You’ve been settled now in Baltimore for a little while. What do you like about Baltimore and what projects have you been working on there?
Its a paradoxical place. For being one of America’s more “dangerous” cities, it’s also one of the outwardly friendliest. There’s a high contrast of lifestyles in a place that feels both dense and abandoned. Some neighborhood communities are long-established, guarded, and difficult to breach, but they can start to feel like extended family once trust is built.
I’m in a Master’s degree program at Maryland Institute College of Art. I’m focusing my studies in music business so I can provide a better service and resource to the artists I work with at The Epiphysis Foundation — a boutique record label and artist development firm I founded in 2007.
You’ve been touring since you were 15, right? After 20 years of touring and being active in the underground and DIY communities, what major changes have you seen?
Well, outwardly the biggest changes have been with technology and accessibility. On the one hand, it’s exciting how many people are making inspiring art and that they’re able to do it within communities they’re building from the ground up. What’s even more spectacular is that these patchwork communities have been quilted together and new ideas can be shared in ways that supersede commerce and in ways that feel like true culture.
The downside of this is that these communities have also become over-saturated with DIY touring musicians, some with different motivations than others. For those trying to sustain a modest living from it, the pursuit has become a lot more challenging. It is crucial for artists to be clear in their objectives.
If I’ve learned anything in 20 years, it’s that even if you aren’t trying to become some superstar it’s important to try and wrap your head around your place in the greater industrial climate, even if where you’re standing is seemingly insignificant. The industry pays close attention to what is happening, even if they’re not staring directly into the underground. The adjustments made in industry also sway sub-cultural climates, and consequently those simply trying to stay afloat doing what they love most.
What role do you think Myspace played in over-saturating DIY communities? After its collapse, do you think it became more difficult for unknown performers to promote their music?
My experience with Myspace circa 2003 – 2006 was revolutionary. I’d never felt I’d reached an audience so broadly, engaged them so organically, and made beautiful projects and events happen with people so quickly. It seemed to be a perfect resource for people to explore, enjoy, and personally connect to new music from the most remote corners of anywhere.
I never felt exhausted by this growing presence within my own circles. I felt that all the non-music related businesses hindered the experience, really. Myspace should’ve developed a better platform for separate markets, in my opinion.
I think there are some really great tools out there today for reaching people and for understanding who you’re reaching, but you have to be more calculated about it than before. Things are definitely more fragmented now, too. While Facebook and Twitter probably have millions more people out there to potentially connect with, it’s like standing by a busy freeway, and screaming into the noise. You’re simply not going to be heard, not in the way that it was so easy to hear and be heard in those golden days of Myspace.
Those three albums, along with Crosses, in large part were written around the same time, so there are many cross-references and recurring motifs. As narratives, I feel they are separate stories, but yes, all my work is designed to convey a singular unfolding, unifying allegory.
Within that framework, there’s still room for cover songs too, including Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” How do those fit in?
My covers always intend to pay homage, ultimately. Often I become lost in some tone achieved in a cover version. When such a tone aligns with a story I create, a cover can end up becoming a sort of commentary on the whole or a window into something else. In some ways, it feels like a way of connecting with a song’s creator, somewhere in the ether, and attempt to take in what they’ve taken in, to hope that it somehow translates with the listener so that they can also take it in.
I feel completely aligned with the works of Nirvana, Leonard Cohen, Lana Del Rey, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, and so many others. I feel equally about lesser-known artists like Golden Ghost, Mother McKenzie, Sam Goodwill, Porches, The Shivers, Richard Dawson, and the list is endless. It can feel equally natural and terrifying. I love music that feels unique yet relative to everything. I love losing myself in it.
For years you were on an almost perma-tour with no real breaks and no real home base. Was it hard to find the time and space to write new music? Has your approach to songwriting changed now that you have more time and personal space?
For me, touring and writing doesn’t mix. I’m creative in a different way when I tour, trying to take in subtle dynamics place to place and trying to determine how to create the best possible live performance within those parameters, really a different type of creativity from sitting down and writing a song. Songwriting for me comes from a deep stillness that I haven’t yet achieved on tour.
I feel my approach to songwriting is sourced the same way as it ever was, however, I am more deliberate in the process now than ever. I’m trying to create a new kind of poetry with subtleties — coaxing lyric and melody and tone to work together in ways I’d never tried or imagined.
Inwardly, I feel like I’m really growing as a musician and as a poet, but outwardly, I feel like a kid playing in the sand, so I don’t expect many to pick up on these subtleties without very close scrutiny.
You toured in China last year, right? How did that come about?
Yes. That was my first visit to Asia. My friend Benjamin runs a venue in Guangzhou. He coordinated with the US Consulate there, who ended up securing a cultural grant and an invitation for me from the Chinese government.
It was a tedious balancing act for everyone involved to organize it, but in the end it was a beautiful experience. Everyone I met was extremely warm and curious with what I was doing.
What types of venues were you playing in China? Did people seem responsive to American folk music?
I was playing all sorts of places, really. Some venues were large night clubs, some universities, theaters, but also some very modestly-sized tea houses, pubs and DIY spaces. And with different offerings.
Sometimes we would just screen the film, Werewolves Across America. It was one of 44 films let into the country for public screening from outside China. That still blows my mind.
Sometimes, I’d just be interviewed on a stage. I did a TedX event in Fuzhou.
Sometimes I’d play songs on my own. A couple nights I formed a rock band with Chinese musicians.
Sometimes it could’ve been any combination of these presentations. It was all very interactive, if not outright impromptu. I felt like no one really had any expectation, including me.
Those who came to me declaring their love of “western music” seemed to only know The Eagles. I only got requests for “Hotel California.” I would counter their request with Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, Lana Del Rey, Dolly Parton, Leonard Cohen, and it was like I was talking about some really obscure artists no one had heard of. I suppose that’s exactly what they were to them.
Dawn or dusk?
Perma-dusk, the golden ratio of darkness, perpetually getting darker whilst never becoming dark.
Nirvana or Metallica?
I am led by Nirvana, the fixed light I eternally cling to in the golden ratio of darkness.