Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.
“Love is an industry, so hold me please.” —Settled Arrows, “St. Pancras”
Mars: As I’m sitting here and writing this, it is 7 a.m. and I’m awake. Sometimes this is when I go to bed. Sometimes I’m already two hours into one of several daily walks through the city having taken stock of where Saturn is and waved goodnight to the Pleiades as the sun turns the morning pink. Those walks are my medicine now. I recently learned that I’ve reversed the diabetes that I was diagnosed with in May 2020. This process has transformed my life.
To know who you are is to understand what you’ve been through and to see clearly where you’re heading. I’ve had a lot of practice at having the rug pulled out from under me and my life put on hold. Since I made the promise to myself to choose my music as my vocation, I’ve learned to live way below the poverty line. I’ve gone with absolutely no income for almost half-a-year at a time—several times. I had almost gotten used to it when the pandemic hit. The Great Pause.
One month into lockdown I found myself in the emergency room. This was my third hospitalization in recent memory. The first instance happened on my first vacation in four years when I opened up to a friend-of-a-friend about my mental anguish and found myself being tackled by police and hospitalized against my will. (We all know based on how things are in this country that I am lucky that that’s all they did.). The second was after a serious fall that snapped my ulna in half. The recovery period for that injury was my first taste of sheltering in place and the beginning of a deepening of my being outside of society. This time, however, I’d pulled a feather out of my bellybutton and I was bleeding.
In the years prior to that moment, I was becoming too afraid to get out of bed most days. I’d hit a saturation point of anxiety and loss. I was whiplashed from trying to meet the expectations of a world of gatekeepers that seems designed to remind us of every microscopic way that everyone is worthless. A world that forces you to jump through its hoops only to turn its back indifferent, or worse, mock you for caring.
At this time—to be fair to myself—I’d also conceptualized, performed and recorded seven solo and collaborative albums, directed a youth theater program for close to a decade, participated in a research project with the late, great Pauline Oliveros, turned news headlines into spontaneous opera that I sang live on the radio, as well as other creative achievements. These notable but ultimately small bits of success were mostly ignored or used against me by others in the “industry.” This came from the type of people focused only on power who for whatever reason felt the need to put me in my place, and also strangers that see any performer and their vulnerability as easy target practice for their shadow.
I’d also had a lot of fun. I’d honed my creative focus. I’d met and worked with some of my absolute heroes in music. I’d gotten into seriously engaging debates about specificity vs. abstraction in improvised avant-garde sound. I’d waxed gibbous about modern content in classical libretto. I was found by Lovey Doves that embraced my songs, my idealism, my romance. I’d become part of a scene. But then again, I’d also watched my hard work help others get ahead while I was falling so hard through the cracks. I’d had my trust betrayed often.
I’d also been really childish. I’d seen myself slide into the depression that becomes the excuse for tantrums. I’d spent many hours in drunken rooms filled to the brim with the smoke of inertia and opinions. I’d watched us gossip about one another to avoid having to actually be there for each other. I’d watched my nihilism grow, and I fed it every day. I built a cocoon out of tequila, the ashes of burned bridges and my proud disillusion. I was on fire from the flames of validation denied. I was stuck in a loop of paranoia that hordes of entitled careerists would come along to profit from and take credit for my ideas. I was lashing out at anybody who could get close. The world was just going to use me against myself, so why try at all?
At this time, I was also deeply grieving. I’d watched six of my closest confidants lose their battles with cancer, schizophrenia, the parole system and self-loathing, respectively. All of these people were in my age range and were my safety net in a world that wasn’t feeling very safe. It is tempting to glorify the dead, but these people truly were the purest and kindest of us. Without the love of these individuals, I wouldn’t still be here. Without the love of these individuals, how am I still here? I spent my days questioning why the world would put these selfless souls through the torment and anguish that led to their departure from this planet. Why was I spared when I was so self-involved? Grief is like a lockdown. It shows up and makes it impossible to do anything else. I was hit with so much loss at what was already a very dark and difficult time, so I’d begun to hide away from the world. At this time, I was already more than a year into self-isolating. It was a month into the pandemic. The pandora. The Great Pause. I had pulled a feather out of my bellybutton and I was bleeding.
I still have no idea how that feather got there or what life would look like for me if the wound that resulted from tearing that bit of goose down from myself hadn’t led me to the emergency room that led to some blood work that led to my diagnosis as diabetic. Where would I be if lockdown hadn’t set me free from the perpetual high-school cafeteria world of dive bars? I have no idea how I’d be sane now without endless strolls through an empty city during those first blessed months when nobody was even driving at all and you could just tell the air was clearer. And you were blissfully alone.
The long walks that I still take every day ensure that my solitude is in service to the work of moving forward and staying inspired. I feel so lucky that I live in a town with a rich window into history where I can walk for hours and still be discovering new treasures each time: Cobblestone glistening moonlight. Grace’s Tavern sitting boarded up and hiding in plain sight, still containing the air of old secrets. But also: progress. The pits in the earth like open wounds where yet another architectural monstrosity will soon go up. A home that one day might literally explode when a gas line gets hit by yet another tractor that is building yet another live-in storage unit for the omnipresent, imaginary, wealthy superhero that seems to dominate the vibe of every city but who might never even show up. And also: courage. A blue heron leaping out at me from the rushes of a pond near my house. A golden statue of a unicorn in a window decorated with messages of hope and art drawn by children who now learn from home and have to show up on a screen every day. Two bald eagles squawking loudly on a ship in a harbour next to graffiti on a traffic median that reads: TACT.
