The first thing Mykki Blanco said to me when I saw her was that I looked like Lindsay Lohan. To clarify, she said I looked like Lindsay five years ago—she’s not rude. Far from it, in fact. Incredibly eloquent, thoughtful, and creative beyond belief, meeting up with Mykki was a seriously serious pleasure. Chatting with the performance artist/poet/rapper/etc. felt like talking to an equally art-obsessed friend. Why? Because we nerded out…and we nerded out HARD.
I caught up with the multi-talented artist before her show at Glasslands as part of Red Bull Sound Select’s NYC concert series. This particular evening featured funk artist Gordon Voidwell, rock group White Mandingos, BLXPLTN, and New Jersey rockers Sunny Gang, as well as—to my heart’s immense contentment—special guest Princess Nokia. (Mykki and Nokia performed “Wish You Would,” a track I have not stopped playing since I first heard it.)
Besides geeking out on poetry, you’ll find we talked about her start in NYC—and why it’s no longer the socialite playground it once was—as well as what NOT to do when you get to the city (namely, making a porn, doing drugs, and not having a job) aaaaaand a hint as to what we can expect music-wise from Mykki come fall.
ENJOY—I KNOW I DID.
So I’m a huge poetry nerd and I tried to find your book in print to no avail. But I did find all the selections I could online and I absolutely loved it. I was floored. Especially “poem 1,” I think it’s called. Starts with, “I am not a man of reason…”
So what I’m wondering is—I know a lot of your first EP came from that book. How does that translation process work?
Well the reason why I do Mykki Blanco today—how it all started—was from that book. And, actually, that book is out of print and I’m eventually going to have to buy the rights to that book. It won’t be that hard but right now I’m crossing my fingers saying “hopefully I’ll keep being successful and one day it’ll be a cult classic!”
Without a doubt.
[Laughs] But basically I started performing the stuff….how do I put this? I started performing my poetry in a musical way out of necessity. Because after I wrote the book I though, “Okay, I’m someone who’s theatrical. I’m someone who’s a performer.” So it was about how to take poetry, which so many people in our peer group… I mean even outside of academic circles people don’t read poetry. Actually, honestly, it has less to do with age and more to do with kind of like the educational stratosphere. But anyway…
Yeah and just culture.
Exactly and culture. But I basically was like, “How am I going to get people to hear these poems? Because I don’t want this to be a dead thing. I don’t want to create just another artsy banal project.” And so I was really inspired by the history of New York no wave. And, it sounds cliché, but groups like Suicide and Patti Smith and early punk stuff. So when I started to perform the poems from that book I would make these little industrial loops on my Mac laptop.
On what? Fruity Loops?
On Garage Band! [Laughs]
All my real musician friends during that period were always like, “You tweak out Garage Band better than anyone we’ve ever seen.” So yeah, I used to make these loops on Garage Band and I’d have my friend Jeff Joyal, who’s an artist in the city and was at Bard at the time… He would play guitar. And then my friend who is a techno producer now in Berlin, Daniel Fisher, was on drums. And I started to perform music out with my industrial dates and with this sort of self made…
Oh I didn’t know you started using the poetry with that!
I thought it went straight to that first [Mykki] EP.
No we were actually like a little artsy…I wouldn’t call us a “garage band,” I would call us a “happening band.” Because we only got together for our weird performance art pieces that I’d put together. But we were called No Fear and that is really where it all started. I would perform the poems to the industrial loops and it was called From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys and literally that’s what I was performing in the galleries and in the basement spaces and warehouse parties in New York City. And, you know, it would go between a poetry reading and then I would take a chainsaw and we would burn sage and it was live guitar, live drums—it was this whole thing. So in that two year time period is where I kinda honed my instinct as a punk performer. Because before that I was just kind of like a theatre kid growing up but that was when I kind of really became a punk performer. And it was doing that that led me to this change of mind towards this new project, this new idea—Mykki Blanco. It was combining that aggressive punk performance energy with this new thing which is what created what I’m doing now.
So that kind of leads into my next question. Going off exactly what you were saying, written poetry doesn’t really have that big of an audience. So what I’m wondering is: When you have these ideas, these “wordful” ideas, how do you decide whether you’re going to do spoken word, or write it as a traditional poem, or do something more rap based?
So right now, this year, 2014, I have a residency starting in May at a gallery in Lisbon called Gallery Zé dos Bois. And it’s a performance space slash venue slash art space. I bring this up because it’s my first performance residency and it’s the first time I’m actually going to be doing something with poetry and performance art in two years.
That’s so exciting—you must be so stoked!
It’s really exciting because, to answer your question, I kind of shifted gears. Songwriting, and even rapping, it comes from the same skill set as poetry—but it’s different. You’re going more on slang, and a certain kind of cunning, and a certain kind of savviness and, for me, real poetry—authentic poetry—has so much to do with the subconscious spiritual mechanism and in popular songwriting and what I’ve done so far I feel like I’ve only shown, to be honest, a very exterior side of myself. And so I think the difference between my raps and my songwriting—even though I feel like I have said some things that I feel are very politically charged and that I feel are very close to my heart in my raps—I feel as though I’ve said them in a way that I felt most people would be able to understand.
