Interview: Rachael Sage!

Underneath This had the pleasant experience of interviewing the talented and soulful Rachael Sage. According to the biography in her press kit, Rachael is a vocalist and innovative multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter and producer. She has also become one of the busiest touring artists in independent music, performing over 100 dates a year (!) with her band The Sequins throughout the US, UK, Europe and Asia. She has earned a loyal following for her dynamic piano playing, delicate guitar work, soulful vocals. and improvisational audience interaction.

Sage has shared stages with Sarah McLachlan, A Great Big World, Judy Collins, Colin Hay, Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn, The Animals and Ani DiFranco. She has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and received numerous songwriting awards including The John Lennon Songwriting Contest (Grand Prize) and several Independent Music Awards. Her songs have appeared on MTV, HBO, the “Fame” soundtrack, and in the current season of Lifetime’s #1 reality series,”Dance Moms.”

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Before proceeding to the interview, check out some of Rachael’s music videos.

Please describe your trajectory to becoming a musician.

I have been playing piano since I was two and a half, apparently! I can’t really remember a time where I didn’t have some kind of relationship to the piano. I would hear songs in synagogue, or at school or in ballet class or just in my house from my parent’s doo-wop and Broadway collections, and sound out the melodies by ear. By the time I was four I was writing lyrics and by five I already had dozens of little pop songs influenced mostly by what was playing on Top 40 Radio at the time. I’d use the phrase “making love” in all my songs and I had no idea what it meant, but I knew it sounded like what people sang on the radio! After that I just became know in school and at camp as “that girl who writes songs”, and constantly presented them to friends, teachers, at talent shows or wherever…basically, for anyone who’d listen. Upon an uncle’s suggestion who worked in TV News, my relatives pooled together and gave me a four-track tape recorder for my Bat Mitzvah gift, which set me on my path as both a producer and recording artist.

You started your own record label when this was less common. What was that like?

I started my own record label as a very practical decision, really. I’d been making pop music demos since I was in junior high school, programming drum machines and synthesizers, and literally recording hundreds of songs to play for publishers, managers – anyone who’d listen to a little kid with stars in her eyes. I got pretty “far” with it too; in high school I was offered a major publishing deal with Famous Music that my parents (lamentably) wouldn’t let me sign because they felt I was too young, and I also was represented by Debbie Gibson’s manager, which let’s just say, was “an adventure!”

Ultimately, during college I did a 180 musically and my motivation for wanting to be a songwriter and recording artist shifted quite a bit. I became a lot more eager to get my music out there myself, and to say what I wanted to say without anyone telling me what lyrics needed to be cut or what arrangement to play or even what to wear. I was really inspired by the Bay Area folk scene and also, by a summer I spent in Ireland where a large number of local artists were already self-releasing, so it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I pressed up my first album right after college, pretended to be my own manager by wearing my hair in a bun and putting on glasses, walked into Tower Records and somehow managed to schmooze my way into getting them to take in 10 copies. That same week, the buyer decided to put it in their listening station, which really changed things for me as it became their best-selling indie release.

Shortly thereafter, I landed a slot with Lilith Fair and then sent my album to college radio where it received a lot of airplay and charted high enough to prompt some offers from national distributors. It was a very different music biz back then, and things like college radio and moving units at a local record store had a lot more impact, career-wise. Now it’s more about YouTube, iTunes and social networking, but for me it all started from just wanting to learn how to represent myself as professionally as possible, and to self-develop as an artist.

Uncut Magazine has described your music as “one part Elton John, one part Kate Bush.” Have these artists influenced your style? Who and what else have been influential?

I was not influenced by Kate Bush, no. I probably would’ve been if I’d been exposed to her, but I was not aware of her music until lots of people had compared me to her! Eventually I became curious a picked up a copy of The Sensual World which absolutely blew me away. I definitely heard a kindred spirit in her lyrics, but I feel our voices are quite different. Maybe the fact that we both have dance backgrounds prompted the comparisons, I’m not sure. I’m always flattered by them, though!

I was much more aware of Elton John through his massive radio hits, and would definitely say that he and even more so, Billy Joel, was an influence. I would play his music by ear – anything/everything in the Top 40 really – and in general in junior high school I gravitated toward music from the 70’s like Carole King, Cat Stevens and James Taylor. In high school I discovered Elvis Costello whose music inspired me enormously, and all throughout I was listening to tons of Classical music via my ballet classes. My biggest influence, hands-down, has been The Beatles. When I first really dug into their music around age 11, my brain exploded and the possibilities of what one could do with pop music literally seemed endless. Since then my influences have been too numerous and eclectic to name here, but I’ve been equally inspired by classical, pop, blues, folk and even old-fashioned theatrical music especially from Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly films. Anything with great lyrics and a killer melody, and I’m bound to appreciate it!

How did the Sequins come together?

I met each of the fine players in The Sequins in NYC, in the last few years. My wonderful violinist, Kelly Halloran, was first introduced to me through my label-mate Seth Glier, who grew up with her in Massachusetts. Ward Williams, our cellist/electric guitarist, was in another band prior called Jump Little Children of which I was a huge fan, but I didn’t realize that when I met him or I’d have been pretty starstruck! We first chatted after a mutual friend’s gig – Alex Wong – and I was so impressed by his beautiful playing with Alex that I shamelessly said, “hey, I’d love to play with you…do you have a card?” We’ve been playing together ever since! Drummer Andy Mac is the most recent member of our band, and I met him a long time ago but only as a fellow singer-songwriter. I have Facebook to thank for introducing me to his amazing drumming skills via a handful of videos posted on his page, and after I realized what a kick-ass drummer he was, I invited him to play with us and I can easily say he’s the most dynamically sensitive player I’ve ever worked with. They’re all great people I love being around, which makes playing and touring together an absolute pleasure!

Photo Credit: Tom Moore

Photo Credit: Tom Moore

What have been some highlights of performing live?

Many of my favorite live performance experiences have been in Europe. I had the incredible opportunity a while back to tour with the great Eric Burdon & The Animals throughout Germany and Austria, which was just a wild and eye-opening adventure! He has lived through and forged so much rock ‘n roll history, and the opportunity to be around a legend like that, to watch and learn still sticks in my mind as one of my favorite experiences. I’ve also really appreciated the opportunity to play in Japan – which was such an entirely different culture, and a very humbling experience to not have anyone around us speak any English. The cities I played in were all beautiful and fascinating in different ways, and I hope some day to go back!

What was the experience like of performing at Lilith Fair? What was that era for you like musically?

I was invited to perform at Lilith Fair in 1999 after winning a local NYC talent search contest they hosted, at The Westbeth Theater in the West Village. Of course it was a ridiculously exciting experience, not only to open the show itself (I was the first act on) but also to meet Sarah McLachlan and so many other artists I admired, including Suzanne Vega and Sandra Bernhard, who’ve both inspired me a great deal. Musically, I think I was definitely striving to expose my emotions in a much more hyper-personal way then than I am apt to now; I was so full of angst and, as one is after college, eager to share all the novel ideas I believed I had, spiritually, politically and otherwise. I was very idealistic – so I guess it was the perfect time to be playing my first festival!

From your experience, how has the treatment of heterosexual cisgender women and LGBTQ people in folk and adult alternative music changed since then?

That’s a very interesting question, that honestly, I’m not sure I have an answer to. I’ve always been very openly bisexual, but on the other hand I’ve never been overly focused on sexuality or my sexual preference at all, as a creative artist; I’m a pretty private individual. So generally, it’s rarely come up unless I’ve brought it up myself – for instance volunteering to play an LGBTQ benefit or a Pride event. I have composed plenty of songs informed by my experiences with women, but as a songwriter I’ve always aimed to write songs with which anyone can identify so it hasn’t always been obvious (apparently!). Conversely, there have been songs of mine that have been written about a man who my lesbian listeners have assumed were about a woman and I’ve always just been happy if people found resonance with my work, period, as human beings who love other human beings. Many of my songs aren’t even about me or my life at all, versus based on fiction or a film or a friend’s experience but I think ultimately the “treatment” of artists tends to reflect social bias in general….so I’m sure you could find examples galore of ways in which bias has affected careers adversely; that’s a big part of why I remained indie though admittedly. I wanted to be less reactive and more in control of how I put myself out here (no pun intended). For me, it always just boils down to the music: am I making the best possible records I can make, and am I putting my heart and soul into each live show. I think if you do your job well and respect that everyone in this community of musicians – whether straight or LGBT – has the same goal of self-expression, there are no limits whatsoever anymore in terms of how far you can go as an indie artist. Music is music, and that’s why it’s such an incredible space for all voices to be heard!

In what ways is your music feminist?

I think my music is necessarily feminist because it aims to celebrate the female experience, while also acknowledging our vulnerabilities and that we can derive strength from the entire range of female expression and emotion. I grew up distinctly fearing that certain qualities I had as a woman were weak or inappropriate or just not fit to be emphasized. My work is all about individuality and creativity and striving to find what it is in each of us that is both uniquely ourselves, and worth sharing with and celebrating in each other.

For me, music had been incredibly healing especially because I was badly bullied as a child, by other young girls. The behavior was either completely ignored by teachers or encouraged by parents, and the fact that I was at an all girl school made it hard for me to trust other women until I went to college and realized the girl-culture I experienced was not exactly the norm. Feminism and the concept of supporting and nurturing other women through the arts was something I grew into in my 20’s, and as a member of several female music collectives, I have continued to learn more about how we can support rather than compete with each other are women, in music and the broader entertainment industry.

I love being a part of the organization Women In Music, for instance, and have also been a member of such groups as Indiegrrl and GoGirls Music, as well as an artist salon called UrbanMuse comprised of NY-based female singer-songwriters. All of these groups have helped me get and keep my bearings not only as a female/feminist artist, but as an artist, period. I hope that sense of empathy and compassion in general comes through in my work, even when it’s exploring darker themes.

You and several other musicians collaborated to raise funds for homeless youth. Kudos to you all! How did that endeavor come about?

Well, we’ve been releasing charity compilations on my label MPress Records for a number of years. The fourth volume of the compilation series “New Arrivals” benefits National Network For Youth, primarily because as New Yorkers it’s impossible to not be acutely aware of the homelessness problem throughout our city. I also happen to live right next to a homeless shelter, so when the topic came up re: which charity to pick, it just seemed like we should try to do something around homelessness. My tour manager and I visited the offices of NN4Y in Washington, D.C. on tour, really admired what they were doing, and they were eager to have us become involved through our efforts.

