Amy Potter

 

"I like starting out with a lump of dirt and turning it into to something that, at best, will transform space and change the way people feel about doing everyday things."

 
 
 

Press the play button to watch the video.

 
 
 

We flew into Nashville from NYC and found ourselves in the midst of a country music festival. Live music seemed to be streaming from every open doorway, and judging by the number of pedal-powered bicycle bars cruising around town, we could tell it was going to be a rowdy night. After a bit of exploring and happy bellies full of barbeque, we called it a night because we had to be up early in the morning to meet up with Amy Potter.

Amy’s studio is in a beautiful valley, two hours east of Nashville, not far outside of Liberty, Tennessee. She moved here from Virginia after finding a community of like-minded people. The area afforded the ability to live close to the land, and it took a strong pioneering spirit to raise two sons and make the life that she has today. “Moving here was my instinct to reinvent the wheel and see what a sustainable life would look like. I didn’t have electricity for five years, and we milked cows so we had fresh milk everyday.”

Eventually she discovered ceramics and learned to throw on a wheel. She and some friends built a wood-fired kiln, located where she used to milk cows. These days, she primarily uses electric kilns, but they still use the wood-fired kiln at least once a year, which provides an opportunity to experiment with techniques like salt glazing. “There’s definitely a potters’ community around here. Tennessee Tech is around the corner, and they have the craft center. A lot of potters have come here to work and take classes and have ended up staying.”

Amy makes tableware, fermenting crocks, sinks, and custom tiles. When she is not making things out of clay, she also teaches yoga and martial arts. Every year, during Memorial Day weekend, she helps organize the annual Crazy Owl Retreat, named in honor of a late friend. You can reach Amy through her website amypotter.com, or find her on Facebook and Instagram. She also sells her work in Nashville at the Frist Center for Visual Arts. Amy will be opening her studio to visitors as part of the Off the Beaten Path Studio Tour from October 23-25, 2015.

We found out about Amy’s work while we were searching for fermenting crocks. If you have ever tried to make wild fermented foods, you know there are a few problems that can arise when fermenting in plain old glass jars. Lids often don’t seal properly. Ideally, a lid will keep oxygen from entering into your ferment while also allowing gases to be released. Also, veggies often float to the top of the brine where they can mold when exposed to that oxygen. A well-designed crock solves those problems by incorporating a weight to keep the veggies submerged under the brine and has an airlock lid which, when filled with water, prevents oxygen from getting into the ferment.

We picked up two of Amy’s crocks when we visited her studio. They have been a great addition to our kitchen and have been happily bubbling away since we returned home. Using crocks is truly much easier, and we’ve found ourselves fermenting much more since having them. For our first round of fermentation, using our new crocks, we decided to make a simple sauerkraut and some sour beets. Here’s the method we used to make the beets.

 

Recipe

3 lbs/1.4 kg peeled beets
1 jalapeno or serrano chile
4-6 cloves of garlic
4 qt/3.8 L water
195 g non-iodized salt
2 bay leaves
2 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp caraway seeds

 
 
 
 

First, give your crock and all your tools a good washing. Make sure that all your tools are made of non-reactive materials like ceramic, wood, stainless steel, or food grade plastic. Next, go ahead and mix the salt and water to make the brine. Blend the chile and garlic with a cup of the brine and mix back into the rest of the brine. An inexpensive kitchen scale is a good way to take the guess work out of this part of the process. If you don’t have a scale you can use the basic ratio of 1 tbsp coarse salt to one cup of water, this is about a 5.4% ratio of salt to water. You can adjust the amounts in the recipe up or down, but just make sure to keep the salt to water ratio the same.

Peel and wash your beets. We cut ours in half to help speed up the fermentation process. Alternatively, you could shred them up with a grater to make a sort of beet kraut.

 
 
 
 

The spices and herbs you use will help infuse additional flavor into your beets, and it’s one of the most enjoyable places to experiment. We went with bay leaf, caraway seeds, black peppercorns, and dill. Lightly roast the bay leaf and spices in a dry pan to reawaken their flavors. We tied these up in a little cheesecloth bag before adding them to the crock along with the dill. You could just as easily grind them up, or toss them in whole.

 
 
 
 

Set the weight on top of the beets, and gently fill the crock with brine. Make sure the weight is covered by at least an inch or two of brine. Set your lid into the airlock rim and fill with water. Keep your crock out of direct sunlight in a place that stays comfortably in the 60-70℉ range. The water in the rim will slowly evaporate, so make sure to check it every day or two and top off as needed. After a month we transferred the beets into a glass jar and put them in the refrigerator, which lowers the temperature and slows the fermentation. Time is another great way to experiment with flavor when fermenting foods. If it isn’t sour enough for you after a month, give it a few more days and test it again. Don’t throw away any excess beet brine. You can do all kinds of things with this beautiful deep red liquid. We used ours to make watermelon rind pickles, and pickled eggs.

 
 

Jess Markt

 

“It’s funny because I didn’t have the faintest clue of what I was getting into. I absolutely had no idea what it was going to be like to coach people that, not only, didn’t share a language with me but, much more importantly, had very limited or no experience playing sports."

 
 
 

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Sports are such a large part of American culture. Even if you consider yourself part of the small percentage that don’t watch or engage in this form of entertainment, it’s undeniable the role it plays in each of our lives as it permeates the culture in which we live. In youth we engage in a multitude of sports at school, both for our physical well-being and as a means of teaching us how to get along with our peers. Sports teach us the fundamentals of engagement with our teammates, as well as our opponents. As we grow up, we are taught to think of sports as an enjoyable pastime, only the lucky make a career out of it. It’s easy to quickly label as entertainment and forget how it once, and still can, serve a purpose other than just mere fun. It can be a tool to gain confidence and problem solve. It can teach us lessons of success and failure. It can be a means of communication through unspoken language. Now try to imagine if you grew up without this framework. Does it perhaps serve a greater purpose than entertainment alone?

Jess Markt is a man who has been exploring the deeper benefits that sports can have on an individual and society. Answering a request made from halfway across the globe, he set out for Afghanistan in 2009 to teach wheelchair basketball to a small group of eager students. At that point, Jess had been playing wheelchair basketball for nine years but had never coached before. He was expecting it to be a one-time experience, a week spent helping twelve individuals learn the rules of the game. As for imparting the skills of the game, by his own admission, it was a very ambitious goal and couldn’t be fulfilled in such a short time. “It’s funny because I didn’t have the faintest clue of what I was getting into. I absolutely had no idea what it was going to be like to coach people that, not only, didn’t share a language with me but, much more importantly, had very limited or no experience playing sports. I created this six-day lesson plan and just kind of figured okay, I know they’re new to the game so I’ll teach them the basics progressing over two practice sessions a day. We ended up getting through less than one day of that six-day plan, both because I didn’t realize how much more time it was going to be to coach through a translator, who also didn’t have experience with basketball, and the difficulty of explaining something like how to use spacing and how to communicate with your teammates when you’re playing. None of these players had any of that background.”

 
 
 

“There’s no question that the most gratifying thing about this whole process has been getting to watch the players grow year to year. Each time I go back, they have a different way of seeing themselves."

 
 
 

After returning home he was intent on trying to find a way to get back to Afghanistan for further training and to equip the players with proper basketball wheelchairs. He also realized he wanted to expand to more players in other parts of the country. After finding a UK-based non-profit organization, Motivation, which builds sports wheelchairs for a fraction of their standard cost, and getting International Committee of the Red Cross to fund the purchase and ship the chairs, he made his second trip to Afghanistan in the spring of 2011. In Jess’s mind, the success of this newly-formed program was going to depend on a couple of factors. “It had to be done under terms that made sense to the local population and organized in a way that resonated with them and would make them want to continue to learn and grow on their own, independent of the times that I was actually there. The administration of the whole program had to be self-sustainable so that coaches were learning within the country, and both coaches and top players were leading and coaching new players as they came along. Eventually my goal was that they wouldn’t need me as much anymore, if at all, and that they would create this continually expanding program where, several years down the road, they’ve got the same infrastructure within the boundaries of their country that we have in the U.S or in Europe.”  For his developing ideas to become a reality, partnering up with Alberto Cairo, head of the ICRC orthopedic centers across Afghanistan, was crucial. “He is just an incredibly invaluable partner who has all this amazing experience building programs in Afghanistan that are sustainable like that.”

Since 2011, Jess has been making yearly trips, sometimes twice a year, to coach in Afghanistan. The program has expanded to include six men’s teams and three women’s teams, and there have been huge progressions among players across all provinces. An emphasis on teaching team concepts and leadership proved to be fundamental in their application on the court as well as in everyday life. “There’s no question that the most gratifying thing about this whole process has been getting to watch the players grow year to year. Each time I go back, they have a different way of seeing themselves. They’re now, in a lot of cases, going out and getting jobs, going to school, and doing these sorts of things. I think it has kind of opened up a different way of thinking about how they interact with people that maybe has contributed in some way to that success and desire to do more than what they were expecting of themselves before or that even their communities were expecting of them.” The community response has steadily increased where hundreds of cheering spectators now show up at national men’s and women’s tournaments, with news cameras and print reporters counted among them.

In the spring of 2013, the first men’s national team in Afghanistan was formed, and the opportunity to play on an international level was granted a year later. The players flew to Italy for matches against different teams in different parts of the country. “It was just an absolute life-changing experience for all of us and an absolute transformative event for wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan. I don’t think the Italians had any idea what to expect in terms of the skill level of the Afghans, what they were going to be like, and how they were going to react to this totally different environment that none of them had ever experienced. I think they found these guys were just as competitive, enthusiastic, funny, and engaging as anyone that they would interact with in any other country. It was actually really cool to watch during these games as they interacted with their Italian opponents shaking hands and high-fiving, interacting without being able to communicate with the same language. It was just two teams of basketball players playing against each other, just the same positive bunch of interactions and cultural exchange that I could have hoped for.”

 
 
 

“These women have the opportunity to go do some great things, but you have to work within the societal constructs and restrictions and kind of subtly help them to realize that this should happen and can happen, and that these opportunities have to be there for the women just as well as the men."

 
 
 

A women’s national team has also been formed, but there are still some challenges in getting that completely off the ground. There aren’t a lot of national women’s teams out there, so tournaments are fewer. Then there are a few cultural barriers.There is the viewpoint that women shouldn’t travel alone and should have a family member accompany them. There is also the challenge of changing how women are seen and that they should have the same opportunities as the men. “These women have the opportunity to go do some great things, but you have to work within the societal constructs and restrictions and kind of subtly help them to realize that this should happen and can happen, and that these opportunities have to be there for the women just as well as the men. I’m confident that will happen soon, but it’s a little more of a process, and I just have to force myself to be patient in helping to move that process forward.”

Aside from coaching in Afghanistan, Jess has also helped launch programs in Cambodia, India, and Palestine. “All the places where I go to do this work through the ICRC, now that I’ve been consulting and partnering with them, are either at conflict or suffering as the result of recent conflict, because the ICRC’s mission is to relieve the suffering of people that have dealt with conflict.”  The list of places where he would like to continue his work grows, but the challenge is finding the time as he is also coaching the Rolling Nuggets and Lady Rolling Nuggets NWBA teams in Denver, Colorado. Comparing domestic coaching to his experience coaching abroad, Jess says, “When I coach in the U.S I am working with players that, in most cases, are much more experienced. Some of the players have been playing twice as long as I have and have achieved far greater accomplishments on the court than I ever have. Coaching players who are so experienced and so knowledgeable and have such an amazing background of competitive success is a totally different experience, obviously, than coaching players that are brand new to the game and just learning the basics but, particularly in Afghanistan, as that program has grown, and the players have gained knowledge and just continued to absorb and grow and become better and better, the two are getting closer.”

