INTERVIEW: Unwoman

Chain Border

She could be perhaps the heir apparent to Tori Amos' renowned style of alternative fugue, hijacking those core principles and stapling them unto her unique blend of cello-laden industrial angst...she is also the mastermind behind Unmediated Productions, an independent label with its finger on the pulse of what's new and fresh in contemporary electronica and industrial...I'm chatting with California's Erica Mulkey, AKA the Uber-Omega, stylized Unwoman...Erica, a pleasure:

The pleasure is all mine.

Let's get the obvious question out of the way first: Who and what is Unwoman? Is she your Ziggy Stardust, the embodiment of what Erica Mulkey stands for as an artist and what made you choose this alias?

Unwoman is just an alias. My skills at acting and portraiture aren't enough to create someone fictional; it's simply an alternate name for myself that I use when I'm doing music-related things.

I chose the name Unwoman when I was rereading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale during the 2000 presidential election. The election of a born-again president really pissed me off and I felt taking the name of an Unwoman – Unwomen were the lesbians, feminists and other chicks who wouldn't submit to authority in the book's near-future dystopia – would give my musical works more political and literary context. I felt the word needed reclaiming from its (fictional) status as an epithet. Plus it worked well with the style of music I was (and am) doing. (btw, I'd love to plug the new Atwood novel, Oryx and Crake – I'm completely enthralled so far.)

Be my guest. I believe our readership to be a literate audience.

There is a luxuriant subtlety to your craft; your vocals range from exhilarating and effervescent to anguished and aloof and quite often, seductive. It's as if you explore different personas lingering inside of you. Is this true, and if so, perhaps the entire collective could best summarize who Unwoman is?

Thanks! Yes, definitely Unwoman represents multiple styles and emotions. I wouldn't exactly say different personas, as they're all part of me and I think with the understanding that we're all complex, one can see the emotions as cohesive.

When I listen to your music, I feel a range of varying emotions...some parts remind me of Skinny Puppy and early Ministry, where I'm that befuddled college kid of yesteryear, lounging out the few private hours I had to myself...some parts lift me to a higher ground, while others compel me to make love...your music is both sensual and urgent....is this an intentional dissenting element to your craft?

UnwomanThis ties in really well to my last response, I think. Rather than be limited by traditional roles or expressing only one aspect of my personality or emotions, I want to let it all out – anger, sadness, sexuality. They're all crucial parts of me, as they are of every person. I hope to expand and go further and deeper in my future work, rather than ever settle into a particular style. Using different genres is just a part of the overall expression and impression. Also, the fact is that in the two years over which I recorded and produced Knowledge Scars(1) I got interested in several very different sub-subgenres, which each inspired different turns in my path. I'm still devouring new listening material.

Care to touch on what those are? I personally believe anyone who takes music seriously should seek everything out and give it half a chance. All part of the aural journey, be you artist or merely a music lover. If I told you I was listening to Chicago Transit Authority before I put on Knowledge Scars, then followed up afterwards with the new Placebo album and finally some Morton Subotnik, would you consider me odd?

Here are some new favorites of mine: Snog – Beyond the Valley of the Proles, Mlada Fronta – Oxydes(2) (though I have to say, I prefer High Tension), Android Lust – The Dividing, Tino's Breaks (I'm just discovering them now), S.I.N.A…

No, I don't think you're odd at all – listening to those different artists makes perfect sense to me!

Your core musical education was at UCLA, right? What was that experience like in molding your sound?

Actually, UC Santa Cruz (icydk, Santa Cruz is about 70 miles south of San Francisco). I don't know if "molding" is the right word, because I don't think mine is a chiseled or unified sound. However, my education there has had a huge impact on how I use tools and produce and record music. In fact, much of the material on Knowledge Scars was first conceived at UCSC in the studio there or at home. One of the reasons my style was and still is so varied, besides the feminist analysis I gave above, is that I'm used to creating works with specific flavors for different class projects. I consider that I'm still, and I hope always will be, learning by doing and expanding my musical horizons.

All good artists evolve…

Another aspect of education is that in all kinds of good art classes (visual and performing) the things I absorbed the best involved doing the most I could with very limited means. This can mean DIY with limited recording tools, or it can mean using limited sonic material. Both are salient aspects of my style, I think. The former is unavoidable and the latter is by choice.

Obviously, you've been classically trained...what steered you in the direction of Goth industrial? Your hybrid cello infusion is like staking your claim to a brave new world of the genre.

