If you’ve followed Various Small Flames / Wake the Deaf over the past few years, you’ve probably already heard about Spartan Jet-Plex, the recording project of Virginia’s Nancy Kells. She is also an active figure in the battle for social justice, her work with Friends for Equality indicative of her passion and anger at the current societal situation. Nancy was kind enough to answer some questions about her music, inspirations and a lot more besides, so find a comfortable seat and check it out below.
Hi Nancy, thank you for speaking to us! You have recently released a new album, Uncomfortable Quarters. The album was released on the anniversary of your mother’s passing, and the loss of your parents forms a lot of the record’s thematic material. Did you set out to specifically write a collection of songs based around this? And was it the sort of album that just had to be written at some point, as much for you as for listeners?
Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to speak with you! I didn’t set out to write anything specific. I usually write without thinking too much about what the songs are about initially. I usually have a feeling or mood or sometimes an idea that I am trying to express, and the song grows from there. I was having a bit of a rough time this past year. I struggle on and off with depression and anxiety, and things got worse in the spring until recently with how I was feeling. I think I relapsed for a variety of reasons, so sure, I would say they had to be written. I think all my songs have to be written in that they are the natural result of all the different things going on in my life personally and also in the world.
As far as if they had to be written for my listeners, that question makes me think how I really don’t think at all about the listener when writing and making music. I am always surprised when people download or listen to my music and also excited and flattered. I appreciate it a lot and it makes me happy for sure, but who is or might be listening isn’t something I think about or matters when I am writing or recording them. I feel like that may sound wrong but I don’t mean it that way. My solo stuff is so personal and close to me.
I play out now with others doing improvisational music and love how the creation of improv music with a collective or with other people is the channeling of thoughts and feelings bouncing off each other in a moment in time. I love that. It is a collective creation and it isn’t about me at all or coming from me personally. It is something being made collectively in real time. I don’t play my solo stuff out, and I think it is because the music is so personal and bare, and I am not comfortable with the idea of performing it in public at least at this point. The idea of it feels dreadful to me haha.
Releasing it out there on the internet, on the other hand, is a way to share it without actually being there when people are hearing it. That’s probably also why I choose to release it under Spartan Jet-Plex instead of my name. The band name is like another barrier I can put up to protect myself or hide behind. I obviously have a need to put it out there and so the listener is definitely important, and I am grateful for anyone who listens, but these songs would still be made and released regardless of whether anyone listens. I have been doing that since Myspace days (haha) and would be surprised if anyone but my friends ever checked it out back then. I feel fortunate to have a handful of listeners who seem to really like and support what I am doing, and it really means the world to me. I enjoy what I am doing which is probably my biggest motivator in making music, but it is super cool to know there are actually a few people out there who are enjoying it too.
You describe Uncomfortable Quarters as your “first attempt at a concept album”. Was it a challenge to write a collection of songs with a common theme? And how did the process differ from your other records? What do you see as its main threads (aside from what we mentioned in question 2)?
The songs on Uncomfortable Quarters were made how all my songs come about. They are the natural result of what is going on in the world and in my personal life or how past events are playing out or affecting the present. I think what makes Uncomfortable Quarters different than my other albums and why I feel like it is a concept album is because the songs ended up feeling like they fit together in a way that songs on previous albums didn’t. Not that my other albums are not cohesive, but I think the songs on Uncomfortable Quarters tell a story and flow and mesh around common ideas and feelings more concretely than probably my other albums. There are several different styles or sounds on the album, so in some ways it is a mix-match, but despite that, I think they fit together perfectly because they were all made during a very specific dark time in my life and also a very specific time in the world and in the US- the aftermath of the 2016 US election.
To me your music has an incredible ability to conjure a certain atmosphere, a strange world in which the songs exist. In some ways, this seems more important than the lyrics. Is this something you think about? I’m curious as to how you visualise the feelings your songs evoke.
I love if that’s what you get from my music! That is perfect and the perfect compliment. It makes me think I really am getting across how I am feeling at certain points in my life, in my day, in an hour, or in a moment. I hope to capture and express or conjure up a kind of feeling or world. That is terrific if someone listening feels that. It is often how I make the music. I really try to engulf myself within a certain feeling or emotion. Sometimes I imagine myself in a specific moment of time or during a personal experience or one that I am imagining could happen or has for a character or person I know. Sometimes it is like a psychosis or dream or fragment of a feeling- often the darkest part of it.
