Column 5: Learning to let go and tune in

“My kid could make that” or “My dog could paint that” are expressions I’ve often heard quipped when a person is confronted by a work of art that feels confusing or unconventional. I’ve taught many art students over the years who have said things like, “How could this scribble-scrabble painting end up in a museum?”

Generally, the way I’ve tried to foster an appreciation for difficult work in my students is to have them consider the culture in which the work was produced. Or even better, to have them create art in a similar manner. Sometimes it comes from simply learning to let go and tune in to the mood of a piece. Whatever it takes to get there, it’s a beautiful thing when one is eventually willing to open up to a piece of art.

Teachers are notorious for not always following the advice they give to their students. I know I can be impatient and stubborn. I often stick to what I already know and like. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to open myself up to new influences. When it comes to music, avant-garde free jazz always struck fear and reluctance in me. It seemed way over my head, like I would probably need to do some extensive homework before even attempting to listen. However, when I learned of an opportunity to see a live performance by a trio of world-renowned musicians working in this genre (Peter Brötzmann, Hamid Drake and William Parker) at an intimate Louisville venue, I decided to get over myself and check it out.

Dreamland had a packed house. Old black-and-white film footage was being screened before the show started. The films all related to rhythm: people working in a factory, newspapers being printed on a press, track athletes jumping, people rubbing mud onto their bodies, synchronized swimmers performing a routine. The repeating visuals made for an interesting prelude to a performance that featured odd rhythm as a key element.

The three musicians walked onto the stage and, without a single word, picked up their instruments and dove into a frantic piece. Brötzmann’s clarinet chattered like a flock of birds while his face glowed beet red. In the second piece, Parker’s fingers flew up and down the neck of his upright bass with great speed, and Drake answered with a complex drum rhythm. The two instruments continued the call and response until Brötzmann crept in with his droning clarinet and wandered into an almost-melody that turned into a spastic flutter hovering above the rhythm. At times during the set, the chaos, volume and duration of noise became so intense it was almost overwhelming. At the end of the sixth piece (55 minutes into the set), Drake finally took his first break on drums of the night.

In a more subdued piece, Brötzmann traded his clarinet for saxophone and Drake played raindrop-like tapping sounds. Parker bowed high-pitched notes on the bass that fluctuated between sounding like a horn and like wind chimes. It was hard to tell which instrument was which as the saxophone and bass swirled around each other. Drake’s drumming was unlike anything I’d ever seen: In one piece, he rubbed his hands all over the drum heads, creating soft, swirling rhythms, then switched to a technique where he would drop the tip of a drumstick onto a floor tom, sliding his fist down to punctuate it with a light echo. At one point, the trio’s dynamics grew so soft that when Drake took two brushes and simply tapped them together in the air, it felt every bit as intense as the earlier chaos in their set.

I was fascinated by the huge variety of sounds these musicians created with their instruments, particularly since they were entirely organic: no effects pedals, no samples and no electronic doodads. The complex musical landscapes that emerged were created simply through explorations of the instruments.

After the show, I walked out into the warm summer night feeling grateful to have had an opportunity to see such phenomenal musicians here in Louisville, and eager to learn more about music that once intimidated me.

 

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Column 4: Rare and Infectious

In a recent issue of LEO, Evan Patterson of the band Young Widows reflected on the idea of music as religion, where going to band practice or listening to records is as transcendental of an experience for him as attending church can be for others. Many musicians can surely relate to this sentiment. There have been many nights where I dragged myself into band practice feeling groggy and defeated, only to emerge renewed.

It is easy to become cynical about music’s ability to transform or heal. Even those who pride themselves on operating outside of the over-commercialized world of the music industry can sometimes find themselves getting tangled up in a nasty web of greed, ego and disenchantment. It can be tricky to keep in mind the more important picture of why music making matters.

