So, this episode has been in the works for a minute now, and I’m so happy to finally be able to share it with your ears. Today, I’m in conversation with my very dear friend Hilary Webb.
Originally from Schererville, Indiana, Hilary began studying voice at the age of 13. She earned her bachelor’s from Ball State University, where she studied with Mary Hagopian, and she earned her master’s in vocal performance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has worked with John Rutter, Dan Forrest, Beverly Sills, Barbara Hahn, and The King’s Singers and has been soprano section leader at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, since 2011 and has been part of the Bel Canto Company since 2003. Hilary has also performed with the Greensboro Opera, Capital Opera Company, and The Choral and Oratorio Societies of Greensboro, and has made guest appearances with The Triad Pride Men’s Chorus. A two-time National Association of Teachers of Singing Great Lakes Auditions finalist and Mu Phi Epsilon scholarship winner, she competes throughout the country and performs in the U.S. and Europe.
In our chat today, we talk about how we first met thanks to the robust community arts scene of Northwest Indiana in the 1980s and 90s (and how the secret origins of the very name of this podcast go back to my days as piano accompanist for many of Hilary’s solo performances), seeing Placido Domingo live on stage the first time she ever went to the opera in Chicago, hanging out with Beverly Sills, how women and men’s voices come to maturity in different ways, the spiritual dimensions of choral music and the challenges of choral singing during these days of Covid and social distancing, and why she’s specifically chosen not to live in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago in order to pursue music professionally.Read More
(You can listen to me read this post via the embed above, on Anchor, or pretty much anywhere else you source your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Google Podcasts. Please also take action in your local communities.)
So, in terms of the writing I do online, I’ve always been a firm believer in not explaining or even really acknowledging absences or gaps between posts. No “hey guys, I’ve been really busy; sorry it’s been so long since my last entry.” None of that. Beyond the fact that, you know, who cares, it’s not 2003 and this isn’t LiveJournal, I’m also not a professional writer. I don’t ask for Patreon funding and I don’t have an implied contract to uphold with anyone who looks at my social media or listens to my podcast that I’m going to churn out X amount of content with any sort of regularity. I’m grateful that I don’t get e-mails or comments asking me where I’ve been or wondering when I’m going to say something. Which in so many ways is a blessing and a relief—I’m allowed time to formulate my thoughts before airing them publicly.
But anyway. Just to put a frame around things for a minute, I started my podcast at the very end of December 2019 with reckless enthusiasm. Once all the various platforms were carrying my show, I was getting new episodes out on a weekly basis. It was sooo much fun and I was so on fire about it that it didn’t feel like an unsustainable pace. Until suddenly it did—especially given that I’m still employed full time with a day job, which got increasingly complicated once I started working from home due to the coronavirus situation.
So for my mental health and the hopeful longevity of the podcast, I took a few weeks off. Which were glorious. I relaxed really hard on the days when I would normally be doing interviews, editing the audio, and annotating my show notes. My brain started to unbend in a way that I really needed. And again, I felt no need to explain or to apologize, other than to the guests I’d already booked and needed to reschedule.
But then George Floyd was murdered and the world sprang into a very different kind of action. A dear friend who lives in Minneapolis was posting live video footage on Facebook of those early days of protest and civil unrest. And of course being in Chicago, I watched with horror as stories unspooled on social media of protestors getting kettled downtown when Mayor Lori Lightfoot raised all the bridges over the river and imposed a curfew that gave cops more license than they already had to brutalize and penalize the folks who were putting their bodies on the line to protest Floyd’s murder and the ongoing disease of systemic racism.
And, you know, my voice absolutely did not need to be heard in those days.
I didn’t post a black square on social media or anything performative like that. I just stopped posting everywhere entirely so that there was more space open for Black voices, for reports from the front lines of the protests, for folks who could speak to the immediacy of the political and social problems that badly needed to be addressed.
I felt a lot of guilt about not being out at the protests myself, and I don’t mean the peaceful ones where folks marched down the streets in the daylight with hand-painted signs. I mean, I felt guilt about not being downtown those first nights facing the tear gas, facing the police in riot gear. In my mind and heart and imagination, I lust for revolution. I’m always and forever on the side of the oppressed; I always, if covertly, want to smash the system.
