Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Interview with Scout Paré-Phillips

Gram Parsons created the term "Cosmic American Music" to describe his melding of country, folk, rock, soul, and rhythm & blues in the 60s. People don't use the term as much, but I think it's a much more interesting take on genre naming by getting at geographical genesis. To this day, "cosmic" kind of throws me off in that description, but you can't really hold back Gram Parsons (or his friends in pursuit of a "proper" cremation.) It's an interesting idea though - the individual parts of "Cosmic American Music" by and large are American forms of music. Though at a first listen, Scout Paré-Phillips' band The Sterling Sisters may sonically have more in common with Cosmic American Music, her solo music is also influenced by its many parts.

Scout's music shares a lot of resonance with American folk artists like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. I had a very vivid first thought when I heard Scout. Have you ever seen that Bob Dylan movie Don't Look Back? Well, there's this scene where Joan Baez is showing the extent of her range after the merry band of folk musicians have smoked too much weed. It's one of my few references for such a high note. Scout's tutored vocal talent as an operatic master is all but readily apparent, and a more than welcome addition to the folk music being made in our day and age. Scout's vocal duties paired with her autoharp (a totally underused instrument) and guitar make for some more than compelling music.

You know how Plato had that belief where both forms and material are needed to make things? There's a similar system in music. To be a full-package, you need to be able to create forms of songs (songwriting) but also have material (talent) to fill them in. Scout has both sides of this equation. The songs on her solo seven-inch are not only emphasize her vocal abilities, but they linger - they carve a small pocket out of brain grooves and settle in for the long haul.

So far, Scout has released a solo Seven-Inch Record on Pesanta Urfolk, though she has plans to release both a seven-inch and a full-length album on Not Just Religious Music later this year. As mentioned above, Scout is in the fantastic dark-country group The Sterling Sisters who put out a great album called Hale on Pesanta Urfolk as well, which is more than worthy of checking out. You'd think with two music projects, there's not much time left in the day, though Scout manages to do a lot more, which is detailed on her Website. 

Jordan: In your interview with Renee Ruin, you begin by talking about living a lot "in a tiny log cabin on an acre of land near Albany, New York." It's a very vivid image. What was living in such a place like? Does it affect your work?

Scout: I think that it not so much affected my work, but the person I became. Growing up in a pea patch covered in dirt while your father hunted for deer and your mother worked in the garden was a pretty beautiful thing. I'm thankful to both of my parents for allowing me to have that experience and awareness from a young age, rather than merely being raised as a through-and-through "New Yorker". I still want to move back to the woods to raise my family, one day.

J: In my recent interview with TJ from King Dude, he mentions you being a bit of a dog lover, which is awesome. What role have dogs played in your life? What do you like about them?

S: Dogs have always been omnipresent in my life. When I was extremely young, my parents and I bred our Jack Russell Terrier and raised a litter of puppies. They were always crawling around, and all the puppies stayed within the family. I still have one of those Jack Russells, named Digger by a very cunning toddler Scout. I just recently adopted a female Whippet, who is giving the ancient Russell a run for his money. So I guess it's official: if you want to be welcomed into the Not Just Religious Music family, you Must Love Dogs.

J: The Sterling Sisters album Hale, which is a fantastic album by the way, has a bit of a Cosmic Country Western feel to it for me. What locations, events, ideas influenced the creation of this album?

S: That's really funny you say "cosmic". George - the singer from The Sterling Sisters - and I are laughing about that. I just did some guest vocals on the most recent Jack White record and a writer from Rolling Stone described my performance as cosmic. (George just sent me a picture of Spock playing an acoustic guitar…) George grew up in Denver, Colorado, and I am from New York, so those were two very different upbringings. We started The Sterling Sisters with the idea of having a "family band" being very important to us, although all of the members are from different cities. It is an amalgamation in that sense. The content of the songs has a lot to do with our different experiences growing up, and our current lives in the city which we met, Baltimore, Maryland. There are love songs and there are murder ballads, but all of the material was taken from our lives.

S: Of course George's father is Slim Cessna, and that is a very tall shadow to follow. We've always been very conscious of that influence as a band and touring with the Auto Club last summer was a really beautiful coming together. I think that was when we literally achieved the dream of feeling like a family band, if ever. The guys in the Auto Club -- and the Lupercalians -- are just so sweet. Munly is going to be working with Not Just Religious Music, soon, as well.

J: How did you guys write the music? Were there specific roles for you?

S: In the beginning, we would meet in George's living room -- this was back when almost no one in the band knew how to play their instruments -- and hum and strum things out. The first songs that was written was Raised You in the West. That set the tone for the rest of the songs to come. Now it's pretty different. George or I will come to practice with a complete song, or anyone in the room can start a riff that we'll develop as a band. Now that we have each been busy with our solo projects, The Sterling Sisters have had to take a rest, but we're hoping to write and record a new LP this summer and fall. George is self-releasing a solo album in the next few months.

J: Do you listen to much country music? Are there any artists that you like in particular?