Jess Markt’s competitive nature, coupled with his desire to help others reach and attain their goals, is what propels him further and further. The wide range of skills among all of the players he coaches provides a constant challenge for him to find ways of improving his own skills and abilities as a coach. “I expect myself to be better every time, which is difficult, because I am often zigzagging back and forth between more experienced players and places where players are brand new or without proper training. Coaching is not just learning something within yourself. It’s learning to communicate to people and help them understand things in ways that are not familiar to them. It’s learning to ensure that each player is having fun and an enjoyable experience but, at the same time, that they are feeling competitively challenged. One of the players on the Lady Rolling Nuggets is arguably one of the best players in the history of women’s wheelchair basketball. How do I bring something to her that is making her feel like she is becoming better because I am coaching her? How do I get better at conceptualizing, organizing, and making this sustainable? It’s intimidating and kind of overwhelming at times. It’s kind of like a rolling snowball. The more success I have with it and the more rewarding it gets, the more I feel I have to do, making it better, broader and more impactful.”  

A big reason for his coaching success probably has something to do with his ability to connect to people. He is able to make his players feel at ease while at the same time pushing each one to be better. “By far, the coolest thing about this is not just the broader impact basketball has made on these people that have had the chance to play it, but the individual impact that I feel like they’re each having on me and I get to have with them. With every single one of them, I’ve felt like I had a real bond when I left. That has been so important to me to have that be a core part of all of this, and it’s continuing to be my goal throughout this ongoing process. No matter how much this grows or how big it gets, I need to have that individual connection with each player.”

If you would like to learn more about Jess Markt’s work and the players, you can read more on his blog. There is also a feature-length documentary, tentatively titled The League of Afghanistan, that is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015. You can watch the trailer here. 

 
 
 
 
 

Meaner Pencil

 

Every subway line in NYC has its quirks. Quirks can quickly become frustrating, though, when they are frequently experienced. The G train has an especially bad reputation, partially because it is the only train that directly connects Queens and Brooklyn, and many of the Queens stops are no longer in service. It has the promise of being incredibly convenient, but rather than feeling grateful for its existence, commuters are often resentful of its inconsistencies, fewer cars, and long waits. It was this feeling that we carried with us down into the Metropolitan Avenue stop three years ago. It was late on a Saturday night, and we just wanted to get home to our bed. True to form, the G was taking a lengthy amount of time to arrive in the station. We were doing our best to practice patience when, at just the right time, we heard the powerful reverberations of a cello dissolving the stale, subway air. It was accompanied by a captivating voice. An impression was made and turned our impatience into serenity.

 
 
 

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It’s amazing how much the atmosphere was transformed. Down in the subway, where one expects to be crowded into metal contraptions with ear-shattering screeches, the cellist turned a hectic tunnel, full of restless commuters, into a calm and thoughtful space. Her performance reached deep and gave rise to the feeling of reverence. Her powerful voice, projected with the same resonance as her cello, evoked slight sorrow and reflective solitude. As people turned their heads, and their bodies moved slightly closer to her, you could sense a feeling of peace and healing wash over them, and the thought occurred that this may have been the most human connection they felt all day, maybe even all week. This happened on both sides of the track. A Brooklyn-bound train rolled in and swept up half of her audience, but as the time in between trains advanced, more people descended the steps, and she collected more listeners. Of course there was a handful of people who were preoccupied with their thoughts or had headphones on to drown out the outside world, but even with this obstacle she still managed to draw people in. She often received a respectful round of applause at the end of a song, even from those who appeared to not be paying attention. It was truly beautiful to watch what she provided to NYC commuters. We had to find out more about this talented musician.

Lenna M. Pierce, aka Meaner Pencil, hails from Lincoln, Nebraska and now resides in Brooklyn, New York. She picked up her instrument at the age of nine. Though she can also play the piano, she prefers the cello and feels it is more fitting for her. “With the Cello, you have a lot of choice in the color, the tone, the tambour, and this is what makes it expressive. You’re definitely not doing as much, but the way you are doing it is more intricate and loaded. If you talk to people who have been in orchestras, there are certain personality traits that tend to go with different instruments. Part of it is to due to the role instruments have in the orchestra. Because you’re playing the bottom of the chord, the role of the cello determines not what the piece says but what it means. It’s like the tone of voice. Cellists are modulating the meaning of what’s being said, so cellists tend to be sort of calmer, more grounded people."

 
 
 
 

In high school she studied under a vocal teacher. “He was a big fan of musical theater, so I was singing things like (in a Cockney accent), ‘All I want is a room somewhere’ from My Fair Lady. Sometimes I would make up backstories for them so that they didn’t feel so cheesy to me. I had to sing, from The Sound of Music, ‘I am sixteen going on seventeen. I know that I’m naive’, this very sexist, cheesy number. So in my head, I thought it would be more interesting if I tried to sing it in the style of a really disillusioned forty-year-old prostitute. Now my style, just from busking full time, has gotten a lot stronger. Also, if you’re just playing with one instrument all the time, your voice will naturally tend to conform to that, so my voice became more cellistic in order to blend. The feeling of the vibrational patterns lining up really precisely is wonderful. The cello hits your chest, and your voice is also resonating there, so you can feel the harmony. So my voice, stylistically, has grown, and I can do more precise things with it now and not just instinctively copy what other people have done, and that’s really fun. It’s like having a better palette of colors to work with.”

Lenna enlisted the help of an online anagram generator to create her stage name. From 'Lenna M. Pierce' came a name that peaked her interest, Meaner Pencil. “I just picked the one that I thought suited the sound and the feeling of what I was doing. It sounds like it could be the end of the line of Emily Dickinson or something. It feels like an old phrase to me because I didn’t mean crueler. I meant cruder, less finely made. When I was working with a band, it was cello, accordion, and another singer. At any point there were seven lines of harmony. So this is a cruder tool, like a meaner pencil. I think that the sparseness evokes certain emotions very clearly. A fun fact about that, I could also have chosen Lamer Nice Pen. So if I do a side project, it’s going to be Lamer Nice Pen.”

Though stylistically she is more experimental than classical, her classical training and refined playing are apparent as she deftly wields her bow across the strings. We had the opportunity to witness this more closely as she sat before us. After seeing her perform again in the same subway stop, we asked her if she would allow us to record an interview and a performance. It turned out to be an incredible evening and an experience we will never forget. As we sat there listening to her emotionally raw performance, we felt a vulnerability in her music. A vulnerability that comes with laying open the pain and suffering in life that many try to hide. It’s an inherent need to be honest when expressing herself creatively. Equally honest and open were her answers to our questions, each one articulate and extremely thoughtful. By her being brave in this endeavor, we felt more capable of engaging and communicating on a similar level. Her mournful style of singing may have set some tears free, but it was not without a hopeful quality. Her voice, coupled with vibrations put out from a strong instrument in a tiny apartment, put us in a physical state of healing, making for a very intimate experience. Though she was only one musician, her performance was strong and turned the small space into a sanctuary.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Besides her solo performances as Meaner Pencil, Lenna also plays in a cooperative structure she formed with two other musicians, where they take turns leading and supporting eachother. “People are really different in their level of generosity with other musicians when they’re playing. There has to be a lot of trust and mutuality in that situation. We’re not having the kind of ego struggles that often happen in a band with just one songwriter. On the other hand, it is still a delicate situation because it is intimate work, and people are vulnerable with needs and ambitions, but it’s really good. I wanted to set it up formally because of wanting things to be fair and balanced and just know that everyone is getting a good deal from the get-go. You can negotiate these things as you go, but a lot of the time, in my experience, maybe somebody’s not so good at advocating for themselves, or they don’t feel like it’s a big deal until later they feel deprived or used. I just wanted it to feel really straightforward so that everyone is okay.”

Choosing to live an art-centered life was not an easy decision to make. Expectations, mixed with the fear of financial instability that can come with a creative life, made it hard in the beginning, and she attempted an education in different career paths but, ultimately, had to decide on what was indispensable for her. “Safe is really subjective because you can do the safe thing, but then you’re guaranteed this specific loss of something incredibly important that is not going to factor into most people’s calculus, but that loss is really there. So there are different risks in different paths. I understand myself a lot better now from the experience of being alone and really art focused.”

Lenna also came to understand herself better through journaling. It acts as a means of inspiration in her songwriting. “Inspiration, a lot of the time, is a memory that hurts, and I’m trying to fix it so that it doesn’t hurt anymore.  It would be nice if I could just write like a Beach Boys song about how fun surfing is. I can be joyful, but I feel like there is so much psychological work that people need and that I need, that that takes priority somehow. Most of the songs, especially on the second album, were me trying to heal something. You have to sit down and try. I think the intention is really important in art, way more than people give it credit for. The reaction to artistry, that it’s just pretty and doesn’t mean anything, sometimes I get that, and it’s quite upsetting because I try really hard to not rely on the prettiness. Like I try to make something meaningful so that it’s actually beautiful.”

 
 
 
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For Lenna, where her music is performed and how it is experienced is of great importance. Some venues are more preferable than others.  “I wouldn’t like to play at a stadium and be amplified. I don’t feel it reproduces the sounds that I’m making in the way that I want. Even a really good sound system is not going to give you the level of detail. Someone was saying that I should try to do a European tour where I just play amphitheaters and cathedrals, because the medieval sound system is set up for what I’m doing. I would love to play at a cathedral full of people and have the sound just swirl around and come back. That would be awesome. Even though a house show doesn’t pay, I would pick a house show over busking, when I can afford to do so, because I feel like it’s very close to the situation in which songwriting evolved in history.  For a songwriter, a bard, one of their roles was to create intimacy and dialogue in small communities, and you really see that kind of magically happen at a house show. Because the musician has been brave enough to make something personal, surprising, and inciteful, the people in the room then feel more able to communicate with each other in a genuine way, and that’s very beautiful. And it’s very beautiful to, after you’ve performed, be a part of that society. For some reason, in a bar, it doesn’t work like that. In a bar, even if you do just a fucking amazing job, people will maybe come talk to you about it afterwards, but they won’t talk to each other about it, and that’s lonely. I would rather they talk to each other. I would rather busk than play a bar. When you’re busking there is also that sense of magic, even if it’s brief. Even if it dissipates when the train leaves.”

Of course busking also has its own set of hardships. “When you really really need the money, you’re running short, and rent is coming, if you’re playing and you’re thinking about money, nobody is going to give you any money because you’re not really there. You’re not really doing your job well, so you have to almost go into a trance state, and those are really powerful and communicable. If you do that, then some people will respond really strongly. If you’re doing a really intense performance, and you’re putting out all this energy, if the audience is really listening to you, they’re sending energy back to you, but if you’re just putting it out, and there is nothing coming back, at the end of the night you feel horrible. You just feel drained and empty in the worst possible way. I would prefer for the people who are really into it to come forward. It’s nice for me if they’re in my line of vision even. If they are putting out really good energy, like if they are listening really obviously, that’s encouraging. If you like it, make that obvious, and if you don’t, make that subtle. If you can afford to give money, please do. I really like that it’s pay what you can, and people that can afford to put in money are putting in money, and people that can’t afford to put in money, but maybe need a really beautiful performance, are able to get it. That really appeals to me, and that makes it feel like that’s part of the social element of the art. That’s why it’s meaningful, that it’s shared. I think one of the things that makes it community building is that it’s for everyone, regardless of ability to pay.”

