KAT FANKIE x SAM VANCE-LAW – das besondere Interview

Foto-© Hella Wittenberg

Kat Frankie und Sam Vance-Law bescheren uns im Mai beide mit neuen Alben. Kat Frankies Shiny Things erscheint am 13. Mai bei Grönland. Es ist das politische Album einer Beobachterin unserer Zeit und das neueste Werk einer Künstlerin, die seit 20 Jahren im Geschäft ist. Sam Vance-Law veröffentlichte mit Goodbye am 06. Mai sein zweites Album bei Virgin Music. Die Platte könnte persönlicher nicht sein, denn es geht um das Ende einer Liebe und das Aushalten von Schmerz.

Auf den ersten Blick fallen viele Unterschiede, aber auch viele Gemeinsamkeiten ein: beide leben in Berlin, beide sind Lieblinge der Kritiker:innen, beide sind queer, beide schreiben Musik…Aber das wäre zu kurz gedacht, zu eindimensional. Was wirklich passiert, wenn sich die beiden unterhalten, hat ein Treffen im April gezeigt. Sie übernehmen sowohl Fragen als auch Antworten. Entstanden ist ein intensiver Austausch über künstlerische Kontrolle, eine Emotion als Kern eines jeden Songs und wie er sich von dort an verselbständigen kann, die Bürde ein persönliches Album zu schreiben, aber auch die Verantwortung über andere zu schreiben. Wir erfahren, warum Sam nie wieder eine so intime Platte machen möchte und warum Kat sich als egoistische Songschreiberin bezeichnet. Am Ende führt die Diskussion zu dem Punkt, ob und wie Kunst politisch ist und was jede:r einzelne für eine bessere Welt tun kann und muss. Eine Debatte, in dem Sam seine Position gefunden hat, Kat sie jedoch als ihr Gedankenprojekt der nächsten Zeit beschreibt. Zu lesen ist ein Austausch, der zeigt, wie viele Dimensionen Kunst und Musik annehmen kann und wie individuell und doch anknüpfbar das Selbstverständnis als Musiker:in ist.

Sam: This is the first time, I interview someone. Without having prepared at all…

Kat: I have watched your videos. I have seen them before, but I watched them again – your trilogy.

Sam: My trilogy – soon to be quartet. Oh, I actually did see one of your music videos. It was really good. There is intrigue in court. That was excellent.

Kat: Thanks.

Sam: The Baroque one. Anything baroque makes me happy!

Kat: Yeah, my whole vision for this album is Renaissance Drag.

Sam: Amazing. What is the title of your record? What is it about? Can you tell us more?

Kat: My album is called Shiny Things, and it is about that desire is ruinous to humans. It is little bit political and about the world and injustice.

Sam: Are there any types of injustices you nailed down or is it more about injustice in general?

Kat: I have some specific things. I have a song about the democracy protest in Hong Kong, which is called Be Like Water. They have been protesting for the last four years. Since Britain returned their land to the Chinese, they are losing a lot of rights. One of the things about that situation is that you are not really allowed to meet to demonstrate. One of the strategies of the protest movement is to be like water, to keep moving.

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Sam: I am a lyrics man. Do you have a couple of lines you can throw my way from that song?

Kat: Yeah. I have to remember the lyrics, though. “Be like water seeking crack and boulder.” I wrote it like it was phrased in that way, really brief.

Sam: I am into it!

Kat: I have watched some of your videos: Is this a breakup album?

Sam: This is a breakup album. Straight out.

Kat: How do you feel about that? It is a super cliche as an artist to be like, “This is my most personal album yet.” But is it for you?

Sam: Yes, it is. The last one was not about me, this one is. I would also like to say that I will never write another personal album again. I have no desire to do it after this run. When I started this record, everybody said, “Do not do it!” Other musicians said, “Do not do it, because then you have to live with it!” You have to live with the music, you have to live with the emotions. You have to go through it as an artistic process. And it turned out they were 100% right. I would not have written anything else. There was nothing else I would have written in this timeframe. I just would not have written anything. So, you know, that is my job. But it was not a pleasant experience.

