Wednesday, June 18, 2014

conversations, etc.: re-imagined & revived this summer

Dear Reader, Internet Wanderer, & Fellow Conversationalist,

Hello. How are you?
As you can see, the last post on this site was made in February 2010. That makes it some months more than four years since last we shared with you. Maybe you do not like that fact so much. Neither do we. For that reason-- and for at least 33 others-- this site is making a comeback this summer. It's true.

That's a big smile, so to speak.

Things are as dormant as you let them be, and well, we were pretty good at letting things lie dormant. That said, we kept finding people we were genuinely intrigued by. People we would surely like to have conversations with. We kept brainstorming ways in which we would want the site to transform and become  more dynamic once we were ready to revive it. We kept conversations, etc. in our heads and hearts so that, one day, we'd come back to be part of your lives-- however often you stop by.

Summer 2014 marks the season we will be making our comeback.
Dormancy doesn't look good on us. Time to remove this hole-filled sweater of dormancy. Etc.

Great news: we will be adding a range of new series so that there will be something refreshing and unique to explore often. More importantly, there is so much we would like to share and explore: with our interviewees, with our readers, with whoever stumbles upon this site and takes something from their time here. In other words, we look forward to all the future conversations, future sharings, and "future people" in our lives.

Thanks for your time and patience.
Come back soon. Come back to enjoy the conversations... to dig the etc.

Shahin I. Beigi     

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Left Unsaid 2: unsaid


by Alissa Nutting

Leaving things unsaid is not my biggest problem. I tend to say too much. I used to want to say too much so badly that I lied if I didn't have enough to say. I did this until I became involved in a serious relationship, and suddenly had someone there who could attest to the lack of validity of everything I was saying. It is not fun to get busted. I will say that.

Luckily, advances in information technology now give me new things to say all the time. There are not enough hours in the day to even cover it. Still, there is something unfulfilling in spreading around news about people and events that have no relation to me. I find it easy to go dead in the eyes when I’m not the heroine.

Once, when I was about five or six, a childhood friend and I left my grandmother’s house and went to the bathroom in the backyard trees. “I do this all the time,” I told my friend. That was a lie. I had also told her that I lived on a farm where I had to rise before dawn to extract milk from the udders of cows and goats (in truth we did not own even a goldfish), and that somewhere on the premises of my family’s plot of land there was an electric spanking machine.

When I finished, I decided it would be funny to wipe some on the side of the neighbor’s house. We placed it on a leaf and then swirled it in a giant circle. “They will think a bird did it,” I masterminded. I’m not sure what prompted me to think they’d believe a bird would make a fecal circle about a foot in circumference on the house’s siding. Later we saw the neighbor out front with a hose.

I think about this sometimes, because that is what it feels like to talk about other people. Unsatisfying, like I’m just spreading something around with a leaf.

And the unsaid does not have any sort of forgiving middle ground. To leave things unsaid means that even hints are off the table. It would seem that stating, “I’d love to say more but I shouldn’t,” or “I promised not to tell,” would be a happy medium whereby I could acknowledge the unsaid without actually spilling the beans. But saying this is even worse. In the speculative economy of secrets and information, such statements raise the stock price of the unsaid so much that people will offer irresistible temptations (alcohol, email fwds with puppy pictures, words such as ‘please’) in order to make me squeal.

People like it when things are said. Words often garner responses of laughter and smiles. Sometimes there is even applause. I suppose this is what I leave unsaid when I say everything: I want to be liked. Occasionally I’ll even comment upon things to my dog, hoping that he will think me clever, love me more, want to cuddle. But to him, it’s probably just the same if I don’t even speak. Maybe I could go to an unsaid rehabilitation clinic lead by dogs and learn to separate saying things and being valued. I think this therapy would work for a time, while I stayed there. But when I left I’d probably go right back to the way I was.


Alissa Nutting is a current Schaeffer Fellow in fiction at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she is finishing her PhD in English. Her first collection of short stories, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, was selected by Ben Marcus for publication through Starcherone Books in Fall 2010. Her work has been published in such journals as Tin House, Fence, and Mid-American Review.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Noah Segan: Actor, Underdog, Replacements Fan

Still from Still Green.

Get hip to Noah Segan.

This is not to say, merely: 1) watch a film of his, 2) check off "knowing of him" form your hip independent film credibility list, 3) then move on to the next actor/director/cinematographer whom a friend just told you about. Definitely, check out a film of his. But, watch it closely. Watch Noah Segan closely. See how he fits right into each role.Fits right into each film, and changes it.

This happens whether the role is expansive and lets him unravel his range, or it is minor and showcases more tight and nuanced gestures. The thing is, he is well-versed and carefully-composed for each role.Yet, it is not about posturing, pretending, and pulling one over the audience. You note his eyes, and trust that he shares the same head-space of his character. The temperament, the tone of voice, and the gait are just some of the things that are seamlessly right-on in each Noah Segan role I've seen.

Consider him in Brick, the sleeper hit that is bound to impact the genres of noir, teen film, and coming-of-age. Noah's leather-jacket strutting, edgy loner, Dode, tears across the screen from the moment he is introduced. His moodiness is palpable, and by the film's end, it is easy to see how this is his, "Wow, who is this actor?" role. In What We Do is Secret, he embodies Don Bolles, the singular drummer of the explosive LA punk band, The Germs. He does so without that: "Hey, look at me. I'm a great actor doing a spot-on job in this period piece. I'm as authentic as my period-piece clothing, man!" unfortunate grandiosity that can easily plague a bio-pic. Naturally, Noah call his conviction-based methods "punk rock acting."

