Tag Archives: words away interviews

Joel Cadbury on South ‘sounding as diverse as their record collection’ — and more

Joel Cadbury, the primary lead vocalist in a the now defunct (but no less excellent) British band  South, was  kind enough to do this Words Away interview.

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What connotation does ‘South’ have where you’re from?  The difference between north and south in the U.K. doesn’t seem as raw as the one in the States, but between the trio of yourself, Jamie McDonald and Brett Shaw and another band like The Beautiful South, I wonder what it means to you. 

Growing up in London at a time when a lot of the bands that influenced us came from the North of England — bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays — the name South was a kind of tongue of cheek dig but also by default an association to those bands.

It also confused people, as we’re North Londoners, so in London people thought we were speaking up for South London, but it wasn’t the case.

We never really took the name too seriously.  Although the North/South divide does exist in the UK, it’s not really the same as the States where in each State there is a North/South divide.

It’s easy to see reggae permeating through a lot of British music, including alternative rock or any other variation.  But one would probably be hard pressed to see anybody close to the root of that in any mainstream (even the mainstream indie) sense.  It hasn’t really been an overt influence in much of the work of yours that I’m familiar with, but — from your vantage point — how are people interacting with it at all?

I feel there is a stigma with white guys playing reggae and there shouldn’t be.  Man, Jamie and I had the whole Trojan back catalogue and borrowed the odd riff or melody on more than one occasion. There is also a 7 minute dub instrumental called “Dub Remedies” that came out as part of our 4 track sessions.

I think you’d be surprised how much influence reggae has on the mainstream.

What inspires you?  What’s something you wish more people had heard or read?

Hard to answer, but a record I’ve heard recently that I love is a 70’s record called “Dreamin’ Wild” by Donnie and Joe Emerson.  I am also always in awe of the vast catalogue of Can; there is always more to discover.

I feel like there’s a particularly dream-like nature to the lyrics in a lot of South’s early work, in which the music and lyrics were so evocative that I always felt like I got exactly what a song was about on an emotional level.  But you guys evolved over the course of four albums and to me songs on Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars, for instance, had more personal clarity carrying over in the lyrics. 

How has your approach to songwriting and crafting music changed over the years?

Our lyrics started out pretty abstract.  It was about creating a mood that could be expressed in the tone of the song musically as much as lyrically.  I wasn’t really concerned with telling a story — more reflecting half-remembered dreams.

I think the more we worked together the more we would look for new ways to challenge one another to keep it interesting for ourselves. That included being more specific about the themes we wanted to express. On the later albums Brett also took more of an active role in writing lyrics (and singing them).

And his approach was different to Jamie and I.  It did add another dimension to what we were doing.

In addition to being the song you might want to play after you’ve listened to the most banal pop song, “Autumn Morning” is not quite like anything else you guys did.  It’s got this relentless rocking quality, but it’s also funky in a way that I think would make Stevie Wonder and New Order nod their heads.  How did it come about?

South never ever settled on a particular sound, perhaps to our detriment.  We just weren’t built that way.  The music we listened to filtered into our collective consciousness, and we were happy to sound as diverse as our record collections.

The music we listened to filtered into our collective consciousness, and we were happy to sound as diverse as our record collections.

“Autumn Morning” is a good case in point.  We were messing around with sampling our guitars and drums and re-triggering them from an MPC.  That gave us the us the basis of the whole track.

It also coincided with the band taking a much more DIY approach to our records.  The big studios and producers were gone.  The big budget albums were gone.

We spent what money we had on building our own studio in Hackney and doing it all ourselves, learning as we went.  Our music of that period did share the DIY aesthetic of bands like New Order.

Songs like “a place in displacement,” which appeared originally on the Speed Up/Slow Down EP, to “lonely highs” two albums later on You Are Here, speak to a sense of isolation that South explored frequently throughout every album.  Also, in lines like, ” in a world gone mad / don’t let it go to your brains”  you spoke to the reality of life, but in a way that (often jubilantly) prompted the sentiment: “there must be more to life than this / no mistaking happiness.” 

Has that been something you’re conscious of?  I can still hear the same sensibility in songs like “Caged Bird” and “Ever Rest.” (songs Cadbury worked on for Unkle’s  “Where Did the Night Fall: Another Night Out”)

It’s weird.  It’s just the way it comes out.  I don’t deliberately set out to write a song about any one particular subject, but I guess in a way we were quite isolated.  We were never the darlings of the music industry; it’s only through fans enjoying our music that we kept going for as long as we did, not the industry. I don’t know how at peace I felt when you always feel you are not getting success (whatever that means).  It can be a brick wall, but then there is always more to life.

We were never the darlings of the music industry; it’s only through fans enjoying our music that we kept going for as long as we did, not the industry.

Per “Tell Me,” have you figured out if we can see more from the other side yet?

You know what?  I think we can see more from the other side. Jamie, Brett and I all now have families of our own and are still good friends and that’s all I can ask, coming through relationships as long and intense as ours.  We met at school when we were 11 years old and we’re now 35 — and to be able to look back and feel as proud as we do about what we achieved is a great feeling.  It’s also served as a good footing for the next stage of our lives.  Who knows?  Maybe one day we will do it all again : )

Cover of first South album, "From Here On In."