New York City is a music hub. It gives rise to, and attracts, so many musicians that many venues don’t pay these artists to perform. In this case, busking actually becomes a more viable option for musicians to earn a living. As a result, there are many buskers in NYC, and an understanding develops amongst them as to how to work around each other. “There’s definitely an etiquette in regard to how you treat other buskers. It is a competitive situation in that there are some spots that are better than others at different times for different things. So it can be very intense in that way, especially towards the end of the month when rent is coming due. People can be pretty crazy. You don’t disparage somebody else’s work. You try to say something positive about it. If you get to a spot and it’s already taken, you don’t throw a fit and behave aggressively. You listen to them, maybe give them a dollar. You ask them how long they’re planning to be there. If someone has already asked for the spot after them, you talk to them. Over time, if you’re playing the same spots, you’ll get to know other buskers. If you can tell that they are more desperate than you are, you leave your spot early for them, or if you’ve had a really good night, you give them a donation, and you try to look out for each other. If you’ve told them that they can have the spot after you, you don’t leave until they get there. I know some buskers who do not behave well, but most of the other buskers that I’ve dealt with try to be as considerate as possible given the circumstances.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

Buskers have another obstacle when it comes to performing. In the past year, the NYPD has made it a priority to curb public performance art in the subways. Buskers are getting warnings, tickets, or at times even arrested if they persist in performing. Because Lenna plays without amplification, technically, it is fully legal for her to play, as her performance falls under the protection of free speech. Yet this still has not protected her from being told by the police to pack up and move on. Where she would like to demand her rights, multiple stories of busking crackdowns circulate through her head, and her fear of what might happen to her cello keeps her from stating the point too aggressively.

It’s not only the occasional overbearing police officer she has to fear when it comes to busking. She has also encountered sexual harassment. She feels this is a big reason why you don’t see as many female buskers. During another confrontation, “Some drunk lady tried to steal my cello, but her friends were so mad about it they made her give it back to me.” Replacing her wood cello would not only be costly financially but also emotionally, as it is the cello of her youth, and that relationship would be a hard thing to replace. “You can go to it and get comfort like you can if you live with someone you care about. You come to know the instrument, and how it will react to you, almost like the way you would know your lover’s body. So it’s very personal.”

Because of the personal connection to her instrument and the instances where it came into harms way, Lenna felt it was time to purchase a cello that was less susceptible to being damaged in the hard, subterranean world of the subway. She opted for one made from carbon fiber, which is far more durable than traditional wood cellos. It is also much lighter, making it easier to transport. This new cello was in need of a name. “It’s pretty typical. Not everybody, but a lot of people name their instrument. On Facebook I was asking people for suggestions. I had a super intense post about how the cello is black as death and cannot die, so a lot of people had just written, ‘Wow’. I’ve decided its name is Violet Wao die Königin der Nacht. My friend, Andrew, suggested die Königin der Nacht because that’s a character from a Mozart opera. That’s why it’s in German, not just to be badass. The Queen of the Night is from The Magic Flute, and it’s a very virtuosic role of ambiguous moral nature. So yeah, Violet Wao, W, A, O. I’m pleased with it. We’ll see, it might alter a little as I get to know the cello better.”

We were pleased to get to know Lenna a little better and look forward to the release of the next Meaner Pencil album. She will soon be launching a Kickstarter to fund its recording. Make sure to check her Facebook for more information on the campaign. Her previous albums are available to purchase on Bandcamp. You can listen to, and purchase, her album, Senza Amanti, down below. Her website is meanerpencil.com. Keep your eyes and ears open, maybe you’ll see her on your commute.

 
 
 
 

Rachel Merrill

 

It was a cold winter day in Queens. The sun was mostly hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds but warmed our skin when it made an appearance. We spent the better part of our forty-five minute walk chasing after the sunny side of the street on our way to visit the illustrator Rachel Merrill. On arrival, she greeted us with a friendly and energetic “Hello!” and invited us into her apartment which she keeps at a temperature that matches her personality, nice and warm. Being from the South, Rachel views the cold, wintry weather as an evil force that must be reckoned with. Layers of fabric act as her shield while a sharp wit acts as her dagger.

Nowhere is this made clearer than in her satirical fashion illustrations with characters proclaiming, "Even in Rodarte winter fucking sucks” or an over-bundled woman describing herself as “passing as an extra in Fargo”. We quickly discovered this southern gal is a combination of sweet mixed with a bit of spice, dare we say sass? Both of our paternal grandmothers also hailed from the South and embodied these same characteristics. We immediately felt an affinity for Ms. Merrill and instantly knew we were going to enjoy this interview. What ensued was a lengthy conversation about politics, fashion, podcasts, and how all of these inform her art.

 
 
At this point in winter, my friend’s beauty game is Belle de Jour. Whereas I am basically passing as an extra in Fargo. © Rachel Merrill


At this point in winter, my friend’s beauty game is Belle de Jour. Whereas I am basically passing as an extra in Fargo. © Rachel Merrill

 
 

Filter & Funnel (F&F): Where does your creativity come from? Does it run in your family?

Rachel: My grandmother on my father’s side was a painter. She was a really amazing lady. She was born in 1911 and grew up in Mississippi and Tennessee. She went to school in a covered wagon and had to drop out of highschool during the Great Depression. She was super funny, super dry, and in her seventies, she got into painting and actually developed really quickly. Her children have houses that are just covered in her paintings. Most of my other family members are incredible writers, also really funny and dry. I think we all get our sense of dry, southern humor from my grandmother. She had heard one of my relatives was getting married for the third time, and they asked if she wanted to come, and my granny said, “No, that’s okay. I’ll go to the next one.” I wish I could just come out with lines like that. She would say them with the straightest face too.

F&F: Where did you grow up, and how do you think that shaped who you are?

 
 

Rachel: I grew up in a really conservative town, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s the capital, but it feels very small town. I just never really felt like I fit in. I was always the weird kid who didn’t have friends. I was the baby in a large family, and I adored my family in Tennessee because they were all very intellectual and witty. I was this precocious little kid, and they lavished me with attention, which made me feel great. On the other hand, I did not fit in whatsoever at my very conservative, religious schools, and my schoolmates made me feel horrible about myself. It made me develop more of a sense of imagination. I got really obsessed with cartoons and books. I was totally a nerd and obsessed with Sailor Moon for a really long time and thought she was the best thing ever. I had this really great family who had me try all these different things. I think my parents could sense that I didn’t really fit in, so they were like, let’s make her even more weird by putting her in acting and ballet. As I got older, I fit in less and less and ended up looking for people weird like me. When I found them, I felt I should really stay in these kinds of communities. Whenever people talk about going to Louisiana, I say, "It’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t recommend living there." There’s this great Carson McCullers quote. She was a Southern Gothic writer who wrote this amazing book called The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. It’s about the inability to connect with people. She made a comment once saying, “I must go home periodically to renew my sense of horror.” She was just so eloquent about it. She left for New York as soon as she could. I feel like, for a certain creative person, if you’re in a conservative community in the South, it’s really really rough. I haven’t been back to Louisiana in a couple years, but last time I went back, I remembered why I wanted to get out of there right away. Even though I was happy to see my friends, and they were all lovely, many people are very complacent about not stepping up for what’s right. At least people with privilege don't. Not everyone is like that, and certainly not in New Orleans, but in my hometown it’s very much like that. If it’s not our problem, then we’re not going to deal with it. I like that here, people don’t typically have that attitude. However, I do like to brag that Lucinda Williams was named by Time as the best current songwriter in America. She’s from Louisiana, her songs are about Louisiana, and I’m so proud. She’s very very southern but not in the way you think. She’s constantly labeled folk because she’s not talking about the Confederate flag. She’s the opposite of that, but she’s so deeply southern. It’s very difficult to describe, but Lucinda Williams is definitely one of the big reasons I’m proud to be from there. Southern Gothic literature is another reason I’m really proud to be from there. Both of them explain so eloquently what’s wrong with the South but also the beauty of it too.

When the weather and retail conspire to mock humanity. © Rachel Merrill


When the weather and retail conspire to mock humanity. © Rachel Merrill

F&F: What brought you to New York?

Rachel: Before spending four years going to college in Florida, I spent the summer of 2006 here going to Pratt Pre-College, and I just loved it. In my mind, at the time, I thought this is what New Orleans would be if it was successful. It was just amazing. I felt like I fit in. I could relate to people. I wasn’t the weird one. I wasn’t even close to weird. I was actually kind of boring, and it sort of hit me, Oh! I’m not that weird, I just go to school with a bunch of entitled assholes. I loved it. I reconnected with my cousin who’s a few years older than me and lives in the West Village. I got to be on my own, and I just loved it. I really enjoyed going to art school and wanted to keep doing it. So it was always in the back of my mind, and it feels like, in illustration especially, you have to go cut your teeth in New York before you can really go anywhere else. I felt like my neurotic energy was well suited here.

F&F: How has New York differed from or lived up to your expectations? Did you have any coming here?

Rachel: Yeah. I thought I was going to get invited to some really great parties and be adored by everybody. Haha! Lately it has been living up to my expectations, but I really had to make a strong transition in my outlook. When I first moved up here, I had no confidence in my work or in myself. I thought I would just take a job, and I’d figure it out. Well, then I stopped doing my work, and I got really miserable and depressed. In a way, that was good because I thought I am definitely going to be doing this in my life since I’m so unhappy not doing it. I think I got really burned out from school, where there was a certain expectation of how you were supposed to be as an artist. If you didn’t adore always being by yourself drawing and never socializing, you weren’t a real artist. Now I don’t think that is necessarily what they were trying to say, but it felt like it at the time. So I was just very insecure and didn't advocate for myself at all. For two years, I was kind of lost. I guess my problem was that I was always looking at people who were at the top, and I thought I would never get to that. I wasn’t giving myself any credit, though, because they had been working at it years and years, and they got breaks. I started finally paying attention to people who were up and coming and realized I was as good as a lot of them. I thought, I should do this. Why am I not putting myself out there?  Always in the back of my head there was some authority figure telling me I wasn't good enough yet, and I had to wait. I thought, you know what? Fuck that. I’m good enough. I just saw too many people getting really good jobs that I wanted. Then I started working again. Lately it’s been a slow continuation of me trying to be an advocate for myself and telling myself this is what you’re here for, you have a right to exist, and your work has a right to exist. My friend has been telling me for the past two years that I don’t finish things that I start because I am so determined to make it perfect. I’m realizing it’s more important to just do the work than it is to make perfect work. The community has always been really great here. It’s weird, though, because you feel like you can fit in here but also be horribly lonely at the same time. For me, it’s been really critical to have a strong support network in my cousin and his girlfriend. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them always being available to talk to or see. They’ve been a really good stabilizing element. It’s interesting. I wasn’t expecting to get closer to family when I moved up here, but I really have. I also didn’t expect the cost of everything. Everybody tells you, but then it doesn’t really hit you until you literally see yourself throwing piles of money into a fire, and then you’re like oh, this is what they meant. It is still a constant struggle trying to get a handle on that.