Wow, thanks. Getting into Goth music happened first. It was the Cure and Bauhaus and Siouxsie when I was 14 or 15, and later, industrial. It was something that happened to a bunch of friends and myself; we just attached ourselves to the esthetics and ran with it. There was also a boy who I fell in love with that had some influence on this, but mainly I'd always thought the counterculture kids were the smartest and cutest and when I met Laura, the girl who became my best friend and who got into the music and styles alongside me, I became empowered to become one of the counterculture kids myself in my own way. I tended to get way into one band, then another, so my knowledge of some of the "Goth standards" is extensive and I could hardly recognize others. Skinny Puppy, Joy Division, Cocteau Twins, Current 93, Battery are some examples of bands I've been crazy about. I never saw any reason why doing classical music didn't perfectly complement work in contemporary pop and underground music.

UnwomanInteresting. You followed the exact same path I did, after renouncing my status as a full-fledged headbanger in search of a broader perspective: The Cure, The Smiths and Depeche Mode led me to Ministry, Front Line Assembly, Pigface and Revolting Cocks, then oddly enough, spun me back to Dead Can Dance and Bauhaus, Peter Murphy, especially. I briefly dated a Goth girl back in the day and our "song" was The Smithereens' Blood and Roses, as I'm sure it was for many. Strangely, in that period of my life I was also exploring rap, like Ice-T, Public Enemy, De La Soul, etc. all in search of a renaissance-spirited musical experience. Now, in my thirties and thoroughly enjoying this gig with Legends, I find myself constantly turning back to all of that music, including my old thrash and punk albums along with my Mozart, and, late me, I finally completed my Cocteau Twins section. Anyway, my point here, before I tread dangerously of stealing your thunder, is that people who appreciate this counterculture genre seem to come from a similar walk of life.

All I can say is, I like Public Enemy too.

Okay, I'm psyched to ask this next one: take me on a trip through your creative process...

Well, each song might have a unique creative process since there's so much experimentation in my writing and producing. Some of it is on the fly, some of it is labored over – over many years, beginning usually at the piano, with or without an already written text. Lately since I've been doing so much work with Reason the material makes its way onto my computer almost as soon as it's written if it is composed at the piano and I'm doing more and more composing with Reason, to begin with.

UnwomanYou've performed live many times and in a somewhat unorthodox style, yes? Would you set your stage scene for me?

UnwomanThere has to be a good cello chair, first off. Then, there is my laptop running through a firewire audio interface, with stereo outputs. From this come the backing tracks, usually straight off Reason but occasionally from more prepared aiffs (I now have a new ibook and Reason 2.5) then, of course, my cello. I use a pickup and sometimes a mic in addition (that's a great sound, btw, and I need to make sure I use the mic more often, but there are often feedback problems since the cello is a relatively quiet instrument.) I use a headset mic for singing; that's really my only option since I have to move my head with the cello. Occasionally I use effects (for The Futurist's Nightmare pitch shift is essential for the cello) but at one of my last shows I pumped my vocals and cello through a Kaos Pad 2 and the audience complained that they couldn't hear my voice – so I turned it off. I play cello on everything I do live, so some songs from Knowledge Scars that, regrettably, don't have cello in the album versions have new cello parts live (for example, Deeper Understanding and You). And this is the most I've told anyone about my gear! But recording for studio albums of course is almost entirely different.

Thanks for sharing that, Erica. I love hearing production war stories! I'm sure other musicians reading this will have a great appreciation as well.

You've got quite a bit of material you filtered to the web. With the official release of your first true album, Knowledge Scars, do you feel a sense of relief in getting the big one under your belt, like, say, a novelist putting the wraps to that first published book?

Oh yes! I occasionally regret not sitting on the album for a little longer, promoting more, investing a little more time in production, getting a distributor. But that's what I'm doing for the next album – much more perfectionism and planning. And I think you're right, it was releasing Knowledge Scars that makes it possible for me to be less hurried and make sure I do everything right this time around.

UnwomanAnd, unlike corporate-bludgeoned artists, your sophomore album will have less pressure to surpass the original; there will be less expectation, I believe, which should leave you free to let your soul guide your craft. I've so often enjoyed listening to the fruition of underground artists, listening to them grow with each release. I predict you'll do this naturally.

I have very clear expectations of myself; to "surpass the original," though of course not in a commercial way. I know I've already grown artistically since then.

You often retreat to a dark place lyrically, like you're sharing a private hell with us, not necessarily the classic woman scorned motif, but with a jagged edge revealed through jaded eyes. Songs like Dispossessed, You, Vacant Skies Revisited and the title track, Knowledge Scars, are full of scathing commentary.

Yes, that's very much a common theme to Knowledge Scars. In my later teenage years I had a lot of similar experiences with betrayal like these – in fact, the songs you mentioned were each inspired by different people. Being used in one way or another is something many young people can relate to. I wasn't innocent of using or betraying, either, which is partly what Lament for Peter Pan is about. However, I believe my next album won't dwell on these exact issues at all.

