Performance artist Nelson and guitarist Reyna on women who shred and the unique artist community in Portland, Oregon.
Fabi Reyna is the founder and editor-in-chief of She Shreds Magazine—the world’s only magazine dedicated to female guitarists and bassists. She’s a guitarist of 12 years who’s been in bands since she was nine and also founded and organizes an annual festival that celebrates women in music called Shred Fest. Although originally from Cancun, Mexico, Fabi currently lives in Portland and continues to be an integral member of the music scene.
Rachel Nelson is a theater maker and writer from the Cascade Mountains. She is the founder of APORIA, a performance art think tank, as well as a core company member of Savage Umbrella, a theater company in Minneapolis. Her work has been produced across the country. She is interested in clear and compassionate theater that reverberates with conversations of queerness, philosophy, feminism, and interconnectedness.
Fabi and Rachel performed together at the Feminist Pop Up Festival in Portland, OR in May of ‘13. Since then, they have been putting this interview together via various technology waves beaming between Portland and Minneapolis. The following transcript consists of four separate digital postcards that can be strung together to make some sense of a conversation.
ONE: A HELLO
Rachel Nelson Let’s tell the story of how we met. Our meet/cute! I was planning the first leg of the Feminist Pop Up tour, and we wanted to get more musicians involved, and I talked to maybe three people I knew in Portland OR, and all three of them mentioned you as the first person to get in touch with. I couldn’t figure out if they thought you could play in the festival or help plan it. You were being suggested as this jack of all trades—the artist and the organizer. I was like, “Jesus, who is this person?”
Fabi Reyna Wow! I had no idea that’s how it went down. I knew that Jen had recommended me to you and I love the work she does so I was instantly in. It’s so cool how a community of artists works together like that to make stuff happen.
RN I should say that I was in Portland for the Feminist Pop Up Festival—a festival I founded last year that travels around the country making/curating art dedicated to thinking about/restructuring what feminist art can look and sound like. The festival went really well, but then we had a final night of performance, and there was a giant rainstorm and the venue was really far out of town and it was also Mother’s Day. Total recipe for disaster. There were three people there. It was the weirdest thing. And it’s like, me, my performance partner, and all the other performers who I’ve never met. It was a really terrible moment. But then this rad thing happened. Jen Agosta grabbed me and was like, “Hey, let’s just go get some beer and do the show for each other.” So we did. I drank a bottle of wine in twenty minutes and we did the whole show—it went on for three hours, did you know that? And it was kind of magical, really. There is something about the pared down existence of performing only for other performers. It happens so rarely and it can be really beautiful. There was this thick feeling in the air—like we all knew that there was this shared vulnerability that we all understood. You were there with your band Older Women, and I thought you were incredible—walking this edge of rawness but so open at the same time. You really ask people to come into that emotional place with you. I was really struck the whole time we were in Portland by something I’d love to ask you about—I feel like all the artists that I interacted with there were really generous. Do you know what I mean? Like, the ego that so many young performers have wasn’t present for me. There was a sense of a flexible, pulpy community—like, push on it and it gathers around you and supports you, pushes back. I loved that. I think that’s so rare. I could make so much work in that town.
FR I’ve always been blown away by how humble, supportive and genuine artists and musicians are in Portland. She Shreds would literally not exist without the help of the art and music community here. There’s a big D.I.T belief here and it certainly makes for a great work environment.
RN Let’s talk about She Shreds! I’m curious how you balance your work as an artist and as an organizer—you are the organizer and editor for She Shreds Magazine and also the festival, right? Can you just talk a little bit about how that happened for you?
FR Well . . . it’s not easy and at the same time it is . . . I started out booking shows in Austin when I was 15 years old. I remember I would get bands to come play at the pedestrian bridge by my house and we’d play there every weekend until the cops starting showing up, haha. I fell in love with organizing shows and bringing people together, essentially creating community. At that time I was also really involved with the Girls Rock Camp Portland where I became incredibly inspired by women in music (something I had never really indulged in). That changed my life, honestly. I realized then how criminally under-represented women are in music and really felt an urge to be a part in changing that. After living in Portland for a couple of years I started Shred Fest to raise money for She Shreds. She Shreds had already been an idea for about a year and it wasn’t until I met Mindy, the Editor of Tom Tom magazine, while playing guitar at her SXSW showcase, that I felt like the magazine needed to happen somehow. So in 2011 we had our first Shred Fest and the following year, during Shred Fest #2 in Austin we released our first issue. Now we’re working on our third issue, I’m organizing Shred Fest in Washington, DC and I’m in two active bands. All while trying to keep a day job too. But I love doing ALL of it—and that’s why I say that in a way, it’s easy.
RN So, since we came together at this feminist gathering that’s devoted to reimagining feminist ideas, I have to ask—can you talk a little bit about your identity as a queer feminist?
