Smartists: Charlene Kaye of San Fermin

Smartists: San Fermin’s Charlene Kaye

Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

Charlene Kaye has spent most of her musical career singing someone else’s songs. As a lead singer in San Fermin, Kaye sings the lyrics and music of bandleader Ellis Ludwig-Leone, setting aside her own original material as she dedicated herself to his creative vision. That time away from her own work was anything but futile, as her first solo EP in four years, Honey, released August 19th, was nurtured largely by the restorative, enriching time she has spent making music with San Fermin. Kaye is thankful for San Fermin and her continued work with the band, but is also ready to share her debut EP. She should be excited. Honey–a collection of bright self-love anthems–hangs in the air like sunlight, extending warmth in every direction.

“The last album I released was in 2012 and it’s 2016 now. In between, I’ve had the tectonic plates shift quite a few times on what I thought my identity was and what kind of artist I wanted to be. San Fermin surely played a huge role in that discovery process. I think San Fermin came along at exactly the right time when I was questioning whether I even wanted to continue doing music. It’s a tough industry and… it’s a constant hustle,” Kaye said.

Hustling is all Kaye’s been doing since she caravanned from Michigan, where she was in school, to New York with several musician friends. They were going to “make it,” she said. Quickly, Kaye found musical footing playing in other people’s bands and starting an all-female Guns N’ Roses cover band of her own called Guns N’ Hoses.

“That’s been a really fun side project, it was really started out as a party joke but it ended up being instrumental to my guitar education because I didn’t go to music school.  I was trained in classical piano because that’s just what my parents did—they shoved every instrument under the sun into my hands when I was young. So it’s kind of their fault that when I grew up and said I wanted to be a musician full time. They were like, ‘What? You don’t want to go to law school?’ And I was like, ‘It’s your fault!’”

Eventually, Kaye met and began playing with Ellis Ludwig-Leone. She was invited to sing for San Fermin, and the band has taken off in the last few years, touring internationally with acts like St. Vincent, National, Arctic Monkeys, and The Head and the Heart.

“San Fermin came along when I had spent about a year deliberately focusing on not focusing on my own music. I was letting things coalesce on their own. I did some freelance web design and taught lessons, tried to serve other people. San Fermin was also an experiment in serving other people, serving somebody else’s artistic vision… I’d always been like ‘I’m a writer, I have something to say,’ so it was a huge challenge to step back and sing somebody else’s words… But the band is made up of eight phenomenal musicians who’ve become some of my best friends. It helped me figure out why being an artist is important to me,” Kaye said.

 

With renewed sense of self and confidence in her own work, Kaye dove into writing this new batch of songs. “Honey”, the title track of the EP, is Kaye’s attempt to embody the opposite of what she was really feeling during a hard time, singing, “it’s okay, Honey/go your way.”

“[There are] studies that say that when you smile you actually send signals to your brain that make you, trick you into feeling happy. It releases endorphins. So even if you don’t feel happy, if you smile somehow, it’s a feedback loop for your body. Your body thinks you must be happy about something. This song was sort of a way to metaphorically doing that for my spirit: acting how I wanted to feel and letting [my] body follow. And it worked,” Kaye said.

She is hopeful that it reached other people, as well. Kaye thinks often about being a positive role model for her listeners. “I love the idea of my music being the soundtrack to someone’s healing,” she said.

Who she is, by nature of her ethnicity and gender, is also an inspiration. Chinese-American female pop stars aren’t common, and Kaye carries that burden consciously.

“I get casual, well-meaning, racist comments all the time on tour… I frequently get asked if I’m the violin player… The sound guy or girl will say, ‘oh, are you the violin player?’ It’s totally second-nature to them, it just does not occur to them at all that I could be the lead singer and that could be why there aren’t more Asian-American pop stars, because it’s hard to be what you don’t see… I think about that all the time—I want to normalize it, and I’m really excited by Asian-American artists like Awkwafina,” said Kaye.

Kaye plans to tour with Honey, her first solo tour since 2012. She is thrilled to be putting this part of herself out into the world, and hopes to continue working hard to put music, healing, and positivity into the world. As she said, “As long as I’m surrounded by music, I’m happy, in whatever capacity that means. I’m happy to be going for it.”

Check out the video for “Honey” below and for more information on KAYE and the new EP, visit here.

Smartists: Meet Xenia Rubinos

Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

“Xenia” is a word of Greek origin, meaning “welcoming to strangers.” It’s a fitting moniker for musician Xenia Rubinos, a first generation American and songwriter focused on cultivating inclusivity and diversity with her music. “My hope for my music is that it brings together people from different ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, cultures, and preferences and brings them together to enjoy music,” Rubinos said. Her June 3 release, Black Terry Cat, with its varied influences and cunning social commentary, lives up to that goal.

Rubinos’ father is a Cuban immigrant and her mother immigrated from Puerto Rico. Unlike most immigrant children, Rubinos’ parents desire to see her achieve financial stability didn’t keep them from honoring her love of music. As Rubinos said, “A lot of times for first-gen immigrant kids there’s a lot of pressure to be successful financially. For me, it was a rare case where my parents were just dreamers. They say it was a luxury for me to have a dream and go after it. So, they were actually really encouraging of me.”

