North Carolina Writers’ Network- An Interview With Cat Warren

The North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall 2021 Conference will be held in Durham November 19-21. This is an opportunity for aspiring writers to hone their skills and work with a variety of professional writers. Registration is open through Friday November 12th. Today, I’d like to turn your attention to one particular conference led by retiring NCSU Professor Cat Warren, “To Tell the Truth.” I sat down with Cat to talk about her career and presentation this Sunday, you will be able to find that interview on our “Off The Record,” interview podcast series here in a few days, but for now, here are a few highlights.

Her Book and Creative Non-Fiction

Q: How has your career as a journalist and as a professor teaching science writing informed your creative non-fiction book “What the Dog Knows,” [a book detailing her work training cadaver dogs while on hiatus from the university]?

A: Well, environmental science writing has always been in my wheelhouse. My father was a fisheries biologist and studying water pollution was his jam. I kind of grew up in the country, and that connection between science, and dogs, and essentially crime fit. Because, when I was a reporter, crime and courts where part of my natural beat, so having those things come together made a lot of sense. And also, when I looked at the work I was doing, I realized that with [training] the dog, it was really about science. It made me wonder, what do we really know?

The North Carolina Writers’ Network

Q: Tell us a bit about what people can expect from your workshop on creative non-fiction at the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

A: I’m actually working on some of the presentation right now, and part of the concept of this is that many people who are part of the conference are writers of fiction. But not all of them. One of the things I learned early on as a reporter, is that everything, every piece of writing that people are going to invest their time in. The question of wanting to know what happens next, it’s so central to any fiction or non-fiction writing. People don’t have to pick up a book, magazine, or newspaper, they aren’t obligated to look it up on they’re not obligated to keep reading. I really think John McPhee said it best, “When you write non-fiction, your entry has to be a flashlight that leads into your story.” So I’ve been thinking about that and another then McPhee said which is that, when you’re writing fiction, certain techniques will just be so obvious, “Oh, that’s just a harlequin romance, or that’s just a cheaply written thriller.” But when you bring these same techniques to non-fiction, they end up working extremely well, because it’s the truth. And there are so many writers who do this, you add story and narrative to something that really happened, and I want to highlight those writers. And we’ll also then do some exercises where we’ll say “Okay, here’s the plot of a romance novel, and here’s some non-fiction facts, take fifteen minutes and write a quick romance.”

Journalism In The Digital Age

Q: How do you try to prepare your students for a modern career?

A: You know, I think its extraordinarily difficult when you have super creative passionate students where you’re essentially saying to them: “look, you’re probably not going to get a job as a full-time journalist.” And so what do you do? How do you prepare students for what is inevitably a really tough economy. A world that is filled with uncertainty. The inevitability that students are going to have, not just one or two or three jobs, but many jobs over the course of their careers. I think that there’s not real way to prepare people for a world that looks like this. The best you do is you understand that people are resilient, and this generation is having to be especially resilient, and especially flexible. Between, you know, climate change, and democracy being undermined, and jobs not really being guranteed anymore… So what do you say? You say that the mind is a marvelously plastic thing, and there are ways to do and find things that you love. I look at careers that students have, sort of gerrymandered for themselves, and I’m really impressed.

New Album Review

Dochii: Oh The Places You’ll Go Album Review

Alright my recommendations feed has come up with something great. It’s a rare occasion that the algorithm will promote someone without a lot of industry weight behind them, but Dochii is the exception because I had no idea who this woman is, and she’s left a relatively thin paper trail online. So, let’s take a look at this new force in underground rap, and her introductory album “Oh The Places You’ll Go.”

The obvious starting place for Dochii is the song “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake,” (yes I know, just bear with me). The song literally starts with a teacher asking her to introduce herself to the class, straight up “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” style. This is an extremely well-worn cliché, and you better be at the top of your game if you add something new this way. Fortunately for Dochii, she is. Beyond the persona and content of lyrics, there’s no getting around the fact that Dochii is just a technically masterful rapper. This album is based around Dr. Seuss, and her flows are accordingly very fragmented and sing-songy, but the song never becomes stale. She switches between rhythmic patterns, tempos, and dynamics at such breakneck speed that one medium length song feels like full ep, giving a full impression of her range, personality, and life story through little more than the bread and butter of hip-hop.

The album’s simplicity is a thematic force as well. The ep is centered around school and childhood, hence the Dr. Seuss stuff. Again, comparisons to both Lauryn Hill and about 30 other rapppers are inveitable, but Dochii remains her own person through these well-worn topics. One of the album’s most creative choices is the decision to write and perform from the perspective of an actual tween. Dochii isn’t so much reflecting back on her childhood years so much as performing from an entirely separate character.

