Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I don’t have a fixed schedule. I usually wake up and try to go running. And not every day, some days when I'm feeling good. I’ll have coffee. I like espresso a lot. So we have a special machine that I like to make little espressos with. One of the first things I do is some manifesting and gratitude work. It's been something new that I started recently where I take stock of all the things I have and at the same time, attempt to manifest some new things in my life. I find that that really grounds me every day. Then I usually practice for several hours a day. Most of the time it's two hours a day on the saxophone and an hour or so on the voice. That depends on a lot of different things. But that's the usual schedule for me. Then there's a lot of other business kinds of things, emails and writing music and such. For me it all kind of blends seamlessly. There isn't any sort of fixed thing. There's always the okay, now I have to go and deal with the emails, like everybody. There's the fun stuff and not so fun stuff, like everyone's life.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I feel like the new My Tree album with Ben that’s coming out is a breakthrough for our group. We spent so many hours producing and mixing and moving things around. It was a lot of special work to me. Each piece is married to an idea of social or political justice that we both really care about. Whether it’s the importance of going to therapy or the importance of honoring victims of horrible events like the Pulse massacre shooting or the Ahmaud Arbery shooting. Those things really feel special to me. We started working on that album four years ago. It's been a breakthrough for me.
And then this jazz album that's coming out in late August is also a breakthrough for me individually. It was the first time I wrote for strings in my band, and I recorded it with this dream ensemble in the pandemic. I'm really excited about that, because I wrote all that music, which is all instrumental. The overarching ideas behind that work are basically about grief, and how to get through it, as we have all been doing.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I don't disconnect them so much. I wouldn't say that I enter a state of being creative. I'm not like, “I'm going to be creative now.” I feel like I'm always practicing in my mind or thinking about what could be interesting to do in terms of writing music, or creating a texture or creating something that is married to ideals of social justice that I care deeply about—not just in the arts—but in terms of rights for incarcerated people, for example. I wouldn't say that it's such a different life to go in and out of creativity. Sometimes I don't want to rest and just push to keep going – that New York state of mind. But rest is so important, because when you come back then it feels easier.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
My idea of what music is, and I think this goes for a lot of people, is also sound. So experimental sounds that people don't necessarily see as music like birds chirping or tuning forks or low rumbles from construction or just every sound that’s in our environment. I feel that the healing quality of sounds, even the construction kinds of sounds, are healing and I think that like going inside of the pain is a healing tool for me. So some things that seem painful on the outside or superficially can, to me, be an access to healing. Everybody has their own ways of using music as a tool for healing. For me, sometimes just listening to the environment is a big one. When I was younger, I would put on a song and brood to it. I remember crying too many times Bonnie Raitt’s, “I Can't Make You Love Me” when my boyfriend broke up with me. The act of me putting the song on and crying to it helped me feel better. There’s also a sense of community there, in that I know she's hurting too. Her singing makes me feel better. Mostly these days, I like to listen to the environment and the things that are going on around me more and more for healing.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
That’s such a hard question. Once you start claiming it as your own, and not giving credit for your influences that’s an issue. Sometimes you hear a song from an artist, and it's like a direct copy and there’s no credit given or mentioning of an influence, which makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I don't know if I have a good answer. It’s about making sure you are paying respect to your colleagues and the people who you collaborate with—calling it out and naming it. With my work there's so much that Ben, in My Tree, brings to the table, in terms of the song writing and the beat making. He made all the beats on that record. And I would never take any credit for that.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
You’re talking a little bit about synaesthesia, which is sort of like the crossing over between different senses. I've read a lot about it. I do have a very strong memory when it comes to smells. My mom lost her sense of smell when she was 19. When I was growing up with her she was always using me as a nose, which was fun because I got to describe things to her.
It's so unique to each person and all wrapped up in memory because I think the olfactory part of the brain and those other sensing parts of the brain are so close to the memory centers. Everything is, sort of, autobiographical. For example, when you see a color, I think for most people, it goes into your memory center. Say, I remember this one time when I wore a hot pink shirt, and that's what I think about when I see hot pink, or maybe when you smell barbecue cooking and it conjures up memories of Fourth of July picnics that your family had on that day. I think it's just so wrapped up in autobiography and so different for each person.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
In terms of socio-political issues, I've really tried to take an intersectional approach. I'm usually not just thinking about race or class, but also age, ableism and culture. And more recently, immigrant status, all of those things, and how they are played out and who holds the power. Power dynamics are more important than most of us realize or are willing to address or talk about in our culture. For me, I really want to always have that lens where I'm looking at what is happening underneath and at the people who have the power right now and maybe that will shift eventually. On the whole, how do we shift the power to different groups of people so every person has a chance to be at the top.
What can music express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
I'm going to go into a Buddhist thought, this way of going from duality to non-duality. It’s something I learned from my dad. Even this question presents duality or a binary. I’m trying to get outside of the duality mode or binary mode to think about more of a spectrum. That's where I'm at right now. I’m trying to think about things more on a continuum or a spectrum so that I flow into “the circle of, it’s the circle of life.” Thanks, Elton John. Maybe as a listener you can experience that life and death cycle in the music.