“Nothing gets you naked quicker than the feeling of an approaching ledge. I wrote most of the record while in bed dealing with an undiagnosed illness for an entire year. Maybe that’s the ‘purity’ factor you mention…which can be very risky because there is less self-reflection from a critical standpoint— it’s all from the gut. One part testimonial, one part alt-rock Americana.”
“Most of the time I could only manage a pencil and paper, so the process took on a diary-like quality, full of lines and no eraser—nothing was scratched out.
Not to complicate things with big existential stuff, but my perspective is still tied to the experience of my illness and a musical process that became increasingly urgent. It was like: You better get shameless fast ’cause you might be running out of time!
Fire in the Wake came from a place of urgency.
This record is a songwriter’s project with very musical ideas wrapped around it. I love performing live and being in the studio; but I feel most at home throughout the solitary process of discovering a sentence, a melody, or a noise. I can’t imagine missing out on the process of writing my own music and lyrics.”
“Musically, my inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere and definitely from my exposure to a huge library of music. I grew up in a very musical house—my dad, a self-made musicologist, had vinyl spinning all the time; and it felt like a mash-up mostly. Things would go from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to The Beach Boys, from Brahms to Fats Waller.”
“This particular record was a crazy joker card since it forced a change in how I wrote the music—this inspiration came from limitation. I was used to being able to flesh out string arrangements, dive into granular synthesis and minimalist obscurities; but since I couldn’t get out of bed, and had zero energy, I couldn’t really test ideas the way I usually did. It was all internal, and I would structure the music with just a guitar.
Everything came in an octave below my normal vocal register, which I later realized was due to my sick-bay pillow posture that kept my chin down and my singing low. Guaranteed, singing ‘The Sound of Music’ is impossible when you feel like throwing up. So, inspiration? There was a time I thought inspiration was a pretty thing— a kind of luxury that just befell the artist.
For me, inspiration comes from a combination of being right where I need to be, wanting to be somewhere else, and running towards that ‘elsewhere’ like there are outlaws ready to gun you down if you don’t.”
“I think part of music’s power is that it physically hits us as sound and shakes things up inside. Although it does this in a mysterious way, because there’s also the invisible wind of emotional transference that goes with it—sometimes you don’t know what hit you and you go all limbic.
I find there’s something sublime about loudness and being taken over by its shear voltage and volume. It’s like being in the subway as an express train bullets past, destroying all peripheral sounds and bringing with it an unexpected peace in its world-cancelling white noise.
Or on the flip side, listening to Arvo Part has a perceived depth that is equally massive and can totally take me over because it speaks quietly. I think that when music reveals the artist’s interior weather, and it solders itself to your insides, that’s when the conversation gets interesting–at any volume. Growing up, there was always a piano in the house and from a very young age I was fascinated by how simple it was to strike a note and make something from nothing. I remember being excited by hitting a note on the piano, letting it ring out, and imagining a motorbike disappearing into a desert horizon. As early as I can remember, I understood the connection between imagination and music. I owe a lot to the childhood music teachers who encouraged composition while teaching the standard recital material. I remember entering a composition contest when I was about six with a piece called, ‘Volcano’. It sounded like John Cage before I knew who he was and I was really into it. I remember thinking, ‘This is a winner. No doubt.’I lost, and so began the process of testing new options.”
“I wrote, As I Walk instantly and without thinking. I felt like I was just transcribing it and I couldn’t write fast enough. Even more than what the song means to me lyrically, was the experience of channeling it.
Bloom was one of the first songs I wrote while I was bed-locked, and so it brings me back to that urgency of fighting for my life. Before I was sick, I was heavily into boxing, and enjoyed all that comes with being in peak condition. Then suddenly, from one moment to the next, I couldn’t even stand.”
“I think it was a mutual love of music and boxing that sealed my friendship with bassist, Tony Garnier, and I wonder if he volunteered to work on the record because he sensed all of this. As for other songs in the world? I still don’t understand why Sergey’s Liturgy of St. John Chystostom gets me every time.
“There are so many that have influenced my music directly and others that influence the way I listen or explore ideas. Since there is no hierarchy, I’m throwing it all out there like a cloud: Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Dave Van Ronk, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Feist, composer John Adams, Steve Reich, U2, Arcade Fire, Afro-Cuban, Nick Cave, Nick Drake, all kinds of electronic music, and currently checking out Woodkid, and My Brightest Diamond, and many many others.”