We all have these feelings from time to time and we learn to compartmentalize things, and morbid thoughts are like flickers that stay for only a second and usually don’t linger, and most people don’t act on these feelings we all have. We all have our demons. Society in general has demons too. I often channel that horrible stuff within myself to make music- to expel it from me in a positive way. It is a way to process these things and life in general. It is cleansing and it is a healing thing. I feel down a lot, but I am also a survivor and a fighter, and despite reoccurring depression and anxiety, I am an extremely hopeful person. I have a lot to be grateful for as well.
As a follow-on, your music sounds quite unlike anything else, your own personal style that doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. Who and what would you cite as your main influences? Do you think your style changes as time passes?
Thank you. That is a nice compliment! I think that probably reflects the various types of music I listen to now and grew up listening to. I suppose the music I listened to as a kid, teen and in my early 20s probably influenced me the most since I was still developing and it probably became a part of me. I was all over the place and always have been with what I listen to. I enjoy hearing what other people hear in my music. I often her people say bands like Cocteau Twins but then I will hear people mention newer and much younger musicians (than me) that I have never listened to and that’s cool too. A person who bought Uncomfortable Quarters on my Bandcamp said the closest way they would describe it was somewhere between Dead Can Dance and chanting. I thought that was cool. I listened to Dead Can Dance in my late teens and early 20s. I was fortunate to see them live once. I’ve always been into chanting too as a way to relax, and again, get out feelings and emotions- like meditation. I started doing that back in college. Just kind of loudly chanting in an improvisational way- always while alone of course. I never recorded any of it, and back then I wasn’t doing music seriously, but it has found it’s way back into my music more recently, especially since I have been playing improvisational music out. Growing up, I listened to punk, classic rock, new wave, gothic, industrial, hip-hop, jazz, reggae. In my early 20s, I got into trip-hop, folk, big band era stuff and jazz singers, noise rock, and country. I am always interested in learning about new music, especially old stuff that I either missed or was before my time. I listen to some current stuff too and even some pop stuff or what I would call mainstream music. I think there is music for everything and it doesn’t always have to be serious or high brow haha.
As far as my style and how that has progressed, I think I play around with different styles and ways of songwriting and approaching music making and writing. Some of the songs are guitar based while some are key based. Some are driven by the beat or percussion. Some have no drums. Some are planned out every step of the way while others have elements of improvisation. Sometimes improv starts the song and that gets built on in a planned way, and others are planned out and then improv is added to them. Some are lyric driven while others are more instrumental. I like to play around a lot when writing and making music by trying different things. I think this set of songs were built on those various ideas and ways of making and writing music. I think I get better at doing all these different things and yet make them all feel like they flow together in a sensible way, and so in that way, I feel like I am growing and progressing as a musician and songwriter.
You have recently done a lot of work around the Friends for Equality project, which supports civil rights and social justice organisations. How have you found the project? Has it been rewarding? And has it been helpful as a positive outlet during these troubling times?
Yeah, definitely. Friends For Equality came about from the 2016 US election. I am working towards turning it into a label that does physical benefit releases and also collaborates with other local organizations to raise money for non-profits by hosting shows and events. I am steadily working towards those goals. I have recently joined Virginia Anti-Violence Project‘s sustainability committee and also am volunteering for Nationz Foundation in Richmond. I hope to build relationships this way and am forming an advisory committee for FFE through these relationships. I am pretty excited about the potential for this project and where it is headed. I hope to do our first physical release before the end of 2018. I am also working on getting out another zine and am still accepting submissions for that. All proceeds from music sales and merch purchases on our Bandcamp go to Southern Poverty Law Center and Planned Parenthood at this time. In addition to issue 1 of the zine, we now have t-shirts and various stickers and buttons. The idea behind future music physical releases is that proceeds will go to band’s non-profit of choice, and all sales of music and merch at local shows and events go to the non-profit we are supporting at that specific event. We are currently accepting submissions for physical benefit releases and zine. We encourage submissions from and aim to support queer/nb, poc and women. Submissions for zine or releases can be sent to email@example.com.
I feel like we can’t speak like this without asking about your feelings on the political/social situation more generally. Donald Trump has been in office for almost a year now, and in many ways things seem to be getting worse. How do you feel about it? Do you see a glimmer of hope anywhere? And, most importantly, what can people do in opposition?
