Transcending Medium Emily Bate. Photo by Kristin Goehring

Transcending Medium

The Practice of Failure

Right now the world is in dire need of a lot of different things, but in my opinion one of them is for more women’s voices to be heard in the public. When I heard that musician Emily Bate has a theatrical choral project with a women’s chorus I got so excited! She’s a killer singer-songwriter, composer and “harmony fanatic” whose ethos I really connect with. If that weren’t enough, Emily’s choral arrangements really remind me of some of my all-time favorite vocal groups like Kate and Anna McGarrigle and The Roches. Both of these bands are comprised of sisters whose voices just blend together naturally. One of Emily’s current projects includes Going Down Mount Moriah, a theater piece based around a 9-voice women’s choir. As far as I know Emily doesn’t have any sisters in this choir, but combined the women’s voices come out sounding like they’re siblings who’ve been making noise together for many years. I’m delighted that Emily has opened up about her experience going from singing and songwriting to leading a hybrid theatre project.

-Mira Treatman, curator

So I want to say a few things about working between, amongst, around, and in the thick of different disciplines, and to talk about my little explorations in that regard.

My background is music—specifically, the DIY singer-songwriter scene. I put out my first album on home-duplicated cassette tape at age 15, and for years after that I made records in my bedroom, played house shows, and went on tour. By my late 20s, I’d run through that cycle so many times that boredom had set in hard. I was rewriting the same songs and singing them with less and less conviction.

I found my work so stale I’d slink off to play shows in secret, not even bothering to tell my friends. Then I’d play very boring sets to a bunch of nice people who deserved to see art that at least one person in the room gave a fuck about, and hurry home as fast I as I could to groan on my couch.

All sorts of things drive an artist to make work. In the deep throes of musical ennui, surprising myself became the only measure of success I cared about. I started writing little short stories, micro-short, just trying to make myself laugh or dazzle myself by revealing something true I hadn’t considered before. If a sentence made me shake my head and say “Emily, you are a complete freak,” I kept working on it. I didn’t consider myself a “writer”; I was just tinkering around, playing with little sentences with casual absorption, like a kid would play with toy trains.

I put some of these shorty short stories into a zine, my favorite amateur-driven form. Actually it was a zingle (a zine + a music single). You download the music, and then read the writing that goes with. The word “zingle,” which I invented, was so delightful I immediately wanted to make another one. And performing the zingle live, by interspersing the songs and the stories, was my first big, exciting, interdisciplinary “aha!” It was nerve-wracking to read stories out loud, but then I’d retreat to the safer territory of songs. The experiment had an exciting result: the quality of the audience’s attention was palpably different when I mixed writing and music. The quality of my attention was different, too. The ideas in both elements leapt out into the room, buzzing with possible connections, like a performance collage.

At that point, the floodgates kinda flew open. In a year, that zingle transformed into a 9-person choral theater piece.

Here’s the bridge between a little xeroxed pamphlet and a big staged show with choral arrangements. I got from A to Z, basically, by witnessing and participating in art of other disciplines and learning little bits about how different people make work. I went to see dance, theater, visual art, and performance art, instead of just folk shows. And I became a collaborator on other people’s projects. When I started creating music for theater, for instance, I got to shed the idea (very prevalent and annoying in the singer-songwriter world) that a song is primarily a personal statement of feeling. The songs I wrote for the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz were freer and wilder than the things I’d been writing before, since I was concerned only with being a frightening green villainess.

I gained so much by experiencing artistic process in other disciplines. It wasn’t always easy – in theater it’s completely normal to perform a work-in-progress that’s so egregiously unfinished you might stop mid-sentence and say “Now skipping ahead two scenes . . .” I co-wrote a musical, and every time we had a work-in-progress showing, I felt like I had peed my pants onstage and was pointing to the stain the entire time. Eventually it sunk in that these showings are a convention in theater, and everybody in the audience knows that. But nobody ever did that in the music world. Surviving that process, and seeing the positive effect it had on what we were making, was a big mental shift for me.

I think we’re all familiar with anxiety around being bad at something. But circling back to the writing I did for my “zingles,” creating something outside your discipline is an exciting chance to play in that anxiety and push through. Since I’m not an actor, I’m not devastated if I don’t act well. If somebody asks me to act, I say “fuck it” and see what happens, without feeling overly exposed. It is an opportunity to safely practice failure, since I will certainly fail many times in my primary discipline.

The failure practice allowed me to be creatively ambitious again. I wanted to create a theater piece with music and movement, and I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t a painless process—the giant roiling knot of out-of-my-league anxiety was a big thing—but the fresh air I’d gulped in as a collaborator had helped me cultivate bravery. I plunged forward in some combination of curiosity-plus-anxiety, and it produced lots of work. I think my ideal creative state is a tightrope walk between the two. If, inside of a challenging and high-stakes moment, you can become really present and interested in the outcome, whatever it might be, you’re onto something.