In fact, when Rubinos was eight, her music-loving father encouraged her to apply for a scholarship for flute lessons at the University of Connecticut in Hartford where they lived. Rubinos got the scholarship, and through the opportunity, learned how to read music. She didn’t end up sticking with the flute, though. What Rubinos really wanted to do was sing like Mariah Carey.

“She was my musical idol at the time. I had posters of her on my walls and I learned her albums front to back. I liked that she had curly hair like me, I remember thinking that she was really pretty and her voice was so beautiful. She was just this woman that I looked up to,” Rubinos said. As for many, finding someone like her in music–in this case, an American woman of Latin descent–made a career in music seem possible for Rubinos.

Once a teen, Rubinos developed an interest in free improvisation at a summer camp that brought inner-city and suburban kids together and make art. That experience sparked an interest that eventually lead her to pursue a career as a jazz vocalist in Boston.

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Once in Boston, the male-dominated jazz scene changed her path. Rubinos said, “When I got there, I had a crisis. It was a very male-centric environment and I felt like I was constantly trying to prove myself. And because I was a singer, there was an assumption that I didn’t know anything about music, and that I was just a pretty face. It got really bad to the point where I stopped singing for a while and I got into composition.”

Though unfortunately and unfairly driven away from singing and performing, Rubinos channeled her creative energies into studying the craft of composition. She wanted to prove to herself (and to the boys) that she knew as much as they did. “It was a great period where I started to discover a lot of [different musicians], like Charles Mingus, and that was really inspirational—I started learning how to write for horns and do big band arrangements,” said Rubinos.

This focus on arranging and part writing is what gives the songs on Rubinos’ new record, Black Terry Cat, the quality of a complex braid: three or more clear, minimal music ideas woven together into something dense, yet still translucent.

“Songs are houses to me, everything is there for a reason. The moment you change one thing the house changes shape or falls down. I like that aspect of writing, figuring out different ways to structure parts. Once you change that one thing, it doesn’t work. There’s not much room to mess with it. It’s all there for a reason,” said Rubinos

Houses aren’t constructed alone. Rubinos has her long-time collaborator, Marco Bucelli, to help her lay the brick and pour cement. Her friend and musical partner for almost a decade, Bucelli really understands Rubino’s vision. She said, “He helps me with a sound—I tend to be pretty bare bones about sounds—I’ll bring it to him and ask him to make it sound a certain way. He was crucial in the soundscape of this album.”

Black Terry Cat is lyrically powerful as well: Rubinos doesn’t shy away from drawing on her immigrant experience or her political engagement and social awareness.

“A lot was on my mind at the time I was writing this album; there was a lot of gun violence going on, the Black Lives Matter movement–that was on my mind constantly. My dad was a social worker who advocated a lot for Hispanic rights in Hartford. He was very politically engaged and I think that’s part of me for sure.” Thus, songs like “Mexican Chef”—an observation of how many “brown” people work behind the scenes to support the white majority—cuts razor-sharp with its honesty.

“I really work to project joy and to be honest and generous in my music all the time. I’m trying to show love for people and the world around me, how to be sensitive, how to listen more. I’m constantly trying to figure it out,” said Rubinos, “I feel very lucky to have music to show that because it’s one of the most ruthless mirrors to who you are. You’re constantly looking at yourself. And it’s not always this glamorous, pretty, easy and fun picture. It can be really tough to look at yourself and to constantly ask, what is it that I’m saying, why did you just do that?”

This is the sort of intentionality and authenticity at the pulse of Black Terry Cat, which Rubinos will be touring with internationally starting in the Fall. She’s excited to get on the road and share her music.

“I don’t know if I can say that I’m changing the world—but I do know there’s something really special that goes on when I get to play music live to an audience. I’m learning from them: we’re having this kind of communion together. This exchange of energy that I hope can create good energy that will impact the world.”

For more information on Xenia Rubinos visit her website.

 

Smartists: Mary Lambert

(Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls)

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s 2012 release of “Same Love” was a groundbreaking moment in music. It was the first time that a song about gay rights made it onto the Top 40 charts, and for the single’s featured singer, Mary Lambert, it was the moment her life changed forever. Lambert remembers when she first realized what an impact it had.

“I was [performing with Macklemore] at WaMu Theater right after the singles from The Heist were released. There were 8000 people there. My last show had been maybe 80 people, and the solo show before that was probably 15 people. There was this moment I remember having backstage; I wasn’t sad and I wasn’t happy—it was a complex feeling like there’s no turning back. I remember thinking, even if I did want to continue being a bartender on Second Avenue, I can’t,” she said. Since then, Lambert recorded a solo album, Heart On My Sleeve, and signed to Capitol records—a dream come true for the singer, who’s been through a lot in her twenty-six years.

Lambert grew up in poverty, and early-on, suffered verbal and sexual abuse. She also struggles with bi-polar disorder. Music has always been a buoy for her. “Music was a means of survival and gave me a beautiful way to channel a lot of sadness and frustration and depression at a young age. I have been going through healing since I was a child,” she said. Lambert hasn’t let the traumas in her life harden her. In fact, she looks back on her childhood with the sort of search-for-the-silver-linings perspective her complex pop songs possess. There were happy times too, she says, especially when she was writing and sharing songs with her mom.

“My mom’s a singer-songwriter as well… She would write these really genius songs about taking the trash out. She’d just come up with them on the spot and she had such a gorgeous voice, it was just like, ‘Oh my god, mom’s such a genius,’” Lambert said.