Noah's back-to-back acting schedule is paying off, with several films coming out this year. Two of those films (The Brothers Bloom, Still Green) opened nationally in May. Rian Johnson follows up Brick with The Brothers Bloom, a one-last-con story that is as stylistically sharp as it is emotionally textured. Noah rovides an "in the pocket" (to use a jazz term) cameo that adds spunk to the cornucopia of characters we meet. Still Green (a film previously covered on this site) anchors Noah as the visceral, tumultuous underbelly of a compelling ensemble, as they come-to-terms with the vanishing of youth's clear horizons. Then, we will get to see Noah in a slew of much-anticipated suspense and gore films that will offer dark, strange places for him and the audience to explore. Deadgirl, one of these flicks, has received glowing reviews on the festival circuit, and will potentially floor audiences in its not-soon-enough (but upcoming) theatrical release. However, this is not the story of a flash-in-the-pan actor being typecast any time soon. With each film, we seem him honing his craft, expanding his palette and grounding his artistic intentions.

In a phone interview with Noah Segan, I had the chance to hear him unpack his methods, explain why he does what he does, and talk about the artists who have informed his creative headspace. Just as his acting is not filled with fluff and obvious proclamations, neither are his thoughts. I heard the vision of a clear mind that is not afraid to do the real work of bringing to life the dynamic and vivid characters he takes on. As a sign of his well-honed skills getting noticed, Noah is spending the summer acting in the influential director Monte Hellman's upcoming film. As opposed to an actor whose career may come and go with the whims of the film market, something tells me that Noah will stick around. Which is to say, watch a film of Noah's. Watch a few.

* The Brothers Bloom opened in New York & Los Angeles on May 15, 2009 & nationally May 22. Still Green opened in Worcester, MA on May 15, 2009. Still Green will be playing at Naples, Florida's Pavillion CInema 10 June 19-25, 2009; and at Los Angeles's AFI Theater on June 27 as part of NYU's Tisch West Alumni Council’s Cinema Club Screening Series. Other cities TBA on Still Green's official site.

“Dode appears, dusty and black.”

NS: Hey, there

CE: Hi, Noah. How are you?

NS: I'm good. How are you doing?

CE: Pretty good. I'm an old friend of Georgia's and Doug's. I have this interview web site, where I interview people, nonchalantly.

NS: Well, I'm a very nonchalant guy.

CE: That's good. I'm quite a fan of your acting, so far. I'm going to ask you some questions about Still Green, and then some questions about your style. How you get to form these characters, that sort of thing

NS: Yeah.

CE: What lead you to Still Green?

NS: Well, when the movie was happening, I had come off of a really long year. I like to go through fits and spurts, where I like to work back to back to back to back, and wear myself out. Then, I'll take a little bit of a break. I had been just working my butt off, doing all types of fun stuff, like the movie about The Germs [What We Do Is Secret]. I got a call from people who I had worked with at the time, who were packaging together Still Green. Because it was an in-house project, they had come to me with it. I read the script, talked to Jon [Jon Artigo, the director]. Jon is about the most gregarious, friendly, funny guy you'll ever hope to meet. That made me feel good about it. I appreciated that it was an in-house project–- that everybody came with such high recommendations. It made me feel honored to be included in that, so I jumped right on it.

CE: When you say in-house, who in the Still Green family were you familiar with?

NS: I was familiar with Ryan Kelley, who was represented by the same people who, at the time, I was. They had packaged him into it.

CE: You guys know each other from before. You're also mixing with Jon, Andrea, Georgia and Doug, who have been working together for a while.

NS: Exactly. It's always a good thing to work with your friends, and then work with other people who are friends, because it immediately gives the sense that people are collaborators. If they are already set up in a unit, as a team, then they like to work together as a team. It gives me all the confidence in the world that I can join that team and collaborate, which is why I like working on little movies.

CE: Right. Speaking of that, I like the nuances you throw in with your character. I want to know about certain things you brought to the character, or that you felt compelled to focus on. Then, I want to know more about the drawing you do in the film.

NS: One of the things that I immediately picked up on when I came to Florida– I picked up on it in the script, but I really picked up on it when I came to Florida–- was how beach-oriented the cast was. You've got this cast of very good-looking kids who are in great shape, and are very tan and very active. Of course, that immediately gave me the inclination to stay inside [laughs] and put on a couple pounds, which I tried to do for this role. And just create the history of Sean being a little distant, and not necessarily being someone who is out doing and acting exactly like his friends all the time. Because, after his freak-out, the guy became an introvert. One of the ways you could show that is physically. It was a distinct choice that I made, and I think it came across. It definitely felt, when we were making it, like it came across, and it helped me to stay in character.

The drawings: I tend to play characters who have very specific skill sets, whether it's a musician or an artist. The wonderful part about being an actor is that you get to take on all of these jobs and persona that you don't have— to get to really be everything. I grew up in an artistic family, and I've had the pleasure of being surrounded by artistic people. But, I don't draw regularly and I'm not as accomplished an artist as Sean was. I had some help from the art department with drawing, but I made the effort to study art theory, and so was able to do a lot of that myself.That ended up being a big influence on the character. If you're acting like the dude you're playing, then the lines become even more blurred. I tried to create a guy who is sedentary and introverted– physically and emotionally.

CE: It works very well. With your characters that I've seen-- but especially in Brick–- there's a sharp edge in each one. They seem to straddle the line between– the characters are very sincere, but stylized. At what point is it stylized, at what point is it just this sharply wrought-out character that you make? Does it become emotionally taxing for you to get in these places and fully form these characters?

NS: I think it depends. Brick is an interesting example, because the only description of Dode in the script is when he first appears from behind the dumpster. It says: “Dode appears, dusty and black.” [My italics and punctuation.] There was no inclination to take him any other way, other than dusty and black. Well, that's a beautiful phrase, and that's beautiful prose, but what does that mean, in a literal sense, in a visual sense?

When it came time to designing the character, it just sort of came. The leather jacket came, and the boots came, and the haircut came. These were all things that I came to the director, Rian Johnson, with. These were things we spoke about, and I asked for, and we worked out. It happened in a very natural way. The same thing happened on Still Green. There are times where I've had to really push it, The Germs movie being a great example. Because, I was imitating a real-life person, who not only did people know, who not only was a well-known figure, but who I was a big fan of.

CE: Yeah, yeah.

NS: I had a lot of pressure, and I had very little wiggle room. I had to really be this guy. In that respect, that was literally putting on a costume and having to spend time with Don [Bolles], who I was playing. I had to learn how he acted, how he spoke, how he dressed, how he played drums. He had to teach me how to play drums. That was a lot more academic, a lot more mathematical, doing that part.

