ERIKA KULNYS Profile Article on Filly.ca
by Shannon Webb-Campbell (The Coast, ARR, Filly.ca)
Ex-pat Nova Scotian songwriter/spoken word poet Erika Kulnys is artfully cementing her place in the history books of artistic heroes of our time.
Erika Kulnys recently found a new sense of home in New York, yet it is the omnipresence of lost love which tugs at her heart strings and not necessarily the relocation which keeps the language pouring from her pen. “Heartbreak to me means the opening of the heart,” the fiery, pixie-haired blonde muses. “The appearance of fault lines, the cracking, the painful and pleasurable combination of creativity and letting go of control. Heartbreak is a common theme in my life.”
Kulnys is one seasoned globe-trotter, as the worldly artisan has lugged her library of songs, poems and ideas from South Korea, Ireland, Spain and Latin America, to various nooks and crannies around North America. “New York is a crazy place,” she explains. “I have sung in the subway all night to make my rent. By possessing the ingenious intellect and activist zeal of Ani DiFranco combined with the poetic scepticism of Leonard Cohen, Kulnys is artfully cementing her place in the history books of artistic heroes of our time. Perhaps her mass appeal is too political, too edgy, or too vulnerable for the average listener, yet she has the ability to tackle heavy-handed issues which even newspaper headlines seem to steer clear from. Some of her lyrical subject matter boldly comments on social issues such as sexism, racism, rape, and homophobic leanings. Unfortunately mainstream radio doesn’t necessarily seem ready to let the passionate, activist cats out of the bag. “I do not seek to incorporate my sexuality, gender and so forth into my artistic vision; rather, they are integral to my work and integral to my core as a person and the core of erotic creativity,” says Kulnys. “I believe that all creative work stems from a letting go of identity and opening to the world. Once we open our hearts and eyes to the beauty and suffering around us, we are freed from our own egos and open to digesting the world as it is really is.”
The ferocious songwriter is unapologetic about herself as a creator and as a person. Her latest album Hurricane tampers with the ballad-aesthetic of early Tori Amos, as her achingly honesty, yet beautifully created craftsmanship is as vast as the North Atlantic Ocean. Spin the cheekiness of Dolly Parton with the overt sexuality of Kinnie Starr, then dash the toe-tapping rhythms of Newfoundland’s Colleen Power to conjure up a sense of her multi-dimensional musical talents.
“I do not juggle song writing and poetry, they do acrobatics inside of me on a unicycle,” she says. “I often write songs which morph into poetry and vice versa. I often derive inspiration from a single line or seed of an idea, either found in nature, found in my experience, observed in the world around me, or given by a fellow artist. I write in a number of ways. Sometimes, when I am in acute pain, a song makes its way out of the birth canal and arrives in perfect, bloody simplicity into my hands. Crying out to be held. Other times, writing is an extremely intellectual and discursive process.”
Mother’s soothe their children with the phrase ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger;’ nothing could ring more true for this achingly talented writer and musician. Kulnys bravely speaks about being raped by a close friend in Venezuela, being gay-bashed and nearly gang-raped at age eleven while living in Guatemala. “All these experiences have shaped my perception of what it is to be female musician in a male-dominated industry,” she says. “My Buddhist friend took a deep breath after hearing my story, and said, ‘You, my dear, are a survivor.’ His words really rang true to me. I have survived much in my life, and have also been incredibly privileged and lucky. I believe it is important not only for women, but for men, to combat sexism. First in their personal lives, and then in the public arena, and specifically in the world of music. I appreciate men who take action and address sexism in their songs and in the way they interact with women.”
Kulnys views artists as composers, soldiers with the extreme virtue and duty to take the debris of daily life “through time and care and awareness, and cipher it down to its essential beauty and wisdom.”
Interview With Shannon Web-Campbell (of the Coast) Full text of above interview for www.filly.ca article.
What inspires you as a songwriter?