If there’s one complaint I have with this album, it’s the interludes. The ep is extremely short, so loading the tracklist down even further with spoken word, found sound, and other skits really makes the pace drag between the actual songs. While I’m the last person to recommending skipping tracks on albums, this is probably a situation where skipping is appropriate.

Dochii is a great addition to underground hip-hop, and while I can’t make any crystal ball predictions about her career, I can only dream of the “Places She’ll Go,” in the future. Take a listen to this new artist, she’s worth your time.

Concert Review

Spookstina: Manifest Concert Reviews

So WKNC sent a group to Manifest this earlier this month, and it was a bit more Halloween-y than initially anticipated. While genre variety was plentiful, there was an overwhelming theme of SCARY. The Local 506 had a end to end metal setlist on Friday, there was hardcore punk, a little bit of goth dance music, but most tuned to my tastes was the Noise and Dark Ambient thrills of Raleigh’s own Spookstina performing at NightLight.

Spookstina is a witch, and I mean that metaphor in the most literal way possible. She has raven hair, a high, raspy, and vaguely ominous singing voice, and a musical style that reeks of death and depression. Her SoundCloud bio is just the single phrase “The topography of an unmade bed after a restless night,” and it is awesome. Her music floats in that vague noisey electronic haze that goes by a million labels. Dark Ambient, is my first instinct, Death Industrial is another contender, but the point is that she’s very spooky.

Her performance was a wash of contradictions laid out for our viewing pleasure. She was in an intentionally catatonic trance for the whole set, barely vocalizing above a whisper in the small venue of Nightlight. Yet her theatrics loomed large in my memory of the night. Behind her was the scenery of a small apartment complete with Gen Z approved multicolor lighting. In front of her: a sewer grate ladder…. she started to whip the sewer grate ladder with chains halfway through the performance.

Yes, despite her listless, almost Shoegazing persona, her set was one of destruction. The entire venue was filled with a low electronic gurgle for more than thirty minutes, complete with a bass sound that made my organs shrivel. She smashed, clattered, and abused various inanimate objects, including a guitar which was played more as percussion that instrument. And while I cannot confirm this firsthand, a few of our other content creators swear there was a fire on stage briefly after she smashed a Christmas light.

I’m not sure this article amounted to a recommendation per se, but those of you who are into that sort of thing have doubtlessly put a full Spookstina concert on your bucket list already. She’s local to Raleigh, so you ghouls should have no trouble finding her.

Band/Artist Profile

Iona Fyfe Artist Profile

There are many ways to discover new artists, some better than others. While we can debate our favorite ways, I think I speak for everyone when I say the absolute worst way to discover a new artist is to find out they had to go public with #metoo allegations in response to career backlash. These headlines almost always override the artist’s music and work for exclusive focus on their victimization by the industry. In an effort to counteract that trend, here is an unusual artist I discovered through this less than ideal pipeline: Iona Fyfe.

The most immediately recognizable thing about Iona Fyfe is that she’s a Scottish artist who often sings in… well that’s kind of the confusing part. The language (or dialect of English depending on your feelings about the United Kingdom as a political entity) is called Scots, and it’s a surprisingly well preserved cousin of our tongue spoken in the rural south of Scotland, where the Celtic languages of the North mixed with Old English. It’s a strange thing to our American ears, where even the most divergent dialects of our country are still fully intelligible. In the slowest, syrupiest songs in Iona Fyfe’s catalogues, you might just think she has a strong accent. In faster folk songs like “Guise of Tough,” the language barrier is far more jarring. Fyfe’s language uses words and sounds that feel intuitive and gel with the musical/poetic vocabulary of the English tradition, but to our ears it’s mostly nonsense.

However, the effect of Scots is still artistically compelling to English speakers. Since we are steeped in the same musical and poetic traditions, and we share several roots, grammatical transformations, and entire words or sentences. The music still makes emotional sense, communicating everything important and not a lick more. Coming away from the songs, I found myself understanding what the music meant, but not what it was about, which makes for a fascinating if unmooring listening experience.