CE: Was it satisfying, after The Germs movie, to act out this other type of character, in Still Green?

NS: Well, that was part of why I was drawn to Still Green and Sean in the first place. It was a very straining experience, because it's a fictional character. It's a guy who is going to evolve based on how I interpret him, how the director interprets him, as written in the script. That allows for things that weren't in the script to come out and help move the story forward. As opposed to having to do something physically right, or otherwise everyone goes: “Oh, that doesn't work.” So, that was very satisfying. It was also challenging, because it was really switching gears.

CE: With The Germs film, were you satisfied, in the end– with your version of Don Bolles?

NS: I think I am. I'm satisfied with the authenticity of Don, and of how authentic I was able to make him. In the story, it has a lot of drama, and there needed to be comic relief. In the film, that fell upon Don–- for me–- to be the comic relief. Don is a very funny guy, and he's a very irreverent guy, and he's a very smart guy. But, he's also a very deep guy. He was also very involved in a lot of the drama, and the tragedy, and the instigation that went on in the real story and during that time. Of course, in a movie where you're trying to distill five or six years of four people's lives into two hours, you can't get that all across. That became sort of a challenge.

CE: That's what happens in a bio-pic movie. You'll get a version of the facts, but if it feels authentic, that's great. That must have been hard, for the director [Rodger Grossman] to squeeze that story within two hours, and make himself happy and the potential Germs fans happy; while, at the same time, try to get something authentic. It must have been an exciting challenge for you guys.

NS: Yeah. It was very challenging for the people who were really there. What was so beneficial about making the movie was that we had The Germs there. Pat Smear, Lorna Doom, and Don Bolles were there with us. And Hellin Killer and Paul Roessler and the whole group of people that are still around. You know, they are the circle: that whole "Circle One" thing-- that is the song, that is the spirit of The Germs.

Still from What We Do Is Secret.

"Us punk rock actors are

few and far between."

NS: Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever. That was my major role in a studio film. It was also something that was very new because I had to be the capable, heroic man. I didn't know about that. I was, like, wait a minute, I play drug addicts and degenerates in movies. I don't play the guy who gets the girl, and he's a bad guy who just makes the right decisions. I don't know who that guy is. So, I ended up watching Bruce Willis's movies.

CE: Ha.

NS: I got hip to Bruce Willis. It was, like, you know what? He's able to hold his own, and it made a lot of sense. I connected to it, for that.

CE: Yeah, yeah.

NS: I definitely make a very strong connection to music and film for my research, and to make sure that I get in the zone.

CE: You had mentioned The Replacements as an influence, especially while making Brick. I grew up about half an hour from San Clemente, where you filmed Brick. In the Laguna Hills/ Laguna Beach area. I felt the kind of dynamic, complex, darker suburban high school experience that's in Brick. I mean, not the drugs and all that, but more the idiosyncratic head space, and that nothing's really clear and good and polished. The Replacements were huge for me in high school, because of that. You just walk down those nice, clean suburban streets of Orange County, and listen to that lyric: "We'll inherit the Earth,/ But we don't want it!" And it fits, you know?

NS: One day, when I was a teenager, I heard Let It Be on vinyl. Somebody put on Let it Be, and I was, like: “Wait a minute. These guys are completely telling me everything I needed to hear." And with the utmost sincerity and truth, in spite of everything, in spite of–- it sounds like they shouldn't be able to do this.

CE: Right, right.

NS: If you could sound just like the underdog, that's what those guys did. There's a great biography you should check out on the 'Mats [The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History by Jim Walsh]. It's an oral history, like a Please Kill Me kind of thing. I mean, if I can work with anybody outside of the film industry, creatively, it would be Mr. Westerberg. I think that the guy is able to channel a very specific kind of truth.

That's how I tend to pick and choose my roles, and how I tend to perform my roles. I tend to perform characters who work in spite of, and to me that's how Westerberg works. Like, how do you tell the truth in spite of, and then fill in the blank. That's what their music is to me. Like: in spite of not having a girl, not having a job, not being at home, not knowing what the fuck to do. How do you get that out there? I tend to play those roles and I tend to listen to that music and watch those movies.

CE: Yeah, I see that in your face, with your different characters.

There's this ballsy, ballsy conviction, that you throw around, but it's, kind of, stuck in place. It's mixing with this other energy, where your characters are coming from. It's really strong. I think some actors— younger, older, but especially younger actors— will try to do that in a stylized way, and try to hype it up, but it doesn't seem sincere.

There's some real conviction in where you're coming from. Like you're saying, you're coming from the voice of the underdog. That energy comes out in your characters, definitely.

NS: Well, you know, us punk rock actors are few and far between.

CE:[Laughs.] Right.

NS: [Laughs.] There's not a lot of us punk rock actors. But that's what I call it, punk rock acting.

CE: Oh, that's a good way to put it. That's a good way to put it.

The mark of a true auteur

CE: So, tell me about working on The Brothers Bloom.

NS: Rian [Johnson] was doing The Brothers Bloom. Because the Brick family is just that–- a family–- he made sure that a couple of us from Brick did The Brothers Bloom. They were trotting all around Europe, and I came out to Serbia to do a little part that's in the beginning of the movie. I play opposite Mark Ruffalo in the scene. I got to hang out with Mark and spend time with Adrian [Brody], and ended up getting to know the new family. It was amazing.

I mean, the mark of a true auteur is coming up with a flick, and then hiring the exact right people to work on that flick with you.

CE: Right.

NS: Rian does that like I've never seen it done before. I showed up to Serbia and I met these actors, whom I'm a huge fan of. I'm a huge fan of these actors, and it was like hanging out with an uncle, like an estranged uncle or a second cousin, whom I just happened to have not seen for a long time. There's just this connection. It was a fun time. The role is just a simple role. We figured it out when I got there. The guy who I play is called The Duke. He is loosely based on the Thin White Duke [David Bowie], of course, because everything is [laughs].