With what other activist causes are you involved?

Through my label MPress Records and individually, I have been involved in fundraising for World Hunger Year (founded by Harry Chapin), NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association), Habitat For Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, and a handful of local NYC organizations that continue to assist those affected by Hurricane Sandy. You can read more about our charity compilation series at

I was touched by your writing about the definition of a home ( What places feel like home to you these days?

I feel most at home in New York City, my literal home, but I also feel very at ease in Dublin, Ireland, San Francisco, CA, and Boston, MA. I also really like London, where I am currently!

What was it like collaborating with Dar Williams on “Invisible Light” on your 2012 album, “Haunted by You?”

Dar Williams is just such a delightfully down to earth and warm person, you almost forget what an extraordinary artist she is until she opens her mouth to sing! She came over to my home studio very well prepared, and sang the song “Invisible Light” in just a few passes. She was very generous with her ideas, and kept the mood playful and light. Honestly, it felt like we were just hanging out chatting and laughing, and then suddenly the track was done as it was time to go have a coffee together. It’s a day I will certainly never forget!!

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

“New Destination” is your 11th album. Congrats! The record seems to possess a different sonic feel than many of your earlier records. It also seems like there is a different energy. What do you make of the differences and similarities between these songs and your earlier ones?

Thank you! New Destination is actually my first EP of previously unrecorded material, i.e. a short-form recording of only four tracks. (My 11th full album isn’t coming out until Fall 2014). I decided to release these four tunes because once I’d written the title-track, it felt like this group of songs just belonged together and I wanted to share them right away especially as I’d been playing them all already live. New Destination was musically inspired by Carole King’s song I Feel The Earth Move, which I heard on Broadway last year in the musical “Beautiful.” So it has a very positive, uptempo energy and lyrically I wrote it for a good friend who was going through a tough breakup…but it could really be about anyone just trying to shift their perspective and make some kind of a change. It came out in the Spring, and I definitely think it was a good seasonal sentiment! In terms of the other tracks on the EP I think they all explore some aspect of transformation, and hopefully, a feeling that there’s a glimmer of light at the end of even the coldest, darkest tunnel.

What was it like making this album? What was your favorite track to record? The most challenging?

Of course I loved recording all of these tracks, but I think my favorite was Wax, because it’s just a very different kind of groove for me. Doug Yowell played the drums, and he has such a brilliant sense of dynamics. We recorded it as a duo, just me on piano and him playing drums live, and then we built the rest of the tune around that foundation. It’s also the first song I ever played electric guitar on, so that was a blast!

My favorite song on the album is “Misery’s Grace.” What is the story behind that song?

I wrote Misery’s Grace for an old friend of mine who lost his wife to cancer. I first learned of his loss on Facebook, as we’d been out of touch for several years, and the outpouring of love and support was staggering, but also clearly, not much consolation for this man who seemed to have had a Hollywood Movie-esque romance with his true soul mate, who left this earth inexplicably to soon. The song is a tribute to their relationship, and the only way I knew how to reach out to my friend, to show him he was in my thoughts and I understood his enormous loss.

“I’m not Leaving You” was written based on the reactions to the death of Cory Monteith. What was it like recording this song? Have you played it live?

I actually wrote the song from what I imagined was his girlfriend’s perspective, earlier in their relationship. I tried to put myself in her (Leah Michelle’s) place emotionally, and to imagine what it must be like to be so young, talented, in love and under so much constant pressure from the media. It’s a song about loyalty, about braving the elements – whatever they may be – together and essentially, loving someone unconditionally in spite of any and all obstacles. I dated someone in my early 20’s who struggled with addiction, and while it’s easy for me to look back now and question my choices or my willingness to stick with that person in spite of my need for sobriety, the fact is I loved him deeply and in many other ways we were beautifully alike. Losing someone to substance abuse it’s just about the most painful experience I can imagine…so the song was my attempt to capture what I imagine must have been a very strong bond between two much-beloved talents, one of whom we lost tragically too soon.

If you could cover any song, what would be?

I can cover any song! Who’s going to stop me? 🙂 I haven’t done many covers because I just tend to write so many originals, but I’ve covered songs by Neil Young, Hall & Oates, Marc Cohn, Sinead O’ Connor and a version of the song “Fame” by Irene Cara, among others. I’ve enjoyed giving those songs my own spin, and I think it would be a positive challenge for me to cover a song by Judy Collins. I only grew up aware of her cover versions of songs like Both Sides Now and Send In The Clowns because she had such big hits with her versions of them; but her own songwriting is really extraordinary, and her piano playing has such a gorgeous flow to it…I think I should definitely attempt to cover some of her music, especially since she’s been such a wonderful supporter of mine!

Photo Credit: Bill Bernstein

Photo Credit: Bill Bernstein

You have also acted and danced. In your experience, how do these art forms compare to making music?

I think acting and dance are both much more about what’s happening physically and emotionally…what you’re able to summon to project onto your own personal canvas to help tell a story or convey a feeling. That canvas is some combination of one’s body, one’s sense of musicality (even with acting), and one’s personal voice i.e. character. You’re using yourself as the vessel to do all of that and it takes years of training and some degree of intuition and ‘talent’ to be a great actor or dancer. I loved the training that acting and dancing required, and I know that the discipline and endurance I learned from both continue to inform my approach to music. But the main difference has been that as a composer I am also my own director. I choose my material, I choose whether or not to improvise or stick to a set list, and of course I get to do all my own ‘casting’. What I miss sometimes about dance is the sheer ability to let go, and not be in one’s head. Dancers are so intelligent – they have to be to govern their bodies so meticulously and to absorb choreography as they do; but there is a feeling of getting lost entirely in the dance itself or even the language of a play written by someone centuries ago that is very different from the adrenaline rush of playing music. I try to include aspects of my dance and theatre backgrounds in my live performances, but it’s true often wish that I could still perform on pointe or go join a Broadway production! I would appreciate being part of an ensemble in a much different way now I think, now that I’ve forced myself to learn all facets of composing, performing and producing. I think it might be somewhat of a relief to immerse myself in a character and be part of someone else’s fantasy world for a while! Never say never…

On what projects are you working next?

I am currently completing my 11th album, “Blue Roses”, and am so excited that it’s almost finished after over a year of working on it!

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

The best advice I never received was to get a regular gig, and shed, shed, shed until you know who you are, what you do best, and how to connect with an audience. I wrote songs nearly all of my life, and I wanted to be an entertainer so badly, but I really didn’t have much experience outside my own living room or school talent shows before I got my first big break, opening for Ani DiFranco. It was a bit of trial-by-fire and looking back, I really wasn’t ready. Much of the time I’d been working so hard to create recorded versions of my music and get them as perfect as possible, I kind of forget about the live performance side, which was when I decided to start touring my tuchus off so I’d get better just by doing it. But I do wish someone had told me the virtues of playing for ten people at a local coffeehouse, every week, early on. There’s so much to learn just by experimenting and making mistakes…which I was always so afraid to do. Embrace your mistakes, and relish the process! And don’t be in such a rush. Music isn’t going anywhere, if it’s truly your passion. But the people and things happening around you are more transient; take the time to be part of your community, to go hear other artists, and to hang out with good people. It will all make you who you are, which is your #1 asset: your point-of-view.


Interview: David Lerner of Trummors!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing the David Lerner of Trummors, a talented duo formed by he and songwriter Anne Cunningham. According to a bio sent to us by the band, they begun in 2010 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in New York City. The two multi-instrumentalists focus on acoustic instrumentation, incorporating harmonium, fingerstyle guitar, and close-harmony dual vocals into their warm sound. Early on in the group’s existence, David and Anne moved from Brooklyn to the considerably calmer surroundings of Woodstock in upstate New York.

Trummors’ debut album, Over and Around the Clove, was released in 2012 and reflected their recent change of scenery with its lushly earthy songs and slightly psychedelic filter on a ’70s pop sound. Moorish Highway, just released on 6/17/14, is the follow-up to their first LP, and significantly expands on the country-folk duo format of their debut.

Calling on a expanded cast of talented backing players including drummer Otto Hauser (Vetiver), guitarist Kevin Barker (Johanna Newsom), bassist James Preston (Zachary Cale), and pedal steel guitarist Marc Orleans (D. Charles Speer and the Helix), Moorish Highway was recorded at The Drawing Room in Kingston, NY by Justin Rice (Bishop Allen), and mixed by Eli Walker at Isokon in Woodstock, NY.

While Trummors’ signature harmonium drones and close vocal harmonies remain, the duo visit new sonic territory as well: “Bogus Bruce” chugs along with a metronomic groove, while “Strangers From Now On” nods to classic Merseybeat. A spare version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”, long a staple of the duo’s live set, rounds out a dynamic sophomore effort inspired by the singer-songwriter era, but from a point of view that is all Trummors’ own.

David is also known to some folks for his years of work with Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. Before reading David’s reflections to our questions that follow (and some music as well!), check out their video for the song, “Vigil.”


How did you decide to form “Trummors” and how was the name of the band chosen?

Anne and I both wrote songs when we met, and sometimes we’d sing them together, though usually only late-night and after drinking way too much whiskey. A few years ago, we were house sitting for some friends in Ithaca, NY and recorded some demos on a reel to reel 4 track, with me on guitar and Anne keeping time on a kick drum made from a suitcase and snare. We liked how those stripped down recordings sounded, so Trummors evolved from there as we continued to write, record, and bring in other friends to accompany us. The name is the Swedish word for drummers. I saw it a while ago on the back of an LP by a 60s Swedish band called The Tages and thought it would make a good band name at some point. It seemed to suit us, given the diminutive drum set (aka “trum-set”) that we started out using.

I enjoy the way your voices harmonize especially on the song, “Hearts for the Trump.” How do you work together to create music?

“Hearts for the Trump” was an anomaly in that Anne wrote the verse and I wrote the chorus separately, and they happened to fit together with some minor changes. Usually, one of us writes an entire song and then we’ll get together and play it a few different ways until we arrive at a key, tempo and arrangement that feels right. If we’re lucky, the vocal harmonies come intuitively, if not, we’ll go over each of our vocal parts note for note, which can easily end in fits of frustration. On the new record we wrote a lot of the songs with specific musicians in mind, but didn’t actually hear the songs that way until the recording was happening. In the future we’d like to write with a band present because imagining full arrangements while writing as a duo created a bit of a disconnect on this last record.

