Vanessa Vivante: “As a teen, I liked finding interesting and weird music …”
I met Vanessa Vivante in 2011 on a book tour through the USA. I had done a reading in Denver after which Vanessa asked me to have breakfast with her and her wife Carrie the next day. I am usually quite shy with strangers, but they were both so friendly that I made an exception and took my husband Alexander Hacke along. It was worth the experiment, proving once more that adventures are often worth it. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and the couple turned out to be wonderful company. We discovered that Vanessa was a versatile trumpet player and spoken word connoisseur, so we kept in touch collaborating on long term projects and performances over the years.
Early 2020 Vanessa contacted us, writing that she was working on her third solo album and wondered if we felt like contributing a couple of
ideas for one or two songs. We did so, not as a band but as separate artists and enjoyed pushing files back and forth over the ocean, curious about what she was working on with her other guest musicians.
In December 2021 we received a box filled with the new CD and were delighted to discover that the result was fantastic. In fact, ”DU BIST KEIN TOY” by Vanessa Vivante is on the top of my favorite releases of 2021. The CD sounds like the score of a film noir set in a futuristic New York City of the 70ies with an elegant mixture of jazz, drone, spoken word, brass ensembles and dream-like lyrics.
Vanessa and Carrie moved to the Colorado mountains not long ago, but the music is very much an urban portrait which I found fascinating; another example of how art can transcend reality.
I appreciate Vanessa for her perspective on many subjects and was delighted when she agreed to do an interview with me for Kaput Mag.
Danielle de Picciotto: Your new album has just been released. Did you have a specific theme for the whole album?
Vanessa Vivante: A photograph from our trip to Berlin several years ago was the seed from which everything else grew. When I saw it, I knew right away it was going to be my album cover shot. It shows a minimalist grid of windows on a building located next to the Spree River behind a single tree in its fall colours. On the canal wall below it a tagger had spray painted, “DU BIST KEIN TOY”. I don’t really know why, but that image with its mashed- up German/English mantra of the graffiti just resonated with me. All I needed after that was to make a whole bunch of new songs!
Themes eventually evolved as I listened and worked on the music rather than starting with an initial intent to accomplish a specific goal. I felt like I had developed a sense of clarity about my life, who I am and what I want, while at the same time it seemed so many people were derailed by distraction and confusion. Lyrics grew out of those feelings. Even though some of the songs might seem to be reactions to the pandemic, I wrote most of them before that happened.
Is this your first album?
For Vanessa Vivante’s music, “Du Bist Kein Toy” is the first and only album. With music published under my previous name, Steve Forker, there are a few studio and live recordings floating around in cyberspace. Most notably the albums “Driving At Night” and “Shine”.
My preferred pronouns are “I/me/my”. I always wanted to say that! Seriously though, I’m happiest when others use “she/her/hers”. Isn’t it interesting how it seems most polite to introduce ourselves first by asking about the other person’s preferences? When selfishness and confrontation seem so normal a little courtesy feels so refreshing.
Your music sounds timeless, it combines elements of drone, jazz, big band and experimental. How would you define your style? What are you looking to express? Do you have certain inner guidelines?
I love all those styles! Thank you for letting me know. It is difficult for me to decide which labels to assign to my music because I think I’m too close to the work. While making music I don’t set my mind on making music for a particular genre. I just try to make something I’d like to hear. The only guidelines I gave myself when I decided to make “Du Bist Kein Toy” were never to be in a hurry and never to let the project become stressful for any reason. There were times I had to back away entirely from working on it but am glad I did. Sometimes to make better music you first have to stop making music!
Did you study music? Are you a solo musician in general or have you collaborated with bands?
