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.
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.”
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.