In what ways is your music feminist?

We’re invested in feminist theory and art as critique for sure, but a lot of the music we dig is not always the most politically progressive. Country music and feminist politics make for strange bedfellows! We are feminists, but our lyrics are not feminist in an overt way—our songs don’t reflect a conventional feminist identity politics, for example. We don’t participate in the typical guy-girl mode of songwriting that takes cliché gender divisions for granted either—and that’s a big part of what I think is feminist about our music—we’re opposed to reinforcing stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity.

Who and what have been your most significant creative influences?

In an effort to not bore the reader name checking dudes like Bob Dylan and The Flying Burrito Brothers I’ll just list a few highlights from the past year: P.G. Six’s rendition of “Ashokan Farewell.” Bill Keith playing banjo every Thursday night in Woodstock, NY. Doug Paisley performing for roughly six people in Hudson, NY when there should have been many more. William Tyler’s set at St. Pancras Old Church in London, and Leonard Cohen’s show in Brighton, UK was pretty incredible too. Steve Gunn’s latest record “Time Off” was on repeat, and Zachary Cale’s ”Blue Rider” is his best yet —this winter we listened to a lot of Bridget St. John, particularly her record “Jumble Queen”, and also got alarmingly deep into Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira.”

What inspired your move from Greenpoint in Brooklyn, NY to Woodstock, NY? How are those places similar and different creatively?

Greenpoint is a fine neighborhood and still feels like home in many ways, but after living there for many years we were ready for a change. We found a great place upstate at a time when it seemed like a good idea to leave the city, so we did it spontaneously, and for the most part we’re happy that we did. Creatively there are some trade-offs: with the exception of the exceptional drummer Otto Hauser, the musicians we play with all live in New York City, so that introduces some inconvenience. But we’ve found the speed here to be way more conducive to making music, and we’ve been fortunate to get recording help from friends we’ve met since moving—we’re thankful that we have such talented & generous friends around!

On especially your debut album, “Over and Around The Clove” you write and sing about places (e.g., Knoxville and Salinas). How does a sense of geography affect your work?

Both of the songs you mention reference geography but they’re more about people situated in specific contexts than the physical qualities of a place itself like the landscape or climate, for example. Establishing the right setting lends a song mood and dimension, and hopefully makes it memorable. Our songs draw on some personal experiences of travel, but they’re not meant to be an exact account.

Your style has been termed country folk. How do you characterize the music that you make?

We’re influenced by a lot of country and folk bands and singer-songwriters, so country folk is an apt characterization of our sound. But in spirit I think we have more in common with our friends and peers in the rock, psych-folk, drone, and experimental worlds than we do with the affected country, new folk and Americana that’s become so popular in the past few years.

Which song would you most of all wish to cover?

Good question, there are so many! Right now, it would probably be “She Don’t Care About Time” by The Byrds. Anne and I are both major Gene Clark fans, and that song is an early example of his phenomenally great songwriting. Lately, we’ve also been performing a song called “Hearts” by Ian Matthews off his 1971 record “If You Saw Thro My Eyes.” Ian Matthews is best known as a skillful interpreter of other people’s material, but he also wrote a handful of beautiful songs of his own, so it’d be nice to call attention to his original work by recording a version of it.

You have a great way of telling stories and portraying people in songs. What is the narrative behind “Tilden?”

Fort Tilden is a popular New York City beach, but the song “Tilden” was inspired by a solo trip out that way for work, not pleasure. The character the narrator encounters in that song was based on a real guy I met who was selling his record collection to the store I worked for, and chose that occasion to become wistful and reflective about his life to a total stranger, that stranger being me. He told me he had always dreamed of living the real “big city” life, being a famous DJ, having a loft in SoHo (which should give some indication of how dated his reference points were), but ended up spending most of his time in basement apartment in Gravesend, Brooklyn, fixing junk. Somehow selling his records was his way of letting go of that dream and squaring with reality, which sounds depressing, but in reality was more matter of fact. Come to think of it, “Bogus Bruce” was inspired by another junk store dweller, so I guess I’m drawn to writing about solitary people living amongst old objects. There’s some kind of pathos and humor amidst the bleakness there.

On what projects are you working on currently?

We’re about to spend a few months in Taos, New Mexico, where we are psyched to write another record, among other things. So our current project is preparing for that move.

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Anne recently finished a long writing project on the topic of failure, so I’m tempted to quote Samuel Beckett’s oft-repeated injunction “fail again, fail better.” Yet, I’d ultimately rather see aspiring musicians succeed on their own terms than fail on anyone else’s. Unless I hate them-ha!


Interview: Nancylee Myatt!

Underneath This had the enjoyable and informative experience of interviewing Nancylee Myatt. Please read more about Nancylee before proceeding to the interview that follows.

Nancylee Myatt became a television writer on the advice of a casting-director friend, which prompted an odyssey that would take her from her early days on the television program, Night Court, where she had the honor of writing the series finale, to an NAACP award for her work on Living Single, to co-executive producer, writer and director on the network teen drama South of Nowhere.

Indeed, Nancylee has spent more than a decade writing and producing for prime-time television. She is quite knowledgeable of an experienced in what it takes to get a television show from the page to the screen, but developing a series for the web was a novel frontier for her – one that has been a sure success. For more information about the groundbreaking series, Nikki & Nora, that Nancylee has created, please visit .

Recently, Nancylee co-wrote with Ralph Macchio a pilot for ABC Family called “Cupidity.” Her other internet credits include break-out and award-winning web-series 3Way, and the all girl western comedy, Cowgirl Up.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and about Nikki & Nora. Before I start rambling about myself I’d like to say that this labor of love, this little engine that could, this series about a couple of young women who love each other and solve crimes in New Orleans, which started as leaked network pilot and became an internet obsession and lighting rod for the lesbian community, took a village to reboot and produce this new series.

And it would not exist without the faithful fans and amazing producing team, who I’d like to give a shout-out to at the top: Executive Producer Christin Mell and her partners at These women know their way around the World Wide Web and how to promote and use social media like no other. I bow to their wizardry and producing skills.

Executive Producer Paige Bernhardt. Paige is my partner in our production company, MyHardt productions. Paige and I have a similar network television writing and producing background. And we’ve collaborated for the last couple of decades on scripts, plays, series and webseries. It always helps to have someone who knows you very well and can call you on your stuff.

Co-Executive Producers Liz Vassey and Christina Cox. Liz and Christina were Nikki & Nora in the original network pilot 10 years ago. They have both had successful acting carriers and have been branching out produce and write for network television and film, as well. Having them back, recreating the roles that meant so much to all of us has been beyond spectacular.

We are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with…


What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

Bad Acting… mine. Like so many other theater geeks, I was drawn to being on stage. Plus I was a class clown. You know the drill of High School; gotta be sporty or funny if you’re not going be a cheerleader or voted onto the Homecoming Court. So I went to college as a theater major. And pre-law, as my parents were big fans for having a Plan B. After graduation, my freshly minted actor friends and I moved to Hollywood and started making some noise. My writing career path was set by one of my best friends, Cecily Adams. She was an actress, comedienne and casting director. And after a bunch of years of watching me trying to get a break and working with me as an actress (I had good timing, but zero memorization skills) she said to me, “Nancylee you suck as an actress. But the shit you write for us is great.” Career Path 101. Happily I was in a good place to hear this, and trusted her and my other friends. I focused on writing and never looked back.

Initially, you wrote for Night Court, one of my favorite series from that era. What was that experience like? I really enjoyed the season finale that you were involved in writing.

Thank you. The premise of the series finale – Dan dreams all the women he wronged put him on trial – had been a card on the board in the Night Court writer’s room for years. It was great timing and luck of the draw that allowed writer Elaine Aronson and I to share the two-part finale.

Night Court was my first job on a network comedy. I had been a writer’s assistant for several years – a great path to writing TV, by the way. And when one of my former writer/producer bosses, Chris Cluess & Stu Kreisman, got hired to run Night Court they asked me if I’d like to come on board as a staff writer. Life changing. I’m forever grateful, and still in contact with most of the staff I worked with for the last two seasons of the series.

What was it like working on “Living Single”? I liked that program as well and perceive that era in television history as uniquely representative of the great diversity, especially of people of color, in the United States. How do you see the present landscape in this regard?

I came to Living Single in its final season. It was a well-oiled machine, and they had done some amazing groundbreaking television. Lucky me, I did get to share in an NAACP Award for their final season. But that path was paved long before I got there. Living Single also launched a lot of careers in front of the camera, and at the writer’s table. I’m lucky to have been a tiny bit of their history and success.

Diversity has always been at the front of most of the shows that I’ve created or been able to influence. When I started, a person could qualify as being “a diversity hire” for just being a woman. And I’m also a Native American, which I had to prove, by the way. You think any other race would put up with that? Having to show a card that says you have a “qualifying” bloodline and percentage. It’s a little Westminster Dog Show if you ask me. Anyway, the production companies got to use my name on two diversity reports. Thank goodness I didn’t have to prove I was a woman, cuz that would have been an awkward meeting.

I think the TV landscape looks better now, much better. And I’d like to give most of the credit to my mentor, Norman Lear. He was way out ahead of everyone with diversity. Race, religion, economic. He made people pay attention to faces and life experiences that weren’t their own. And he did it because his shows were some of the best on television at the time. Write and produce a great show, with the stories that people relate to and root for, and you’ll find, that even if they don’t look like you, or sound like you, or even might love someone of the same sex, you’ll get an audience. And at the end, maybe your show will influence that person’s perception of diversity and the world.

Just a side note: It’s an interesting path we television writers take. Or truthfully, get handed to us. In most scenarios, before you’re a creator or producer and creating your own opportunities, you are a yeoman writer trying to fill a spot at the table. Most creator/writers bring some of the staff with them, people they had worked with and trust and knew what skills they brought. And after that, they fill in the other spots with writers (they hope) who will bring a unique voice or something that’s missing from the mix. And some producer/writers inherit a staff or the network or studio will influence the hiring.