But. And it’s a big but. I’m also a 41-year-old white lady who’s personally terrified of conflict and who’s not in the best physical shape right now. I know my actual lived tendency to freeze or fawn in the face of even mild opposition. So I talked myself down from any pangs of guilt by being realistic about the fact that, were I in harm’s way, I would not only be a danger to myself, but I would also be a danger to others, if my reactions were too slow or if I got in the way and needed to be physically assisted rather than being able to effectively assist those around me. I was able to be honest with myself that this is not the time in my life for me to be out on the streets. I bless those who can be and have been.
But then my words also failed me. I started to feel equally enormous guilt for the fact that, for all the revolutionary spirit that lives in my heart, I don’t actually have language to convey it. I realized that I’d allowed myself to be lulled into an inchoate idealism that had absolutely no pragmatic strategies attached to it. And as I watched folks posting fluently about statistics and theory and hardcore demands for specific, systemic, deeply necessary change, I was like, goddamn it, writing is supposed to be my skillset, and yet I’m frozen around that now, too.
So the thing I felt capable of doing was making donations. Like I said before, I’m lucky to still be employed right now, so opening my virtual pockets to various nonprofits and GoFundMe’s specifically supporting Black individuals and organizations felt like the one legitimately good thing I could do while all my other usual personal resources seemed to fail me.
I’m not meaning to center my white-lady feelings here—I’m trying to own up to how easy it can be to remain inactive, even for those of us who actively want to support Black communities, when we allow ourselves to be confused or overwhelmed by how to contribute in any meaningful way. I spent a number of days really aching with worthlessness and frustration, which I realize is a privilege. And also, what’s a little bit of frustration compared to the way that whiteness continually devalues the Black experience with politically sanctioned acts of violence?
And as so many white people are actively reckoning with these factors and forces for perhaps the first time, the sorrow is very thick. As it should be. There have been a lot of people apologizing and promising to “do better.” Which they should. The grief for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and too many others is engulfing. Which is absolutely the right reaction.
But as self-proclaimed white allies, shouldn’t we also be excited to be co-creating a reality where Black lives are deeply valued and whiteness is thoroughly de-centered? Shouldn’t we also be fucking psyched to contribute to the making of a better, more just world? Because, if we’re not, what’s going to give us the continued, sustained motivation to have important but potentially uncomfortable conversations with our white families and coworkers and acquaintances? How are we going to continue to show up in a healthy, balanced way to do the work of racial justice if we’re just grinding it out with a grim sense of duty?
Again, I don’t mean that my white feelings are the important thing here. As Rachel Cargle wrote on Instagram recently, “the work doesn’t end when white people FEEL better about how they’ve shown up.”
I just mean that liberation for our Black comrades relies on us white folks staying healthy and resilient enough to continue the fight, and after the intensity of our currently justified rage dims a little bit, the radical joy of this pursuit is going to be the thing that gives us the fuel to keep moving forward. Even when we’re embarrassed or awkward. Even when we’ve fallen on our faces and said some dumb shit.
Early in 2020, just before shelter-in-place officially began in Chicago, I read Akwaeke Emezi’s YA novel Pet, and honestly it’s the book I’ve been thinking about the most these past few weeks. It’s the perfect medicine for these times. You can listen to the author read a bit from the first chapter over on their Instagram here.
Though there’s some fantastical/magical elements to the plot, the most important thing the story does is to otherwise realistically portray what a completely reconfigured society might look like—joyously Black, without prisons or police, with restitution and rehabilitation as the way to deal with those who have done harm, where all kinds of bodies and genders are valued and visible, where the sorrows of the collective past are honored with genuine reflection and never forgotten.
Doesn’t that sound amazing?! Not just the book, I mean, but the real-life potential for that kind of society to be very tangibly within our grasp?
So yes, we mourn, we make penance and reparations, we rage. But we also fill our bones and our hearts and our vision with the certainty and the thrill that every donation we make, every hard conversation we have, every uncomfortable but morally principled stand that we take is doing the work of weaving that world into reality.
Black lives fucking matter.
“It’s Not About Where You Are That Makes You Safe, It’s About How You’re Connected to the Earth”–A Chat with Myan Binder
Today I’m so excited to be in conversation with Myan Binder.
