Chaos, Creation, and Card Games
A Conversation with Carsie Blanton
by Chris Wolford
In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, author Mary Gaitskill said “Literature is not a realm for politeness.” That statement holds true for all artistic mediums. New Orleans-based singer-songwriter Carsie Blanton is no exception. An artist with six albums under her belt, all released with a pay-what-you-want, doesn’t sustain a career for fifteen years by being polite. She has made the albums she’s wanted to make, the way she wants to make them, with no interference from the powers that be. I recently chatted with Carsie about everything under the sun including her new album Buck Up, creating a sexy card game from scratch, and how she manages to balance so many projects at once.
Chris Wolford: You worked with Pete Donnelly on your last album So Ferocious and again for Buck Up. How did working with the same producer twice inform the recording process?
Carsie Blanton: I worked with Pete four records ago, on Buoy, and we had a really good working relationship but I think I was too new to recording to recognize it. So I worked with a bunch of different producers on different records then when I wanted to make So Ferocious in 2016 I was like "what about that guy Pete?"
He's having a wonderful year and he's also very chill, which is not what common of a quality in producers. He's also down to try whacky stuff which is what makes recording special and fun to me. You can get away with stuff in the studio you probably wouldn't try at a live show 'cause it's too weird of an idea. So we see eye-to-eye on that aspect. He's always excited to try something weird, like "why don't we grab a sample of a lion roaring off YouTube or use this ambient noise I recorded in my backyard or why don't we play this synth backwards and see what happens." And since we've worked on multiple projects we get better and better at that, too.
CW: You've used the pay-what-you-want approach for pretty much all of your career and published your manifesto on your blog about why you do so. Have your thoughts about the record industry changed since you started and has there ever been a time where you've thought about selling a record for a set price?
CB: If anything the way the recording industry is changing has strengthened my convictions about selling my music cause it’s become a harsher and harsher environment for selling products, because of streaming and digital media, I think a lot of industries that release digital media are noticing it’s getting harder and harder to make money off of. The nicest thing about pay what you want is it’s an opt-in system so I can be comfortable saying “go ahead and only listen on Spotify but if you like it become a patron.” So I’ve tried to make it easy for people to listen the way people listen now, which is streaming, and also to support me if they so choose. I have a bunch of patrons and they are supporting me more or less so I’ve kind of find a model that makes it possible to live as a working class musician and it isn’t the model where i’m selling a product, although I do sell physical CDs as well but I don’t rely on it for my income. I think that’s probably a good thing moving forward with the new music industry. I think the other thing that’s changed over the years, at risk of sounded like an academic millennial, which I am, is my critique of capitalism has changed. Where I am now, the music industry is going through what all industries go through over time which is profits gets squeezed and the people who get squeezed out of those profits are usually the people making the stuff. That’s true across capitalism. The crisis we’re dealing with in the music industry isn’t different than other crises in other industries. It’s just what happens when you run capitalism over many years. So in a way I feel better cause I’m part of something that’s happening to everybody but I also feel worse cause I’m like “this sucks, this is not a good system.”
CW: And you've used Patreon for a while now. How has that particular program been helpful?
CB: I think Patreon is the model for artists to make art for a living. The model of the future, I should say. I think the concept where fans pay you by choice, not force, is probably going to become more and more common across all types of creative fields. At least ones where you’re releasing content on the internet and not just physical stuff. It might not work as well if you’re making tables or something [laughs]. Basically I put everything I ever make on Patreon and most of what I make I also put out to the public for free. Patrons get some exclusive content, but I think the majority of them are patrons because they want to support me and make sure I can keep making art.
CW: You recently released the video for "Jacket" which you described as "a silly, sensual, hyper-saturated celebration of a few of [your] favorite things (hot boys, humor, rollerskating and ... fruit)." Tell me how you thought up the concept for the video.
CB: The song is built around this one little turn of phrase that goes “I like your shirt. I like your jacket. I like to think about you when I whack it.” A lot of my songs start out as something that amuses me. So our original concept, me and my video director Andrew Rosario, was it was just going to be a bunch of hot boys in the video. I have this friend in New Orleans, Bobby Bonsey, who does all kinds of dance, including break-dancing on roller skates, and he knows a bunch of other dancers, so we decided to go film all these hot boys with their abs and roller skate dancing and that would be the video. But then I found the work of Stephanie Sarley who makes these “fruit art” videos on Instagram. And I love it. It’s amazing how sexual and sensual fruit can be. Just fruit, a hand, and nothing else. I binged those videos and thought “how can we get this fruit idea into the video?” So now it’s hot boys skating cut together with six different women touching fruit in a sensual way. I think it worked great. It’s my favorite video I’ve made.
CW: What have been some of your favorite reactions to it so far?
CB: People seem to really like it. I've been surprised that mostly people haven't been shocked. The reaction has been more "this is hilarious and hot" which is always what I'm going for in my music.
CW: I was about to ask if it was your favorite video so far.
CB: Absolutely. Videos are an interesting other creative field. A lot of musicians make music videos and a lot of us feel a little daunted by it, like "we have to do an entire additional art form" but I've really gotten into it, partially from collaborating with Andrew. We've made a lot of fun ideas come to life.
CW: It's funny you mention that because several times when music videos are brought up it's either musicians love making them or they're just this whole other mountain to climb.
CB: I think it kind of depends. I think a lot of musicians are very auditory and not very visual. I’m pretty balance and have a pretty strong visual sense so i think it’s easier for me to come up with a way to visualize a song. But a lot of musicians I know are super daunted by that and it almost seems cruel cause music videos are such a big part of promotion now and everyone has to do them whether they want to or not.