This is a multi-pronged question: I feel a sense of purging and cleansing resonating from your work. Do you seek absolution or some sort of resolve? You quote martyrdom often in your lyrics. Any special reason? Do you feel like a martyr in your own microcosm?

UnwomanI must have some Catholic genes that give me a huge sense of guilt and personal responsibility. In some ways songs are my confessions.

Funny you should mention that to a crucifix swinger like myself! Riot!

On the martyrdom theme, well, I despise the desire for martyrdom in myself and others. It ties in with the idea of victimization, the "look at me suffer, aren't I pitiful and holy." Really, it's a disgusting attitude, but natural for many people. Happily, I'm over this as well now.

Amusingly, I've heard George W. Bush soundbytes in your music that are as hilariously satirical as Ministry's roasting of the elder Bush in New World Order.

Thank you so much! I'm very glad you find them amusing; I worry now that people are so sick of hearing his voice that it makes them cringe to hear it. But it was important to poke fun at him in any way I could. And political samples are such a staple of much of my favorite music, I wanted to do what I could with them. I'm not sure I will use samples the same way I did in any of my new work; I want to focus more on blending all the samples into the texture better, and in exposing the meaning without overemphasizing it, if you know what I mean.

Absolutely, given your talents, you'll find a more subliminal tact, which will make it even funnier!

Thanks!

You've been dabbling in quite a bit of cover tunes, remixes and such. For example, you cover Kate Bush in Deeper Understanding, The Cure with Drowning Man and Crass' Sentiment (which I will never think of in the same way again)...much like Tori Amos did with her Strange Little Girls cover album. You must be having lots of fun with these...

It is lots of fun, but there are other reasons for my doing covers. In classical studies, composers never, ever are told to just start cranking tunes out. (Not that it's necessarily bad if they do.) An education of music performance, history and theory are essential. As a cellist, one must play classical repertoire to learn technique. I choose songs to learn to play mainly as exercises for myself in technique and in ingenuity of arrangement. I began when I was thirteen, thrilled to discover I could play and sing at the same time. Imagine by John Lennon was the first song I learned. Then I wanted to share some with my friends, and started taking requests from them and also learning whatever I felt like by ear. Now although I've written a lot of songs, sometimes I feel that someone else has already said what I'm trying to say perfectly and I'd love to play their song rather than reinvent the wheel.

UnwomanPretty cool attitude. Your remixes, such as Deutschmachine and Sweet Witch Got Back are a complete scream, but are also quality club mixes. You've obviously got the skills to DJ and likewise they are a departure from your primary Unwoman songs...do you feel this gives you a sense of balance as an artist?

Balance is definitely something I strive for (if I believed in astrology, I'd say it's because I'm a double Libra.)

Could be worse, you could be a bullheaded Taurus like myself.

As far as DJing, the remixes you hear are not live mixes. They're all digital, which means the turntable-only people hate me. (laughs) But I do spin occasionally at industrial clubs and I try very hard to retain the club-friendliness of the remixes, so DJs will play them once in a while instead of the somewhat overplayed original versions. On a very related note, I'm working on an album of remixes and covers, tentatively named Pastiche. I'm also recording tracks for another original album (probably no covers this time) and I'm not sure which will come first.

Sweet! Would you mind giving me your perspective of your club experiences? There has to be some sort of rush spinning for a crowd.

Absolutely, but it's accompanied by a feeling of letdown when you kill the floor with one of your personal favorite tracks that just doesn't click with the audience. As far as clubbing though, I prefer to be in the crowd over spinning. If I'm going to perform I'd rather have my cello and do Unwoman stuff than spin other people's music. There are so many talented DJs, better than I am, and only one Unwoman!

Boldly and modestly stated. I understand you've got a Joy Division cover album in the works? Had he lived, I think Ian Curtis would probably approve. Can I challenge you to take on No Love Lost?

It's in the works only in that I talk about it – I would like to do it but I'm torn about instrumentation and I'm so busy with my own music and my day job. If I do, however, I'll gladly consider No Love Lost.

Thank you. I'd dig hearing your take. Next, I'd like to talk about Unmediated Productions a bit. You've released a compilation of various industrial artists in one of the most interesting groupings I've heard, Too Much Information(3). Tell me what it was like getting this project together.

It was a really fantastic experience. I loved working with the artists; they all had such great and diverse things to contribute. I even rejected a bunch of terrific stuff. It had its harrowing moments and I've never been proud of my ability to sell copies – like I mentioned earlier, I desperately need a distributor to get these CDs into stores if I ever want them to really sell and I just haven't fully researched that yet.

