Firebird

Resonant Motion is honored to release the video for “Firebird,” a collaboration between musician Mel Hsu and visual artist Kate Ten Eyck. Ten Eyck worked throughout 2017 on creating a shadow puppet based animation for this song, composed, sung, played (with other members of her group), and arranged by Hsu for her i was a phoenix album. This animation further serves as a loving tribute to Claire Randall (1989-2016), a charter member of the Resonant Motion team and a featured vocalist on “Firebird” and the rest of Hsu’s album.

Hsu and Ten Eyck sat down with Noah Baerman, Resonant Motion’s Artistic Director, for an extended chat about the process of creating this work of art.  

NB: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview about the “Firebird” video. Rather than starting at the beginning, I’d first like to ask how are you feeling about the piece now that it has come to fruition?

KTE: Thank you Noah, for facilitating this interview! This is a complicated question in that there is the piece and there is the process, and it is impossible for me to separate the two. When I watch the completed animation, there is a strange sense of newness and familiarity. I love that after studying the song “Firebird” and painstakingly adding visual elements to every second that goes by (12 frames per second) I still love the song and love listening to it. I feel extremely gratified that I was able to come up with a concept that I feel really supports the energy and intent of the song. The process of working on the piece was magical. I have made several stop motion animations before, but the technique that I used for this piece (shadow puppetry) was completely new, fresh, and led to unexpected moments of beauty. I feel so grateful to be involved in a project where both the process and the project were so gratifying and healing, and I absolutely loved working with Mel every step of the way. I am excited for this work to be seen and get out into the world.

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NB: And how about you, Mel? For you there is the additional component of returning some focus to your epic i was a phoenix album just over a year after it was released under such complicated circumstances.

MH: Thanks, Noah, for making room for such a tough question with tenderness and courage.

A few months before i was a phoenix was released, I remember lying on my roof in Philly at night, on the phone with my dear friend, Jess Best. We talked about the importance of allowing our barometers of success to evolve as we continued on our musical and personal journeys. As we reflected on what felt important to us in making work, I remember three main questions guiding me at the time:

  1. How can releasing music allow my work to evolve through dialogue with others– in ways that are beyond me?
  2. Did I feel like I had the breathing room to make intentional choices that felt good to me along the way?
  3. How can documenting and sharing my work allow me to honor a specific moment in my life, while also helping me let it go? 

And so right now, as we are on the verge of releasing the music video for Firebird, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of success for the ways in which this piece of music has helped me achieve an unimaginable depth in exploring each of those questions. This collaboration with Kate pushed my understanding of the song beyond what I imagined possible. Especially because I self-identify as an artist who can be obsessively neurotic, particular and controlling about the way my work is presented, working with Kate was such a reinvigorating practice of trusting my collaborator to evolve the meaning of my work beyond me.

Kate and I never once pushed a decision that didn’t feel right simply for the sake of meeting an arbitrary deadline — we trusted that each idea, each inspired moment, each careful choice would reveal itself to us at the right moment, even if it meant waiting another week, month, year. And so I breathe deeply knowing that each choice we made was the one that felt best to us.

 It would be dishonest if I did not also mention that releasing this video also feels heavy and heartbroken. As recording artists, we are blessed that our creative medium allows us to hold onto sound, voice and time with such a powerful illusion of aliveness. We can replay and replay and replay a recording and bring a person, a moment back to life — again and again and again. And so what more could I ask for in a work, than to have been able to capture and immortalize the moments in which I felt closest to Claire and to the community that loved her.

Perhaps somewhere there is a resistance to releasing this work, an illogical fear that it means that it’s time to have to let go of the transcendent feeling of singing with Claire, the feeling of loving her, the feeling of being loved by her. Evolution can feel oppressively forward-moving.

But I know that releasing does not mean forgetting, in fact, it likely means quite the opposite. A deeper, more eternal remembering. A blessing and a burden suddenly able to be carried alongside you by many, many more hands.

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NB: That’s heavy stuff, Mel. I guess you and I share the particular conundrum of having recorded music on which Claire is featured prominently, but mostly within an ensemble setting. Shifting the proper amount of focus to her (enough to do justice to her memory and her talent but not so much to undermine the roles of the other musicians) is just one of the things we try to navigate as we soldier on. In your case I know Claire’s presence was felt in some particularly consequential moments in the process of recording your album, would you be willing to share some of that?

