Wizard Apprentice The digital folk musician and performance artist talks avatars, abuse, and new album “Dig A Pit”

Cover art for Dig A Pit

Much can be said about the work of Tieraney Carter a.k.a. Wizard Apprentice a.k.a U.R.L.G.U.R.L, but I’ll keep it short: their music is digitally based, raw, and minimal. Their latest record, I Am Invisible (2018) on Ratskin, was really great, and their forthcoming, Dig A Pit, is even better.

Wizard Apprentice’s live set involves scripted dialogue between Carter and an animated avatar who functionally represents an abusive figure, an experience that is alternately funny and chilling. Much of Dig A Pit is about the person this avatar represents and the experience of moving on and healing from them, a theme that is underscored even further in a forthcoming web series called Survivor Catchphrases, where Carter explores how abuse can manifest and the common phrases attributed to victims. Episodes will be posted each Thursday, starting May 2 through June 27.

I had the chance to chat with Carter before a show at the PAM Residency space in Highland Park, CA, where much of the album was written. Check it out below, and look for Dig A Pit May 10 on Cruisin Records.

I’ve been listening to the new record. It’s so good!

Oh, thank you, I’m scared.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your musical background, even from like the earliest days of learning music or experimenting with it.

I started making music when I was 13. I’m from Virginia and West Virginia, and that’s a very alienating, weird place to be a queer person and a black person and any kind of weirdo at all. So I would write songs by myself in my bedroom on a keyboard. A lot of that was self taught, especially at first. Then I had a band that I was in and basically through high school; every Friday we would meet in my friend’s basement and either play covers of songs or then later we started writing songs as a band. That was a really big part of my songwriting practice. Because there was literally nothing else to do. There’s like Books-A-Million, 24-hour Walmart, and then my friend’s basement. So we made music there. After that, it’s just such a big part of my own emotional processing. At the time, it happened very intuitively, being a very overwhelmed person, like emotionally overwhelmed person, and now I have a clearer sense of it. But at the time, it felt much more like a visceral response, even though it felt horrible. I felt shitty. Every song sounded horrible to me, but I still had to do it.

Did you play with that band much? Did you do shows?

We did a couple of shows. We did a school talent show. We played at somebody’s birthday party. It was a really random birthday party of these kind of cool kids, and we weren’t sure if we were being made fun of or not [laughs]. And that’s pretty much it. I think that’s pretty much all we played. But we recorded — I think that was some of the earliest times of learning how to record albums on my own and with a group of people. So I’ve been recording a lot longer than I’ve been playing live.

You have a really wonderful way of using your voice, and I’m curious what has influenced certain parts about it. Like, I think I noticed it a lot on I Am Invisible and also on Dig A Pit. You do these flourishes, these melismas that sound like they’re from chants. They remind me of Torah trope singing. This sort of: [hums]. You know? So I was just wondering if that comes from anywhere specific or if it’s any recent research or if it’s just something intuitive?

Whoa, thanks for asking that. I think that singing is feeling more like — it used to feel very secondary, and now it does feel like I’m having more intentional access to it. But maybe that is more intuitive or influenced by other singers. Like Joni Mitchell is a singer I’m really influenced by. I sing a lot of her songs. I sing a lot of Fiona Apple songs. Like with them, like as them, you know? I think that may be the only immediate thing I can think of. But I don’t think I do a whole lot of academic music research. Maybe just what I’ve heard over time getting in the mix.

What was the process for making Dig A Pit like? How did it differ from I Am Invisible?

The songs in the live performance are songs that I wrote during a PAM Residency, and then I took them to my friend’s studio, Weird Signals, in Seattle with Kenneth M. Piekarski. In that studio, there are a lot of musicians who hang out and they’re all friends, so they were like, “Oh, we heard you’re working on an album. If you need some cello, we’re around, or if you need a bassist…” So all of these different musicians were there and offered to help. This was basically the first time I’ve taken songs I’ve written and then re-arranged them with other people who are instrumentalists. Most of the songs are pretty close to the versions I use in the live set, but definitely there’s a number of instrumentalists that added a lot of really great arrangement ideas and also atmospheric ideas to the mix. That was really exciting.