Then there’s Fyfe’s English language work, which is more accessible if less compelling. Her 2019 ep, “Dark Turn of Mind,” is entirely in English, and built around a cover of previous blog topic Gillian Welch. While the ep isn’t as good as her Scots language music, it represents something unique about Fyfe, that her music is conversation with the Southern American folk tradition. This connection is partly musical, Appalachian folk is built off the musical framework of Celtic and English folk, and partly ethnic. Since the 90s, many white southerners have begun tying their cultural identity to the Celtic tradition, rather than to the Anglo-Saxon or American Nationalistic traditions. Analyzing this cultural shift is beyond my pay grade, though it was a constant feature of my upbringing. The only place I’ve ever been outside North Carolina and the surrounding states is Scotland to visit my brother studying abroad. The label of “Scots-Irish” is a fraught identity, but it’s good nonetheless to see Fyfe reciprocating a more wholesome vision of white Southern identity from across the pond, especially by covering our music from our cannon.

I encourage you to check out the Iona Fyfe discography. If you aren’t a folk person, it will probably remain a minor curiosity to you, but it’s a gimmick that’s worth your time. I wish her the best on her post-Covid career, and hope to see her extend her relationship to American in the coming years, because God knows her nations relationship to Europe is strained right now

New Album Review

Kacey Musgraves Why?

            The divorce album has been a staple of country music for about the last century. It’s a powerful statement that you’ve moved into the depressed and alcoholic part of middle age, which is the prime productive period for good old fashioned ballads about misery and killing your ex. It’s pretty hard to mess up, and yet, Kacey Musgraves has managed to mess it up.

            This last year has apparently been bad for Musgraves, as it has been for all of us. She divorced her husband, fellow country singer Ruston Kelly. However, determined to make the best of it, Musgraves headed into the studio, taking her usual sound palate and collaborators with her, ready to make her very own divorce album, “Star Crossed.” Now, considering the overwhelming acclaim of Golden Hour, and the general tradition of country divorce albums, I had high hopes for the album. Kacey Musgraves has been a very cheery and bright artist, and while no one would ever wish for something to dampen her spirits, I was interested to see how she would handle darker subject matter.

However, in retrospect, the fact that Musgraves had never really taken on an angry or aggressive tone should have been a red flag. “Star Crossed” is about the nicest and vaguest divorce album on the planet. Kacey is an extremely sharp songwriter, and good at forging incisive lines that never feel brow-beating. And yet, we’re treated to nearly an hour of listless and melancholy reminiscence. While there’s nothing wrong with a sad breakup album, Musgraves seems to have nothing to say about her own personal tragedy, giving the whole affair a vibe of “Quick! Say something!”

Even the angry tracks like “bread-winner” are extremely general talking about “guys like that” who come in to ruin your week. No one individual guy in particular, just like, the vague idea of guys who do nonspecific bad things to the idea of women. This isn’t to say that Musgraves needed to go into any kind of detail, we aren’t owed any kind of insight into her personal life, but in a album framed entirely around her divorce, it seems like a rather critical oversight to not, you know, talk about the divorce.

I don’t want to just drag this album, there’s a more important lesson we might take from this specific type of failure. It might be that not all artists are built for the requisite messy personal album coming from tragedy that famous artists are expected to churn out. I can’t speak to whether Musgraves was personally pressured into making an album about her personal baggage (though it would certainly explain a lot). However, even if no agent, label executive, or fan asked her to make art out of her suffering, Musgraves was doubtlessly influenced by the general cultural expectation that a musician can’t go through personal tragedy without creating an album out of it. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of career move, it’s emotionally taxing and requires a specific type of person (read: a slightly narcissistic person) to be comfortable putting themselves out so completely.

I’m fairly confident Kacey Musgraves will bounce back from this. She’s still obviously very talented, and like I said at the top, country is perhaps the only genre where woman can expect greater success in middle age than they did in their twenties. So here’s hoping she can find a niche that suits a bit better, because Tammy Wynette she is not.

Music News and Interviews

New Music Floodgates: Fall Mainstream Edition

            In the Spring, we saw a brief burst of new releases that were delayed until after the pandemic. Most of these were independent releases trying to prepare for summer and fall touring. While the machinations of the music industry are beyond me, I’d wager a guess that new music in the indie scene takes a bit longer to get going, while mainstream releases can be released pretty much concurrently with a tour and still sell tickets. This is pure speculation, but it would explain the rash of new music by established indie bands and mainstream pop artists in the last month or two.

            So today, as a part 2 to my spring edition, we’re just going to briefly recap as many event releases as possible so that you don’t miss out on a new album by an artist you like, or so you can find something new to listen to. Without further ado, here are some summaries:

Music News and Interviews

Kim Petras is Back

Kim Petras isn’t the first person you think of when you think musical victims of the pandemic but she’s definitely on the list. The singer was scheduled for an event release in 2020 on a major label, but her touring-centric business model put those plans on hold. Well, with the pandemic as over as it’s ever going to be, Petras has seen fit to release her major label debut, a single with the rather on the nose title “Future Starts Now.”

