolved out of our communion during the Summer of 2005…through improvisations, musical meditations. Shanti was born in Maine, but raised in Norfolk, Virginia, which is where we first met. We moved to Maine at the beginning of 2001. Our years of traveling along the coast or in the mountains on Shanti’s family land (part of the Northern Appalachian Mountains), has been an amazing catalyst for the individual voice that we’ve created. As well, our time spent in Ireland, the British Isles, Spain, Portugal, Italy and other places we’ve toured through…these lands and the people we have come to know and love have had a great influence and everything comes through in our poetry, photography and videos, our music. Our collaborative process evolves in many different ways…out of poetry we’ve written together or individually. Or one of us might have an idea, say on the guitar or banjo, and then afterwards we’ll finish it together by collaborating on the words and vocal melodies. Sometimes we bring songs or music to one another fully formed and then we’ll work in additional parts together. The music happens in so many different ways, which keeps things exciting.

Your music has been described as an amalgam of folk, blues, and world music. How do you characterize your style?

Buck and Shanti – It’s really all of those things. Maybe World Music is a proper term for it, but it’s not the over processed glossy type of World Music that has been produced in the West over the past couple of decades. It’s much more raw and closer to older folk and blues recordings, or recordings you might hear now coming from Africa or the Far East. We are quite often paired with Psychedelic/Avant genres, and we feel comfortable with those labels, because the music is meant to elevate ourselves and listeners outside of the confines of the Material World…it’s meant to open new doors of thought and create a surreal state of mind, a sort of ritualistic dreamtime.

How has your sound developed from Wayfaring Summer to presently?

Buck and Shanti – It’s almost been a decade now that we’ve been playing together. Since the release of Wayfaring Summer in 2006, our vision has continued to evolve to a higher state as we grow together and as individuals…so our musical union has only gotten stronger, more refined, synchronistic…more telepathic. As long as we continue to grow, there just doesn’t feel like there’s a limit to what we are capable of creating.

When performing, what is your relationship to the audience?

Buck and Shanti – Performances are a pure flow and exchange of energy…a guided meditation within a river of music. Having an audience fully present is essential for these gatherings. Our intention with each performance is to have a unique energy exchange, a continuous circle between the music being created and how the audience takes everything in and feels that energy. It just doesn’t work that well in a noisy bar situation or coffeehouse with so many distractions. Theaters, art galleries, intimate house concerts, chapels…these are really the best venues for creating a sacred space for the music.

Activism and building community is inherent in your music and life. I admire that! You have worked with the Red Cross and the UN World Food Program. What has inspired and sustained your activism?

Buck and Shanti – Everyone of us is part of the global community and there are so many souls in need of help and love. We are indeed part of this community, this family…it’s in the blood of who we are as individuals, as parents, as friend, as neighbor.

Using our creativity to raise funds for charities or helping bring about awareness of important causes is essential to who we are as human beings.

Is your music feminist? If so, how?

Buck and Shanti – The state of being that our music originates from is feminine and celebrates life, life-giving, life affirming, life exchanging. Music is a river born from the ocean…the Mother of Life.

I enjoyed the beautiful track After the Flood Only Love Remains. What inspired you to write this song?

Buck – Our music, especially our lyrics, all originate from poetic vision…and all of that comes from personal experience, or from dreams. After the Flood Only Love Remains is a combination of some heavy life events too personal for me to share, though I can tell you, the song itself is a Catharsis. It’s definitely my dedication and acknowledgement of change and the enduring power of unconditional true Love and Empathy!

ArboreaOwl&Raven14June2014
Your music videos are very beautifully composed and complement the lyrics of your songs well. How do you come up with the concepts for the videos?

Buck and Shanti – Being that the music is born through visions, through dreams…the music and images are inherently tied together…one an extension of the other. Our experience and love of photography has definitely helped with our video work, and for the last album we developed some great relationships with other filmmakers who we feel connected to, both spiritually and artistically.

You are currently selling original artwork on your website. How did you become interested in painting and photography? What are some of your other interests outside of music?