Kat: Was it unpleasant because you were processing the emotion? Or did you feel that to write a song you had to return to those emotions to get the content?

Sam: For the songwriting it was great. That was the cathartic moment of turning pain into beauty and trying to find some sort of solution, or at least put something in my own words that would be heard. Which is the problem of break ups – often you are not. That was wonderful. The problem is that then you have to arrange the fucker, produce it and then live with it. You know how it is when you are mixing, you are still sitting there on the last day and be like, “How do we make this mix sadder, how do we make it fit the particular song?” You have to go back to that place of sadness in order to hear the mix as sadder. You never get to walk away from the initial emotional impulse when you are working on the songs. And that is fine when you are starting. But when you are trying to move on, it is hard.

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Kat: Have you moved on?

Sam: Yeah! Now I am fine.

Anne: Now you just have to play the songs 10 million times.

Sam: The thing I love about playing live is that you are not alone. In the record writing process, you spend so much time alone, it can be incredibly lonely. And the glorious thing about live is those are everybody’s songs by that point. Everybody in that room either sings with you or they know the song. If you are speaking to them, you are speaking TO them, right in front of you. It is a shared experience as opposed to a desperately lonely experience. So, yeah. It is a breakup record. It is going to kill you.

Kat: Also, I think you are like me in that, you produce your own videos.

Sam: My videos are produced with people, but I am always part of the process. I am a control freak. But, no, they are produced in coordination with Jenny Mathes this time.

Kat: Did you write the treatment, though?

Sam: We wrote it together. Do you write all your own treatments and produce your videos as well?

Kat: Yeah, for pretty much all of them. I mean, I did not produce all the videos for Bad Behavior, but I did come up with all the ideas. But for this one, I wrote all the treatments and I produced everything.

Sam: So what is your connection between what you called Renaissance Drag and the concept of social justice? What is the thing that ties those together? Or is one the esthetic and the other as one is the message?

Kat: The Renaissance thing is really an esthetic. I wanted to have a visual thread that goes through everything I did. In the past, I felt everything was a little disparate.

Sam: Me too.

Kat: Yes, you have done this with a through line in the story. I wanted to do it with a visual world. The album was almost finished, and I was just sort of workshopping lots of different ideas and trying to figure out, “Where does this live?” Renaissance and the Baroque is just such a dramatic time in art.

Sam: It is so wild!

Kat: Just the paintings, the iconography, the bodies, the light, and the landscapes…There is this grandeur, and romanticism, and decay and it felt like it really fit. So, I thought, I can use this as the lens to put the ideas and stories in. Ideas of justice, of environmentalism, of capitalism also existed hundreds of years ago. But I also think this kind of heightened drama is something that you can draw on. So, I did.

Sam: Some people make music videos 1:1 to the song. Other people make music videos in order to add an extra dimension. I am assuming that that is more your take on the music video process. That it is supposed to add an extra layer of meaning.

Kat: I always think you should paint with all the colors. If you have another tool to express an idea or a feeling it does not have to be 1:1. It can be a layer. I always think of it as chance to recreate the emotions in the song but to do it in a different context. But you went very direct! You were smashing up furniture.

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Sam: Oh, this entire record is super direct. When I song write, I try to build in layers of meaning. You listen to it once and you just get it. Then you listen to it again and there is another thing you are hearing or picking up on – also in terms of meaning. One of the things about heartbreak is that there is not much subtlety. There is complexity, but there is not much subtlety. With my last record, lots of it is narrative. You go through different musical styles or phases during the song in order to take the listener somewhere else. And this one is kind of just sad. I would build things up, I would expand upon emotional moments, but I would not go too far. Let people stew in it until they cannot take it anymore. [laughs]

Kat: Tension…

Sam: I think it does a disservice to lighten the mood just for the sake of giving someone a reprieve musically. That is something Shostakovich does not fucking do. Lots of composers do not do it. When they are miserable, they are doing misery.