CW: You probably shot the video on a pretty small budget but it doesn't show at all.
CB: That lighting, there's this YouTube personality Contrapoints who has this super dramatic neon LED lighting in her videos and that's where we got the idea. Actually, renting a couple LED lights is only around $50 so we definitely do shoestring budget videos. You can get pretty far if you're willing to be a little guerrilla about it.
CW: RS Country placed "Buck Up" on one of their "10 Best Songs" lists, calling it "a bright, John Prine-worthy folk song about maintaining a bright disposition in dark times." What songs/albums do you turn to in dark times?
CB: I’m a huge jazz nerd. When I feel personally upset I tend to only listen to jazz. I don’t know why. I’ve been like that since I was a teenager. Except I used to listen to a lot more Radiohead and Modest Mouse. I love to listen to Nina Simone and Billie Holiday and Oscar Peterson Trio. But as far as songs for dark times, it’s definitely an area I’ve been especially interested in since November 2016. So i’ve been listening to a lot of protest songs and sifting through those and find what I love about the ones I love. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is my favorite protest song ever, I’d have to say. Dylan has all those great protest songs. I love Dylan, especially as a writer, but I love it even more when Nina Simone covers him. And of course John Prine has a bunch of amazing political songs and they mentioned him partly because the melody of “Buck Up” is similar to his song “In Spite of Ourselves.” I gave him a songwriting credit but I don’t think he knows it. I co-wrote that song with another songwriter here in New Orleans named Eric Robertson.
CW: Alongside music, you recently released a card game called The F'ing Truth. What were some of the biggest takeaways from that whole project?
CB: I think the main takeaway was it’s a lot easier to sell a product and sell music. Not that if anyone makes a product it’s easy to sell. I had to the idea to make a sexy card game that’s kind of like bingo and kind of like never have i ever and started developing it about two years ago. I made all these different versions and eventually came up with a final version and ran a kickstarter and it got funded. I was on Dan Savages’ [Savage Lovecast] and Guys We Fucked podcast and all these shows it’s hard to get on as a musician to talk about the game. And then Urban Outfitters just put in an order. So my main takeaway was I’ve been making and trying to sell albums for almost fifteen years, and it’s a great job, but it’s definitely an uphill battle. You have to get really good at salesmanship to get anybody to listen to you. And making a sexy card was just like “ta-dah! here it is!” and people are like “okay, I’ll take one!” It’s also just been really fun. I find it creatively helpful to have side projects so if I feel uninspired with music or frustrated with something I can go work on a different one. And that card game was a back burner project that became a really involved one but it’s been great to have it going this whole time.
CW: Which perfectly segues into my next question: has there ever been a time when you've considered just focusing on one thing?
CB: I consider it every day [laughs]. I don’t know why I have so many. It’s just how I am. It’s both a personality flaw and an asset depending on the day. I seem to be incapable of not having fewer than four really big projects going on, and usually like eight or ten. The positive aspect is I think creatively itself is a skill you can practice and so for years now every part of my life has been about creativity so I feel like I’ve gotten good at the creative process because I’m not practicing it in just one area and I don’t have to take breaks. To me that’s my life’s purpose, more specifically than just writing songs, is being a creator. So it’s equally satisfying in all the different areas.
CW: And you blog regularly. Have you ever come up with the idea for a song from writing a blog post?
CB: I have. There’s a post called “Casual Love” I put out maybe four years ago and that one gained a lot of traction. People really liked the idea. The concept is the way casual sex exists, there can also be casual love. You fell in love with someone, you don’t ‘have to panic about it or get married. Then in process of writing that post, I got inspired to write a song about it called “Lovin is Easy.”
CW: You've got several months worth of shows coming up, along with a performance at The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. What makes a good live show in your opinion?
CB: I like to be entertained and have an old-fashioned concept of entertainment. If I go see a show, I want them to make me laugh, talk in-between songs, make me want to dance. I try to fit all that stuff into my shows. I talk and tell stories and jokes. I have a little bit of vaudeville/cabaret sensibility. I have six albums out now and have written through a lot of genres so when I do a live show at this point I try to get a lot of dynamic and variety into the set. You can expect to hear some jazz and some rock and some pop and some sensitive folky stuff.
CW: Do you like playing the bigger festival shows or the smaller club ones?
CB: I like them both in different ways. I think my favorite is a theater show where everyone is seated. You can get away with a lot on stage because if there’s really close listening you can introduce a lot of subtlety and nuance and interesting timing.
CW: I know you cited Chance The Rapper and Courtney Barnett as influences for Buck Up. Who are some other contemporary artists who inspire you?
CB: Foy Vance is my favorite discovery of the past several years. Incredible songwriter and performer. Top notch everything. Shovels and Rope I love. There are two songwriters I’ve known for a long time who are still my top two inspirations: Devon Sproule and Anais Mitchell who’s working on her broadway play right now. There’ another songwriter in New York named Milton who I find quite inspiring and is a good friend as well. Last, I’d say The Wood Brothers. I’ve big fans of them for a long time. I’ve known those guys and toured with them on and off for about ten years but I’ve been listening to them for longer that so they’re kind of my musical mentors.
Christopher Wolford is a music fan and writer, in that order. He is the Managing Editor for BULL and a frequent contributor to Split Lip Magazine. He lives in Bloomington, IN. You can find him promoting all his favorite artists here.