Matana Roberts “You can’t chose who you are related to. But a lot of the stories that are on the Coin Coin record are stories that were told to me as a child, and they fascinate me.”

I completely agree that when you are traveling to a different city, sometimes strangers and people you meet by chance are often the most interesting people to speak with, especially if they have some local perspective of the area, even better if they have a connection with your project. I’m curious as to whether some of the things they will have said will have worked their way into our music somehow?

I’m sure! But there will be many years before I understand exactly what that is. You know there is a tumblr from that trip, and I keep meaning to disengage it, but I decided to leave it up for a while. I took something like 5000 photos — and everything that was photographed was a point of inspiration. I think there are only 800 images on that tumblr, but it’s an idea — those are definitely points of inspiration; the colors, the sounds, the smells, the movement of people. Southerners move differently, they talk differently — I have been all over the world and I have never been anywhere as foreign as Mississippi!

Memphis Tennessee felt more homely because I had been there before, but I still remember when I turned a corner in Memphis and hit the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot — I will never forget that image. I don’t remember seeing that ever before, at least not with the understanding that I have. I got to go and stand in the window where MLK was shot, and that’s just amazing. But I spent a lot of time also in African American graveyards, where for some reason, they are not kept so well. I feel I need to do something about that. There is one graveyard where many of my descendants are buried; my great-great grandfather was a medical doctor in that area and I’m sure serviced many of the people in that cemetery, it’s on many of the death certificates in that city. And to walk amongst it and see it all treated like a garbage area was shocking.

Were there any other events in particular that shaped the direction of the trip

I was supposed to fly from Louisiana to New York when I was done. And I have so many cousins in New Orleans, I just don’t know who is who anymore, but I ran into a cousin who asked when I was leaving, and I said I was leaving the following day and he told me there was no way I could do that. He told me that the following day was St. Joseph’s day and that the Mardi Gras Indians come out at night in the hood on St Joseph’s day. I just had to see that! So I forfeited my plane ticket and ended up taking the train back from New Orleans to New York so I could stay. I’m ecstatic that I did that because it was an amazing experience and some of those sounds are on the record and also to see the country from Louisiana to NYC by train was just so beautiful — the terrain is so inspiring. There is so much to see here and sometimes I forget that. So the record represents so many experiences within that small period of time.

Of course your grandmother was quite integral to your work and you have mentioned family a few times. Was here influence as strong this time around?

My lineage weaves throughout this entire project, it’s how I got interested in American history. Sometimes we are taught American history in such a way that you don’t see enough people who look like you in order to understand it. So I’m able to relate it to family stories, which always weave throughout the project. My paternal grandmother was from Mississippi, my maternal grandmother was from Memphis, my grandfather was from Louisiana — they are all over this project. One of the things I got really scared about when I started this work was that people would think I was obsessed with ancestry, but no, it’s about American History.

I keep trying to go that way. I’m digging into this a little more now — I took all of the DNA testing on the market, so you pay a bunch of money and do all these tests and they send you a heap of records telling you what you are. That was really fascinating — seeing the things my grandparents already told me I was. To see that I do have Native American blood. I mean, sometimes African American families are not so sure about that because they used to hide the shame of an assault, but there are other things too, like apparently I’m 3% Polynesian — that’s really fascinating! What’s that about? A ton Irish, there is a lot of UK blood running through my veins, and now you have the opportunity to be put in touch with all of the people that you share DNA with, that’s quite something. It’s frightening that I haven’t dug all the way into that yet, but I will be using these things as a point of inspiration. I want people to question, that if we are made of so many different things and so many different types of people, why is there so much conflict and hatred? It’s just ridiculous.

I remember when my grandmother asked me, “So when are you going to settle down,” and I was like, “errrrm.” She had no idea so I was like, “How do I explain to her that I’m a wild stallion?”

So do your family come and visit you in New York from down South?

Well, it’s gotten strange actually since the passing of my mother. Things got really weird and at some point, there were a lot of hurt feelings about her sickness and passing and a lot of people just stopped communicating with each other. But I’m able to go down and visit — on that trip I was able to visit.

I have a lot of great cousins in Louisiana, who aren’t able to visit me, so I go to them. I stick out like an odd bird there — I’m the odd bird. I remember when my grandmother asked me, “So when are you going to settle down,” and I was like, “errrrm.” She had no idea so I was like, “How do I explain to her that I’m a wild stallion?” Like, she wouldn’t understand the concept of how I live, like freedom is everything to me, but you can’t explain that to people from a certain generation. So, you just keep quiet, say that you aren’t sure and hope that they never ask you again.