I just showed up, played this fun character, and I had a great time. Just like I said, it's sort of like being at home, and I had to go halfway around the world to find it. It's going to be a really good flick, and I don't even have a big part in it.

CE: That sounds sweet. When you see the work and read the writing of different filmmakers, especially auteurs, you notice that they develop these families. Like Jarmusch, and the actors he works with. And the older auteurs [who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema]–- Rohmer, Godard and all those cats. And more recently, Spike Lee and Linklater, they're working with the same people again and again. It's amazing to see, like you're saying, the families that emerge. The actors will play various characters, and new actors join in on later films, but it doesn't seem out of place.

NS: To me, the most important connection while making a movie, whether the movie is good or bad, or the script is good or bad, or the actors are good or bad: it could all be helped and pushed along as long as we they're all making the same movie. I don't know if that makes any sense to you.

CE: No, it does. It does.

NS: The only way that I could put it is that we're all making the same movie. We're all trying to do our little part to get the same grand scheme and concept across. That's where that collaboration and that family come in. And that's why, as long as he'll have me, I'll drop whatever the fuck I'm doing and show up for Rian Johnson. It's an honor. To be able do it. It makes me feel complete. It makes me feel like I've done my job.

CE: Definitely.

"And that's what I want to do." ....

"And that's communication."

NS: Let's get this out of the way. My favorite movie is The Cockfighter. It's a Monte Hellman film, starring Warren Oates. Monte is my favorite director and Warren is my favorite actor. Those are guys who worked together a lot. Warren also worked with Peckinpah a lot–- Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is another favorite movie of mine. Those were guys who found each other, and found out that they could get a grand scheme across by maintaining that relationship.

CE: Speaking of Peckinpah. In Bring Me the Head, there's that scene where he [Warren Oates] is running through the mountains and cavorting with the woman, then she's taken away by the biker [Kris Kristofferson]. Later, Warren shoots both bikers dead, in retalliation. It's just, it's just so jarring. At the same time, when I saw it, I was floored with the grace that the guy had.

NS: It is a Peckinpah film: it's all about the great, true, honest, sincere sort of violence that you would expect out of it. Something that I respond to is: there has been an emasculation of young men in film, as far as I'm concerned, over the last 15, 20 years.

Masculinity, and the true archetypical concept of what it means to be a man– it's been lost. Of course, you go into the western, and the John Houston, John Sturges, and the John Ford whole concept, and then you bring it up to Hellman and Peckinpah, in the 60's and 70's. These were guys who were telling very basic stories. They were telling classic tragedies, in an accessible way.

CE: Right.

NS: I don't see a lot of that being made these days. And so, I really appreciate it. I think movies like that cover the basics. There's a reason why we still read Shakespeare today. Those guys were telling very similar stories. And that's what I want to do. That's why I do it: to get very basic concepts of communication across.

CE: Yeah.

NS: Then, we have a guy like David Lynch. His movies are pure cinema. In my mind, I don't think that there's really anybody who is more versed in using cinema to communicate what you can only communicate in cinema, than Lynch. He uses every element of film– whether it's narrative, whether it's dialogue, whether it's visual, whether it's movement, or editing– and it's to tell a complete story that is a cinematic story. That isn't a painting, or a picture, or an essay.

I think that Lynch goes beyond all of the tricks to create a visceral experience that could only be described in a movie. And I want to see more of that. I think guys like P.T. Anderson do it. I think, obviously, guys like Rian Johnson do it. I think Chan-Wook Park does it. Chan-Wook Park's movies, coming out of Korea, are like the best movies being made right now. The Vengeance Trilogy, in my mind, is the best series in years.

CE: Old Boy is so, so gorgeous and strong.

NS: He's taking very basic concepts of masculinity, of revenge, of responsibility– things that existed thousands of years ago, in stories– and he is making them accessible, in a modern sense. And that's communication. That is something to work toward. It's out there. It's happening. And I'm just trying to do my little part and make my way in there, so I get to hang out with some of these guys.

CE: Just to go back to what you were saying about everybody making the same movie. I definitely hear that– my father is a theater professor, so I can see where you're getting with that.

It seemed like that happened on Still Green, on some level. There are no actors that are acting outside of the other ones, or beyond the others. All the scenes work together to tell you the story of this house that these friends are in, and of their time together. How did you like working with the family of Still Green, so to speak?

NS: They were really accommodating, they really went beyond. I've worked on a lot of independent films where I can say the people were accommodating and helpful for an independent movie, which means, all things considered, it was still great. On Still Green: in any respect-- on the biggest movie in the world-- these people would have still been the most helpful, the most accommodating, the most understanding group. From Jon [Artigo], who is– not only is Jon always in a good mood, but he's very accessible. He's always willing to give it up to you as an actor, in terms of forcing you to do your job and stop and help you work something out. He doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but he's there to guide you, he's there to direct you. He did a great job of it! Then, being able to have the writer on the set, being able to have Georgia [Menides] there, is a huge blessing and a huge benefit. You end up with these questions, like: "What is the intent here?" And you want an answer– you want a strict answer, sometimes. Of course, the person who wrote the thing is going to be the best and most qualified to give you that answer. It was great having her there.

And the other actors were a lot of fun: whether it was the kids from Hollywood, who were all there to inject a little bit of by-the-book professionalism, or it was the kids from Florida, who were there to work their buts off and do something completely new. It helped everybody out. Everybody had a foothold, one way or another.

CE: Right. Is there a favorite scene you have in the movie, or something you were glad you got to do, as an actor?

NS: I gotta look at it as the big picture. There were some really fun days, yeah. There were moments that I remember, viscerally. The peanut butter sandwich scene with Brandon Meyer [Daneck] was a pleasure, because I love working with that guy. We got to become good buddies and great comrades. That was nice. That scene in the canoe [with Meyer] was really groovy. It wasn't a big process trailer, giant film shoot. It was just a couple kids out in a canoe somewhere, and somebody was just shooting it. And we talk about authenticity, and that was, like, authentic. You know?

CE: Yeah.