UnwomanYou'll get there. It's a tough show, as I can attest trying to promote my novel, which is independently produced, you know, one of those POD houses? Finding the time to give your work that extra push when you're fending for yourself and maintaining a full-time day life is often nightmarish.

Yes, I find myself so drained at the end of the day and I have so many personal demands on me that the label becomes the last priority. I'm glad you understand. I wish I could work part-time.

That makes two of us! You're very hands-on with the production and promotion of the fuzzcore group, d.compose. How much of a role do you see in guiding other musicians under your label?

Actually this is a misperception that I'm happy to correct. I am in fact intentionally hands-off with d.compose. He's a very close friend of mine and we've been deeply involved with each other's music for several years, but we're on equal footing musically as far as guiding each other. He has unique needs as an artist and is incredibly independent and self-sufficient, so we've worked it out so that he has absolutely every musical freedom, while allowing me to promote his music since self promotion isn't his strongest talent. (Neither is it mine, but I'm working on it.)

I don't feel well-equipped in any way to "guide" other musicians – I'm just figuring the way myself. When my talented musician friends come to me I try to convince them to find "real" labels. I am, however, planning to augment the UMP catalog with some new material on a kind of co-op basis, fairly soon.

Cool. What direction do you see Unmediated Productions going... Unwoman, for that matter?

The label is definitely suffering now, however I'm going to push forward even if slowly and eventually will do Unmediated and Unwoman stuff full-time, at which point I'll have a lot more time for new projects, and do a lot better job with promotion, and have a real distributor and do everything right. Unwoman is heading toward more and better stuff like what you've already heard, but always with the element of surprise.

Rehashing what I said earlier, I think Unwoman is as no-frills as one can get in such an expressionistic genre as you've form-fitted yourself into. You use Unwoman as a soundboard – actually, platform – to vent your aggressions. Is there a shock value you're gearing towards, or is there a deeper message you're trying to give us through your music?

In a perfect world, no one would be shocked by what I have to say – but then, I'd also have no reason to say it! I figure people who are shocked by atheism and feminism are shocked because they enjoy being so, therefore I'm doing them a favor!

HA!

But I do feel some regret at the fact that my grandparents will never be able to listen to my work without being sad for me for not having God in my life – when in fact I couldn't be happy with "Him."

When the world at large accepts that religion is by choice and not by a forced diatribe, we'll all be better off, I think.

UnwomanYes, definitely. But, in my opinion, most religions were created with the purpose of controlling the masses, so it's not a surprise to see fundamentalists continue to support that view. I've also known a lot of Christians who are much more open-minded, so it shouldn't appear that I hate them – in fact if they don't try to tell me I'm going to Hell, I have no argument with them!

I may be devoted to God, but I certainly click with what you're saying. I've often entertained your theory here, and believe organized religion is very much what you say it is, a checks and balances system. So long as Christians and atheists agree to disagree in harmony, that's the point, I think and that's what I derive from your lyrics.

The deepest meaning I can offer in my music is the desire to think for oneself, to learn everything one can and to not be afraid of speaking one's mind about personal or political matters.

UnwomanIt is our ultimate freedom as human beings. For instance, I think we would be a better society if everyone would just indulge themselves and whack off when the critical need for intimacy with another is impossible at the moment. We'd be much healthier in the long-run and we'd be a less-violent civilization. With that said, I'll digress…

But I agree completely. I think "make love not war" applies to self love as well. I think most war-mongering bastards are probably lacking satisfactory sex lives, a problem that could easily be ameliorated by masturbation.

Dare I sound arrogant, but it pleases me to find a visionary! That would be very topical to cover as Unwoman, I believe.

I took a listen to your new song in progress, Death of Diplomacy, which can be accessed at [www.unmediated.net/unwoman] . A small bit of a departure for you, Erica. Highly impressive... Your music is already mature, but there's even more maturation at stake here.

Well, lyrically, this was a step for me and I'm glad you consider it mature. Sonically, the solo piano and voice thing was my original songwriting platform, so in that it was a return to the early days of my proto-Unwoman work. I'm currently working on a rather dramatic electronic rendering of Death of Diplomacy, which will be on my next original album when it surfaces in about a year and probably on an mp3 site before then.

You have a brand of reflective escapism that is difficult to pass up, Erica. I wish you luck on your journey and hope to see you on the other end of the country someday...you'd find the east coast very receptive to what you're doing...

Thank you so much – best of luck to you as well, and I do have a long-term goal of a bi-coastal tour.

(1) Knowledge Scars was reviewed in Legends #130.
(2) Oxydes was reviewed in Legends #130.
(3) Reviewed in Legends #132.

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