So your career can be this – If your first job is Friends you are set for life, open doors, everyone wants you because they believe you had something to do with the huge success. Or instead of a hit that runs 10 years, you get on a new show that does 6 episodes or one season and out. Then you’re back on the street looking for the next job. I actually worked on the series Jennifer Aniston did before Friends. It was called Muddling Through. Great show, amazing writers who went onto other notable series. But for the most part – very few people remember Jennifer in that one…

Any career in show business is not for the faint of heart. I teach writing and TV production occasionally, and I always tell my students, if there is anything else, that you like or want to do – do it. Because there is no solid path to success in the entertainment business. But if it’s the only thing you see yourself doing, go for it. And again, from my personal experience, be open, as it may not end up looking like you thought it would.

What was the impetus to create the web series, “Nikki & Nora?”

There is no one thing that motivated us to reboot Nikki & Nora for the web. I think it was this perfect storm of a great show that never was, the fans who saw themselves in this couple and refused to let it go away, the changes in programming and diversity in mainstream television, combined with the power of the internet that opened the door for us to revisit it.

The rights of the original project had returned to me and I was thinking about a book series. I was also producing another webseries called 3Way, with Paige Bernhardt and Maeve Quinlan, who I was working with on South of Nowhere. 3Way was a comedy that made a lot of noise on the Internet. It was ahead of its time in that in addition to creating smaller 10-minute webisodes and content, we were also producing half hour episodes just like network television. Within 3Way we had also created some silly spin-off series, shows within the show. One was a soap opera called “Young Doctors Who Cry.” And the other was called “Lady Cops.”

I asked Liz and Christina if they would come and spoof their characters in Lady Cops. They played Mikki & Laura, cops who were partners, who may or may not be involved with each other. That was our way of letting the faithful Nikki & Nora fan base know we were thinking about them. When they responded to the spoof, we knew that they were still there. Waiting. Ready to make it happen. Yet it took 5 more years for us to find that crazy timing of everyone being available to come together to make it happen.


This series has made history by being the first to have been re-conceptualized for exclusive distribution online. From your point of view, how has technology affected television production and viewing?

First of all, I’d like to repeat what you just said – “This series has made history by being the first to have been re-conceptualized for exclusive distribution online.”

Can we get a round of applause!? The Veronica Mars movie was crowd-funding at the same time we were last year. Their fans wanted more of a TV series they identified with, that they felt went off the air too soon. The VM team raised millions when their fan base rallied. Meanwhile, we were reaching out to an “underground” fanbase that refused to let the idea of Nikki & Nora die. They were emotionally involved with Nikki & Nora and hoping for the resurrection of a show that never aired on network television.

When Nikki & Nora first appeared on the Internet it was at the time when YouTube was just finding its way. People realized they could create entertainment or take existing video and edit it into something that spoke to them. That represented them. When I say Underground Fanbase, I mean that they took a bootlegged DVD of the network pilot of Nikki & Nora and shared it across the web universe. Which launched tons of love letter type music videos to Nikki & Nora, all cut from the original 37-minute pilot. Which then spawned tens of thousands of pages of fanfiction about their favorite New Orleans couple, Nikki & Nora. And let’s just give credit where it belongs — It sure didn’t hurt to have the beautiful and talented Liz Vassey and Christina Cox representing a crime fighting couple that just happens to be gay.

It’s an amazing story. And I can say that because I had nothing to do with it. While we remained very close, Liz, Christina and I had moved on, off to other projects and shows, as it the nature of our business. Nikki & Nora is alive and back again, because of the fans who longed for more of their story.

The Internet and “created for web” content, has changed the way creators get to tell their stories. We don’t have to go through the studio system and the lottery that is the development and pilot process. Or the advertiser driven decision-making that occurs with network television. The end result of doing a web series is that the vision we have is not changed to fit a network demographic. It lets the audience that show was made for find it in its purest form. Now that being said, an Internet-based show is, many times, expected to rise to the levels of network television show. Which is an unfair scale. Because most of the time, as with Nikki & Nora, we had one tenth of a network budget.

When “Nikki and Nora” was first created, it would have been the first lesbian-themed drama series on television. What were barriers to the show being aired then?

The political climate in 2004 was very conservative at the time. The Christian Right was very vocal with regard to TV, Films, Music, etc., which they felt was adding to the corruption of America’s moral fiber. The network and studio behind Nikki & Nora had taken a lot of hits that year from the FCC, so they weren’t ready to ask their advertisers to back a project that had a potential target on it’s back in a George W. Bush America.

After Nikki & Nora I went on to write and produce South of Nowhere for creator Tom Lynch, and had done an article for about the show focusing on two teenage girls falling love. And then got promptly called on the carpet by the “N” now teen Nick, which was an MTV network where the show was going to air. Apparently, the Christian Right had me on their hit list or watch list or burn the witch list, who knows… But the network was concerned about negative “gay agenda” publicity on a kid’s network. So Lynch and I agreed that he should do all interviews going forward. He created the show. And Tommy is an Irish Catholic father of four boys. Which made it hard for the haters to find an agenda. It made him the perfect person to talk about this story of “love is love.”

With the explosion of cable networks and now web-based entertainment, I no longer believe that the executives are afraid of “controversial” programming. In fact, niche programming and aiming for a smaller demographic is what is building these networks. But, as long as the Broadcast Networks have to answer to advertisers to pay for programming they will always try to program to the middle and a more conservative audience.

Approximately nine years elapsed between the initial development of the series and the online airing. In the interim, what changed for the media representation of LGBTQ+ people and communities?

I’m not the most informed person to answer this question. GLAAD may be your better source for the actual facts and figures, because the majority of my television work does not focus on the GLBTQ community. But again, I always try to make sure that there is a lot of diversity in the shows I create or can influence. I do think that the wider range of entertainment outlets have helped to promote and find homes for more GLBTQ programming. Yet, with the exception of The Fosters on ABC Family, who has a lesbian couple at the head of a family, there is still no adult mainstream show with a lesbian couple as the primary leads. So you would think that Nikki & Nora should have been able to find a home on the networks that program more comfort food procedurals like Castle or Rizzoli and Isles – who contrary to popular belief and audience pandering, those girls are not a couple.

From your perspective, what needs to be different regarding the media portrayal of other minority groups?

As I mentioned before, I think telling a compelling, relatable story cast with the multi-ethnic faces of this nation and world will do the best for visibility and acceptance.

The main characters on “Nikki and Nora” seem realistic. How do you maintain that characterization over time?

Write what you know. Or at the very least, draw or jump off from your own experience. I try to remain authentic to the characters I’ve created, their voices, and how they react in various situations. And I’m a gay woman, who has been in a long relationship, and recently legally married. So I can at speak to the same-sex issues, but I can also speak to the stuff that all couples go through, like nesting and relationship issues. And in my case, this insane drive to remodel and reinvent every house I’ve owned. Instead of @ishakeitup my Twitter name should be @MrsWinchester. (Kudos for those of you who know her twisted story) But I give Liz and Christina the credit for taking my script and these characters and making them their own. With their own rhythms, and humor and pathos. And like any good actor, they are also drawing from their own true-life experiences and finding the touchstones from their life that they can draw from to make it grounded, real and relatable.

How did you decide to set the series in New Orleans?

I set the show in New Orleans because it was a city that I had spent a lot of time in with my family. It was also my favorite place to run to: to play, write and be inspired. It’s a city with a rich history and culture. A city of darkness and light. A city with it’s own voice and look. My mother called it “The Paris of America.” It’s also America’s original party town and has always been a place were the gay community gathered. New Orleans was perfect home for Nikki & Nora.

I’ve said before, that most writer/producers who are shooting cities and locations that have big personalities like to say that their city is also a “character” in the show. I think a successful example of that was what show runner Michael Patrick King did with Sex and the City. He was telling stories and hitting themes for his characters that had were unique to Manhattan. And that’s the way I’ve approached Nikki & Nora in both incarnations.

Were there any other shows or films that influenced “Nikki & Nora?”

The shows I grew up on, those light mystery shows that spent as much time with the main characters or couples at home, as they did with them solving the crime of the week. Like Hart to Hart, McMillian & Wife, The Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Charlie’s Angels, and Moonlighting.

And for me personally, my parents were the original inspiration of what a great couple looked like. They were sexy, funny, hard-working and passionate. They were generous whether they were flat or flush. They were each other’s best friends and partners in crime. They loved New Orleans and never missed a chance to live life large and out loud.

Were there any unexpected moments regarding the fundraising campaign for the series?

I think for me, and probably the actors who play Nikki & Nora, Liz Vassey and Christina Cox, it was the fanfiction writers who surprised us. There were about half a dozen N&N fic writers who were rather well-known in those circles, and they ignited the conversation and campaign with pod casts, a Nikki & Nora panel at fanfic convention, posting the information on fanfic pages and boards, and talked about it in the chat rooms. They invited us to do interviews and told us how much N&N meant to them. And when we launched the Indiegogo page with a video from Liz and Christina speaking directly to the fans, things moved very quickly and the money started to come. While we didn’t ask for the kind of cash that Veronica Mars did, we did raise 30% more than our goal.

Several of the fanfiction writers who helped us with the campaign, and are running one of the Nikki & Nora tumblr pages, came to set and worked on the shoot. In addition to the efforts of the fanfic community, we also had some amazing supporters, who are also now friends, who gave substantial donations to project. We got to spend some time with them during the process, as well. All of this was just another confirmation that we were doing something meaningful. And serving an audience that still wasn’t seeing themselves enough in mainstream television.

It seems like perfect symmetry to have a series that was kept alive on the Internet, rise from the network television ashes to become a show just for the web.

Overall, what have been the most surprising commercial and critical responses to the series?

The funniest critical response we received was that the fans wanted more kissing between Nikki & Nora in the show. All I can say is that we are writing a couple that’s been together for 10 years, and we tried to create a very realistic view of a couple still in love and very comfortable with the rhythms of their life together. However, we will take it under advisement for the next season.

The most frustrating critical response was that several people complained about the $4.99. monthly subscription to I usually respond with, “For the price of buying a beer you are getting original programming created just for you. As well as, all the other great series on tellofilms. And if we don’t pay the bills we can’t make and broadcast new content.”

On what other writing and television projects are you working?

Most of us who worked on the webseries of Nikki & Nora, cast, producers, crew, etc., are also working in network and cable television, doing the same jobs we did on Nikki & Nora. So we’ve returned to others shows and/or out pitching and writing new projects.