NS: Two boys going out for a boat ride!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Our Refreshing Conversations Are Coming Back

Dear reader, internet wanderer, and fellow conversationalist,

Hello. How are you?

You may find it peculiar that there have not been any new posts in over a year. We feel the same way. However, fear not, as conversations, etc. will be re-entering the blogosphere, your status updates, tweets, person-to-person conversations, and hearts. This is happening within the next few weeks.

As a close friend, professor, and co-conversationalist told me when I freaked out over the cold weather and and overwhelming layers of clothing & silences during my first New England winter: "It's not death, it's just dormancy." We were just going through a hiatus of producing conversations and other web site ephemera for you. The hiatus is just about wrapped up, and we could not be happier about that.

We will be coming back strong, with a string of lively interviewers for you. We will also be exploring other conversation-based avenues that will go beyond the standard "intro, transcript, hypertexted links" we and other sites provide. This includes perpetually adding to the "Left Unsaid" cornucopia of personal stories about those things we don't get to say, fully articualte, or only have words for after the fact.

So, thank you for stopping by the site, whether you were with us at the beginning, or you've visited in the last year and thought, "WTF?! Such cool interviews, and they've left me high and dry for months?"

We will be back with regularly posted conversations and other refreshing content quite soon.

In the meantime, enjoy the video and music "conversation" below.

Thanks for your interest, patience, and pinky swear to come back soon.

Shahin I. Beigi
conversations, etc.
* founder & fellow

Kronos Quartet & Tanya Tagaq working on a collaboration.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Carsie Blanton: Wonder in Song

Carsie Blanton: about to delight your ears.
Photo by Chris Kendig.

I can't stop listening. To Carsie Blanton's album, Ain’t So Green, that is. I picked it up some months ago, after seeing her perform at Club Passim. What kind of album is it, and what does it sound like?

The album is:

* Hypnotic in sound (try not playing it often).

* Shaped by the undulations of Carsie's voice, mood, and melody.

* A voice offering careful contemplations and ambiguous convictions.

* Both a keenly-worded critique of the comforts of love, and a tribute to its wondrous delights.

* 13 songs full, including a hidden track that will make you weak at the knees and strong in your heart. This last track is akin to a kiss on your lover's eyelids, or their kiss upon yours (mix tape makers, share!).

It sounds like:

* A stroll through jazz vocalist stylings, folk articulations, and pop witticisms.

* A lover admitting the range of their outward loyalties and hidden reservations.

* The double-edged and layered days of lovesick, love-full, & love-almost.

* Early-fall epiphanies that you get during quiet, leaf-kicking walks.

* The simple pleasure of lounging in the lush, wet grass of spring.

This explanation is purposefully filled with imagery, openness... and thought bullets. Though I have lived with the album, and rejoice in the twists and tug-of-wars of each song, I find it hard to codify. Nor would I like to play the game of "what do you get when you mix Singer X with Band Y, and leave them on a desert island" with her tunes. I've played the album for refined art collectors and jaw-dropping tourists at my gallery job. I've introduced it to friends who have since become hooked on her memorable way with melodies. When it's in my headphones wherever I may be I end up whistling and humming along.

After the Club Passim show, Carsie and I shared thoughts on her songs, poets we've learned from, and and our daily rituals. She just may become your new favorite, by the interview's end. If so, get yourself to a rollicking show of hers. In case you need more, pick up Ain't So Green and let it transfix and delight you.


CE: So, outside of Club Passim. I'm having a conversation with Carsie Blanton. And you are living where?
CB: Philadelphia.
CE: And you are how old?
CB: 22.
CE: And you moved from Oregon?
CB: Mmhmm.
CE: Did you go to school out there?
CB: No, I grew up in Virginia. I was actually homeschooled. I moved to Eugene when I was 16, and I moved to Philadelphia last year.
CE: What were you doing in Eugene?
CB: Mostly, worked some jobs, played in a couple bandsdid some slam poetry, actually.
CE: How did you get into that?
CB: I had been writing for a long time, already, and I liked the idea of a format where I could write poetry and then perform it.
You liked the idea of being in this performative space?
: Right. I had a couple songs, but I wasn't writing regularly. I liked the idea of being able to perform anything I wrote, as long as it was conducive to a live crowd like that.
Did you do this weekly?
It was more, like, monthly. There were these competitive poetry slams. There were actually a lot of slam poets in Eugene, Oregon, of all places. So, they get together a couple hundred people on a Friday night. There would be, like, 15 people competing. Then, you get judged, first three rounds, and all that. I bet you're familiar with the slam format.
Yeah. You'd compete sometimes, as well?
: I did. I never got very far as a slam poet, I have to admit. Ha ha ha. But I enjoyed it.
Are there any nationally known slam poets that speak to you?
CB: At the time, I was really into Saul Williams. There's a poet, Alix Olson, who did a national tour. She came to Eugene. That was probably when I got excited about it. She is one of these queer, feminist, kind of angry, young poets. She's very good.
CE: Yeah, she's really emotive. She's sharp, but then you kind of cry.
CB: Yup, she's great.
CE: So, I had made a famous tape that went all over Massachusetts colleges, from her performance at Clark. I'd heard about this tape from people at other schools in this area — it was around 2000, 2001. They'd say, "Oh, there's this Clark tape." I would reply, "Oh, I made that." I had no idea that it had this history.
CB: That's great.

Paradoxes & "What Most Moves Me"

CE: So, you found a space to write songs more. How did the songwriting develop?
CB: By the time I moved to Eugene, I had already written a couple and thought of it as kind of the ideal art form. I was already performing a lot of covers and writing poetry. It seemed like an elegant thing, to bring them together. And I'd always been inspired by a lot of songwriters.

So, I went out there and was singing back-ups in a band. I was playing with Nicole Martin, a friend of mine. We had a duo, with two guitars, harmonies, and stuff, called The Short Skirts. We started playing together regularly. That was when I started writing regularly, getting more into the creative side of it.