I have so many different feelings, thoughts and emotions on this topic, but instead of saying the obvious or focusing on the negative and the many shitty things I could say, I will instead focus on hope and resistance here. Really, we and our world is not any worse off in most ways than previously. I think that the 2016 US election and everything after it has highlighted and has pushed many of the disgusting and horrible things about our country, society and world to the forefront. I do think we are in dangerous times, and I believe what those of us do in opposition will make a difference in the long run. I also think it is a do or die situation- at least it feels like it. I hope for an evolution forward. I felt so hopeless and helpless after the November US election, but as much as I always felt like I was doing what I could to make this world the place I wished it was, it became crystal clear just how little I was doing and how much more I need to do. That is hope. That is positive. Many people feel the same way and are working to do better. I think many of us (especially those of privilege) were under the false impression that we were succeeding in making all this progress in last 8 years, when really, we weren’t, and instead of relaxing or benefiting from a false sense of security, we really should have been working and pushing forward more.
We can always do more. For the love of all things decent, my first thought to others is to urge everyone to register to vote and vote in every election. Talk to your family and friends about this. Every election, try to get at least one person registered and voting that didn’t vote the previous election. This can be difficult and frustrating. I am still trying to figure out how to motivate one of my family members. With the internet, it is super easy to find out what is on the ballot and who and which organizations are supporting candidates and measures. I think that outside of voting, one of the strongest and best things we can do is support other organizations who have been long doing this difficult work, especially your local organizations doing social justice work. Volunteer your time if you can, and if you can’t do that, consider donating money if you have the means. Write your representatives. There are apps out there that make this easy. It really doesn’t take a lot of time. One really awesome one is 5 Calls for here in the US. There’s an app too. They will send you emails or alerts weekly of 5 calls or emails you can make. They send you the issues, and you can even tailor it to the issues that you are most concerned about. Maybe 5 calls is too much for you to start out. Maybe just set a goal to do one call or email weekly and work your way up if you have time or on weeks you are up to it. I believe that we can make our two party system here in the US better if most everyone actually voted who can vote and if we made our opinions known to our representatives frequently. Maybe that is idealistic thinking, but I hope for that and I truly believe that. Ultimately, I think as a country (US) and as the world, that we are so entangled in war and the profit it makes and ruled by the interests of corporations and the wealthy that perhaps it is hopeless and impossible, but I feel like I can’t go down without a fight and there are so many of us who are refusing to go down at all, and that is hope and I have faith in that. The alternative is unacceptable. People are pushing back, and as grim as it is, I see progress being made too.
Obviously, I speak from a place of privilege, which brings me to one of the most important things every person can do- check yourself and your privilege. Read, listen and follow what people of color, lgbtq, and women are writing and saying. Learn your history and educate yourself about institutionalized racism. Believe survivors. Check your news sources and avoid spreading fake news. Support poc, lgbtq, and women businesses, writers, musicians, etc., and call out bullshit when you see and hear it. Have tough conversations with your family and friends and don’t let racist, sexist, and homophobic comments and actions slide. Admit it if you screw up, but also forgive yourself and others. These are things I am striving to do. All change starts from within, and it isn’t always easy. Most of the time it is difficult and uncomfortable, but if we don’t change and do the work, it will cost us everything.
What are your plans for the future? Do you have more Spartan Jet-Plex material in the pipeline?
Yes! There is always more SJP in the pipeline! I have been working on new songs and I am excited about where they are headed. I always just sort of know when I have completed a set that goes together and I am not there yet. I have to see where these songs take me, but you can be sure I will let you know when they are completed and am getting ready to release them. Maybe this spring? It is hard to say yet. Sometimes the songs come a little at a time and sometimes I have a huge spurt. I have a few I am working on right now and a few that are completed. I also recently formed a new collaboration with Tiaira Harris (Berko Lover) that I am super excited about. She does rap/hip-hop and dance music and so our styles really blend together in a unique way I think. I posted a few demos on my Soundcloud but we haven’t officially released anything yet. We are going by Merge. We have some new ones in the works and we hope to release an EP sometime soon.
Finally, I want to give you a chance to share some of the music you’ve been into lately. You can choose brand new releases or things from another century, whatever you like.
