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.”

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.

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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