Lambert emulated her mom for a while, until she began teaching herself piano and finding her own melodies. She eventually went to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where she studied composition. Lambert’s songwriting focuses on “connection through vulnerability.” Her songwriting is personal and often centered around cultivating self-acceptance and healing. Take for instance, “Secrets,” a single off her most recent release.

“That [song] was the first time I really publicly said I have a mental disorder… and then the next day I was like, ‘I have a truth hangover.’ But, I think the best way to achieve connection is through vulnerability, and the best way to encourage vulnerability is by being vulnerable yourself,” Lambert said.

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As a result, a connection between Lambert and her fans has sprung up in unexpected and powerful ways.

“[One message I remember] in particular, was from a girl who emailed me on her first night at a rehab center for eating disorders… Her friend had shown her [my song] ‘Body Love,’ and it was a catalyst for her to check in to rehab for Anorexia. At the time she was 85 pounds,” Lambert said. “I am so proud to be a catalyst in peoples’ lives that have been affected by my music, and [part of what helps them] find strength within themselves.”

Last year, Lambert was on tour for 315 days, and though she is obviously energized and excited about her career, she often has to step back to re-center herself.

“For that year, it was really intense; I lost my voice a lot, I ate terribly, my body felt bad… I had just met my partner and it was hard—you start a relationship and you can’t even provide that foundation. One of the things I really wanted was a garden… I wanted to grow vegetables.”

She says she’s been able to regain the balance, or “grow all parts of her garden,” through ensuring she makes time for things she loves. For example, Lambert always gives herself two days off during the week so she can spend time home with her girlfriend, Michelle Chamuel; garden; write poetry; or do whatever else her heart desires.

“It’s important to… have a really well-balanced life. If you focus on your career all the time, you’re missing a whole chunk. You’re really missing out on true fulfillment,” she said.

Lambert is just now beginning to record a new album, which she plans to entitle Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across. She says she’s been doing a lot more classical composition for this album, and is incorporating more of her poetry into the final product. Additionally, Lambert is also working on a second collection of poetry (her first chapbook can be purchased here), and designing her own fashion line.

Though her solo career is taking off, Lambert still feels close and grateful to Macklemore and his message. She says she bawled her eyes out (in a good way) when Macklemore released his controversial single, “White Privilege” last month.

“Macklemore resonates so much with me. That’s part of our bond, we’re both storytellers and both vulnerable people in our art, and in every song he’s genuinely being himself,” she said.

For more on Mary Lambert visit her website. Check out her newest video for “Ribcage” below:

Photos by Autumn de Wilde.

Smartists: Magda Giannikou of Banda Magda

Musician Magda Giannikou emanates joy. Even with a heavy accordion strapped to her shoulders, she flits about the stage, leading Banda Magda with the dance of her accordion bellows and girlish singing voice. A stylish marriage of Audrey Hepburn’s sophistication and Carmen Miranda’s vivaciousness, Giannikou has the look of vintage stardom about her. Add in her impressive musical talent, humor, and heart of gold, and it’s clear you’re witnessing a star on the rise.

Giannikou began her life many miles away from this American stage, in a suburb of Athens, Greece called Voula. Giannikou’s description of her childhood self seems so counter to her stage presence.

“I had a lonely childhood. I always felt strange, always had a hard time finding a sense of belonging while I was growing up. It was hard for me to connect,” she said.

Early on, though, she discovered solace and connection in music.

“My father is a great music lover and connoisseur of music and he would play for [me and my siblings] music from all over the world… I got into music because he nurtured me with it. Alongside that, my mother is a musician. She plays the piano and writes music for children, and she’s an architect and art historian,” said Giannikou.

Using the musical education her parents afforded her, Giannikou spent much of her childhood studying the intricacies of her favorite musical scores. “I wanted to be a composer, I wanted to write for films, that was my dream,” Giannikou said. She also learned many languages, accounting for her amazing ability to speak (and sing in) French, Spanish, English, a little Japanese, and her native Greek.

In her early twenties, after graduating with a classical piano diploma in Athens, she wrote music for TV. Then, she decided to pursue film and music at Berkelee College of Music. Once in school, she picked up the accordion and became the only accordionist at Berkelee at the time. The instrument opened her up to a whole new expressive experience.

“It’s almost like I’m playing a string arrangement. I control dynamics and I lead the band with accordion like I’m conducting. Because I’m a very dynamic personality—the fact that the bellow has so much dynamic ability I think fits so well with my music and personality,” Giannikou said.

The switch ended up being hugely transformative. Not only did it give her an increased sense of musical authenticity, but it rerouted her path.

“I won the Georges Delerue Award for excellence in film scoring, and [through it] I got to meet a famous composer and his wife in Hollywood. I told her, ‘I have this love for film but also this new passion about playing and performing live and I want to do both.’ She told me, ‘You can do both, but not at the same time.’… So, then it was a decision—what do I do?”

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Instead of moving to Los Angeles for film composing, Giannikou chose to put that childhood dream on hold and move to New York and pursue performing.  At first, Giannikou thought she’d made a mistake.

“I was depressed for six months… I couldn’t find any gigs in the beginning.” Giannikou said. “And I was supremely jealous of people who were performing. One day I just decided, ‘Man, I’m going to do this.’”