CE: You were in another band that you were singing back-up for?
CB: Yeah, it was a funk band, called the Champagne Syndicate. I went on tour with them, out west.
CE: Okay. Covers. What were you covering then, and why?
CB: Mostly, Patty Griffin. We did a lot of Patty Griffin songs. We did a couple of Nina Simone songs and some older, jazzy stuff. I know we did "Stormy Monday." One or two Ani DiFranco songs; we were both big Ani devotees at that point.
CE: Which Nina Simone songs?
CB: We did "Sugar in My Bowl."
CE: Wow, wow.
CB: That's what we were doing, Nicole and I. I would find some more obscure stuff, occasionally. There are a lot of songwriters in my family, and I know a lot of people that are songwriters, so I did a few covers of songs that weren't, you know, popular. I had picked them up from one place or another. I covered some Leonard Cohen, some Joni Mitchell, and some older folk, as well.
CE: Which Leonard Cohen did you choose?
CB: Well I did "Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye."
CE: Wow, wow. He was one of the most influential artists to me, in high school.
CB: Uh huh. I can't blame you.
CE: From 14 to 21, I carried his book, Stranger Music, almost always with me.

When you sing these songs, they're obviously emotionally charged. There's a range of emotions going on in your music, as well.

CB: Yeah.
CE: Are there times when it really hits you, in the middle of singing? Or, what brought you to sing "Famous Blue Raincoat?" If anything is too personal, just let me know.
CB: No, not at all. It's hard to say. I've always listened to and sung what most moves me, and it's hard to say why it moves me. I'm definitely attracted to poetry and more complex uses of the language. I enjoy Leonard Cohen more than Donovan, or somebody who was a little more popular, but a lot more pop-driven. I'm always more attracted to the really emotional and lyrical stuff.
CE: Sure.
CB: I appreciate good insight, and insightful and original use of the language.
CE: Which I hear in your music. Like the song, "Willing to Fall." That has the whole discussion in there. It's very layered. The phrases are very charged. It sounds like you’re convincing a story to someone, but it turns out, there wasn't enough convincing. You're releasing your conviction, by the time of the chorus.
CB: Yeah. That's definitely a theme in my music. Somebody actually gave me a quote one time that was something like: what makes my songs interesting is that I've mastered the ambiguous. Ha. I thought that was a good way to say it. What makes a song interesting, to me, is that it says more than one thingits complexity. In a lot of my songs, I'm actually saying two things that seem to be contradictory, and then, trying to marry them by the end.
CE: Sure.
CB: "Willing to Fall," it starts out: "I love you so much that/ I feel like I've already lost you." That was this idea that when you're closest to someone is when you are most afraid of being apart from them. And just the inherent contradictions of being in love, which is full of them, of course. That's a good example of trying to bring to light this paradox that we all live in, you know?

CE: Mmhmm. Hmmm. I'd imagine you memorize poems?
CB: Mmhmm. Ha.
CE: Let's talk about a poem or poet we could get on a level with.
CB: Sure. Actually, it's funny, because I was writing my set list and I was going to say something about this poet, Jane Hirschfield. Do you know her?
CE: No.
CB: I wrote a song recently that was directly inspired by a poem, which I don't often do. I mean, I'm often inspired by poetry, in general, but this was kind of like taking the concept of the poem and rewriting the story.
CE: Are the same characters in the song that appear in the poem?
CB: They're not. It's more like, there's a punch line to this poem. I took the punch line, and then rebuilt the rest.
CE: Oh, that's great.
CB: So the poem is called "Da Capo," and it goes... [We are stalled by car noise & voices of people walking by.] Should I wait until the car passes?
CE: Yeah.
CB: Heh, heh. Um. [Pause, pause, pause.] So it is:

Da Capo

Take the used-up heart like a pebble
and throw it far out.

Soon there is nothing left.
Soon the last ripple exhausts itself
in the weeds.

Returning home, slice carrots, onions, celery.
Glaze them in oil before adding
the lentils, water, and herbs.

Then the roasted chestnuts, a little pepper, the salt.
Finish with goat cheese and parsley. Eat.
You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted.
Begin again the story of your life.

-Jane Hirschfield

I love that poem. I love that there are really only two lines in it that are meaningful, at all. The rest is just some imagery that you could relate to. At the beginning, she says, "Take the used up heart... /and throw it far out." At the end, she says, "… it is permitted./ Begin again the story of your life." So, it's this beautiful poem about starting over, but she only uses ten words to say it.
Sure. Everything is around the ritual of food, per se.
Right. Cooking and eating as the daily rote of living. So, I took that and wrote a song called "Buoy." The punch line of the song (as I think of it) — the last verse — is: "What fool keeps holding onto something after it is fell apart?/ Hey you, send it to the warehouse/ Get yourself another heart." It's that same idea: there are an infinite number of beginnings; it's not just the one chance.
And the work, the real work, is to get yourself to start over. Just as, the real work, ironically, is to feed yourself.
That's what I love about that poem. She's gently and subtly using this metaphor of eating, because it's just another thing you have to do. Throwing away your heart and getting a new one, as well as cooking your soup. It's just daily life, you know?

"Buoy," or rewriting a poem by way of a song. It is permitted.

Bound for a Song

CE: Who do you go see for shows, when you're not playing with them?
CB: That's a great question, because it's fewer and fewer people, the more shows I play. I'm crazy about a local band in Philadelphia right now, called The Lowlands. They're a bluegrass band. Their singer-songwriter, Chris Kasper, is a brilliant, brilliant lyricist. Brilliant melodies. Great voices. Besides that, I always see Patty Griffin, whenever she's nearby.
CE: I have her set list, on the side of my book shelf, from when she played with Emmylou [Harris] and Gillain [Welch].
CB: Wow, I went to one of those shows.
CE: It was so good. Do you guys take the Mass Pike west, to go down to Philly?
CB: What's the number of the Mass Pike?
CE: 90.
CB: We take 90. 90 to 95, I guess.
CE: If you pass Worcester, that's where "Making Pies" is about.
CB: Really? Worcester? Huh.
CE: Yeah, it's about Table Talk Pies, in Worcester. She's imagining herself as a worker there. I went to school in Worcester and lived there for several years. It's interesting to hear the song. When she was on a Maine radio station, I heard her talk about it. It's this factory that I've known about, driven by. These pies, they're like 7-11 pies.
CB: Little peach pies or cherry pies?
CE: Yeah.

