Category Archives: New Music

The Genre Obsession

Recently I found myself stumbling in another conversation, over the nuisance task of defining Key of V by genre. The reason I’ve opted to do this up until now is that I fear appearing to cop-out or seeming arrogant explaining how I don’t believe we really fit into a genre. I’ve read many-a-poorly-written band descriptions beginning with “transcending any genre” and ending with “you’ll just have to listen for yourself.” I always close the tab in a storm of protest: Hell no I will not listen to it! If it’s not worth describing (or commissioning someone else to describe), clearly and without presumption or pushiness, then it is probably not worth me quitting Photoshop so I can stream a sample of it.

So over the years I’ve taken to fine-tuning a nice little genre for us, which I use in varying forms: “Lo-fi / Experimental / Anti-folk.” Since Key of V has many elements, I can adjust it according to the context. If I’m trying to book a hookah lounge I change “Anti-folk” to “Psychedelic-folk.” If I’m trying to open for a punk band I change it to “Acoustic Punk” or “Punk-Folk.” If it’s a traditional coffee shop I shorten the whole thing to “Alternative Folk.” If it’s a fancy booking request form on the website of a longstanding micro-brewery, I choose “alternative” from the drop-down menu. Or if it doesn’t have that option, I choose “Folk.”

All this is fine, albeit soul-sucking, until one of two things happens. The first and most obvious is that I describe us as folk and then offend someone by yelling and pelting on power-chords. The second is that I say “Lo-fi / Experimental / Anti-folk” and charge the inquirer with a superfluous category that (ironically) implies much the same cockiness as saying “We transcend any genre; you’ll just have to listen for yourself.”

I describe us as folk and then offend someone by yelling and pelting on power-chords.

I know this because of a conversation I had two months ago over dinner with some other
musicians. One I have been friends with since before I played, and I look up to him. The other I had just met. He had never heard Key of V, so he asked me to describe our sound. With the calculated modesty required to blot out inherent pretentiousness,  I replied, “Oh. It’s kinda psychedelic, lo-fi, anti-folkish stuff.” My new friend nodded his head between thumb and fore-finger sincerely for a moment, then asked, “What’s anti-folk?”

Oh no! I thought, feeling my Berkley-educated friend of 10 years also awaiting my answer as I chewed a piece of baby corn I meant to leave on the plate. Now I have to explain this obscure genre that I can only describe with a half-remembered Wikipedia definition; plus, I only really identify with it through the artists in it, and we don’t sound anything like them! But I didn’t have a chance to answer. My old friend interjected: “It’s just another name for folk, for people who feel they’re somehow better or different but really they’re just folk.” Ouch! Is that what we are? Regardless, I had to redeem myself!

I replied, "Oh. It's kinda psychedelic, lo-fi, anti-folkish stuff." My new friend nodded his head between thumb and fore-finger sincerely for a moment, then asked, "What's anti-folk?"

“That’s not true,” I said. “It’s a movement.” Uh oh. Rising above…. Folk. Save yourself: “Have you heard of Kimya Dawson?”

“No.”

“Regina Spektor?”

“Nope.”

“Hmmm. Well I don’t really know how to describe it,” (obviously!), “it’s just… different from folk. But with Folk elements.”

That sustained me for the remainder of the conversation. But I knew it would come up again, and I didn’t have any solutions for easing my anxiety without what I felt an inadequate description (or, according to my friend, an arrogant denial of what my music really is). The time came this past weekend in Rochester, NY, when we met the guitarist for Bogs Visionary Orchestra, who asked what we were doing in Flower City. When I told him we played a show ourselves, he asked the inevitable question: “What Kind of music do you play?” Now notice here, he asked “What Kind.” Not “what do you do,” or “what does it sound like,” but “What Kind?” A glaring request for a genre. So I laid it out. “Lo-fi. Experimental. Anti-folk.”

“Oh, experimental. Cool! I dig noise bands.”

“But it’s coherent. Poppy even.  We just like to experiment.”

“Oh, I see. But lo-fi. I dig lo-fi. I just recorded an album with a four-track.”

“Yeah, I used to too, but it’s…” become about preserving that quality without the 4-track? The anxiety’s setting in. I let my sister take over.