Buck – Long before I started playing guitar, as a young child I would draw and paint nearly every day. My father, uncle, and grandfather were very talented artists and drawing was something they always did, though they never pursued their talent outside home. I guess it was a natural gift passed down from one generation to the next. Our daughter is very artistically inclined and can sit for hours drawing…so it seems these pathways are genetically inherited. Music was a big part of my childhood memories and a lot of time was spent listening to my parents vinyl collection and hearing music on the radio, which in turn inspired me to sing, which I did all the time. Despite being shy, I was a part of my elementary school choir which was one of my earliest experiences with overcoming social fears. I love to listen to people sing, though now I tend to gravitate towards the female voice…and I feel like the best male singers are completely in touch with their feminine side. I also developed a love for movies when I was young, going to the local Drive-In theater with my parents on weekends.

Shanti grew up in a house filled with music. Her mother was a singer-songwriter/guitarist who performed in Tidewater Virginia and often rehearsed at home, so it was all around her growing up and certainly became a subconscious influence…as well as inheriting natural gifts for making music from her mom. Shanti was actually deathly shy of singing in front of people, and we were married for many years before she even felt comfortable singing in front of me. I knew she had a beautiful voice, so I felt it would eventually happen, but it was an important to patiently encourage her along the way, to remain positive and supportive. Shanti’s first passion however was photography and her parents supported this by eventually building a dark room in their house, so she could develop her own photographs and explore that side of her creativity. Our interests outside of music, film, photography, and poetry…great literature, gardening, woodworking and guitar making, traveling, meeting beautiful empathetic souls, being in the World, and of course being with our families and dear friends. Everything we spend time doing, is important and finds its way into our collective artistic life.

Which artists have you been listening to recently?

Buck and Shanti – We’re not listening to a lot of music these days, as we’re too involved with our own projects…composing and rehearsing, it takes so much time. When we do listen to music, we always seem to cycle around to music discovered years ago…Sindead O’Connor, Peter Green, Tim Buckley, Sheila Chandra, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Robbie Basho, Linda Thompson, Sandy Denny, Tori Amos, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, June Tabor, Martin Simpson, Chris Whitley. Some of the contemporary artists we love to support and some we even gig with: Josephine Foster and Victor Herrero, Will Oldham, Christopher Paul Stelling, Marissa Nadler, Two Wings, Mariee Sioux, Marian McLaughlin, Diane Cluck, Laboule, Fern Knight, Allysen Callery, Laboule, Jesse Sykes, Meg Baird, Daniel Bachman, Ryley Walker, Eric Carbonara, Jerry DeCicca….

The Doors…songs like Riders On The Storm, Crystal Ship, Break On Through, Moonlight Drive, End of the Night…definitely an important part of our youth and music we listen to while driving on tour. The idea of conveying poetry and art, light and dark… through music, is an important part of Jim Morrison’s Legacy and definitely influenced us along the way.

What projects are you working on currently?

Buck and Shanti – We are working on new music together and separately for 2015. Shanti is also involved in a new project…Emerge, a group experience that takes place every New Moon, and involves her improvising music with voice and hammered dulcimer along with her friend Julie, who is a guided meditation instructor. Each individual in the class sets her or his new intentions each month. It’s a very beautiful, healing experience.

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Buck and Shanti – If an aspiring artist or group has a unique musical vision.we would encourage them to follow their instincts and their muses, and never second guess their own voice(s). The World is already filled with too many generic pop songs and there isn’t any reason for an artist to compromise their vision to fit into a particular style, or fit into someone’s ideal of how something should sound. It’s true that everybody hears Music in a subjective way, but regardless, music always feels best when it comes from a place of pure intention.

-Sem & Strike

Interview: Elliott DeLine! (Part 1 of 2)

Underneath This just enjoyed interviewing Elliott DeLine. Please read some more about Elliott in his self-penned biographical statement before reading part 1 of the interview. Stay tuned for part two in the following weeks!

Elliott DeLine (born 1988) is a transgender writer and activist from Syracuse, NY. He is the author of the novel Refuse and the novella I Know Very Well How I Got My Name. His work has been featured in the Modern Love essay series of The New York Times, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, and Original Plumbing Magazine. Elliott attended Purchase College and graduated from Syracuse University in 2012 with a BA in English. He is a founding board member of the nonprofit CNY for Solidarity, Inc., and the general coordinator of Queer Mart, and LGBTQ arts and crafts fair. Elliott currently lives in Syracuse, NY, where he works, volunteers, and writes.