When I was very young my dad would play John Philip Sousa records and we would both drum on practice pads along with the marches. Later my mom gently suggested that with my interest in music maybe I could try Beginning Band class instead of Metal Shop. I picked trumpet because it was easy to carry to school and trumpets often have the melody part in band music. As a teen, I liked finding interesting and weird music and was lucky to find a lot of strange and thoughtful music by artists like Laurie Anderson, John Cage and the Giorno Poetry Systems series of records. At University of Colorado’s College of Music, noticing my somewhat different taste in music from other musicians there, my trumpet teacher added several modern composers to my standard repertoire to learn. I got to perform “Rite of Spring” with two orchestras and had many other exciting musical experiences. I tried to keep things interesting by making recordings with my trumpet and a keyboard with a sequencer. I’d give away cassettes of my music to my friends. While still a trumpeter in other people’s groups I eventually got a few solo jobs making soundtrack music for corporate videos, art shows, and theatre. I worked by myself mainly because I didn’t know how I could work with anybody else. Programming a sequencer isn’t a very social activity. However, it’s amazing to me how much the world can open up to musicians. I’ve had the privilege of performing with bands, orchestras, and jazz combos, marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, done a recording session at Skywalker Ranch, played at Disneyland as well as in the Church of Saint John Coltrane, toured with an all-drag 50’s band, composed and arranged music for ballet, a mime theatre company, and a punk-rock orchestra.
When you start composing, do you start with a trumpet idea or electronic compositions? How do you go about composing music in general?
I didn’t have any rules for how to make “Du Bist Kein Toy”. No two songs had the same process. In fact, I may have successfully violated every bit of recording and mixing advice I’ve ever been given. Normally you’re supposed to start with drums and rhythm instruments as the first tracks to build from. Instead, I’d sometimes start with voice, trumpet or guitar tracks and construct everything else around them. For “Mezzanine” I took guitar tracks Pete recorded for another song which I didn’t want to keep, chopped them up and rearranged the pieces. After that I recorded trumpet, bass, and drums over it making a fun new song out of discarded tracks. Even though it’s basically a duet between Pete and me, he’s never heard it! Jodi’s great at improvising melody lines. While recording her parts, all I did between takes was give really helpful advice like, “Wanna do it again?” She’d say yes, then make up an entirely new melody. Rather than choosing one and throwing out the rest, I layered many of her tracks together. I learned so much about using my recording software while making this album and even tried out some new instruments. I played drums with triggers attached to them for sampled sounds and even taught myself guitar and bass for the background parts. I also made ‘field recordings’ with my phone. One is of Carrie and me walking from a parking garage on the 16th Street mall in Denver to the theatre to see a ballet performance. It plays through the song “Mezzanine”. Another recording Jodi sent me attached to a text message saying it was “puffy jackets in a clothes dryer with some tennis balls.” It became the looped rhythm for the song “Wordless”. Other sounds include frogs in a pond by a bike
trail where I was riding, a donkey from Fairplay’s Burro Days races, and the sound of cables hitting sailboat masts on a windy day at the Lake Dillon Marina.
I’d have liked to invite even more guests! As things turned out I’d had only hosted a few recording sessions when the pandemic hit. After that I worked over the internet with you and Alexander. It was the first time I’ve done a remote collaboration like that. The process reminded me of how Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg said they worked separately and independently on each of their parts of a performance, their contributions coming together for the first time as the curtain rose in the theatre.
I met you and Alexander when you were touring to promote your book, The Beauty of Transgression. After that you asked David Eugene Edwards and me to participate in your multimedia performance piece, The Glasshouse. Julian Daknis and Jodi Messa were at a community event in Fairplay when someone introduced them to me as musicians and I told them I was a trumpet player. They invited me to
play with their band, Split Window on New Year’s Eve. Pete King was the guitar player for Split Window. He has since moved away but returned this year for a show with his band, The Infamous Nobodies. Lucas Sanders and I became the new horn section for Split Window on the same day. It wasn’t planned that way, though. Julian invited me to a rehearsal before the New Year’s Eve show and a different band member who’d recently met Lucas invited him to come the same night. Lucas and I discovered we have a kind of musical synchronicity where we can make up harmonized parts to each song on the spot as though we’re reading each other’s minds.
What are your main influences?
Musically I take influences from everywhere, including the background noise of daily life. A few of my favourite trumpet players are Ron Miles, Wynton Marsalis, and Erik Truffaz. The only one of those three I haven’t personally met is Truffaz. I love his work with Murcof especially on their album “Mexico”. Ron Miles and I went to University of Colorado together and he’s been a lifelong friend of mine. Once I gave him a blank cassette and asked him to make a mixtape of what he thought I should be listening to. He gave me several songs by Bad Brains and James Brown, Siegfried’s “Funeral Music” by Wagner, and a few selections by Art Ensemble of Chicago. I first met Marsalis backstage at a concert in Denver then participated in a few educational events he led. One day Ron called me and said, “come downtown and let’s hang out with Wynton.” That afternoon had nothing to do with my formal musical education, but I still remember it as one of my most formative musical experiences.