F&F: How long have you been illustrating? Did you start off in the arts illustrating?

Rachel: I took a course. I was really into comics when I was a kid, so I was drawing Japanese comics all the time, and when I went to Pratt Pre-College, I picked Illustration because it sounded cool. I really liked it because we did a lot of editorial-based work, and I got to express my opinion. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have a lot of them. I have since I was five. My poor parents… So I just really liked the work, and then I majored in it at Ringling College of Art and Design. I guess I’ve been illustrating for seven or eight years.

 
 
  It’s sort of comforting to see a more mature lady having the same game plan for the winter that never ends. Also succeeding better than any sad millennial ever could. © Rachel Merrill

 

It’s sort of comforting to see a more mature lady having the same game plan for the winter that never ends.

Also succeeding better than any sad millennial ever could. © Rachel Merrill

  Just imagine how many skinny jeans had to die to make this one pair of pants. © Rachel Merrill

 

Just imagine how many skinny jeans had to die to make this one pair of pants. © Rachel Merrill

 
 

F&F: Besides Illustration, what other creative outlets do you engage in?

Rachel: I knit. I haven’t in awhile because I’ve been focusing on my visual work lately, but I’ve made a lot of elaborate knitted pieces. I made this crazy knitted dress, and I have a couple sweaters that I made a few years ago, giant ones because I didn’t have a real coat when I first moved to New York. They’re really big and burly. So yeah, I do knitting. I like to cook, but I’m not a foodie. I used to sew a lot too. I made a few dresses when I was a kid. I made pants at one point. I would love to get a sewing machine again. As long as you know how to do the basics of knitting you can do almost anything you want. You visualize what shapes you want to sew up, and if you have a good knowledge of sewing, you can make anything. It’s awesome. It’s like you’re making fabric and then making clothes out of it. They have patterns, but I’ve never been one to play by the rules. I met this nice knitting lady in the Lower East Side, and every time I come in, she calls me the girl who makes up shapes. She’s super annoyed that I refuse to use a pattern. I will just go up to her and be like, “I can make this if I draw it out like this, right?” She’s like, “Just use a pattern.” I say, “No. I don’t need a pattern.”

F&F: What are some of your interests outside of art, and does that influence your art?

Rachel: Crime and Politics. I would love to get more into political drawings, just because I think most political cartoons now are so shitty. I love political cartoons of the nineteenth century. There was PUNCH, and then there was a French draftsmen named Daumier, who was amazing. He got imprisoned a lot because of his political work. It was just really beautiful, but you could also tell right away what was going on in it. Then there are also a couple illustrators from the Sixties with political-based work who were amazing. I just feel so strongly about politics that I think I need to get that muscle going visually at some point, but I haven’t really figured out how yet. I take a long time to simmer ideas in my head until I have a clear idea of how I’m going to do it. I loved the Rob Ford story. I mean he’s crazy. He looks like a Louisiana politician, and that’s why I think I just loved him. He is just perfect for Louisiana. My cousin and I have talked about doing political satire. He is my collaborator on my blog. We are both pretty obsessed with politics. In fact I joke, whenever I am upset or emotional, I call him and talk about politics. It’s just endlessly fascinating to me. I feel like people are very poorly informed, especially people of my age. It seems less so in New York, which is really great.

F&F: You mentioned your blog. What inspired you to create Darted Line?

Rachel: My cousin is a content strategist, lives in the West Village, and he is the most stylish family member. He always has these great suits and super expensive coats. He is the embodiment of a stylish New York man. We would talk and joke for years about both stupid and really cool stuff we had seen on the street. I started talking about how I needed to put myself out there, and so his girlfriend suggested he and I do something visual with all the jokes we kept making. So it’s mostly my project now, and was kind of always geared to highlight my work, but it’s definitely a collaboration a lot of times, where one of us will see something either really awesome, ridiculous, or both, and I’ll make a drawing right away. Then either he, his girlfriend, or I will come up with a tag. So it really started with my cousin and me being sassy. He is much drier than I am. He’s like my grandmother. He’s very very dry. Some of the jokes are about me. One of them is where I was on a date walking through Central Park, wearing this dress, and I was with this punk guy. A girl came into the park, wearing a floaty dress (like me), and her boy was dressed like a punk too, and we all kind of looked at each other and stopped. It was like that episode of Futurama where they meet their other selves. I adore fashion. For awhile I was really into everything fashion related. Then I felt like I got my information quota filled. Some of it is just really stupid and shallow. It’s about putting women down and making them feel like crap. I don’t read women’s magazines because I like having self confidence. So a lot of it fell by the wayside, but I still visually really like fashion, especially in New York. We’re all just kind of thrown into this town, all from different backgrounds, and how people interact with their environments is so fascinating. How it’s both a defense and an expression of yourself is endlessly interesting to me. I still follow fashion week because it is some of the stuff I really do like looking at, but all of the culture I’m not really into. Im not into being thin enough or the keeping up with the Joneses aspect of it. Following what the next cool brand is and saving up three months worth of wages to get it is crazy to me now. I’m not interested in the peacock people, as I call them, who are really privileged, go to fashion week, and wear see through skirts in thirty degree weather. I still like the peacocks for the hilariousness of it, but I’m not so inspired by it. I’m really interested in how ordinary people put together their lives visually. The craft of it is what I definitely like.

 
 
  That is not such special snowflakes. You weren’t the only the only Manic Pixie in Central Park with her punk boy. © Rachel Merrill

 

That is not such special snowflakes. You weren’t the only the only Manic Pixie in Central Park with her punk boy. © Rachel Merrill

 
 

F&F: It’s clear by reading Darted Line, there is a lot of love put into the visual description of the clothes.

 

Rachel: Oh good! Thank you. I mean at the end of the day, I still love clothes. I am amused about what they say. I have another illustration based on something that happened to me. I have this awesome rabbit fur coat from the Eighties. It doesn’t have the crazy shoulders or anything, though. It’s like a bomber rabbit fur coat, which is so boss. It’s really warm, and I was telling Julie, my cousin’s girlfriend, “Oh wow! I love this coat so much, and it’s surprising how warm it is!”, and she looked at me with her eyebrow raised and said, “Well, it was warm enough for the animal.” I was just like, oh my God! I’m that guy. I’ve got to illustrate that. That, to me, sums up everything about fashion. That’s perfect. I get so wrapped up in the fantasy, and then I fail to see what it’s actually about or what the rationale is.   

 
 
"Not only is my vintage fur coat extremely cute, but its also surprisingly warm!"“Well..it was warm enough for the rabbit, after all." © Rachel Merrill

"Not only is my vintage fur coat extremely cute, but its also surprisingly warm!"“Well..it was warm enough for the rabbit, after all." © Rachel Merrill

F&F: Do you ever use digital tools in creating your work?

Rachel: Yeah. I use a Wacom tablet for some pieces. It starts as a pencil drawing. Then I ink. In Photoshop I’m starting to get a crazy amount of layers, now that I am understanding more how to work digitally.  

F&F: How did you start to develop your own style?

Rachel: Lots of figure drawing. I copied a lot of Degas’ work actually. I was obsessed with his nudes because they were just so perfect. His figure work is very strongly cinematic, and this was before cinema. It has a lot of the same stuff that I’m obsessed with. It’s all about gesture and fashion. It’s making a comment on people at that time. So I actually copied those works a huge amount when I was in high school. I was watching and drawing a lot of anime, but I was also copying Degas. I used to work in pastels and oil paints. In Florida I was an oil painter. I didn’t work in watercolor at all until the last three years, since I moved to New York.

F&F: Do you have a preferred medium?

Rachel: It depends on the project. I would love to get back into oils for figure work eventually. Back then, it was definitely preferred because I was the most comfortable with it, but now I feel very comfortable with watercolor.  I feel that it translates better illustratively than oil paintings do, but there is something really dynamic and powerful about a huge oil painting as well. It just depends on the project though. I mostly work in watercolor. It’s a very versatile medium in terms of subject matter and content. For the nude studies, the shorter five minute poses are ink and pencil, but for the longer twenty minute poses, I’ll use watercolor. Everyone is always wondering why the hell I am bringing watercolor to Drink N’ Draw because there are no tables, it’s super crowded, and disaster could befall at any time. I could spill my ink on someone else’s work, but I have never done it (knocks on wood). I think watercolor for twenty minutes is very appropriate. It works really well, and as long as I don’t spill anything on anybody, it’s great. When people say, “Oh, I am so terrified of watercolor”, I have to remember that I used to have that fear too. Now I don’t even have to think about it, which is the whole point. The less you think about it, the better your watercolor is going to come out.

© Rachel Merrill


© Rachel Merrill

F&F: How often do you go to Drink N’ Draw?

Rachel: Every Wednesday. It’s actually a really great place to meet people. Really cool, creative people. I’ve been going regularly, and now there are about ten people I know. Everyone is super sweet and lovely. When I am having a bad week, I definitely make sure to go because I know I’ll feel better. I get this awesome, immediate sense of community, I get to draw, and it’s all for ten bucks.

F&F: It seems that even though Darted Line is a satire on fashion, having an understanding of the nude figure must inform your drawings.

Rachel: Totally. I actually spoke to the lead illustrator at Buzz Feed recently, and what he liked about my fashion illustrations is that my hands are really strong, and the bodies are really well rendered, considering he doesn’t see that a lot in fashion. There are some really awesome fashion illustrators out there, but a lot of them don’t really understand the body. They are more like decorators. To me, that’s not really what my interest is in illustrating. It’s more about the relation of the clothes to the body. Fashion illustrators often ask me if I have ever thought about stretching out the body. That’s not what I’m interested in. I feel like a lot of that is just imitating illustrators of the Fifties who did that, but did it better because they had a huge knowledge of figure drawing. Like René Gruau did a lot of Vogue covers, and he did those elongated bodies, or David Downton did all those stretched out bodies in the Eighties, but they were great and they were their own thing. I don’t feel like I’ve got to represent every body type, but I definitely don’t find it interesting to prettify something when I’m trying to convey a mood. I don’t feel like that serves anything at the end of the day. I feel like hands, especially, add so much to a simple drawing, and with a lot of fashion illustrations, the hands are hidden behind the back. You’re just missing so many opportunities to showcase something really good. I would definitely say learn the rules so you can break them as much as you want, but you don’t know what you’re breaking if you don’t know the rules to begin with.

 
 
 
 

F&F: Your color choices are really interesting. Is that something that comes naturally, or do you really think about colors and how you’re putting them together?

Rachel: I’m going to be super lame and say it’s both. I usually have a pretty good idea starting out how I want most pieces to look, and then I’ll make color choices based on that. I guess it’s based on mood. Most of the time it’s very intuitive, but sometimes I’m not sure. So I’ll be much more meticulous doing the stuff that I’m definitely sure of, slowly add things I’m unsure of, see how they look, and then push further.

F&F: You have a number of different projects that you’re currently working on, and each one has a unique style with a developed voice. Do you feel like content determines style?