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Please describe your path to becoming a writer.

It probably sounds corny, but I’ve always been writing, since I was able. I used to make books as a kid, with paper and staples. Growing up, writing was always something that came pretty naturally to me. That, along with books, music and art, was my way of escaping and expressing myself. I was pretty involved with my high school literary magazine and had a lot of poems and short pieces I would share that way. When I got to college, I decided I wanted to focus on creative writing the most, and not visual art I didn’t really know much about art, I just enjoyed making it. I didn’t like the classes so I switched to an English major and focused on reading and writing. The first times I was really published were in college literary magazines, prior to writing Refuse. Then I self-published Refuse, and then I was a runner-up in the New York Times Modern Love Essay Contest, and then my story was accepted for The Collection, a transgender anthology. Then I also became a blogger for Original Plumbing. Everything built upon itself and more and more people read Refuse. I started getting semi-regular “fan mail,” requests for interviews, and got to read or speak at some events and colleges. Nothing too crazy, but enough that some people took me seriously. I then self-published I Know Very Well How I Got My Name. That’s all it really was. Mostly, I asked people to read my book, or sell it at their store, or to read at their event, and enough people said yes. And it built upon itself.

How has living in Syracuse, NY informed your writing?

Very much so, given that it’s the setting of probably 75% of what I have written the past few years. I’ve lived here most my life, but it took going away a few times to get perspective on it. I’ve become fascinated with the city and region for these past five years or so. The architecture, history, demographics, crime, everything. It seems like everything about me is tied to my location, and I’d never noticed it before. I feel like Syracuse explained everything. Why I am who I am. It was empowering to stop being embarrassed about my history. I was embarrassed because it was so ordinary and I wasn’t anywhere near as worldly as my college friends at least pretended they were. So I wasn’t from some place hip or interesting. So what. I was glad. I am still glad. And people like that are wrong anyway. I’ve always had a lot of hometown pride. It’s common here. It’s a love-hate sort of thing. I think it’s a unique setting because it’s nothing special. Not to outsiders at least.

In what ways has your work been feminist and/or reflected social justice themes?

Like many trans people, I have a conflicted relationship with feminism. I think my books challenge the ways some (cisgender female) feminists view the world. I was actually surprised my second book, I Know Very Well How I Got My Name, didn’t get more backlash. I have to imagine it’s because so far fewer people read it. I thought the depiction of a trans person sexually abused by a cisgender female would be more controversial. Because it’s sort of the reversal of societal expectations, where the trans person is the predator, and male-identified people are predators, and cisgender women are victims only. Feminism is a tough one, because I’ve seen so many trans women as well as men hurt by the words of self-identified feminists. I don’t think my books are anti-feminist. But that wasn’t my concerns when writing those particular pieces. The social justice themes I am most concerned with in Refuse and I Know.. are probably access to healthcare for trans people and a sorta anticapitalist view of work, particularly given trans unemployment. And I think there is a lot to be said about class and location, like I previously mentioned. But I figure what is good for trans people is good for all gender equality. So in that sense, feminists and I are on the same page.

What was it like being part of the first annual QueerMart arts and craft fair?

It was wonderful. We put a lot of time and energy into promoting it and it really paid off. The crowds were big and everyone was so excited. Most the artists made a decent amount if money. I don’t think there’s ever been anything like it in Syracuse. I’m really proud of it. It really brought people together for something positive and fun. It felt empowering.

How did you become involved with CNY for Solidarity and how has this experience been?