Kat: Right, they do not let it go.

Sam: Yes. Some of these songs are happy songs, because they are more upbeat. But if they are downbeat songs, they stay there.

Kat: Do you feel like your production and your arrangements and the instrumentation have developed a bit from the last album?

Sam: Yes, I think they definitely developed.

Kat: I was hearing more guitars.

Sam: I am trying to write differently now because I like experimenting with how to write. The first two records I wrote the same way. That is to sit down and write lyrics and melody without an instrument, just pencil and a piece of paper. One of the reasons why I did that is because I used to have a problem where I would sit down and be like, “If only I had a Juno, I could do this. If only I was sitting at a grand piano, I could get a song right now.” So, I had to get rid of all instruments and be like, “A pencil and a piece of paper, that is all you need, Sam, to write a song.” That really helped me because then I did not have any excuses. And it had to be a good melody as there was nothing there to save it.

Kat: So, all the information is there?

Sam: Yes, and then what happens is that a song asks for things. I have never written for a saxophone before, and I never wanted to. And a song said, “This is this. Here is a sax line.” So, I wrote a sax line or an oboe line or a massive synth stack. Normally, it is less like a decision-making process and more of a the song tells me what to do. And so whatever development there is, I am just getting told to do different things. Whatever part of me does that. Do you sit down and start writing and see what happens or had this record a specific sonic world you wanted to portray?

Kat: Sonically, I wanted to have more electric guitars, I wanted it to be something that you could just play with four people on stage. I was looking back at a lot of the stuff out of the nineties, like PJ Harvey and very early Radiohead, where it was just a four-piece band and a singer that was filled with emotion. That was the basic idea. But when I write, I do chords and melody and lyrics all together. Sometimes, there is a little kernel of an idea, a little phrase, just a little something to tease out. There is always that little seed of the idea. I think that is amazing. That there is something that pops into your head, a little itchy thing and it grows into this whole.

Sam: This is the best, because I could not write my music. You start with a little idea, a little spark of inspiration, and then the music just tells you what to do. It grows.

Kat: Sometimes, it is also a really ugly baby.

Sam: Oh, sometimes it is fucking appalling.

Kat: And you do not want to show that to the world. But at the same time, the shitty thing is that you have to make it to know whether it is good. And that is also kind of hard.

Sam: How quickly can you tell? I can tell pretty fast. I am just like, “Oh, this is trash.”

Kat: Well, usually when I hit the second verse. And if I have nothing, it is abandoned.

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Kat: I want to know when you are going to write your musical.

Sam: I think I might have written two, they just have not been adapted for stage.

Kat: Do you ever have a vision of writing a musical? A thousand people must have told you this already.

Sam: Yeah, everybody tells me this all the time.

Kat: So, what is your vision on that?

Sam: My vision is that it sounds like a lot of work. Take Anaïs Mitchell and Hadestown for instance. She did the record – fan-fucking-tastic, well done, Kudos. But ten years to bring it to Broadway! She won all the Tonys, but it was a journey. Maybe that is a journey I want to take, but I need to get a couple more ideas out first before I take ten years out to get it there.

Kat: Maybe.

Sam: You are probably like this, when you want to do something, you want to do it right.

Kat: Most of the time, yeah.

Sam: And I am not like, “Oh just put on a little like stage production at the local pub.” If you are aiming for Broadway, you need to do the legwork.