This is why it’s refreshing to talk to folks like Katy Otto, of the Philadelphia-based band Trophy Wife (not to be confused with Louisville’s own mighty TrophyWives.) Otto is also co-operator/owner of the label Exotic Fever Records, which has more than 50 releases in their catalog. I caught up with her to discuss her love of creating and experiencing music.

LEO: When did you first get into punk and DIY culture?

Katy Otto: I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. — Prince George’s County, Md., to be precise. In high school, I was in love with hip-hop, go-go (which I didn’t at the time know was indigenous to D.C.) and rock/grunge. I loved music, and it helped get me through high school. When I was 16, I went to my first Fugazi concert on the Mall. It was a free event, a rally. My mind was blown by that incredible band. It brought me into a world of independently made music and events.

LEO: What made you decide you wanted to start your own record label?

KO: I actually did not technically start the label — my dear friend and first bandmate Bonnie Schlegel did. She knew of a group called The Halo Project she was interested in releasing, and basically just did it. She asked if I would be interested in helping, and our friend Sara Klemm was putting together a benefit compilation for the D.C. area’s Books to Prisons project. We decided it would be great to team up, and that release became an Exotic Fever release, too. We worked together for a few years, and when they moved on to other projects, I continued running the label on my own.

LEO: Do you have a particular audience you hope to reach with the work you do?

KO: Anyone to whom the music speaks, but I am adamant about creating a space for the voices of women/girls/queer folks/trans folks. My label has never been about any one demographic or sound. It has been about artists and music that, to me, seem to be in pursuit of a better world.

LEO: What are the qualities that you are drawn to in the music you care about and the music you put out on your label?

KO: Music that feels daring, new, heartfelt, brave. It’s a real intangible quality, but I know it when I hear it.

LEO: How would you describe the power of music/art in your own life?

KO: It’s the thing that has kept me alive and going. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression in my life, fueled by things I have experienced personally and things I see in the world and the culture. Music for me is a way to transcend that — even if you are communicating about heartbreak or pain or loss, you can do so in a way that reaches out and connects with others.

LEO: What is your day job? Does your work impact other facets of your life, creative or otherwise?

KO: I do communications work around reproductive rights and health. Sometimes, particularly in the political climate in which we live, this can feel especially challenging. Music is a good way to feel restored when the work gets difficult.

LEO: Lastly, what inspired the name Exotic Fever?

KO: Bonnie said it meant rare and infectious. I always liked that.

 

Cover Story: Finding the third eye and mouthpiece, LaNia Roberts’ art journey

When LaNia Roberts started high school, her confidence was at an all-time low. Whenever she looked in the mirror, the words “ugly” and “fat” were the first that came to mind, with “beautiful” the last. Yet it was looking in the mirror to create self-portraits that led Roberts, 17, toward self-acceptance and profoundly changed her life.

“I used to think, ‘Oh, my nose is too big. My lips are extra big. My eyes are extra small,’” she says. But then she turned them into something beautiful with her art. “That big nose? It looked really cool when I painted it. Those big lips? When I added some highlights, they looked gorgeous.”

One of Roberts’ art teachers with the Louisville Visual Art Association, Rudy Salgado, feels they have some things in common. “We have shared a lot of similarities through our own insecurities,” Salgado says, “but things that took me 10 years out of college to work through, she’s already done.”

In two years, Roberts developed an impressive portfolio of artwork. “Big, bold swatches of color that still allow for the fine details to emerge,” says Jackie Pallesen, director of education and outreach at the Louisville Visual Art Association. Roberts “has such an eye for color, and she doesn’t want to do anything drab.”

The payoff for all that artwork is impressive: more than $450,000 in scholarship offers from six universities; acceptance to the prestigious and highly competitive Governor’s School for the Arts summer program; a special Mayor’s Citation Award; and participation in five local art shows, one of which was a two-person exhibition at the Shawnee Community Center (with fellow young artist and photographer Jonnie Storm). Thanks in part to Roberts, who got on the phone and invited everyone she’d ever known, the show’s opening reception drew over 200 visitors.