I breathe and try to stop ruminating. He’s a really nice guy. In fact, everyone in Rochester’s been really nice. And the music is great. I should just enjoy it. I relax. When I come back to the conversation, they’re talking about Anti-folk. “Yeah, you’ll like Seth’s band, then. He’s anti-folk!” Ah yes. It seems the anti-folk movement sprouted in NYC, with its descending communities cropping up in surrounding urban areas, such as Rochester. The aforementioned Seth, former front-man of the band Dufus, has worked with Regina Spektor and Kimya Dawson. So it seems we’re at home.

But when Seth Faergolzia & the 23 Psaegz creeps onto the stage with it’s parade of members blowing atonal horns and throwing toilet paper, and Seth begins rapping like a vocal acrobat who makes me feel I’m on drugs, I wonder if we qualify, and start obsessing again. Was my old friend right? Am I just denying our sound is ordinary because I’m afraid of being that in a field where making an impression is so important? And moreover, do I just like the genres I tag Key of V with? What the hell are we? And why the hell do I care?!?

Am I just denying our sound is ordinary because I’m afraid of being that in a field where making an impression is so important?

On the ride home the next morning I tell Erin that when I can, I will describe Key of V practically. “I play acoustic guitar, and she plays viola through effects pedals. I run my vocals through pedals too. Sometimes we bang on our instruments fast and hard, sometimes we pick them slow and weepy. Do you want to know who inspires us?” She says this sounds good. It doesn’t work for drop-down menus, but I think it can cure anxiety. Because we don’t fit into a genre. There. I said it. And we’re not folk. Because I said so, and it’s my fucking music.

Val LaCerra

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Staten Island: Art and Challenge

The annual Staten Island cross-dressing party was held in Queens at the Mandragoras studio performance space this year. It was our first experience with this seemingly esoteric event, and my first live exposure to Blurple frontwoman Phoebe Blue’s anti-folk trio Phoebe Blue and the Make Baleaves–and most notably, their song The Fox–a performance that hearkened back to some of my earliest and crucial listening days, which featured (still choice) female-fronted bands like Frente! and Mazzy Star.

This was our second experience with the community from Staten Island. The first was at Deep Tank Studios, a small basement atelier/performance space in SI where we witnessed D.B. Lampman’s empowering installation “Brain Furniture” and where Deep Tanks owners Kristopher and Florence generously put our crew up for the night. We frequented the intentional-community-powered Everything Goes Bookstore for coffee, literature and conversation, and I was given the impression of a tight, supportive community of artists and free thinkers striving for something bigger on New York’s often forgotten (and also relatively arcane) Island, in much the same way Williamsport artists do–or, more often did, before ephemerally-lucrative natural gas discovered under it picked commerce up to a less-deplorable level.

In my experience, challenge inspires more creativity than comfort. Without some level of challenge, I have no reason to create. I am unmoved. Personally, that challenge for me often lies in a social issue and my move is in most cases realization, acceptance, education or a call to action. My material comes from my environment, my community or lack of one. Crisis, disorder, institutional race-, class-, look-, and sexism, looking out the window and seeing something ugly: these things challenge me to do more with myself and my art. Perhaps that is why I chose the Human Services field.

An old roommate alluded to my tendency to surround myself with unhealthy challenge while apartment-shopping. “Why do you want a shitty apartment?” He asked, ducking beneath a yellow-stained drop ceiling in the kitchen, in the middle of a darkened carpet-spot the size of a baby pool, which I imagined was the source of the cat-piss smell. Realizing then that my long-running attraction to sloped cat-piss apartments was not normal, I opted for a restored Victorian one and painted the rooms orange, yellow, and hot pink. My roommate was happy, and I still wrote songs. I have a tendency to do things in the extreme, which is what makes me a poor candidate for dieting, drinking alcohol, and apparently, challenging myself.

The day after the show at Mandragoras, the four of us sat down to lunch in Brooklyn with Amber and Haley from the Dirty Projectors. Amber stressed the importance of embracing opportunity as an artist, insisting NYC was practically the only place to do it. I shrunk in my seat while my immaterial plans of homesteading while reaching out to a surely up-and-coming music community like Asheville turned dark. Was I just trying to creating a unhealthy challenge for myself as a musician, or was I trying to be too comfortable? Was the real challenge in the stressful city, or was that the comfort, with the opportunities?

As I grow as an artist and a woman, I am asking myself how I can still challenge myself in a healthy way, yet open myself up to the opportunities Key of V deserves. I know one thing, if I did move to NYC, I’d be a Staten Islander.