Cover of first South album, “From Here On In.”

Is a solo album on the slate?

Perhaps. I have been recording demos but have been working more on film soundtracks recently and have finished composing the music to my first Ballet, and to be quite honest I’m enjoying not having to be the front man for a while.

But saying that, there is always this music that’s got to come out so I’m sure sooner or later it will.

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Much thanks to Joel for his time.

Resources:

http://joelcadburymusic.com/

South on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/South/e/B000APOI44

The top album cover is from South’s fourth and (so far) final album, You Are Here.

Mull Historical Society on City Awakenings

mullalbum‘Mull Historical Society’ is the sometimes moniker of Colin MacIntyre, a singer-songwriter from the Scottish island of Mull.  After three albums under his given name, he’s taken up ‘Mull’ again for his latest, City Awakenings.  One of the things I like about his music is a tendency to go for broke.  He was good enough to answer a few questions in this Words Away interview:        

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You wrote on your blog about being in a SoHo store, hearing one of your songs on the place’s radio feed, and how that made you feel closer to home.  Beyond home, would you say that your relationship to cities is somewhat mobile?  City lights, for instance, are probably most pronounced when you’re coming or going.   

I suppose hearing my song played in Soho NYC (as I was buying a hat) made me feel closer to home because whenever I connect with my music — no matter where I am — it reminds me of being the child in the bedroom, writing and recording my first compositions and that authenticity.  I recorded hundreds of songs in this way, learning and having fun with it. So that makes me feel like home — home as in what’s inside you, what makes you connect with your upbringing and the beginnings of becoming a songwriter, in my case. I’ve lived in cities since I was about 20, but my upbringing on the isle of Mull in the Hebrides never leaves me. It’s like a constant tap, a source of belonging. I do like the movement in cities — what I do is observe, that’s how I create — and there is more to observe in a city. I think going home from that kind of city environment for me then does make me appreciate the contrast with my home (Mull) even more so, and you do appreciate the beauty all over again. So I would say it is that which is more pronounced.

I first saw a city (Glasgow) at the age of 6, so coming to the city was memorable and that’s what the song ‘The Lights’ is about. The child leaving the bedroom, and opening up your senses to their attack / beauty / whatever else it is. That’s been my adulthood — trying to capture what is around me. It’s usually people.

Dreams seem to play an interesting role in your relationship to cities.  You dreamed about the city as a kid, and obviously you find your way to a few.  In “Must You Get Low,” ‘song-narrator you’ seems to sing about how the city gave you a sense of identity.  Dreams, and parts in them, can be written.  Is there an element of a city to you that’s always dream-like?

Yes, you can find the romance anywhere — even in the hustle of a city. I love ugly industrial city buildings. I used to drive to the dump in North Glasgow just to appreciate a particularly ugly pile of concrete; those journeys formed one of my early MHS b-sides, ‘Ugly Buildings Are Beautiful’. The song ‘Must You Get Low’ was my take on a city, in that it has a heart and a beat and personality much like we do. So the verses in the song were looking at my relationship and engagement with the city as just a small part of that pulse. Another part of the song (‘We write Dreams so what’s your part here’) was imagining an Orwellian group running the city’s subjects — controlling their lives (which was my original fiction in the song ‘Mull Historical Society’ of a group, in that case, controlling the island). The third element in the song (the choruses) is about a relationship of two people living in that city. This is sounding like some form of song maths in the explanation — but really it all comes from a spark, a feeling, something that touches me that makes me want to capture it. The romance, the city, its people. If I don’t capture it then I’ll lose it and a bit of me with it.

This is sounding like some form of song maths in the explanation — but really it all comes from a spark, a feeling, something that touches me that makes me want to capture it. The romance, the city, its people. If I don’t capture it then I’ll lose it and a bit of me with it.

How much of a city for you is in the parts that don’t look so great under some lights?

I suppose some of this is addressed above. I like to focus on small things, micro situations that hopefully tell a bigger, more universal story. I think that’s because I come from a small community — I’m drawn to the small things. In my experience as a writer you can only capture what moves and excites you as the writer and hope it subsequently resonates with somebody else. Cities are the things you witness; there is also ugly and obviously some things you witness are disturbing, but if it affects you (me) then you want to document it. So a city is a lot of things all under one roof: Glasgow, London & New York are the cities which most influenced ‘City Awakenings’ — people are people wherever they are. And the stories are usually the same. Things shouldn’t always look so great under the lights. A lot of inspiration for me comes from the darkness.

Things shouldn’t always look so great under the lights.

Across the board, who are some of the writers who’ve influenced your own work? 

Here’s some — in no real order: Philip Roth. Bob Dylan. Paul Simon. The Flaming Lips. Bach. Mercury Rev. David Bowie. Per Peterson. Raymond Carver. Marilynn Robinson. The Beatles. Lou Reed. Neil Young. Radiohead. Belle & Sebastian. Mozart. Children’s toy music boxes. Television.

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Resources:

mhsloss

The tangible form of the latest Mull Historical Society album is slated for stateside soonish from http://www.xtramilerecordings.com. You can find out much more about Colin and where to check his music out at his site.

