William Schaff spoke with MorganEve Swain about continuing to be creative through colossal grief, resisting pigeonholing, reembracing her work as a luthier and honoring the legacy of her departed husband.
The fear factor comes in when I realize I’ve wasted a bunch of time instead of doing what I really want to do, and then I’m afraid I’ll never actually create anything at all.
One of the things that attracted me to the first demos you were making as The Huntress was the absence of guitar, instead focusing more on the bass, violin, harmonies, and percussion. Your earliest line up also seemed devoid of guitar yet there was two basses, and lots of voices singing beautiful harmonies. What lead to your lineup decisions? Are you going to veer more towards a traditional lineup over time, or are you planning to work within this nontraditional realm you’ve used?
The very first demos were recorded and played completely alone, so the decision not to use guitar was based more on the instruments within my ability and less on a conscious avoidance of tradition. I’m a string player primarily, so it made sense to stick with violins and violas and cellos. I’ve been having a love affair with the bass since 2010 or so when I first acquired my upright, so as far as I’m concerned, there can never be too much bass! I am playing a little bit of guitar in the band now — certain songs call for it, and I am constantly wanting to make things heavier and challenging myself with instruments that are difficult for me.
I think having a “string section,” though, is intrinsic to who I am, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have Emily Dix Thomas and Liz Isenberg filling those roles. Liz is a badass string bass player who I’ve looked up to musically since we met on our first day of college back in 2003; Emily is an extremely gifted cellist, and one of those rare string players who I find it very easy to communicate musically with. Both also lend their voices and musical ideas to the group and I’m excited to hear what comes out of The Huntress after this album.
Do fears play a part in your creative process, and how separate is your creative process from your day to day living?
I think my creative process is actually quite similar to my day-to-day life, mostly in that neither of them have much structure. I only recently started working at a day job, requiring me to budget my time in a certain way. I have my mornings and evenings so open that the excess of time ends up retarding my creative process as I stumble to find my creative routine. I wish I were the sort who could plan out their day so that I allow a certain amount of time for writing, but I just don’t. So I guess the fear factor comes in when I realize I’ve wasted a bunch of time instead of doing what I really want to do, and then I’m afraid I’ll never actually create anything at all, let alone something great…
Do you actively keep in mind the idea of “originality” in what it is you create as a musician? How important is “originality” in the creative process to you?
I guess I do, yes, but often my sense of “originality” is driven by what I don’t want to be or be perceived as. As Brown Bird, Dave and I really struggled to not be seen as a “couple” band, or even as a “folk” band. We didn’t want our relationship to be the thing that made us interesting, and we also didn’t want to be pigeonholed in a genre that we didn’t really feel any relationship to. As The Huntress and Holder of Hands, a lot of that same resistance remains. For a short time, all six members of the band were women — an unconscious coincidence that happened due to the parts I needed filled, namely, female voices. Because of other musical commitments, I ended up losing three of those original members, but not before we became labeled as an “all-female supergroup”. To me, pointing out that we are all of the female gender is just as bad as saying “You guys sound great, for a bunch of girls.” I don’t want my gender to be the interesting part of what I create, any more than Dave and I wanted our relationship to be. Is the music good? Does it make you feel something? That should be the important thing.
As far as keeping “originality” in mind during the creative process… I don’t know. Writing music is a weird process that for me kind of comes out all at once or not at all, so it’s difficult to say what I’m consciously keeping in mind while in that zone.
Is there a way in which you hope your listeners will approach this album?
I’m pretty insecure about whether or not this album will stand alone as a “good record” if you aren’t coming at it from a place of empathy, sympathy or even just knowledge of the Brown Bird story. On the other hand, the record wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for all those things. I don’t want to tell people to try to hear it in a vacuum, but I do have a hope that people will hear it and it will mean something to them outside of my own story.
Are there any musicians out there you would like to work with?
Trey Spruance. Assuming we’re talking like, if my wildest dreams came true and I could work with anyone I wanted to. If you don’t know, he’s the mastermind of Secret Chiefs 3. They are, in my opinion, one of the most inspiring contemporary groups around — heavy, rooted in philosophy and Middle Eastern music, surfy, doomy… ugh. They are perfect and their musicianship intimidates the hell out of me. Back when Dave and I were recording Fits of Reason, we’d discussed the option of bringing in a producer. Basically, Dave and I agreed that unless it was Trey Spruance, which was obviously not a real option, we didn’t want another musician’s influence.
Has taking on a more frontperson role in The Huntress affected how you remember David, since he had played that role in Brown Bird?
