Artist-in-Residence, February 2018
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By Drew Broderick
Where do you call home?
What is one good thing that has happened in the past 24 hours?
It's unseasonably warm out, so I sat outside in the sun and transcribed an interview.
Why do you make art? Have your reasons changed over time?
I'm a non-fiction writer, currently writing about music. My simplest reason for doing this is because there are so many stories to be told that often aren't told. There are so many voices left out of cultural narratives. And we can all learn so much from each other.
What is a song that you never tire of listening to?
Lately it’s been Wildewoman by Lucius. I also really love Ruby Mae by the Felice Brothers.
What have you been reading lately? Thoughts?
Mostly I’ve been reading interview transcripts and lyrics. But a fellow resident knows I'm a fan of Greil Marcus, and she let me borrow her copy of his newer book: Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations.
What drew you into the contemporary art world?
I'm not sure how to answer this as a writer, but I'm happy to talk in person!
How would you describe your work/practice to a total stranger? To a friend’s 5 year old child? To a grandparent?
To anyone asking, regardless of age: I talk with people. Then I try to tell their story and why it’s important. But before I begin write, I research and interview a lot. I need to have a solid base before I even think about writing. When I eventually write, I usually stare at my screen and re-read my notes and transcriptions until I think of a good sentence. Sometimes that takes 3 hours and sometimes that takes 3 minutes. And then I work on the next sentence.
What are your studio essentials? What is something unexpected a visitor might encounter?
Coffee, computer and my favorite books for when I hit a wall and need to remind myself why I love doing this. At residencies, I try to take advantage of the wall space to get out of my head. Right now there are large pieces of craft paper on the walls where I scribble notes on themes, sequence, etc.
Influences: we all have them regardless of whether or not we acknowledge them. Who or what currently inspires your work?Amanda Petrusich is one of my inspirations. She’s an incredible writer and interviewer. And she puts herself out there for a story. In her book Do Not Sell At Any Price, she went scuba diving to try to find rare records reportedly buried at the bottom of a river. I also love her writing because even though she’s a music encyclopedia, her writing never has an “insider-y” tone. She writes in an accessible way, and I really value that.
What were your intentions for this residency and how have they changed since being at the Wassaic Project?
My intention was to be patient and take a deeper dive with my materials (interviews, research, music, lyrics). WP provides the time and space to take that deep dive, and I’m so grateful for it.
What role does community play in your work, and how has community shaped your experience of this residency in particular?
I spend so much time alone in my normal day-to-day life (writing is so solitary!) So a huge part of why I applied to Wassaic is because I crave that creative, supportive community. I definitely found that in my house mates. I love laughing with them and hearing how they look at the world. Everyone here thinks about things so differently.
The staff is also very kind, considerate and supportive. It makes this place feel like a safe space to create and let go.
How has place influenced your time at the Wassaic Project, and where is your favorite “spot” in Wassaic?
I applied to Wassaic, in part, because my current writing project involves musicians who grew up in this area and the greater Hudson Valley area. I’m trying to better understand how space and location influences their work. What better way to do that than to go to the source?
My favorite spot is the farm behind the Lodge, where I go to feed the goats (Sugar, Pigey and Peanut). Whenever I need to feel grounded, I go back and visit them. They get so excited when they hear my snow-crunching foot steps approaching (because I usually have some apple skins for them.)
Also, Wassaic is so beautiful. I love walking back from my studio at night and seeing the stars.
What are you currently writing about?
Contemporary folk music, that’s what I’m focusing on — musical forms of the past and how those can play a role in speaking some of the truths of modern society. I’m curious as to why that has been — I don’t want to use the word revival, because revival downplays the fact that this style of music has always been in around. But I’m curious as to why in the 2010s, folk music became more popular. It was on the headlines of magazines. What was going on in our society at that time? I’m using the Felice Brothers, in part, as an entry into that conversation. But also, as I’ve spent more time with them, I feel like there’s something else there that makes them more than members of a passing trend.
