Kaleidoscope fragments PART 1
People often ask about my musical influences, and the topic is always too overwhelming to answer in a few sentences. Not all of my "musical" influences are actually from music. I wanted to begin writing this down for those interested in where my style comes from, and I'll most likely add on as I remember more things. I'll include videos and photos where it makes sense.
There's a song called "Remember This" that will be on the second Mugs and Pockets album. I made the beat and it has Pockets and Onry Ozzborn on it. We have been performing it live lately, and for the live shows I do a verse in place of Onry. It starts with "I sometimes wonder if Mary was serving lamb at her diner, if you have followed the MAP, and Easter egg's right behind her." There are actually layers of Easter eggs in there and they overlap: my verse in "Mean Muggin" starts with the melody of "Mary had a little lamb", there's also the video "Mary's Diner" where I did a mash-up of "Tom's Diner" with "Carol of the Bells" for Xmas season, and let's not forget I grew up on a small farm in Poland and actually had a pet lamb as a child. I also absolutely love diners and cafes and they have been my safe space and creative writing spots over the years.
So: which Mary? Which lamb? Which diner? A little bit of all of them, and that's just one sentence of one verse, so.. if anyone tries to copy me, make a formula, repeat the steps, whatever...... I know it'll fall flat because I have been an artist my entire life, and even when I wasn't making art I was subconsciously and consciously collecting and organizing materials. Always observing and questioning and trying, often overwhelmed by it all. It took a very long time for the pieces to start fitting together and for me to learn how to make the decisions that will allow for me to stay healthy, sane, and emotionally safe while living an artist's life. I also finally met the right people who I don't have to constantly explain myself to and try to prove myself in front of, which allows me to freely create.
Ok, so buckle up Buttercup. It's a deep dive.
The Poland Years:
Born during Poland's Martial Law, the end of Communism, on a small farm, growing most of our own food, laying on a blanket in our apple and plum orchard, watching baby ducks, fields of poppies and colorful forget-me-nots, marsh marigolds and pheasants, foxes, forests, winter frost making intricate designs on windows, skies full of stars, jumping into the river, watching American soap operas like "Generations" and "Santa Barbara", hearing songs by 2 Unlimited, "Material Girl" by Madonna and wanting so badly to dance like they do in the "Lambada" music video... Imagining myself in music videos, Hollywood, movies, just knowing without any doubt I'm supposed to be a star.
Here are some links to music that I remember had an impression and influence on me as a kid:
Lambada - early dance influence
Yup... 2 Unlimited Babyyy - Music video star dreams
Madonna- Material Girl - More music video star dreams
Grzegorz Turnau - more Polish music, artsy vibes
Polish Highlanders - Although I'm not a highlander myself, this is the Polish folk dance and music most associated with Poland and is very much a part of Polish culture, including the very colorful clothing, head scarves, long braids, flowers and flower crowns. Lots of red, especially red beads and beaded clothing. Oh and axes, lots of axes lol
ONA - Polish rock-ish sometimes punk-ish band I liked a lot.
There were also lots of Polish rock bands everyone listened to around that time and of course Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the like. There was a lot of camping, camp fires and random people with guitars and exploring forests while growing up. Pretty sure The 3 Tenors and Yanni were a thing on tv that everyone watched, not sure if that came later...
Things looked a bit different when I moved to Chicago at 12:
Well, "America" didn't really look and feel how I imagined it once I moved to Chicago. Neighborhoods with all similar looking houses right next to each other, daily school and life that quickly became normal, learning english, learning how things work here, what kids in school will make fun of you for (such as wearing the same sweatshirt two days in a row), some type of school chorus that wasn't very fun. I think I slowly forgot about those dreams, or at least they weren't on my mind much.
High school was where things got re-ignited, but also where I began to doubt myself. A lot. I transferred into Whitney Young High School my sophomore year, and was thrown into groups of very talented people who have been actually training their talents for years. The school offered dance class in place of PE starting Junior year, and so I jumped right in, except the class was taught by a former Alvin Ailey dancer, and many of the students have been dancing since the age of 4. I was just starting, and felt very discouraged. There was also a Concert Choir which I was accepted into, and because the school competed in regional choir competitions, they actually brought in a teacher to give private voice lessons for choir members. Between that and the organist at my local church who started inviting me into the choir and teaching me solo songs, I began to focus a bit on singing.