It hasn’t changed how I remember him per se, but it has increased the respect I already held for him. Where I was scatterbrained, insecure and anxious about my role as leader, he effortlessly treated our band as a both a job and his spiritual duty. I’ve come to really respect his creative drive and his work ethic — he literally played music every single day, even while he was sick, and I can hear his evolution clearly when I listen back through our albums and home recordings. I lack that drive because I let things get in my way — the sinkful of dirty dishes, my day job, my social life — and I often wonder how much more proficient I’d be if I could channel him and the way he operated.
How do you view breaking down, versus the “stiff upper lip” in the grieving process?
I think both are necessary. As a private person, I do my breaking down when I leave the social element and let myself be alone. I wait for alcohol or exhaustion or aloneness to loosen what’s always there, lurking right behind my vocal cords, but I only let it happen in private to the extent that there were times I actually wondered how I seemed in public. There were times early in my grief where I actually worried that people would see me and think, “Geez, she doesn’t even seem upset!” and doubt my love for Dave or the commitment I have to our relationship and our music.
Yes, I know that sounds crazy. But you asked a question and this is what’s coming out. I think losing your shit is vital to the grieving process. I also think acting like you’ve got it all under control is vital, if for no other reason than to prove to yourself that you can make it through a day or a week or a year and realize that even if you felt like you were acting, you did make it. On the same note, I also think it’s vital to allow yourself to lose your shit, but then to get it back again. Talk to a friend, go to therapy, stop drinking. Whatever it takes to come back to reality and start building who you are again.
Brown Bird seemed to offer you and David the ability to live as working musicians. I’ve noticed your entry into the field of being a luthier, which has me wondering: Do you plan to continue trying to make your living off of music, or has the Huntress become a different sort of extension for you than Brown Bird was?
Well… this is a tough question, actually, and it really plays on my deep dark insecurities. I’ve mentioned before the vast difference between Dave’s drive and mine, and that relates here too. Worse, though, is the undeniable fact that it’s easier to believe in someone else than it is to believe in yourself. I believed in Brown Bird 120% because I believed in Dave. With The Huntress, there are a lot of differences. One is that it’s harder for me to put it out there, because without a partner in crime, I’m really laying my whole being on the line, not to mention those of the musicians I’m lucky enough to have playing with me. Another huge difference is that we aren’t Brown Bird. We don’t have a comfy fanbase; we haven’t been touring for ten years. We’re starting over and certainly riding on Brown Bird’s coattails, but also in a big way starting from “scratch.”
Going into the violin luthier trade was a decision that came partly from necessity and partly because it’s been something I’ve been interested in for a long time. Back in 2007, before I met Dave, I had been looking into the North Bennett Street School in Boston and trying to figure out if I could somehow afford the violin making program while paying off my liberal arts college education. And then I met Dave and life veered in that direction and I forgot all about working on violins. Having my life stop in its tracks oddly opened that opportunity up again. I’m not going to school — I’m working as a violin technician and apprenticing with my boss as a maker, and I’m completely in love with it.
So, I guess to answer your question, I’m keeping both veins open. I will always make my living off of music, whether it be repairing violins or playing them. We’ll just have to wait and see which one ends up being more lucrative.
What is one illusion you feel people have about working musicians that you would like to dispel them of?
The obvious one is the notion of “Oh, so you don’t have to work? You just play music?” Don’t be misled by the word “play”. Performing and everything that goes into it before you hit the stage (and after) is a lot of work. The writing itself is work, not to mention the booking, driving, promoting, etc. This actually is not an easy life, though it is fulfilling. Just not always monetarily.
The emotional and spiritual armor Dave gave me through our experience together is what made it possible for me to take on this role.
Can you talk about — as much as you feel comfortable doing so — the steps you saw/see yourself taking from being a married partner/member of Brown Bird to widow/creator of The Huntress?
I feel so beyond grateful for the experience I had living with and being loved by Dave. Finding myself alone was obviously beyond hard, but the emotional and spiritual armor he gave me through our experience together is what made it possible for me to take on this role as The Huntress. I was afraid that if I’d waited any longer to do it, I would’ve forgotten who I was as half of Brown Bird/Dave’s partner and been unable to forge forward on this sort of path. The steps were literally like putting one foot in front of the other until I was comfortable enough to life my head up and walk without watching where my feet were landing.
Do you plan to tour a lot behind this project, and how important is touring, in your opinion, to the success of a starting band?
This first “big” tour feels a bit like an experiment. Of course I want it to be successful. Of course I want to do it again, often, and for a living. But I guess going back to that same lingering insecurity, I feel okay if the level that The Huntress is at right now is as “big” as we ever get. If being loved for Brown Bird is all I ever get as a musician, I’m okay with that.
Are there other artists you have looked towards as examples, as you moved through these last few years?