Kat: I think about doing a musical from time to time. But just the amount of work that went into bodies, which is this acapella-show that I did a couple of years ago: It was music for eight voices, and I wrote the whole thing down, even to stage directions – the amount of work involved in something like that is just…

Sam: Yeah, that is huge. Speaking of stage directions. I like Shakespeare quite a lot, but my favorite line is in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the stage direction is just: exit wall. It is a moment where a wall has to leave the stage. I was crying with laughter in the U-Bahn. I feel like stage directions is some of the funest moments. But let us get back on track here. What else should we talk about?

Anne: You are both very direct in your art and have spoken about being unapologetic. Does that attitude come easy or does it require work?

Sam: I have got three hours in me on this one. One of the reasons why I started making music was that I was really upset how most of the queer art that I was seeing, listening to, watching, etc., was either centered around victimhood or pride. A lot of it was a kind of a “woe is me stance” or a “rise up stance”, both of which are super valuable.

Kat: “Woe is me” in what way though? I am sad I got dumped or I am sad life is a struggle?

Sam: A bit of both. This is not a complaint about the quality of the work or the necessity of the work. What it is about is that that was dominating the discussion. 99% of my day, I am neither feeling victimhoody, nor am I feeling proud. It felt to me as if there was a gap. I am just talking about life, general day to day life that does not require that kind of defensiveness that you need to push the outside world away and say, “I am pushing you way out for very good reasons.” Once again, this is not about it not being necessary, but about constantly being defensive as a songwriter and the presentation of the material. So, that was where the unapologetic thing came in. I am not being defensive. I do not particularly care about your thing. I am just writing, take it or leave it. Enjoy it. But if you have a problem with it, that is your problem, not mine. And that has freed me up to write truthfully as best as I can. And to write without that little devil on your shoulder going, “Push people away!” Because I do not have to do that anymore. That is a decision I made as a songwriter.

Kat: You also said earlier that this album is the album where you are writing about yourself for the first time.

Sam: Mm hmm.

Kat: What is the shift between going from Homotopia to Goodbye? The first album had this outward vision and this one is returning to something quite personal. What does that mean?

Sam: There are a couple of things that are important for me. There is a difference between being truthful or honest and being unfiltered. And so, in both records, regardless of what I am trying to do, whether that is talking about myself or my feelings or talking about another person, their journey, or whatever it might be, I try to be truthful and honest. But that does not mean that it is just out onto the page and then stays there. These things take time. And I decided what to tell you. I have decided to tell you the truth. But I have made decisions. And so, even when I am writing a personal record, I am not just baring my soul and hoping you will deal with it. I am trying to write something that makes you feel less alone.

Kat: Do you think about other people when you write? Do you think about the listener?

Sam: I write for myself, and I think about the listener when I edit. I write for me because I need to. And then I work on the song for other people. I call it the Wallis-goosebump-test. [Sam is talking about his friend Wallis Bird] If you have goosebumps writing it or recording it, then someone else will have goose bumps listening to it. And I love that. When I am writing something for myself: if it gets me, it will get you. I just have to make sure I have done that well enough. I wrote Homotopia for myself as well.

Kat: Because you wanted it to exist in the world?

Sam: I wanted it to exist in the world. I felt there was a gap there in a narrative. And I felt that that gap was one that I had the privilege and luxury of being able to fill. It was also that if I felt something, you will, too. If I felt lonely, then you will, too. If I felt broken, then you will, too. And that is what music does. It bridges that gap between what seems to be disparate and experiences felt in solitude and turns it into that live show where everybody is fucking weeping together in the most glorious way. That is the privilege: when I speak you feel heard. That is crazy. That is how I write. The bridge between writing about other people’s experiences and writing myself into them and writing purely about myself is not that big of a gap to straddle. For me, the writing process was not that much different either in terms of how I wanted to have a listener engage with what I was doing.

Kat: So, it is a breakup album. The person that you are saying goodbye to, have they heard the songs?

Sam: I have not had an interview yet where I was not asked that question. And I have not had an interview where I have answered it.

Kat: It is an obvious question, you wrote a whole album.