In your looking back at a particular moment that was a part of very different historical conditions (albeit a relatively recent one) it doesn’t sound like your project is a very romantic one, it doesn’t sound like there’s a nostalgia for something that has been lost. So what is it about this particular moment in folk music’s history that is not just relevant but meaningful to today?
I don’t know, I mean some of it may have been nostalgic, some of it romantic, not necessarily on the part of people playing it but it might be one of the reasons why people liked it and why it became popular again. I’m still trying to figure out why this musical style is beneficial in one way more so than another style. It partly has to do with storytelling. I also think there is always this action-reaction when things get so — like when technology or other things advance rapidly, there typically is a reaction to that to go the opposite way. But it’s more than that.
I started working on this before the presidential election, when the social and political climate were very different. I think that might also play a role going forward with this project — as far as who’s in position to speak certain truths. I don’t want to put that obligation on anyone. But I like what I’m seeing and hearing, especially from Ian Felice.
Related to that, what is it about the voices that are left out and the many stories that aren’t told, that compels you to write?
This is part of my own anxiety from being a journalist before I did all of this and went back to school. I would interview way too many people for a thousand-word story. And my editors would be like, “Why are you doing that?” I always feel like there’s some stone that’s left unturned. And that anxiety was probably exacerbated in graduate school when I was reading about folk music in the early 1900s in America. There was this one book, “Segregating Sound” by Karl Hagstrom Miller, and he was discussing how our understanding of what folk was may not have been accurate. And there are only so many primary resources that you can go back to and use to try to fill in the gaps. It was frustrating to think about how many people I won’t know and what stories I won’t know. And now, whenever I read articles or books, I’m always thinking: “But who isn’t here?” And that’s partly why I chose the Felice Brothers — because they’re talked about, but as afterthoughts, even though I think that they matter more than that.
So it feels like there’s a sense of urgency, but also a sense of, I don’t want to use the word discovery, and it also isn’t necessarily about margins, but it feels like there’s a more inclusive project that you’re trying…
Have you heard of the phrase ‘cultural equity’? That would probably be the best way to talk about it…
Can you talk to how you understand cultural equity in relation to, say, a record label? In what ways do things become overshadowed or foregrounded by...
Yeah, and how that relates to equity in all its forms.
What’s kind of great about the Felice Brothers, and partly why I’m interested in them, is they never signed big. They had opportunities to, but they didn’t. They resisted that control.
When you say control do you mean capital(ism)?
I also just think overhead, branding, marketing, anything that requires you to sum it up so it’s easily digested by the masses. I think they don’t want to do that. Understandably so.
You’ve pointed out that there’s great joy in telling a story, in writing a story, in reading a story — especially one that’s accessible. Can you speak a little to the generosity of accessibility and how this approach shows up in your work?
Well, I’m very lucky because they have been super generous with me. It’s funny because I feel like they have a reputation for being… intimidating. But they’re not like that at all. Especially one of the brothers, James, is super generous with his time and usually willing to talk about music and even, sometimes, philosophy. But they’ve all been welcoming. And I’m careful not to abuse that and make sure they know I’m appreciative of it. I feel like some people don’t trust other people to write about them. I’m sure you understand this given that you’re interviewing people right now. But I will say it feels like an honor when people are willing to talk to you and tell you their story. I personally wouldn’t trust most people with my words. I don’t know why they trust me. I’m not saying they shouldn’t — I’m just grateful that they do.
Do you think the lack of trust on your part comes from the fact that you’re a writer?
Maybe. That’s interesting to think about. And how when one writes, there’s also a trust of a kind of unknown reader.
Yeah, that’s been an ongoing issue. Because I worked in journalism, I’m very much not used to putting myself in my writing. I’m trying to battle with that, and that’s been my focus this week. Just figuring out what point to enter my own voice versus just recording their story and how much of my perspective plays a role. And whether I trust people with that personal perspective.
Where is the project going? Will it end, will it continue into some other life?