So it would translate well considering the medium.
Right, right. Because the atmosphere has really changed so much in the two years that I’ve been doing this. So when I first started doing this it literally felt, a lot of the times, like I was up against a wall. I mean I was literally having to fight just to be myself without having to take a political position—without having to take a gay political position.
To do your art without all these other strings attached.
Right. And there were so many strings attached when I first started. So, to answer your question really directly, just this year—for the first time in two years—I’m doing a return to poetry and spoken word performance. And so I’m really excited because that’s going to give me a channel that I haven’t had to access in a long time. Because that is, for me, very different than popular songwriting but my next release—what I’m slowly working towards—and the reason why I didn’t have a release in the fall, why I didn’t have a release this spring, why I’ve just sort of been coming out with singles, is because… There are kind of like two different types of people who enjoy my music—or maybe even more than that—but I kind of see it as two types of people. There are people who really enjoy the poppy, party songs, the feel good songs that I give them. And they like that they’re able to dance to rap and feel included and inclusive in this popular way. And then there’s, you know, the artsy freaks. [Laughs] Who are like me and who like everything that I do and do know the difference between when I come out with a party song and when I come out with something with a little more depth. So what I’m working towards for the fall is to come out with a full-fledged, fully-realized, piece of work that can speak to both of those crowds.
That’s going to be great. Okay, so when you came to New York, were you coming from Carolina or were you coming from California?
No I was actually coming from Chicago because when I was 19 I got accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and that is where, honestly, I first encountered what I would call a relevant American subculture. The noise scene in Chicago at the time when I moved there was still a very relevant, valid thing that was happening and I drew a lot—and I learned a lot—from those musicians—from those people. A lot of those people have now relocated to New Orleans and the Bay Area and Mexico and Berlin. But I honed a lot from that scene because it was different from punk. It was like queer and sludgy and freaky and that scene was way more off-kilter than honestly even a lot of things that I’ve encountered in this city now or even in L.A. There were bands like Mahjongg, and [unintelligible]. This time in Chicago was really where I learned that you could really go far, far out. Because even sometimes in punk and in kind of these “alt” traditions that we deem subcultural but that have been around for like 30 years—they become really stale. And it was this time in Chicago around this noise scene that I realized that you could go even further beyond these traditional labels and be your own thing.
So, when you did come to New York, what did the city mean to you when you first got here bright-eyed? And what does it mean to you now?
When I first got here I got taken under the wing of a really influential person in New York history as far as counter-culture and downtown—his name was Aaron Bondaroff. And I don’t know, in ten years I’m going to have to ask him “What did you see in me?” but he saw something really thirsty in me to be a part of something. And maybe he saw some of himself, but Aaron was responsible for putting together a shit ton of events, a shit ton of happenings, connecting the dots, and he’s the first person who gave me a platform—he’s the person who published that book. He’s the person who gave me my first show at Don Hill. He’s the person that flew me to London for the first time to perform. And he was a part of that whole Dash Snow / Ryan McGinley—what they call “Warhol’s children” subset of people. So I came to New York because I got a scholarship to Parsons. I had two full scholarships to both colleges that I went to and I dropped out of both. [Laughs] And let me tell you if I wasn’t doing this today my mother would kill me. [Laughs] But when I first got to New York I wanted to be so a part of this artistic lineage and at the time, though, New York was very…How do I put it? Super “fashiony.” And I think that now it’s become “fashiony” again in a really creative way in the last year or two years. And I feel like the people who rightly deserve to be in the spotlight for fashion, and people who can actually use what fashion is good for—which is taking a taboo and pushing it forward into the mainstream—are getting the attention. When I moved here to New York it was kind of the opposite—it was like a socialite playground. And I wanted to rebel against that, you know what I mean? So I, honestly, was just as dirty as I could be—and I kind of freaked myself out. I sort of did exactly what you’re not supposed to. I did too many drugs, I was unemployed, I did a porn… Like, I mean, no one can ever find it—and trust me, trust me, no one can find it [Laughs] but it’s like I really did put myself through the ringer. And then I realized—wait a minute—trying to mythologize yourself in a destructive way is cliché. And don’t do that—work hard. And make art. And be a working artist. But I kind of had to mature into knowing what that was and that’s when I started to intern for everybody. I interned for [unintelligible]. Anytime McGinley studios wanted me to do anything, I interned. I interned at Team Gallery. You know I tried to immerse myself in a world that was far more mature and established than I was but through doing this I was able to see two things. I was able to see what it was going to take for me to make it and I was able to see who I was smarter than to make it [Laughs].
And the scene sort of caught up to you eventually, it sounds like.
Yeah we all kind of caught up to each other. I mean when things really started to pop off in this renaissance way it was a lot of things. It was Venus X doing her GHE20G0TH1K party, it was Dis Magazine, it was Hood by Air. It was a whole nexus, a nucleus, of people. It was Le1f , it was…I mean I’m not even naming all the names. It was just this certain time, around 2010, just a group of young people who were like, “Wait a minute—we’re going to take New York back from this socialite thing.We’re gonna put it on it’s head.” And we all kind of, in our weird ways, banded together and formed a community. And we did it. We did it for our year. We did it for our time.
And that’s all you need. Thank you so much.