I know there are some of the ways I live and some of the things I’m into, some of my family are really not supportive. And some of the things surrounding my mother’s death had to do with me being an artist. That was a big problem for a few people. So it’s tricky. But I feel really happy that the work I’m leaving behind is honoring so many people — and I feel like I can almost hear them telling me that what I’m making and how I go about it is 100 percent OK, even with what I’m hearing from other family members who have a problem with how I’m living.

My mother was the most supportive person. She was the one I would bounce the most crazy ideas off of and even if she thought it was crazy she would still say, “You do that!” So I think about that often — she was the first person that I bounced the Coin Coin project off of. On her deathbed, I was showing her scores — I remember I had never shown her scores before and I don’t know how that happened. My mother was in traction at this time, her spine had collapsed and she couldn’t move or walk, it was really horrible, and I pulled out the scores and she said to me, “You ask musicians to play this?” And I said “Yes!” and she just laughed, and that just made me so happy. So a lot of what I’m doing on these records now just has a lot to do with making sure that I’m not taking things for granted, and that I feel a certain duty to uphold everything that my family and my ancestors went through.

But I was brought up in a way that I was told to speak up, even if we don’t agree as a family, that I had a responsible to say my thing. But in my family there are preachers, and schoolteachers and lawyers and doctors and community activists and there’s a filmmaker and other musicians everybody who is doing these things, there is a constant idea of service, and so I think about that a lot — even through the diversity. You can’t chose who you are related to. But a lot of the stories that are on the Coin Coin record are stories that were told to me as a child, and they fascinate me. They give me confidence to be who I’m and not question the disciplines I’m into even now as an adult person — I’m a bit unusual, and that’s just fine.

What is it that makes this album so personal, beyond the fact that it’s a solo record?

I know how much someone suffered for me to be sitting on this boat right now, because I know the history. I know how much someone suffered for me to play music and make things. Living as an artist is so difficult, but it’s also a real privilege. I feel a responsibility to ensure that all of my output is therefore personal. There are personal things running through all these records and only my really close friends pick up on all of it. A lot of stuff will go over people’s heads and I’m glad about that in a way — but I was so nervous about putting this out because it is so different from the other records. It is its own entity. I was worried that the people who had enjoyed the last couple of records would be able to encase themselves in this one — but this was where the output was making me go.

As far as output is concerned, you also have your internet projects, such as the and the houseboat blog

I’m really struggling with that by the way! I feel like I can be honest about that — I feel like it’s really personal. Yeah, the internet makes me incredibly manic. I’ve noticed that being on this boat has been helpful because it’s so peaceful. Where I was living before, I used to be manic all the time, but I really struggle with how much I should be connecting with people outside of the music. But there is a certain sense of anonymity that just frightens me a little bit and it’s like this OCD looping, where I have to turn the computer off and put it in a cabinet so that I don’t see it and I can work! I have to find a way of getting round that so that I can get everything done. And I do a lot of my own business stuff, like bookings and stuff, so I have to be online for that, but I’m really interested how it reaches people… I’ve been going crazy on Twitter as well the last couple of months, I don’t know if you have noticed?

Yes, I have. Why do you think that is?

There is just something about these platforms that are just conducive to illness, there is something about it that makes me uneasy or uncomfortable. But I feel as though, as a musician, this is something I should be using to connect with people and I should be keeping my output honest. But I don’t know how to use these platforms without trying to place myself as honestly as I can and try to keep it positive — I think about that a lot. But I do use the internet to complain, but that’s another thing I’m trying to do less of. The blogs are just temporary, when the album comes out there will be no more boat blog.

That’s a shame because it’s specific — there is a lot of cool stuff on there. Experiences juxtaposed with images, it’s like an online diary documenting your new life experience

Yeah, it’s fascinating but what kind of artist am I trying to be with that? I do a lot of things in the name of sound, but these projects are really connected with sound in a direct way and there is a real rise of musicians with blogs, for instance, and it has got to the point for some of us where it’s taking away from our musical output. So I’m sitting on this boat trying to figure out the best way to handle that, but I’ve also found that Twitter is useful to have, like if you get disrespected by a promoter or if you have some crazy happen to you that you want your supporters to know that you’ve experienced, that you are out here, on a boat for example, doing this. But I also use Twitter as a means of making people aware of social issues that are really important to me. So I experiment with hash-tag activism and I experiment with different cultures online, but I notice that if I do this too much, I’m not able to focus on the reality off line, and that’s a big problem. I think I’m going to have to make some really harsh decisions after this record comes out.

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?”

You mentioned anonymity there, and I’m wondering if that comes from you worrying about various aspects of your personality coming across as anonymous, or is it the way that you are responding to the anonymity of others?