Andrea MacDonald on yoga and breaking it from a shallow mold

Andrea MacDonald

Andrea MacDonald

On her blog, yoga instructor Andrea MacDonald has explored how secluded much of the discipline is–at least as it’s most widely known.  This may seem fairly obvious to some, but there are few words to that effect.  So, here’s some more, in the form of a Words Away interview with her:

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There should probably be a distinction made between what I associate yoga with — at its broadest, most commercial level — and what it is in general, along with what you think it can be.

Yoga at a broad commercialized level is most commonly associated with white, slender, flexible, often female bodies. Bodies like mine. Usually these bodies are striking poses in spotlessly clean, temperature controlled, softly lit studios. Of course there is the prominent material association with particular kinds of food (coconut water), clothing (lululemon) and culturally appropriated, often inconsistently paired iconic religious imagery (Buddha heads and women wearing bindis for example).

I think Frank Jude Bocio explains it well when he says:

“Rather than question the capitalist model of consumerism, with its creation of ever more desires and false needs for product, contemporary yoga has become a more than willing accomplice. Rather than presenting an alternative to the concomitant ideology of North American individualism, which prioritizes and valorize the isolate ‘self’ over the relational matrix, it has eagerly embraced it.”

What all of this signals is a sense of shallowness to our westernized, commercialized yoga practice. Yoga’s development as a philosophy and as a fitness trend, has taken place over thousands of years, all across the globe. It doesn’t have a central coordinating body, or even a central text necessarily — though one might argue the yoga sutras fill this role. The point is that yoga is not really definable. The word yoga evokes different feelings, images, communities and intentions. It’s used by the military to teach focus as readily as it’s employed by progressive activists to heal from burn out. It knows no fixed identity. In some ways, this is what lends yoga it’s power, popularity, mystery and appeal.

 How did you find your way to yoga?

For me, yoga started as a tool for personal growth and healing. I turned to the practice at 18 after being sexually assaulted at a time when I was suffering from severe anxiety and moderate addiction. You might be surprised to hear how many people have stories like mine. Most people come to yoga to heal some kind of suffering. This creates an often unacknowledged dark side to our communities, but also makes what we offer a powerful tool to build resilience, relaxation and sustainable political resistance.

Eventually my practice fell away as I took up a more than full time commitment to environmental and social justice activism. With my first experience of burn-out after the 2010 Olympics I came back to yoga. My practice was a balancing force of stillness and calm in my busy, chaotic, force-focused life. Eventually that balanced tipped so far out of whack I found myself exhausted, lonely (even while surrounded by community) and even more burnt out than where I started.

Needing to regroup and heal I took my teacher training and spent a year studying, teaching and living at Occupy Vancouver. I saw this time as “cocooning.” This year I’ve come out of the protective space I cultivated, newly inspired. I want to use yoga as a form of community organizing and open up political dialogue about the meeting places between our bodies, our breath and the realities of our lives. I founded Community Yoga Vancouver with teachers who care about making yoga more heartfelt, uncomplicated and accessible. As best we can we’re eliminating the material crap that keeps people from practicing or feeling like they don’t belong.

You’ve written some about how non-inviting yoga can be to people outside a very specific demographic, both financially and culturally.  Yoga’s most financially viable element seems to be tied to traditional lookism, in the way that many health outlets are.  How difficult is it to maintain a venue that’s counter to that?

Like I said before, there are many material attachments associated with yoga. The most fundamental one, and the one that is often the biggest road block to a deep, fulfilling practice, is the idea that your body needs to be a certain way for you to do yoga. Yoga studios capitalize on peoples’ insecurities about their bodies and on their deep loneliness and disconnection from spiritual fulfillment. They promise students’ the “yoga butt” (or some other ridiculous incentive) that simply keeps people trapped in a cycle of self-hatred, judgement and grasping. Not all studios do this, but many, particularly those that see the practice as simply a fitness trend, do. It’s a frustrating trend to watch grow and one that demands a consistent critique — I feel.

. . . There are many material attachments associated with yoga. The most fundamental one, and the one that is often the biggest road block to a deep, fulfilling practice, is the idea that your body needs to be a certain way for you to do yoga.

For us — it was completely natural to open a space that celebrated and offered sacred protection to bodies that fall outside the norm, which really, is most bodies. We don’t promise our students they will magically transform into someone else. We offer them space to be exactly as they are. In practicing self acceptance our students support each other to do the same. Hopefully this ripples out to the broader community as well.

We really do believe that everyone can benefit from practicing yoga and we work to challenge the commonly held definition of what that sentiment means. We teach our students to find contentment and acceptance in their bodies. We teach them skills to balance fierce presence with deep surrender. We want them to acquire love and reverence for each moment – even when that moment demands struggle.

This was natural to us politically, but also personally. My partner in the project is a self-identified fat-femme-queer teacher. As her ally I willingly identify the anonymity,  access and privilege I have in a regular studio. I can blend in if I want because I’m thin and flexible, but that is not what my practice is about. Also that is not to say she isn’t flexible. She can open her hips waaaay wider than I can.

