I had the gracious opportunity to meet UNWOMAN (aka Erica Mulkey) last year following her performance at Emerald City Steampunk Festival, and earlier this summer asked to interview her. She kindly agreed. We did the interview and then I had a number of personal and physical setbacks that kept me from completing several pieces of online communication, including our interview. My apologies to UNWOMAN and to everyone who has been waiting for this interview. Here it is…an inspiring and insightful conversation I had the pleasure of having with Erica Mulkey – UNWOMAN. You won’t be disappointed hearing from this talented, friendly, and refreshingly passionate and intelligent artist. Enjoy!
DC: Just reading your bio makes me nervous! You are such an accomplished musician and artist. I mean eight solo-produced albums, and that is just the beginning! How did all this begin for you and what does the future hold?
UNWOMAN: Thank you! I suppose it all started when I was three – I would arrange my stuffed animals around the fireplace, which I used as a stage, and perform songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for them while wearing frilly petticoats. I started studying cello at nine, piano and music theory at 11; when I was 16 I started taking electronic music production classes at my local community college. At 17 I sent a demo tape to Projekt records and, though I wasn’t picked up, mailing that cassette was the moment I knew I was *doing it.*
DC: That is inspiring! Again referencing your bio, you have had the opportunity to share the stage with some other amazing artists such as Abney Park, Amanda Palmer, Rasputina, Voltaire, Stripmall Architecture, and Vernian Process. Do you have a favorite performance or band you’ve played with? Is there an on-stage moment that stands out to you as an unforgettable moment?
UNWOMAN: Probably the first time I played with Rasputina, which was Convergence 2006 in New Orleans. I had been brought in at the last minute and had to learn 15 songs in 10 days, mostly by ear, which I threw myself completely into, listening to the songs on repeat to and from my day job. After years of playing solo for tiny audiences, this was the first show I was rocking so hard, to a big audience, with a format that was working so much better than my solo shows at the time, which involved backing tracks and sitting to play, and my original music wasn’t catchy as it is now. And I was just second-fiddle, but it’s a very important role in Rasputina, so it was fantastic.
DC: Ok, the music of UNWOMAN. Haunting. Beautiful. Defying definition. Passionate. Bold. Aggressive. Fearless. I could go on with descriptions and adjectives here. I first heard you play at Emerald City Steampunk Festival in Wichita last year. You played a solo concert and shared the stage with Abney Park at this event. I was immediately hypnotized by your music. What has led you to develop your style, how are you evolving as an artist, and what inspires you?
UNWOMAN: Wow, thank you! There have been a lot of factors impacting my style. As I just mentioned, the format of my solo performance in 2006 wasn’t really working, and I hadn’t found my audience yet. First of all, audiences hate solo artists with backing tracks, even if they’re playing cello and singing, even if they made the tracks themselves. I have so much more success communicating with audiences when I play “acacella” – just cello and voice – especially with live looping, which I don’t use for every song. This took me a long time to figure out. The live looping is also a new feature of my performances – I’ve only been doing that since November 2011. And the strap-on electric cello – that’s just been since May 2012 – allows me to move on stage and be seen better; it’s vastly improved my stage presence. One other factor was being embraced by the Steampunk community. It hasn’t changed my style much – but the fact that I fly to performances led me to play the electric cello more, which led me to get the amp which happened to have looping, etc. What inspires me? Literature, life, love. Always trying to write songs that are both poignant and catchy.
DC: How would YOU describe your music?
UNWOMAN: I usually say, I’m influenced by goth, industrial, classical and pop music, but I’m none of those things. Sincere and timeless sad-core cello-pop is what I’m going for.
DC: You don’t shy away from the “shadows”, so to speak, in your music. From religion to relationships to very dark corners of the human mind…what leads you to write in the “shadows”? Are these life-experiences, observations, inspiration from stories? Share a bit about your own writing process if you don’t mind.