MH: I can only hope that Claire knew how grateful I was for her unwavering support of my musical journey. Whenever I would send emails to schedule rehearsals, I could almost count on an email response from Claire-at-work within 40 seconds, usually something along the lines of: “Um…YES” (accompanied by a silly .gif, of course). Whenever we would learn a new piece of music that she resonated with, she would pour her whole soul into each run-through, all of us finding home in the familiar intimacy of each other’s voices. Whenever the whole team would stay up late making toasts after a show, she would always find such graceful ways to honor the musical family and remind us all why we do this. Claire carried her creative energy, excitement and work ethic into every nook and cranny of our music-making, which makes her spirit so inextricably bound to the entire fabric of rehearsing, recording and releasing the album.

There is one late night session in particular that arises for me most powerfully at this moment. Jared, my sonic partner-in-crime, and I were in our fourteenth hour of mixing Radio Silence — likely the most complicated and sonically dense piece of the album. I, fully-fledged in my most unpleasant stage of my neurotic perfectionism, was being intolerably stubborn about needing to see my clear vision through. Jared was being unimaginably patient with me, but both of us were exhausted and having trouble keeping healthy perspective on the bigger picture. In maybe one of the tensest moments of disagreement that Jared and I may have ever had about cutting or re-recording a part, Claire and Gabe happen to visit us in the studio to be flies on the wall to our mixing process. Claire and Gabe, being the unbelievably mature and graceful musicians that they are, brought such a sense of calm wisdom into the room and helped us trouble shoot the decision by diplomatically offering various suggestions. However, caving under the time pressure, the exhaustion, and the tenseness between Jared and I, I threw in the towel and agreed to cut the pivotal vocal part that was important to me, but that I had just not been able to nail yet in a take.

Jared and my frustrations towards one another, quite palpable in the room, didn’t stop Claire from courageously speaking her mind in that moment. She looked at me and simply asked, “Mel, when you listen to this track in 20 years, are you going to regret not having even tried to re-record that part? What’s an extra hour in the grand scheme? What have we come here to do?”

And I will never forget that 2AM night, when Claire and Gabe sat together in the dark studio, cheering me on as I re-recorded my vocal part– all of us feeling the urgency of time melt away from us. I will carry Claire’s creative compass and sense of intuition with me for the rest of my life, whenever I need to take a deep breath, zoom out, and ask myself the hard question, “What have we come here to do?”

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NB:  What a gift that she and Gabe were there at that moment. Since Claire’s death, her loved ones have taken to referring to “shooting star” incidents where her presence is felt palpably, often at almost eerily timed moments. Kate, you had a number of these moments while creating the animation, could you talk about that?

KTE: There have been so many moments over the course of working on this project where there have been uncanny coincidences. I signed on to make a video for the song “Firebird” in the summer of 2016. Over the course of that summer and the consequent Fall, ideas and a story line were coming to me in bits and pieces. I was sketching and experimenting, and while the first part of the storyline with the Firebird came easily, I was stuck with the second part, the refrain “I will build the house on solid ground, I am my own.” The imagery I had at that time involved more literal house/town building, and I wasn’t entirely happy with it. At the listening party for the album “I was a Phoenix” in late September of 2016, I was sitting in the dark with the other listeners enjoying the album when “Firebird” came on. When the “I will build the house…” section came on, I had a very clear vision of an acorn falling, hitting the ground, germinating, and then growing into a large oak tree. It felt right. I told Mel about it, and she liked the imagery. So that sequence became part of the storyboard. It was the second to last time I was in the same room as Claire, not imagining in my wildest dreams that time in her physical presence was so limited. In the Spring of 2017 I stood in front of the tree that had been dedicated to Claire in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, feeling waves of crippling grief, and I saw that her tree was an oak tree. At that point, I realized that Claire was with me, in my studio, guiding this project. It made working on the animation, especially anything involving the tree imagery, both healing and exceedingly difficult. I was so relieved to have help from Gabe and Mel animating the final scenes involving the tree, as I began to feel incapable of doing it on my own alone in my studio. Feeling Claire’s presence is both comforting and brings up so much sadness. I may never be able to fully process her untimely absence.

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NB: It’s amazing, though not surprising, that this particular song lent itself so well to bringing Claire’s spirit into the animation. There’s such a potency to the message of self-reliance and self-love, and yet the theme of community fits so seamlessly both into the animation and in the reality of how so many of us have managed to endure this loss. Because this song obviously came from such a deep place, I’m particularly struck, Mel, by the freedom you granted Kate to develop the animation and the narrative in it. Was that a challenge to let go of the reins in that way?

