Unwoman's ethereal vocals, expressive cello and atmospheric layers of electronics have resonated throughout the global steampunk community. While touring the United States, she continues to build her already extensive collection of work. Earlier this year she expanded into film with the release of the original documentary Beautiful Fish, which covers her adventures throughout the live circuit as an independent musician. Most recently, her upcoming album was just successfully crowdfunded via Kickstarter by over 300% of what she asked.
It was a pleasure to speak with her regarding her upcoming album, the joys and pitfalls of crowdfunding, her adoption by the steampunk community, and the life of an independent musician.
SP-M: Tell us about your new album The Fires I Started Can't Begin to Warm Me, your first collection of originals in a couple of years. What new themes, sounds, and perspectives are you bringing to this effort?
I didn’t intend to talk about any particular themes, but the album ended up being almost entirely about three things and in some cases, sometimes subconsciously, their intersection: isolation, seduction, and revolution. I can’t plan to write about any subject, I can’'t ever force a song. Sonically I wanted to take my style back, in some way, to my very early dark experimentation, but now to use those things as songwriting elements to paint more evocative emotional pictures, rather than just experiments like I feel the instrumental tracks on my first few albums were. There is still a lot of cello on this album, several songs are cello-based, but there are also two tracks--"Black Magic" and "The Future, The Boot"--with no cello, which I hadn’'t done since Wildness & Artifice.
SP-M: Crowd-funding through Kickstarter has clearly been a boon for you, between your documentary, your recent covers collection Uncovered, and your upcoming CD. What advice--and warnings, perhaps?--do you have for artists trying to take the same path?
Oh my goodness, yes. I did my first one for my album Casualties over two years ago now. I was totally blown away by the fact that I surpassed my goal, then, but this last one--after I set what I thought was a rather optimistic goal--got over 300% what I asked for.
I do have some advice. For your first one, ask for the amount of money you really need, but definitely don’t ask for more than $10,000 unless you’'re making something that involves hiring lots and lots of people. Make your project sound compelling and necessary, provide examples of things you’ve completed in the past so they know you’ll follow through, offer great rewards--I tell musician friends they must offer full album downloads at $10 or less (mine were $1), and once it’'s funded do your best to meet the deadlines you set and get people their rewards ASAP.
SP-M: Speaking of crowd-funding, a little name-dropping from Amanda F*cking Palmer is never a bad thing! How'd that come about?
Oh yes yes! Heh, I was doing a Livestreamed concert from my house for some fans in 2010, and the rapper Drake wandered into my channel and made an inappropriate comment about my cleavage. I responded subtly by covering AFP’s “Ampersand” because of the line about catcalling. My mom tweeted about it, AFP saw her name tagged and tuned in, then before the song was over I had 1,000 people watching (and I still had no idea who Drake was.) More recently she discovered my Kickstarter, possibly one of our many mutual fans alerted her to it, and got it some additional attention. Then this past weekend I was extremely fortunate to get to play in the string section of the Grand Theft Orchestra for her two shows in San Francisco. At one of them she let me play a solo song with my violist friend Charith, and at the other she called out my Kickstarter on stage. Her support has practically doubled my fanbase both times it’s happened.
SP-M: Your past videos such as "The City" and the NIN cover "Hurt" have ranged from sly and seductive to elegant. What direction are you taking for "The Heroine" music video?
I am really, really excited for this one--hoping to have it finished at least in time for the vinyl release of The Fires I Started, this September--because I got permission from The Wars of Other Men to use footage from their fantastic short film in the video. I’ve also got the incredibly handsome Joseph Vourteque to costar with me in some additional footage, and will be getting shots of me as the heroine singing onstage in what looks like a small underground theater.
SP-M: Earlier this year, you released Beautiful Fish, a feature-length documentary detailing your adventures and encounters within the steampunk community. What inspired you to do this?
I wanted to make something, within my shoestring budget and crew of two including myself, and a short timeline, so not really on the same level, but something like Nerdcore Rising for steampunk music. Admittedly, incredibly self-centered, but I loved that Nerdcore Rising captured a lot of the genre despite mostly just following MC Frontalot. Now, I’m not the originator of steampunk music by any means and I don’t claim expertise, but I was hoping by sharing conversations with some other bands this wouldn’t matter too much.
SP-M: Most documentaries want to educate their audiences on a specific subject. What do you hope people learn from yours?
If I had any agenda it would be to convince people that steampunk music does exist, but like anything else steampunk, it’s not a genre so much as an esthetic that can be applied to many genres. That was pretty much the consensus of everyone I’ve ever talked to about it, in the film and in the many steampunk music panels at cons in which I’ve participated.