My practice and teaching is about honouring truth and discovering authentic embodiment. I think it’s dangerous to take steps away from that understanding, to make your practice conditional on your body looking and performing a particular way. Doing so will take you away from the fundamental truth that this practice, this life, is ultimately grounded in your breath and that is something almost anyone can access. It is not always an easy process because we don’t have a well-rehearsed business plan, like most other studios. We have to be creative and willing to take risks. We are lucky to have mentors and a quickly growing support network of senior teachers lifting us up, celebrating and encouraging our work. We are by no means dong this work alone.

I’m not sure that real diversity makes for something as easy as people would like it to be, nor that it makes for the kind of serenity people who practice yoga generally associate with its natural environment.  At its simplest level, it’s just fairer.  As a yoga instructor who wants to tap into that, what are your thoughts on the kind of diversity that’s perpetually lacking because it isn’t easy?

I think most studios see diversity and accessibility as most directly related to class prices. Sometimes they will offer a free class or two or do energy exchanges for free passes and they consider this opening up their studio. It’s also tied to the attitude that “whoever comes in the door is welcome,” but what this forgets is all the people who aren’t coming in the door. All the people who wouldn’t even come close.

It’s also tied to the attitude that “whoever comes in the door is welcome,” but what this forgets is all the people who aren’t coming in the door. All the people who wouldn’t even come close.

The barriers are more complex than price. Some studios intentionally create, though usually don’t acknowledge, the barriers they set up to accessing their space. They want their studio to have a sense of a prestige. They aim to increase the sense of belonging for a select, privileged group. Some of this is related to “just paying the rent,” but much of it is masked elitism and classism.

There is an implicit and sometimes explicit suggestion that yoga studios are places of serenity and therefore are not political, but this simply isn’t the case. The politics of belonging play out in every class where every students look, dress and move in the same way. We are grooming people into the status quo and calling it liberation.

In some ways, these dynamics make our work at Community Yoga Vancouver easier. By taking a stance against exclusion people can see what we are not. There is a growing resentment toward corporate yoga culture and, in a way, we make use of that. The physical space for our classes is sparse, unevenly lit and strangely shaped. It’s a typical East Van anomaly and we chose it on purpose. We want to embrace the strange, the unpredictable and the unpolished. We value raw honesty over pedicured pretense and it shows in our space, our politics and our classes.

Some neighborhoods are just more stressful than others, and I’ve heard the sentiment of how great yoga could be for the people who live in some of the harshest ones from people who have some familiarity with those places while fitting in well enough with the typical yoga demographic.  I’ve felt like this was one of those obvious sentiments that generally ignores the way the world often works.  The financial and cultural divide between the two worlds is a great one, so where do you think the border is?  And how out of the way is it for people on either side?

There is some incredible work being done to offer yoga to marginalized communities — prisons, women’s shelters etc. Street Yoga, Yoga Outreach – they do wonderful inspiring work to offer yoga without all the glitz and stuffiness of a studio setting. In terms of neighbourhoods though, I think yoga teachers and studio owners, people who have personally benefited a great deal from learning about yoga, often take the attitude that yoga will always be welcome and helpful, wherever they offer it. Frequently there is a sense of perceived need and yoga is offered as a solution. The problem is that often we aren’t asking — what is the actual problem here? Is it a lack of yoga? Or are we looking at a community shaped by a history of racism, colonization, violence against women and institutionalized poverty? When we don’t ask the broader questions we can’t possibly give informed or helpful answers.

When we don’t ask the broader questions we can’t possibly give informed or helpful answers.

All that said — I think yoga can work to increase well being and deepen connection to spirit, if people want to learn the practice. Even so, for yoga service to work well we need to be conscious of the context, the historical and political realities, within which we make our offerings. Without this knowledge we’re imposing solutions that are not grounded in understanding. We run the risk of reinforcing and deepening the divide between server, service and served.

For Community Yoga Vancouver it was important to acknowledge a service gap that exists between very marginalized people and middle- to upper class people. Both these populations have people working to provide them with yoga, though in starkly different ways. What this produces is a gap between the two groups, where the working class is underserved. We created a pricing structure that makes yoga accessible to people who are living pay cheque to pay cheque, but aren’t necessarily experiencing life-altering poverty. This approach was hugely influenced by the Community Acupuncture movement, which seeks to serve the same population and also utilizes a community based model.

Is it a necessity to practice yoga in a group?  Is there anything that you think is gained from it as a social endeavor?   

Fundamentally, yoga is a journey inward, sometimes to a fault. It has often been used as a transcendental, individuating practice. “Turn inward to find the divine.” This approach lends itself simultaneously to reinforcing attachment to the self, in the short term, and on the other hand, supports empty rhetoric about discovering oneness. Actually discovering “one-ness” takes more dedication that the average yoga practitioner possesses —  myself included, though it’s not for lack of trying.

Can you see the contradiction here? You come to yoga alone, leave alone and then wear a t-shirt that says “We Are All One.” If we really believe that, if we really want to honour our connection to divinity and therefore to each other and existence in general, why not do so both in our practice and in our politics? It’s not an automatic connection, but it’s one we can cultivate.