I’ve got three new scripts going out to various networks. And I’m working with very prolific producers and directors on each. I don’t want to jinx anything by giving too many details, but I’ll tell you that each project is very different. And yet they are right in my wheelhouse, speaking to the audiences that have followed me before. For the young adult audience there is a comedy and a genre drama. And for the grown ups there’s a female driven family drama with a procedural element and a dark twist. Stay Tuned…

What insights do you have for aspiring writers?

I think I covered some of this when I was talking about my path to writing television. But one thing that is really simple and a call to action is that “Writers write.” Whether it’s a TV script or screenplay, articles for magazines or news outlets, novels or short stories, poetry, song lyrics, or fanfiction. It’s not enough to talk about writing, you have to sit down and make it happen. Visualize your future, work for anyone who will let you get the experience in the field that you want to work in. Treat it as your job and give yourself a daily schedule, a page count or a goal.

I heard somewhere that Stephen King writes at least ten pages a day. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s a lot, whether it’s a novel or a teleplay. When I’m on a deadline I use that as a goal to keep me in the chair. And sometimes I like to change-up my writing location – change my POV and hear some different voices. When I’m home in New Orleans there are a couple of local watering holes in my neighborhood that are cool with me taking over a booth and working for a few hours. We actually shot a scene in one of them, Tracey’s Bar, with Nikki & Nora sitting in the booth, which they called their Satellite Office, where I wrote most of the script. Kind of Meta, don’t you think? (Yes!)

Keep writing. And then one day, things will shift. For me, I know I’m on the right road when the characters I’ve created are so well-formed that they start leading me in the direction they want to go and talking for themselves. And sometimes that happens even when I’m not enjoying a cocktail…

You can find the trailer of Nikki & Nora and all seven webisodes of the first season at:

And if you want to see where it all began, here’s a link to the original pilot of Nikki & Nora from 10 years ago. I do not take any responsibility for the putting the bootleg video up on the World Wide Web. But… Enjoy! It was ahead of it’s time, and sadly, still is.


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!

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: Amy Stroup of Sugar and the Hi Lows !

Underneath This had the enjoyable experience of interviewing Amy Stroup, a talented solo artist who is also part of the uplifting duo, Sugar and the Hi Los, with Trent Dabbs. Please read more about Sugar and the Hi Lows (adapted from before proceeding to the interview.

Sugar & The Hi Lows are bringing back the epoch of feel good music, the days when one take was sufficient and an auto-tune referred to an automobile. Created and enlivened by experienced songwriter/performers Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup, Sugar & The Hi Lows is a bit of a nostalgic love offering.

Having been raised in Mississippi under the sway of Memphis blues, Dabbs was reared to the tunes of Motown, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. “My father used to make blanket statements like, ‘It’s not good if you can’t dance to it,’” he recalls. And though he wasn’t into his father’s sonic selection at the time, he says that style of music has come to evoke a feeling he just can’t get anywhere else.

“The older that I got, I realized how that was kind of seeping into what I loved musically, and it just brings this joy, it brings this happiness,” Dabbs says. “With the climate of everything right now – with the economy – you could write the most depressing songs ever, but I really feel like the world needs light; the world needs lighthearted.”

The happy-go-lucky numbers that evolved into Sugar & The Hi Lows began to form when Dabbs obtained a vintage box amp and sat down in his basement for a regular co-write session with Stroup.

“We got talking about his dad and throwback music from the ‘50s and ‘60s and just like, ‘Why isn’t there that type of music now?’” Stroup recalls. That day, their song “This Can’t Be the Last Time” came in less than two hours. But somehow everything had changed. A new-found creative freedom had been tapped, and the subsequent seven songs for the project fell quickly into place after that.

“We weren’t really trying to treat it like a band,” explains Stroup. “We just wrote this series of songs, but they didn’t feel like an Amy Stroup song or an Amy and Trent duet. It really felt like its own thing.”

With more than 100 TV placements between the two of them, Dabbs and Stroup are certainly no strangers to pop culture, but they’ve chosen to step away from their traditional singer-songwriter sound to pursue something with more of a swing.

Please describe your trajectory to becoming musicians.

I was a self-taught guitar player as a kid, but took piano lessons from second grade on. As a kid every time I learned a new chord I would try and write a new song. I went to college in Nashville and loved the music community, so I started writing and recording. I met a lot of great people including my band mate Trent Dabbs and started trying to make great songs.

How does being in based in Nashville influence your creative process?

Nashville is a rich place for collaborating. There is a special music energy that happens here. I think its one of the best places in the world to create great songs and have them recorded by great players.

Who and what have been other creative influences?

I grew up loving the work of Stevie Nicks, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin to name a few. I remember seeing Lucinda play in Austin, Texas a few years ago and thought ‘I want to be that kick ass when I’m her age.’

How did you decide to form Sugar + the Hi-Lows?

Trent and I were actively co writing for our respective solo projects and we had released a couple of duets together. A couple ended up on Grey’s Anatomy and some other shows. We decided to challenge ourselves to write a project that evoked the same feelings we got from listening to our heroes. We listened to The Chi-Lites ‘Oh Girl’ and tried to write a bundle of songs that felt that good.

In what ways is your music feminist?

I think showing up on a stage, touring, trying to write great songs for people takes bravery and is how I am most feminist. It’s a battle of bravery to be completely yourself as a women and keep creating and moving up in an over sexualized industry. As women we need to keep showing up and writing from our truest perspective and cheering each other on to do the same.

I admire you making lighter, “feel good” music, especially in quite uncertain and scary times. How have fans reacted to your shift in sound from your solo careers?

I’ve seen on my twitter feed, people trying to decide if ‘Sugar’ is ‘Amy Stroup’. I love that. We set out to create a different & believable sound that wasn’t like our solo career, and the feedback is positive so far.

How did this sonic change come about and how do you describe your songs stylistically?

The sonic change came from a change in our writing process. We started with beats many times and an electric guitar. For Sugar songs, it’s about evoking pure joy.

I really enjoy the video for your song, “See It For Yourself” and the song itself. What was the making of that video like?

I remember going to my grandmother’s house the weekend before the shoot and looking at old Hollywood pictures. I was struck by a photo of Greta Garbo holding an umbrella. I talked to my friend Mary Hooper from Milkglass Creative and she helped gather some of the details like the black and white umbrellas and dressed me in a vintage dress she has had for years. We teamed up with our video director friend Becky Fluke. She filmed the entire video by herself. It was very much a friends and family effort which is how much of our music is made as well.

“Snow Angel” is a very beautiful song. What inspired this track and do you perform it year-round?

We both feel there is something special about that one and decided that it might be relevant year round…. We just love singing it really. I still get chills live performing it.

How does performing live compare to recording?

It’s similar in that performing live and in the studio we are trying to evoke emotion and connect with our audience. It drives us in both arenas.

Are there any shows that stand out in your career so far?

We loved this last run with our friend Ingrid Michaelson. Some standouts were playing the sold out Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for the first time and also two sold out shows in DC were great. My most unexpected favorite show was Pittsburgh. They were an incredibly loving audience interrupting us in the middle of songs with applause. We had a fan come up to us in tears to tell us never to quit music. Something sweet happened that night.

What was it like recently touring with Ingrid Michaelson?

It was better than summer camp on wheels. She is an incredible, hilarious, smart, gorgeous… there is much to learn from her. Her new album ‘Lights Out’ is stunning.

Which are some favorite songs to perform live?

I loved performing ‘See It For Yourself’ and throwing glitter, its good clean fun. I love, love, love harmonizing…so songs like ‘Show and Tell’ and the new one ‘Right Time To Tell You’ allow for it.

On what projects are you working next as Sugar + the Hi-Lows and within your solo career?

As a solo artist I released a new record called “TUNNEL” in February. I look forward to continuing to play those songs live and releasing videos for the songs. As far as Sugar, we recently played live while the Nashville Ballet danced to some of our songs and some Johnny & June Duets. We recorded the Cash songs along with some new ones and hope to release very soon as well.

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Jack White recently said, ‘Anyone who can get people to pay attention for more than a second with musical notes in this age..deserves credit & applause.’ I’d say it’s important to define your success because even two minutes of it takes much hard work …but it’s totally worth it. Our world needs more great songs…get to writing…

Interview: Bennett Madison!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Bennett Madison. Per his brief bio statement, Bennett Madison is the author of several books for young people, including September Girls, The Blonde of the Joke and the Lulu Dark Mysteries. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Please describe your path to becoming a writer.

The short version is that I was living with my parents and working in a bookstore after I didn’t quite graduate college. All my friends had graduated at the appropriate time and were mostly in New York and I was miserable. Writing fiction was the only thing I knew I was good at, so I decided that selling a book would be the answer to my problems. It turned out not to be the solution to all of my problems, but at least it did get me out of my parents’ house. (For awhile.)

How do your personal and social identities affect your writing?

I would have a hard time thinking of ways in which my personal and social identities don’t affect my writing. I don’t know… my books are actually mostly about straight people, but, even so, I think they have a pretty obvious queer sensibility. I guess some people would probably disagree that a “queer sensibility” is a thing that even exists, and I’m willing to entertain that argument. But if it does exist, I think my books have it.

How did you decide which genres to write?

My first couple of books were mysteries because I heard publishers wanted mysteries at that moment, and it seemed fun.

For the most part, though, I’m not that wrapped up in the genre thing. I just sort of write what I feel like writing and let people call it whatever genre they want to. Most of what I write usually involves some type of weird mystical bullshit so sometimes it gets categorized as fantasy, which is more than fine with me. But a lot of what I write also takes place in shopping malls, and there are a lot of people who don’t think of that as a fantasy setting.

Basically if you don’t think of the shopping mall as a good place to set a fantasy novel, you probably won’t like my books. (I just thought of that but I think it actually is a pretty good rule of thumb.)

In what ways has growing up near DC affected your creative process?

No one has ever asked me this before! I don’t know– maybe just in the sense that I have an affinity for a certain type of suburban setting?

Actually, I guess the other thing that was nice about where I grew up is that I had a city accessible to me as a teenager. I went to a lot of shows; I sometimes snuck into bars. I spent a certain amount of time standing on street-corners batting my eyelashes and hoping someone would ask me out on a date and every now and then it worked. Particularly because I write mostly about teenagers, those experiences probably inform my work and my sensibility, but I bet not any more than if I had grown up near any other major mid-sized city. DC doesn’t offer a ton of artistic inspiration. Unless you write political thrillers, I guess.

