When we last spoke with Matana Roberts, she had just finished work on Chapter 2 of her mesmerizing Coin Coin series. The albums that make up this exceptionally broad, yet focused work permit the Brooklyn-based saxophonist to meld her interests in American history and oral tradition to her passion for ancestry. Roberts is a prolific artist who works across mediums and techniques; her latest album and third chapter in the Coin Coin series, river run thee, is a dizzyingly complex solo effort that explores alternate methods of recording and processing sound. It’s a superb addition, and quite possibly her most personal release to date — for not only has the work got Roberts thinking about how a solo album might be received, but it also compliments her new living space, rocking back and forth on the waves of the North Atlantic.
TMT caught up with Roberts to talk about field recordings, the intricacies of an artist’s life online, and her new perspective on Brooklyn.
I understand that I’m speaking to you from a houseboat at the moment.
Yeah, I’m living on a tiny houseboat on the edge of Brooklyn, I’m about as far South as you can get in this part of the city. So, yeah, I’m here right now, talking to you on the water.
That’s very different to the last time we spoke, when we concentrated on the hustle and bustle of street life and your metropolitan surroundings. I suppose this must be giving you a completely different perspective on day-to-day life.
It’s a dream come true for me. I never imaged that I would have such a brilliant opportunity. It’s almost as though I could never have planned being here, as though there is no way I could have thought this possible. I love how the whole situation ties in with what I have been working on for the last year or so, particularly with this record. It was one of those things, where it felt like the universe was aligned for it to be possible. I’ve been here on the boat since October and I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stay here for, maybe a year, maybe more — we’ll see.
But being here gives me a different way of thinking about life. In the city there are a lot of other concerns that I had to think about with a regular apartment or home. But I spend my free time on the water now — that’s how I’m exploring New York City, just being out on the waterways. One of the the things about the water here is that normally I would have to travel to get to it, but now I’m able to go out first thing in the morning. I mean, I can’t run the boat because I don’t have a license, but I still have a means of getting out on the water.
You mean you have a skiff?
I have a kayak, and I surf. I also have a paddle board, which is kind of like a surf board but it’s more for standing up and paddling down the waterways. That’s one of my favorite things to do and one of my favorite ways to explore. I don’t get on a train, I just throw it out the back door, jump out on the water and off I go.
Does this change in lifestyle feed into your writing, particularly in the way that you observe people and the landscape? It must be having a huge impact on your art!
It’s bringing a certain sense of peace that I haven’t had before as a New Yorker. I’ve always been around the hustle and bustle, but the boat is located in a very old part of Brooklyn; it’s a part of Brooklyn that doesn’t really exist anymore insofar as you wouldn’t typically be exposed to it. But because I’m by the edge of the water, I’m able to experiment with sound and make sound at any hour of the day or night, and I’ve never had the privilege of doing that in NYC. And there’s other stuff; wildlife stuff, like I always knew that there were different types of ducks, but now I’m seeing them with my own eyes! This area of Brooklyn is over populated by swans, so all the swans swim up to the boat — they are very beautiful but they are like little bullies, they come up to the boat hoping that I might toss something out to them, which is interesting to see. But the space sounds different and it smells different. But you have to remember that it’s still urban waterways, so it still brings back this feeling of living in a city, in one of the most polluted cities in the world.
So is the change in lifestyle the major appeal for you?
I guess so. I’ve always been interested in living in unusual ways and trying to match my spirit in terms of my history and my sense of adventure. And every day there is something new here that I haven’t considered before. That’s a fascinating thing when you live in NYC — because I always feel like I should go somewhere else to see if I can make things work in the same way. But I feel so inspired by this city; I get inspired by finding out what makes it work. But I’m trying to focus people on history and stories of people — and that’s what I’m currently surrounded by; folks who have an understanding of aquatic life and nature that other New Yorkers do not have.
Is it a single boat that you have in this particular area or do you have many neighbors?
I do sort of have neighbors. I live on a very tiny marina on the edge, where there are about 12 boats. I’m one of only four people who live around here though, so I see my neighbors. I don’t see them very often, but we know each other. It takes a certain kind of person to live on a boat year-round, and it’s not for the faint. There is so much to take into account, like heating the boat — that’s fascinating because it changes my priorities about what I do, but I enjoy that and I enjoy the sustainability factor as well. But even with getting on and off the boat, you have to walk down this gangplank, which, depending on the height of the tide is either really high, like at a 60 degree angle, or it’s really low, and those heights are really something — it’s like climbing a mountain.