In one word: heartbreak–heartbreak meaning the opening of the heart, the appearance of fault lines, and then cracking, and then the painful and pleasurable combination of creativity and letting go of control. Heartbreak is a common theme in my life, although I use the term to describe a wide array of experiences in which the heart opens like a flower and shows itself as perfect in its vulnerability. I meditate and find meditation a heart-breaking experience in which my heart is rendered totally open, and in that quietness and simplicity I find inspiration for songs and poetry. I am also inspired by feminist activist queer singers who courageously put themselves and their art into a sometimes cold and closed off culture of complacency and complicity. I am inspired by my lovers, by the erotic in nature, in my own heart and body, and by wanting to make a world where people are motivated by peace and love for each other. A boundary-less world of honoring each other and all our manifold gifts and beauty and shortcomings. I am also inspired by war, pain, and wanting to alleviate my own suffering and that of those I see around me: those on the street, those in combat within themselves and within larger political and corporate wars.
How do you juggle song writing and poetry? When writing do you begin with the intent that the language pouring out of you is for lyrical purposes or do the words take on a mind of their own, in which the result becomes the poem or the song?
Honestly, I do not juggle songwriting and poetry; they do acrobatics inside of me on a unicycle. I often write songs which morph into poetry and vice versa. I often derive inspiration from a single line or seed of an idea, either found in nature, found in my experience, observed in the world around me, or given by a fellow artist. I write in a number of ways. Sometimes, when I am in acute pain, a song makes its way out of the birth canal and arrives in perfect, bloody simplicity into my hands. Crying out to be held. Other times, writing is an extremely intellectual and discursive process in which I consider many variations of the same material, and may even take years to complete a song or poem. I recently re-visited several poem-songs that I had written in Venezuela the days after I had been raped. When I wrote them I was so discomfited and despairing that I thought they were embarrassingly simplistic. Looking back at them, I am glad I did not throw them out as I had wanted to. I rehearsed them with my band, and they have a certain power in them because of the way they were written: in complete and total despair and darkness–the darkness that if entered with courage, can lead to light. See Lion for example:
As a wonderfully, visible lesbian (another common characteristic we share) why do you think it’s so important to incorporate your sexuality, gender and so forth into your artistic vision?
I do not seek to incorporate my sexuality, gender and so forth into my artistic vision; rather, they are integral to my work and integral to my core as a person and my core of erotic creativity. I believe that all creative work stems from a letting go of identity and opening to the world. Once we open our hearts and eyes to the beauty and suffering around us, we are freed from our own egos and open to digesting the world as it is really is. I see artists as composters, who take the debris of daily life, and through time and care and awareness, sipher it down to its essential beauty and wisdom. Everything has at its core essential goodness, intelligence, wisdom, and as artists, we have the power to make this visible to the world through gently pulling people out of their monotonous vision, and opening their eyes to the divine. I realise you asked me about my sexuality and I went on a spiritual rant! That is because I see sex, sexuality, creativity, and spirituality as inexorably linked. Each is a way for us to grow personally and culturally, and a means to peace, joy, and enlightenment. So yes, being a lesbian and an erotic visionary is important because it is simply being honest about the integrative nature of art.
You seem to be poeming like mad, I’m wondering what you’ve been working on lately?
I have not had the opportunity to write a great deal recently as I have been occupied by changing diapers, meeting the love of my life, and playing shows with my band.
What are some of the struggles you’ve endured being a female songwriter? I know in the past my band Oh, Beautiful! Majestic! Eagle! We’ve been given guff from our male counterparts for being an all girl ensemble. What’s your take on sexism in music?
I met a man recently at a Shambhala Training and ended up telling him my entire life story at the coffee break, needless to say I missed some much needed cushion time! I told him of recent events in my life, such as being raped by a close friend in Venezuela, being gay-bashed and verbally assaulted by a crazy Australian man in Jamaica, and almost being gang-raped (see Lago Atitlan poem on my website) when I was eleven and living in Guatemala. All these experiences have shaped my perception of what it is to be female musician in a male-dominated industry. My Buddhist friend took a deep breath after hearing my story, and said, “You, my dear, are a survivor.” His words really rang true to me. I have survived much in my life, and have also been incredibly privileged and lucky. I believe it is important not only for women, but for men, to combat sexism. First in their personal lives, and then in the public arena, and specifically in the world of music. I appreciate men who take action and address sexism in their songs and in the way they interact with women. The three men I work with, Adam Tagliamonte, Ryan Kotler, and Nicolas Veltmeyer are all EXTREMELY respectful of women, gender and sexuality differences, and actively support me in my personal mission to dismantle sterotypes and blow people out of their racist, sexist, capitalist shells by singing for peace and love. Being a woman travelling the world to study political folk music was no easy task. I was assaulted, and when I tried to learn reggae in Jamaica, many men expected sex in return. When I recorded with an all-male revolutionary band in Venezuela, they took me for granted and never even gave me a copy of the CD we recorded. When I went to India to study folk musics, I was so aggressively assaulted by men that I became scared to leave the house and eventually returned to Canada. Living as a woman musician, or even just a woman, is not easy. It takes courage, persistence, diligence, and a commitment not to give up. That’s one thing I am blessed with: persistence. It has its downfalls, but in terms of working for social justice, battling prejudice, and making peace, it is definitely an asset to my life.