Well my paranoia about anonymity has to do with experiences from the past. That’s why I’ve tried to back away from these sites in a way — I mean, my Twitter was private for a while but then Constellation convinced me to make it public, because nothing is really private anymore. Even if you have private settings or whatever on your feeds, nothing is really private. I work with a lot of activists, so I know that my feeds are being watched. I have friends who are being investigated by the FBI because of what they do online. So I go back and forth about how to put things out there.

But then again, some of my good friends write my favorite zines, like Aaron Cometbus. I had been reading his zine for years, and realized that when I met him, I felt like I knew him through his work. But it wasn’t until I really got to know him that I realized he really compartmentalized parts of his personality, which is just kind of fascinating. You can write things honestly and put things out there in a certain way, but still keep a lot to yourself. So the way that you use the internet, you need to keep that in mind and that’s why I don’t like complaining. I mean, I complain a little bit but that’s part of zine culture and zine writing — it’s just young punks complaining about stupid things. And some of those zines I never made extra copies of and I shudder at the thought of when they show up…

So now I try to be careful when I use certain words online because I don’t need the NYPD at my door and it’s kind of gotten to that point. And I try to be encouraging to people because that’s one of the best things you can do — at some point people’s lives are going to be traceable just by clicking a few links. Biographies are going to be pulled together through online feeds, which is so crazy. So I think about that a little bit, but anything that I share, I try to be as honest as I can and I try to own the experience.

You’ve been tweeting a lot about current affairs, particularly the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris. I wanted to ask about censorship and free speech because we talked last time about the religious component within your music and improvising using the bible. You mentioned how you would open the bible and you would read randomly from a sentence and use that as material. I wondered, based on social media discourse, if your views on that had changed in any way and if that religious component will still play a part in your music?

Yes, in the Coin Coin series particularly because you can not have an understanding about history unless you have an understanding of this horrible book that laid the foundation; the bible, right? So I spent this year trying to deal with the bible and, truth be told, my favorite place to spend time outside of the water are old churches. Pre-1870, you will find me in that church somewhere checking it out because I love these old spaces and I feel like when I walk into them I can feel the presence of so much faith and hope that people try to bring into them, when the undercurrent can often be kind of evil.

But I’ve spent this year trying to deal with the bible a little deeper and I couldn’t read it again because of what I had done in the performances, so I got these audio reenactments — dramatic versions of the bible — and I still haven’t made it past Genesis because I get so angry. The bible was deeply specific to Chapter 2; I couldn’t deal with my Mississippi history and not deal with that because my great-great grandfather was a traveling preacher so I felt a responsibility to put that in there. But the Deep South is all deeply religious, you know — like my Louisiana people are hardcore Catholics and I missed Catholic school just by the skin of my teeth. That was because my parents didn’t have money to do that and they were very anti-… but my mother was raised hardcore catholic, and I can’t turn my back on that history because I know what it did for people on plantations. I know what it did for the people who came across on boats to Ellis Island, I know what it did for Native American people I’m related to who got pushed off of their land. There is something to be said about a sense of faith and something greater than yourself.

I’m more of a camp that you can create your own religion, and that’s how I go back and forth, but in terms of censorship I have a real problem with that. The Charlie Hebdo thing… it’s so complex — the main thing is that these men and the one woman should not have been shot… and it’s like a domino effect of death with this story. The fact that people could kill for other people utilizing creativity is terrible. But there is also a history of colonialist aggression, and the use of artists from some cultures mocking other cultures, and that is a reality, and that is something that people are not always paying attention to. But people should not have to die just because they chose to be creative or funny. I’m also coming from a history of where making fun of black people is a tradition, and it still is, but it mostly comes from other black people today! But, there is a whole tradition of lampooning slaves and lampooning Southern blackness by white artists — that’s a true thing. The aggression that these people felt regarding their religious belief is something that they are building for quite some time, and now it has gotten to this point where you create these carousels… there is so much about it that’s so baffling. I don’t support Charlie Hebdo’s messages over the years, but I still support the right to speak freely.

I imaged that you would have an interesting take on it, particularly because you are using religion in your art; or at least you are using religious texts in your art — and indeed, that could also be something that people could be offended by.

Yeah, they are sometimes.

What’s your reaction to that when it happens?

Luckily, I live in communities where people might not like what I’m doing but they are not going to hurt me. At least that hasn’t happened yet — you never know. In Chapter 1, I’m reading the Lord’s prayer backwards, which for some people is like devil worship of some kind. And I have a lot of problems with the African American church — I don’t know where to begin. I had a front seat as to what that is all about, but I don’t live in a way where I’m fearful of any harm that might be done to me because I deal with those texts in my own ways.

If you got threatened by someone, do you think you would stop?