I was wondering if you could talk through the arc of Dig A Pit. I know it’s coming from personal experience a bit, and there’s a through line. You don’t have to outline the whole thing because it does speak for itself, but maybe just the impulse that led you to put together this song series.

Totally, well, I think it goes back to when I first started making music as a response to strong emotional experiences and how it feels like, because of that practice, now, when really intense things happen to me, songwriting becomes a way I ingest the experience. It’s become a really cool kind of a digestive process, and so I had a really traumatic relationship experience and the lyrics just started coming [laughs]. I think mostly lyrics first in this case. And then I had been making the avatars as a part of my live set before this performance, and I was just having a lot of ideas, and I knew that I wanted to have a new avatar character. I was getting a lot of ideas that matched the feelings I was having and trying to figure out how to present those. I kind of had a strong feeling that I needed to have a performance that felt tough, and so I was like: I need to play a drum or something I can hit. I was angrier than I’d ever been, so I needed to find some way to express anger. It’s just one of those silver linings for me as a songwriter that when shitty things happen, it’s probably going to be really generative [laughs]. That’s been very true in this case.

I want to ask about the use of the avatar in the live set and the process of putting those same songs in album form where the avatar isn’t necessarily present.

I think Kenneth and I were trying to figure out how we were going to do it, because this live set is a little bit of a play in some ways. We were trying to decide if we were gonna put interludes in the songs and have the avatar be present, but I think it was good to just keep it as a body of songs as a opposed to a theater soundtrack. I like that that decision was made. Just letting there be two different experiences or variations on it, maybe more focused on the songs in the album version.

I think it gives a nice cohesion to the album. I was also just thinking about some of the moments in the set where songs were preceded by an explanation. Like before “Dig A Pit,” there’s an explanation about how the song itself is about building a space to unload toxic patterns. I was just curious about how you think about approaching that aspect of it or if, to you, touring and playing these songs and doing the show is enough.

I think that avatar provides a way to give that context and probably change people’s relationship to the song. I like giving the punchline away, but maybe I couldn’t figure out how to do that in the album form that didn’t seem cheesy or gimmicky. It seemed like the simplest thing to do was let the songs do what they do, and let people have their own interpretation of it. But I also hope people will feel inclined to see the live performance, where they can have that other experience of it.

Humor is a major part of the live set, even as heavy as the material is. What draws you to that humor?

I think that figuring out a way to tell the story is tricky because telling stories of an experience of victimhood can really turn people off, and so part of the challenge is figuring out how to keep people with you, to keep them wanting to go into the story. So humor is really good for that. But also the nature of being able to represent this abusive character; it is true to the character for this character to be charismatic and charming, funny. That character has to actually be magnetic in a way. It can’t just be like: “I hate everybody.” The humor that character does, like even the shady comments that character makes, I noticed some people were very instantly afraid of the character and some people were like, “Ooo, who’s that demon?” And that’s true to the experience, and I think even in my personal experience but also in the research I’ve been doing about certain personality types that may have abusive patterns, charm is a big aspect of it. It seemed really important to incorporate that. By doing that, it makes the performance more. It encourages more engagement in it, as opposed to if it was just me talking about this painful experience in ways that are just my perspective. Without that element, I think it would make it harder to witness and it would also make for a flatter representation, not quite as accurate.

Yeah, the humor in it lends it more impact and does make what’s being portrayed feel more cruel.

I think also the ways things are being said… I think humor as a masking technique for abusive behavior is also a very common thing, like with bullying. It can be one of the things that keeps people around. If there’s a person bullying a kid and then there’s a bunch of other kids around, there are some kids that might be like, “This is mean if it wasn’t funny.” You can get away with things by being funny.