That’s a pretty heady answer. So let’s break this down a bit. Yes, you can practice yoga alone. I have an at-home practice I find invaluable. The limits of this, though, are that we perpetuate self reliance over community ties. We don’t learn to release tension and holding in a trusted circle of our peers: people who are hoping for the same release, release that can only come with trust.  Trust in the safety of our bodies, the safety of space and the safety we find in community.

We don’t offer our presence up in service to others when we practice at home. We lose the potential for connection. When we practice together we offer ourselves up as examples of people in process. We might be turning inward to discover peace and stillness, but we do it together because part of our practice is developing unconditional support for ourselves and by extension, for others. When we practice together we build empathy because whatever patience we show ourselves, we extend to everyone else in the room. This kind of radical empathy and space-holding makes for rich, lasting community ties … and hopefully solidarity as well.

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Thanks to Andrea for her time.  Find her blog at http://moonlitmoth.wordpress.com/

Afua Richardson on her influences, the subtlety of gals’ comic fandom, and the best flute-metaphor ever

Afua Richardson is a comic book illustrator whose most current work is on Top Cow’s “Genius.”  Her vibrant, emotive art has been utilized by Marvel, DC and Image comics, and has seen her nominated for multiple Glyph awards.  Also a classically-trained musician and a singer-songwriter, the work of Afua ‘Docta Foo’ Richardson has been a surprise I very much want to see more of. 

My interview with Afua below the “KoiMaid Queen”:

By, and courtesy of, Afua Richardson. Enlargeable.

Your artwork bristles with energy.  Is that a quality that you’re conscious of trying to illustrate?

Thank you much!! Energy? Absolutely. As an artist, I feel it’s our job to communicate. One thing I love about the genre of anime is that the apex of motion is always overstated and extreme. I want people to feel something when they look at my work.

Who or what would you say influenced your style?  I see a little bit of everything in there, from what would be considered traditional comic artists to manga and the pre-supposed finer arts.

My influences are drawn (literally and figuratively) from Hiroaki Samura (Blade of the Immortal) , Frank Frazetta and everything Heavy Metal spilled out in the ’70s and early ’80s that my adolescent hands could snag. I adore Chris Bachalo’s work, and I’m in awe of Travis Charest’s attention to detail. A few anime that changed my brain were Evangelion and Kite. I can’t forget Czech artist Alphonse Mucha and the various European artists known for playbills and posters in the late 1800s, early 1900s.

As a woman – a demographic that statistically isn’t supposed to care much for mainstream comics – what work in that vein have you found particularly engaging?  Did you ever feel like there was a lack of work that, beyond universal themes, spoke to you on a simple, self-reflective level? 

I’d like to first address the earlier part of your question. I think that, like, most things– women keep a lot of things to themselves (unless it’s in relation to drama). Say for instance when a guy checks out a girl: they turn their whole head around. Perhaps if they are feeling bold, they’ll whistle or say good morning. When a gal checks out a guy–you’d be surprised if they even move their heads, but their eyes move. I am generalizing horribly, but, long story short: men stare, women glare. This may be a weakly prefaced metaphor, but my point is, women have ALWAYS been into comics.

By a gamma-driven Afua Richardson.

Look at the duo who created Wonder Woman. Gals–they just don’t often show it as much as guys might. Now that it is socially acceptable to be a geek, they are pouring out from the cracks, totting graphic t-shirts, non-prescription glasses and taking their knob kneed stand. I’ll also say that many gals will keep their secret geek obsessions to themselves so as not to be the raw meat in the wolves den. Some gents just don’t know what to say to a lady. They might as well be a different species of animal. So to avoid an onslaught of horribly formed jokes and gawking, they kinda avoid social gatherings unless in a group or have the cookies to handle their own.

The medium of comics is a diverse one. Just like any other form of literature, there are things written for entertainment . There are also things that are under the guise of entertainment that are thought-evoking. Planetary changed me after I read it. Also, Transmetropolitan. Don’t need stories about girly plights to ring true to me. I don’t need stories about make-up and lipstick and dating. I like stories about life. Personal revelations and overcoming unspeakable odds, even if the greatest advisory is the protagonist itself.

I like stories about life. Personal revelations and overcoming unspeakable odds, even if the greatest advisory is the protagonist itself.

You grew up in NYC.  What positives and negatives do you think that’s given you as an artist?  Or just as a person.   I sometimes wonder if, with a few gilded exceptions, the city is a little more inclined to people who don’t grow up there.

New York is a living freight train–breathing at a rabbit’s pace, moving like a swarm of flies. You don’t know any other way to be when you live there. There is survival or death.  This death can be a job with no way out. Survival can be a gig that makes it that much easier to get by. In a place where you can run into anyone and anything at anytime, it makes you raise the bar on your abilities. There’s a hunger in that city. You’ve got to be five times as amazing in order to be considered half as good.

But at the same time, you’ll possibly bypass the amazing bits of your work in the sea of apathetic audiences who are too cool to clap and too saturated by awesome to give you a second glance. Iron sharpens iron, I always say, and this city is made of adamantium. But most of the people who give the city a bad name are the ones who trickle in who are not used to so many people invading their personal space. They become irritable and are usually the ones who shoulder check you when you’re getting on the subway or drive past you in their cabs because they’ve heard terrible things about brown-skinned people via outdated media.