UNWOMAN: People often remark that I’m extremely positive and funny in person, but my music is so dark. I think allowing myself to work out the difficult emotions through music is what allows me to live a relatively happy life. Most of my sadder songs are from personal experience, though many have an added layer of fiction in order to better get to the emotional core of the experience.
DC: I would definitely agree that you are a pleasant person to be around off stage. One of the things I noticed at the festival last year is you don’t mind, even enjoy, hanging out with your fans. I really appreciated that and was grateful for the opportunity to meet you myself. What does that mean for you? How important is it to be right there at street level with your fans? How have they inspired you to keep doing what you’re doing?
UNWOMAN: Oh, thank you! It started with me struggling for so many years to find an audience at all. I was performing, once every couple months, with a day job, for about eight years, to audiences of no more than 20 people, many of them perfectly indifferent to me, before I really found my voice, got the courage to put myself out there, and luckily, the Steampunk scene found me at the same time. So of course I am so incredibly grateful to have fans, that my voice is one people want to hear. There were a few fans even back in those early days, and they’ll be favorites of mine forever, but now I have numbers AND I’m lucky enough that the new fans are as sweet and intelligent as the old ones are. I think if I were mainstream-successful that wouldn’t be the case, but I’m still small enough, people’s discovery of me is still totally organic, so everyone who says they like my music is completely sincere. I don’t know if anything, even having zero fans, would make me stop writing songs, but I certainly am more likely to send out booking pitches to convention organizers because I know people want to see me!
DC: During the years while you were playing once or twice a month, and while you were discovering your voice, playing for smaller crowds and such…what kept you motivated? As an artist, as a person, how did you overcome discouraging moments and find the strength to dig in and not give up? And, was there a moment you could pinpoint when you realized, “Ok…tipping point…this thing is shifting in my direction now.”…?
UNWOMAN: There was really no individual tipping point. It never seemed like it would shift in my direction until I was already planning to take the plunge. As far as overcoming discouraging moments, I had to always maintain this delusion that I was good enough and someday people would appreciate me, and I happened to be correct. I am still nowhere near major success, but there are a few people who will listen to any given thing I share, and that’s extremely valuable. Plus, as an artist there’s really no way for me *not* to keep writing songs. That’s how I process how the world makes me feel.
Recently, it has become obvious that this is definitely working as a career for me, which is fantastic, but it wasn’t until I had been reasonably financially successful for a solid year that I realized that was the case.
DC: What is the strangest or scariest moment you can remember while being on stage performing?
UNWOMAN: Once at Steamcon in Seattle, at the formal tea event, a woman who didn’t even have tickets for the tea came onto the stage between songs and asked me to sign something for her. I told her I would sign it later but she had to leave the stage. I think I handled it right, but I felt confused, indignant, and flustered!
DC: You have a crystal USB available with your entire discography on it. Talk to me about this. This is very cool and just unprecedented in terms of accessibility for a fan.
UNWOMAN: This is actually the fifth model of USB discography I’ve had made! I’ve been doing it since 2009. I wasn’t the first, but was definitely one of the first, artists to do this. My repertoire has grown immensely since then and as the drives get fuller – we’re at 17 hours now – the $50 price point seems smaller and smaller and they sell more and more. At every show there are a few people who like me enough that they want my whole discography, which is so incredibly rewarding!
DC: I think products like this show just how far we’ve come in terms of artists gaining more control over their content. I know this is big for you (as with any artist). You’ve raised your own financing for your projects and produce quality recordings and videos. How important has this been for you and do you see more and more musicians taking this route? How will this change the landscape of music and other forms of art in the future?
“…being appreciated by the weird and wonderful people who like me – as you say, touching a great many lives, which is what I hope to do – is an enormous part of my purpose.” -UNWOMAN
UNWOMAN: Oh yes, it’s been a huge shift that artists are now in charge of their own financing and therefore in control of their content. There are two parts to this: the means of production being in musicians’ hands as we can easily and cheaply produce our own music, and crowdfunding platforms that, along with social media, help musicians reach audiences organically and without needing traditional marketing and distribution budgets. Absolutely, more and more musicians are taking this route. Throughout my career I’ve hardly known any musicians who were on labels, and many have lost the support of small labels they were on, and just in the last few years many of them, like myself, have grown successful enough to perform fulltime, aided by crowdfunding and social media.