Around the same time, I started taking some Latin Ballroom classes. I got as far as the first Pro-Am competition (dancing with my teacher). I didn't win, I got something like 3rd runner up, and I quit. That's just to show how my mind worked at that time: I didn't win, so I thought I wasn't good at it, so I quit. I had no concept of actually practicing and what practice does. My self-esteem was always saying "I guess I'm not good at this, this feels very uncomfortable, I'll try something else, I'm starting this way too late". To be fair, I also hated how fake and mechanical a lot of the other dancers were. Up close, all the fake tans and eyelashes scared me a bit.
I tried to focus more on the dance classes at school, and even auditioned for the school dance team "Guys 'n Dolls" who were a big deal since they performed at the school basketball and football games. I came up with a little routine for the audition, forgot it about 3 steps in, improvised the rest, and got in. Unfortunately, not having the training the other dancers had, picking up and remembering choreography was very difficult. I could get in because I could dance and perform naturally, but again, had no idea of how to practice properly, or that comparing myself to dancers who have been doing it for 10 years was not a good idea. There was also the ongoing undercurrent of a culture-shock which I don't think I was aware of at that time at all, with things like moving from a pretty much entirely devout Catholic country to sitting on a bench by the indoor pool in high school with a classmate from the south side telling me she thought she was pregnant a couple of months back and she drank a lot of alcohol and kept punching herself in the stomach. She thought it worked.
Between the ongoing lowering of my self-esteem from finally being around the performance art I loved and figuring out I was very far behind the others, having way too many crushes on boys, dealing with teenage things with friends/parents/hormones, this was the first time I recall being completely overwhelmed by my feelings at times, and hiding in the bathroom at school to cry. It would continue for many years, not really understanding why I wasn't as good as other dancers/singers, why social interaction drained me completely, why world events would make me feel like these things were happening to me personally. I choose not to discuss any of my family life here (or anywhere), because none of them have a chance to say their side of the story and are very private people, so I do believe it's unfair to talk about anything but my own life and journey. I believe that we all did our best with what we had and what we knew and what we were taught. I'll just mention that from a very young age I developed a keen sense of awareness of my surroundings and would feel very sad when someone close to me was sad. I always wished I could take on their hurt, because seeing someone else crying or upset felt worse than me being sad. Some say it's empathy, some say it's a shot-to-hell nervous system, but I'm not much into labeling as long as I have an awareness of different possibilities and treating myself with care when it gets to be too much.
Before I move on to the college years, there were definitely things during this time that inspired me and my style. I mentioned singing with the Concert Choir, directed by the wonderful Gloria Brown. We did arrangements of many spirituals, and through that and the voice lessons with my first voice teacher Clarice Hearne (I recently heard her son Ted who I sang with in choir was working with Saul Williams) I began finding my Soprano voice. A friend from choir let me borrow a CD from a choral group called "Chanticleer" and that album had a great affect on my understanding of vocal harmony. I guess I also haven't mentioned this yet, but the music that was on the radio at that time and the first things I was hearing when I moved to the States were songs like "UNITY" by Queen Latifah, lots of Tupac and Biggie, Blackstreet and EnVogue and all that. But I also had some friends who did the whole clubbing with glow sticks thing, so the Euro- type club jams were also around. I loved the popular music of the time and throughout High School and later college I definitely listened to everything from Brandy and Monica to Brittany and Christina, Missy Elliot, 702, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Queen Pen, LL Cool J, Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Backstreet Boys, definitely Aaliyah, Mariah Carey, Shakira, TLC, Outkast, Nikka Costa and everything in between.
Last thing I'll mention about that time: I wrote that I began singing solos at church. Eventually I learned "Ave Maria" by Schubert from the organist, and I was hired to sing it a few times for church weddings. Those times, up until very recently, were the only times I ever made any money doing music. Yes, it's true. As we go deeper into the journey, keep in mind, that even when I threw shows, I never made any money from them, and usually lost money by paying other performers or the venue etc. Even if I made any money from music sales (not much) it was nothing compared to the money I spent recording the music, sometimes buying beats, paying for mixing/mastering etc. For about 20 years I didn't make a cent from music, and spent a lot. I worked as a waitress or barista or receptionist, often 2 or 3 jobs, worked during a full load in college. So I'm still here partially because I feel I have to do this, but partially because I couldn't accept that I mopped all those restaurant floors and cleaned bathrooms after closing for nothing.