CB: The other artist I'm really into is Devon Sproule. We toured a little bit together. She's a total genius, I think. She's one of the few contemporaries out there that is not known well, that every time I see her, she completely blows my mind. I have to go lay down for a while. She's that good.
CE: What does she do, live, that hits you?
CB: It's mainly her songwriting. She's a meticulous lyricist, as well as being a total jazzhead, and kind of obsessed with jazz guitar and chord progressions. So, she's juxtaposing these beautiful, very, very poetic lyrics about mostly about Virginia (where she lives), domestic life, and these simple concepts over these complex and catchy jazz chords and melodies. She's kind of writing Cole Porter standards, only, about modern life.

It's great. She's playful and cute and sweet when she's on stage. She reaches for notes that she might not hit and says really goofy stuff. She completely draws the audience into this childlike world that she lives in.
CE: That's amazing.

CE: You see this [singing professionally] as an indefinite thing, I would imagine.
CB: Yeah, yeah. When I moved to Philly, from Eugene, I went at it like: I don't have any idea about how to go about starting a music career. I'm going to go to Philly and, basically, see what falls into my lap. So far, it's been great things. Lots of great shows and great people helped me out. So, I'm still kind of sitting with my lap open, hoping that things keep falling there, you know?

CE: What are you listening to, in the car?
CB: The Quebe Sisters. They're this band, from Texas of three singing sisters with a country-swing sound. They're such a joy to listen to. It's unabashedly bubbly music.
CE: Nice. What are you reading these days?
CB: Right now, I'm reading non-fiction. I'm reading a book by Temple Grandin. She's an autistic woman who designs humane slaughter houses. She has a thesis about how autistic people think visually, and that's why they're hard for non-autistic people to relate to. Most people think linguistically, while animals think visually. She describes her life with animals and the way she relates to them. It's really interesting.
CE: Did she get famous? Was this a New York Times Best Seller, from a while back?
CB: I think she was on NPR, and probably on New York Times book lists.

CE: Have you ever written a song around non-fiction? Not from your own story, but from a major event, or a political concern.
CB: Not really. I base most of my songs from stories of people's lives. They're not always from mine; they're always just stories personal stories rather than stories that I'm not directly related to, in some way.
CE: Sure, sure. So, they're stories you bear witness to?
CB: Exactly. I've dabbled at trying to write more politically, but I have a hard time thinking of anything interesting to say about things that I'm not intimately familiar with.

CE: What drew me to your music is the world it creates, and the possibilities it offers for things like longing. I'd say, there's some relationship to environments, too (for example, "Flight to Philadelphia"). It seems to come from the way you may relate to things your worldview. I'm interested in what you hold onto: either convictions (like, "This is how I wish things were in human relationships”), or tactile things and experiences.

CB: That's a good question. I find, the more I live a creative life the more attention I put on writing as my profession the less abstractly I tend to live my life. So, I'm into tactile pleasures, like dancing and food, stuff like that. In my day-to-day life, I spend a lot less time thinking abstract thoughts, unless they're bound for a song. I spend a lot more time doing things like shopping for tea cups. I'm really into tea cups. I have a dog that I love. I do a ton of dancing. I dance three or four nights a week, right now.
CE: Classes, or?
CB: I actually teach in Philly. I do social dancing, as well. Swing and blues, which are both social dances, rather than choreographed.
CE: You teach choreographed?
CB: No, I teach social dancing. I went to a dance here last night, and there's another one tonight, a little outside of Boston.

Wonderment & Delight

CE: Something that hit me about your music was the way that sound you offer these aural pleasures, so to speak, with your guitar, with your voice. There is something about certain sounds that you're making. Either, how do you get to these sounds, or what is the sound that you want to make? That you hear in the natural world, or that you've heard in your head, that you haven't hit yet.

CB: I would say that the musical aspect of what I do is the most intuitive and least premeditated. I tend to mull over concepts and lyrics a lot, and not as much about the structure of songs. I'll spend a lot of time coming up with chord progressions that I like, but not a lot of time on melodies. I feel they need to come from not a logical place, but from an intuitive place.
CE: Sure, sure.
CB: As far as the sound that I want to make, I'm thinking a lot about that right now. I'm trying to think about what my next album should be like. The closest thing that I could say is that I'm going for a feeling, more than a sound. The feeling is kind of like: being privy to a 4-piece jazz ensemble in the '30s, with Billie Holliday or some incredible vocalist in the front, that feels really intimate and really creative relentlessly creative. Something unexpected is happening at every moment.
CE: Sure. Do you listen to Rickie Lee Jones?
CB: I do.
CE: I hear that in her.
CB: Definitely.
CE: Although her music is a bit poppy, when you see her live, you see how raw and rawly orchestrated it is.
CB: Mmhmm. Rather than a sound, I want to be able to create a world, like you were saying. Create a world where the audience is completely transfixed and just delighted. Delight is the main emotion I'm going for. I want there to be this sense of wonderment and delight in every moment. That's what I try to do with my lyrics and my melodies, and that's what I hope to do when I involve more instrumentation.