A few books that enhanced my life were “My Story” by Caroline Cossey and “The Femme’s Guide to The Universe” by Shar Rednour. I’d also count a rare video of Quentin Crisp’s “How to Have a Lifestyle”. His monologue performance of it is wonderful! I’m also inspired by goth girls I met in clubs in the 1990’s. Aside from being some of the most adorable people on the planet they have the singular ability to go to the darkest corner of a nightclub and, in two quick strokes, put on their lipstick in a perfect cupid’s bow shape without a mirror!
How have you experienced the pandemic? Did it impact your life greatly?
During my life I experienced several moments of crisis where I had to face my own mortality. Some of these were when I was very young. As a kid I was in the hospital with cancer and befriended a boy who had the same kind of cancer. When he died, I spent a long time assuming I would die at any moment too. It made me go a little crazy and it felt like the world was also going a little crazy around me. At that time our society had an existential nervousness due to the possibility of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. I constantly imagined what it would be like to be at the spot where an atomic bomb hit. But as time went on and I didn’t die the feeling of being one heartbeat away from my own extinction faded. Now this pandemic is doing a similar thing to us. Most of us have heard about people who did everything right, getting vaccinated and taking precautions, but the virus still killed them anyway. Many have had to deal with COVID-19 directly through difficult recoveries after catching it or the horror and grief of watching people suffer and die from it. The feelings of being completely helpless and hopeless make us a little crazy, and it certainly feels like the world is going crazy around us. Those feelings have always been with me. While it’s upsetting to have to feel this way again, it is familiar to me so I think I can be a little more patient about it. I also have a sense of perspective around how important it is to get through this threat to everybody’s lives compared to the relative insignificance of not being able to play some gigs with my band.
My Dad was in the military, so we moved around a lot. By the time I was ten years old I’d been all over the United States and a few places overseas. About five years ago I moved from the suburbs of Denver to Fairplay, a small mountain town. I can’t remember anything ever being so revitalizing to me creatively or socially. I wouldn’t want to diminish my experience living in cities and how they helped me grow and mature, but now I’m living in a place where it is really quiet, and I’m referring to more than just sounds. I find now I’m able to focus better and think about my music, my friendships, and pretty much everything else without the noise, complications, and distractions in the city. If I want a dose of noise and distraction, it’s still within driving distance, but I’m finding I crave those little doses less and less.
What are you working on momentarily? What are your plans for the future?
Last night I had this dream. I was in a crowded city, going about my daily business when I realized I was part of a performance. I couldn’t see an audience or any cameras, but somehow knew everyone around me was in a show. I watched them and tried to blend in as they continued moving around quickly, and then someone lifted me off the ground from behind as all the other people swept out of our way. I was dancing a pas de deux with an unseen partner. I did my best to move my arms expressively and tried to remember how the Sugarplum Fairy moved in “The Nutcracker” while swooping and turning in the air. Finishing our dance my partner disappeared into the crowd and I felt embarrassed because I’ve never been a dancer in my entire life. I’d made all my moves up on the spot because it seemed like I had to under the circumstances. People came up to me telling me how wonderful I had been and how beautiful my dancing was. I didn’t want to tell them I wasn’t a real ballerina because they seemed to be so genuinely happy about it. … I think my dreaming brain was reminding me that it’s important to keep playing the game of life while I have the chance. If an opportunity comes up, I should try to make the most of it. A little over a decade ago I had an emergency open heart surgery. I suppose God had me pencilled in his calendar to die that day but apparently decided at the last minute to turn me into an art project
instead. It’s a good thing for me he didn’t use ink! Since then, I live my life pretty much in the moment instead. I just try to stay cosy and somewhat productive. There may be more later but I’m still enjoying this music right now.
Where are you releasing your new album?
“Du Bist Kein Toy” is available for streaming on all the major and many of the lesser-known online sites. The CD is for sale at many of the places where CDs are sold, and both are available at vanessavivante.bandcamp.com.