A few links:
WY High School Choir - This is a choir from my high school from a different year. I don't have any of our video recordings, this is just to show an example.
Chanticleer - Here's a song I loved the harmonies and singing in and even choreographed a dance piece to in college.
"Welp, that was fun, time to think about what kind of "job" I want to do" and so I started college thinking of doing a Psychology major. It almost happened, until I took my first elective, which was Music, and then I still tried holding onto being somewhat sensible by majoring in "Music Education". That was until I took the first actual Music Ed class where I had to prepare a lesson plan for 1st-3rd graders and said "well f*ck th*s sh*t" and changed my major to Music Performance, and added a Dance Minor while I was at it. My counselor (who just happened to be the head of the Music Ed program) did not like this one bit, and told me "You are so talented that everything comes so easily to you, and this is the first time something is difficult for you and you just quit!" Yes ma'am, that is correct. I mean, she was right by deducing that, but I was also right by recognizing that deep inside I absolutely did not want to be a music ed teacher, but a performer. Sensible or not, decisions were made.
Before this turns into an actual book, decisions also have to be made on how to consolidate these 6 years of college (I only got a BFA, but with working jobs and side hours to fulfill scholarships and commuting from home, it took 6). So here are the highlights:
I think the most important thing that happened during my college years is that I adjusted my idea of what I imagine success to be. No longer did I want the fame from music videos I wanted as a kid on a farm. It actually started feeling like the worst possible thing that could happen, watching the extreme invasions of privacy that famous people dealt with and how many were losing their minds because of it. I discovered my love for experimental music, dance and theatre during this time, and so let's split it up into those sections:
As a Vocal Performance major I took classes like Music History where I got an overview of different composers and classical styles and approaches to creating music. Took some group piano classes and eventually 2 semesters of private piano lessons with a fancy piano teacher/performer. That wasn't enough time to learn how to sight-read piano music and so I basically had to memorize the piano compositions and pretend I'm reading them to pass those classes. I still remember a bit of a Chopin Nocturne in Eminor, which I adore. I took a conducting class, music composition, sang with the choir, did some background choir stuff for the operas the school put on and such..
I joined the Jazz Big Band and got to sing "When I Fall in Love" at a large school concert. It was wonderful, but I remember after the performance going to my locker to pick up my things and feeling so awful and depleted. It was a feeling I would get know well as it would be there after most big performances and still is to a certain extent. I prepare and anticipate live performances a lot, and afterwards I am completely spent and drained. I also then joined a Jazz Combo and really started being exposed to live musicians doing their thing and realizing that they don't really expect the singer to know what to do. The singer never knew when to come in after a trumpet solo, or how to find their first note, and was usually the only one who didn't know how to sight read. It was true of me at the time (well, I still can't sight read) but It's the first time I noticed what we expect of singers in comparison to instrumentalists. I wanted to be a musician and my voice to be the instrument.
My boyfriend at the time was a saxophonist and I have him to thank for introducing me to Billie, Ella, Sarah, and many Jazz greats. I fell in love with how Billie Holiday never sang the same Jazz standard the same way twice because her singing was so genuine that since she never felt the same or performed with the musicians playing the music the same, she responded to the music and environment differently every single time. It was the most heart-felt and expressive yet simple way of singing I had ever heard, and wanted to find my own way of singing so genuinely. When Swamburger and I first got introduced to each other to collaborate, we discovered that Billie Holliday was both of our favorite singer.
In college for the first time I got to create a music composition and hear it performed by fellow musicians. It was for a dance piece I choreographed as part of a dance scholarship I was on that semester. My Jazz director Mayo Tiana was in the audience and later told me I had "really big ears". He used to play with Ray Charles amongst other greats. He told me I really understood composition and harmony, and I think that was the moment I first believed I could be a composer. I think now when I make beats I still think of myself as a composer more than a producer. Thank you Mayo.
