Interview: Nancy Kells

The energy of Richmond artist Nancy Kells flows both inward and outward. Inward: the hums, chants and ethereal resonances of her solo music as Spartan Jet-Plex, which both maps out the intimacy of her living room and the swirling, inarticulable monologue of the inner voice. Outward: the collaborative drive of Friends For Equality, which gathers support for non-profits and social justice organisations through the release of compilation albums, the creation of zines, the curation of live shows and more.

I was honoured that Nancy took so much time to dig into both of these facets of her work. Below, we discuss the intersection between activism and music, her experiences in improvisational ensembles and the current and upcoming happenings with Friends For Equality.

I want to start by asking about Friends For Equality. I notice that the Facebook page for the project was created on 8th November 2016, which gives me a strong indication of what the motivations may be for starting it. FFE has released two compilations so far, and I love the role that compilations can play in this sort of project – not only as a means for raising funds for particular causes, but for harnessing disparate musical energies into a common ideological conviction. Could you tell me more about FFE, and about the experience of pulling these two compilations together?

Thank you so much for this opportunity to speak with you! Yeah, the US election had everything to do with it. The entire 2016 US election season was rough, and I had a bad feeling that the worst was going to happen, and of course it did. The following day I was commiserating with James Smith of Fox Food Records. Brexit had also recently passed prior to the US election, and we were both down and out about the state of things. We both felt so helpless and hopeless and decided to do something to counter it by relying on what we both know and love best – music – and we decided to organise a music compilation to support organizations that have long been doing social justice work.

I think we both threw ourselves into organizing it as a way to cope. I know I certainly did. It was therapeutic to have a collaborative project to focus on forging relationships with musicians around positive resistance while supporting great organizations doing this work. I think a lot of people were looking for that kind of connection to others, and so I think everyone involved was holding onto something comforting and channeling negativity into something positive by being a part of it. We needed something decent to hold onto, and we needed that reaffirmation that there are many people out there outraged, but yet motivated and inspired to do good and stand up in the face of this hate, and the outpouring of support was amazing.

Friends For Equality started out as just one benefit music compilation, but almost immediately after we started taking submissions for the first compilation, I started organizing a zine centred around social justice and civil rights. Then shortly after that, I organized a benefit show for Forward Together and SisterSong: two outstanding organizations that have been doing great work for a long time now. My vision for Friends For Equality morphed into having it become more of a collaborative rotating collective and benefit music label. James already has so much going on with running Fox Food Records, and plus he has a family and small children, not to mention a new baby, and so I ended up just expanding on it on my own. He helped me with reaching out to musicians with the second compilation as well, and many local musicians and artists here have collaborated with me with organizing the local shows. After the first local benefit show, we started organizing the second music compilation and also another local show for Nationz Foundation in Richmond.

We currently are accepting submissions for issue 2 of the zine, and the next goal is releasing a physical album on cassette and lathe-cut. We also have some merch up on our Bandcamp. You can purchase different kinds of stickers and buttons, as well as issue 1 of zine and a Friends For Equality t-shirt. All proceeds for all sales on Bandcamp are split evenly between Planned Parenthood and Southern Poverty Law Center.

One other main goal is to support local non-profits as well. I live about an hour south of Richmond in the country but I go to Richmond to see and play shows. I recently started volunteering for two non-profits, Nationz Foundation and Virginia Anti-Violence Project (VAVP). I’ve joined VAVP’s sustainability committee and just became a co-chair earlier this month. By volunteering, my hope is to build relationships with other activists and social justice and civil rights organizations and collaborate with them and host benefit shows for them.

There are several other terrific collectives in Richmond that I have been learning about who do great work and host shows and support artists and musicians. One is Ice Cream Support Group founded by Jafar Flowers and a friend of theirs. There is also the Soft Web Studio Collective. They have a space for artists and musicians and host educational and support workshops and many other things. I am hoping to collaborate with them this upcoming year.

It really is inspiring to see so many people doing so many wonderful things for their community, and the resistance is strong, but it has always been strong in this community. My goal is to get to know more about what is already going on there and learn from them and collaborate on projects together to serve the community. When we have local benefit shows, the proceeds go to whichever local organization we have decided on. My goal is to do one for VAVP and another for Nationz Foundation in 2018.

