THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 050
Would you look at that? The 50th installment of this here venture. I have to admit I didn't think I had it in me to keep up with it. I found extra fuel for this self-publishing fire trying to get away from the corporate entities that I've been writing for, as well as getting some inspiration from my colleague Gary Suarez's decision to walk away from freelancing and only write for himself.
I haven't quite given up on freelance writing yet. That's why I didn't publish a newsletter last week; I was too damn busy. Much of my time over the past two weeks has been taken up with covering the Tribeca Film Festival for PopMatters. But in and around it I found some time to file a review of the wonderful new album by FACS and write about a powerful soundwalk that local jazz legend Darrell Grant created. If you live in Portland and want to celebrate Juneteenth, I seriously recommend doing the latter walk/listen.
Keeping this week's edition simple with nothing more but an interview with the insanely talented guitarist Jessica Ackerley. Once my Tribeca responsibilities die down, I can get back into reviewing stuff for this. And do let me know if you'd really like me to bring back the weekly streaming recommendations. If enough people insist, I might actually listen.
RIP William Kennedy.
Finding music organically, free of the recommendations of trusted folks or among the copious PR emails I receive on the daily, is a rarity for me these days. And when it does happen, it only makes the music sound sweeter.
That's how guitarist Jessica Ackerley came into my life. Browing the Experimental tag on Bandcamp, I stumbled across her latest release Mourning/mourning and was an instant convert. Her guitar playing reminded me of Bill Orcutt's controlled chaos and the delicately cutting work of Brandon Seabrook.
My appreciation only deepened as I dug into the backstory of this release. In the thick of the pandemic, two important figures in Ackerley's life passed away—fellow guitarists Vic Juris and Bobby Cairns—right around the time she was forced to go into a weird isolated sublet to ride out the lockdowns. She poured all of her sadness and the discomfort about her the situation into these songs. There's such passion and agony crashing through each track.
And the tension of the work is thickened by the method in which Ackerley recorded Morning/mourning. To not bug her unsuspecting neighbors, she plugged directly into her laptop, but also set a microphone by the pickups to capture the twang and hum of her hitting the strings. The effect is not unlike being happily snug inside a hollow body guitar for about 36 minutes.
Digging a little further into Ackerley's work, I wasn't surprised to learn that she's been a steadily working artist for a number of years now with recent work landing on an Adult Swim compilation and collaborations with fellow explorers like Sarah Manning and Patrick Shiroishi. I'm now a huge fan and will follow Ackerley wherever she leads me.
What drew you to the guitar as your instrument of choice?
As is hinted at within the notes for this new release, the world of guitars has long been dominated by men. And considering the pearl clutching that arose after Phoebe Bridgers smashed a guitar on live TV, it feels like there is still a long way to go on the front. Yet, with artists like yourself and Mary Halvorson and Kaki King... it feels as if the playing field is leveling a bit. Do you get that sense as well? Were there particular hurdles you had to clear in your studies of the guitar?
I feel like there is more visibility in the recent years for sure. As a musician who dabbles in multiple genres, I have always felt more comfortable in the rock and experimental scenes, just because there is a stronger presence of women and non-binary musicians. Being the first non-cis male graduate in both my bachelor and masters programs was a very isolating experience, I endured and overcame a lot of sexual harassment and abuse from my male peers and teachers which continued into my professional career. It is one of the main reasons I decided to shift my focus into the more DIY scene in Brooklyn with my rock band, ESSi.
When I was younger my biggest dream was to become a straight-ahead jazz guitarist and teach at university. But when you are met with so many patriarchal barriers that don’t allow you flourish, or only allow the tokenized few in, opportunities slowly shrink and push you out. It doesn’t have much to do with a strong work ethic or resilience, and more so to do with the toxic culture and those not willing to give up their power or change the status quo within it. On that note, I think it has made me a more interesting artist that is most authentic to myself. I don’t need to compromise my well-being to navigate within the patriarchy, or play my instrument in the way that gatekeepers expect me to or deem worthy because of “the tradition.” I want to challenge and dismantle it. Lastly, Phoebe looked like she was having a blast in that performance, I don’t really care that she smashed her guitar… it looked kinda fun.