CE: Beautiful, beautiful. Maybe a few last questions. We were talking about feelings and albums. Let's talk about albums that, for you, capture a feeling, space, era, or mood. Albums that conjure up these whole, autonomous worlds these possible worlds.
CB: Well, one of my favorites for that is actually it's my favorite album Patty Griffin's first record, Living with Ghosts. The amazing thing about it, to me, is that she's completely created an alternate universe, with just her vocals and guitar. There's nothing else happening on the whole record. There are only ten songs, but you completely go there with her. From the first note, she brings you there and you stay there. It's this incredible depth and complexity of emotion. It's just relentless, from the beginning to the end. It's so fresh. Every song is fresh. Every idea is fresh. Every word is fresh. So, that's the epitome of that, for me. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Radiohead's Ok Computer is one of my favorites.
CE: Sure.
CB: That kind of creates a world by creating a lush atmosphere. With Thom Yorke's voice, he just the same thing he pulls out that deep emotion.
CE: Any songs that resonate with you, on that album?
CB: I really like "Let Down."
CE: What's the chorus on that one?
CB: "Let down and hangin' around/Crushed like a bug on the ground"
CE: Yeah.
CB: I love that one. And then, "Breathe," or whatever. It has some weird name. The chorus is: "Breathe, keep breathing." That was the one that was on the soundtrack for… oh, that's right. It's called "Exit Music for a Film" because they put it in Romeo and Juliet. So, those two. I haven't listened to that in a while, but I spent many, many hours listening to it.
CE: When you put it on, it hits you. You're like, "Oh, wow," from the beginning.
CB: Maybe I don't listen to it because it's so nostalgic for me. It's the soundtrack to a good three years of my life.

CE: Any books of poems that have hit you in the same way? Adrienne Rich always does that to me. Her books are like complex concept albums. I'd recommend getting The Dream of a Common Language and reading "Twenty-One Love Poems."
CB: For me, the staples are Collected Poems of e.e. cummings. I've read probably every poem in that book.
CE: Any numbers that hit you, or, by the first lines?
CB: Gosh. What recently? I'm trying to remember.
CB: Have you ever played one with guitar?
CB: No. I don't go in for that, because they're not built with a melodic structure, necessarily; I wouldn't presume to be able to write one. I just memorized "my youthful lady will have other lovers." Do you know that one?
CE: I don't know that one, closely.
CB: See if you remember it:

my youthful lady will have other lovers

my youthful lady will have other lovers
yet none with hearts more motionless than i
when to my lust she pleasantly uncovers
the thrilling hunger of her possible body.

Noone can be whose arms more hugely cry
whose lips more singularly starve to press her-
noone shall ever do unto my lady
what my blood does,when i hold and kiss her

(or if sometime she nakedly invite
me all her nakedness deeply to win
her flesh is like all the 'cellos of night
against the morning's single violin)

[Not in poem:
CB: Shoot, I'm missing part of it: "like a bright…trees," um, oh...
CE: I got it at home.
CB: So, the last line is: "My youthful lust will have no further ladies."
CE: Wow, wow. ]

[* remainder of poem:]

more far a thing than ships or flowers tell us,
her kiss furiously me understands
like a bright forest of fleet and huge trees
-then what if she shall have a hundred fellows?

she will remember,as i think,my hands

(it were not well to be in this thing jealous.)
My youthful lust will have no further ladies.

- e. e. cummings

CB: I'm just a sucker for that kind of turn of phrase, you know?
CE: Yeah.
CB: It starts out with one complete concept: my youthful love will have other lovers. And you're going along, oh yes, she's young, and she'll go have other lovers. He loves her, but it's passing. Then, the end is: "my youthful lust will have no further ladies." Again, it's that paradox of love, where you feel, at once, all the possibility and all the doom of the situation. Ha.
CE: There's a delicacy to his intensity, definitely. Like in the one that ends: "nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands." It's delicate, but strong.
CB: And so clever, and so smart. In one of his introductions in that book, he says, the trick of his poetry can be summed up by one burlesque joke, and that is: "'Would you hit a woman with a child?No, I'd hit her with a brick.'" Which is so true. You read his poems, and so much of it, like "my youthful lady," is puns. They're these very intricate puns. He just strings you all along, to the end.
CE: Like "o by the by."

CB: Exactly. There's Wisława Szymborska, who's Polish. She has a book called View with a Grain of Sand.
CE: She keeps coming up out with new stuff. I keep reading her.
CB: That is the only one of hers that I've gotten into, but I've enjoyed it. And then, Mary Oliver is my perennial favorite.
CE: I was going to ask how you felt about her. Some people are really into her, some people aren't.
CB: No, I love her.
CE: I hear a connection between your songs and her poems: this whole thing about reminding yourself of the world around you, and, at the end, of the world inside.
CB: There's the theme of changing perspective repeatedly, through a piece. She starts out looking at a blade of grass, talking about the blade of grass. Then, by the end she's kind of talking about life and existence and God. And you completely buy it. It's such an easy transition for her to make. I respect that, and I like that kind of writing.
CE: Do you know "Five A.M. in the Pinewoods?"
CB: How does it go?
CE: The end is, um: "I was thinking:/ so this is how you swim inward,/ so this is how you flow outward,/ so this is how you pray."
CB: Yup, yup, it's a great one.

CE: It's funny. I was 19 years old. I mean, I'm 26 now, I'm not much older. I was a sophomore in college. I was coming back home. I said, "Let me show you what I'm reading in college!" I read this honey poem ["Honey at the Table"] from American Primitive.
CB: Mmhmm.
CE: I mean, my father's a content and active theater professor, but most of my family are successful, math and science people. I read my mother this poem about Mary Oliver [/the persona/ "you," the reader] eating honey at her table, and wanting to be becoming, really this creature, this bear, going up a tree, to the source of the honey.
And she says, jokingly, "So, you're getting these scholarships, and we're paying more money, so you could read poems about honey?"

CB: Ha, ha.
CE: We laughed at the ridiculousness of it
CB: Yeah.
CE: But the necessity — it's almost like, if that's how you see the world, or if there are certain things that you want to connect with, then, it's necessary. That is your language. That, to me, is political. This whole site is part of a bigger picture where I like to share culture with people; as opposed to leaving it "up there," bringing it down here, and making it intimate. That calls for the real work, of having to look at it closely, and having to earnestly appreciate it. Then, you're not separate from it, you know?
CB: Mmhmm. Right.

CE: Um, what are you looking forward to, in the spring?
CB: This spring? The first thing that comes to mind is warmth, because it's pretty cold. I don't have any plans, honestly. So, I guess I'm looking forward to the possibility of travel and making a record.
CE: Nice. Pretty, pretty. Thank you.
CB: Thank you.

Ain't So Green: play, bask, dance, and repeat.