Plus, here’s the great part: nothing’s wasted! Whatever didn’t work out as planned is information to use next time.

Which brings me to how I’ve started to evaluate the creating process, once I’ve finished something. After I make something new, I’m really interested in 1) how the piece worked out in the world and 2) how it felt to make it. When combatting self-doubt, encouraging yourself out of a creative slump, or battling other creative demons, how it feels is a really important consideration. For instance: I created a really rich piece of theater that connected with the collaborators and the audience. It entailed emptying my bank account, not sleeping for 3 weeks, and walking around with the sensation that my head was clamped in a vice. After my show ended, I spent some analyzing how those sacrifices felt as I was making them. It was important not to trick myself into giving a particular answer, or judge myself for what I actually want. It’s all information I can use to change or commit to my process, and keep myself working for the long haul.

I know that a major criteria for my sense of success will always be chasing the spark of surprise. I can’t think of any reason to create something otherwise. The surest way I know to find that surprise is by stretching myself sideways, into other artistic worlds, and playing in the spaces in-between.

Catch Emily Bate and collaborator Erin Markey at L’Etage on August 24th, in a buddy comedy performance project masquerading as a night of duets. The show, called “Hey Girl! That’s My Girl!” features a full band. For tickets & info visit emilybate.com.

Wings Sean Martorana_small

Disposable Life

Altered States

Sean Martorana is an institution. If you are involved in the local art scene or are a member at Indy Hall, you have seen his work. Everything is Sean’s canvas, from wine glasses to jewelry; his iconic designs have graced both murals and products. Most importantly, Sean believes in fair pricing for artists and has generated one of the greatest self-pricing formulas I have encountered.

– Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder

When documenting my Disposable Life, I knew I wanted to do something beyond just snapping photos. I decided to alter the photos as I was taking them. I added a piece of red acetate over the flash of the disposable camera. The results sum up a week in my life pretty well: a blend of color and chaos, of studio time, producing shows, booze, and partying. In this series, it is not always clear which is which. I’ve painted over and animated some; others I have left in their original (altered) state.

Rhenda Fearrington This Moments Sweetness

Artist to Artist

New York Soul

Rhenda Fearrington is is considered a New York soul in the heart of Philly Jazz. Rhenda was singing in local bands throughout Queens when a bandleader named Reginald “Budd” Ellison, who a year later would become Patti Labelle’s Musical Director, asked if she’d sing in his band. An opportunity came to tour with Award-Winning Composer/Producer & Percussionist, James Heath, Jr. aka MTUME, doubling as an opening act for Lionel Ritchie and the Commodores. Later, her years as a backup singer with Multi Grammy Award Winning Roberta Flack took her all over the United States and the world. She later became involved with the Philadelphia jazz scene and has been busy performing throughout the city after releasing her first CD in 2012, “This Moment’s Sweetness.”

-Pamela Hetherington, curator

PH: You are a native New Yorker. How did you end up in Philadelphia?

RF: The short story is that love brought me to Philadelphia. I met a jazz musician from West Philadelphia. We became smitten while touring with MTUME, got married while I was touring with Roberta Flack, and then I started having babies! One son is a New Yorker, one is a Philadelphian, so I always say I have dual-citizenship! Of course, the cost of living and a growing family kept me in Philadelphia, which required that I embrace change.

I’ve known you for about three years, but even for those people who don’t know you, it doesn’t take long to see that you are an extremely optimistic and positive person who takes quite a bit of time to celebrate so many people in the Philly artist community. How do you stay encouraged as an artist, producer and presenter, and what are your favorite ways to encourage others?

I love seeing the glass as half-full and I’ve spent many years encouraging others that the glass was just as full for them as it appeared for everyone else. What keeps my spirits buoyed are the little triumphs, that really aren’t that small—like completing a long-awaited CD while holding down a full-time job, maintaining a mortgage, and being a vigilant advocate for my younger son (who is diagnosed with Schizophrenia), while maintaining my advocacy for Philadelphia Jazz! What keeps me encouraged in my artistic pursuits is trusting that I have time to discover and travel down every avenue that excites me, believing that I’m in a race with no one other than myself, thereby living for the approval of no one else but mine and God’s.

I love it. But let’s be real for a minute. Philadelphia has its issues, and I know you’re not afraid to address them. What is one of your main frustrations with the Philly music scene?