You must empathize with those lifestyles now though, right? With those other people who live on boats year round. Because now you are thinking about heating the boat and external forces such as the current and the tides, and your music, at least in your previous Coin Coin chapter, has a very deep connection with real people and real lives. I’m wondering how your newfound sense of empathy might have an impact on writing and composition.
Yeah, it has me feeling about a certain sense of civic responsibility and sense of duty in terms of how I place the histories of the people I’m talking about in [my] work. Out here I’m reminded of that sense of livelihood, that hard-working people respect other hard-working people. In terms of working class, that’s what you are constantly reminded of, and it’s really diverse.
Whoever the people are here, there is a feeling that they respect those that work hard. And on the marina, I do stick out a little, to the point that one of my neighbors asked me if I was a hipster. That’s fine, totally fine; I understand that… I’m not worried about that. I don’t see myself as a kind of parasitic hipster who just feeds on a community though… There are other hipsters who are just so down to try anything, like they will try anything new because they are curious and intellectually fascinated by everything. So I’m not a full-on hipster, I would never say that, but I do like really good coffee and hipsters like that — they also buy vinyl and they come to my shows. I feel like I’m partly responsible for turning North Brooklyn into this hipster Mecca, because when I moved to New York, that’s where we all moved to, and that’s where I spent all my time. But I did tell the lady that I’m not a hipster. She then pointed out that I listened to records a lot as I have a record player here and that I don’t watch TV — there’s a TV on the boat but I don’t watch it — and I look weird out there. Like, I’m out on the water in this weather and so they see me every morning and ask, “What is wrong with this lady?” But I’m fine, and a lot of that has to do with the good people that are around me — it doesn’t matter where you come from.
Did she ask you if you were a hipster with a sound of worry in her voice, like houseboats might become a new trend?
No, she wasn’t trying to be funny or suspicious, she was just curious. She had read an article in the New York Times about hipsters and she just wanted to talk. I feel like a pioneer out here in a sense, because there are more artists moving out to this part of the city; but another reason for moving out here was that I wanted to be closer to a certain area in Queens, which isn’t even 20 minutes away from here. I used to surf out there, and it’s really hard to get out there from pretty much any point in the city, but from where I am, it’s really easy. If I had my way I would have ended up in Queens and not in Brooklyn, but right now this is where I’m.
I’m at a point where I need more time and space with my brain, and at this point as an artist you would normally move upstate to pull it all together, but for some reason I feel like it’s just not time to go yet.
How about having the freedom to play your saxophone at different times of the day? How is that having an impact on what you are writing?
Yeah, it’s amazing. In every other place I’ve lived I had to stop playing by 10 p.m., which isn’t a bad hour, but I really like having a studio to practice in, and I don’t have a studio right now. But there was always a time where I have been able to go and work. Having someone who lives above you and they say something like, “Oh, I heard you practicing and it sounds great,” that makes me feel really self-conscious… Or saying that I’m too loud, which never happened, but I felt that maybe it might.
And I feel like we are living in a time now where we are constantly watched, in like a voyeurism of the century, and it got to be too much for me. But here, if I play music too loudly on my record player or on my saxophone, nobody cares. The only thing that I can hear above me is the furniture on the top deck, like there is no one banging on the ceiling. There are fish out here and maybe they are a little angry — I don’t know. But I will take my horn outside and play for the birds at some point, but I haven’t had a chance to do that yet. It has been really liberating to have a space that makes me happy — every day I wake up and it’s full of mystery and wonder, and that’s on a parallel with what I’m trying to deal with in the work. I never felt that I needed those parallels so clearly defined, but this experience has really made that clear, that I have to have a space in which to live and create in a way I want to create.
It seems like a solitary move as well, living on the houseboat. I’ve seen the word ‘solitary’ banded about on the press release as well. I guess the first thing that stands out on the new record is that it’s a solo album, which contrasts with the last chapter where you had so many people that you knew and who worked with you so well. Why did you chose to go solo with this project?