            If you’ve literally any Kim Petras song before, you have an idea of what to expect. She’s a indie pop artist with mainstream ambitions, making her contemporaries with a whole host of women including Rina Sawayama, Jessie Ware, Charli XCX, and Carly Rae Jepsen. It’s a hard market to break into as electropop fans (translated: teenage gay boys on Instagram) are spoiled for choice in the genre.

            What makes Petras stand out is curiously absent on her newest single, which while good, lacks the songwriting chops that made her independent pop. She’s certainly no stranger to dance oriented tracks with little lyrical substance, but her songwriting ability has always been what’s set her apart from her more beat driven contemporaries. Her most popular and best tracks “I Don’t Want It All,” and “Heart to Break,” were driven by her forceful and jaw dropping vocal ability combined with unusually smart lyrics. Her newest single, while danceable and pleasant to listen to, is just another nu-disco house fusion with an eight word chorus. It’s not bad, but it is unambiguously the safe choice.

            I don’t know if Kim Petras has Top 40 potential. She has a lot going for her, but there are some serious marketability roadblocks. She would be the only trans musician in the mainstream at the moment, making notoriously risk-averse record companies nervous about promoting her. Her music is also unapologetically campy and unserious, a far cry from the ‘respectable’ and social issue oriented pop mainstream of Billie Eilish, Lizzo, and Olivia Rodrigo. If Petras does make it through to the top 40 charts, it be from sheer force of personality and talent, things she definitely has, but aren’t on display in “Future Starts Now.” Here’s hoping to a riskeir second single.

Classic Album Review

Doing Our Thing with Pride: Long Lost SC Soul Act Finally Gets a Reissue

Bandcamp can be hit or miss, but boy do I have a hit for you today. As part of their ‘Album of the Day’ series, Bandcamp has released a long-since out of print record from the disco era. “Doing Our Thing with Pride,” is the 1977 sole studio album from Greenville SC soul outfit The Al-Dos Band. Until literally last week, you could not listen to any of these songs without dropping literally thousands of dollars on Discogs. You can check the Bandcamp page for more information on the reissue, but today, we’re just going to give this thing the straightforward review it deserved 45 years ago.

The Al-Dos band skirt the lines of many retro styles. This was very common the 70s, when black music hit the mainstream and interesting experiments were, at least briefly, rewarded. The sound is clearly influenced by the contemporary trends in dance like funk and disco, but the core sound is more traditional. The best term is probably ‘country soul’ as the Al-Dos band have the most southern of soul aesthetics, at times bordering on gospel influence. It’s a fusion that was surprisingly rare in the decade following Sly and the Family Stone. The music is clearly steeped in the tradition of the black church, while remaining light, danceable, and sensual.

The lyrical themes are probably easy to infer from the album title: “Doing Our Thing with Pride.” The songwriter clearly wanted to continue in the tradition of “Say it Loud I’m Black and Proud,” or “What’s Going On,” writing songs that aren’t so much pollical theses as they are statements of intent and empowerment. Accordingly, much of the album isn’t political at all, instead taking themes of heartbreak and loss that transcend the era. The result is an album that is about as quintessentially 1977 as it gets, without ever becoming dated.

Music nerds like to think the best music will always eventually rise to the top, but the long-term obscurity of small-label wonders like the Al-Dos, screwed over by industry, geography, and happenstance, challenge that narrative. So much wonderful music remains out of print in our modern era. So, if you’re tired of buying blockbuster albums on vinyl for extortionate prices, take this album as your lesson to buy something for $5 from a band no one remembers. You might just find the next big discovering in record collecting.

Music News and Interviews

Has Kanye Finally Lost the Public?

Kanye’s career has been living on borrowed time for more than a decade now. He’s one of the most famous, and least sympathetic musicians on earth, so much so that many critics have assumed no number of scandals, public gaffes, or bad press could ever tank the man’s career. There was a time I would have agreed with that statement but looking at the release of his 10th studio album Donda, I might have to walk back that assessment.

Kanye West probably needs no introduction at this point. His music has captured the public consciousness for two decades, and his public persona has done much the same, just in a more negative light. Each public disaster has been met with equally rapturous critical and public praise. For all the Grammy rants, political forays, and questionable public statements, his albums “My beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” “Yeezus,” and “Kids See Ghosts,” each earned glowing reviews from at least one major indie outlet, be it Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, or The Needle Drop respectively.