Rachel: Absolutely. Not consciously, but it does. I guess some of it is a little more conscious. These bigger fashion pieces I’ve been doing have been more of an experiment for me. I wanted something a little more simple. I didn’t want to do something so realistic because I wanted to convey a mood more than how perfectly drawn it could be. So some of it is a little more thought out. A lot of times it’s just about simplifying the correct way. You don’t have to have all the information there. That’s what is so cool about illustration and what is so difficult about it too. You need to have the right amount. You can’t have too much or too little.

F&F: Do you feel like you’re simplifying in order to exaggerate a specific thing, or do you just simplify because you like a more simple look?

Rachel: I’m not really sure. Girls With Guns is a really big piece, and so I couldn’t go super crazy. I had never really done a huge amount of ensemble characters before, especially without using reference models. I really wanted them all to have very strong visual looks. I focused more on their outfits and knowing what expressions they were going to make but not over-articulating them. I remember thinking I could do every shiny rivet on the bikes, but what is that adding to the piece? It’s not going to add anything. I want you to see the girls and the girls in relation to the boys, and I feel like that’s pretty well achieved. I’m just happy I managed to do it without killing myself.

 
© Rachel Merrill


© Rachel Merrill

 
 

F&F: How did you get involved in illustrating the comic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

Rachel: I dated one of the writers, Mauricio Le Sage, briefly in high school. We just stayed in touch over the years, and he was seeing me post my work on Facebook. He and the other writer, Rudy Rihner, were thinking about hiring another illustrator, but then Mauricio saw my work and wanted me to do it. They had the script completed a few years ago, but because we were in different states and this was the first time we had all worked together, it took some time to complete the project. I had this insane idea that I was going to photograph every single panel for reference, which is crazy. I will never do that again. I had to do a couple of reshoots for the references, and my friends that were modeling were so patient with me. I would try to direct the photoshoot, but I was terrible at getting the models to give me what I needed. I would tell my friend, “Okay, look really scared”, and my friend would just kind of be like uh? Hans, the photographer, was so much better at directing. He would say to my friend, “I’m suddenly naked right next to your bed late at night”, and my friend would just be like, “Oh God!” with a look of absolute sheer terror. Snap. I feel like the first half of the book is sort of looking at a learning curve. Then, in the second half of the book I feel I got it, and I stopped being so tied to my references. I was able to get more loose and free with it. I didn’t really know what I was trying to go for in the first few pages, and I look at it like ugh, but that’s good. It shows me how much I’ve improved. I also realized how much I enjoy collaborating. I really love working with other people. It was a really great experience. We are going to have the second issue before long, and then the madness will start all over again.

F&F: Do you feel like you were allowed creative freedom with the project?

Rachel: Totally. I added elements that weren’t in their notes, but they loved and wanted to keep them. I decided how the characters were going to look. They said they wanted them to look almost interchangeable, but I kind of gave them more distinct looks, and they didn’t really push it. But then there were some times where I misread stuff. I made an incorrect ship drawing, which was supposed to be an exploding sixteenth century ship, but I made it a World War II ship. I’m so glad I screwed up because the second one came out so much better than the original.

© Rachel Merrill  


© Rachel Merrill
 

© Rachel Merrill


© Rachel Merrill

 
 

F&F: Was there a moment when you were like, “Oh man, I have to do it over again?”

Rachel: Yeah, I was like, “Fuck! It’s so much harder to find a sixteenth century exploding ship! I don’t think they took photographs of those back then!” Haha! So I had to look at a lot of illustrations, and I drew it out multiple times. If I don’t know how to do something, I will just keep drawing it over and over and over and over until I feel comfortable enough in the final version.

F&F: One of the things surprising to hear, is that you had that period of time where you were not feeling confident about your work because you strike us as someone who is comfortable reaching out and pursuing creative opportunities. Is that a conscious choice?

Rachel: Honestly yeah, it’s a conscious choice. If you believe you have a low self esteem, you will have it. If you decide to believe you’re awesome, then you are. The other thing is having a really good support network. So when you call someone and say, “I suck”, they are like, “No. You’re just drunk, and I still love you.” That’s the key. Yeah, I actually used to think it was the worst thing to put yourself out there. I had this insane idea that if you were really good, people would just come to you. That’s just really not true. I mean people will come to you once they’ve heard of you and they like you, but if they don’t know of you...that was where I failed in that equation. I didn’t realize people actually had to know who you were before they could come to you. It definitely doesn’t come naturally, but I am determined because I really love doing this work. It seems like it’s going to come out no matter what I do, so I may as well do it on my own terms and do it with things that I am really passionate about. I am just trying to turn off the voice in my head that is saying I don’t know. At the end of the day, that doesn’t lead anywhere. It really doesn’t do anything for you. So you may as well just listen to stuff that is going to get you what you want. Just because you’re an artist, and you’re not at the top of your field, does not make you a bad person. Just because you’re starting out, does not make you a bad person. Those are not bad person characteristics. Stealing money from old age pensioners makes you a bad person, not being a struggling artist. You really got to keep it in perspective at the end of the day about stuff like that.

F&F: Is this primarily freelance for you? Did you work for a company where you were illustrating?

Rachel: No, not yet. Mostly it’s been private commissions. It’s really only been the last few months I’ve really started pushing myself to reach out to people and go for things I’m really interested in. I’m trying to cast a huge, wide net and wait and see.

F&F: Do you have any rituals to put you in the mindset of creating?

Rachel: Podcasts and coffee. I need to hear another person talk when I’m working. I don’t really listen to music much when I’m working. I think I have about four hundred unplayed podcasts because that’s how many I’m subscribed to. Sometimes I will play movies that are heavily audio focused, like documentaries, but it’s largely podcasts. And coffee.

F&F: Which podcast do you have heaviest in rotation?

Rachel: WTF with Marc Maron. I met him a few months ago. It was awesome. He performed at the Skirball Center at NYU for the New York Comedy Festival. I handed my phone to the guy I was with and said, “Here take our photo.” I was so nervous. It’s really difficult for me to smile genuine on command. Most of the time, it looks like I’m going to murder someone, but that’s the happiest smile that’s been documented of me in the last year. I was gleeful.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Rachel’s new found sense of confidence in her work can clearly be seen. The beautiful and bold color blocking in the faces of her subjects reveals a solid understanding of the human form, allowing her to be free and break with convention. She dances along the fine line of looseness and control, controlled without being too tight and loose without being a mess. She mercilessly pokes fun at fashion while, at the same time, nurturing a true love for it. It is these dichotomies at play that make Rachel Merrill’s work endlessly fascinating and enjoyable to look at. It was a true pleasure spending time with her and gaining a deeper understanding of what drives her to create. If you would like to see her work for yourself, head over to her exhibition at Kinship in Astoria, Queens opening March 6. You can also check out her work on her website, rachelmerrill.net, her tumblr page, Darted Line, or follow her on her instagram, @ohhhaeee.  Keep an eye out for issue two of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and a new anthology in the works about terrible dating stories.

 

Montauk

 

It's 5:30 AM on a Saturday morning. The sky is clear, and the sun is just about to rise, creating a faint glow on the horizon visible from the platform of the 7 train. This part of Queens is pretty quiet early in the morning, but New York City never completely shuts down. Taxis are cruising up and down Queens Blvd in search of a fare, and the quiet is occasionally punctuated by the metallic rattle of a shopkeeper rolling up his window gates. It's a great time to experience the city because nobody is caffeinated enough to be in a hurry yet.

 


We are on the far western end of Long Island just across the East River from Manhattan. It's a cold January morning, and we’re on our way to Montauk. The 7 train is one of the busiest in the city, but it is nearly empty this early in the morning. A quick transfer at Woodside to The Long Island Railroad, and we are on our way. We watch out the window, comfortably tucked away on the upper level of the car, as the city gives way to the suburbs, and the suburbs fade into forests. The city is so self contained that it's easy to forget how close you are to the beauty of the natural world. The island begins to narrow as we keep rolling east along the tracks. You can occasionally catch glimpses of the Sound to the north and the Atlantic to the south. The four hour trip takes you to the opposite end of the same island, but you step off the train into a different world filled with the clean, salt air and the decidedly mellow atmosphere of Montauk in January.

Montauk has the seasonal feeling of a resort community. There seems to be a tenuous balancing act between choosing to live in a beautiful, natural place and the economic imperative to share it with others in order to survive. In January that tension seems to have dissipated. The winters belong to Montaukers. It's as if the town is taking a collective breath of fresh air. Fishermen can watch the game in a quiet bar, and a cup of coffee and a conversation can be had at the cafe without having to wait for a seat.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The history of locals being bombarded by outsiders attracted to Montauk's beauty and resources goes back a long way. The Montauket tribe struggled against European settlers. In the early 20th century, developers descended on the area in order to build the "Miami of the North". Remnants of that time can be seen all over town at places like Montauk Manor and the Montauk Yacht Club. The developers' plans were interrupted by the Great Depression, but the area remained a popular destination ever since. After the depression, a thriving community sprang up amongst the unfinished remnants of the early developers' resort. Today Montauk seems to be experiencing a resurgence of its early gilded ambitions.

In the summer months, the beaches here are overrun with visitors, but this day we nearly had it to ourselves. Occasionally we would pass a group of seagulls fishing in the surf. We also saw some brave souls paddle boarding despite the cold. Cliffs, carved by the tide, gradually rose up beside us as we walked along the beach. The sand under our feet was steadily supplanted by a rocky shore. We stepped off onto a side road, running through a neighborhood of old beach houses, in search of the highway that we could follow to the very end of the island. We decided to make the nearly 6 mile walk out to Montauk Point to visit the lighthouse and watch the sunset. The walk took us through a state park and over a beautiful pass, which overlooked the inlet of the Long Island Sound, as well as Connecticut and Rhode Island beyond. By the time we reached the lighthouse the sun was beginning to set. The red and white tower was illuminated by the intense orange light from the low hanging sun.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Montauk Point Lighthouse was built during the presidency of George Washington. It was the first lighthouse built in New York, and it's one of the oldest active lighthouses in the country. Apparently the pirate, Captain Kidd, was said to have buried treasure near where the lighthouse was built. Treasure hunting wasn’t in the cards for us as it was getting late in the day, and the ground was frozen solid. It is a truly an inhospitable place in the winter. The rocks were covered by thick layers of ice that reflected the colors of the setting sun burning through the low hanging clouds. The wind was picking up and stirring large waves that were breaking heavily thirty or forty feet off shore. Eventually, as the sky darkened, the lighthouse lit up. Sitting in that spot, with the sounds and smells of the ocean, it was easy to see why people fall in love with Montauk.

Pretty soon we were lured away by the promise of a hot meal at the end of the six mile walk back to the hotel. The sun was long gone by this point, and the road was just a silver ribbon of reflected starlight running through a pitch black landscape. It had been years since we had seen stars like that. Sometimes it's easy to forget the light show going on over head every night.

There were very few cars on the road, but a couple of kind people pulled over to offer us a ride back to town. We thanked them, but turned them down. We were still taking in that light show and didn’t want to cut it short. Eventually the faint glow of sodium vapor appeared on the horizon, and conversation turned towards food now that it was safe to give into our hunger. Gradually street lights started to appear more frequently, and before too long we were walking through the quiet streets of Montauk proper again. Most of the stores were closed up for the day, or even the whole season, but thankfully the pub windows were still burning bright. We can't remember the last time food tasted so good or sleep felt so sweet.