SP-M: Many artists--such as Hellblinki, Frenchy and the Punk, and Voltaire--didn't start off as steampunk, but have since been heartily embraced by the community. In the documentary, as you're leaving SteamCon, you question why steampunk embraced you as well. Given your involvement with so many steampunk bands and events, do you still question your place?
Well, when I think about it more, yes there is really a tiny number of explicitly steampunk bands, and the scene absolutely needs the others of us who may not sing about airships but who fit really well, and play awesome and diverse music. I just suffer from imposter syndrome, probably.
SP-M: Your music's themes don't revolve around the typical airships and mechanical marvels other artists cover. Have you ever felt any pressure to bow to those demands?
Nope! I write about what I want to write about! I am, however, working on a piece specifically about the steampunk movement… not for this album, however.
SP-M: Your film's title draws from your anecdote about quitting your day job to do music full time. Many artists dream of this bold move. What was the catalyst for taking that leap? What pieces had to click into place to enable it?
A few things had to happen. First, I left my husband, who was supportive of my music as long as it remained a hobby but didn’t approve of the idea of my going on tour or quitting my day job. Then a few months later I went on tour with Voltaire (who is so much fun) for a month. My job was just beginning to degenerate from completely awesome (ringtone producer) to utterly incompatible with my need to produce (project manager). At the end of the tour I knew I had the fortitude for it and that was the life I wanted. I started saving my money really hard and made a plan, and a year later gave notice. In fact, by coincidence, the moment I told my boss I was leaving was the moment a fan pushed my Casualties Kickstarter over the top. At the end of a year doing music full-time I realized I would not even be using up my savings if I weren’t paying San Francisco rent, so I moved in with my parents. They’ve been incredibly supportive and it works out terrifically.
SP-M: The documentary captures the rollercoaster that is being an independent musician, from the troubling night early in the documentary where you played well but sold little, to your sell-out showing at SteamCon. What keeps you steady through these varying seas?
The fact that I’ve weathered all of this so far keeps me going. I know if I have a bad show one night, the next will be better. And I’m learning what works, all the time. What types of gigs to take (tea parties! House concerts!) and which to pass on (noisy bars full of rock dudes, first-year cons with unknown promoters.)
SP-M: Late in the documentary, you say (with snark), "A musician's genre is defined by how they dress." The guest list at steampunk events is filled with generals, doctors, captains, and duchesses in character, rocking their finest, most elaborate outfits. Where does that set the visual bar for artists on stage? Would a steampunk audience be as receptive if a major SP band showed up to play in jeans and t-shirts?
My friend and fellow songstress Jill Tracy once said something to the effect that touring musicians can’t possibly dress as fancy as the steampunk fans who put all their effort in their costuming. Yet she always looks fabulous, if comfortably uncorsetted. I think we’re justifiably expected to help maintain the illusion that we’re in a past that never was, or future that could have been. We don’t have to be the best dressed in the room, but jeans and t-shirts are so repulsively current. I think a steampunk audience would still enjoy skilled musicians, but visual presentation is absolutely critical for a good first impression.
SP-M: You've played and recorded with artists around the country like Vernian Process, Abney Park, and Eli August. With steampunk music as a genre being so notoriously difficult to define, what do you think is the unifying thread linking artists who self-identify--or are identified--as steampunk?
The biggest thing, to me, is not being subject to the fickle whims of mainstream culture. We’re making music that genuinely moves us, and free to use elements from any time period, real or imagined. We’'ll play off current things like Lady Gaga (myself, Clockwork Dolls, and Vagabond Opera all do covers of her) but recontextualizing it with anachronistic sounds makes it interesting. We all have our own take on steampunk music and that’s brilliant.
SP-M: Speaking of variety and travel, food certainly plays a big part in your adventure through the states. ;) What's your favorite "road" food?
Ugh, eating on the road is so hard. I have celiac disease so I have to avoid gluten like the plague, and I recently gave up dairy for my voice and stopped eating meat that’s not organic. Fast food is not an option. I’ve taken to tracking down gluten-free bakeries in towns I’m in and ordering extra sandwiches to go. And bringing lots of Trader Joe’s organic beef jerky and trail mix.
SP-M: Thank you for your time, and good luck with your many, many projects! Before we sign off, any final comments or shout-outs?
I want to say thanks to the entire steampunk community. Before I found it my music didn’t have a home. It was the redheaded stepchild of goth, industrial, pop, and classical. Now I hear your cheers, loud and clear.
I originally wrote this piece for Steampunk Chronicle. Its original August 2012 publication can be viewed here: http://steampunkchronicle.com/ArticleView/tabid/238/ArticleId/291/Unwoman-Unveiled-The-Interview.aspx