S: My favorite artist of all time is Roy Orbison. If I had to name one vocal idol, it would be him. Obviously Orbison was not an opera singer, but in terms of modern music and me singing in a country western band, I have certainly heard the comparison a few times of me being like a "female Roy" because people don't know how to place me. I also get likened to a theramin a lot, which always makes me laugh.

J: You have a great voice, and a unique one at that. Have you always had a bit of an operatic voice? How do you practice singing? Is there any classical training in your background?

S: I have absolutely not always had an operatic voice, no one has! When I was very young and learning my first few guitar chords and how to sing a tune from my father, I sounded like just any other rock singer. I sang quite low, strained my voice, and achieved a gruff sound at best. As I got older and started writing more complex music and singing higher, at first it was a very breathy, weak voice, but was the first sign of where my real range laid. I trained for four years in my school's classical vocal program and for three years privately with an operatic vocal coach. The voice is like any other muscle; you just need to exercise it thoroughly and regularly for it to develop. Training is just a way to exercise it correctly and healthily, to ensure you don't do any damage along the way or force yourself to sound like something you're not. I'm in a masters program for teaching right now, and I firmly believe that anyone can "sing" if educated properly; it is not an innate talent like so many people like to believe.

J: There's a lot of play with angles and lines in your work from your haircut to your photography. What purpose does framing or placement play in your visual art, in terms of your appearance as well as your photography?

S: Well I can't do much about my genes! Some combination of French, Italian, Irish, and American Indian heritage landed me with a very angular bone structure and some pretty hefty eyebrows, ha. But there has always been a back and forth between the aesthetic in my visual work and my appearance that is deeper than simply using myself as a model. I think that every artist is naturally informed by their own appearance in a narcissistic way when developing their creative identity. People design their look, just as they design their work, and vice versa.

J: Do you have a favorite shape?

S: Circle.

J: Can you tell me a little bit about your photography series "Carne?" It highlights an interesting intersection of flesh, sex, pain, and beauty (to name a few lofty concepts). How did you think of creating it?

S: That series was a commission for a themed magazine by the New York fashion agency, Hunter and Gatti. (I say magazine, but really it's an over one hundred paged hardcover book). Carne -- meat -- was the concept for "HG Issue" #1. They contacted me after being drawn to my treatment of skin in another series of mine, Impressions. So in my work for that magazine I continued in the same vein, manipulating skin and impacting it, but in a much more carnal, consumable way. Also I've done a lot of growing up since Impressions, so my sexual identity is a lot more prominent in my work.

J: You have an upcoming 7" and LP on TJ Cowgill's label Not Just Religious Music. Can you tell me about how you guys got in contact?

S: I love TJ. Let's say that first. I met him in early 2012 when he played a show my boyfriend helped organize at Wierd Records night at Home Sweet Home in New York. I remember we gave him the first Sterling Sisters demo cassette back then because we thought he'd be into it, but that was before Not Just Religious Music started. Almost two years later, in late 2013, I got an email out of the blue after he saw the music video for my solo single, Fields of Ash. He told me about the beginnings of NJRM and the extremely select group of artists he was going to be working with and asked if I'd be interested. Of course I was honored and obliged. It was perfect timing for me.

J: How did you write and record the songs for your upcoming records?

S: With the exception of one or two songs, the dozen songs on this record were written in the proceeding months of the fall and winter of 2013, after first hearing from TJ. My relationship has been full of adversities over the past few years, but that fall was a particularly transitional time so I had a lot to process and songwriting is simply that to me: how I process my emotions. In that sense, I'm not much of a musician. Yes, I am fully capable of writing a 12 song LP in a few months, but no, generally I do not sit around writing songs or singing to myself. I've always said that when my life is going well and I'm content, I take photographs, but when I'm going through a rough patch and have some tribulations to work out, I write songs.

S: The album was recorded in just a few days by Sean Ragon from Cult of Youth at his studio & record shop, Heaven Street in Brooklyn. I don't know Sean very well and I was definitely apprehensive to record a full length record in five days, knowing my own studio methods (I will spend twelve hours on the vocal track to one song, if you let me)… But something certainly clicked between us. We cranked out the record in three days.

J: Any idea when they'll come out?

S: TJ & I are hoping to have a limited edition of the 7" out for the tour, and then the full length will follow sometime in the summer. They'll be released along with a series of four music videos in collaboration with the Canadian designer, Ovate by Audrey Cantwell. She is a genius and an angel. I am so happy to be working with her.

J: You're also set to tour with King Dude in Europe. Are there any places you're especially excited to see?

S: I'm really eager to see Copenhagen. We're friends with a lot of bands out there like Damien Dubrovnik/Lust for Youth, Puce Mary, Iceage… I'm really looking forward to hanging out with those kids on their native ground.

J: Do you think you'll tour the US soon?

S: We were originally planning to do another King Dude/Scout tour at the end of the summer in the US, but then TJ got the awesome offer to do the Ghost tour. So no plans for the moment. I'm sure when the LP comes out we'll throw something together.

J: What else is coming for Scout?

S: At the end of the Europe tour in Milan, I have a photography residency for a few weeks at Loppis Gallery. So I'll be creating a whole new body of work while I stay there and showing it at the end of June. Very excited for that.

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