Who and what have been your primary creative influences?

Liquid eyeliner, sparklers, boys, malls, baby-sitters, skipping school, cigarettes (though I quit), sad songs, comic books, trees, weather, certain types of nightclubs. Blond hair, obviously.

In terms of writers, people like Kelly Link, Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Mark Doty, Francesca Lia Block, Ben Neihart, Cookie Mueller, Lynda Barry. I mean, I don’t know if they’re influences exactly, but I like them and sometimes I try to copy them. More recently I really adored Danielle Evans’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and Ariel Schrag’s Adam, which comes out in a month or two. But I guess I can’t really claim those as “influences” because I haven’t really written much since I read them.

Also: TV shows. Lots of music. Etc!

What has the process been like of writing from female protagonists’ (such as Lulu Dark) perspectives? What has the response been to this?

I’ve written from girls’ perspectives in several novels. It didn’t seem that hard. I wasn’t trying to say some big thing about how women think or what a woman’s perspective is; I was just trying to write from the point of view of these particular teenage girls. And while I’m not a woman, the characters were both similar and different from me in lots of ways.

Actually, writing from the point of view of a straight guy, which I did in September Girls, was kind of the hardest in some ways. (And that’s also the one people gave me the hardest time about, so.

In what ways is your writing feminist?

There are a couple of reasons that I don’t usually describe my writing as feminist.

First, I try not to have a political axe to grind with my fiction– I mean, I think that fiction is fundamentally political but I’m not usually a fan of stories that grow out of any political agenda.

Second, while I’m happy when my work is described as feminist, I don’t really think it’s my role to claim that title for myself.

Those caveats aside: I’m always interested in gender stuff, particularly when it comes to, like, gender performance, and so those things tend to show up in my books. This is probably especially true in September Girls, which has a lot to do with the narratives that are imposed on us because of our gender and the ways those narratives make us perform gender in certain ways and blah blah blah.

But it’s also a book about mythical sea creatures and sad dads and annoying moms and walking around on the beach and making out, because those are also things I’m interested in. I always have to point that.

What inspired you to write, “I Hate Valentine’s Day” and what has the response been to this book?

I Hate Valentine’s Day was a work-for-hire project, which means that someone at the publisher came up with the idea for it and then paid me to write it. In other words, I was twenty-three and I did it for the money. I don’t actually hate Valentine’s Day– in fact, I don’t really have any opinion on Valentine’s Day at all– which made it very hard to write an entire (short) book about it.

It’s not totally my favorite book I’ve ever written and I sort of wish I’d used a pen name on it, but I do think it has some funny parts. Actually I haven’t looked at it in forever, so who knows. I’m not even sure I have a copy anymore. My mom probably does, I guess.

Characters in your book, “The Blonde of the Joke” were ironically described as homophobic. What do you make of this reaction now?

The Blonde of the Joke is about two girls who do a bunch of fucked-up things. Mostly shoplifting, but they also smoke, skip school, drink alcohol. I could go on. Amidst all that bad behavior, they use the word “faggot” a couple of times, in various contexts. A few people had a real problem with that.

I guess I’m one of those annoying people who thinks that language changes meanings depending on the context. I don’t have a lot of patience for the Pee Wee Herman school of social justice, by which I mean, the thing where you make a list of hate-words and then sound the alarm any time anyone says one. The word “faggot” isn’t always homophobic, depending on who uses it and why, and there are plenty of people who manage to be complete homophobic assholes without ever uttering the word “faggot” at all. Also, I sort of hate to play this card, but I’ve been called a fag enough times in my life that it really infuriates me that anyone– especially a straight person, but really anyone– would try to tell me how I can and can’t use it myself.

I’m also annoying in the sense that I don’t think the views of a fictional character are necessarily the same as the perspective of the book they appear in. This issue came up again in a slightly different form when September Girls came out last year. The fact that several characters in the book exhibit fairly unenlightened and disrespectful attitudes about women, and use language to match those attitudes, is not only realistic in my estimation, it’s also a big part of what the book is about.

Every reader is entitled to their own interpretation when it comes to fiction. If you want to think Huckleberry Finn is a racist book because of certain words that appear in it, you can go right ahead. But just because you are allowed your own interpretation doesn’t mean that your own interpretation is not completely missing the point.

While I’m not seriously comparing my own books to Mark Twain’s, I do think that readers are well-served when they consider the way language functions in a novel as a whole rather than focusing on a few objectionable words. At least, I know I am.

That took me about two hours to sort out. I’ll answer the rest of these questions after I smoke a fag.

Have you written about transgender characters?

Not really. There was a recurring character in the Lulu Dark books who was a drag queen, but that’s perhaps different. At any rate, she was kind of a very unusual type of drag queen in that she seemed to be in drag, like, all the time. Which probably is really unrealistic to anything that would happen in real life, and also probably blurs some lines in ways that aren’t that helpful. If I was going to write those books again, I’d probably try to rethink that character. But anyway, the short answer is no.

From your perspective, what is the climate like for LGBTQ+ writers of young adult books these days? Are there differences in climate compared to heterosexual writers?

That’s a hard question. In a lot of ways it’s not an issue. There are obviously tons of queer people who work in the field of kids’ books, and there’s also a pretty strong tradition of gay people being very successful as authors of stuff for kids and teenagers. (Louise Fitzhugh, Maurice Sendak, M.E. Kerr, Ian Falconer, David Levithan, etc. etc.) So, for the most part, I think that the climate is basically great.

At the same time, I think that when it comes to writing gay content, one has to sort of adjust one’s standards of what commercial success is going to look like. By which I mean: swap in a gay character as the protagonist of any of John Green’s books and I don’t think that book would be nearly as successful. (Come to think of it, the one John Green book with a major gay supporting character is I think the only one that’s not on the New York Times bestseller list this week.)

A mass audience is often really reluctant to try anything that isn’t totally familiar to it, and most people aren’t gay. I think a gay love story, or a gay anything, really, is just going to have a much harder time crossing the threshold into real sales. Which is not to say it’s impossible, just that I think expectations are usually going to be lower. Which, you know, has a certain affect on what gets published and also on what people even bother writing.

You know, this week there was this big thing on Twitter this week about how there should be more diversity in YA books. Which, aside from how much I hate “diversity” as a euphemism, I obviously think there should be. Of course!

However! There are already “diverse” books out there. Not as many as there should be, but enough that there are plenty to choose from. It’s not like there’s this complete shortage of books by people who are not straight white men.

And yet… look at the New York Times bestseller list for teen fiction. Last week it was four white men and two white women, all of whom I think are straight (not to mention cisgender). I love a lot of these authors and a lot of these books– Gayle Forman is the total god of me. But as an author who is by some token “diverse,” it’s all a little frustrating. People of color, queer people, trans people, etc. should all be better represented in terms of what’s published, duh.

But what about the books that are already out there?

On what projects are you working on next? Is there another book in the works?

I’m working on another YA book that I think is going to be called THE LAST RULE OF MAGIC. It’s your typical platonic gay love story bildungsroman about magicians in New Jersey. It probably won’t be out for awhile because it’s kicking my ass right now. I’m also working on a grown-up book that will probably never be done. As usual I have more ideas than I can really execute.

What feedback do you have for aspiring writers?

Do your laundry. It’s easier than it seems and you’ll get ahead faster if you don’t stink. I have a hard time following this rule myself– Justine Larbalestier has scolded more than once for stinking– but I do try.

Interview: Jerry David DeCicca !

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Jerry David DeCicca. Please read more about Jerry from his website ( before reading the interview that follows.

Jerry David DeCicca is the singer-songwriter from The Black Swans and producer of records by legendary outsider songwriters from the 1960s and 1970s like Larry Jon Wilson (Monument Records, Heartworn Highways), Ed Askew (ESP-Disk, 1967), and Bob Martin (RCA, 1973).

Jerry’s debut solo album, Understanding Land, is being self released on Tuesday, May 27.

Jerry Decicca at The Dentist  in London Photo credit by Carys Maggie Lavin.

Jerry Decicca at The Dentist in London
Photo credit by Carys Maggie Lavin.

How do your personal and social identities affect the songs you write?

I want my songs to represent who I am and what I believe. I don’t write songs with anachronistic language, unless it is a metaphor, because that isn’t true to my life experiences. And I try to write songs that aren’t already in the world. All these things make for a recipe not to sell many records.

Who and what have been your primary creative influences?

Friends, reading, life experiences, animals, food, daydreaming, and lots of music. I’m inspired by mainly by outsiders—people that have been marginalized by the conventions and commerce of the world. Those are the voices I’ve always found most compelling and urgent.

I have enjoyed the titles of all of your records. What is the process of coming up with titles like for you?

Thank you. Sometimes it will be a title track that I feel encapsulates the record. But that’s a lot of weight on just one song. Other times it will be one line, like Occasion for Song. Or, with Understanding Land and Sex Brain, titles that function as an umbrella to the songs that are somewhat evocative.

The Black Swans’ 2012 album, “Occasion for Song” has been described as dedicated to Noel Sayre, who founded the Black Swans with you. I appreciate the beautiful vulnerability and depth of emotion on that record. How was it to make that album? Was that part of the grieving process for you?

It was the grieving process. I opted to write that record over therapy. Writing it allowed me to contain my emotions and thoughts by shaping and re-shaping something raw into something containable, musical, and definite. As far as recording it, most songs were first or second takes to avoid experiencing the material over and over.

Have you performed any of those songs in front of audiences? If so, what was that like?

Only the lighter ones. The heavy ones only live on the turntable.

The Black Swans’ style has been described as Americana. What do you make of this characterization and how does it fit with your solo work?

Well, I get that people need labels to give context to all this junk that floats around and clutters the universe, so I try not to be too hard on those sorts of things and accept that it’s ok for some descriptions to lack exactness. We were never really what people wanted who are fans of that tag. The same could be said about my solo album. When people say they are fans of Americana, it usually refers to something more immediate, loud, and self-affirming than what I do. I’d be happy to take that label if the people that have it now that sell a lot of records would take “Those Who Trivialize the Human Condition with Song” instead.

I am loving your debut solo album, “Understanding Land.” The record sounds even more introspective than some of your work with The Black Swans. How did making this album compare to working in a band?