 
 
 
 

Bread

 

This time of year, we are all bombarded with resolution messages. It's as if an imaginary slate is wiped clean every January, and you're supposed to begin planning ways that you will improve over the fresh, new year.


Often people’s resolutions tend to be the same from one year to the next, and it’s been my experience that it’s just as hard to change on January 1 as it was on December 31. I think learning how to make bread is a much better way to approach thinking of change. It teaches you that improving is a process. It's not a single decision, as it is a series of steps. You will get better, but it's going to take time. Keep at it. Rejoice in the victories, and own and learn from the mistakes.

It would be hyperbolic to say that bread saved my life, but it did provide me with a vital creative outlet during a time I had been laid low by life. New York is an incredible city, but when you are accustomed to finding peace in the planet’s wild places, NYC can be a difficult place to wrap your mind around. If you're not careful it’s easy to get caught up in the city's endless race. Wash, rinse, repeat, wash, rinse, repeat. Some people seem to have an innate affinity for New York. I had to marinate in it for a while before I learned to love living in it. There is an incredible amount of things to experience in this city, but it just wasn't enough. A few winters ago I found myself pining for mountains and rivers. I missed late nights spent tying flies and early morning drives with the promise of rising trout at the end of the journey. I realized I was missing the satisfaction of skillful engagement. I needed to make something. I needed to put my senses to use in the service of creating. Winters in the city tend to be primarily spent indoors, and there are few things that make being inside more pleasant than the smell of homemade bread baking in the oven.

 
 
 
 

Bread is deceptively simple. It’s comprised of just four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. Anyone can measure out and mix those ingredients together, but the real trick lies in learning how to coax the best flavor and texture out of those ingredients. A base level of knowledge helps, but no matter how much you have read, you're still going to be clumsy the first time you try. More than likely you will end up with dough all over the kitchen and pull a flat, misshapen loaf out of the oven. That said, your home is still filled with that delicious smell, and that lackluster loaf is still going to taste pretty damn good.

I've grown particularly fond of a certain rustic style of bread. It’s really the essence of bread. It’s just those four simple ingredients mixed to form a very wet dough. All breads benefit when you give them more time to develop flavor, but these rustic loaves really shine when you extend the fermentation by using less yeast. These extended fermentations allow the flour more time to break down into its constituent parts. Sugars are released as the starch breaks down, creating a more flavorful dough and caramelizing in the crust as it bakes.

Resist the temptation to add more flour to the dough when you mix all of the ingredients together. It will make the dough easier to handle, but it will also dry the loaf out. At first it may look like a bowl full of wallpaper paste and impossible to handle, but you just need to be patient. Time plays a critical role here as well. Cover the bowl and let it rest for half an hour. When you come back, the dough will have begun to form gluten.

 
 
 
 

Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Rather than kneading it, you are going to stretch and fold the dough. It’s really simple. Just lightly pull up on one end of the dough until you feel it has reached the end of its elasticity. Fold the dough back on top of itself, and do the same thing to the other side. Form the dough into a ball, place it back into the bowl, and let it rest for roughly 15-30 minutes until it has relaxed again. Keep doing this, three to four more times, until the dough has completely come together. The combination of time and stretching and folding will build gluten, doing the work of kneading with a lot less mess.

At this point, you could set it aside and let it double in size, but your bread will be much more flavorful if you let it rise overnight in the refrigerator. The cold will slow down the fermentation and give the starch more time to break down and build flavor. If you go this route, just pull it out of the refrigerator in the morning, and let it rest in a warm place. The dough may not have risen much in the refrigerator, but the warmer environment will reinvigorate the yeast, and it should double in size fairly quickly.  We have a little gap between our refrigerator and cabinets that we use as our bread incubator. Putting it up there for about an hour or two usually does the trick. Once the dough has warmed a bit and doubled in size, scrape it out onto a floured surface, divide it, and preshape it. Let the preshaped loaves rest for about fifteen minutes, until the gluten has relaxed, before shaping the final loaves.

 
 
 
 

Let the batards rest, seam-side up, on a floured linen cloth until they barely spring back when you gently poke it with your finger. Score the loaves with a razor and transfer them on to a hot baking stone in a preheated oven. You want to bake these loaves in a really hot, 500-550 degree, oven. Bake for 15 minutes before turning the loaf 180 degrees. Continue baking it for another 15-25 minutes until the crust is a rich, nutty brown. After you bake a handful of loaves, you will begin to recognize when they are done by the smell that permeates your kitchen. It’s those little bits of experiential knowledge that I love so much about baking bread. As our world becomes increasingly complicated and less intuitive, I find it grounding to be able to recognize the smell of a perfectly cooked loaf of bread.

 
 
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You’re supposed to wait 30 minutes before slicing. The loaves are apparently still cooking and will be more flavorful if you wait. Good luck with that. To me, there are few things as delicious as bread, fresh out of the oven, slathered generously with butter. Let us know if you have any questions or would like to share your successes or failures with bread baking. You can find us on the social sites below.

Recipe
 

10 oz All Purpose Flour (Roughly 2 1/4 cups)

10 oz Bread Flour (Roughly 2 1/4 cups)

16 oz Water (2 cups)

0.3 oz Salt (Roughly 1 1/4 teaspoons table salt, or 2 teaspoons coarse sea salt)

0.11 oz Yeast (Roughly 1 teaspoon yeast)

 
 
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D White

 

”You find the tools you make your art with, and they’re going to be your best friends or lovers. They’re always there for you, and it’s up to you to really get the best out of them. You just gotta treat them right, be their friend, and let them talk to you.”

 
 
 

Press play to watch the video feature on D White.

 
 
 

Daniel, Danny, Dan, D.W, D. These are the names Mr. White goes by. Lucky for us, we also have the privilege of calling him a friend. Whether you’ve known D for years or only just met him, you’d be hard pressed not to bust out laughing at one of his wisecracks. That said, he would be the first to tell you he’s not entirely comfortable being the center of attention and often prefers being the observer. “I love people watching. I’m really fascinated by the way people talk to each other, to the point where I feel like I’m some weird, information gathering robot who’s just here to see how humans work.” Underneath that comedic, don’t take things too seriously exterior is someone willing to go deeper and share some of his more sensitive moments. Often the two go hand in hand, as many of his darker experiences are expressed through humor. “Some things that seem really dark are me having a giggle with myself because I do feel that darkness, and it’s me trying to fight that back. So my way of doing it, sometimes, is to wallow in the darkness and laugh at it a little bit.”

When it comes to creativity and inspiration, life is full of experiences to draw from, but it can also be full of distractions. When inspiration strikes, fear can get in the way of expressing it. On the surface, it seems like D isn't affected by any of that. He has an incredible ability to push beyond the fear, get the work done, and get it out for the world to see. His hope is that being more open will encourage others who may be afraid to put their work on display. “You’re making something, and you don’t make something to set it on fire and have it disappear. You make something for it to be seen, understood, felt, or enjoyed.” It’s easy to look at someone as prolific as D and think that inspiration always comes naturally to him, but that's not the whole story. The apparent ease with which he creates was hard won. Countless hours were spent in search of his own voice before hitting a stride.

 
 
 
 

The first image D posted on Instagram was of a man standing next to a street lamp, on a chunk of cement ripped from the Earth, hurtling through space. Underneath was the caption, "I wonder how far I can go?". That was two and a half years ago. It was the eighth image in a series about an idea he was wrestling with. D has always drawn and painted, but this was different. He knew there was more that needed to be said, but that would come in time. It was clear a fire was lit inside and, what started as a few glowing embers, quickly grew into a full blaze. From that day forward, he was committed to honing his craft, working incessantly. He was not only delighting his friends with his work but, increasingly, finding an audience online as well. “I wouldn’t have been able to do half the things I’ve done in the last two years if not for putting up pictures on Instagram. I’m not shocked by the technology of it. You know what I mean? I’m not that old, but I’m definitely shocked by people being interested in what you do. They make me want to work harder and better.”

His love for comics started at the age of four and has continued, unwavering, for thirty-four years. Over that time, he amassed a large collection but, in recent years, has pared it down. Wednesdays are still spent at the comic shop, pouring over new arrivals. He counts many influences in the comic world but, these days, finds himself drawn to a particular style. “The ones that I respond to most do it in a perfectly flawed way. Not too cleaned up.” In his own art, the telling of a tale is the most important element. He still experiences some anguish over putting an idea on paper but no longer gets stymied to the point of incompletion. “The mental pains of trying to figure out if you are going to be able to do something versus the euphoric feeling of having done something...it just feels so much better having it done than not doing it because it isn’t up to the standard you’ve set in your head.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Most nights are spent drawing at his desk. It’s rare that he takes a break, which is no small task, considering he has a full time job and moonlights at a coffeehouse on the weekends. Even when on vacation, he has a hard time keeping a pen out of his hand. You can see evidence of his work ethic by the sheer volume of art on his Instagram page. He posts a variety of imagery ranging from classic, superhero characters to flapper girls of the 1920's. Sometimes he puts up work inspired by his most recent read or an interesting event out of his day. Other times his creations come from listening to a lyric in a song. “I try to take the weight of those words that I heard and turn them into something visual because I want to find a way to share that weight, good or bad, with other people.”


Music is definitely playing a role in his current, extended project 1976. After two and a half years of steady work, D found he was finally ready to revisit what had originally kicked off this copious chapter of his creative life. 1976 is the culmination of everything he has learned thus far, both in illustration and life, making for a very personal story. What’s the reason behind the title? “It doesn’t get more personal than the year you were born.” It’s being released in four chapters and is expected to be around 60 pages when completed. With little to no words and relying on the strength of his visuals, he is using music to help form the narrative. Each chapter is inspired by a different song. The Damned’s “New Rose” forms chapter one. The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K” holds up chapter two. Chapter three will be informed by Blondie’s “Kung Fu Girls”, and The Modern Lovers’ “Girlfriend” will wrap the story up. We listened to “New Rose” while reading chapter one, and it certainly made for a multi-sensory joyride.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

1976 is, primarily, the story of a relationship and all the elements that inform, help, and hurt that relationship. D finds that storytelling comes easier when you write what you know. Much of it pertains to his own experiences, but there are some sci-fi elements as well. “I’ve never flown through space on a rock yet, but the solitary feeling that might have is something that I’ve gone through.” D’s sensitivity to panel placement, inking, and hand-coloring are the pillars that support the story. "I don’t mind if elements of the story itself are sort of difficult to follow along with, and you gotta really think about it, but I don’t want the physical activity of looking at it to to be difficult." His inking is clearly the work of a steady, practiced hand. ”I want the ink to be its own beast. I really love drawing roughed out lines with a pencil and then going in there and bringing it to life with the ink." His color choices, three to four extremely vivid colors, reminiscent of highlighter markers, grab hold of your eyes and force you to pay attention, drawing you into his world. "If I’m gonna color it, I want that color to have an element of shock to it. I’m gonna try to make the small moments as impactful as they can be." He grew an affinity for these colors from drawing at the coffeehouse on the weekends. He would just use whatever was handy in the cup by the register, which meant a few pens and a handful of highlighter markers. What started off as a limitation later became an important tool. ”You find the tools you make your art with, and they’re going to be your best friends or lovers. They’re always there for you, and it’s up to you to really get the best out of them. You just gotta treat them right, be their friend, and let them talk to you.”