With fiery intention, Giannikou formed her band, Banda Magda, made a short sampler EP of their material, and literally pounded pavement, giving the EP to any restaurant in New York that would take it. Only one restaurant got back to her—a little place in SoHo— but that made all the difference. Suddenly, Banda Magda had gigs every night and people began to know them. Then, they made a couple albums and were invited on tour with the internet-famous group Snarky Puppy.

“Snarky’s leader, Michael, has always been so supportive. Our new album will be recorded on his record label,” Giannikou says.

The new album, Tigre, is set to be released by September 2016. In it, Giannikou addresses directly her challenges with belonging and authenticity. Each song on the album, as Giannikou explains, is about all the different kinds of fear that keep you from being you.

“It’s so important—authenticity and uniqueness—and it’s easy and difficult at the same time, I feel, because by definition everyone is unique, so why can’t we just be? I get very disappointed when I see people that haven’t had the opportunity or capacity to tap into that power of really understanding yourself and your value,” Giannikou said.

Giannikou recommends finding the things you love and having the courage to pursue them. “I think it’s about failing and trying things and failing again—you toughen up and almost like an onion, you take off layers. And then you find out what’s inside,” she said.

Along with releasing and touring with Tigre, one of Giannikou’s future goals for Banda Magda is to begin further focus on educating people in world music traditions. She wants to change the current tour model so that she and her band can stay in communities for a few days, hold masterclasses, and interact more with local music students. Really, Giannikou is always looking to find new ways to celebrate the joy and sense of belonging that music has given her.

“My driving force is this deity that I have made up in my mind—the protector of the stage, of the performer, of the music. Because when I go up there I feel elation and belonging. I don’t know where it comes from—I love people, talking to people and connecting with people. I love this idea of prosperity by giving out positive energy.”

For more information on Magda Giannikou and Banda Magda visit her website. Below is a sneak peak of Tigre, as well as one of Banda Magda’s music video for “El Pescador” from their last release, Yerakina.  To support Tigre visit Banda Magda’s crowdfunding page.

What do you think of Smartist Magda Giannikou’s music? Tweet us or comment below!

Smartists: Esperanza Spalding

Smartists: Meet Esperanza Spalding

Musician Esperanza Spalding would rather handwrite me a letter. She admits this while fiddling with her mic that’s causing loud static in my phone receiver. I tease her, “Shouldn’t one of the best performing musicians of our time know how to use a mic?” She laughs, but this conundrum unintentionally gets at the heart of her newest project, Emily’s D+Evolution, due out in March 2016. Spalding’s funky, electric, political album, and it’s main character, Emily, contemplate a question at the center of life in the 21st century: how do we reconcile our primal nature with our cultural society?

Spalding grew up in Portland, OR, as a sickly kid who spent a lot of time home alone overdubbing harmonies on a tape player. “When my mom came home [from work] I’d show her everything that I’d done…she [encouraged music] as play,” she says.

Her first “taste” of what later became adoration of the acoustic bass and improvisational music came from an afternoon of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In one particular episode, Yo-Yo Ma played a Bach piece on the cello. “I was five and I had never seen or heard a live acoustic instrument being played,” she said, “I was just tripped out… I was completely captivated and I knew I wanted to do it.”

So she did, working her way through Berkelee School of Music, putting out recording projects, and eventually going on to win the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011. She’s even garnered several high honors, like playing at the White House for President Obama. The accolades have by no means capped or flattened her creative journey though, as she continues to extend herself into new realms, more challenging and interesting than ever.

This project is her most experimental and conceptual to date, and it all started as a vague inkling of a character: Emily. Over the past year, she’s explored Emily, a character named for Spalding’s middle name, and the philosophy of D+Evolution.  Spalding said, “Since she doesn’t have an independent body, I’m offering my songwriting skills, my musicianship, my voice and my ability to manifest things in the physical realm. I’m lending all of those things to her sound and her character.”

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Emily’s D+Evolution is more than a recording project, it’s an awakening of her inner child. It’s an audio portrait stretching Spalding beyond music and into storytelling through acting, staging, and movement. As a consequence, the project won’t be fully actualized until she takes the album (with its performance aspect) on tour. “I realize that a lot of what Emily’s here to do is to explore modes of expressions that I was curious about as a child… [as a kid] I would lie about everything and somehow keep the [identities] organized so people would believe the identities… I loved acting and creating little worlds to invite people into,” she said.

The process of creating Emily’s D+Evolution has further clarified authentic self for Esperanza, who is humble, self-aware, and well-spoken, despite admitting to feeling like “this floating head in the dark” most of the time. She stays grounded through hard work and friendship.

“Maybe the scariest and hardest thing to do is to forge ahead when you have no idea what’s going to happen and the only anchors that I know of are work and friendship. The work is beautiful because you hold the reins—if… you did a bad job, you always know that you can work on it. You always know you can do the research and put in the time and it’s absolutely going to get better. Friends on the other hand, equally important, are amazing because they see you in a way that you can’t see yourself. And often, are able to fill in the blank of what you’re not seeing that may be in your way, or another perspective that gives you a hand,” Spalding says.

Emily’s D+Evolution has been a friend to Spalding, as well as an immense amount of work. She is currently collaborating with director Will Weigler to perfect the performance aspect, set to go on the road in 2016. She is so close to bringing this ambitious art piece to fruition and her enthusiasm is palpable.