So interesting to then use it in your set to unpack that process itself.

Yeah, it’s an interesting process. Another thing that’s interesting about that experience is that I’ve never written a character like that before, because there hasn’t been an experience to influence that. A lot of my writing will feel like channeling, not in a mystifying way, but in a way that is based in practice. If you’re exploring other people’s perspectives and you’re in the practice of doing that, and then you suddenly find yourself having absorbed some perspective that’s like, “What the fuck, that is fucked up!” And then that having to be part of the process, thinking: I’ve never had this voice, I’ve never known this voice, I’ve never known this type of character before, and now I feel I know it really intimately, intimately enough to write it. So being able to write it is a form of release and also a way to make it really clear to myself that that’s a really new character for me to engage with. That being part of my healing process of unknotting gaslighting. When being gaslit, it can create this confusion of “what was my identity before I met this person and what is it now that I have taken in some of these things?” So yeah, that’s part of it too.

So, because you can separate it out in the work, you can frame the conversation so it’s not both voices in your head.

Exactly, and since I’ve done it, people have come up to me and said this is a type of therapy that folks with schizophrenia do sometimes or other folks who might be in moments of challenges when they’re trying to identify a voice within themselves that feels truer to a core identity and then other influencing voices that seem like real separate people, being able to have a clearer sense of those. So it’s cool to have intuitively found that process.

Both I Am Invisible and Dig A Pit open with these songs that feel like, not necessarily in the high postmodern sense of this, but like a fourth wall breaking. “I Am Invisible” seems, to me, to be directly about being an artist, putting things out in the world and not being concerned about who’s listening, how many people are listening, something like that. At least that’s one side of it. Dig A Pit, the first words are “I’m offering this song to you,” which, I don’t know if that’s supposed to be to wider audience or to a single person. Was that a conscious thing to open both albums in that way, or is it just your interest in it as an aesthetic technique that led to that?

Thank you, that’s cool [laughs]. Definitely much more intentionally with “You Won.” Once I was realizing the situation I was in, I was like, “Fuck, I’m going to have to write about this person.” That felt like, they might know about it and it might make them feel more powerful or something — that they were able to fuck with me so much that I had to write a whole album about them — so it was just like, “God, they just win.” It felt like there was no way for me to win. My friend was saying it’s almost like a seal, almost like a protective spell on the album, which was like: if you hurt me and then you feel empowered that I’ve written a whole album about you hurting me, and that’s your definition of winning, then you’re right, you have won and that’s not a type of winning that I want to do. And so it was a way for me to release that fear of them taking more power from listening to the album. So that one is very intentional.

And then “I Am Invisible,” I think that has a similar seal quality to it. Because every time you make an album, it’s scary to think about how people are gonna think about it or if it’ll just go on the internet and disappear and just having a reminder asking: would it be so bad if that’s the case? It’s really special to just have a friend group who would listen to your songs and hear you in them and see you in them. I want music to be a career of mine. I want to continue with that goal. But also I want to be really clear that it’s a life-sustaining and a spirit-sustaining practice, and an emotional-intelligence awareness-building practice in a society where there are very few places where I find that. Just a reminder that, even if I am working toward these goals to make it a career, I really want to hold on to that as a core principle and be guided more by that than the latter.

Here is a list of resources that Carter provided that inform their work and are worth looking into for those interested:

The Sociopath Next Door by Dr. Martha Stout
The Human Magnet Syndrome by Dr. Ross Rosenberg
POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse
Surviving a Borderline Parent by Kimberlee Roth and Freda B. Friedman
Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman

YouTube resources:
Dr. Ramani Durvasula (offers many YouTube videos about Narcissistic abuse)
Dr. Ross Rosenberg
Christine Louis de Canonville (therapist specializing in Narcissism)

YouTube channels from self-proclaimed narcissists:
Sam Vaknin
My Narcissist Healing

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