Thank you, so much! Making a solo record allowed me to invite many new voices and maintain more focus on my voice/acoustic guitar. With a band, you’re working in a defined group of people to create a collaborative voice out of one person’s songs.

Though your new record is a solo album, you have continued working with some great musicians including Andy Hamill, Spooner Oldham, Will Oldham, and Kelley Deal. The harmonizing sounds great. What was the collaboration process like?

Well, I asked people I love and admire to be a part of something. I just asked everyone to be themselves and everyone did a wonderful job. I feel very lucky to have so many special people to help me.

Your partner, Eve Searls, duets with you on this record. How was that experience?

I met Eve a long time ago because I loved her voice. And she’s toured in versions of The Black Swans and sang on the Ed Askew album I produced. Finally, I get to hear her sing on album of my songs! She’ll be on the next one even more. We harmonize in all aspects of our life together.

You recorded this album in London. In what ways does a sense of geography and place affect your music-making?

I was mostly alone. I walked down unfamiliar streets. I was constantly getting lost.

“Understanding Land,” even in the title, contains themes of landscapes and climate. How does the natural world affect the music that you make?

I’m not so much a great outdoors person, but I do see us all as tiny specs and, like the natural world, we’re constantly in motion, internally and physically.

One of my favorite songs on the album is “Another Bad Dream.” What inspired this song?

Thank you. It was inspired by a very bad dream. I left out the scariest parts. I was happy to wake up and drink a cup of coffee.

You have produced other artists’ albums as well. What was it like working with Ed Askew on his record, “For the World?”

Working with Ed and the gang was such a positive and wonderful experience. I love being able to help someone realize the best in their music, which is how I view producing. Ed has so many beautiful songs. It helps having a big fan clarify what makes them so special because, as songwriters and band members, we’re often too close to see the forest through the trees.

In what ways is your music feminist?

In my music and life, I avoid the clichés of gender and history. Those things hold us all back. One of the most powerful political tools is not participating in things that bring us down.

What is your life like when you are not creating music?

I’m always creating music in some way– always scribbling words, searching for something new on the guitar. When I’m not touring, I’ve supported myself with jobs in the social services field for the last 6 years—vocational rehabilitation and mental health education in the public school systems.

On what projects are you working on next?

I’m neck deep in the writing for my next solo album. And I recently moved to Texas, so that transition is still taking up a lot of time. I’m looking forward to touring in the fall.

What feedback do you have for aspiring musicians?

Make music you love without expecting it to be sustainable. Limit your time on the Internet. Be polite. Engage with music unlike your own. Travel. Make healthy choices. Drive slow.


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.


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: Hallelujah the Hills!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Walsh of Hallelujah the Hills. I am looking forward to their new album, “Have You Ever Done Something Evil” due on May 13 2014 – when it may actually be spring in New England 🙂


Please describe your journey of forming Hallelujah the Hills.

I went to film school and during the first day of my “films of the 60’s” class they showed us a move called Hallelujah the Hills. Shortly after that I received a grant to record an album with the people of my hometown of Dedham, MA. Even though I thought my path was going to involve making movies, opportunities kept coming my way with music. So that’s where I put my energy. After The Stairs ended, I was so in love with the idea of making albums that I immediately started Hallelujah The Hills with friends who were also musicians. That was the beginning, now 4 albums and many tours later, we’re here 7 1/2 years later.

How does a sense of place and geography affect your creative process?

There’s a line in the song with the same name as the band that goes, “I was born in Vermont / She was born in Vermont / We’ll all die in Vermont” and so many times after a show, audience members will come to me to ask if I’m from Vermont. I’m not, but the character that sings that song is. Geography is important to me. I’ve always lived here in Massachusetts within 10 miles of my hometown of Dedham. I read some Stephen King interview once where he said, “It takes a lifetime to really get to know one place” and I think that’s true.

Who and what have been your artistic influences?

I think artistic influences might shape the edges of your creativity, but it’s your friends, family, and immediate surroundings that really fill up the insides of the creations. There’s more of my friends in these songs then there are musical heroes, you know? Sometimes when I’m doing an interview and I start name dropping Bob Pollard, Maya Deren, and John Ashbery I think, “Well that’s technically correct but really, wouldn’t be amazing if I could just somehow show them Neal, Anthony, Jeff, Chris, Jenna, Evan, Shannon and Ed?”

I am really enjoying your most recent album, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Trashcan.” What inspired the title?!

Well JJ’s [James Joyce’s] “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” has always seemed like such a great title for a retrospective for an artist or a band. But if you’re gonna reference that, you gotta undercut it in a way to put a pillow under the fact that you’re quoting Joyce in your album title. Calling your young self a ‘trashcan’ seemed so funny to me. When you’re young, you’ll throw any idea, food, drink or drug inside of you, get it?

I love the video for “Confessions of an Ex-Ghost.” What prompted the Twin Peaks connection with the video?

Learning all about director David Lynch was the first thing that clued me into the idea that maybe, just maybe, being a creative person was a way to live an adult life. Twin Peaks did something significant to my teenage brain. It was a long, tough journey to see it, first of all (pre-internet, tracking down VHS cassettes, long story). Agent Dale Cooper is my favorite fictional character. I wanted to create an homage to the show and since I don’t have access to a room cloaked with red robes and a black&white zig zag floor, this scene was a close second. Plus, it’s so magical. The idea that our unconscious is also a detective and can be polled for information with unusual methods is so true, so beautiful.


One of my favorite songs by you is “Dead People’s Music.” How was the song-making process for this track?

My girlfriend said to me one day, “Put on something new. All we’re listening to these days is Dead People’s Music” and the whole idea for the song leapt into my head. It’s her favorite song of mine too which makes it especially nice that the inspiration came from her comment.

I am sensing existential themes (or at least imagery) of mortality and death across your albums (e.g., “Effie’s on the Other Side” from Collective Psychosis Begone; “You Better Hope You (Die Before Me)” on Colonial Drones; “Hungry Ghost Extraordinaire” from No One Knows What Happens Next and “Some of them We Lost” on your most recent album). What do you make of this?

Life is only interesting because it ends. How can you not spend time thinking about that? Ram Dass says, “Dying is safe”, only a door into the next adventure. Is it a cop out to take refuge in that idea? These are the fun topics that I’ve decided to write a lifetime of pop songs about.

How has it been working with Kickstarter to make albums?

Kickstarter is something that has changed the way things work for creative people working with the longer end of the long tail. A significant boon for all artists, I’d say.

What was it like to put music to Jonathan Lethem’s lyrics for the song “Monster Eyes?”

It was a great exercise and I enjoyed the results.


Do you have plans to release and/or perform any cover songs? If so, which?

We’ve covered a lot of John Lennon solo songs over the years. But mostly, I think we’re really great at crafting Hallelujah The Hills songs, so we stick to that.

What was the experience like of your song “Classic Tapes” being featured on the television show, “Make It or Break It?”

To be honest, there’s no story there. That was a matter of music for money. My nieces and cousins were excited. They like that show.

In what ways is your work feminist?

I made a mix tape for this teacher in high school. We’re still great friends. He listened to the mix and said, “it’s all male artists” and I said, “so?” and he said, “you’re missing 50% of the world’s experiences in this mix tape” and gave it back to me. That happened at THE PERFECT time. I actively started exploring a lot of women songwriters and falling in love with their work.

I might not be the best one to answer this, but I hope that my lyrics represent women in the same, honest light that I try and represent men. At the very least, all I can hope is that the ideas I put in our songs hopefully seem repellent to those who try and maintain the male-dominator-culture. My girlfriend is a brilliant songwriter and we sometimes go over each other lyrics, offer insights. I’d love to ask her about this, actually!

What feedback do you have for aspiring musicians?

Never consider yourself an “aspiring musician.” As soon as you say you are one and believe it, you are one.


I really like the demo for “Pick Up An Old Phone,” which will appear on your new album. The song sounds intimate and you have described the album as “wholly unlike the other three but still sounds like us.” Can you say more about that?

I’m not sure I can! I just know that we’ve never remade an album. We’ve always changed. They are all different and that’s a point of pride for me.

I admire your stamina. What’s next for Hallelujah the Hills?

Our new album comes out May 13, we’ll tour California and the east coast over the summer. We just love making things and we’ll continue to do so!


Interview: Girl Group Chicago!

Underneath This had the great opportunity to speak with Shana East from Girl Group Chicago about her band, 1960s music, feminism and more. Girl Group Chicago will be performing at the Empty Bottle on March 28.

Shana East is the founder of Girl Group Chicago – an all-female live musical performance group that is focused on bringing the female fronted “wall of sound” arrangements of the 1960’s to a modern day audience. She is also a board member of TRACERS, a Chicago-based social initiative group. Shana received her BFA in Photography, Film and Electronic Media from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Past lives include: Kinko’s copymaster, documentary filmmaker, non-profit fundraiser and database administrator.

by C.B. Lindsey

by C.B. Lindsey

What inspired you to form Girl Group Chicago?

Well, I was going through a hard time personally. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, and felt like it had isolated me from making female friends. I initially put the group together as a way to network socially, just a fun activity to do with other women each week. I wanted it to be a safe environment for women to have fun and be creative – like a social club where we happen to play music together. I really had no idea it would catch on the way it has, and that people outside of the group would become so interested in it! It has been an interesting way to introduce more women into my life, and to get to know them both as people and musicians.

The actual spark (so to speak) came when I had this “vision” – it sounds cheesy, I know, but this actually happened. I was listening to the Shangri-Las song, “Dressed in Black” at the time and was in that state just between being awake and asleep. I had a vision of an all-female group performing this song with a shimmery backdrop and matching costumes. By “all-female,” I mean, there was a veritable sea of ladies performing it. I always intended Girl Group to be a “big band,” but at the time I saw “big” as being 10-12 members. It just kept growing and growing from there and I didn’t stop it!

How do the different members bring together their talents to form a cohesive group?