Of the four chapters comprising 1976, “New Rose” has just been released. You can find it on his Etsy store and, increasingly, in comic stores around the country.  “Anarchy in the U.K” is in the works and expected to be available in February 2015. No dates for “Kung Fu Girls” or “Girlfriend” yet, but you can keep abreast by following his Instagram @birdsinboxes.

So how far can D White go? We can't wait to find out.

 
 
 
 

A big thank you to Jay Meli, D White's compatriate and fellow member of Left Left.

 

Cosmos Sunshine

 

"I was this kid, Cosmos Sunshine, living in a little cottage on the Connecticut River, with no electricity, and at the end of a long dirt road. Sometimes when it would flood, I would have to take a canoe to the bus stop. It was a hard scrabble sort of existence, so I for sure knew, and I for sure always felt on the outside."

 
 

It's a bright day. Trees line the street, and the sun is warm, when it manages to peek through the Fall stained leaves. There is a chill in the air, a warning that winter will be settling in soon.

I just emerged from the G train, and the remnants of Halloween are everywhere. A partially wrapped candy bar on the sidewalk, slipped from tiny cold fingers and crushed under the heels of tricker-treaters. Pumpkin shards, evidence of a teenage dare, litter the street as I walk. I'm on the border of Clinton Hill and Bed Stuy, and it’s clear the neighborhood is in flux. Empty lots are being built on, and there seems to be a renovation on every block. I'm on my way to the home of Cosmos Sunshine.

I met Cosmos shortly after moving to New York. It was immediately clear to me that he was driven by a passion for music. It seems to me that dedication is better measured by someone's actions than their words, and I was struck by the amount of hustle he put into the pursuit of his craft.

I know I've reached his home by the array of intricately carved pumpkins staggered up the steps of his stoop. I am greeted by Cosmos and Sadie, he and his partner's infectiously happy border collie. Music is everywhere. Guitars are propped on stands against the wall and hanging above the piano in the corner. The soft crackle of tunes, lifted from vinyl grooves, fills the living room. It's a perfect place to sit and talk. I came here to speak with him about his music, his life, and an exciting new project he's working on. Here's our conversation...

 
 
 
 
 

Filter & Funnel (F&F): I'm sure you get this one all the time, so let's get it out of the way first. Your full name is Cosmos Sunshine Heidtmann. I’m sure there is a story in there somewhere. Can you talk a little about how you came by that name?

Cosmos: As I understand it, I was going to be John IV because my dad was John III, and back and back it goes. My mother sort of put her foot down, and you know, I’m a child of the Seventies. My background is very much a back to the earth hippie kind of a thing. It was my mom’s invention, and she was brave enough to name her kid Cosmos Sunshine. So that’s that.

F&F: The second question is kind of a followup to the first. Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Cosmos: Carl Sagan. I was definitely aware of the book as a kid and then the tv series. We had a tv that we ran off a car battery, so my television watching times were very limited. It was Bugs Bunny cartoons on Saturday morning, The Muppets, and a few other things. Then, of course, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was fully sanctioned. So yeah, I’m going Carl Sagan. I still admire him.

F&F: How long was it before you guys had electricity?

Cosmos: We never did. Even when my mother sold the place seven or eight years ago, still there was no conventional electricity. At some point in the Eighties, we got solar panels and marine deep cell batteries, so that brought some electric lights into the house. We had a hand pump on a well outside, and then, eventually, a hand pump to the same well inside. Then, we got a marine pump to bring cold water into the house, which we heated on stoves to bathe. This was in rural Connecticut. We lived like we were in the tundra in Alaska, but we were a stone’s throw from other people.

F&F: I’m sure you had exposure to mass culture because you were around other people. You had to know your lifestyle was different from those around you.

Cosmos: Oh yeah, I definitely knew. It was challenging going to a public school in a fairly conservative community in Connecticut. I was this kid, Cosmos Sunshine, living in a little cottage on the Connecticut River, with no electricity, and at the end of a long dirt road. Sometimes when it would flood, I would have to take a canoe to the bus stop. It was a hard scrabble sort of existence, so I for sure knew, and I for sure always felt on the outside. I had some friends, but I knew I was definitely the subject of conversation. To my mom’s credit, I look back on it and admire her greatly for sticking with it as long as she did. She walked it like she talked it, which is pretty rare.

F&F: Yeah, it seems like there's a lot of interest in that lifestyle these days. It almost feels like a little resurgence of the Seventies.

Cosmos: I hope so. I see it in my town and around there. I was telling you about this organic farm of a friend of mine, and I have other friends who have a yurt and a land trust. They’re doing all manner of musical, artistic, and spiritual endeavors, and holding workshops. That stuff was never ever there as a kid. There were farmers, old money, and blue blood puritan types. So, it’s really nice to see. I love the area, and I’ve always gone back. My mom’s still there, but in a different house with electricity.

 
 
 

"I’d always hung out with my mom and dad’s social set. I’d always hung out with fringe characters and older people. You would have to see where and how I grew up. There were lots of characters, you know, swamp yankee weirdos."

 
 
 

F&F: Do you feel that growing up without constant electricity influenced the kind of music that you gravitated towards?

Cosmos: Interesting that you say that. Yes, for sure. When my Dad was still alive, we had a functioning stereo and a turntable. There was Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones, and Grateful Dead. All that stuff was on regular rotation. My parents had a really great combined record collection. My recollection of the music that I’d hear at night on the river, when there was no light pollution, are songs like Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water”. I have all these remembrances of really vibey, acoustic, singer/songwriter, Seventies kinds of things. Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” is one that I always remember. It definitely colored my sensibilities as a musician and a songwriter later on, and I still feel it.

 
 
 
 

F&F: Was the guitar the first instrument you picked up? When did you know that was your instrument?

Cosmos: Yes, the first instrument I picked up for real. I had a toy drum kit my grandmother got me. I became obsessed with the Beatles, who were always present amongst tons of other music in the house. I had no musicians in my family, so there weren’t instruments lying around. I found myself trying not to do my homework and playing Ringo’s drum fills on my books. So my grandmother got me the toy drum kit, which I beat to shit and never learned how to play. When I was little, and my dad was still around, I used to get to go see The Grateful Dead, The Band, Dylan, and all that kind of stuff. Once he died, things got a little difficult, and there was not a lot of frivolity, shall we say. By the time I picked up a guitar, I was kind of a little heavy metal kid. I was into Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, and that kind of stuff. My next door neighbor got a little electric guitar and started taking lessons. I just kind of picked it up, and it really made sense. It worked for me, and I progressed very fast. I took a few lessons, and from that point on, it was my abiding passion. I couldn’t really focus on too many other things. Then, my mom was like, “You love this Eddie Van Halen guy, you gotta check out this guy, Jimmy Page”. She had a cassette of Led Zeppelin II that she’d gotten from Columbia House. You know, pay two dollars and get one hundred cassettes or whatever. Then you’re hooked, and you gotta pay. She signed up for a bunch of those things. Then, I was totally into everything Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin. That formed my early thing, which was good because he was very versatile and had a lot of influences. So I learned about the blues, folk music, and jazz came a little bit later. It was an excellent window into a range of all different types of music that I discovered afterwards.

F&F: I know you started gigging when you were pretty young. How old were you, and what was it like playing with an older group in front of an older audience?

Cosmos: Such as it was. I mean there weren’t oceans of people out there. Yeah, I started when I was 14. I played my first gig at a high school talent show. I remember somebody had videotaped it on a big clunky video camera, and I looked at myself realizing I had my back turned to the audience the whole time. I was totally paralyzed with fear. Then, the next year the same thing happened again. That time, I realized I needed to make a show, so I had some moves. Right after that, I started to play at bars. My mom used to have to write me permission slips to go, which was pretty funny. I was 15. I don’t know. It wasn’t that weird. I’d always hung out with my mom and dad’s social set. I’d always hung out with fringe characters and older people. You would have to see where and how I grew up. There were lots of characters, you know, swamp yankee weirdos. So I knew everybody that was in that bar already. That was a place I hit a couple times when I was 15. Then, I spread out to the local surrounding towns and areas. That was that for a few years.

 
 
 

"It had this magical sense about it. In times of my worst despair, I’m like, “what the fuck was that message that was given to me?”. It wasn’t a word or the hand of God reaching down and saying, “You must play music”, but it was such an abiding sense of rightness and connectedness that I only ever experience through the expression of music."

 
 
 
 
 
 

F&F: You spent some time at Berklee College of Music. What was your experience there? Where do you feel like you got most of your musical education?

Cosmos: I went there for a summer program right out of high school. They wouldn’t enroll me without that because, aside from a few lessons and a lot of playing time for the age that I was, I didn’t have any ear training. I didn’t know how to read music. I don’t even know why they eventually accepted me because I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing at all, and compared to many people, I still don’t. I took the summer program and came back to East Haddam, my hometown, and knocked around for the autumn after. It was 1990. Then, I went to the Spring 1991 semester at Berklee. I learned a fair amount about basic fundamental music harmony. I learned the way chords are structured and the way you can construct patterns called modes across chord progressions if they’re all in the same key.  A few tricks to broaden my horizons, but a lot of what I learned came from playing gigs. I started to book myself bigger shows in Boston and brought my band up to do that. Psychedelics were a pretty big feature in my life at that time, so there was a lot of brain expansion and musical activity going on. I would come to class half asleep, but I realize I learned a tremendous amount in a short period of time. Still, it took years to assimilate it all. I got most of my understanding of music theory through that, but the biggest educator for anybody playing a sort of improvised music form, like blues, jazz, or rock ‘n roll, is playing with other people. Invariably, somebody you’re playing with knows something about something that you’ll pick up and benefit from greatly. Music is organic in that way.

 
 
 
 

F&F: You eventually moved to NYC, and you’ve been here for a while now. Do you ever miss the more rural life?

Cosmos: Yeah, I do. I almost feel like I’m caught between the two realities, because I can’t live without New York, and I can’t live without the rural Connecticut setting either. I’m attached to both. I’ve been spending most of my life trying to find a happy medium between the two. I’ve thought about other cities, but I think once New York gets in your blood, it’s hard to think about some other place, at least in the United States, that’s gonna compare. Although, I feel like, sadly, New York is losing a lot of what made it a beautiful monster.

F&F: Do you write different music in the city than when you are in Connecticut? Do you feel like your surroundings influence you?

Cosmos: I usually find, for the most part, that I don’t write as much in the city at all. I think I can do good work on music, hone it, sculpt it, and trim the fat, but usually I’m most inspired when I’m out in a more natural setting. That’s not one hundred percent of the time. The song I wrote, “Modern Times”, when I was in Dan Patch was in the city. I woke up from a dream with a melody in my head, and I was like, “This is a thing. Take heed”.  I’ve definitely had that happen many times, but that’s the only time I actually had the wherewithal to get it. So I’m trying to find the discipline to do it. There’s definitely a widely held belief that the in-between state of waking and dreaming is a field of pure potentiality, and that’s really the most fertile ground.

F&F: You moved to New York in the early Nineties, right? You must have seen some changes in that time. Is there anything that stands out, good or bad?