MH:  I trust Kate Ten Eyck with my entire life — never once did I doubt that the process would come to reveal itself, in its beautiful moments and in its struggles. Even before I really got to know Kate, I could tell that that she was (and is!) an incredibly thoughtful, intentional and brilliant art-maker. I think that because you and Kate have both been witness and participant to the musical community around me, there was a deep trust that Kate’s work would reflect and build upon the spiritual values that drew our community together in the first place. I also know the ways in which, as a singular human being with only one brain, I am limited in the ways I can tell stories. What a profound honor and blessing it is to be able to merge brains with another person, to be able to tell a richer story that you couldn’t even have imagined possible on your own. I am practicing the art of trust, knowing that oftentimes, letting go is what the magic needs in order to truly breathe.

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NB: I don’t think that it’s presumptuous to say that one of the reasons you two trusted each other so thoroughly during this process is that you both have an unusual knack for balancing inspiration and intuition with, as you say here Mel, thoughtful intention. That is, you are both willing to either go with the flow and follow the muse or roll up your sleeves and engage in mundane problem solving and decision making depending on what the moment demands. Could each of you discuss how you navigated that balance in the creation of this work of art (songwriting, audio production, storyboarding, puppet construction, and so on)?

MH: “Firebird” was the only song on the album that was not fully arranged yet as we began the recording process. While every part on every other song had been meticulously arranged and rehearsed, Jared and I both felt intuitively that “Firebird” needed lots of empty space and uncertainty in order for “studio magic” to reveal itself. There is a wildness, an untamable force, that drives the spirit of that song. You can plan all you want, but at the end of the day, it kind of wants to do whatever it wants to do.

The recording process had some element of “structured freedom” to it. We had a general sense of which instruments we wanted where, but it wasn’t until we got into the studio that the song came alive into its own beast. Staying up until 3AM watching Eric Seligman huddled around a box of kids toys, experimenting to find which sounds he wanted to puzzle piece together into the percussive genius that you hear today. Feeling giddy with excitement in the studio as Jess, Claire and Mari created the trio of hockets within 30 seconds of being tasked with the assignment, their voices interweaving with an otherworldly sense of playfulness and ferocity. Being pushed with a time-crunched deadline to finish arranging the seven-layer cello-orchestra during a power outage that happened when recording in my sister’s home in Yakima, WA.

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The final chorus, “I will build the house on solid ground, I am my own,” holds a tender place in my heart. In “Firebird’s” early intimate-living-room stages, I always invited the audience to sing with us, which always electrified the room in that powerful feeling of transcendent community. So when it came time to record the final chorus, it didn’t feel right to inorganically manufacture the feeling of a choir by overdubbing a couple voices on top of one another. And so we invited 30 friends, who had never heard the song before, into the studio. We created our own little mini “living room performance” and recorded the magical force of voices in unison, people in community. I remember holding Claire, Jess and Mari close to me that night as we all belted into the darkness, a feeling of invincibility that will remain near and dear to me in its wild magic.

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KTE: One thing I have learned about myself as an artist is that if too much is known or planned beforehand, I lose interest very quickly. For “Firebird”, I had to do a lot of planning, there was no way to pull it off otherwise. However, even after I had completed a detailed storyboard of the entire song, there were problems to be solved along the way that I just had to believe I would figure out. For example, I started animating not knowing how I was going to make the bird transform from a brown bird to a Robin. I didn’t know what material the tree would be made of or how I would fabricate it. I didn’t know how in the final scene the tree would magically go from day to night. I didn’t even know how to edit in Premiere, which I knew I was going to have to learn how to do to fit the scenes together. Fortunately, all of the unresolved pieces came together through a combination of magic and long hours in the studio. It’s that moment of discovery, the unknown manifesting in some way that you could not have imagined that brings joy into artmaking for me. Many of the pieces of this animation that I find the most beautiful are the ones that I had the least idea beforehand about what they would look like and how I would technically animate them.

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NB: I have to say, it’s beautiful to hear you both cite the importance of trust with this project, both trust in each other and in the process itself.

My last question, which again is directed to both of you, is this: what do you wish to see people get out of this video?

KTE: I hope for viewers to feel a sense of wonder, to connect with the characters, and to feel uplifted in some way. I also hope that those who view it who did know Claire can feel some connection, however fleeting.

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MH: I wish our audience the courage it takes to be swept into magical worlds with the imagination of a child. Like Kate, I wish our audience many moments of pure wonder and awe — a reminder of what it means to truly play.

And so with that, I want to say thank you, Noah and Kate, for all of this. The journey has been profound. Here’s to letting go of our untamable Firebird. I send our work off into the world with a bittersweet excitement, pride, gratitude. May this work evolve beyond us, may our brave Firebird create magic beyond what we know to be possible.

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