Sam: Yeah, I know. I did the art thing and my own thing, but I do not do reality. Because then people are like, “Has he heard it? How was the sex?” No, not going down, whatever path that is. [both laugh]

Kat: But what do you do then? What do you do when it is something that is very personal and declarative?

Sam: This is only my second record. So, some of these things have come as a surprise to me. Some of the knock-off effects of my job were a bit surprising. What I can say is that there has been a moral weight to this record. And there was a moral weight to the last record – a moral and ethical responsibility, when you are writing about other people. Taking other people’s stories and trying to turn them into my music, that it carries an ethical weight. Also when you are writing about someone who is voiceless in the instance of writing a heartbreak record. It is not like I release one and he releases one. This is me speaking. So, there are considerations: in Homotopia of the other people and in this case, of my former partner. More I will not say. So Kat, you have written a record that deals with questions of justice. And these are some of the questions that you will be inherently personally tied to because of, let us say, queer identity. A lot of people have not had to deal with justice as their own personal thing and for you, it is not difficult to extrapolate a specific justice to other instances of injustice around the world. It is easier for you to do that kind of mental legwork, I assume. What does that mean to you? Do you feel an ethical responsibility? Do you feel a responsibility not only to write these songs but also to write them in a way that you feel does a service to the people you are writing about?

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Kat: I do not really think about it like that. I think it started with a song called Home, that was on my last album, Bad Behavior. I wrote that because I was incredibly angry. At the time in Australia there was a referendum for marriage equality. I was so angry that they put it to a vote. They let everyone vote on it! It was horrible. But I do not feel like I was really thinking about trying to represent people in a fair and just fashion. I would tie myself into knots and I would not be able to say anything. I am a very selfish songwriter. I write about things, that have touched me in some way or that I am processing. For me, the important thing is how do I express the emotion associated with this? And how do I express that in a very clear fashion? And that is why I am always coming back to this feeling. If I come back to the seed of an emotion that is how I judge whether or not I am on the right path with a song.

Sam: I recently saw a Nick Cave quotation where he talks about a song being its own thing. You can get off the path, but you know. And when you are on the path, you know. For my record there were times when the path was straight, and I just walked it right and on. And there were also times where it took years to figure out where the fuck it is going. Is there a song on your record that just happened? Where you just walked it and it was there? And if so, which one?

Kat: Honestly, I do not think there was one. But during the writing of the album, there obviously was a pandemic and I spent a lot of time educating myself and doing a lot of reading and thinking about the world and thinking about what art can do to create change. Every step with the construction of the songs was kind of informed by this, by this journey.

Sam: Yeah, and so it was necessarily going to take time?

Kat: It was always going to take time. I am not someone who can write very quickly. I am someone who does a little bit, lets it sit, thinks about it, comes back to it. And then you are on that path, you are like, “Does this match, is this the right color?” I try lots of different things out until I know this is the thing.

Sam: What do you think art can do?

Kat: I feel like this is my research project at the moment. I am going to release a little ZINE next month with the album. I asked different writers to write about revolution, and utopia, and political change. I had this idea because I feel like I still need to learn a lot. I was reading a book called Art and Class last year and it was basically talking about “political art” and how there are a lot of artists who make political art in a performative way and that means that they are not really participating as activists. That it is not true activism. It is something that you do instead of putting your body in harm’s way.

Sam: This is interesting and really important. One of the ways that I think about creating art as creating change is that if the person is political, then the art already is. If I am writing a queer heartbreak record… How many can you name? I mean, I cannot. It is a pretty new thing to be doing. And it is not a new thing to be doing, it is a new thing to be doing it to be out about it and how to behave like something that is legible, for instance…

Kat: I would say that k.d. lang made a horrible album that was a heartbreak album after her big hit album. It has been attempted.

Sam: Oh, yes, it has certainly been attempted. But if we are talking about the heartbreak record as a format, there have been like 3 million put out this year already.

Kat: Yeah, sure. I know what you are saying.

