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Interview: Mykki Blanco Debut New Zealand Tour

Interview: Mykki Blanco Debut New Zealand Tour

Interview by Billie Fee (Grecco Romank) / C.C. / Friday 8th March, 2024 10:24AM

Making their Aotearoa debut this weekend, Mykki Blanco chatted with avowed fan, Billie Fee of local "sewer pop" electronic dance trio Grecco Romank over coffee and juice at Grey Lynn's Kōkako Café. Don't dare miss the innovative US rapper / performance artist / poet / activist "gone lush Mediterranean cowboy" bringing the party tonight at Neck of the Woods with Grecco Romank and Zeki, this Saturday at Ōhinehou / Lyttelton's sold out Port Noise festival, and at Te Whanganui-a-Tara's Meow on Sunday with Current Bias — brought to you by Strange News Touring and Community Garden...

Mykki Blanco

Friday 8th March - Neck of the Woods, Auckland w/ Grecco Romank, Zeki*
Saturday 9th March - Port Noise Festival, Lyttelton [sold out]
Sunday 10th March - Meow, Wellington w/ Current Bias*

Auckland tickets available HERE via UTR
*Wellington tickets available via moshtix

Billie Fee: Kia ora, Mykki. Thanks for speaking with me. You've been traveling around, you've been doing a lot of live shows. And it's your first time in New Zealand. I'm interested to know how live performance fits into your overall practice.

Mykki Blanco: From a very, very, very young age, my parents will tell stories about me dancing to commercials. I remember, kind of very naturally, I was never a shy child. It wasn't just that I enjoyed attention, it wasn't that I wanted people to pay attention to me, it's that I really remember having this natural ability to want to be in front of people. Not just for the sake of it, but to be doing something, like doing a little dance, or doing a puppet show or something. So from this, very organic thing in me, you know, not to sound dramatic, but like soul essence, I had this instinct to want to be in front of people and to do something. That ended up funnelling itself into me doing musical theatre as a child.

I often joke, there's this stereotype of people having stage parents. Where they want their kid to be famous, and they drag their kid to auditions, and they drag their kids to this and that, and it was the complete opposite for me. I would look in the newspaper and if I saw that there was an audition for a theatre production, and they needed children, I remember I would take the highlighter and I would be like "Mom!" This would be Saturday morning, my mom was a single mom, worked all week, Saturday she would be in bed till like noon. She would get up and she'd be like; "What?" I'd be like; "I want to go to this audition, I want to do this." It was very much that.

As a teenager, I got really into performance art. I discovered performance art, through a really important book, by this woman named RoseLee Goldberg called Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. When I was 16, I started my own performance art collective. That was kind of adjacent to my interest being indoctrinated into anarchist punk and stuff like Food Not Bombs, these really youth focused countercultural groups. So when I started music, it was because I was really into poetry — but I never liked slam poetry, because literally, to me that was all of these people thinking they were being really original, but they were sounding exactly the same. And through my interest in poetry, I found noise music. Also kind of around that time, I had dropped out of college, and I was living in Chicago then. Chicago at that time had a really big noise scene. I was a freshman, I was really young.

I was 19 years old. All of a sudden going to noise shows where I was seeing people play with loops for the first time and effects pedals. I remember this one show where this guy, his name was Rotten Milk, in his backyard, had all these effects pedals. I think he had a friend on guitar and then a friend on saxophone. I totally forget the name of the band. But they were playing and then they set a couch on fire, in their backyard while they were playing. And it was in that moment I was like — this is the world that I want to be a part of, you know. So my first... [Mykki knocks the table and a bit of Billie's coffee spills] oh shit, I'm sorry.

No you're fine. This is something you'll find out about New Zealand, every table is wonky. [Both laugh]

Okay, hands off the table! But it was in this environment, that I started to play with performance. Before Mykki Blanco, I had this project called No Fear, that was just me and some effect loops, and I had a friend that sometimes played bass and a friend that sometimes played drums. Then I was also doing a lot of stuff on like GarageBand. When I did start performing as Mykki Blanco, that project first started out as a video art project. It was this video art project that utilised early Facebook.