Roberts’ love of art also has helped her connect with a wide range of people, including internationally acclaimed jazz musician Harry Pickens and his mother, Harryette Pickens, whom she calls two of her closest friends. Harryette taught Roberts how to crochet, and Roberts says she taught her how to draw. “But these days we mostly just get together and talk. She says I’m an old soul, and I think she has such a young soul, so we meet somewhere in the middle.” She also calls renowned sculptor Ed Hamilton her friend.

“LaNia’s our future leader of the arts community in Louisville,” says Pallesen, who hopes that after college and beyond, the artist will return home and work to advocate for the arts. “She already has so much to say that’s so enriching and engaging.”

All Over The Place
LaNia’s parents, Shawn and Larry Roberts, raised her in the West End until 12, and then in the Newburg/Buechel area. “My parents set the foundation for me,” she says. “They gave me a home filled with love, showed me discipline and hard work.” Roberts also has two younger siblings: a sister, Jurnee, 15, and a brother, Larry II, 12 — and a large, supportive extended family.

On her last day in fifth grade at King Elementary School, Roberts’ art teacher gave her some lasting advice: “Whatever you do,” instructor Stuart Sollman told her, “don’t stop creating art — you’re too good.” Middle school was a difficult transition. Despite attending the highly regarded Visual Arts Magnet program at Noe Middle School, she had a difficult time. “I was always running around doing things I wasn’t supposed to be doing,” she admits.

Roberts liked her art teacher, Cyndi Young, but struggled with her low self-esteem. Young says, “LaNia had all the best intentions, but she was just kind of all over the place. At that point, she didn’t realize the talent she had, that she was going to become such a force to reckon with. It was such an awkward time. Middle school is for so many kids.”

Bullying was a big part of the problem. “It wasn’t like my head was put in the toilet or anything like that,” she says, but a group of popular girls teased her often. “They had boyfriends, wore cool clothes. I was the girl who wore the same things all the time and didn’t know how to do my own hair.”

It was worse in seventh grade. Trying to fit in and prove she was tough, she got into a fight. “But it didn’t work.” She learned to cope by shutting down and going silent. During that time, Roberts’ relationship with her parents suffered. “I stopped being that happy girl they had raised me to be. I pushed everyone to the side.”

Art was pushed to the side, too. Roberts enrolled in Central High School’s Law and Government Magnet program, where she became “the quiet, smart girl you would go to if you needed help with your homework.” Or the one standing in the corner hoping and praying for someone to come up and say hello.

Train Your Brain
As part of her 2012 New Year’s resolution, Roberts began drawing again as a hobby. “Just Disney characters, celebrities from magazines, things like that, with no real meaning,” she says. She spent the entire summer teaching herself to draw through online tutorials and copying drawings. The following year, she took Introductory Art 1 with Patrick Robertson at Central.

“Students don’t usually come to Central High for art,” Robertson says. “They come for the wonderful magnet programs. I am the only art teacher at Central, and I knew LaNia needed to be influenced by other artists and teachers.” He began steering her in the direction of Children’s Fine Art Classes (CFAC), one of several programs offered by LVAA.

When Roberts got into CFAC, she worked with instructors Alice Stone and Dennis Whitehouse, who both made profound impacts on her art journey. “(Whitehouse) made it very obvious that we would not be drawing from pictures. He did not respect that at all. He said, ‘It’s not art unless it’s drawn from life!’”

Whitehouse, well known to generations of Ballard High School and University of Louisville art students as a tough but inspiring figure, has also taught CFAC classes for 14 years. What’s his approach to teaching art? “If you work from photos, it’s a left-brain function, it’s not really visual,” he says. “An artist needs to be able to look at something as a whole, which is a right-brain function. You have to train your brain to be able to see.”