I’m actually of the opinion that the best professional music business folks – publicists, booking agents, designers, etc – have a lot to offer independent musicians like myself. But it’s very difficult to know who is worth hiring (to any fellow musicians reading this: like unlicensed taxis at the airport, never ever purchase services from someone who contacts you; if they’re any good they get referrals). I’ve had no luck whatsoever on that front – I’m sure I could be reaching far more people than I am with proper promotion.
DC: Give us a little peek behind the veil… What is your favorite book? Album to listen to? Movie? Drink? Color? If you could be anywhere in the world you wanted to be right now, where would it be? What is the most death-defying act you have ever attempted or gone through with? Would you do it again? What’s the most bizarre food you’ve ever consumed?
UNWOMAN: Book: The Scar by China Miéville.
Album: Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die.
Movie: Fight Club.
Drink: Negroni or Sazerac, or The Heroine (a cocktail I created), or black coffee, light roast.
Color: black & gold.
Where would I be? Snorkeling in Maui with a good friend or two.
Death-defying act? I can’t think of anything I’ve done that would be considered remotely impressive, though man and nature have occasionally tried to kill me by accident.
Bizarre food? As documented in Beautiful Fish, I tried sea urchin, and it was awful.
DC: Now that the important stuff is out of the way :), let’s move on to what’s next. You play a lot of Steampunk, Goth, and other festivals and events around the country. Where are you headed this summer and beyond? What big news can you share about UNWOMAN for us at this time?
UNWOMAN: I’ve just started another run of away gigs every weekend – DeltaHCon in Houston, San Diego Comic Con (though I have no official gigs there, I may play a room party or two), Salt City Steamfest, and Steamfest Australia. Then at the end of August I head to Dragon Con and then I am staying in Philadelphia for a bit before heading to Dallas for the Skybourne music festival the weekend of September 13.
I wish I had big news, but this year I’m just keeping on with the things that were successful for me last year – convention appearances and writing new songs and recording things. I’ve not decided yet what my next album (I have seven original songs fully written, but I also have a lot more songs I want to cover) will be, but I’m sure I’ll kickstart it later this year.
[NOTE: As stated earlier, this interview was done in early Summer, and as such many of the dates shared here have passed. Please see Unwoman’s full performance and appearance schedule here: http://unwoman.com/]
DC: Let’s fast-forward. You’ve had a great career spanning the globe, genres, and touching a great many lives with your music and interactions. What would you like to look back and say, “This is my legacy.” What does it look like for you to be able to say “Dream accomplished,” and for YOU to feel you have lived a life of significance, regardless of what the industry, the world, fans, or anyone else deems significant?
UNWOMAN: I can’t remove the fans from my self-evaluation here. I am a self-directed artist, yes, but being appreciated by the weird and wonderful people who like me – as you say, touching a great many lives, which is what I hope to do – is an enormous part of my purpose. I try not to tie my self-esteem too much to numbers – my fan base is still tiny and will never be large – but even if I never have a breakout hit, if I continue to keep reaching people in this organic way I’ve been doing, if in several decades I’ve kept making an album a year or so, and everything I do is what I’m excited to work on, I will have this vast catalog I’m incredibly proud of.
DC: Well spoken and appreciated by every fan. Is there anything else you would like to share?
UNWOMAN: Yesterday after a convention performance a man asked me if I loved what I do. I was surprised it wasn’t obvious to him. “Of course,” I said “I am thankful every day for my life! I know how rare it is that people live their dreams.” I know I am so, so lucky, but I truly wish everyone felt as listened-to and as confident as I do.
Discover more about UNWOMAN here: