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June 7, 2012

Musician Rachel Loshak Interviews Author Jessica Maria Tuccelli

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Rachel Loshak is a singer-songwriter/bassist whose latest album is Colors.

Jessica Maria Tuccelli is a writer, her debut novel novel Glow was published earlier this year.

The two paired up to write a song for a character in Glow:

"For Amelia J. McGee" [mp3]

Singer-songwriter/bassist Rachel Loshak Interviews author Jessica Maria Tuccelli (and vice versa):

Rachel Loshak: When you first contacted me about working with you on the song "For Amelia J. McGee" you said that one of the characters in your book was inspired by my music. Which character, and in what way were you inspired? By a specific song, or by the tone of my music in general?

Jessica Maria Tuccelli: Both the tone of your music and specific songs had me sitting taller in my seat. When I first saw you perform at the Happy Ending Reading Series in NYC, I was struck by your vulnerability—you were alone on stage, just you and your bass, and your voice was so pure, so bare and beautiful, just exquisite. There is a haunting quality to your sound that draws me in. Two of my favorite songs are "When the Moon and the Sun", from Mint, and "China Doll," from your Firefly CD. Each inspired a character in my novel—Riddle Young and his sister, Emmaline, respectively. In "When the Moon and the Sun," there is a daring trope of lyrics, the solitariness of the bass, and then your voice—crystalline—running counterpoint to the bass, invoking a tumultuous feeling, and at last, the coda, that single effortless high not—perfect for Riddle, who is a troubled soul, a poet, a recluse and an orphan in charge of his less than sane (or is she?) sister, facing some serious challenges in his part of the wilderness. "China Doll" is Emmaline's theme song, the one that plays within her—though physically and mentally as fragile as a china doll, it's not how she sees herself. She knows her inner strength and the power of her desires, but she's terribly misunderstood by the people around her.

I can't begin to express how thrilled I was when you agreed to arrange and record "Song for Amelia J. McGee." Ever since that first performance in NYC, I had hoped to work with you. What was the experience like, working with someone else's words?

Rachel Loshak: I was thrilled to be asked to do this – having been living through a few years where my music is not the forefront of my life at this time, it helped me see its value in the world again. However, I have only ever felt competent/comfortable writing my own songs so it was definitely a new experience for me to have someone else's words to start the process – to put music to someone else's creative emotion instead of creating music to express my own emotion. It took me quite some time to figure out how I connected to the words you had written and to discover how they sat within my voice and my musicality. I was surprised at how hard it was for me, then really happy when I figured it out!

Jessica Maria Tuccelli: I come from an acting background, and when I perform, I get pretty nervous the entire day. What propels you on stage, meaning, I consider it a courageous act to allow yourself to be so vulnerable and go out there and give yourself to the audience—what gets you to that place?

Rachel Loshak: I have no idea! When I first began performing in NYC as a singer-songwriter I used to get very nervous, not being able to eat starting around lunch-time before an evening show, feeling anxious and full of adrenaline for hours beforehand, then getting a bit too loose perhaps after the performance would be over! But as I performed more and more, I began to find a comfortable place for those sensations. I don't normally wear any make-up, but it's very important to me when I perform to be wearing at least some eye make-up! And I have a pair of shoes that I always wear, that belonged to one of my aunts in the 70's and I found in my grandmother's house after she died. I like to always wear them when I perform.

It could be seen as courageous, but I also feel an underlying sense of selfishness about it since I get so much from singing. The songs I have written all come from an emotion that I had inside when I wrote the song and needed to express – so I feel very self-conscious about the personal nature of the content, but at the same time safe while I'm on stage singing. A lot of the meanings of my songs are not topics that I'd be comfortable talking about in a general way, so the fact that I'm singing about them onstage is unfathomable to me sometimes! I don't think that the audience always knows exactly what it is I'm singing about though – more that they relate to the feeling in a particular song which may resonate with something going on in their own lives.

I think that the fear of expressing difficult emotions is not as great as the fear of keeping them bottled up inside. My music is sometimes the only way for me to process those feelings. I guess this all contributes to the nervousness. But in general, once I am singing, it all goes away, and if I'm singing and playing well, it's the best feeling in the world. Now, as long as I'm prepared well, I feel very comfortable performing.

Jessica Maria Tuccelli: I love that you wear your aunt's shoes when you perform! I have a box of lavender in my writing desk—my mom gave it to me when I was in university. The lavender was from her garden. It feels comforting to have it nearby when I write, like a permanent hug from mom. She gave me my passion for reading, and later in my life, encouraged me be informed about political and social issues. Did your mom influence you as well?

Rachel Loshak: My mum had a huge influence on me. She was always very supportive of my interest in music and theatre and literature. When I was a young adult (tween I guess!) she was especially proactive and encouraging of my reading a wide variety of books. She also felt very strongly at the time herself about apartheid in South Africa, and felt it important to educate me about it. I therefore read several books - toned down in content for young readers I'm guessing in retrospect - but one that has stuck with me was called "Underground to Canada" about the underground railway. At the time I knew nothing really about slavery, the U.S. civil war or how native Indians were driven out of their own lands. I was more interested in recent European history of the holocaust. Now that I live in America, I'm filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge of U.S. history from the 1800's - and it feels so loaded and present - unlike European history before the 19th century which because there is so much of it, seems all fairly remote to current day affairs. While reading Glow, I couldn't help thinking, "what is the connection for Jessica, from Italian and European Jewish descent, to the Black and Cherokee people in Georgia that she is writing about?" It wasn't until into the middle of the book, when Riddle Young is talking with Solomon Bounds about wanting to buy his son out of slavery, and Solomon said how he had been surprised that Riddle and his sister escaped the removals, that it dawned on me the similarities between the Removals and the Holocaust. I'm curious to know - was that your connection that made you able to identify with your characters and their stories?

Jessica Maria Tuccelli: Absolutely. The story of Glow begins just prior to the Trail of Tears and ends just before the US entry into World War II, from one holocaust to another, linking two moments in history that people don't generally consider in one breath. It is the story of mothers and daughters, misfits, identity, friendships, betrayals, and love. It speaks to the power of companionship. And human connections that prevail against forces of history that no one can escape.

When I was a child, my father taught me about the atrocities of the Holocaust, and he didn't mince words. If his family hadn't immigrated to the U.S., they very well could have perished in Romania or in the Nazi camps, and my father, hence I, never would have been born. That left an impression on me at a very early age.

Rachel Loshak: That's interesting to hear. I had an intense interest in the Holocaust and it's effects on people's lives. It becomes hard to comprehend the meaning of that for my family, who came from Russian to the UK in the early 1900's – when many of their friends and relatives also left Russian at that time but settled in Germany instead, and no doubt were killed in the camps. But my family didn't talk about it too much around me, though were/are all very politically driven. Just recently I learned that one of my relatives had an awful experience during World War II, losing his entire family while escaping himself – it made it feel suddenly very vivid to know of his experience. Reading Glow really does connect wars and human suffering in a way that I hadn't recognized before – you did an amazing job in creating a circle of life, family, community, culture and war.

Jessica Maria Tuccelli: Thank you. That means a lot to me.

Another question for you: I'm a relatively new a mom, plus I had a child later in life than the average gal. I feared losing the solitude and time I needed for my creative process and my work. For me, being an artist is integral to my sense of self and to being the kind of mom I'd like to be. I find it challenging—being a mom and working artist. How do you find the balance with two tots, a solo career, your Apple-Eye label, and your collaboration with your husband, Morgan Taylor, creator of the wonderful Gustafer Yellowgold? What do you hope for? What do you fear?

Rachel Loshak: I also had my children later in life than most, which was definitely connected to my hoping to ‘make it' in the music world before having children. I was scared to lose opportunities with my music. Having children felt at the time like I'd be giving up on all that I had been working so hard to achieve. However, there came a turning point, once Morgan and I had created our company and released two Gustafer Yellowgold DVD/CD sets, when I felt very strongly that if we kept working only on that and put off having children that we would regret it, and that Gustafer being successful wouldn't mean very much to either of us if we didn't have children. We just had to figure out a way to have children and continue to work on Gustafer.

Having said that, having children has dramatically affected my ability to be creative in my own right – I give a lot of myself to my children and my husband. I still have a great need to have a creative outlet and solitude, but more often than not I don't get it! It's a constant source of conflict for me, but my thoughts are that this is just a relatively short time in my life when my two children are very young (1 year and 4 years) and soon enough it will have passed and they will be older and wanting their own solitude – then I can get some of mine back! In the mean time I'm working on small steps to help me find a little time each day for myself.

Working with you was a huge inspiration for me to keep making those steps. I hope for myself that I don't let this phase roll into being how things are forever, that we find some level of security from what we are doing (like someone with any other kind of job) that enables me to take the space that I need for myself. I'm definitely fearful that this will go on and on. So I try everyday to do one thing for myself, even if it's just to have 30 minutes to myself in bed after everyone else gets up (I sleep with my one year old and breast feed him at night, so my sleep isn't my own right now either!)

How do you find the balance? I know that you've been traveling a lot to promote Glow, and that you must miss your daughter while doing so, but has that given you some of the emotional space you need? How do you find that solitude in your every day life when you're at home?

Jessica Maria Tuccelli: Traveling for Glow was freeing. I desperately missed having uninterrupted time to myself, and while I was on tour, I had the personal space I craved. I love traveling, l love exploring, I love meeting people and being exposed to new cultures, ideas, music etc. So this was a needed respite for me. Of course, it wasn't as simple as that, meaning, in the past, when I had as much solitude as I pleased, my heart didn't pang with the longing I have now when I am away from my daughter. The balancing act is a challenge. I have to make myself go to my studio in Brooklyn. I miss my daughter when I am away for the day, but it's too distracting to work from home, where there is no solitude or emotional space whatsoever! I have to admit; I don't go to my Brooklyn studio enough. I must really push myself out the door, I feel so sad leaving my daughter. But I'm not such a pleasant person to be around, I'm downright unhappy if I don't take the space I need.

Ok, next question: I'm always intrigued by what entices someone down the creative path. What led you to become a musician? And how did you choose the bass, which, to me, is the coolest instrument one can play?

Rachel Loshak: I always wanted to sing since seeing my Aunt Myra on stage in the West End – in Evita, Cats, Les Miserables, and many more, while I was a child. I learned the violin from age 3 and piano from age 7, but didn't practice enough to be great – singing came so naturally that I didn't have to practice it. I was very shy at performing though, so didn't think I could pursue it as a career even though I studied music all through school. I completed my degree in Creative Arts and a year after graduating I moved to New York. The thought I brought with me was that I was going to come to America and find a proper job and stop thinking that I could earn a living from music. But within a few months of arriving, I had immersed myself in the music scene in the East Village and the Lower East Side. I saw a lot of people getting up on stage and performing – with untrained voices and just a few chords on the guitar or piano – it was very inspiring and felt like something I could do. A friend lent me a bass guitar (the Guild that I still play today) and a few days later I said yes to performing three songs at a singer-songwriter night at a now-gone venue on Houston Street. I went home and wrote three songs and did the gig. After that, I just kept booking shows for myself and kept writing until I had enough songs to play at the shows. (I have to add that I always also had "proper jobs" too – as a photo retoucher and a music therapist, until we had our first son, Harvey, and began to pursue Gustafer full time – so now that's my "proper job", which is thrilling!)

I was always drawn to the bass – even before I played it myself, I partnered with bass players while I was doing my degree, somehow craving the depth of the sound to go with my voice –it provided a grounding for my high voice. I didn't consider playing it myself until I lived in New York and picked one up by chance at a friends house and started messing around on it. It felt natural to me after playing the violin – as a way to create countermelodies, a harmony to sing to. I love it.

 As a creator of art forms - in my case, music and songs, I'm acutely aware of what it takes to create a work of art - though songs and albums generally take a lot less time from start to finish than a novel. The amount of passion, thought, research and emotion that must have gone into writing Glow is self-evident. I think you mention that it has taken you 4+ years? Congratulations on its publication!!!! But where do you go from here? Have you started to think about what you might write next, or have you already begun another novel? Or do you need a break?!

Jessica Maria Tuccelli: Thank you! And, no—no break! My ideal world consists of writing novels, making feature films, traveling, founding a philanthropic organization for children's education in developing nations, and coming home to kisses from Joel and our daughter. The best part of writing, in my opinion, is the first draft, the discovery process. I'm working on a screenplay, as well as another novel, which was prompted by a re-reading of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. I'm not ready to share the story yet, but I can tell you the spark for the narrative was a bat, a dead bat to be more precise, that I stumbled over in the Boston Common. The oddest things can get me going!

I'm often asked about my writing process, so it is with much delight and interest that I ask you: what is your process? Can you share how you create a song?

Rachel Loshak: I could have a melody or lyric in my head that just won't go away until I sit with my bass in a room by myself and make it a song. Or I could sit with my bass in a room by myself and just play around with different musical motifs and melodies, shifting and adjusting until the progressions are interesting enough and a thought has turned into lyrics. When I lived in the city I would often have music and words in my head as I walked through the streets, and I'd sing it to myself over and over again until I got home and could pick up my bass and make it into a song. Other times I might be upset about something, or unable to shake off a sad thought or feeling, not able to read a book or watch a film or talk to anyone or eat, and the only thing I could do would be to sit and write a song.

None of those situations seem to occur as much for me lately – in some respects for the best! But I'm ready to find time in my life to write more. I've booked two days in a local studio in September, so like I wrote the three songs for my first gig – I have a few months to write some songs before I go to the studio!

Jessica Maria Tuccelli: I have a secret wish: You will write the music for the film-adaptation of Glow. Have you ever dreamed of writing a soundtrack?

Rachel Loshak: Yes and yes. I've already starting thinking about how the soundtrack for Glow would start…

Rachel Loshak links:

Rachel Loshak's website
Gustafer Yellowgold's website
Rachel Loshak's blog
Rachel Loshak's photography blog

Rachel's other albums are available here:

Peach Pony

Jessica Maria Tuccelli links:

Jessica Maria Tuccelli's website
Jessica Maria Tuccelli's Facebook page
Jessica Maria Tuccelli on Twitter
Glow Bookclub link
Jessica Maria Tuccelli's Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for Glow

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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