Whitehouse says that as opposed to striving for photorealism, some things should be “just a little off — that’s what makes it more personal and gives it character.” It was in Whitehouse’s CFAC class that Roberts truly fell in love with art making. She remembers working on her first painting, a self-portrait. “I was so scared,” she says. Mr. Whitehouse was like, “Just paint. Good God!’”

But when she was finished, she remembers her teacher loving it. “I was like, ‘Really?’ ’Cause I knew he was the type of guy who only gave compliments when they were really due. He told me, ‘You are going to be so good.’”

Girl on Fire
Whitehouse says Roberts takes direction well and has “a good eye that can really look carefully at the value within a color.” He says she loves color, and so when she sees one, “she exaggerates it and brings it to life. If you think about her personality, it’s the same as how she paints — very lively and colorful.”

Another teacher who influenced her was Claudia Hammer, who worked with her in a life drawing class Hammer has been teaching for 15 years through LVAA.

“She taught me how to see when drawing (the human figure),” Roberts says. “That is what art is all about. It’s about seeing things the normal eye doesn’t. She taught me how to understand that ‘this angle goes this way, that angle goes that way.’”

In Hammer’s class, students work from a model during each session, starting with quick sketches and progressing into longer poses. “Each class has a mix of beginners to those who have more experience,” Hammer says. “LaNia seemed young when she started, but I could immediately tell she had talent and she knew what she was doing.” The teacher feels Roberts is “a natural” whose work has gotten “more sophisticated. She sees more of the nuances, and she experiments with her compositions and technique.”

As Roberts continued to grow and improve her drawing and painting skills through the LVAA and CFAC classes, she posted images of her artwork on her Instagram account. At one point, she had more than 37,000 followers. With her reputation cemented as Central High’s resident art star, her confidence soared.

With Whitehouse’s help, she put together a portfolio and applied for the 2013 Governor’s School for the Arts summer program held at Transylvania University in Lexington. The program, established in 1987, is free for all students who are selected, and slightly over 50% of the $3,800 in tuition and residential costs for each student is paid through the General Assembly (the rest comes from corporations, foundations and individuals). In addition to visual arts, instruction is also offered in the disciplines of architecture, creative writing, dance, drama, instrumental music, new media and vocal music.

Roberts was thrilled when accepted, but as the program approached, her old insecurities returned. “I thought, ‘What if everyone looks at me as the big girl? What if I’m the only big girl there? What if I don’t make any friends?’ I said to myself, ‘LaNia, come on, girl, you gotta get yourself up, honey. You’re going to GSA!’ So I decided I would be the girl who would say hello and talk to everyone.”

That summer, Roberts truly blossomed. Working diligently, she created a bold and skillful series of paintings under the guidance of her instructors. Even though students at GSA “live, breathe, eat and sleep art” during the program, Roberts found plenty of time to cultivate relationships with everyone who crossed her path.

During a meal on the last day of the program, she asked permission to make a special announcement to the group. “I shouted as loud as I could: ‘You all have given me the most beautiful experience of my life. So now it’s time to give back.’” Then, while thanking every student, teacher and staff member, she ran around the cafeteria “fanning” everyone in attendance with a paper “beauty fan” she had made.

The most important lesson she learned at GSA? “If you give out love, you will receive it a thousand times back in return.”

Building Bridges and Confidence
That fall, Roberts began her college search and developed her portfolio for applications. She knew she wanted to leave Kentucky but wasn’t sure what kind of school would be the best fit. She was invited for a special campus visit by the Kansas City Art Institute, but soon realized she wanted something different.

“I always dreamed of going to college and having that experience I saw in movies — having this totally new life, starting new and fresh. Maybe joining a sorority or going to football and basketball games — meeting all sorts of people.”

Ultimately, Syracuse University was her No. 1 choice. On a visit, she met many interesting, diverse people, intellectuals from all over the country. Roberts thought that if she went to art school, she’d make amazing connections in the art world. But she also wanted a lawyer to call her friend. She wanted to meet future leaders in the business, medical and art worlds.