Well, that is a long story. It started out as a small project of me and a few friends, because we wanted to spread the word on the CeCe McDonald story. We decided to march in the Syracuse Pride, which, like most LGBT stuff in the area, is overwhelmingly white and cisgender. We are white, so in a way it felt like, “Is this really our place?” But I was so glad we did it. We tried to make it clear that we weren’t speaking for trans women of color, just showing our support for them. Other women we were honoring included LaTeisha Green, who was murdered in Syracuse in 2008. We don’t want people to forget, because not much has changed since then and it could happen again. We wanted people to realize there are members of the LGBT community who have a lot more to worry about that marriage equality and how to decorate their float. Trans people should be a priority, because we are still second class citizens on the whole, and trans women of color should be the TOP priority because there’s nothing short of genocide against them. To be frank, we were a group of quiet but radical people who hadn’t ever felt connected to the LGBT community, particularly in Syracuse. It’s basically a buzzword for us at this point, but we wanted to focus on intersectionality. Single-issue trans activism really turned us all off. Eventually, the group got larger, and some older, very passionate and intelligent individuals got involved, giving us a huge energy boost. My friend Joey single-handedly did the research to make us an incorporated non-profit, with a board of directors. He established the LGBTQ food pantry, and a bus to get people down to Philadelphia for trans-positive care. It’s a mess up here, in terms of getting on hormones and getting general care as well, as a trans person. We try to focus on the real bare bones stuff, because needs just aren’t being met. We want to get people food, healthcare, shelter, jobs, safety, as well as support and empowerment. We have a support group now called Intersections Cafe, where we serve free coffee and dinner and we’re having another Queer mart on May 3rd. We’re starting an indiegogo soon, as well as applying for grants, and hope open our own center in downtown Syracuse. It would start as a resource center, and hopefully in time, we can also develop a solution for trans health care in Syracuse. The Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia has been very supportive of us in this endeavor. There is no general LGBTQ center in Syracuse. There’s one at Syracuse University for students, one for elderly/aging people, and one for youth. But the rest of us don’t really have anything but scattered support groups and gays bars that are always closing down a month after they open. Really, the amount that has been achieved in Syracuse by others is astounding. But it often seems like the left hand isn’t talking with the right. Unfortunately, that hasn’t really improved. But we offer a slew of new resources and services, and we hope in time that other community organization leaders warm up to us. But we try to focus on the community itself and not get bogged down in the politics. There’s work to be done and I’m trying to just move forward. We’re having elections soon for Board Officers, and forming committees, and hope to do some workshops on name change documents, food stamps, and other stuff that can be harder to obtain when you’re trans. We’ve got plenty of energy and ideas, now we just need the funding.

Who have been your creative inspirations?

I find music the most inspirational, which explains for all the references to Morrissey and The Smiths in my work. Morrissey has probably inspired me more than any other artist. This summer I was very inspired by Joni Mitchell. When it really comes down to it though, it’s the people in my life who inspire me the most. I don’t like the idea of “muses,” because there’s a gendered connotation to it that strikes me as gross. However, my desire to make sense of my relationships often drives my work.

I always have drawn inspiration from marginalized artists who were controversial in their communities. Philip Roth was someone I became fixated on for a while. Native Son by Richard Wright made me feel like it was OK to have a deeply flawed protagonist…one who may even appear on the surface to live up to stereotypes, but in reality, to the careful reader, is ultimately sympathetic and powerful in a way that the “poster boys” can never be. I like authors who play with fire, because that’s how you test your beliefs, and that’s the only way you’ll come to anything like the truth. James Baldwin’s Another Country gave me permission somehow, too- to focus on interpersonal relationships more than plot. Not to the point that it’s a soap opera, but it really is OK to just write about the world around you. It doesn’t have to be something far outside your experience and invented. In fact, I think it’s better when it isn’t.

Have you envisioned your novels being made into films? If so, what may that be like?

Yes. I think about this a lot too. I would love that. I’d want to be very involved of course, and I’d want to cast trans people as actors. I would particularly love to see Refuse as a movie. I’d love to pick the songs for the soundtrack. I always envision the opening scene as Dean riding a bike through the suburbs with the song “Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness” by Morrissey. And I always picture it in black and white. And then he’d go up to his room and sit down at the computer and there would be a sort of cheesy voice over narration as he typed. That would quickly fade into the past, or in other words the story that he’s writing. Those scenes would have no voice over. It would switch back and forth between present and past. Maybe the past could be in color, but the present part where it’s just Dean in his head at his parents’ house would be black and white.

What are some of the most salient issues facing trans people today in the United States? How can individuals be an informed ally to trans folks and communities?

Healthcare, including mental healthcare. The healthcare system really fucks us over. Unemployment and poverty. The real bare bones stuff. Our community really suffers, on a grand scale, with basic needs going unmet. It’s sort of sickening. And then there’s isolation and loneliness. People can become informed by listening to us.