But at the same time, you’ll possibly bypass the amazing bits of your work in the sea of apathetic audiences who are too cool to clap and too saturated by awesome to give you a second glance. Iron sharpens iron, I always say, and this city is made of adamantium. But most of the people who give the city a bad name are the ones who trickle in who are not used to so many people invading their personal space. They become irritable and are usually the ones who shoulder check you when you’re getting on the subway or drive past you in their cabs because they’ve heard terrible things about brown-skinned people via outdated media.

As an artist, I was able to find amazingly skilled professionals in a local Starbucks to hang out with and tell me what I was doing wrong. Damien Scott (Batgirl 1999) was the 1st gent who offered me a professional gig doing finishing pencils for his comic. But I was too afraid I’d mash it up. That would NEVER happen where I am now. I mean, not never, but it’s not as likely.

More Afua goodness.

As a classically trained flautist, please give a musical virtue of the flute.

A musical virtue?  Hmm. The flute is like a feather sword gently cutting the air. For a time it was my 2nd voice. For an even shorter time it was my only voice.

The flute is like a feather sword gently cutting the air. For a time it was my 2nd voice. For an even shorter time it was my only voice.

Like a lot of industries, the music one isn’t what it once was.  At the same time, I feel like there’s a certain variety in the thirty percent of what isn’t quite the juggernaut stuff—one that still requires networking and luck, though.  Thoughts?  Is there anything about music’s ever-changing mediums that has helped kept you at it?

I was discouraged for a while. I had great opportunities, but none were ever quite right. Either I wasn’t ready maturity-wise or the company wanted me to sound like something else because they said it wouldn’t work. Even producers I knew who I’d share my ideas with would say I had to go along the straight and narrow if I wanted to sell. Then a year or two later, a sound-alike would win a Grammy… Now, I think there is a shift in the tide. People access their music via the Internet. Even though you can buy hits and Google can lower view counts at will, people are not limited to the small rotation of radio anymore. Things have returned to a word of mouth basis–something I don’t think the industry had anticipated in time to catch the wave. I think now I’m more confident in my vision; I just lack the production to get it completed. But I’m working on that. One step at a time.

As I know from a friend of mine, time is not on the side of a comic artist.  What projects give you pause?

Well, with the project I’m working on with Warren Ellis, I started out sketching enthusiastically and rather quickly, and then I realized I wasn’t the artist I wanted to be to create the project. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity (which I still fear I have, taking entirely too long to get started) , but I didn’t want to crap it out either. There are others but, I think I’ll hold my tongue on it. ;]

How did your first paid comic gig come about? 

My 1st paid comic gig came about some time in 2003 or so. My boyfriend and I just broke up; I needed to move out of his place. I just left my job because my boss’s husband body slammed her across the bar like a WWE match, and I wasn’t about to step foot in that place. My friend Brandon Graham was on his way to Seattle, and he had a small comic gig for Sizzle magazine and a small apartment in Astoria that he mentioned I should take. I was scared to do comics regularly but I had plenty of time to draw 10 pages for a quarterly comics in black and white for NBM Publishing. The writing was terrible and my work was just as bad, but it’s fine. We all start somewhere.

True.  And finally, since then, what as a singer-songwriter yourself did it mean to you to receive the 2011 Nina Simone award for Artistic achievement?

Nina Simone was one of those people–you know, those iconic “no one can tell me who I am and I’m not going to break out of a box I’m going to karate chop my way  through the roof to be who I am regardless of what anyone has to say” kinda people … It’s an honor to even tote something with her name on it.  Ironically the award sits broken on my dresser. The crack in it reminds me that it’s just a pair of shoes I’ve got to fill. That my work is just starting and the best I’ve got to give is yet to come.

… You know, those iconic “no one can tell me who I am and I’m not going to break out of a box I’m going to karate chop my way  through the roof to be who I am regardless of what anyone has to say” kinda people …

I always wish I knew more. To see more of Afua’s work, listen to her music, or commission art, check out http://www.afuarichardson.info or @AfuaRichardson.  Thanks upon thanks to Afua for her time.   

Julia Wertz on The Infinite Wait, being off Pizza Island, and comedy with humanity

Courtesy of Julia Wertz. Click to enlarge.

In September, Koyama Press is releasing The Infinite Wait, the latest comic collection by Julia Wertz.  Wertz’s comics are multifaceted–always contemplative and often funny on disparate levels.  Whatever she’s up to is worth a look, like this interview I did with her:   

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Your upcoming collection of comics seems like it’s going to bridge the gap between the younger you and a more whole, self-aware you.  (And, by the way, to that end, The Infinite Wait is a great title.)  When you get criticism like, “What happened to you?”, do you ever feel like growth isn’t something some people are crazy about?

It doesn’t really do that, even though I can see why you’d get the impression it would from what I’ve posted. It’s not a memoir that is supposed to cover from childhood until now, there are just parts of it that depict different ages but from a somewhat removed point of view. And it skips over most of the big events in my life that have shaped who I am. I made The Infinite Wait because I had been working on a book about sobriety that was really becoming too difficult to manage and I wanted to do something that was much more lighthearted. So, uh, I did a story about being diagnosed with systemic lupus. Yeah. But it was so long ago that it was easy for me to write about.