Syracuse seemed to have everything she wanted in a college; most importantly, she was impressed by its art faculty and the work produced in their department. Now Roberts had a mission: Earn an art scholarship to Syracuse.

LVAA offers a special college prep course to its high school CFAC students, giving them time, space, materials and guidance to help prepare their work for submission for college scholarships. Roberts enrolled in the class and worked with instructor Rudy Salgado, a recent transplant to Louisville by way of the University of Iowa’s stellar printmaking program.

Salgado was impressed with Roberts’ work ethic. “In each session, LaNia came in knowing exactly what she wanted to do, and she put her head down and worked diligently the entire time. She’s so confident in herself, and she’s very self-motivated.”

Salgado is not the only one of LaNia’s teachers (all of whom she has remained in touch with) who feels her motivation is of unusual intensity. “You don’t see a lot of kids with that kind of drive,” CFAC’s Whitehouse says.

“She will call me every once in a while,” Salgado says, “and update me on her college search and her progress with her artwork.”

In a dramatic reversal from her middle school days, Roberts now believes she can make friends with almost anyone, and LVAA’s Pallesen agrees. “She’s warm, inviting and genuinely interested in what you have to say. I don’t think I’ve met a more positive and optimistic teenager in my life.”

Shannon Westerman, executive director of LVAA, adds, “When she walks into (LVAA’s office) with her big, beautiful, ever-present smile, LaNia’s sprit is infectious. Within seconds, the frustrations and anxiety of grant writing and managing a nonprofit art agency, for me, melt away — all due to a wonderful 17-year-old young artist who so easily and confidently is willing to share her gratitude and her joy.”

Up, up, up
Many parents are wary of encouraging their children to study art or pursue a career in the arts. They worry their child will become a “starving artist” stereotype and have difficulty building a stable and fulfilling life. Luckily for Roberts, her parents believe in her ability and encourage her.

“They are very supportive,” she says. “Are they able to be financially supportive? No. I know they wish they could be.” Roberts is learning to find creative ways to cover the cost of her education. In addition to seeking out scholarship opportunities, she’s put her art up for sale online and offered to create work for commission.

The title of one of Roberts’ paintings featured in the upcoming CFAC exhibition is “A Third Eye and a Mouthpiece.” She found the inspiration in advice from her father. “My dad told me a story once about how to be successful in life. He said I needed two things: a third eye and a mouthpiece. The third eye is a way to be able to see outside of the box. And the mouthpiece means that I need to be good at communicating, whether it’s talking one on one or speaking in front of a big group. I kept that advice with me for a very long time and turned it into a piece of art.”

Another important support for Roberts has been her uncle Byron Roberts, whom she calls “Uncle Dukie.” “I mailed him letters. We wrote back and forth. It was a strong friendship that started in a way most teenagers can’t say they’ve experienced. It wasn’t like texts that just say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ We sent actual handwritten letters. I saved them all. When I started drawing again, he was the first person I told.”

“LaNia is willing to start a conversation with just about anybody on the subject of art,” says Central’s Robertson. “She loves to share her skills with other students. I wouldn’t be surprised if she pursues art education someday.”

When the subject of bullying comes up, Roberts speaks passionately. “When I was in middle school, I thought life would never get better. Kids sometimes commit suicide when they get into that way of thinking. I would tell them to not be afraid and to stick up for themselves. Saying something back is better than saying nothing. You will know that at least you did something for yourself that day.”

Roberts has learned there are going to be ups and downs in life. “When you’re in a down, you have to remember that it’s OK, because you’re either going to have a really good story to tell later, or you can look forward to having that next up that will come.”

One big “up” for Roberts will be CFAC’s high school exhibition and reception, where LVAA will honor all of CFAC’s senior art students. The reception will feature a slideshow of each student’s portfolio, and awards will be presented. The exhibition will run May 14-21 at McGrath Gallery at Bellarmine University, and the opening reception on May 14 will be from 5-7 p.m.