As I’m sitting here and writing these words, I am listening to my most recent album: Omnaeopic. The majority of this album is taken from a live show that we performed on a mountain in the middle of the night having taken stock of where Uranus was and waved hello to the Pleiades as the moon carved an arc over the rapidly changing leaves of the valley below. The crickets on that mountain can be heard so loudly throughout the recording and are the perpetual observers of these songs. The “perpetual observer” is also the place in the mind where the songs come from. Often when I tell stories like the ones you’ve been reading, somebody will say, “Well, just write a song about it.” That isn’t quite how it works, though, at least not with the songs that stick around.
Art is the intersection of discipline and synchronicity. The process of creating usually teaches the artist or inspires them to be better in some way. Music comes from a place beyond time, and its impact is beyond logic. The medium of musicians is the invisible. You can’t hang our work on a wall, yet it manages to bind itself with memory and emotion–the most stubborn and fleeting aspects of our human capability.
Because much of Omnaeopic was improvised, I didn’t remember singing some of the lyrics until I listened back later. There are snippets of the songs that get stuck in my head now as if they are somebody else’s. The one that replays most in my mind is an unrehearsed line that I sing at the end of “Jason On A Bed Of Sundaes,” a song I wrote about one of my closest friends four years before I met him. In it I sing about being taken to places you are afraid to see but finding a new kind of grace. That to me is the greatest lesson of this time: to transform the anxiety of the unknown into the peace that comes from really digging deep. This new era is an opportunity to cut the umbilical cord of what used to feed and distract us. To learn a new kind of devotion to elevating the patterns that shape our moods. A turning point. A chance to start over.
Nihilism is a whirlpool that the individual has to pull themself out of. As unfair as it feels at first, our trauma is ours alone to heal. These days I am getting better at identifying ways that I’m displacing my focus. I’ve found my bliss because the world got quiet enough to hear it again. I’m blossoming because I finally have nobody to answer to. I currently have nothing to distract me from the reality of who I really am. It has been a reckoning for me but also a really sacred time when I’m learning about the power of solitude and the mercy of starting over. The Great Pause.
But what do we do after The Great Pause? Have we even truly allowed the pause to happen? As a city, a country, a species? To truly stop and do nothing. No striving. No jockeying for position. No performativity for the ever-elusive approval of others. When will we ever again be handed the gift of this time to delve this fully into our inner worlds? Was anything really even that enjoyable in the before times? Complaining was the national pastime. We’d drag each other through so much scrutiny and competitiveness. Over-stimulating. Under-nourishing. Every industry poisoned by hierarchies and cruelty. Does anything have to be the way it is? How deeply can we really change? Can we keep moving more and more to a solution mindset? What do you need to get rid of? What do you need to try for the first time? What haven’t you thought of yet?
In an odd twist of fate due to the changes in the world, being an outsider has turned from being the thing that was causing me to want to leave this world to the thing that has allowed me to receive so much luck and a newfound stability. I definitely am so happy with the way things are in my life at the moment. I’m not interested in going back to whatever it was we were all doing before. I am restful in a world of change that seems designed to remind us about every microscopic way that everything is divine. The Great Pause. A hawk sits perched on a streetlight. A neon ball of yarn sits crumpled near the tires of a Pontiac. A temporary human being is dance-walking up the street, finally free like the chills rushing up their spine at how good the transitions on their friend’s mixtape are. A head stuck on the sequence and feet sunk in wet cement. Honest and laughing with the tired chainsmokers eager to get home, knowing there’s still more to do. Happy they weren’t alone when it happened.
“When are you gonna land, cuz heaven came. All the sorrow melts away. Are you there too?” —Settled Arrows, “Heaven”
Omnaeopic and our other works of conceptual slumber punk can be found here.
PS: I can wag a finger at the culture and tell it to stop, but the truth is there is so much that I want to do and be in the world, too. I have long been obsessed with the idea of owning and operating an inclusive queer, alcohol-free bar in South Philadelphia. I would call it: Thirst. It would be a late-night café with a jukebox. We’d have music nights, but there would be no applause until the performer’s entire set is over like in classical music. This way people wouldn’t have to perform. They could just be. We’d encourage deep listening. I would foster a hedonistic feeling of luxury and provide a much needed safe haven for outsiders in an area of town that is very conservative. Hey, maybe we could move into Grace’s Tavern!
I want to make a film inspired by my psychiatric-hospital experience. There has yet to be an accurate, artful depiction of those places that isn’t sensationalistic or fodder for campy horror. The topic is still taboo. Some of you probably even started judging and discrediting me when you read that I’d been hospitalized. The people who find themselves institutionalized are already so stigmatized, and then a whole layer of trauma gets added by their time in there. That is unacceptable. The film would be funny, too, though—don’t worry. One of my nurses in the hospital was really hot. I wonder how he’s doing. He was the only person who worked there who didn’t seem afraid of the patients or act superior to us.
I want to have a published series or even a whole anthology magazine called Extenuating Circumstances that will feature current anthropological writing. For instance, I’ve done some research into the impact meth has on hook-up culture, and I’d like to write about it from a compassionate place, academically. This is yet another taboo topic that has a wide-ranging impact on the nature of community and desperately needs human understanding. The other anthropological study I’d like to start is a piece on garbage collection. I would trace every step those old paper towels go through from the homes of different people and their various carbon footprints to the places they wind up. I want to understand the quality of the lives of the workers. Trash collection is not quite as taboo a subject as meth or self-harm, but it is certainly something that is not widely understood or seen with transparency or a sense of collective responsibility.
I would also like to have a radio show once a month where an ever-evolving cast of guest musicians and artists from all genres and levels of mastery would chat casually and intimately about a wide range of spontaneous topics and improvise music together. I would call it Waxing Gibbous.
If you’d like to help me make these ideas a reality or can introduce me to Róisín Murphy, please feel free to ring my bell: email@example.com.