There were always two solo segments in the series; ideally it would have started with a solo segment, then there would have been another to bookend the entire project, like a prologue and an epilogue — so this was always in the back on my mind, even though the solo chapters are very different from each other. The next solo chapter won’t be released for some time, and it won’t sound anything like this one in scope or direction. That next solo one will be the most autobiographical in a sense, but I just need to get to it. I’ve been touring this chapter off and on for a while, trying to experiment with the gear and building the video scores. I wanted to use the solo segments as a basis for working on the video scores, using the lo-fi methods of how I create the paper scores, but also working with video, because I’m just fascinated by image and moving image. And so that’s how the structure came about.
You told me last time that you had performed Chapters 3, 4 and 5 as well. That you had already played those live at various points.
Yes, up to chapter 6 even. I kind of mess myself up by performing the chapters before recording them, but as an improvisor, that just seems very natural. You know, it took me forever to find the right label to put this out, so that played into it as well, so there was a constant of moving forward and then back-stepping and moving forward again and trying really hard not to get paranoid about the pace.
Does it feel strange, then, to physically release a work without any of the involvement you had with those past collaborators?
Well the project was put together for the purpose of being able to experiment with different groups of musicians using graphic scores. So the underlying premise for me was about building community — I know so many musicians worldwide and I knew that so much good could come from getting them in a room together, and this project seemed like the best way to do it. The Chapter 1 musicians had only played that music a couple of times before recording. For Chapter 2, I played with many different groups, but on the records I just try to commit to the people who will enjoy being a part of that, or even have the time and availability. Getting all of those people together in one room is really hard. Setting up rehearsals and getting everyone together is so difficult in the city.
The style of Chapter 3 has a lot to do with those experiments you mentioned and the way that you were recording. What was it like to turn your attention on that specifically?
It’s always been an interest — I wanted to make sure I was going in a punk direction. I have friends who are amazing musicians or amazing electronic sound artists. I truly respect what they do, but I’m not trying to do what they do. I’m committed to the possibilities of lo-fi and the equipment that I can use to create something sonic and strange and fascinating. Also, I’m not very much of a gear-head; I need tools that feel very instinctual — so that was the approach in using acoustics and space as an instrument. So we had microphones everywhere, even in a piano shell; we had that set up and used it as a sonic bounce-off for the saxophone. And the whole commitment to inexpensive materials is crucial, so I used these three synths that costs about $50 a pop, and the field recordings I made in the south I made on a zoom H4 recorder, and I weave things together in Logic and use that as the bottom base. Then I went into the studio with the purpose of overdubbing and locking into my biggest skill set — improvisation. When I plug into that skill, all sorts of things happen, but I was nervous about sharing this record, I was nervous about sharing this with people.
I’m interested in those field recordings. What can you tell me about your trips to Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana?
This great art foundation in New York sponsored my trip so I could take 30 days off. It was a very weird trip. I had a series of cancellations in Mexico City, where I was supposed to be playing for a couple of months, and a friend who was supposed to come couldn’t make it, so I went on my own. It was an amazing trip on so many levels. What would you like to know about it specifically?
It’s part of our tradition and our politics to speak up for what you believe in and to not be afraid to share your feelings. That all comes out of punk and the punk rock aesthetic — it’s about not being afraid. I don’t live my life in that way — I’d have to be like kidnapped and tortured; it would have to come to something like that.
I’d like to know about some of the people you met and spoke with and how that impacted your recordings, if at all
As a traveler, one of the things you learn a lot about is how to talk with strangers. So I got to know a lot of random people, everyone from the people working at the hotels I stayed at to Hell’s Angels at the Mississippi state senate house. Those guys were on a trip; there were 3 of them and 1 of me and we all got completely flagged by security the moment we went in the building. So things like that, we had some really great conversations.
I also went out of my way to talk to a lot of elderly people because they have a perspective of the South that others do not. Then I spoke to specific people — one of the reasons I have been able to do so much ancestry research with this project was thanks to a distant cousin who lived in Tennessee, who I had never met. He was studying the Will and Testaments of his own family and started to notice the listing of the slaves between the ox cart and the silver. He went out of his way to make sure the descendants of slaves have records of their people, and I’m one of those people. So I finally got to meet him in person, as well as cousins that I never knew about, especially in Louisiana. One town that I went to in Louisiana, was the birth and death place of the original Coin Coin — it was the kind of place where everyone is related, even if they are like 12th cousin[s], everyone is related in this little town. I spoke to a lot of people living on the streets and found that they had the best perspective on what a place is really like, based on their experience. I tried to blend in the best I could, and that didn’t really work, but it brought about some really interesting, sometimes dangerous situations because I was traveling alone.