But perhaps the biggest “up” of all for Roberts came when she learned she’d received a very generous scholarship from Syracuse, her dream school. (Although she will still have some expenses to cover.) “I can’t wait to learn and just take everything in. I want to just get there and create more art,” she says.

Now when she looks in the mirror to create a self-portrait, LaNia Roberts exudes self-confidence. And it’s all thanks to
art.

LaNia Roberts’ artwork will be available for purchase at LVAA’s CFAC high school exhibition. Additionally, she has created a book of her artwork, “Pieces of a Dream,” that can be purchased through Indyplanet.com or directly. She encourages anyone interested in purchasing original artwork to get in touch with her via email: itsslania@gmail.com.

 

More about LVAA’s Children’s Fine Art Classes

LaNia Roberts is just one of the thousands of talented artists who have emerged over the years from the Louisville Visual Art Association’s CFAC program and transitioned to collegiate art programs or found rewarding careers in the arts.

The after-school art classes are currently offered to visually talented children in 10 Kentucky counties and in Southern Indiana, in both public and private schools. Fourth- through eighth-graders are nominated by their art teachers or principals. High school students are invited to submit a portfolio for consideration. Students who are selected to participate receive instruction after school for two hours each week for 20 weeks during the fall and spring.

The cost of instruction is covered by a scholarship made possible through a variety of grants LVAA receives from organizations such as the Fund for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council, private donations and proceeds LVAA raises from their annual Art[squared] and Open Studio events. Parents of participants are also encouraged to contribute a small supply fee.

The CFAC program dates back to 1925, when American teacher Antoinette Hollister exhibited Austrian children’s artwork in Louisville. The work presented a radical new model for art education, which was developed by Franz Cizek. A new hands-off approach to creative expression was encouraged to promote artistic freedom, instead of copying or tracing images, as before. The LVAA began sponsoring these “Cizek Method” classes, which were eventually renamed.

From only 25 students in the beginning, today the CFAC enrolls more than 900 each year. LVAA employs 28 professional art instructors, and the average tenure of a CFAC instructor is 12 years. For more information about LVAA, CFAC and additional art education programming, go tolouisvillevisualart.org.

 

Column 3: Music by Chance

In Salem, Mass., people were lining up in droves at the Peabody Essex Art Museum to hear what it sounded like when 70 zebra finches played the electric guitar and bass with their claws and beaks. Ten Les Paul guitars and four Thunderbird basses were suspended horizontally from the floor on stands and amplified through speakers. As the birds fluttered around and perched or pecked on each instruments’ strings, they created an ambient melody.

The rock ’n’ roll aviary was so popular, the museum required visitors to purchase timed tickets, with hour-long waits. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, the artist-musician responsible for the installation, hopes audiences will change the way they perceive, create and interact with music after experiencing the exhibit. The museum also enlisted local (human) musicians to tune and clean the pooped-on guitars each day.

The idea of being literally shit on by rock-star birds in front of a sold-out crowd might be a little hard for some trained musicians to stomach. Obviously, traditional musicianship is not always necessary in order to create compelling music. Those who visited the exhibit have raved about the unpredictable and otherworldly soundscapes they have witnessed.

It’s interesting that beauty is capable of emerging from a place where the outcome has been left completely up to chance. John Cage brilliantly explored this concept in 1951 when he composed a piece of music called “Music of Changes,” using the “I Ching” as a tool to determine musical elements such as tempo, dynamics and duration of certain notes. That the classic Chinese text is a divine symbol system describing order within chance makes Cage’s piece even more interesting. While widely praised for its innovativeness, the music can be difficult to listen to, with its discordance and seemingly disorganized structure.

For the majority of musicians, it’s comforting to be in control and create a map where notes “work,” and rhythm and melody align every time you follow your design. It takes a lot of courage to present music that appears to come from complete chaos and ask your listener to pay attention. There’s excitement and freedom to be found in pissing people off and following your own set of goals or concepts, instead of doing something that is expected. It’s the same ethic punk rock was founded on. Iggy Pop, often referred to as the godfather of punk, once said, “I like music that’s more offensive. I like it to sound like nails on a blackboard.”

