| An Interview with Keith McCurdy, of Vudu Sister |
Can you describe Vudu Sister for Foo Fest-goers who are unfamiliar with your music?
For this particular event, Vudu Sister will come across as a dark, folky band. I’ve got two albums out now, [Bastard Children (May 2012) and Household Items (May 2013)], and the latest one I did was an electric, sort of punk-ish album. But what you’ll see during my set at Foo Fest is guitar, violin, upright bass, maybe banjo, and maybe Celtic harp… Right now, I have a pretty consistent lineup of musicians, and they’re leaning more towards the folk side of the spectrum. Basically, I tend to write songs that are interesting to me at the time, and I don’t think as much about genre. I’ll just put together the ensemble of musicians that I think is best suited to what I’m trying to do in a particular song, whether it’s more folk or punk or whatever you want to call it … Regardless of their “genre,” all of the songs I write are pretty dark; that’s what unites them.
What musicians or experiences have influenced your work?
I grew up on punk rock and alternative rock. My dad was a musician in the early ‘90s, so a lot of what he played and was playing and listening to then made a big impression on me. I remember Nirvana coming out when I was a little kid and that meaning a lot to me—for anyone, I think a first introduction to rock and roll is really life changing. A lot of women rockers really influenced me too: Courtney Love, Mia Zapata, the L7 Band, PJ Harvey. Women are expected to be a certain way, so I thought it was cool for these women to be up on stage, so defiant and basically giving a big middle finger to the [music] industry, to the society around them. And then, in my twenties, I started getting into folk music. A friend of mine taught me about bluegrass, and I had always been captivated by Irish music. So I listened to that; I listened to classical music; all of those different influences played into my music in some way or another.
Can you talk more about your transition into folk music?
I’ve always liked folk music and classical music, but I didn’t start playing that stuff until much later, whereas I had been playing in rock bands since I was a teenager … Folk musicians, especially the ones from the ‘30s and ‘40s, were really sincere and folk music was really a part of their culture—it wasn’t about being famous or making money. You can see that today in certain areas of Appalachia; music is part of life there. I think that’s really appealing, and I think that mentality is actually very similar to a punk-rock way of thinking; I mean, I’ve always been drawn to punk because of its raw sincerity, and because it’s working in spite of society and the masses instead of catering to those groups. So I started playing a lot of folk music with my friend Jesse Burdick, who is a banjo player. We used to come home from our shitty jobs and play in my parlor and get drunk … The folk music just seemed very right in that atmosphere.
I think everything gets saturated after awhile; you have to move on. That’s why—after my first album, which was really folky—I wanted to do a different kind of record. Artistically, I think it’s important to constantly be evolving and challenging yourself.
Where are you artistically right now—what kind of music are you making, which artists are you drawing from?
I’m listening to a lot of Rasputina right now, a lot of PJ Harvey. I also have this lovely violinist who I play with consistently now, and we’ve been talking about writing some songs that are strings-based. Going along with that, I’ve been rediscovering a lot of classical music that I loved as a kid—it feels very gothic to me, and romantic in some way.
Other genres influence me too: art, literature … There is this series of children’s books, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, that have inspired me a lot. A folklore collector named Alvin Schwartz; he collected American folk tales and some other folk stories from around the world, and he put them all together in a book for kids. The illustrator was great—his name was Stephen Gammell, and he did these bizarre drawings; I mean, they were absolutely disgusting, but that was part of the appeal. Kids like that kind of stuff—gothic, horrific—and a lot of adults don’t seem to think it’s suitable for children. But they love it; Grimm’s Fairy Tales are a perfect example; they’re very gory, very dark, but they’re still great—and they’re great for children. I think adults know the least about what’s good for kids, and kids tend to know what’s good for them. People just don’t give kids enough credit, even though they’re often smarter than us when it comes down to it.
What is your songwriting process like?
It’s very quick. Usually, I either have something in fifteen minutes or I don’t have anything at all. I come up with a melody, and, you know, I write some bullshit lyrics. If they work, they work; if not, I edit them later. It’s very chaotic, too. Sometimes, I go months without writing, and then I’ll write three songs, four songs, eight songs in a burst of time. I’m always writing prose, poetry, whatever. I don’t like to settle for things that I don’t think are good. If I don’t feel it, then it’s not worth holding on to. I think that most of what anybody writes or creates is not good—you have just a little bit that’s okay, and then a small, small percentage of that is really good; and that’s what you have to hold onto.
Have you ever tried to follow a more consistent songwriting routine, or do you find that that it’s impossible to be creative on a schedule?
Sometimes I do write some things for practice, and I call them exercises. The purpose of that, for me, is to just exercise my brain. I’ll sit down at the typewriter or the computer and I’ll just write and write. Even if it sucks, I keep writing. I mean, like I said, ninety percent of it’s going to be garbage.