“Besides these artists, and my parents who surrounded me with musical exposure and opportunity, I had the good fortune of working under producer/composer John Petersen in New York City straight out of high school for several years. I would not have known how to put this record together were it not for his influence. I had to be my own producer, string arranger, performer and programmer for the project; and John had everything to do with that acquired ability. Not a lot of people are generous enough to give the kind of knowledge that leads to self-reliance. We are great friends today and we still spend hours talking about music every chance we get.”
• • •
Jennifer McCarthy, painter/outsider artist; El Paso, Texas, USA:
“I’m not sure where my images come from; it seems as if they already exist and I am just discovering them, excavating them somehow, with the pens, ink, paint, scratches. They seem to me very old stories.”
“My art reflects elements of both my inner life and how I perceive the collective psyche.”
“Over and over I am confronted with a raw vulnerability in myself and in others that reminds me of a wild animal, at times backed into a corner or snarling out in pain, sometimes gnawing on itself. There are yet other moments when its heart races as it breaths quick and shallow after snatching its prey and then pauses to catch its breath before its first bite.”
“I sense this creature lies much closer to the surface in each of us than we usually realize, and it is easily disguised by language and the trappings of civilization, by our work and self-defined identities. But when our interactions with each other approach intimacy, the wild creature is released, and it is a delicate, dangerous, powerful and beautiful force. Unfortunately, we run from it, in ourselves and in others, often at its first roar and miss the opportunity for true connection and mutual empowerment. The drawings are meant to evoke a sense of this wildness and drama.”
“Painting is a sanctuary for me. From all the thinking in my head, and taking in the news, and the realizations about how I failed as a parent today and last month and a year ago. And why do we spend so much time day after day doing things we know we’ll consider a waste of time when we’re on our deathbeds?”
“I started building the nest a couple of months after 9/11. The images of the people falling from the buildings reminded me of baby birds falling from the nests; and I had the urge to reach through the TV and catch the falling people with my hands. My mind raced to think of solutions to the problem of them falling to their deaths; and I saw images of a giant mother catching them in her breast, and then a giant nest, and then I thought of a giant nest to stand in place of the twin towers.”
“At the same time, my marriage was failing. My husband and I both had wanted so desperately to provide a two-parent household for our child, and we were screwing it up. I, who had never dreamed of marriage and motherhood, now wanted more than anything to make my son’s childhood ‘perfect.’ I guess as the whole nesting experience was failing inside, I literally tried to take it outside. There’s a section from Byron’s “Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage” that catches the sense of failure, I think: ‘But in man’s dwelling he became a thing, restless, and worn, and stern and wearisome . . .drooped as the wild-borne falcon of clipped wing, to whom the boundless air alone were home.” I’m crazy about my son, love him to death, and try my best to be the parent he needs, and I fail a lot.”
“I stopped drawing and painting in my teens, twenties; and of course, during that time was also very troubled, or as the shamans would say, my soul was lost. I have read a bit about ancient shamanism and about Jung’s interest in shamanism and the soul, and it makes so much sense to me–that inner turmoil is a soul sickness.”
“it’s interesting that before shamans become enlightened, they are sickly, fragile and troubled; and must undergo an ordeal in which they, in a meditative trance, watch themselves ritualistically dismembered and reassembled into stronger, healthier versions of their former selves, with powers of healing. The importance of first undressing oneself.”
“Even when I was quite young, I had constant dreams and trances and fever dreams of much of what I’m now learning is shamanic.”
“Anger is the predator from without, which I have internalized over time. The predator feeds on herself and sometimes on the flesh of those she loves as well.”
“But I think what we are is really not animal; it is really human, what we do is uniquely human. It’s cruel and degrading and it affects us deeply and that is how it is so human. Those things that we argue make us superior are the things that make as a maladaptive species. Not just our cruelty, but our ability to manipulate so much of our lives, our environment, each other.”
“The powerful have always used reason to convince others of the sanity and sensibility of their actions.
Wars are not brought about by our animal instincts.