I mentioned Chopin Nocturnes earlier, which are my absolute favorite and I think a lot of my vocal harmonies are influenced by them, but college is also the time I became aware of Trip Hop. Portishead and Massive Attack and especially Amon Tobin's beats had a huge impact on me. When I saw Amon Tobin live and he had a solo woman opener playing beats and singing, I had my goal in mind. I thought "I can definitely do that". Ok, it's taken me a bit of time I guess but don't all great things? ;)
Last thing I'll mention here, around this time I saw Pugs Atomz perform for the first time and started delving into the Chicago underground Hip Hop scene. I later saw MC Phillip Morris rapping with a string orchestra, and saw how I could possibly start finding my way. I was mostly looked at as that Portishead type of singer who could do some hooks but it was a way in. Sometimes it was the opera thing but I refused to do any gimmicky random opera things on Hip Hop unless it made sense, not "sing some of that opera high note type of thing". Around that time I also met Brave Monk who became a great friend and taught me some Breaking/House and general Hip Hop culture things.
The dance program in college had more of a modern/experimental feel. I learned about modern dance technique, took ballet classes, and Jazz with the legendary Joel Hall (who's studio I later trained at for years). We learned how to put together choreography and performances, how to talk to lighting techs about how we want the stage lighting to look. We performed at our college but also at The Ruth Page stage which gave me a glimpse into professional dance companies.
One summer I took a random dance workshop at the Chicago Cultural Center. I thought it was just some type of modern dance, but it turned out to be Butoh. I didn't know what that was and went along with it. It was a wonderful eye-opening experience which affected how I approached performance from then on. In short, Butoh is a Japanese dance/theatre art form sometimes described as "the dance of utter darkness". Since I had some of that darkness nestled very deep inside for a long time, this was a very cathartic experience. One thing I took with me is that in a Butoh performance you never "show", but "reveal. Like with Billie, it was another way to be my most genuine self in my art. I delved a bit into the art after that, taking workshops when I could and reading books. I actual got to do a Butoh performance in LA of all places a few years ago. The director and I were both a bit shocked to find each other there. It was delightful. Butoh is the style I feel most free in.
I did a few plays to fulfill some scholarship requirements, which was pretty much my introduction to acting. I did all the things from helping at the box office to learning about props backstage and costuming. I also started looking into experimental theatre and reading more about it, and I have to mention Jerzy Grotowski and the book I read "Towards a Poor Theatre" published in 1968. "The Poor Theatre" was an acting theory/technique and an actual theatre company in Poland. The way I remember it, it was in response to theatre productions becoming more and more about the elaborate sets and costumes and lighting, where the actor and art were getting lost and becoming secondary, which in turn of course made the quality of the actor and art suffer and decline more and more. I think we can still relate? So Grotowski assembled this "Poor Theatre" where the actors and their skill were of utmost importance, with very minimal props. These actors trained in everything from acting to music to singing to acrobatics, so that at any moment they could perform or do anything that the art required of them. I found this fascinating and it made me feel a lot better about pursuing so many art and performance forms at once, which tends to be frowned upon. More on that later.
Chopin Nocturne Eminor - the Nocturne I played in college, only played a lot better here by some person.
Branches of a Fallen Monk - the infamous. This is an unlisted video but I figure if you've read this long you've earned to see it lol. This is my composition and choreography and probably around the time I decided on my name "Scarlet Monk". Somehow Youtube decided it's an 18+ video but it's really not, just kinda creepy maybe.
Butoh - Another unlisted video. This is from that first Butoh workshop I attended, filmed at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Amon Tobin - one of the albums that made me want to do Trip Hop and had a big effect on my music creation.
Massive Attack - this is the song I would always send to producers to show how I wanted my voice mixed. This is the type of Trip Hop that hooked me.
The Underworld - This album in its entirety definitely had an influence on me. Something about how it was put together, full of unexpected elements but still easy to listen to all the way through.
Some photos during college and after, some of which I'll discuss in Part 2:
And I think this is a good point to stop for today. Part 2 will begin with after graduating college and starting to attempt this performance artist life.
Stromae - might as well leave you with this Stromae performance because I adore his artistry. Toodles!