Sam: Just numbers wise… And in terms of whether we talk about the canon and what is supposed to be in the canon or outside of the canon; when we talk about representation. I feel that the person is always political. I continue to believe that. One of the things that obviously shakes the strength of that is someone who says, “Well, why is your body not in harm’s way? Why are you not stepping out? Why are you not under fire?” How do you deal with that?

Kat: That is the question. Are you asking me?

Sam: I am asking you this, because I already have my space that I just set out for you. Not activism in terms of activism, I do not think I am an activist, but in terms of doing work. That my art does work, does some heavy lifting. Maybe not much, but some. But how do you reconcile yourself with not being in the firing line?

Kat: I do not know. That is the journey at the moment. The conclusion of the book I was telling you about is that you should be doing both, because it is possible to do both. And that the only way to create real change is to get out. Another thing is that we need to think about what effect do the songs have themselves. If you are a listener of that song, depending on the kind of song, you feel less alone and you feel like you found your community. And for some people, music is a lifeline in that way.

Sam: Absolutely.

Kat: That is super important. But if you are talking about other things, such as political justice or anti-capitalist movements, you cannot just listen to the soundtrack, right? A lot of people will listen to those songs and pat themselves on the back and feel like an activist, and they will go about the rest of their day. There is something in-between, where music has this superpower to bring people together collectively.

Sam: This is amazing. I am totally with you.

Kat: But where do we go beyond that? Music is often the soundtrack for a lot of different political movements as well. So, in some sense, the work is good work. But I also wonder what I could be doing, not just as an artist, but also as an individual.

Sam: One of the really interesting things about that is that everything is time. Making a record is time. Stepping out on the street is time.

Kat: And I am safe and in a studio. I am safe, I get applauded.

Anne: This safety also gives you a place that other people do not have. Where you can say things that other people cannot say. People might get arrested for marching or protesting and you can make a song about it. You can inform and console other people. Or let us take queer kids that cannot come out.

Sam: Yes! Absolutely. I write a lot for 16-year-old Sam.

Anne: Even if you do not want to be political, you are, because or your place.

Kat: Yes, you have a platform.

Sam: That would be my argument too. It is not that there is not a space for extra activism or getting out on the street. But there is something I noticed, and it was really kind of a sad moment. My mom would go semi-retired, and she has always given money to Médecins sans frontières and she wanted to go and help. So, she called them up and they were like, “What are your medical qualifications?” And she was like, “I do not have any.” And they were like, “Well, then you can keep on funding us. That is wonderful, but we have no space for you.” And this is one of the things: we are highly trained as musicians. On the planet earth very few people are highly trained as musicians. And there are other spaces where other people are going to be incredibly highly trained or motivational or have the time or have the effort or be paid to do it. That is not to say that we should not be getting out. I think one of the problems we have had in recent years is suggesting that every single one of us is responsible for doing every single thing. And I think that has been a burden that nobody can carry. And that has taken away some of the drive in our own spaces because we have been torn between so many multiple places. I think if you find a space, where your personal activism can be expressed, then that is wonderful. My only worry for myself under those conditions is, “Well, what happens to the music then?”

Kat: You need to create the music that gives you the platform. That is the thing. At the end of the day, if you do not make any music, no one is going to listen to it. That is our sphere of influence.

Sam: It would be interesting for the next few weeks, or months, or years to be checking in with you and what solutions you have – even if they are just solutions for yourself.

Kat: I think we are all just trying to work it out. If you just see how extreme the last few years have been, especially on the capitalist side of things, it makes me want to fucking cry every day. The balance of power is so awful.

Sam: And the constant questioning how one could shift it.

Kat: How do you do that? You need to bring people together to do that. That is the one magic power of music. So, the question is what to do next.

Sam: Yeah. And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and those of you everywhere in between and outside, thank you very much for listening to us.

Thank you very much for the interview!

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