Probably not. It’s very hard to tell me what to do. Especially if you tell me what to do as a… Even if you just tell me what to do! I have a really hard time with that because I’m just used to doing the things I enjoy. That’s a privilege that was given to me by so many people that suffered. As an American woman… some people will say that we are aggressive. I wouldn’t go that far, but 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 be very hard to silence.

The other side to online communication and voicing our opinions, is the trail of information that we all leave behind about our personality. How do you feel about that as someone who studies history and who traces ancestry and who looks back at past lives. Will that have an impact on the way that research is done in the future, do you think?

I think so. There are some people who I have researched in my ancestry whose trails just go cold after certain years. So I know there are still things to find out. But that really fascinates me, especially as a tattoo collector. It fascinates me that all the different strands, like the American carnival tradition, like circuses and such, that you can search for those people and find that they have no trace — you have no idea what has happened to them. And it’s fascinating to know that’s no longer going to be the case for a number of people, and I think a lot about that. I mean, I would love to be a little more mysterious if I could online — it’s now a bit too late perhaps, like I could start another music project under some anonymous pseudonym, but there would still be a trail of that anonymous pseudonym, so it’s awesome but it’s also scary because sometimes I even battle with people online who say things that are contradictory to the truth.

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.

Did you say that you are a tattoo collector?

Yes, I have been collecting since 1997.

What does that entail?

I collect a lot of different styles and traditions that are in certain traditions. Like the whole American Western tradition, and the tradition in the country where you are right now [the UK] — there are different slants to it. But I’m also a collector because I’m not really allowed to have “stuff.” I’m not really allowed to own things outside of my instruments and my books, papers, and artwork. The thing about tattooing as that these traditions are going to be with me always. I can’t take them off and put them somewhere. But it’s also got quite discouraging in the last seven years or so; tattooing is becoming really popular. But the history and the tradition will tell you that; it gets popular and then it goes away — it has these different surges.

But this all stems from an oral tradition, particularly of the American kind. The people I know who deal in that tradition have a certain dedication to hard work, and I try to embrace that with the work that I’m making, so I’m like a walking road map of myself. My tattoos are like good-luck charms in a sense; I think you take in the energy of the person who is marking you. And so you have to be very careful with who you let do that, and so I’ve experimented with different ways over the years. “Tattoo Collector” sounds a bit snobby — it’s a tradition that I find incredibly satisfying and it mirrors so many things that I believe in. You know, I have some designs on me that were made at the turn of the century. It’s also a tradition of protest in a lot of ways.

How does traditional song fit into this third chapter?

It’s weird, it’s like a lot of the traditional songs on there are American songs that have been around for a very long time, and I have contradictory ways of feeling about them. I’m very patriotic and so a lot of those songs resonate with me and I think that happens because the singers would get together and sing in groups — there is something spiritual about that. Some of the songs came from my trip as well — standing in Mississippi state and hearing them play Star Spangled Banner in one of the most racist cities in the USA, in a state house that set down some of the most racist laws, against people in the United States, in the context of all of these traditions! I’m trying to deal with that on the record a lot. But the idea is that these songs were all passed down orally, through tradition — they just all seem to speak of the history to me that grabbed this weird sentimentality I seem to have at my core.

There is a sentence I wanted to pull from your boat blog and ask you about. You said that, “after 10 plus years of living in various tiny NCY boxes where my spirit felt partially shut in, it was hard to stay inspired. Here, there is so much inspiration to consider.” How might you distill that experience for the purposes of your next recording?

I feel like when I wrote that I was thinking, “Wow, Matana, you whine so much!” Because no matter where you are or what yo are doing, you should just be able to close your eyes and get out of that mindset. But the fact that I just had that in my head, where I needed to be somewhere more inspiration to create more inspirational things, that makes me feel like I whine too much. But it’s the feeling of wide open space — this boat is really tiny, but my spirit just feels so wide in here. Probably because of the water, I just turn my head and I can see the wide-open water. I can go and sit on the deck and just be outside and not have to get on a train to be outside for a while or walk down some crazy street just to be outside, just to lay on the deck and think about that.

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. I’m able to take care of myself here in a way that’s better than any time in the past, and when you can care better for yourself, everything works. I’m not on the train of artists who are constantly destructive. I do have friends who are like that, but I just don’t think I could function in that way, and no judgement on them, that’s their trip, but that’s definitely not my trip…. but there is a cross-racial line to my lineage, which meant so many poor people who could not just stand up and experience life. So I feel that I have a duty to be as adventurous as possible until I can’t do it anymore. At some point of course I won’t be able to live like this, at some point it’s going to have to stop.

[Photo: Brett Walker]

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