On what projects are you currently working?

I’m currently working on a book I’d like to have finished this summer. That’s all I’ll say.

Interview: Matt Howard of The Lion of Tallasi!

Underneath This just conducted an enjoyable interview with Matt Howard of the band, The Lion of Tallasi. Please read more about them in the bio sent by Matt and watch this video of their song “My Babys Gone Away From Me” before reading the subsequent interview. I not only appreciate their music but also their social justice perspective.

Lion of Tallasi is a band from Tulsa, OK. It is a project led by singer/guitarist Matt Howard. Formed in 2011, they have released an album, an EP, and one single. Current and former members include: Kristen Howard, Mike Chiado, Blake Jarman, Ben Burkes, and Brandon Burkes.

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Please describe your path to becoming a musician.

I’ve always had a fascination with music. When I was little my dad had this old beat up guitar in his closet and I would go stare at it like it was this magical alien relic. It was just this beautiful thing. That’s one of my earliest memories and I think that kind of set the tone for things to come. The first time I can really remember being impacted by music was a little later when my older sister got into Nirvana. I remember hearing that through the wall separating our rooms and just being in awe. I think that’s when I knew I wanted to be a musician. Then later I discovered Dylan and started getting more into the lyrical side of things.

How does being from Tulsa, Oklahoma affect the music that you make?

Well I’m originally from this small town in Arkansas. It’s so small there’s not even a population sign. It’s like a village. And super isolated. The nearest town to have like a music shop or book store is about 30 minutes away. I didn’t really fit in well so I was alone a lot. I think that’s part of the reason I’m a musician now. I didn’t have a lot to do except play guitar and write songs. Growing up there certainly had a lot of influence on my music though. Religion seeps into my songs a lot. It’s kind of an unavoidable thing when you live somewhere like that. My anger at the racism, sexism, and homophobia that’s so prevalent in the south is also a big motivator to write songs.

What does The Lion of Tallasi mean? How did you create that name?

The “lion” part of the name comes from my family crest. At the top of the crest is this lion holding a cross. I thought it was funny in a way. Kind of tongue in cheek because I’m the least lion-like person you’ll ever meet. “Tallasi” is a word that comes from the Creek tribe. It means “old town”. That was the original name for Tulsa and over the years tallasi just kind of morphed into the word Tulsa.

The title of your debut full length album is quite weighty. How did you decide to call it “God, Love, and Death?”

I just wanted something straight forward. I wanted people to know what they were getting into. I also thought maybe the album would find it’s way into the hands of people who would relate to it a little easier. People who have a fascination with religion and death basically. And people that like sappy love songs.

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Your music has been described as folk. What does that label and genre mean to you? What do you think of the latest folk resurgence in the United States?

I’ve always enjoyed folk music because it can be such an unfiltered form of expression. It’s musical freedom. People say that about punk music but as far as I can tell punk has some pretty strict rules about how to look and how to act. Folk can be so many different things. It can be Bob Dylan or Daniel Johnston or Neutral Milk Hotel. There aren’t any rules really. It’s just regular people expressing themselves, rough edges and all. That’s the problem I have with the latest folk resurgence really. It doesn’t have any rough edges. Everything’s smoothed down and soft. It’s beautiful sometimes but most of it is meaningless. I can’t connect to it in any real way. It feels like a lot of it is written in a room somewhere by a team of writers. I know a lot of people enjoy it and I don’t want to take away anything from them. I know I’m in the minority here. It’s just not for me.

What has it been like using social media to fund and promote your music? How do you see technology continuing to influence folk music?

I feel like I’m really lucky to live in a time where I can promote my music through social media. It’s a great feeling when I connect with a new fan online that I might not have ever found any other way. I use social media mostly because we’re not a touring band right now, because (A): We all have full-time jobs so we aren’t able to take off across the country any time we want and (B): touring is expensive. So in order to tour we have to have money so we get jobs but because those jobs are so time-consuming we don’t have time to tour. Some bands pull it off but I haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe if we get signed? I’m not holding my breath for that though.

Who and what are some of your creative influences?