Again, referencing the notes for the album, it talks about the deaths of two of your mentors being a main source feeding the material on this. What can you tell us about how you came to know Vic Juris and Bobby Cairns and how they affected/impacted your music and art?
Vic was a part of my musical education long before I even met him. He had a monthly jazz column in Guitar World magazine, and I would get a copy each month to study it. I didn’t have a guitar teacher when I was a teenager, so much of my musical knowledge came from guitar magazines and listening to records. It wasn’t until I was accepted at a community college music program that I was able to connect with Bobby Cairns. My time with him and the other teachers in that diploma program sent me on a pivotal trajectory from my life of growing up in small town in Alberta to where I am now. Vic Juris had been a visiting teacher for a few jazz workshops I participated in and he invited me to come study with him at Rutgers in New Brunswick, NJ. It also felt like the kind of “immigration ticket” I needed to pursue a career as a musician in New York City by entering the country with a student visa. Both Vic and Bobby instilled a deep dedication in me to hone my craft on this instrument, as well as pass along the fundamental base that I could to expand my creativity off of.
I loved seeing the notes and notations for the material on this new album reproduced in the booklet, esp. where, with the page marked "melodic ideas from improv," you write "add melody? NO." Is that pretty typical of how you write material - with so many bits of text and shapes and stray notes to yourself?
This was my first time approaching writing music this way, mostly because I wanted to develop the overall shape of each improvisation with ideas and melodies that are both abstract but precise in arc. I found that instead of notating musical ideas in western notation and mixing in different shapes and lines of how I saw the improvisation build, it would still retain the freeness and freshness of the song while still giving it a core structure. I also would record myself playing various improvisations of each piece and make notes of what worked and what didn’t, giving myself some sort of verbal/mental reference for future improvisations, almost like an editing of my playing.
There's also talk in the notes about how you were able to record this material in such a way that you wouldn't disturb your neighbors at the time. How did that affect how you performed the material? Was it a difficult thing to get lost in a piece of music with the worry of bothering folks on the other side of the wall?
I was!! Technically I wasn’t even supposed to be in the apartment, but I had nowhere to self-isolate during a COVID scare that forced me to stay in that apartment. The space only had a desk and an air mattress, so there was a lot of echo in the room. I could hear the neighbors next door talking or moving things around. I would try and record midday when it seemed like they were out and listen to the different takes during the night through headphones when they were home. If you listen closely to the recordings, you can probably hear doors closing in the hallways and the cars and sirens outside. I played each take with headphones on so each performance wouldn’t phase me with these distractions.
I want to ask about a couple of other recent recordings that you were a part of - starting with the collaboration you did with Federico Musso. How was it for you to collaborate with someone without being in the same physical space? Was that an easy challenge to overcome?
The thing that I love most about my album with Federico is how we dove in and went with it. No prior discussion about what we wanted to do or have it sound like. Federico sent me six stems of him improvising and then I tracked first take overdubs so it would stay true to the immediate reaction of what he was playing. It somehow all magically lined up and sounded so musical.
The same remote recording scenario happened with the piece you contributed to the Adult Swim compilation New Jazz Century... did the added players increase the challenges or did that come together pretty easily?
With this piece, it was more of a challenge because there were more musicians. I had composed a whole piece for us to track in a studio but then the pandemic shut everything down and we had to cancel our studio time. I decided to re-write a whole new piece with simple melodic and rhythmic phrases marked by time stamp transitions. We started with a base layer of drums, then bass, and finally the two guitars. Each musician sent multiple takes of them playing and then we spliced the sections we liked and pieced it together. I was lucky to work with musicians who were talented enough to play in that sort of situation. I was initially nervous that it wouldn’t work or come across as organic in terms of group interaction, but it was a nice surprise/relief when we were able to pull it off. Hopefully this group can record an album one day...