Secondly, the goal is to do physical album releases on cassette and lathe-cut of different bands and musicians. We aim to support poc, queer/nb, and women musicians with these releases and also have the musician or band choose the organization that the proceeds go to. I am pretty excited about this, and we are accepting submissions for that as well. Submissions for zine or releases can be sent to spartanjetplex@gmail.com and more information is on our Facebook page. The goal is to release at least one musician’s or band’s album by the end of 2018. We are likely going to organize another music compilation sometime down the line as well, but our focus for 2018 is the physical release, issue 2 of the zine and at least one local benefit show – hopefully two.

I have met so many wonderful and talented people doing this work, and so lastly, I have to mention that doing all this work and relationship building has helped me grow immensely as a person, activist, artist, and musician. Through this, I met Sarmistha Talukdar (Tavishi)and another friend, Erik Schroeder. Both are awesomely talented musicians, and they encouraged me to try live improvisational music. I discovered I love it despite my struggle with anxiety. I don’t play my solo stuff out, but I fell in love with improv in general, and it really has helped me develop and grow as a musician.

So I guess all in all, Friends For Equality has been a lifeline for me, and it helped me dig deep and access some of the best parts of myself and others. In reality, our world is not any worse off in most ways than previously. I think that the 2016 US election and everything after it has highlighted and has pushed many of the disgusting and horrible things about our country, society and world to the forefront. It became clear after the election just how little I was doing and how much more I need to do. I think many of us (especially those of privilege) were under the false impression that we were succeeding in making all this progress in last eight years, when really, we weren’t, and instead of relaxing or benefiting from a false sense of security, we really should have been working and pushing forward more.

PHOTO BY CRAIG STEPHEN

You released a new Spartan Jet-Plex record back in September, which I’ve been really enjoying recently. One aspect I particularly like is the explicit mention of the fact that this album was recorded in your living room, which places a very intimate frame over my listening experience. What does your living room look like, and how does a recording sessions in there usually play out?

Alone time is important to me in general and especially for my music. My solo music is so personal to me. I love collaborating too and am drawn to working with other musicians, but I also have the same strong desire to do my own thing alone. I need both to feel normal and whole. When I am writing, playing around or recording, it is relaxing and freeing for me. I usually engulf myself within a certain feeling or emotion. I imagine being in a specific moment of time or during a personal experience or something or someone I can imagine and conjure up. I describe it as a kind of psychosis or dream or a fragment of a feeling. These feelings are often dark, but it changes. I often channel that horrible stuff as a way to create something positive. It is healing.

I have a simple setup in my living room. It has grown over time towards making it as easy as possible to record when I want on the fly or whatever. I use an old copy of Home Studio 2 by Cakewalk on my old Dell laptop (2008) and have a Tascam US-122 that I run everything through. I mic most instruments except my Korg and drum machine. I mic all the guitars and keyboards. I use different Casios and guitars and percussion or whatever else- some toys. I use a few different pedals and effects as well. I play around with different styles and approaches to songs and songwriting. At least that is what I am striving for. Some of the songs are guitar-based while some are key-based. Some are driven by the beat or percussion, and some have no drums. Some are planned out every step of the way, and others have elements of improvisation. Sometimes I use improv to spark a song and other songs are planned out with improv added to them. Some are lyric driven while others are instrumental. I aim to try different things and build on what I learned from my previous albums or period of songwriting when working on the next set of songs.

NANCY KELLS – HOME RECORDING SETUP

I understand that this is the first album of yours to have a concept at the centre of it. Could you tell me about the concept?

All my songs come from the natural result of what is going on in the world and in my personal life or how past events are playing out or affecting the present, and I feel like this particular group of songs fit together in a way that songs on previous albums didn’t. I think my other albums are cohesive, but I think the songs on Uncomfortable Quarters tell a story and flow and mesh around common ideas and feelings more concretely than probably my other albums. They were made during a very specific dark time in my life and also a very specific time in the world and in the United States. I think all this forms the concept of Uncomfortable Quarters.

I’ve read that the album also captures everything that you’ve been trying to do musically. I realise that these sorts of ideas don’t necessarily lend themselves to easy articulation, but what are some of the ideas/sentiments that you’ve been driving at with your music recently?

Love and loss are in there always. They’re the essence of life, but also I think the album embraces different approaches to songwriting. I touched on a few ways of thinking about songwriting and what drives or sparks a song. I try different approaches and then expand on what I’ve learned so far. I suppose I like to share my music by releasing them on Bandcamp because I think all these things I’m expressing are incredibly human and anyone can relate to them even if they don’t want to think about some of the darker or depressing sentiments I may be relaying. I cannot imagine playing them out live because they are so personal, but at the same time, I have a desire to share them whether or not anyone is listening. When I started putting my music out there during Myspace days, I doubt anyone but a few friends ever listened. Now I have a handful of people who really do listen and support what I am doing, which is thrilling. I’d be making this stuff and putting in out there regardless, but it means a lot to me that there are a few people enjoying it too.