I suppose one of my pet peeves with Philadelphia’s music scene is that musicians and vocalists seem reticent to spread the word about other performers, right here in their town. If you have a voice or an audience of people who follow you, then you could let others know where the venues are. I know it isn’t fair to speak in extremes, so while it’s not every musician, there’re so many who have never shared a post or event advertising other musicians. I think it would be revolutionary if people just used that little ‘ol SHARE button a tad more often! Social media is powerful when it’s utilized for all the good things. Besides, what’s better than sharing good stuff about Philadelphia Jazz?

You do so much good and consistent sharing of others’ work on social media that it is absolutely infectious. I think it’s easy to get siloed as an artist; we work alone so often on our own projects that it is challenging to have an awareness of where we exist in a larger community. And speaking of a large musical community, do you miss the New York scene at all, and if so, in what way?

I don’t miss the New York scene, as I suspect it’s changed dramatically since I left it in 1985. As a native, I was blessed to have made prudent choices in working with great artists, from whom I learned. I was always paid, but I made more money for gigs than many people I know make now for the same kind of gigs. I doubt that’s a New York thing or a Philly thing.

Maybe it’s a timing thing. The flip side of social media: when you can hear any musician or album for free or close to free on Youtube or Spotify, it’s challenging for any musician to capture the true dollar amount for their music in performance. What does Philly jazz need right now to become more visible?

If I were a psychic, I could tell you what Philly Jazz needed to become visible, but I’m not! Many fine non-profits are investing greatly in building an audience for Philly Jazz, which is a slow process. I am told that the jazz audience is dying, an audience to which I belong. I show up. What I would love to see is the city taking on a campaign to market Jazz nationally, and not just through social media. Television is still viewed. The same demographic that’s on Facebook also watches “Scandal” or “How To Get Away With Murder.”

I totally agree. I’m really interested in how you stay focused as an artist. How do you choose the projects that you want to do? What really excites you to do something new?

What gets me excited about any new project is performing new material and the potential of connecting with a new audience! Creating a theme for a show, or switching up and performing for children. My other consideration always turns to not just the band I assemble, but am I being contracted for an equitable/liveable wage?

So, what is your dream project and could you do it in Philadelphia?

I have several “Dream” projects that I can’t begin to explain, but my current project involves reaching out to children! I have been cultivating relationships with schools in Delaware County for over 20 years, so this project necessitates being in Pennsylvania.

Thanks, Rhenda!

Sound mixing. Photo by Lauren Karstens.

In the Studio

A Studio Without Limits

I chose George Alley as one of my artists. George Alley lives in Philadelphia. Curate This is about discussing Philadelphia. George Alley lives in a Philadelphia that is much different than yours and mine.

-Adam Peditto, curator

I’ve been asked many times, “how do you write a song?”

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All of my songs come from a different starting point. I wrote the chorus of my song “Summer Trophies” walking down the street bored because I didn’t have my headphones with me, but it took me another six months to write music to fit those words to a melody. “Smoke” began with an interesting pulsating bass sound that I had created on my keyboard that I wanted to use. I had already written the lyrics as a poem and created the melody to match them up on the first take. With “Undivided Attention” I wrote the melody first, and had to create words to phonetically match it. My new song, “Hard to Hold,” started off with a title and an interest to explore a song in the key of F, which I hadn’t yet done.

If you have chosen the path of writing music solo, like me, well, it can suck at times. Another advantage is that I get a weirder product, because I’m not an expert musician. I’ve studied voice and music theory for a while now, but not totally knowing how to create every element of a song causes me to make less predictable choices.

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Writing a song is an ephemeral process. I really couldn’t tell you how to do it because each song requires a different way to enter it. It’s like breaking into a house. When you are really lucky the song leaves the door open and you can walk in and take what you need in 15 minutes, but this is rarely the case. Usually you have to case it for months before you get in.

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Time. I am constantly frustrated by how much time it takes to get into the proper mood to create a song out of the fleeting musical ideas I have. I write mostly at home, either on the bed or downstairs. When I write songs at the computer it feels too much like my day job. When I write songs at a cafe I get distracted by what I look like writing, so distracted that I don’t do any writing. I just pose with a notebook.

I think it’s fine to get feedback from others. I’m often playing demos of my songs to friends in the car or texting it to them. But remember you don’t have to do what they say. One of the nicest things about not being in graduate school anymore is that I can take feedback and completely throw it away without repercussion.

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When a song has reached close to a final level, I work with Naked Highway, a pop band that is also a team of two producers, Sy Borcari and David Lee Rotten. Who help with their production skills to bring the song to its greatest power. I’ve just switched things up for my new song “Hard To Hold” and recorded my vocals at their studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was nice to have their expertise on hand and also not worry about my neighbor’s barking dog trying to mar my vocal takes-which in turn stops me fantasizing about poisoning said dog.

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So in short, I really don’t have any way to tell anyone how to write a song, but you might as well try, especially if you have a nice wardrobe and aren’t an idiot.

All photos by Lauren Karstens