Fear, hasn’t it mostly been fear? Fear justified with what? Reason. Logic. Rational thinking. Unemotional. Linear.
Spin, BS, propaganda. Sometimes reason can be very dangerous.”
“‘We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be,’ a quote by Mary Sarton.”
“The grandstanding is often an attempt to cover our basic instincts and often an honest attempt to conquer them; but perhaps they cannot be conquered and perhaps they ought not be. Perhaps we need to accept these instincts in ourselves.
I think animal instincts are both constructive and destructive as is nature, and the universe, but it is not immoral.”
“The animal is a powerful energy we need to hold on to, in ourselves and in others, even when it’s scary.”
Next in the Leaving Normal series: “Leaving Normal: A Matter of Perspective.”
• • •
Further notes on our featured artists:
Reviews of Jennifer McCarthy’s work:
“Jennifer McCarthy’s visual art is evocative of Gaughin in its use of the primitive to extoll the viewer’s vulnerabilities.
One thing most striking is the use of eyes in several pieces I have seen: indicative of both power and weakness, the body itself is satellited by eyes, and the eye homes there as a god.
The animals, in some instances mixed human and beast, have an anthropormorphic reality to them even when it is not overt. The fish, for instance, have the gaunt cheeks of the anorexic, one whose body is devouring itself. I wonder, are these all self-portraits? For even so, they seem in may aspects to be portraits of me, a wife and mother, a woman, entered into a hallucinogenic circle, girls of the Romantic period taking laudonum with Keats and Shelly in the tower, to see ‘what will happen.’ These pieces make me uncertain of my identity as a human being, in all its facets, as if that is not uncertain enough. A struggle with what is ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’, as manifest in some mental disorders, becomes relevant to the world at large. All is questioned. Indeed, in the piece where the individual is covering her crotch, I have the sense of being violated or even of violating: as a rape survivor, this struck its chord with me as well.
The use of African motifs, as applied to the woman’s world. All is questioned, in a mode that is terrifying in its disciplined yet wild use and revelation of what is beautiful. Again, the eyes, showing what one does not wish to see, yet what one as a vigilant artist remains hostage to. An artist is always vigilant, someone said. McCarthy’s art is indicative of that capability. They make the viewer doubt and wonder and wish a little. Or wish a lot.”
~Carolyn Srygley-Moore, Albany, New York
“There’s a deep spirituality of nature in Jennifer’s art and it’s somehow embedded and contained within the landscape of her drawings – she almost seems to be producing a kind of spiritual archaeology and in some of the work you can actually see the deep layers unfolding. I see as a kind of peeling away of the layers of nature – the trees, the plants, and the animals all live and eventually die, and their life force is absorbed by the earth and the rocks; and I can see in Jennifer’s art a rediscovery and unearthing of that spirit energy.Aand delving down into ‘primitive’ prehistory – the place where imaginations are formed, and where dream archetypes come from. It seems almost aboriginal in the truest sense of the word (ab-origine: from the beginning). I have a deep love of Australian Aboriginal art, and of the idea that everything that has been is contained in the landscape – the energy of our ancestors then comes alive again through us; and I can see that coming through in Jennifer’s art. She has a very poetic vision.”
~Ian Pyper, Brighton, England
“The image of the red female beast (a wolf?) inspires fear of violence or anger in me. But also respect. The beast appears strong and fit.”
~Jon Wood, Portland, Oregon, USA
“The pieces with the animals? They come across to me like co-existence between the snake and the critter. I don’t see the snake as a threat. The fox is going somewhere to die and all the stuff is what would naturally be around it. I love the detail in the animal, the design in that creature, even the way the leaves are striated. Visually, to be honest with you, it fucking blows on my mind.”
~David Gillette, Portland, Oregon, USA
“Her paintings are intriguing but I have to say I would not want to have most of them around me all the time. They’re disorienting, disturbing…”
~Frank Latcham, Berkeley, California, USA
“Very strong works. I can understand if someone cannot look at them for long. They are demanding works, challenging the looker’s eyes and mind to receive another world that is haunted. Some of the works have a strong anxiety. Little eyes observing. Everywhere. Some of her works are difficult to look at for long as they are suffocating; but these are strong and good works. They speak from a reality of someone’s truth.”
~Jaakko Savolainen, Espoo, Finland