“It’s almost like everything that I think about in my life that’s important to me, Emily’s looking at those issues through the prism of D+Evolution… Emily has struck on an idea that is really resonant right now… where is it okay to embrace our instincts and what we are as humans? How do we balance that with being a developed, civilized member of a community? I think there’s a lot of juice there, [but] I’ll only be satisfied if I can show it. That’s my main wish for this project is that we can show it and that it is rich, as rich as it can be.”

Here’s your first look at Emily’s D+Evolution in Spalding’s video for “Good Lava,” that recently premiered on NPR:

For more information on Esperanza Spalding, her new album, and her upcoming tour, visit her website.

All photos by Holly Andres.

Smartists: Mindie Lind

(Article link, here)

Mindie Lind’s music glistens with intention, deliberation and style, and yet she says for the longest time she wasn’t conscious of her musicality. For all intents and purposes, Mindie’s exposure to music was a fluke, hinging on her adoption into a church-going family and then her coincidental friendships with “music makers” as a young adult. Now, she writes consciously, releasing stunning music videos as the visual backbone to her sound; an intersection between classic country, vulnerable poeticism, and straight-out-of-the church piano that is both unique and down-home, just like Mindie.

Mindie was born without legs and with six fingers. At a year old, she was adopted into a large Southern Baptist family and raised among many other adoptive children. Unfortunately, she says, she never felt the belonging and loving environment that family is supposed to provide. “I think for a lot of people, family is where you know ‘sameness’ and what relating feels like. The outside world is what different looks like. For me, family was so much about differences—I had blonde siblings, fat siblings, black siblings—nobody really looked like me, “ she said.

Her adoptive family did give her one positive thing—proximity to music through their church. “I grew up singing solos in church choir, and music was always there for me,” Mindie says. She also took piano lessons and played French horn in the orchestra, and yet, she never considered going into music as a career. Once in college, religion faded but music became an more vital part of her social life.

“Growing up it was all gospel acapella, orchestral, and some 90’s pop music on my own time. My parents didn’t listen to the Beatles, I didn’t know anything about them. When I got to college, it was Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan and all that stuff. I just went down the American music train. It blew my skull off,” she said.

When Mindie moved to Seattle after graduating college, she found herself wanting to participate. Eventually, she was singing along at jam sessions, playing piano and “accidentally” writing songs. “I do not know how it happened, but all my friends [in Seattle] were music makers. They were writing music and playing traditional stuff—which actually interacted a lot with my past because a lot of traditional American songs have roots in gospel—so I would sing along.”

I DID THIS BECAUSE I KNEW I COULD DO IT. I WENT FOR IT BECAUSE I THOUGHT I REALLY DID HAVE A CHANCE.

Since then, she’s written dozens of songs and she performs often. Perhaps her biggest accomplishment is becoming one of Lena Dunham’s go-to musicians and friends after submitting to an open call on Dunham’s website. “She chose people from certain towns to [go on her book tour with her]. She chose me and I was surprised in a way, but I also thought, “I did this because I knew I could do it. I went for it because I thought I really did have a chance,” she said.

Since, Mindie’s career has continued to take off, but she’s stayed in touch with the grounded girl she is; the person everyone wants to be friends with. More literally, she’s usually close to the ground, riding her skateboard as her main mode of transportation.

As Mindie says, “It’s a lot about convenience but it really is a politicized move… The conversation is not, ‘do you need help?’ but ‘that’s a neat way to get around.’ Which is just as patronizing, but I think it’s doing more.”

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Mindie embodies “do you” to the maximum degree, but it’s not always easy. Curiously, it’s not her physical anomaly that makes it hard for her to be herself, but the way the world isolates people with no legs. As Mindie says, disability is a social condition–she is only “disabled” because she is without legs in a world that is made for people with legs.

“On a good day I get off on [not having legs], it can be the coolest. Everyone dyes their hair and wears this thing to be different and I just am. That is neat and that’s a privilege,” she says, “But on a bad day, it’s like ‘screw you I’m not your clown.’ I don’t want any of that responsibility…People are blinded by inaccurate stories about disability they’re being told again and again, and make me a symbol. It weighs on me.”

On the hard days, Mindie says it’s an awareness of her internal monologue that can help her center herself again, as well as spending time with people who make her feel supported. But perhaps most importantly, she reminds herself to believe in the good stuff that people see in her. This can be hard, especially because she says she can never know if people see her as an object of disability or a creator of art.

WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK IS REALLY NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.

“There aren’t really any success stories of people with disability who perform that aren’t mostly being pimped out because of what their physical form does to people. And because of that, it’s always a question for me of is their reaction actually in touch with what I’m creating or with the other stuff? Nobody really knows, and what other people think is really none of your business. But I still think about it and find it confusing.”

In the next few years, Mindie has plans to continue releasing more music and music videos (including this one shot live video she did for Smart Girls with Project Girl Crush contributor Genevieve Pierson). Another life goal that is important to her is to develop a disabled character for TV, one that is intentional about projecting a more complex, unseen side of what she calls “real cripp life.” To follow her music go to her website, and for her other endeavors follow Mindie on Twitter @mindielind.

Smartists: Author Sandra Cisneros

Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls.

Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros strives to live her most authentic life—her “life of letters.” She is the author of several books, namely of the award-winning novel, The House on Mango Street. Later this year, she’s releasing a collection of true stories from her own life called A House of My Own. But her prolific career would’ve been impossible, Sandra says, if it hadn’t been for the Chicago winter of ‘66.