FR I have to be honest and say that I take an immense amount of pride in being a gay Mexican feminist woman. In any culture, really, it can be difficult to voice yourself as a lesbian, a minority or even a woman. Besides the fact that I’m considered queer I guess I don’t really know what it means to be a queer feminist. My work doesn’t necessarily revolve around being queer although I like to think that if you’re going to consider yourself a feminist, you’re going to fight for more than one kind of equality. My goal as a feminist is to engage everyone involved in a way that they can respect each other.
RN That’s such a good way of saying that—respectful engagement. I think asking people to go there with you on some of these ideas about love or identity or whatever necessitates some sense of respect for the journey that they are on, too. For me, performance fails when it’s just about somebody yelling their experience at you. That being said, I’ve found it to be incredible important to own my own identity as a queer woman performer. If I don’t, my experiences get swallowed up. It’s real easy to get invisible real quick.
FR It’s a struggle, but I prefer to use these characteristics which are often oppressed as the driving force for my identifying as a feminist and doing almost everything I do.
RN It’s so cool that you live this duplicitous life that I feel like is kind of sacrilegious for so many artists—that of a creative human and also that of business person. My mind has been blown for years by so many artists I know who refuse to engage with the logistical planning of their careers. As somebody who runs my own theater company and produces most of my own work, it’s impossible for me to imagine not being incredibly involved in the boring details of how your work exists in the world. Do you know what I mean? And I guess in some ways I think it’s kind of radical to be involved that way—especially to be socialized as a woman and really take charge of the logistics and economics of how your art making happens. I love it when people just own that, but maybe that’s just some kind of weird need for control I have. I do think that there’s something rad and inspiring about people breaking the stereotypes of the artist who can’t do shit in real life—I hate that, I think it’s so disempowering and stupid. So many people think because I am a performer I can’t balance a checkbook. I spent so long thinking I couldn’t geek out about math or science, and it held me back artistically for years, because so much of what I do now needs to engage with those topics, but I had to actually give myself permission to think about those things. For years I just thought “Oh, you’re not good at that”. Do you engage at all with this kind of struggle in your life?
FR For me it’s not necessarily a struggle. I mean, being in a band is a struggle—and there are so many struggles in the work that we make and how we get to making it. Sometimes the struggle is even necessary to create genuine work (that’s me talking about writing music). I really try to think of it like “What do you have to do to get to where you want to be?” and although I suck at writing (seriously I’m a terrible writer) and business and telling people what to do, I figure it out one way or another because it’s what I have to do to get over the mountain, you know? It makes sense to me that some people simply want to indulge in the fun of playing music because once you get into the business side it can suck the creativity and fun of it all.
RN I just feel like we need to reimagine what’s fun, right? If we can’t figure out how to thrive in the business of making art or imagine new systems of making art, then it’s going to be an incredibly difficult road. For me, making a budget and feeding the cats and organizing the bookshelf is a huge part of my artistic process, because it has to be. You have to be inclusive that way. Or I do.
FR Personally if I’m going to dedicate my entire life to something I’m going to learn everything there is to know about it—whether it’s business, booking, playing, etc. It’s all part of the passion of it.
THREE: ON ROOTS
RN Ok, so as somebody who is really interested in biographies as motivation, I’m always interested in where people come from. I feel like we all have a narrative about who we are and the struggles and triumphs we’ve had, and this narrative is always in the back of our mind as a major compass in our artistic lives—a way of orienting you in your world. What’s great is so often these biographies are totally fictional, or part fiction in a way that’s even more interesting, or for so many of us, part history, part shit our dads said, part fiction, part dreaming, and part people we wish we were. Where do you come from? What’s your brief biography and how do you think that ties in to your art making now?
FR It’s funny because I’ve been thinking a lot about my upbringing and trying to make sense of how that got me to where I am now. It’s weird how things that happened when you were six, seven, eight years old can still affect you today. I was born in Cancun, Mexico, partly raised in McCallen, TX and partly raised in Austin, TX. My mom took care of me by herself and come to think of it I’ve never had a solid father figure in my life. Until I was about 16 that used to affect me a lot (let’s just say I wasn’t the most well behaved teenager). However, all of that aside, I had the most amazing mom in the world. When I was little she’d put me in all kinds of camps and would do anything in her power to keep me active. She’s the one who bought me my first guitar and made me go to the Girls Rock camp. In fact, she drove me herself all the way from Austin to Portland. Even though we didn’t have money I remember she’d save up all year just so that we could go to traveling for a month in the summer. I am so grateful for that woman. It’s entirely because of her that I am where I am today. My philosophy on life (and music for that matter) is if you have all the tools you need in front of you then do it. There’s nothing holding you back except for yourself. That’s what my mom taught me—to take risks, to trust yourself and if it doesn’t work out then oh well, at least you tried.
RN I love that. I really feel that behind so many great artists is the unsung hero—the struggling moms or dads or whoever who taught us to read and took the time to make impossible things seem possible. Nobody ends up an artist without a lot of faith, on some level.
FR Ok, what about you? Where are you from and how does that effect how you make work now?