Who are your musical and literary influences?
A broad range of songwriting influences include Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ani Di Franco, Stan Rogers, Silvio Rodriguez, Bessie Smith, Patty Griffin, James Taylor, Jessie Winchester, Bruce Cockburn and Ferron. My contemporary music influences are Giorgio Ligeti, Patrice Repar, Laurie Anderson, Lewis Nielson, and Harrison Birtwhistle. My literary influences range from Audre Lorde to Jeanette Winterson, from Adrienne Rich to Mahmoud Darwish, from Margaret Atwood to Jamaica Kincaid, from Rilke to Carl Phillips, from Marquez to Rohinton Mistry, and from Martha Collins to Katherine Hubbard. Below are lists of my favourite books and musicians:
Matilda, anything by Mahmoud Darwish, One Hundred Years of Solitude, A Wrinkle in Time , The Duino Elegies, The Arrangement of Space, The Fact of a Doorframe , The Rest of Love, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, The Diamond in the Window, Autobiography of my Mother , The God of Small Things , Things Fall Apart, Voodoo Lounge, Sara and Kamila, Lydia Warner, Lisa Sloane, Naomi Morse and Elvie Miller. I also love Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Tori Amos, Tom Waits, Llasa, The Indigo Girls, Damien Dempsey, Sinead O’Conner, Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainwright, Patty Griffin, old Sarah McLachlan, and anyone who’s a crafty song-writer.
What have you been reading lately?
Mahmoud Darwish’s new book, The Butterfly’s Burden. The first poem is incredibly beautiful–all about exile and returning home, being broken and whole, and integrating the ways in which we are parted politically and personally. I also read the New Yorker in the bathroom and political magazines when I got to bookstores.
As quite the well-beaten globe trotter, how has your experiences travelling influenced or effected your writing?
My experiences of travel ARE my writing. Most of my writing revolves around the interconnectedness of people around the globe, the commonalities of our suffering and our yearning for peace, and of my own experiences synthesizing the monstrous harshness and equally powerful benevolence of our world. My song, Angel, is about a man who was deported from his home in New York to Venezuela, his country of birth, for castrating the man who raped his eight-year old daughter. He was living on the streets of Caracas getting beaten up and robbed every night and he befriended me because I spoke English and would talk with him. His name was Angel and the song is about all the Angels of the world, who have good hearts and have committed grievous deeds; who are around us all the time in the form of the homeless, the criminals, politicians, those who make war, and our own perceptions of ourselves as flawed but perfect in our imperfections. The song is about exposing the angels that we don’t see because we don’t take the time or have the courage to look closely enough. My experiences travelling the world enable me to hone the lens through which I see global culture, the commonality of injustice everywhere, and a universal desire to love and find home.
You’ve shared the stage with quite the accomplished artists: Josh Ritter and Emm Gryner being most noteworthy, what are your future aspirations as an artist and as an individual?
I feel eternally grateful to have grown up in Halifax among so many talented musicians, the MacMillans and the Torberts to name a few. I feel also so lucky to have gone to United World College and studied composition, and Oberlin Conservatory, which led me to my current career. I had always thought I would be a documentary filmmaker or a diplomat, but my education led me to believe that music is my life-long path. My future aspirations are simple: to bring peace to the world through music, to bring music to the underprivileged, to open the eyes of the overprivileged, and to always learn and grow as a person and an artist. My personal aspirations are to always keep an open heart and to always be generous with my love and my art.
Do you have any advice for any aspiring writers/musicians?
My advice to aspiring writers/musicians is simple: always believe in art, not in a egocentric way, but in its power as a tool to heal the world.