There are some readers who definitely don’t like growth and wish I would just keep making dumb jokes about my early 20’s. They have pointed out that they think my growth/maturity is selling out/losing my edge/etc…to which I say f*ck that noise. If that’s what they think, I don’t want them reading my comics anyways. A person who never ages past age 25 is a nightmare of a human being and I want nothing to do with them. I welcome growth and maturity because it means not being a miserable, self-absorbed 20- something twat who can’t see beyond her minimum wage job and drinking problem. I want my readers to grow with me, and if they don’t want to, that’s fine, but don’t bother me about it.

Since the home of the Pizza Island collective is no longer where you make comics, I’m curious how you’ve since managed to deal with the reason you once mentioned for its existence–the detrimental state of isolation that a cartoonist (or a writer or artist or anybody else) deals with to produce long-form work.

Isolation is a big problem with cartoonists. We tend to work all day/night every day/night because we can, and it can be even worse if we don’t have roommates or relationships to break that up. If left to my own accord, I will work on projects from right after breakfast to right before bed, and it’s a very unhealthy way to live. Now that Pizza Island is gone, I try to keep it in check by making sure to plan time to hang out and do nothing. I just finished a huge project so I plan on trying to do that all summer, but turns out “relaxing” is very difficult. But it will be good for me to re-enter the social world and be around people for awhile. Cartooning is a precarious balance between isolation and awkward socialization.

If left to my own accord, I will work on projects from right after breakfast to right before bed, and it’s a very unhealthy way to live. Now that Pizza Island is gone, I try to keep it in check by making sure to plan time to hang out and do nothing. I just finished a huge project so I plan on trying to do that all summer, but turns out “relaxing” is very difficult.

You occasionally host a show of stand-up and comics.  How do non-stand-up visual comics come into play?

We just use a projector and go slide by slide, panel by panel, and read along with it. It doesn’t fit everyone’s work, but usually it’s pretty informative and entertaining because you get an idea of how the cartoonists wants you to read and hear their work–not how you interpret it. And it makes funny comics even funnier to hear goofy voices and have the timing controlled for maximum hilarity.

You’ve mentioned your affection for Louie CK’s show in a past interview.  What is it about it, and feel free to give an example, that engages you?

I think (as has been said many times before) that he’s doing something very new to television that is entirely his vision and it works really well to point out the awkwardness of just being a human being trying to get shit done without any dramatic Hollywood flare. But his flights of fancy are amazing and touch on every idea that’s ever popped into anyone’s head but they couldn’t formulate it right. And I like how he’s not afraid to not be funny. I hate comedies that are all for laughs and have no humanity to them.

I often think about the segment where he puts a shirt over a water puddle on the subway seat and everyone praises his heroism. Every New Yorker has had that fantasy. I also think he has a great respect for women that comes through in his writing. Some people might disagree but to me it’s obvious that he’s a gentleman and a scholar. Also he’s disgusting, which I love.

 You’re just about the only person with a blog I’ve read who has witnessed the OWS protests firsthand and mentioned the antagonizing of police by some of the protesters.  For my part (and yours, I’m sure), saying as much isn’t to criticize the reasonable protesters–but, rather, speak to some small part of a bigger picture . . .

I actually have a lot of criticisms about how OWS was handled and I think it ultimately failed despite good intentions. And I think a lot of that was due to the lack of education of protestors. There were definitely people there who were informed and had valid and intelligent opinions, but the majority of protestors I encountered couldn’t really explain the intricacies of their stance beyond economic inequality. And a few protesters were clearly just there to be dicks opt the police, who are just working class folks with families. Yes, there was corruption and mishandlings amongst the police, but that’s true with any group of power, and even within OWS. I didn’t mean to ramble on about it, and I do want to say that I mostly support the sentiment of OWS. I just think it was poorly executed and the majority of participants were ill-informed.

You seem to be a pretty big reader.  What books have been engaging you lately?

The last book I read that really stuck with me was Stephen King’s 11.22.63. It was completely engrossing. I find that I enjoy non-fiction much more these days, but this (obviously fictional) book is based in real events, which makes it delightfully absurd. I’ve always loved Stephen King even though he has many cringe worthy moments in his books. But when he’s good, he’s so f*cking good. Also, anyone who wants to write or is currently writing should use his half memoir, half instructional book On Writing. I learned more from that book in a few hours than years of high school English.

… Anyone who wants to write or is currently writing should use his (Stephen King’s) half memoir, half instructional book On Writing. I learned more from that book in a few hours than years of high school English.

What do you think you’d be doing if being a cartoonist hadn’t worked out the way it has?  Would you still be chasing “the dream,” so to speak?

I don’t think I ever really had “a dream” to chase. Comics kind of fell into my lap. I knew I wanted to do something creative but I couldn’t quite narrow it down until I found comics. But I really have no idea what I’d be doing if I hadn’t gone that route. I was a waitress for 10 years before I became a full time cartoonist, so who knows?  But if I could do anything in a fantasy life, I always wanted to be a speleologist (cave explorer) and a cabaret dancer. Obviously those would never have worked out.