RN I grew up in an extremely rural part of Oregon. It was beautiful, but completely isolated. We didn’t have TV. I read a lot as a kid. There was absolutely no arts programming at the tiny school I went to, but when I was 12 some bizarre arts foundation funded a group of performers from a suburb of Eugene to drive out into the mountains and do cabaret-style old vaudeville performance for my school. I have no idea why that’s where the money came through. It was so weird, I mean, they were wearing unitards and tap dancing. So, obviously, my mind was blown, and I had to be a part of it. I joined that troupe and performed with them for the rest of high school—an hour and half drive to each rehearsal. Then I went off to college in Virginia and became obsessed with social justice and feminism and queerness, and all of those things kind of got squished together into a performative aesthetic that extends across the kind of work we did in Portland—interaction theater, as well as extensive playwrighting and devised work with the theater company I work with in Minneapolis—Savage Umbrella, as well my own performance art think tank, APORIA. I guess you could say I’m a pretty performative person who engages a lot with post-modern philosophy, and I’m just kind of dealing with the contradictions that brings. Ultimately, I’m interested in an articulation of the ways people change, and the highly emotional ways we experience that. So often, talking about those places means talking about how we have a hard time talking about it. These places tend to be pre or under articulated. I think that’s where performance can be so important—it speaks really well to emotional heights that are difficult to explain with logic based systems. Sometimes you need the messy and ridiculous world of your performative imagination to get outside of yourself enough to see what’s going on. Or at least I do. Does that make sense? Probably not, but that’s ok.
FOUR: EAR TO THE GROUND
RN So, ultimately, I think we’re talking about listening and exploring. Tracking the things that aren’t normally cataloged and seeing where they lead us. Queer experience. Imagined universes. They both are underarticulated, invisible, and confusing territories, right? For me, that’s where performance and music overlap. I wanna ask you about performativity, actually, about the parts of yourself that consciously or unconsciously enter into your musical performance. As a theater artist, I am so often interested in how people negotiate performing in public. What parts of yourself do you think comes out in your music? Are there parts of yourself you consciously don’t expose?
FR Performing live is one of my favorite things to do in the world. I’ve always said that if I could do just that and nothing else for the rest of my life I would. You can become someone else on stage or really do whatever you want for that amount of time and people won’t really judge you—in fact they want to be you at times.
RN Yeah, I almost feel like there’s this cathartic craving for performers to be a little out of control. Augusto Boal talks about that, but I feel it somewhat differently. I don’t think experiencing somebody else’s out-of-controlness cancels out your own—I like to think it’s the kind of revolutionary emotion that spreads. I think that kind of climax is contagious. Energy in a group shifts before and after active performance.
FR Music is the only thing I really treat like a journal and I tend to let it all out when I perform. It’s therapeutic in that way because I’m not consciously trying to hold anything back. I guess I’m conscious about the fact that some people are going to walk away inspired by that and some just aren’t. But really- when else are complete strangers going to sit down and listen to you complain about your ex-girlfriend or talk about your take on desire and actually be affected by it?
RN It’s listening, maybe! That’s our thing. There’s something about performance where people come and have this ingrained expectation that they are going to listen. I think that’s really awesome—so few moments in our lives are dedicated to listening anymore, and very few artists have the luxury of assuming attention will be paid.
FR What intrigued me the most about your performance was the character changes. I’m so fascinated by the possibility of changing characters within your own. It seems like that must mean that you are super confident and comfortable with yourself, ha! How do you decide those characters and what do you do to prep for it?
RN The characters came out of a lot of improv. I created the piece you saw, Dark/Heavy/Full of Holes, with Johanna Cairns. We knew we were interested in exploring systems of desire and conscious comedy. That’s all we started with. That and a video we made of a back being scraped by a spoon that was for some reason super compelling to us. We have been working on this show for a year, and about eight months of that was without any real content or through line at all. It was a weird process—we were just walking around our apartment doing the dishes or other chores and talking in voices. We had no idea where we were headed. We were like sponges—we watched a lot of movies, listened to a lot of music, read a lot of books, had conversations until we wanted to puke. We knew we were interested in desire, and how desire is a motivating factor in major decision making in people’s lives. So we did a lot of research into marriage counseling and romance novelists and new age wisdoms, religion, psychics, anything people turn to when they are freaking out. Eventually our sponge got oversaturated and these characters kind of . . . leaked out. There were others before—we did a residency at Hollins University in March and the characters were completely different, but these somehow felt obvious once we found them. It felt a little bit out of my hands, in some way. These characters were also the most flexible—they could morph and move with audience’s reactions in ways we really liked. I think ultimately that’s where we kind of share space, right? In these places where we can push back against the audience and have some kind of conversation. Ok, so here’s a basic question for you—what kind of music do you choose to play? Why?
FR I will say that the guitar riffs in 60’s Peruvian cumbia is what I’m currently obsessing over. This is kind of funny because I run a music magazine, but describing music is literally one of the hardest things you can ask me to do. I’d rather just show you.
RN Deal. Let’s make that happen.
Rachel Nelson’s play “Rain Follows the Plow” just finished a run at The Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis.
Fabi Reyna’s magazine She Shreds can be seen in print or on www.sheshredsmag.com