Oh I love this! I love to share what music I have been recently listening to. It always changes with my mood and time of the year. I would love to share a few albums in my current rotation these days. I often go on kicks with music. I get into an album or artist and play it on repeat for some length of time before moving on to a different set of music, and there’s some that tend to stay in constant rotation. The stuff that really grabs me gets played here and there continually. I have albums I’ve listened to since I was kid or teen that still get played from time to time. So music in my current rotation:
World Spiritual Classics: Volume I: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (released by Luaka Pop as this collection in 2017/music from 80s/90s)
Spiritual gospel music with ambient synthesizers blended with Hindu devotional music
She recorded this music in the 80s and 90s and made tapes in limited quantities that she gave out to people in her spiritual community. A friend played this in their car for me and I fell in love and purchased it on vinyl, which also led me to researching and learning more about her. This was on frequent play as well while I was writing the songs on Uncomfortable Quarters.
Dolly Parton – Just Because I am a Woman (1968)
This is probably my favorite Dolly Parton album. I bought the CD a long time ago and recently got it on vinyl with a gift card my brother gave me from Amoeba Records for my birthday. This is one of her albums I go back to again and again. This is her second studio album and the title song is about the double standard that exists when it comes to sex. Of course that was pretty daring for a song in 1968, and here we are about 50 years later and not much has changed.
Angel Haze – Reservation (2012)
This is Haze’s 3rd mixtape. I discovered Haze messing around on Youtube watching and listening to hip-hop and rap. I purchased the mp3s of Reservation and Classick on Amazon after searching around to see if I could get a physical copy instead with no luck. Haze’s music has been on frequent play for me now and also while recording Uncomfortable Quarters.
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2006)
I am very late to this. I knew who she was. How couldn’t I? She was one of those people that was always in the news and you’d hear about her whether or not you wanted to. This album blew up when it came out and I think she won something like 5 Grammy awards. I just never paid any attention to it or checked her music out until recently. I admit that when something is really popular and mainstream, my natural reaction is to avoid it, especially when it comes to music. I also admit that is kind of stupid, but true of me usually nonetheless. I also have an aversion to when the media reports on troubled people and it’s constantly in the press. So for these reasons I had no idea how much I’d love her music. I randomly watched a documentary on her and was intrigued and loved the music in it so I went out and checked all her stuff. I used the gift card my brother gave me for my birthday to get this one on vinyl too. I love the way she blends the sound of big band jazz with Motown, R&B, and hip-hop. She also has the voice of an old soul lyrically and in sound. It is crazy to me that she made Frank at 20 and Back to Black at 23. I will also admit that I had a morbid fascination with her after watching the documentary. I relate to her in many ways.
Elizabeth Cotten – Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (1957 but reissued in 1989 on Smithsonian Folkways) and also Vol. 2 & 3
I discovered her music around 2007 or 2008 and fell in love immediately. I absolutely love her guitar playing. She is always on rotation for me, and have them on vinyl. I’ve covered ‘Freight Train’ several times on my own and with my partner on our project, Legendary Thunderbirds of Death! we’ve covered ‘Freight Train’ and ‘When I Get Home’.
Brianna Lea Pruett – Winter Apple (2004)
Her label, Canyon Records, describes her music as California folk, country, infused by her Appalachian and Cherokee/Choctaw heritage. I discovered her music a couple of years ago soon after she passed away and her music has been on rotation lately. She struggled with depression and committed suicide in early September 2015 right before I released my first album (Cross the Line) on Bandcamp. I immediately loved her music and related to it upon hearing it. I purchased an mp3 of this album after looking for physical copies without luck. I also have We Come in all Colors EP and Gypsy Bells (2013), which you can purchase directly from Canyon Records. You can purchase Winter Apple and others on Bandcamp. I got it on Amazon without realizing I could find it there as well. Coincidentally, regarding Elizabeth Cotten, there is a sweet, rough and candid live video of Pruett on Youtube playing a cover of Shake Sugaree.
I discovered her music in early 2000s and she is also always on rotation for me. I found copies of these albums on vinyl from sellers on Discogs. The self-titled one is my favorite of the two. She didn’t start making music until she was in her 40s. I love her voice and guitar playing. She wrote some of the best lyrics I’ve heard and some of the best political folk and blues music in my opinion. I have covered ‘No Hole In My Head’ (last song on self-titled), but mine is more based on her live version on Pete Seeger’s show, Rainbow Quest, which you can find on Youtube. I’ve also covered ‘I Don’t Mind Failing’, which is off Sings the Truth.
Huge thanks to Nancy Kells for her time and in-depth and thoughtful answers. Be sure to follow the Friends for Equality Facebook page for updates on the project. Also, if you haven’t already, head to the Spartan Jet-Plex Bandcamp page to hear what you’ve been missing.
Photograph by to Courage Music Photography (Jacob Cunningham)