Like the majority of music listeners, I generally like to connect to a song on an emotional level. I like being under the impression that the artist was feeling something when they created their work. To listen to music in which the creator appears completely emotionally detached — inhuman — can be hard to accept. Perhaps chance music like this is easier to appreciate when it engages multiple senses.

Most visitors to the Aviary exhibit were probably more drawn to the spectacle of the physical environment than by the sound alone. Actually seeing the fluttering of feathers, feeling the proximity of potential bird droppings to one’s head, and smelling the aroma of the gigantic birdcage certainly offers up a full sensory experience.

David Tudor is another composer who worked with this concept of sound environments back in the late ’60s. In his “Rainforest” installation series, Tudor filled spaces with hanging sculptural objects that functioned as speakers. Tudor would pick up vibrations off the objects through a contact microphone and redistribute the sound out again through a loudspeaker. This would, in turn, create a strange recycled electronic ecosystem of sorts where each component was reacting to another, and also depended upon where you were standing within the room. The sound recorded during this experiment is fascinating and unsettling to listen to, and it triggers actual emotion. In all its analytical, algorithmic glory, there’s still heart to be found.

Thanks to the folks behind efforts like the new Dreamland venue, the Cropped Out festival, Astro Black Records and ARTxFM radio, Louisville’s experimental music/noise scene has become increasingly more prominent and accessible to explore. Stop by a show sometime and approach the experience with a curious attitude. You may just discover a new way to listen.

 

Column 2: TMI?

I’m a little ashamed to say I hadn’t really heard a Bob Dylan record until I was in my mid-20s. I remember the day I fell in love with Highway 61 Revisited — I was lying on the dirty shag carpet of my attic apartment, staring up at a rotting pinecone trapped in a skylight and contemplating my own uncertain future as I listened to “Like a Rolling Stone” on repeat. The song seemed to be about being a young, creative person struggling to find a way alone in the world — frightening, but exhilarating. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening with Napoleon in rags and the Siamese cat being carried over a shoulder, but taking that diamond ring and pawning it, babe, seemed like a poignant statement to me at the time.

After Lou Reed’s death, I went down an Internet rabbit hole searching for all things related to the Velvet Underground. I ended up getting sidetracked and fixated on Edie Sedgwick, the model/heiress turned artist/actress who hung out a lot at The Factory with the Velvets and Andy Warhol in the mid ’60s. For a brief period, Sedgwick was Warhol’s muse and the star of several of his films, until he tired of her and moved onto newer It Girls. Sedgwick apparently never received any payment for her work in Warhol’s films and sunk into a deep depression, augmented by addiction and anorexia.

During this time, Sedgwick had a short romantic fling with Dylan, which turned into a soap-operatic story of unrequited love, nasty rumors and heartbreak. Sedgwick’s life ended far too early — she was only 28 years old when she passed away from an overdose. In learning about Sedgwick, I discovered that Dylan had alluded to the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone” having been inspired by Sedgwick. The song I had once loved and related to now read to me as an ugly rant against a woman who loved him in vain. It felt like he was kicking her while she was already down on her luck. I haven’t been able to listen to the song since without that association.

In a recent interview with the Village Voice, Annie Clark, who performs as St. Vincent, spoke about a Beatles song penned by Paul McCartney: “‘Martha My Dear’ is about a dog. I wish I didn’t know that.” Clark herself has been very guarded when asked about the meaning behind her own songs. She remarked, “There is so much autobiography contained within the songs that I don’t see the need to deflate them with the mundane.”