Well, not with that attitude, but the worlds of speleology and cabaret dancing’s loss is comic’s gain, so check out Julia’s work at http://www.juliawertz.com/The Infinite Wait will also be on sale there in September at http://www.juliawertz.com/store-2/.

Thanks to Julia for her time.

Alana Davis on variety as a genre, her musical respite, and “The Easy Way to Stop Smoking”

Cover of Alana’s 2005 album “Surrender Dorothy.”

Alana Davis is a singer-songwriter whose music is as multi-layered and as soulful as her voice.  From the broken-heart balm that is “Free”  (‘But I guess that your heart was free / Free to take the best part of me / And leave a hole where my heart should be’) to the soaring self-determination of “Create” (‘I’m going to plant roses of my own’), over three albums she’s produced a trove of great music that’s not quite like anything else out there.  And wouldn’t you know it?  She’s a little bit undersung–just not in this interview.

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One of the things that always struck me about your albums was the theme of struggling in a world that was often disappointing, and that was made especially difficult when you seemed to have this really high ideal of what love is—or could be.  The optimism woven throughout always seemed richer for that.

You’re right … I do write about love with a high ideal, and how in a relationship we often fall short of that, yet it’s the ideal that keeps you truthful, keeps you open for communication and eager to grow… The search never stops, does it?! Someone once told me if you’re not writing about love, you’re not in the music business! I laughed at the thought and looked at some of my non-love songs and realized, aw damn, these are about love too! Love of humanity, love of flaws, love of the search….

I guess I think that that combination—one that involves some positive outlook that doesn’t paint over reality—is at the heart of soul.  Soul has been at the heart of rhythm and blues long before it got shifted over into designated genres like rock and roll and r&b, often with less of a connection.  So, you had a lot of breakthrough success with your “32 Flavors” cover, which was probably the most refined pop experience on an album in the vein mentioned above.  And then you did Fortune Cookies, which was, altogether I think, a really refined and soulful bit of everything.  At the time that came out, in what way did that become a weakness to getting it out there?   Do you think the same hurdles are there today?

I have always found it ironic that I’ve received more radio play for my less emotional pop music than for the more soulful songs … But, yes, I do think that has something to do with how a record is received … For me, my experience was that the more “soul” songs I turned in, the more pop songs they wanted to counter with! It was ridiculous and ultimately I believe I ended up with a record that just had too many flavors (if you will!) for them to categorize … and if a record has no category then it has no perceived market, so they didn’t have a clue how to sell Fortune Cookies. Plus 9/11 going down the month I planned to release the record did not help; everyone’s priorities shifted, and with good reason…

Records with many vibes will always have a harder time being sold, until we regard variety is its own genre … I think anyone who’s been listening is bound to have many influences these days—I mean, there is just so much out there!! The industry clings to the labels but musicians must be themselves and redefine those labels …but it takes time.

The industry clings to the labels but musicians must be themselves and redefine those labels …but it takes time.

My music has always paralleled the rest of my life. I’m born of many influences and my music reflects it. That has always made marketing me a bit of a head scratcher. Luckily for me, you can’t stop a rock rolling down the hill. Whether I have a machine pushing me or not, I will be making music.

“The Mic in the Stone” by Robert Pinero.

They say no one gets paid what they deserve in the music industry; we are all overpaid or underpaid … So far I have been one of the underpaid, but I hope to be overpaid at some point in my life! lol

Recently I made a choice to stay home with my daughter and raise her by hand, rather than giving her to helpers and juggling work and missing so much of these precious early years with her, and because of it, well, I am just too poor to even go out to dinner, let alone pay musicians to go with me into the studio!!! That’s just my reality right now… (and I bet there are fans who think I just don’t write anymore 😦 ) But I am always living, loving, taking it in and spitting it out; it is a process I hope to be involved in until the day I die. And one day I hope to have a vehicle to share it again, as I miss the soul connection of knowing someone else feels what I feel … Meanwhile my daughter is growing beautifully, so I can’t complain.

I think your struggle as a musician is one that writers can relate to in a similar way.  Are there any books (or comic books) that are helping to keep you going these days?

I wish I could say I have time to read, but I seldom do—not since motherhood! But I do have a couple of books in the queue, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. I know, another singer who smokes?!?! Yes I am, and this year I plan to quit … Meanwhile, haven’t started the book yet! I also have a deck of cards I occasionally draw from for vibe or perspective on an issue.  They are an oracle deck; this one is called “Earth Magick.” It’s beautiful.  Unlike the tarot, it parallels us to the earthly elements and movements …I am an earthy chick so it connects with me well. 🙂

In addition to being a great songwriter, you’re also one of the masters of the cover.  “Friends” really is just great–it’s one of those cases where the cover may surpass the original.  And beyond Whodini, you’ve done excellent renditions of Blue Oyster Cult and some obscure guy by the name of Marley.  Any other reworkings swimming around in your head?

Thanks for your compliment regarding my efforts covering songs … I don’t have any covers planned for the next record, but I bet there will be one in there! There are so many AMAZING tunes out there that beg to be interpreted again and again … Actually, my mother recorded some very beautiful songs on her Atlantic release in 1964.  I may actually cover one of those next time around ….

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Until the next time,  feel free to check out Alana’s pages on Itunes and Amazon

Thanks to Alana for her time.