Patti Smith. As a younger woman, I had a real struggle with looking up to other female musicians. It felt almost cliché to me. I didn’t like Ani DiFranco or Tori Amos. It took well into my final year of high school to understand why people loved Joni Mitchell and nurture my own love for her. I didn’t listen to Patti Smith until I was an adult, and I didn’t find her through music. While we were on tour — the one when Dave got sick — we stopped at a bookstore somewhere in Virginia or North Carolina. There were dogs everywhere and several floors of books and a wine bar downstairs, and I randomly picked up Patti Smith’s Just Kids and halfway through the introduction I was in tears. I bought it immediately, and read it in Dave’s hospital room in Houston the week he was treated for anemia while we were all just trying to figure out what the hell was going on and not lose our shit. That book really helped, both through distraction and connection to another person who had loved and lost and played music and been insecure and persevered.
I also very much respect my friend and sister-widow, Josie Sourdiffe, who I met in the hospital in Boston while our respective partners were dealing with bone marrow transplants. She is a very talented visual artist, and her own journey with grief has helped me be gentle towards my own, while also pushing me to view my creative outlets as important vessels for grief and growth.
Do you find it difficult that many for the near future, many will see you first as “MorganEve Swain, formerly of Brown Bird”?
Au contraire! I actually find that rather comforting. Being part of Brown Bird were the happiest years of my life, and the most rewarding. I will never tire of hearing from fans that Brown Bird’s music helped them through tough times, or inspired them to play, or whatever their personal relationship with our music was. To me, that validates the life Dave and I had together, and it honors his legacy. I see myself as his representative now. Every word of thanks reaches him through me and buoys me to continue this life as a musician.
What aspects of making this new album felt best to you?
I think the only other time I experienced this sort of sense of accomplishment was when I finished Axis Mundi. That album felt important and weighted and serious. This one did too, but with an added element of excitement. It felt great to write a body of work that I could call my own, even though it was a struggle, and it felt even better to assemble a group of really kickass musicians to flush out these songs and record their parts on them. Even if this album never reaches as far as Brown Bird did and even if this album never sells enough to pay for itself, I will always be proud of completing it, and proud of the band that came together around it.
I didn’t want to uproot myself. I didn’t want to “start over.” I wanted to pick up where we left off and continue for the both of us.
You have been at Fort Foreclosure for many years now. Do you find your environment an important part of your creative process, or is it simply as place you rest your head at night? Do you think the Huntress would be a different entity if you had chosen to move out of the Fort after David’s death?
After Dave died, I painted all the walls yellow. I changed the artwork we had on the walls, and added photos of us. I rearranged the living room and made our dining room area a music and writing studio. I have always been a nester, and I loved my life of domesticity with Dave. Keeping our same place and staying in our community felt very important and right to me.
I didn’t want to uproot myself. I didn’t want to “start over.” I wanted to pick up where we left off and continue for the both of us. That’s what completing Axis Mundi did, and what writing Avalon continues. It’s an evolution. I’m not stuck, and I didn’t fall into a hole and build shrines to my lost love. I took our home and honored it by making it mine — a creative space conducive to my own process.
Being at The Fort has certainly played into that process. Had I moved out, I would’ve uprooted myself and lost the sense of creative community that surrounds the fort, even when you’re not there.
You did a writing residency about a year back, working on a book. Between the writing, the luthier work and creating music, how interconnected are all these different avenues for you as an artist?
They are all connected, because they are all part of my story as a human. I gain different catharsis out of each avenue, and some are easier for me than others, but they are each crucial parts of my existence as a creative human. I don’t know how to separate my experience from what I express through music or writing.
What is something you hope for The Huntress and Holder of Hands in the future?
I’d love for The Huntress and Holder of Hands to tour nationally — maybe even internationally — and enjoy a fraction of the success Dave and I had as Brown Bird. If The Huntress ever touches people the way Brown Bird did, I’d be so overwhelmed with love and a sense of fulfillment, I might just die.
If The Huntress were a car, which car would it be?
A teal 1979 International Scout.
Curated by: William Schaff
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: December 12, 2017
Total questions: 18
Word count: 3079
Reading time: Eleven minutes
Ani DeFranco, apprentice, armor, artwork, Boston, Brown Bird, cello, connection, crucial, David Lamb, devoid, duty, Emily Dix Thomas, emotional, Fort Foreclosure, fulfillment, gender, gratitude, grief, guitar, harmony, intrinsic, Joni Mitchell, Liz Isenberg, loss, love, luthier, Massachusetts, MorganEve Swain, nester, North Carolina, opportunity, Patti Smith, pigeonhole, Robert Mapplethorpe, songwriting, spirituality, string bass, strings, teal, technician, The Huntress and Holder of Hands, Tori Amos, vessel, viola, violin, Virginia, vitality, William Schaff, yellow
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