“Frozen pipes changed my life…” Sandra reflected on her time in Catholic School from her home in Mexico, “We started school with… this wonderful nun, the sort of nun who would jump rope with you,” she said. “Then we moved to a new school where we were the bottom poor kids…[the nuns and students] gave me a sense of nothingness,” she said.

In the exceptionally cold winter of ’66 the pipes of the Cisneros’ house froze. They were left with only the water they could collect in jars. Sandra’s fed-up father was then forced to moved them again, and the whole experience was formative for Sandra. “That was my education. Changing from the neighborhood where we were the despised other to this new place where suddenly everyone was poor. We were no longer ‘The Untouchables,’” she said.

Sandra learned at a young age what it was like to be scrutinized and excluded because of what made her different, like her Mexican-American heritage. But it wasn’t until graduate school at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop that she really realized her differences were a powerful gift.

“[At Iowa,] I felt like every time I spoke people looked at me like I was the biggest dork. It was horrible and I hated it… there was such a culture of superiority instilled there…when people spoke it was always like they were scaling some sort of mountain and trying to get to the top.”

Sandra was miserable in the program’s competitive environment and learned how to survive by shutting down and staying quiet. Deeply depressed, she sought other ways to keep her spirit afloat. She studied dance in the greater community and shadowed ceramics students. Also, she started to write The House on Mango Street.

“[I remember thinking,] ‘You mean everyone doesn’t go to Mexico to visit their domineering grandmother? What? You mean I’m the only one who had to give away my baby brother?’” she said, “It’s those things that you take for granted and think are everyone’s life that are your gift… Once I started finding that I could write from a place where none of my classmates could write from, that forced me to find my voice.”

Not surprisingly, the voice she found was one that hadn’t been heard before. In 1984, she published The House on Mango Street and it went on to win the American Book Award. To this day, the coming of age story about young Esperanza continues to be widely read and taught as an emblem of the Mexican-American experience.

The House On Mango Street
Image Credit: DeviantArt/ Foo-G

On Mango Street‘s success she said, “It confirms to me a spiritual lesson that when we do work on behalf of others, with no personal motive, when we do work from the heart and our intuition it will take us on our path, to a place that’s full of light.”

Sandra continues to live and create by the philosophy, spreading light, working from the heart, and striving to be of service. For instance, one of her most recent projects is a Day of the Dead altar installation for her mother. It’s been all over the country, even at the Smithsonian.

“My mom let me have my life of letters … She was the most angry, frustrated, drafted-into-motherhood mom. She didn’t want that for me so she liked to give me choices. She always allowed me to read books and not work in the kitchen…My friends were changing diapers, and I still, to this day, can’t even cook,” Sandra said, “[My mother] would tell me to watch the rice and I’d watch it burn.”

Sandra’s mother’s progressiveness paid off, for Sandra says she’s happier than ever and living a life where she gets to call her own shots. “Why is it a bad thing when something is feminist? Don’t you want your daughters and wives to be empowered so they aren’t ashamed? Women having control over their futures, why is that a bad thing?,” she said.

Still, her art-devoted life hasn’t come without its struggles. She’s worked odd jobs and lived in garage apartments in towns she didn’t want to live in. She’s also contended with bouts of severe depression. “I went to near death in a suicidal year when I was 33 and that’s what taught me that it’s really important to have a therapist or a spiritual teacher or a healer or a sweat lodge…you have to have something grounding to guide you. We can be disconnected from those communities that can enlighten and support us,” she said.

Sandra recommends you seek out your “peeps!,” the people that understand you, like those of us at Smart Girls. “[Women] are so cluttered with what people want us to be, with a “true” woman is. Especially in my 20’s, I cried every week. I called them “My disastrous 20’s.” I was always thinking, am I on the right path?…You need to find other woman [like you]. They will become your spiritual family.”

Sandra Cisneros’ newest book, A House of Her Own: Stories From My Life, is due out later this year. For more information on the forthcoming book and others she’s released, please visit Sandra’s website.

Featured Image Credit: Sandra Cisneros/ Alan Goldfarb

Smartists: Gretchen Parlato

(Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls)

American jazz musician Wayne Shorter once said, “There’s no one out there like Gretchen [Parlato],” referring to the subtle yet masterful control the jazz vocalist has over her instrument. But after chatting with her, you’d venture to say Shorter’s compliment was about her personality, too. Gretchen Parlato is self-assured, at peace with what her life vision has brought to her, and for that, an incredible addition to our Smartist ranks.

Parlato is not only a renowned vocalist and Grammy nominee but a teacher, as well. “Changing the world by being yourself is a beautiful motto, and I relate to it wholeheartedly. Finding your voice, literally for a singer and figuratively in one’s art, is all about soul-searching to…reveal what we already have inside,” Gretchen explained. “I teach jazz voice at Manhattan School of Music, and that’s the core wisdom I try to pass on with my voice students.”

If we rewind back to when she was a student herself, working to acquire that wisdom, she acknowledges it wasn’t always so easy to trust the journey. She revealed, “I do remember being younger and feeling frustrated when people told me to sing louder, move around the stage more, open my eyes, use more makeup, [or] wear different clothes. It was difficult at the time, [but] I just had to say ‘thank you’ and [take or leave their opinions.] I knew somewhere in my heart that if I was just honest and true to myself and my artistic vision, I would be okay.”