We’re naturally curious about the lives and motivations of the people who make songs we relate to and which we mark our own life experiences by. It’s tempting to want seek out the sordid details, but it can often lead to disappointment. Marc Maron, the host of the greatly entertaining “WTF” podcast, spoke to Nick Lowe last year. He was clearly shocked when he learned Lowe’s song “The Beast in Me” (written for Johnny Cash) wasn’t based on Lowe’s life at all. Instead, the song was a complete work of fiction. Lowe said, “My stuff isn’t autobiographical. I’m an old-fashioned Denmark Street hack.” Maron was crushed.

It’s interesting that we can accept movies and books as works of fiction, but when we learn that a songwriter’s words are not necessarily based on a personal narrative, we feel cheated and the song becomes cheapened. In a time when it’s become commonplace, even expected, for artists to broadcast their lives to their fans on a daily basis through social media, it’s interesting that we still have such a conflicted relationship with the experiences (or lack of experiences) of the artists themselves.

Perhaps it’s worth taking a cue from songwriter Iris Dement when we listen to a song: “Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done/But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me/I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

 

Column 1: Rock Stores

Rock stores

Items you can purchase at a big chain rock ’n’ roll superstore include the following products: Pink Earplugs: For Women, a guitar brand called Daisy: For Girls and instructional books titled “Girls’ Complete Guitar Method.”

Retailers are increasingly creating products meant to entice young girls to spend money in their stores. I was 13 years old when I started playing guitar, and those marketing techniques would not have been effective with me. I was a passionate hater of all things pink and girly. After school, I would walk with my friend Mac down to the S.E. Davis Pawn shop on Market Street, where we would “practice” our own original songs on knockoff Fender guitars until we were asked to take our talents elsewhere by the management.

Before I attempted rock music, I played violin in the school orchestra. I was pretty clueless about pop culture and would have probably told you my favorite song was a piece by Vivaldi. At some point, I discovered aggressive music through the older siblings of a few friends. My discovery came in the form of handmade cassettes with tracks by local bands like Endpoint, Rodan, Evergreen, Crain, and Kinghorse. Those tapes opened up my world to the idea that music could be about something other than just technical skill.

I connected to the raw emotion, the originality and the way band members expressed their beliefs and ideas. Music became the antidote to the sweeping feelings of adolescent inadequacy I was experiencing. The realization that this music was being created in my own backyard blew my mind. I felt like we had a special secret here in Louisville that no one on the outside knew. More importantly, I felt like I could take part in it.

The fact that there weren’t many women who played in bands didn’t deter me. The few (like Tara Jane O’Neil, who played with Drinking Woman and Rodan, and Ashli State, who played with Guilt and Telephone Man) became my role models. When I started playing out in public, I found support and I was treated as an equal. It meant the world to me.

However, there was one place where I never felt comfortable: musical equipment stores. The people (almost always men) who worked there seemed like different kinds of rock musicians. They carried themselves with an air of superiority, and I perceived condescension directed toward me. The sheer amount of gear and sonic possibilities to choose from was overwhelming — and expensive — and it was difficult to know where to begin. I would break out in a cold sweat because I was certain everyone around me would discover the truth: I was still a beginner and unworthy of taking up space with my ignorance.

Twenty or so years later, I still have a small crisis of confidence every time I need to pick up a pair of strings or a new guitar pedal. As I pass by the young guy with the ponytail hammering out a showy guitar solo (that guy is alwaysthere), I wonder if the discomfort I have felt actually has less to do with gender and is something everyone experiences in their own way. A friend and fellow musician, Natalie Felker, told me that despite feeling a need to prove her competence early on, in recent years she has started to feel comfortable with going into certain stores and being able to say, “Here’s what I want to do and the kind of sound I want. What do you have?”

I’m trying to adopt a similar attitude. I want to be more comfortable with asking questions and admitting when I don’t fully understand something without apology or embarrassment. This is a similar approach I plan to take with this column. I want to start by thinking about an aspect of music I’d like to examine and seeing where it leads, rather than trying to tell you what I think you should be listening to. I hope you’ll join me.