The first year or so we were finding our sea legs, figuring out members’ strengths and what things they might be interested in doing within the group. While I knew going into it that everyone played an instrument or sang, each member brought additional talents to the group as well. But since I didn’t know any of the members until I was in a band with them, this “getting-to-know-you” phase took quite a while. We eventually needed members to pitch in in other ways – someone to keep the finances straight, someone to help with costumes, help with booking, etc. I fell into the “manager” role automatically since I started the group and it’s what I’m good at, as well as promoting our shows. Now that we have pulled together some great gigs, we have more freedom to put our shows together from start to finish. Certain venues like Mayne Stage entrusted me to “curate” our entire show, so I was able to put together a showcase featuring all-female filmmakers there, followed by comediennes, The Puterbaugh Sisterz, followed by our opening band, Velcro Lewis Group, and then on to Girl Group Chicago. It was fun putting the whole evening together as more of a special event – a night to remember!

The other gals, over time, pointed out areas where they saw we needed help or things that they were interested in working on and then they just started doing it! If someone has the extra time to contribute and enjoys doing something that we particularly need help with, I just have to let go and say, “Go for it!”

How do you decide which songs to cover?

I definitely had the most say over our first batch of songs. We needed a starting point. Over time, certain members wanted more input into what songs we cover. Not everyone necessarily came out of the garage scene or was familiar with music from the ‘60’s at the start. Over time they have all become more interested in it, so we formed a Music Selection Committee that meets every time we need to add new songs.

I personally (as a singer) might be into the message or the lyrics of a song, but someone in the horn section might be listening for horn parts or a string player might be listening for an interesting string arrangement. So it’s good to have the committee to get different points of view. We have adapted the song selection process over time, it’s been a learning process. All of the changes we have made seem to keep us moving forward and have ultimately been for the best. Onward and upward!

Sem: It sounds very egalitarian, very democratic.

Ha [laughs], well the issue of “democracy” within the group has been an ongoing one. It’s not totally democratic, but I think we are as democratic as we can be with such a large group. I’m the person who is more of the full-time employee, so I have to make a lot of the day-to-day decisions on the fly without consulting all 20+ members. I don’t think we would function as well if it were 100% democratic. The financial things I often have to figure out – negotiating with stylists or sound engineers, for example – so there’s a lot of day-to-day boring stuff that isn’t [democratic]. We have section leaders who make more of the creative decisions for their particular section. The parts of the organization where members have expressed that they want more creative input have become more democratic over time. It is important that each member feels like her voice is heard and that she is being fulfilled creatively.

Which are your favorites to cover?

It’s always changing! The first one, my first favorite song we did (and the song that inspired me to start the group) was “Dressed in Black” by The Shangri-Las. Mary Weiss is the quintessential girl group icon. The Shangri-Las, well, they were from New York. They carried guns around to protect themselves. They were the “bad girls.” Their subject matter is often pretty dark compared to some of the more bubble-gummy girl groups of the time. I’ve loved them since I was 15; I’m a huge fan.

We’re about to play a new one, “Chick Habit”. It’s not a song from the ‘60’s, it’s actually the first song from the ‘90’s that we’ve ever done. It does sound like it’s from the ‘60’s though. We’ve been working on that one this month. My favorite song always changes because we are always adding new and exciting material!

“To Sir with Love” also means a lot to me… it’s a love song but not a traditional romantic love song. It is directed towards a mentor, and I have dedicated it to my father at several of our shows. It is my most challenging song vocally, and I do get nervous singing it! But at least, I hope, it comes across as heartfelt because it is. I love that one too.

Who are your favorite “girl groups” from the 1960’s? What other musical influences does the group have?

The Shangri-Las, The Cookies, The Ronettes, The Shirelles, The Crystals… I grew up listening to oldies in the car with my Dad. The only group I despise from that era is Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (I can’t stand that high-pitched, shrill voice of his!), but I love pretty much everything else from the ‘60’s.

I am drawn to those songs that touch upon darker subject matter – they tend to be the ballads or “slow jams.” Even though a lot of these songs weren’t actually written by women, I feel like the female singers from that time period were able to convey feelings of isolation or helplessness that women struggle with so eloquently. Even 50 years later, I share a deep understanding of the feelings so many of the lyrics describe. They have really stood the test of time!

We’re doing a new Dusty Springfield song that I really identify with. I am not singing lead on it, but I am very excited for us to do it. It’s called, “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. I have certainly felt that same feeling of being lost that Dusty sings about, whether I was going through a difficult relationship or just trying to figure out what to do with my life. These are common dilemmas, and the songs I gravitate toward are the songs that we as performers as well as the audience can empathize with.

Another great thing about Girl Group is that our members have such incredibly eclectic musical backgrounds and tastes. I would say our influences range from classical to punk, metal to marching band… and everything in between!

Do you perform original songs? If so, how does the band come together to create them?

We have not performed originals yet, but there is some interest from band members to write originals at some point. If we did, I would definitely want female songwriters to write them, even if they weren’t in the group. So for the lady songwriters out there, write us a song! We would definitely listen to any demo someone gave us.

The issue for me with adding original material is that it has to hold up in a set with these timeless songs. We don’t want to throw in an original just to have an original. I don’t think of us as less of a “real band” because we aren’t performing originals. These songs we cover are amazing; they’ve been around for 50+ years, often written by proven songwriting teams and Grammy Award winners… so we have to take the issue of adding originals seriously. But it’s on the table. We are open to a lot of things. I also really want to do a set of all originally male-fronted songs with our own Girl Group spin on them, and it would be cool to do another era, like a 1940’s Big Band set. We have the talent, we just need the time. It can be hard to orchestrate that many parts and practices.

We also have an extended network of talented women behind-the-scenes. Not only are the members women, but there are hair stylists, makeup artists, graphic designers, photographers, and a whole costume design team. There are so many women involved that you don’t see on the stage. And we are so lucky and thankful to have worked with the people we have. I hope Girl Group expands and expands so that one day our “group photo” will be an aerial shot!

In what ways is your work feminist?

Well, I do identify personally as a feminist, but I know that’s an individual decision and a hot button issue for a lot of folks out there. Over the past 50 years, there have been several “movements” within feminism (1st wave, 2nd wave, etc.) and I think there has also been a fracturing of any truly productive movement because different groups have different agendas. And that’s great! (The difference in goals, I mean, not the fracturing!) My personal relationship with feminism cuts through those agendas and gets back to the basics. What is feminism? I believe feminism means you believe that men, women and trans HUMANS are all equal and that all humans should have equal access to healthcare, jobs and education. Unfortunately that is still not the case and that is why I think feminist work is so important. I know the feminist struggle is real because I have lived it. Last year, I started working with a feminist social initiative group called TRACERS, and now I serve on the board. At the very least, it has helped me realize I am not alone in my struggles as a woman, but I think we are doing other important work by opening up conversations that, for some reason, seemed to come to a screeching halt after the riot grrrl movement. We offer the public information and an open conversation. We are open to all gender identities and opinions. We all learn from each other and support each other despite our differing backgrounds or opinions.

So I do more specifically “feminist work” outside of Girl Group. I know there are many women in the group that do identify as feminists, but I can’t say that we are a feminist group or initiative because I can’t speak for so many women. I think what we do is inherently feminist, but I just can’t label my bandmates.

For me, the fact that we are such a large group of female artists and musicians consciously working together and sticking together through all the trials and tribulations we have had… that is the most important thing to me, not whether all of my bandmates identify as “feminist.” There are certain socialized ways that women are taught to interact with each other, and we are learning how to counteract them.

Even putting the group together for me was a feminist act because I knew everyone was going to say, “It’s crazy for that many women to work together” – so I said, “Let’s do it!”

The more time that passes, the more we go through together, and we’ve all had creative differences. The people who weren’t jiving with the group, for whatever reason, aren’t in the group anymore. The people who want that sense of community with other women and are willing to do the work it takes have stuck with it. It is hard – I’m not going to lie. But we’re still together and I have no plans of that changing anytime soon.

I am very proud of Girl Group and the social work that I do with TRACERS. I have no problem saying I’m a feminist. I think more artists and musicians should consider identifying as a feminist or at the very least as an ally. It’s okay! Look – I have been one my whole life and I am not so bad.

Strike & Sem: I agree!

How has the reaction been in the press to Girl Group Chicago? Do the reactions differ by gender of the reviewer?

I have to say that overwhelmingly the reviews we have received have been outstanding. We’ve never received a bad review that I have seen. I think one writer had one sentence in there that was kind of negative, he said that hearing “To Sir with Love” that early in the day was “unnerving” or something like that – but it was still an okay review overall. It’s really weird, I had no clue that even the snobbiest music writer would seem to have some kind of fun with it [Girl Group]. Maybe it’s because we haven’t released an album; that it’s just a live performance thing. I think people respond well to our performances.

On what projects are you currently working?

I work with Bobby Conn and his wife, Julie Pomerleau, who goes by the stage name Monica Boubou. I’m their manager, so I’m always plotting and scheming with them on upcoming stuff. Julie has a residency at The Hideout this month that I have been helping her promote.

I also have a Devo cover band where I play Mark Mothersbaugh; it’s called DEVOid. Since both Bob 2 (Bob Casale) and Alan Myers both passed away recently, I may have to resurrect DEVOid later this year! Girl Group Chicago is more than enough work for me, but those are just some other projects I’m involved with.

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

Don’t worry if you’re not a “real musician.” I dabbled in band and orchestra and chorus as a kid, but I’ve never been excellent at any one thing. I have never been considered a “real musician.” I didn’t pop out of the womb singing Aretha Franklin songs perfectly.

If you have the enthusiasm and dedication I say you should just do it. I waited around too many years for someone to say, “Hey, you have talent and should be in my band.” But that day never came, so I just had to do it myself! If you have a good idea, you should just go for it. Don’t focus on criticism – if they say you can’t do it, just do it better! That’s the little feminist fire inside of me I guess, every time someone has said I couldn’t do something because I was a girl… that fire has driven me. This happened when I started Girl Group. People were like, “a 20 member all-FEMALE band?” and “How will you practice?” or “How will that many WOMEN work together?” I didn’t do it just to prove a point, but the fact that people didn’t think it would be possible certainly lit a fire under my ass!

I’m sort of a dreamer, you know… I have an idealistic “bigger picture” way of thinking and looking at the world, which can be both good and bad. Good because the world needs dreamers to reinforce hope in peoples’ minds, the thought that good things still lie ahead, that new and memorable things do and will happen. Being an idealist can also be hard because I can take it to heart when things don’t work out the way I had hoped. I’m a very sensitive person; I think it’s good for any group to have a good mix of pragmatists and dreamers. And Girl Group Chicago has all of the above, which keeps it balanced and keeps us moving forward.

-Strike & Sem