Myan is a healer, clairvoyant, animal communicator, and spiritual teacher. She has studied painting at the University of Wisconsin and art direction at the Miami Ad School and has taught everything from preschool to ESL to adult refugees. Currently, she teaches classes on all things psychic, including energy awareness, how to turn on your own abilities, how to heal yourself through working with your own energy, how to use your psychic abilities in your everyday life, and how to communicate with other animals.
She is also the creator of the campaign Clean Your Energy, which engages people in becoming more aware of their own energy and the energy around them.
In our delightful chat today, we discuss why it’s harder to feel safe when you get pulled out of what you know, how personal it is to create a grounding connection to the earth, the difference between knowing what safety is intellectually versus actually feeling and experiencing it, the magic of using your imagination, how not cleaning your energy can lead to stagnation and miscommunication, why cleaning your energy is more involved than just sitting quietly in meditation, and how the current increase in animal adoptions is giving us a chance to relearn that we’re all animals too.
And speaking of animals, throughout the conversation, we’re very actively joined by Myan’s cat Galaxy, who you will probably hear purring into the microphone at several points.Read More
Today I’m delighted to be in conversation with Brian Westfall. Brian is the proprietor of the shop Rare Birds Musical Oddities.
Rare Birds is a shop dedicated to those elusive, beautiful, and lovingly weird pieces that will bring character and vibe to your recording dates, home studio, and performances.
Vintage guitars, basses, and synths; cowbells once owned by real cows; Casio keyboards once owned by real 1980s kids; maracas brought back from a great aunt’s college trip to Mexico; drum machines that used to sit on grandma’s organ; toy pianos from Christmas 1958; wheezing chord organs; middle school band orchestra glockenspiels, and much more await you when you visit Rare Birds Musical Oddities.
As Brian and I nerd out about all things gear related, we also discuss why this is a great time to be a musician streaming performances online, how nostalgia plays a part in the Rare Birds shopping experience, the frustration of how elusive the really cool stuff can be, why he actually encourages his customers to resell the gear they’ve bought from him, and why he’s more interested in what you’re doing with your gear rather than what gear you have.Read More
“Traveling with the Ghost of Someone He Admires”–A Conversation About Music Books with Brian Cremins
Today I’m welcoming back to the show my first repeat guest–who also happens to be the human I’m sheltering in place with–the writer, musician, and scholar Brian Cremins.
Brian’s joining me today for a recorded version of an ongoing conversation we’ve been having basically since we first met a little over a decade ago, all about our favorite books about music.
Because we’re both writers and both musicians, it turns out we have a lot of thoughts about the intersection of those two disciplines!
We both chose a small stack of books that are important to us individually, though of course there’s a lot of overlap between our lists, and of course there were dozens of other books that came to mind during the course of this conversation.
In talking about those books, we also discuss the way music critics listen to music versus the way musicians listen to music; how descriptive language can mystify what a musician is actually doing in a way that might not be helpful; how the best books can feel more like traveling companions rather than destination points; and spending time imagining what certain albums sounded like in the days before everything was instantly available to us online. Plus, Brian finally goes on the record with his comparison between the Hall and Oates song “I Can’t Go for That” and Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place.”Read More
I’m delighted today to be in conversation with my very good friend and former colleague Yuval Taylor.
Yuval is the coauthor of the books Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop and Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Antioch Review, and the Oxford American, among other publications. His most recent book, as a solo author, is Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal, which was a finalist for the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Biography. It’s a deeply researched look at the six-year-long friendship, and eventual bitter falling out, between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. The book, which will be released in paperback in July 2020, has been praised by NPR as having “a vivid anecdotal style,” by the Wall Street Journal as “compelling, concise and scrupulously researched,” and by the New York Times Book Review as “a highly readable account of one of the most compelling and consequential relationships in black literary history.”
In our wide-ranging chat, Yuval and I discuss the secret to being incredibly prolific as a writer, the joy as a writer and researcher in finding out everything you can about a subject and then distilling it, how the process of doing in-depth historical research can sometimes feel like being surprised by the twists and turns in a really great novel, the pleasures of following a set of characters through a distinct period of time and exploring their relationship dynamics, the challenge of writing about love when sex isn’t involved, the dangers of driving to Bushwick in the 1980s, and discovering a fuller picture of someone after they die if you’ve only ever known them while they’re sick.Read More
I’ve been hesitant to talk too much on my podcast about the coronavirus situation.