Well, I guess you have to write that ninety percent to get the good stuff. Would you say it’s the experiences you have that inspire your bursts of productivity and the good “ten percent” of your work, or is it more random than that?
A lot of what I write about is personal; it’s self-expression; it’s therapeutic for me personally, because I’m able to get these emotions out on the page. I don’t really think I’m a storyteller, like some other people who always tell stories in their songs. The intention behind my songs is not to tell a story, but to paint a picture of something.
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sfn_Qm45gU[/youtube]I have this song called “Underground,” which is about someone who kills people in his basement. This guy was an outsider in the town where he grew up, and he does get caught—but it’s not really a linear story; I rely more on descriptive language, alliteration, puns… But to me, it’s a vivid depiction of something that’s frightening or disturbing. Really, it’s just a misanthropic song about hating the people that you’re around and wanting to kill them.
Do you think you strive for the same evocative effect in your poetry and fiction as well as your songwriting?
With my short stories especially, I was really attracted to the idea of trying to write something that would give you a sense of what it felt like to be this character or what it felt like to be in this moment. I really tried to craft a sentence that gave a way to access whatever I was describing, almost like you could taste it. Maybe the plot is not really there; or maybe there’s not really a story. But I just like to exercise with those things.
So do you view those projects as exercises to help with your songwriting?
A lot of it is just therapy, really. Art, to me, is therapy. I need it in order to live and cope with things, so that’s where it comes from for me. And then, you know, it is my craft, and you want to perfect your craft. So I always am trying to get better. I’ve been doing this songwriting and singing thing for about ten years now, and even after I all that I feel like I’m just now starting to get good. And I’m still learning the ropes; and I’m still learning how to get better at what I do.
Did you always envision yourself becoming a musician?
Yeah, I always wanted to be doing this. I have sacrificed a lot of avenues that I might have been able to pursue, or not able to pursue. I’ll never know because I gave up trying to do anything else a long time ago. Everything else has been kind of half-assed; any job I’ve had besides music has just been a means to that end.
I think anybody that does this will say that it allows them a certain level of freedom and independence—especially if you’re making any money out of it. If you just work a job, if you’re creative and smart, you’re going to get stifled by the fact that you’re doing something repetitive and monotonous. You need to be doing something that’s an outlet for your frustration and creativity, or something that allows you to be independent.
It doesn’t really matter to me, as long as I can hear everything okay onstage. Any room I play in, if I’ve never been there before, I just have to get accustomed to the place and adapt to it in order to get comfortable. I would say I prefer playing medium venues, but I’ve never played a huge venue so I don’t know what that experience would be like.
Does the size of the space affect the way you connect with the audience and perform?
Not for me. I don’t necessarily feed off the audience when I perform. I sort of get in my own head, and I barely even make eye contact. So the type of space and crowd doesn’t have much of an effect on how I perform.
What is it like for you to talk to people after shows, then? Does it feel weird that people feel this connection with you, when you were in such a private place onstage?
Yeah, it definitely is. Doing what I do, I get very invested; and I’m in my head, in my emotions. I derive my performance from a place of emotional intensity, so it’s very draining to be onstage and perform. I tend to get very exhausted mentally. It’s hard to reconcile what’s going on in my head with the audience’s experience.
Can you talk about what it’s like to make music in Providence specifically, and what attracted you to this place?
I come from North Providence, and I’ve been playing music locally since I was sixteen. But the scene has really grown in the past few years. It’s really wonderful to have this sort of community of musicians, because before I didn’t feel like there really was one—or I wasn’t aware of it; or I wasn’t a part of it. Now, it’s just so cool to have all of these peers who I really like and respect, and who are so supportive of one another. It reminds me a lot of what I would read about the Seattle scene when I was growing up: how there was a small, feisty community of bands that really supported each other. Everyone would play in each other’s bands; everyone would go see each other’s bands. That created a strength and a unity, which I think is necessary for any artistic community to thrive. That kind of spirit is what we have in Providence today.
How did that kind of spirit and community start to emerge in Providence? What has changed since you started making music as a teenager?
I think the community in Providence emerged as a reaction to a lot of the noise music that was going on here. There was a lot of talent in that genre concentrated in this town, and a lot of really good music was coming out of here. But people still supported each other, so Providence lacked the competitiveness that usually comes along with that kind of concentration of talent.
What has been your experience attending Foo Fest in the past, and what are you looking forward to about playing there this year?
I’ve been to Foo Fest several times, and I always have a great time. I’m really looking forward to doing it this year; it’s my town; it’s a staple in the community that I’m a part of. This year seems to be a lot of festivals for me. I’m about to go down to North Carolina for the Sugar Grove Festival on Doc Watson’s property with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I’m doing some dates in Virginia and Philadelphia, and then I’ll be in the Newport Folk Festival.
Be sure to check out Vudu Sister’s set on the INDOOR STAGE at Foo Fest at 3:15pm!