I think the first one that people are going to notice when they listen to my music is Bright Eyes. I’ve always felt a deep connection to their music and they’ve obviously been a big influence. Another obvious one, especially on our first album, is Bob Dylan. Elliott Smith is another big one but I’m not sure how much of that comes through. Lately my favorite band has been a band called Villagers. They have such beautiful and well written songs. They’ve been a big inspiration on my writing lately.

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How do your social and personal identities affect your creative process?

I’m a very empathetic person and I think that comes out in my songs a lot. I see or hear about people suffering and I feel the need to spread the word, to tell everyone that these people need help. I feel like I also deal with some of my issues with depression and anxiety through music. When I’m feeling really anxious or depressed about something it seems like if I put it into a song it kind of loses its power. Like it’s trapped there in the song.

How does performing compare to recording?

I really enjoy both a lot. With performing you get this cathartic release and you sort of develop this bond with the crowd because you’re up there sharing all of this personal stuff with them. Recording is great because I start with trying to capture a performance and then I get to shape it by adding instruments and effects and EQ’ing and all that. I really enjoy playing producer and the technical side of things, although I’m still learning in that area.

In what ways is your music feminist?

I do consider myself a feminist but I’m not sure that the music I’ve put out to date could really be considered as such. I do think it’s an important issue and one that needs more people writing about it.

I enjoy your song, “It’s Christmas” (Keep Me Warm). There is a bitter-sweetness in it so reminiscent of that season. Any plans to make more holiday-themed music? 🙂

I’ve actually written 3 or 4 holiday themed songs that I’ve put out under various names. I’m not sure if any of those are available anywhere anymore though. I’ve actually considered re-recording a couple of them for release this Christmas. I’m not sure if that will work out though.

How did making your EP, “Songs for Warm Summer Nights” compare to working on your most recent album?

Well both of them were self recorded using pretty much the same equipment. I spent more time on God, Love, and Death. I think it came out better for it. It’s less sloppy I think. God, Love, and Death was also mixed by someone who had more experience with that kind of thing. Both were really fun though. I think “Summer Nights” is way more personal and maybe kind of depressing. God, Love, and Death is depressing too but more in a “the world is a horrible place and we’re all going to die” way.

How has it been working with other musicians to make songs?

I think my favorite part of recording is hearing the parts other people come up with for my songs. All of the songs on God, Love, and Death are so much better because of the people who helped out with it.

One of my favorite songs by you is “If I Only Had Your Love.” What is the story behind this song?

It’s interesting you ask about that one. When I first wrote it I was feeling kind of lonely and depressed and it was just this song about not being confident that anyone could really love me for who I am. It was only later that I realized the religious aspect of the song. I mean you could interpret most of the song as me talking to God. The first line is the most obvious: “I could sing your praise a million ways but it wouldn’t be enough.”

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If you could cover any song, what would it be?

That’s a tough one. We did a cover of Postal Service’s “Recycled Air” for a compilation that I really enjoyed doing. It was fun converting this electro-pop song into a folk song so I would say something that’s far removed from the folk genre. Like a dubstep song or something.

What do you enjoy doing outside of music?

With music and work I don’t have a lot of time for much else. I am a voracious reader though. I go through 2 or 3 books a week usually. I also go to estate sales looking for old musical equipment a lot.

On what projects are you working on next?

I’m working of an EP that will be kind of a mellow, mostly just me and acoustic guitar thing. All of it is being recorded on this old reel to reel so it has a great sound to it. I’m also working on an EP with my friend Paul Steele, who goes by the name Along Came Paully. It’s a split EP and we co-wrote some of the songs on it. I’m really excited about both of those projects. I think the songs are some of the best I’ve ever written. I’m also planning on releasing a single or maybe another EP and all of the proceeds from that will be donated to LGBT charities. I also have another album pretty much written so I need to start on recording that soon.

What feedback do you have for aspiring musicians?

I’m afraid I can’t really give any tips on being successful. I will say that you shouldn’t give up. If this is what you love then you should stick with it, even if you aren’t playing to huge crowds (or any crowd at all) when you play shows. I feel like if I can connect with even one person and I can make that person’s life a little better with my music then I’m happy. I know what it’s like to feel alone and misunderstood and I know how much music can help.

-Sem