You are a talented visual artist as well as a musician. Do you find one discipline informing the other?
Before I started doing music, I was doing visual art. It felt like it came more naturally to me. Music didn’t feel as natural and I had to work very hard at it. I stopped making art when I was 18 when I went to music school because I didn’t have the free time. It wasn’t until the pandemic began where I had that time to spend exploring both disciplines simultaneously and began noticed how each creative practice informed the other. When I would improvise or listen to improvised music, shapes would take various forms in my head. Or when I would work on automatic drawing exercises there would be a sense of pulse in the way I drew. It changed the way I think about composition, structure and organization of ideas. I also love artists like Kandinsky who made his paintings feel like immediate compositions…and visual artists who had close relationships with musicians like Philip Guston and Morton Feldman, or even musicians who started as visual artists and came to music later, like Joni Mitchell or Kim Gordon. Their music in some ways sounds like the act of painting.
What is your approach when it comes to teaching other people to play guitar? Do you have a particular methodology that you stick to?
There isn’t any particular methodology I use for my students because everyone learns things so differently. I’m always figure out the approaches that help them with their strengths while guiding them with improving their weaknesses. Right now, I am really into teaching bluegrass songs and finger picking styles, like Elizabeth Cotton, John Fahey or Tony Rice.
Was it always in your mind to become a teacher as well as a performer/recording artist?
I wouldn’t really say being a private instructor was something that I wanted to pursue. I wanted to be a performer and higher-level educator, like Bobby and Vic. But life took many turns and the environment I was coming up in through the jazz world forced me to reckon with what kind of musical communities I felt welcome in it. And I am grateful that it really forced me to search for my own voice. On the flipside, it is hard to make a living as a musician playing the kind of music I play, so teaching privately has helped me survive and get by through articulating this knowledge I have to others. It is also important to be the representation that was so severely lacking when I was coming up as a young musician.
What comes next for you?
Well…I left NYC three months ago and move to Honolulu, Hawaii permanently… so for the first time I don’t really have any plans because I don’t know anyone here, I’m just enjoying my time every day with the sea creatures and tropical scenery, taking it all in. I’m getting ready to release new music with various groups I was able to record with back in NYC before I left, like my duo album with Daniel Carter; a quintet with Jason Nazary, Luke Stewart, Chris Williams and Patrick Shiroishi; and my other new bands, MAW and Petting Zoo. But for the most part I feel like this post-pandemic world we that are all starting to navigate in is something I want to ease myself back into. Be gentler and patient towards myself with how to move forward.
What are you listening to / reading / watching these days?
Music/recent listening - The Blue of Distance by Elori Saxl, Wordless by Holland Andrews, Thaumaturgy by Tetuzi Akiyama, DON’t by Evan J. Cartwright, Avalon Sutra by Harold Budd, Decir by Francisco del Pino, and Wide Open by Kahvas Jute
Reading - I’ve been spending a lot of time the past year trying to learn more about free jazz from the ’60s and ’70s so I’ve been checking out Free Jazz In Japan: A Personal History and Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s
Watching - I watch a lot of bad/trashy stuff like 90 Day Fiancé and Beverly Hills Housewives. But recently I have been going down YouTube rabbit holes a lot these days watching sustainable fishing shows and art technique tutorials. Mostly background type things.
That's it for this week, folks. Thanks for reading. And the offer still stands from the last time - if you want to win a vinyl copy of Natalie Bergman's fantastic new solo albumMercy, leave me a note on Twitter (@roberthamwriter) telling me what your favorite Third Man Records release is. Until next time, I wish you well.
Artwork for this week's edition is by Hildur Bjarnadóttir whose exhibition Abyss opens tomorrow at Hverfisgalleri in Reykjavik.