I’m writing it as a book. That’s the goal. But I never let go of things, even after I’m done with them. So even after I’m done writing this, it could resurface in again. I don’t know… I still think about stories from seven years ago. They still come up in my mind. Things can always be revived, like folk music I guess
Or corporatized. Or both.
True, all of those things.
Maybe we can move from the headspace of your writing to what’s going on on your walls right now?
Well, that’s the head space! I realized at my first residency that it’s nice to get up and walk around your room and not be stuck on a screen. It’s like cleaning out your closet — like, picture trying to clean out your closet while you’re inside your closet with the door closed. And then, you think: “This would be so much easier to organize if I just put everything on the bed, and then organized it, and put it back in.” So that’s kinda what this is.
You said this is your first residency.
Second... So is this a process that is a part of what you do for every piece you embark on?
I like in Brooklyn so there’s no space on my walls to do this. So I’m taking advantage of having space on my walls here at Wassaic. But I wish I could do this for every story and every article.
So it has been generative.
Yeah, it helps. Sometimes I replay things in my head, and I can refer back to it without having to click through a bunch of browsers. It helps me get the major points and themes out of my head. Or sometimes it helps me work through things or it helps me figure out what questions to ask them.
How about that underlined, exclamation point, arrow, "take care of each other"?
Oh, yeah. There’s this song they have called ‘Take this Bread’ and it’s basically about giving your possessions, or bread, if you don’t need them or helping each other out. Ian definitely has this take-care-of-each-other socialist undertone in some of his music, and I appreciate that.
Is it a politic that you share?
I believe in taking care of each other. But that’s more than politics.
Has working on this project moved your political axis? At all?
No, I’m pretty much where I’ve been.
How do you see this project fitting in with what you have done and what you want to do in the future?
Well, this started out as a thesis project for graduate school. As soon as I defended, I thought, “I’m not done.” I missed it the morning after. I wanted to do more with it, and then as I spent more time with it, I realized there are so many more elements to their story. I spent some time in the Catskills, and they’re from this area. Being in this region made me realize there’s more to this. My favorite part about all this is just getting to talk to people. And people in this area love talking about the Felice Brothers. Within a few nights of being here, locals at the Lantern made sure to tell me they knew the drummer or they were fans.
Do you generally engage with the place, in the way that you are for this project? You said their music was of this place, you’re here writing about it, because that feels like an approach that journalism does not always take because of practical, economic needs. You report on something, you’re done, onto the next thing, but you’re here
Yeah, a lot of journalism unfortunately is done on the phone and behind a desk. Or they’ll send you out to a place for a couple days, then you go back to your desk, and that’s all it is. I’ve done that too, and that’s just part of the career sometimes. But I reported out in Newtown following the Sandy Hook School Shooting, and that’s 25 minutes from my parents’ house. And I saw that my connection to neighboring areas created a level of trust with people. You’re very aware of accountability when you’re in a place that you’re familiar with––they can go knock on your door if you got it wrong. I mean, I don’t know if they would or that if that’s the point. But it’s important to invest in a space and truly try to understand it so you don’t just feel like you’re coming in, taking what you need and leaving.
It feels like you’ve made that choice as a writer to be here.
Here. Yeah, because I need to understand it better. I was at Woodstock back in June, and I was a half hour from where they grew up. I was able to go see a show in their mom’s barn.
What’s on your horizon, what’s the next project that you’re interested in?
Or, personally, or...
I want to adopt a dog.
A particular type of dog.
A mutt, yeah, just a mutt. So yeah that’s my next big personal hurdle. Also just deciding if I want to stay in New York City or move up here. But this project, I have no idea how long it’s going to take me. I hope it comes out faster than I’m giving myself credit for, but I don’t know, we’ll see.
The struggles of being a writer?
I guess, I mean that sounds so pretentious. I don’t know. I’m lucky I can be here writing, so talking about the struggles just feels ungrateful or something.
Photos by Walker Esner