Gretchen began tapping into that artistic vision at a very young age. She was raised in a musical family in Los Angeles, CA, where art was both her “nature and her nurture.” She then attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, UCLA as and ethnomusicology/jazz studies major, and became the first vocalist to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. Since then, Gretchen has gone on to record four albums and perform with musical greats, including guitarist Lionel Loueke. “There have been so many highlights,” she says, “like singing Carnegie Hall and performing with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.” She even earned a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album earlier this year.

But aside from her formal music education and accolades, Gretchen works to be in touch with the inherent mystery of creating art. “…I like to think of…art on three levels: technical, emotional, and spiritual. If we are tapping into each of these in the most genuine and honest way, we realize we don’t have to try so hard, we reveal our own authentic story in our art.” Thus, being your authentic self is a tool for creative expression, a vulnerability that helps clear the dams and ready you for inspiration. “Creativity can flow in through us like a wave, [and] when it does you’ve got to be there to catch it and take that ride!”

Gretchen also underscores creativity in a broader sense, drawing parallels between her artistic pursuits and her new motherhood. “One of my favorite things about being a [creative woman] is [having] my son, Marley, last year,” adding, “I am so thankful to be able to experience the amazing journey of pregnancy and childbirth. This life event will definitely reflect in my art and inspire many songs.”

Currently, Gretchen is focused on being a mom, a job she calls “the best gig she’s ever had.” But, she’s still got several projects and performances in the works with her band as well as with Alan Hampton and with Lionel Loueke. She also works with a group called Tillery, that coincidentally, includes another of our Smartists, Becca Stevens! She encourages you to watch her website for upcoming recording projects and performances.

When asked for parting words for you Smarties out there, she hits it home: “Honor yourself. Know that you are valued and loved. Find what makes you happy and spend your time doing it! Spend your time around people in your life who make you feel good and happy. Don’t sweat the small stuff, though small stuff can seem pretty big in the moment. Breakdowns are always followed by breakthroughs.”

 Image Credit: Gretchen Parlato Facebook

Smartists: Melody Walker

(Published to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls)

The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, CA, is all warm reds and carved wood, with a grand chandelier dripping from the vaulted ceiling. Years of clacking cowboy boots, and buzzing amplifiers have worn her like an old Tibetan rug, but don’t be fooled—this old broad knows how to get down.

Tonight, the crowd is dancing out on the lacquered dance floor as the opening band, Front Country, plays. The lead singer and lone woman, Melody Walker, commands attention with her impressive dirty-blonde ringlets, her large acoustic guitar, and her voice—full and warm, with a growly dash of sass. She is a gregarious performer—enjoying every note and bringing her audience into that joy.

Backstage, after their rousing set, Melody is still beaming, buzzing off a performance high. In the greenroom, there’s a menagerie of shabby-chic couches and black leather instrument cases. She says this is the room for the Steep Canyon Rangers, the headliners of tonight’s show.

Melody grew up in Martinez, CA, a suburb of San Francisco. “It’s a waterfront town with oak-covered rolling hills, lots of trains, and an oil refinery. My mom owns a family auto-body shop…and my dad has worked in refineries and power plants since I was a kid, but [he] always played music.” Her father was her earliest musical mentor and is a huge reason she became a songwriter. “I started playing the piano at my house as a toddler. My dad would set me on his lap and let me play. Then around age five he started showing me the basics: middle C, how to build chords, major and minor scales, [the song] Heart and Soul.”

Melody FC

Melody preferred to figure things out by ear and her father would help her harmonize those simple tunes to see how chords and melodies worked together. Really, she says, she’s still just using those basic skills her dad showed her as a kid. “All the technique, repertoire, and theory aside, it’s all just chords and melodies,” Melody said. She describes her first time performing on stage as “terrible and terrifying” but bookended with a “huge standing ovation for having the cojones to actually do it… I learned a valuable lesson: that courage is what people admire most about performers.” For 15 years now, Melody has been writing and performing her own songs. It’s only in the last few years that, as she explains, “I’ve started to feel like I might be getting good at it.”

Melody has tried all sorts of creative processes but right now she likes to compose acapella “with no instruments, no chords and also no written lyrics in front of me,” she says. “Direct imagination to vocalization. I find that I preserve the initial idea best this way and don’t give my analytical brain a chance to chime in and square it off.” Like most of us, her creativity sparks when she’s doing something mundane. “Most of my initial ideas come when I am driving… Something about the meditative state of motion and being slightly preoccupied with a task (and maybe a little bored) let’s my mind wander off and access that [creative] place,” she says, “However, I am pretty private about my creative process so it leads to a lot of furtive truck stop bathroom stall singing,” she laughs.

Melody is inspired by people who, as she puts it, “push the envelope and do things that seemed taboo or impossible before.” She cites “smart, feminist” women with “real stories” like Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, and many others. “I think [Meghan Trainor] is a total badass for writing that song about body image and then having the courage to record and release it herself when no one else would.” Feminism and body image are important issues to Melody. She says she’s never been a “naturally thin person” and she struggles with her body image as a female performer. “Guys face body image stigma too, but not to the extent that women do. The seemingly impossible media standard of beauty made me reject it altogether for a long time. It has taken me years to create my own ideals for holistic personal health and beauty, and I still struggle when shaping my image for mass media (like in press photos, or videos) with how I fit into the cultural norm.”