Your vocal reverb is incredibly distinctive. It’s blurry, but not in a way that obfuscates language; slightly estranged without losing intimacy. Could you tell me about your relationship with echo and the voice? Is there anything in particular that appeals to you about treating the voice in this way?

Thank you. I like the way my voice sounds with the effects, and in truth, I think the effects are a barrier I can put between me and the listener, especially if the listener is me. When I hear my raw vocals played back, it makes me feel emotionally naked. It is difficult for me to listen to it. I don’t play my solo stuff out and cannot imagine doing so. It is too intimate. I love singing and playing music, and it makes life so much more bearable and pleasant, but the only music I enjoy playing out live is improvisational music played collaboratively with others. The thought of playing my solo stuff out is dreadful to me. I am not entirely comfortable with the sound of my raw voice upfront and personal. I have a few songs with no or minimal echo or reverb, but I do use it almost always. I am more comfortable hearing myself that way, and like I said, I just like the way it sounds. It is definitely another cover or source of comfort though.

Putting reverb and echo on my voice also makes the recordings sound more intimate, alone, eerie, and dark. I think it accentuates the feelings and emotions or world I am trying to conjure up with them. I’ve always loved singing, and singing, like any other skill, gets better with practice. I think my voice has matured over the years, and I am far more comfortable doing it now than when I first started recording, and I think you can hear that in the songs. I recently posted two albums on Bandcamp of my first recordings from late 90s and early 00s, many which were recorded on a portable Tascam 4-track. I think you can hear a progression from those to where I am now in my music, and seeing that progress pleases me.

I understand that you’re part of the improvisational collective Womajich Dialyseiz (along with Sarmistha Talukdar, who I interviewed on ATTN last year). How have you found the experience of moving into improvised music and improvised performance?

I love being a part of Womajich Dialyseiz. I think I touched on this a little already. I have only been playing improv out for about a year now. I have struggled with anxiety and depression all my life, and although I was a ham as a young kid, I have terrible anxiety and stage fright as an adult. I think when I was really young, I had all this confidence and fearlessness, but it didn’t last long. Life experiences wore away at that, but I think doing music and art has helped me regain some of those feelings back. Playing out certainly has, and it really has helped me grow and stretch as a musician. I am very grateful to Sarmistha and Erik, who I mentioned earlier. Erik organizes improvisational ensembles for recordings and shows. Those two gave me the courage and support to give it a try. They made me feel welcomed and valued, and I will forever be thankful to them for that.

WOMAJICH DIALYSEIZ – PHOTO BY COURAGE MUSIC PHOTOGRAPHY / JAKE CUNNINGHAM

On that note, collaboration seems to have played a prominent part of your year. Along with shows with Womajich Dialyseiz, you released a new album with Noxon Light University, several tracks with Legendary Thunderbirds of Death!, as well as several pieces in collaboration with Berko Lover. Do each of these projects cater for different artistic inclinations within you?

Yes, definitely! I absolutely love collaborating with others on music, and it is something I am drawn to doing and actively seeking out. I get something completely different out of collaborating with others and out of each new collaboration than I ever could get from only creating music on my own. It helps me get into a new frame of mind with each project, and it is exciting to blend styles and ideas with other people towards creating something new. It is rewarding, and it also helps me grow and stretch as a musician. Everyone I collaborate with is so talented in their own unique ways, and it is fun to see how our ideas come together to create something new or form a new sound. I think all the collaborations also end up influencing the music I am creating independently at that time, and hopefully, I am inspiring the people I am working with in turn. I think it is all really positive.

What records have you been listening to recently?

I love having the opportunity to share this and love hearing what other musicians I admire are listening to at any given time. I move between listening to new stuff- new to me, not necessarily new, but music I missed when it came out or music from before my time, and also listening to some all-time favorite albums or musicians and bands that I always go back to again and again. There are several on recent rotation.

Elizabeth Cotten – Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (1957 but reissued in 1989 on Smithsonian Folkways) and also Vol. 2 & 3

She has been on recent rotation and is one of those musicians I go back to frequently. I discovered her music around 2007 or 2008 and fell in love immediately. I absolutely love her guitar playing. I have all 3 volumes on vinyl and digitally. I’ve covered Freight Train several times on my own and with my partner on our project, Legendary Thunderbirds of Death! We’ve covered Freight Train and When I Get Home.