Sure, I’ve alluded to it here and there over the past few weeks, mostly in my initial greetings to my guests, checking in on how everyone’s doing. But my strength as a writer and thinker has never been of-the-moment analysis of current events, and there’s obviously more than enough punditry floating around in the ether right now.
But, as so many of us are about to head into our second full month of sheltering in place, it also felt unrealistic to not acknowledge the new reality that we’re all living through right now.
So, in my attempt to bridge the gap between not wanting to add to the noise about this topic but then also not wanting to ignore its presence in our lives either, I thought that a conversation with my brilliant friend Erin the Psychic Witch might be unique and helpful.
Erin is a gifted psychic teacher and healer with two decades of experience in the healing arts. With a substantial and wide-ranging background in bodywork, natural skin care, holistic and functional nutrition models, energy healing, and psychic development, she brings physical and energetic modalities together to create a practical path toward healing. Her work is nothing less than facilitating the healing, liberation, and multidimensional maturation of all beings, with the ultimate goal of full creative expression. She teaches and offers various containers for healing work online through her website erinthepsychicwitch.com.
Today, we’re digging deep to discuss deprogramming from the go-go-go, the exciting aspects of the failure of our leadership, connecting to our bodies by preparing food for ourselves, facing our collective addiction to struggle, why creative solutions can’t move through our space if we’re constantly in Doing mode, and why people who say “don’t give into the fear” don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.Read More
So, if you’re reading this during the week that I’m originally posting it, you’ll probably know that it’s Easter week.
Why am I releasing this particular podcast episode for Easter Week? Because, for most of my life, and the lives of many of my musical theater affiliated friends, this week means one big thing.
No, not multiple trips to church. No, not chocolate egg anticipation. No, not a viewing of The Ten Commandments.
It’s time to listen to the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack.
I was born in February of 1979. Later that summer, my father, Terry Felus, who would have been just shy of 30 years old, conducted the pit and played the Hammond organ for a community theater production of the show. For the rest of his life, he considered that one of his crowning achievements in his long career as a musician. I grew up listening to him tell stories about that show, and listening to his cassette recording of the production until it very literally fell apart.
I’ve seen multiple performances of Jesus Christ Superstar over the years, both touring companies and local shows. But even though I have no conscious memories of the version that my dad conducted, it will always be the definitive production in my heart, the one that all others are compared against.
So today I wanted to chat with the directors of that production, Paul and Angie Lowe.
Paul and Angie are essentially family to me. They were also teachers for many decades at Lake Central High School in St. John, Indiana. During the weekdays, Paul taught speech and Angie taught French, and then on afternoons and weekends, they were heads of the theater program, known as the Lake Central Theatre Guild. As you’ll hear them elaborate in the course of the episode, they expanded LCTG’s program in the early 1970s to include former graduates and members of the local theater scene in their summer community theater productions. Nearly a quarter century after they first directed it in 1979, they revived Jesus Christ Superstar in the summer of 2003 as one of the final productions in the old high school theater. Today, many years now after their retirement from teaching, they retain the LCTG initials by way of their new company, L’arc en Ciel Theatre Group, a dinner theater based out of Great Oaks Banquet Hall in Cedar Lake, Indiana.
In our wide-ranging conversation on Jesus Christ Superstar, we discuss their creative workaround for using microphones with cords in the days before community theater companies could afford wireless mics, the challenge of holding a follow spot steady while you’re sobbing your eyes out, how a key member of the pit band was in a terrible motorcycle accident on his way to the theater but played the whole show anyway, the controversy about the 1979 production in several local churches, and how the skills that one techie developed behind the scenes eventually landed him in a nuclear submarine in the navy.Read More
“A Nice Way to Think About One’s Relationship with Time and Objects”–A Chat About Perfume with Shiamin Kwa
Welcome to the perfume episode!
(Well, hopefully the first of many perfume episodes.)
Let’s take a temporary glamour break from everything that’s awful in the world right now, shall we?