To that effect, she says she is “absolutely” a feminist. “Feminism is all about rethinking those gender norms and sexist institutions that separate and harm us as a human race,” she adds. She brings her feminism into her music, even considers her music be “activist” songwriting. “I don’t generally write straight ahead protest songs, but the personal is political, and challenging traditional song themes (especially in a traditional genre like bluegrass) is a life goal of mine. The song ‘Undertaker’ on Front Country’s new record is one of the most directly political songs I have ever written, it’s also deeply personal.”

It takes courage and wisdom to face the issues inside her self that birth those “deeply personal” songs. Melody says it requires she-work to disregard the ego, and listen more to her intuition. “Listen…for that deeper information and understanding, just below the surface, [and] you find those world-changing, mind-changing ideas that ring true, both to yourself and the universe,” she said.

Melody and Front Country are touring a lot these days and Melody is ecstatic and fulfilled to be on the path that she’s on. “I’ve been surprised by how the art has provided for me, the artist, as I keep participating in it. No one owes you anything in this world, and you are not entitled to make a living as an artist, but we always seem to find places to stay on the road, friendly people, home cooked meals, adventure, joy, meaning and love. Money comes and money goes, but those human connections are real richness that we are especially tapped into as traveling musicians.”

It’s important to Melody and Front Country that they continue to find “their people” out there. The people who, as she describes, are “[t]he ones who get it, who like our sound and my songs and like a lot of soul in what they put in their ears.” What do you think Smart Girls? Are they talking about you?

Front Country just released their newest album Sake of The Sound. For more information on how get their album or see them on tour, visit their website. Melody is also the founder of a blog by and for female roots musicians called Dim Lights/ Thick Smoke.

Smartists: Emily Danger

Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

It was natural for Emily Nichols to foray into music after being born the daughter of an elementary school music teacher. But, after growing up doing musicals, playing piano and guitar, and eventually graduating with degrees in classical music, she embraced her individuality (her “Danger”, if you will) and forged a musical path all her own. “I’d be singing in an opera and wishing I was Robert Plant,” she says. “I never lost my love for rock and pop music.”

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About three years ago, Emily decided to run with her longtime love for cabaret rock and express herself through it.

“There was a lot happening in my personal life that was tumultuous and I couldn’t communicate well as a result. I was playing the piano more at home, flirting around with Cole Porter songs (some of my favorite music) and suddenly, words came to me quickly. ‘Shed My Skin’ was my first full song, I wrote it in 5 minutes,” she recounts.

After playing it for her husband (who’s now her band’s creative director), it was clear what she should be doing: writing and performing her own original music. “[Songwriting] has now become my preferred way of getting my point across,” she says.

Emily is inspired by documentaries (“I watch at least one a week”) and artistic couples, like her friends Inez and Vinoodh who shot her EP cover photos and are models in creative partnership for Emily and her husband, John Patrick Wells. Fellow female artists like Bjork and Marina Abramovic, and other women who “question traditional gender ‘roles’ and aren’t constrained by them,” also get Emily’s juices flowing. This is an area she is particularly passionate about.

“…I’ve felt challenged because of my sex. I don’t consider myself a pop singer, so I haven’t felt the pressure to be overtly sexual. But, as a front woman of a rock band, I have felt opposition because I don’t sing sweetly or perfectly, my voice has guts to it,” she said. “Whenever we cover men’s songs like ‘Killing in the Name’ or ‘Whole Lotta Love’, I get people saying, ‘Wow, I never thought of a woman singing that.’ That bothers me. It’s like when people say, ‘Oh wow, you play electric guitar!’ or ‘Wow, you carried that bass amp up stairs!’ But, that’s part of the challenge!… I’m not trying to prove a point by singing a ‘man’s song’, and I’m definitely not proving a point by carrying my own equipment. It’s part of the job, and I get Michelle Obama arms from it.”

Emily is proud that she can make music for women and show them a different way to look at the industry. She feels supported and empowered when ladies are watching in the audience and dancing to her music.

“I love doing a show, and seeing a ton of women in the audience who would be having a totally different experience if I were a man… They’re there to be a part of the team, one more girl up in front to scream for and have the message be heard. This is what I tell myself. There are also a lot of ladies there because Ricky is devastatingly handsome and Cameron is a rock God. But, it’s nice to have some balance between all of us.”

new band, alanna

Staying true to her strong, opinionated, and passionate nature is an important part of her life mission, and part of the reason she chose to write and perform her own music.

“If something strikes a chord with me personally, I like to write about it…I write what I know and what I feel. I’m a big proponent of being heard by using your own voice, literally and figuratively….I don’t write thinking ‘Would this song be a top Billboard hit?’, I would be stunted if I worked that way and it wouldn’t come across as authentic.”

She applies this same mentality when she mentors young singers, and wants to pass this wisdom onto Smart Girls everywhere.

“If you’re passionate about anything…whatever it is….do that. If you’re only worried about a pay check or having what society tells us is necessary for happiness, you will never be truly happy…[I teach vocal lessons to] a lot of young girls who try to mimic the big names in pop. My constant lecture to them is, ‘There’s nobody who has your vocal chords and your experience and heart. Sing with that.’”

Repeat after Emily, Smarties: There’s nobody with your experience and heart. Embrace yourself. While you’re at it, extend that embrace to Emily by checking out the Emily Danger Band’s new single, set to be released this month. Also, keep an eye out for their “War Torn” EP coming out this Spring. For more information on their music and tour, visit their website.