Cosmos: I moved here in 1991. It’s not exclusively one or the other. On paper, New York has changed for the better. Also I’m a little older now, so I am content not to be confronted with all manner of insanity at all times. It’s still there, but it definitely got pushed to the fringes. When I first came here, I ended up walking almost right into the middle of the riot in Tompkins Square when the cops came and kicked everybody out. Tompkins Square was a tent city. Basically it was all homeless people, drug addicts, and mentally ill people living in makeshift tents and burning fires in garbage cans. It was like that on Delancey Street. In the middle of the boulevard, people would just be huddled around fires burning in oil drums. New York, in the Lower East Side at least, was pretty much an open air drug market. It was old, bombed out lots, vacant buildings, bodegas selling crack and heroine with lines around the block. People just queued up to buy their drugs. People had taken over abandoned buildings to run their drug retail operations. You could buy weed on the street just about anywhere. We basically managed to get by on almost nothing, live in big lofts, rehearse, and be totally in a creative environment with a bunch of other bands. You could easily play three nights a week or more, in venues ranging from tiny little shithole dives to big clubs like The Wetlands, CBGB, or even Irving Plaza. There were big dinosaur promoters like Ron Delsener, who would allow my band to play at Irving Plaza, opening for who knows what. Gov’t Mule made it easy for us too because Warren Haynes’ wife was my manager, and Warren had produced my band’s first album. So a career in rock ‘n roll was more easily facilitated than now. Plus, there were still labels. You could still get a record deal. There was still the old structure, pre-internet kind of sensibility where people still hadn’t completely devalued music and would still go out and buy a cd, even though cd’s suck. I’m glad that vinyl’s back in the way that it is. Yeah, New York was a very different place.

F&F: Is New York, now in 2014, a supportive place for working musicians?

Cosmos: No. I don’t think so. I don’t see it. I think it’s too hard, too expensive, and I think people’s priorities really shifted quite a lot. New York’s always been about making money, but now it seems like the hedge fund Wall Street money expansion has completely absorbed all of Manhattan, taken over most of Brooklyn, and Queens waterfront. There’s too many high-rises, too much imaginary money going around, and imaginary money doesn’t make it to a musician’s billfold. So yeah, it’s not a good environment.

 
 
 
 

F&F: How did you find your musical community?

Cosmos: I fell into it. My band from Connecticut, that I was taking up to Boston, was called Visual Echoes. Yeah, very funny, but we were kind of rockin’. I had booked us in Boston, and naturally I wanted to play in New York. This was before I lived here, but I managed to get a gig at CBGB. We came down, and this girl, very pretty girl, that I grew up with was already living here with her boyfriend. She was doing some modeling, and these two guys, Jaik Miller and Jack DeSantis, had been part of this shoot. They were musicians. I mean, they were definitely not model types, but they fit the figure of the Lower East Side at the time. She invited them to CBGB. They came down, and I struck up an instant friendship with both of them. Jaik Miller, turns out, was a profoundly gifted singer/songwriter. Jack was a wild man, played the bass, and is the bass player now, all these years later, in my band, Los Lotharios. They were already hooked into the scene at this place called Nightingale, which was a tiny place that gave Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors their first opportunities to really play. When I moved down, Jaik was the first person I called. He took me to Nightingale and introduced me to Warren Haynes. Jaik was already managed by Stefani (Scamardo), Warren’s wife. He and I became really fast friends, and for awhile, there was a possibility that I was going to join their band, Xanax 25, pretty funny also. Nineties names...my band was called Cherokee Sex Workshop. We played together all the time. We were buddy bands and both ended up touring with Gov’t Mule quite a lot. So that’s how I met all the Blues Traveler and Spin Doctors guys, and there was deeper musical heritage before those guys broke out. There was this band called Joey Miserable and The Worms, which was sort of the beginning of all that. This guy Simon Chardiet, who’s still around, is an amazing guitar player, but a total punk maniac. He can play Bach and jazz effortlessly but has the most aggressive, crazy, punk-rock, noisy style. He’s a completely dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, uncompromising, and still just knocking around the city. Hugely influential on a lot of people. So Joey Miserable and The Worms let Blues Traveler open for them. That’s how this whole scene basically ignited, and I came on the scene right after that.

F&F: Do you feel most comfortable writing by yourself or in collaboration with other people? How does that work with Los Lotharios?

Cosmos: Both. When I started out, I didn’t sing at all, and for the most part, I didn’t write lyrics. I had a singer that I had grown up with that was great, and we wrote together. When that band broke up, I became really interested in the craft of song-writing, which before I didn’t really have much of a grasp on. After doing a bunch of studio work, I left New York to try and find myself. I was doing open mic nights in Connecticut, started a little band, and slowly found my voice and learned how to sing. All of that time, I wrote by myself and have done so until pretty recently, when I paired up with Michael Parrish and Los Lotharios. That’s been a pretty natural thing. He’s so different than I am in his approach and well-versed in musical styles: gospel, blues, and country. I always snatched a little bit from here and there and never really committed myself to learning one style. So my stuff is kind of a hodgepodge of different influences. That combination is pretty cool.  I think it would be more difficult if we had similar styles. It’s kind of easy for us to put together our constituent parts.

F&F: How do you stay focused and keep growing?

Cosmos: It’s not hard, really, because if I don’t do it, I get really depressed and start to feel like I’m rudderless and there’s not a lot of purpose to my life. Once I start to get that really scary feeling, it compels me to get up and start to work with whatever I’ve got on the plate at the moment. I have to have a creative way of going about my day everyday. Whether it’s cooking or interacting with people, I need to be creative, and if I’m not, I start to feel really lost. Also, honestly this sounds crazy, but I had such a clear message when I picked up a guitar. I felt, and have felt since, that sometimes when I’m creating, especially when I’m outside, it’s like the wind picks up a little bit, and there starts to be this synchronicity of movement and sound. It’s the craziest thing. I was working on an album where my mother lives in Connecticut. It was the spring, and the barking tree frogs were out. I was recording vocals out on the patio, and rhythmically, everything lined up. It had this magical sense about it. In times of my worst despair, I’m like, “what the fuck was that message that was given to me?”. It wasn’t a word or the hand of God reaching down and saying, “You must play music”, but it was such an abiding sense of rightness and connectedness that I only ever experience through the expression of music.

 
 
 
 
 
 

F&F: How else has the natural world played an important role in your life?

Cosmos: My house, as a kid, was always filled with animals. My mother has a license to rehabilitate wild animals.You can even see it around the house here. Suvi, my lady, shares it as well. Forms that you see in the natural world, you also see in an elegant old deco lamp, a victorian piece of furniture, or patterns on a tablecloth from Sweden. It permeates everywhere. My mom’s paintings of the crow on the sign that was at the end of the dirt road from my house in Connecticut and the deer running across the swamp. Those are scenes I would see on a regular basis, so I carry that with me all the time. It was a place of magic and wonder. We get into a sort of hive mentality here, which kind of takes you out of the ebb and flow of the seasons. I notice when I’m in the city too much, I feel like I miss the autumn or the spring. It’s here if you know where to look for it, but you’re not completely immersed in it like when you’re able to roll around in a huge snowdrift not completely pissed over by dogs and covered in soot.

F&F: You’re getting ready to launch a campaign in support of your next project. Can you talk a little about that?

Cosmos: The goal is to give myself the opportunity to go into a very good recording environment with very capable people, record to tape, and press to vinyl. I’ve done several different recording projects, to greater or lesser success. I’ve found the things I’ve been most happy with have been done in recording studios with capable engineers. The sonics of tape and analog, the vibe and pacing of it, to my ears, feels more robust and palpable. I like the physical aspect of dealing with a mechanical device, like a turntable, and the tactile aspect of holding a piece of vinyl. Not to mention the big art. I’m a guy that likes books. I think that’s important stuff. I think it’s good for people to not get all of their information from some sort of binary thing. For sure there’s going to be a digital stage in this recording, where we’ll track to tape and maybe overdub. Finance is going to dictate how much we stay in the analog realm. It’s probably going to be some sort of hybrid, but the idea is rather than going and laying tracks in Pro Tools, we’re going to make music live in the studio, recorded to tape. When I started out, that’s what you did.  I’m also approaching this recording differently than I ever have before. Even if a band was named after me, it was still a band, and I’ve always submerged my own identity into group dynamics. This is actually going to be a super intimate, super spare, singer/songwriter project because I think I’ve really found my voice. I’ve been a dedicated songwriter now for over ten years. You kind of get all the shitty stuff out of your system. I feel super confident, and I’m going to do something different than I’ve ever done before. I think that ties in with the whole aspect of nature. That rural, non-light polluted, woodsy, organic kind of sound that I grew up with.

F&F: Most music is listened to digitally these days, but people are also buying vinyl. Why is that?

Cosmos: I think that there is a nostalgia and a cool factor, for sure, but I always find listening to digital playback, even high res, lacks a little bit of the focus and presence. There’s a frequency band that people refer to as presence. I don’t mean that, specifically. I mean just an actual musical image is inhabiting the room. It’s a subtle, experiential kind of thing. Everybody talks about the warmth of analog. Basically all that amounts to, on a technical level, is a certain amount of pleasing distortion. When you hear the surface noise of a record, it brings a warm, nostalgic kind of feeling. I think cd’s were destined to fail. They were just a hard medium to hold what would become the digital realities of today. They were just kind of a bridge. Today you can have all the convenience of streaming digital to your heart’s content. It allows you tremendous access, which is great, but at the end of the day, it’s mostly all compressed mp3 type stuff. So between bad digital conversion and noisy boxes, the degradation is so extreme. When you take a nice, clean piece of vinyl and put it on, even a mediocre, turntable with a decent pair of speakers, it’s a whole different experience. It comes to life, and people are like, “Wow I don’t believe I’ve been missing this. I love music, and my experience has been listening to a symphony through a straw.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

F&F: What albums do you find yourself coming back to year after year?

Cosmos: Led Zeppelin IV. Jimmy Page is remastering the catalog. I just got the vinyl. I have a real great memory association of rolling around with my friends, high on weed for the first time, listening to Zeppelin IV on a boombox and just laughing our asses off. So I always come back to that. Beatles’ The White Album is one that’s indispensable. Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach is one I always go back to, or maybe Brothers And Sisters is a tie for me. Black Sabbath Volume IV. Just some real cornerstone records that I keep coming back to.

F&F: What have you been listening to recently?

Cosmos: I love The War On Drugs. The latest album, Lost In A Dream, is superb. It’s really beautiful. Good driving music. It just kind of goes by. Kind of psychedelic, but not in an overt kind of way. Father John Misty. I love Vetiver. I like the Arctic Monkeys. Their latest album is super good. Beck is brilliant. His latest album is great. A lot of stuff.

F&F: What are your aspirations as a musician?

Cosmos: To quote the great Richard Manuel in The Last Waltz, “I just want to break even.” I definitely want to have a growing audience. I want to touch people and inspire them the way that I’m inspired. I want to provide, with this upcoming project, beautiful music that really touches people. So a lot of my aspiration is just to get it right.

F&F: Last question, what are your aspirations outside of music?

Cosmos: Yeah. I’ve never really had a long term perspective on life because I didn’t think I was going to be around that long. I’ve led such a reckless life, but now I definitely want to live long and be healthy. I have a real love for canines. So, if I don’t become a father at some point, maybe continuing to rescue border collies, or that kind of thing. That would necessitate being in the country more, which is something I’d love to do. I’m really passionate about conservation and animal rights.