Much like my very first episode of the show with Casey Andrews, where we chatted for well over an hour about our favorite films of the 2010s, this episode is less of an interview and more of an excuse for me to nerd out about one of my big passions with a fellow scent obsessive.
Today I’m in conversation with my dear and brilliant friend Shiamin Kwa.
Shiamin is Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Comparative Literature at Bryn Mawr College. She is the author of three books, the most recent being Regarding Frames: Thinking with Comics in the Twenty-first Century, which was just released by RIT Press in February of this year. Her written work explores relationships between form and content, text and image, self and self-presentation, surface and depth, and the conflicts between what we say and what we mean. Her research interests include theater and fiction, food studies, graphic narratives, literary studies, cultural studies, comparative and world literature, and literary and narrative theory.
She also contributed an amazingly funny and tender essay about the band Wham! to my most recent zine The Last Band of My Youth.
In today’s deep dive on perfume, we talk about how smells can seem so much richer in our memories when we don’t have access to them anymore, the quiet spaciousness of perfume as object, how we’re meant to interact with perfume on a time scale, how wearing Frederic Malle’s “Portrait of a Lady” is like having to do self-promotion as the author of a new book, and the difficulty of imposing order on things you love.Read More
So, how’s everyone doing this week, now that so many of us are sheltering in place?
From the bottom of my heart, I’m wishing you and your loved ones health and ease during this supremely strange and unsettling time.
I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by so many wise and compassionate friends who are helping me make sense of the wide variety of emotions that have been coming up around all the continued uncertainty in this ongoing coronavirus situation.
I feel even more fortunate that I had the chance to speak with one of those wise and compassionate friends for this week’s episode.
Today, I’m incredibly pleased to be speaking with my friend, neighbor, and former bandmate, the poet Tony Trigilio.
Tony is the author and editor of 13 books, including, most recently, Ghosts of the Upper Floor (published by BlazeVOX [books] in 2019), which is the third installment in his multivolume poem, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood). His selected poems, Fuera del Taller del Cosmos, was published in Guatemala by Editorial Poe (translated by Bony Hernández). He is editor of Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments (published by Ahsahta Press in 2014), and the author of Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics (published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2012). Tony coedits the poetry journal Court Green and is an associate editor for Tupelo Quarterly. He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.
Today we discuss his origin story as a poet, the possibilities that get unlocked by asking a student “tell me more of what you mean by that,” building bridges between the hemispheres of the brain, how playing drums professionally helped Tony unite his practice as a writer with his work as a scholar, and why the best art feels like a friend saying to you, “I’m going to tell you something but it’s hard to say.”
For more information about Tony, you can find him online at starve.org.Read More
Welcome to the coronavirus special.
OK, not really.
But if you’re taking your social distancing seriously–and for the sake of the most vulnerable among us, I hope that you are–you might suddenly find yourself with a bit more time on your freshly washed hands. Hopefully this week’s episode featuring my dear friend the artist Keiler Roberts will be a balm and a welcome hour’s worth of distraction.
Keiler has been writing autobiographical comics for ten years. Her six books include Sunburning, Chlorine Gardens, and, most recently, Rat Time, all three of which were published by Koyama Press. Her self-published autobiographical comic series Powdered Milk received an Ignatz Award for Outstanding Series in 2016, and in 2019 Chlorine Gardens received Slate’s Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic of 2018, which was selected by The Slate Book Review and The Center for Cartoon Studies. Her work has been included in The Best American Comics in 2016 and 2018 and was mentioned on their Notables list for 2014. Her work has been featured in numerous gallery exhibitions, including a solo show in Northern Ireland at The Naughton Gallery at Queen’s University, Belfast, curated by Ben Crothers. She has taught at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago since 2013 and lives in Evanston, Illinois, with her husband, the artist Scott Roberts, their daughter Xia, and perhaps the most famous cartoon pet since Snoopy, their dog Crooky.
This week on the show, Keiler and I talk about the thrill of the possibility of failure, embracing disorganization, the difficulties that arise when you try to do an unnameable activity, why telling someone “just be yourself” can be bad advice, and the difference between a story that’s funny to tell and a story that’s funny to draw.Read More