World Spiritual Classics: Volume I: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (released by Luaka Pop as this collection in 2017/music from 80s/90s)

Spiritual gospel music with ambient synthesizers blended with Hindu devotional music. She recorded this music in the 80s and 90s and made tapes in limited quantities that she gave out to people in her spiritual community. My friend Erik played this in his car for me and I fell in love and purchased it on vinyl, which also led me to researching and learning more about her. This was on frequent play as well while I was writing and recording the songs on Uncomfortable Quarters.

SZA- Z (2014) and Ctrl (2017)

I am late to discovering her. I recently got and have been playing these two of hers. I love her voice and the way she blends R&B with rap and hip-hop, new wave, and rock. I recently picked up Ctrl on beautiful green translucent vinyl.

Dolly Parton – Just Because I am a Woman (1968)

This is probably my favorite Dolly Parton album.

I bought the CD a long time ago and recently got it on vinyl with a gift card my brother gave me from Amoeba Records for my birthday. This is one of her albums I go back to again and again.  This is her second studio album and the title song is about the double standard that exists when it comes to sex. Of course that was pretty daring for a song in 1968, and here we are about 50 years later and not much has changed.

Angel Haze – Reservation (2012)

This is Haze’s 3rd mixtape. I discovered Haze messing around on Youtube watching and listening to hip-hop and rap. I purchased the mp3s of Reservation and Classick on Amazon after searching around to see if I could get a physical copy instead with no luck. Haze’s music has been on frequent play for me now and also while recording Uncomfortable Quarters.

Malvina Reynolds – Malvina Reynolds (1971) and Sings the Truth (1967)

I discovered her music in early 2000s and she is also always on rotation for me. I found copies of these albums on vinyl from sellers on Discogs. The self-titled one is my favorite of the two. She didn’t start making music until she was in her 40s. I love her voice and guitar playing. She wrote some of the best lyrics and political folk music in my opinion. I have covered No Hole In My Head (last song on self-titled), but mine is more based on her live version on Pete Seeger’s show, Rainbow Quest, which you can find on Youtube. I’ve also covered I Don’t Mind Failing, which is off Sings the Truth.

Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2006)

I am very late to this. I knew who she was of course. She was in the news all the time and you’d hear about her whether or not you wanted to. This album was huge and won something like 5 Grammy awards the year it came out. I think these are reasons I probably avoided checking her music out sooner.  Plus, I have an aversion to the way the media reports on troubled souls, so for these reasons I had no idea how much I’d love her music. I randomly watched a documentary on her and was intrigued and loved the music in it and  decided to check it out. I used the gift card my brother gave me for my birthday to get this one on vinyl too. I love the way she blends the sound of big band jazz with Motown, R&B, and hip-hop.

Brianna Lea Pruett – Winter Apple (2004)

Her label, Canyon Records, describes her music as California folk, country, infused by her Appalachian and Cherokee/Choctaw heritage.

I discovered her music a couple of years ago soon after she passed away and her music has been on rotation lately. She struggled with depression and committed suicide in early September 2015 right before I released my first album (Cross the Line) on Bandcamp. I immediately loved her music and related to it upon hearing it. I purchased a mp3 of this album after looking for physical copies without luck. I also have We Come in all Colors EP and Gypsy Bells (2013), which you can purchase directly from Canyon Records. You can purchase Winter Apple and others on Bandcamp.

What’s next for you and your music?

I am always working on new SJP songs and collaborative projects. We have a Womajich Dialysseiz show in February that I look forward to playing. I have been working on new songs and I am excited about where they are headed. I always just sort of know when I have completed a set that goes together and I am not there yet. I have to see where these songs take me. Sometimes the songs come a little at a time and sometimes I have a huge spurt. I have a few I am working on right now and a few that are completed. Maybe they will be ready by the spring. There is also a new collaboration with Tiaira Harris (Berko Lover) that I am super excited about. She does rap/hip-hop and dance music and so our styles really blend together in a unique way. I posted a few demos on my Soundcloud but we haven’t officially released anything yet. We are going by Merge, and we have some new ones in the works and hope to release an EP sometime soon. Erik Schroeder and I have been talking about starting a new project for a while now so maybe that will happen in 2018. Jon Hicks and I are working on several folk covers we play all the time and plan to release another Legendary Thunderbirds of Death! album hopefully sometime in 2018 as well. I have high hopes for 2018 musically with SJP, collaborations and Friends For Equality. I also hope the 2018 US elections go even better than the 2017 ones did. We had some really great push back here in the 2017 US election. I am hopeful 2018 will be even better.