However, in recent years Kanye’s public antics and private fame have started to eclipse his actual musical success. His endorsement of Donald Trump, disparaging comments towards black women, and divorce from wife Kim Kardashian have all cost him public support. His 2019 religious album “Jesus Is King,” garnered confused reactions from secular critics, and little to no interest from a religious audience, and while his 2018 series of short projects and production jobs were well received as whole, no one project was universally acclaimed according to Allmusic and Metacritic aggregates.

However, with the release of his most recent album “Donda,” a switch seems to have been flipped both within his fanbase and within the wider world. For the first time in a long time, Kanye seems to have entirely lost the public’s interest. The extensive delays garnered backlash on his subreddit, critics that once adored him like Pitchfork and the Independent have given reviews that range from lukewarm to outright panning. But most damning is that just a day after the release, at a time where Kanye alleges the label released his album without consent, and plagiarism allegations over the album cover are riding high in the headlines, and a feud with Drake looms large, Kanye is nowhere to be found in the top 15 trending topics on Twitter. For such a famous artist to have a release so mired in drama, with more than 5 unresolved news stories around him, to not be the #1 trending topic is a failure, much less to not even make this list.

I don’t want to belabor the point any further, because frankly I feel confident in saying that, for once, nobody cares. However, I do want to speculate that perhaps this bodes poorly for the future of other rappers mired in baggage. The likes of Drake, 6×9, Eminem, and Chris Brown have all claimed a niche in the rap game despite (or in some cases because of) public scandal and attempted cancellation. But perhaps, with Donda, Twitter has finally found the most lethal weapon for an artist’s career: to simply ignore.

Band/Artist Profile

Julian Cope Artist Profile

Do you like alternative neo-pagan psychedelic folk punk rock? Well your about to, because today we have one of the weirdest and most wonderful artists I’ve ever been cursed to discover: Julian Cope. Get ready for some label drama, norse myth, and polemics against cars.

If that name sounds familiar, and you’re really into post-punk, it might be because Cope was a founding member of post-punk and neo-psychedelia outfit The Teardrop Explodes, who had a few minor radio hits in Britain. Julian Cope would later say of this band “Would you go back to having your mother change your diapers?” indicating both his sense of artistic evolution and his…. the most diplomatic way I can put it is ‘unique personal character.’

Julian Cope dresses like a BDSM Viking pirate, swears like a Viking pirate, and more or less acts like a Viking pirate would. It’s a very niche and well established brand. Ordinarily I wouldn’t call this obvious attention-seeking from celebrities’ “campy” but in Cope’s case I feel confident this isn’t a publicity stunt. His music is trying to be serious and failing; Cope is camp in its purist form. I say this because his personal eccentricities are reflected in his music in a way that feels genuine, rather than gimmicky. His primary musical touchstone is European folk music, which he blends with trippy effects and heavy guitar tunings into a unique, but not altogether unapproachable style. His music, despite his look, is pretty accessible and mainstream, if you ignore the personality pervading it. A good comparison point would be legendary hippie group, the 13th Floor Elevators, or the less prominent but no less influential Legendary Pink Dots, both of whom share his slightly manic, but focused creative energy.

Beyond the rather mainstream, but immaculately constructed outsider folk, Cope’s most identifiable feature is his lyrics. The topical choices are strange, as you’ve no doubt guessed, but what makes his lyrics unique is the fact they’re somehow grounded and emotionally compelling. I know I said earlier that Cope failed to be serious, and that is true, but in his ridiculous access, he writes some heartfelt music about well-worn topics.

His take on the classic bad romance banger with “Pristine,” is a good example. Usually, these songs emphasize big emotional swings, Hot and Cold relationships where you’re either in pure bliss or pure agony. Cope takes a novel approach by blending the two in one anecdote, asking “How much does it take to go down on someone that you hate?” which is a question that will haunt me to my grave. Cope is very good at these kinds of lyrics, one liners that make you look at a situation in a new light, usually from a very off-putting or alienating perspective. His masterpiece album, “Jehovakill,” opens with the line “Living in the middle of your soul desert,” which is both fantastical and grounded in real emotion. It’s a unique trick, and one that makes Cope an engaging artist.

Usually when I review music this niche or unusual, I add a caveat to the effect of “This won’t be for everyone,” but with Julian Cope I actually feel confident in recommending him to a general audience. Even if this isn’t your genre (lord knows it’s not mine), Cope is worth your time. His major label work from the early 90s is where I’d start, they’ll also be the easiest albums to find on streaming. Happy listening!