There was this band when I was younger, called Tracey + the Plastics that was this artist actually called Wynne Greenwood out of Olympia, Washington. What she would do is — she was Tracy and she was the other two band members. It was a video project where she would record herself on four channel video, and do these performances where she was the lead singer. It was Tracy, I forget the name of the other character and the other one's name was Cola. I just remember Cola because I thought that was so cool. Tracy recorded this album, I think she only made one. This concept was so cool to me. I had never heard of anything like this before, how one person could be these three characters that could all create an album and be different voices and different characters. That was so inspiring to me. So Mykki Blanco started out as this video art project, through social media through Tumblr, and through Facebook. I would record these like really short comedic videos as this persona and Mykki was supposed to, want to be this like famous female rapper but she was like a senior in high school.

And it was following these mini-diaries. So the music began as I started to create these GarageBand noise freestyles, mixing acapella like Katy Perry's Teenage Dream. Also, mixing synth stuff, with me doing these short raps. That kind of evolved. There was like kind of a year and a half of me just doing like performance art / like rap stuff.

That was still noise-oriented, but just starting to lean more into I guess a pop structure. Because this character that Mykki was had this love of like Rihanna and Drake and Katy Perry these pop musicians. Then there was this shift that happened where... one of my roommates actually was a really good producer and we were both unemployed one winter.

Was this in Chicago still?

No, this is in New York.

Okay, but either way it's freezing cold.

Yeah, it's freezing cold. I think we were both getting assistance from the city, or from the state. So we weren't starving, but had our little EBT cards. But we had like no money and we would literally wake up, smoked a shit ton of weed, go to the grocery store, get our groceries for the day, eat, and then climb into bed with each other and just watch anime for hours.

[Both laugh]

But it's only something you can do when you're like 23, 24. From us watching all this anime, we started to make music together. It was working with him that I made my first real song, because I really did not know anything about like song structure. I never had it in my mind that I was going to be a musician ever. I was always interested in theatre, performance art, experimental theatre, experimental art, video, but I fell into music so organically and it just slowly became this musical act. In the early days, it was always just me. It was this kind of not straightforward act. I was performing in drag and there were so many elements. I think I just learned over time, that a certain level of crowd participation, with like, shock... there were just so many things...

My inspirations were really underground '70s bands from New York like Suicide and Richard Hell, but then also '90s Japanese acts like Pizzicato Five but then, rock and roll classic people like Bowie, Iggy Pop. I would watch old YouTube videos of Iggy Pop a lot. Beyoncé, I would watch like Beyoncé live concerts. And Tina Turner. Because to me, as far as more mainstream musicians, those people are amazing performers. I've never been like a classically trained dancer. But over the years, I just kind of learned how to take care of my body to where I'm not exhausting myself on stage. But you know, it's just me and I have to go go go.

Yeah, I actually saw you perform in 2014, in Amsterdam. I'm one of those people who studied abroad for a semester and hasn't stopped talking about since. Studied abroad in Amsterdam, and I saw you play in this club. I don't remember what it was. But you had someone, I guess from your group? They were performing with you and they climbed up into the rigging of the lights, do you remember this? They climbed up into the lighting rig and were like yelling at these Dutch people going like "Move! You have to dance!" Me and my Scottish friend were just like dying, because every gig we'd been to, Dutch people did not want to dance. And I was like, "This is Mykki Blanco! You have to move!" 

This sounds like either my friend Sean or my friend, Devin. 

Do you feel like when you're performing is there an experience for the audience that you really want to cultivate? A vibe and an energy in the room that that's what you're driving towards?

So I learned really early on that, I can't control where the vibe goes.


But I can definitely do things. I think in the very beginning of a show, I always get into the crowd. Because I found that that immediately, that interfacing of people really close, I always make people make a circle, or I always just do something to where I'm in the crowd first. I think performing in the crowd first creates this really good energy and people feel very much a part of it. Then that translates to where when you get on stage, it's like this really nice symbiosis. That's something that's never left me because it just injects so much energy into the live performance. I used to have my live shows be really like go, go, go go go. I didn't really understand kind of how to like really harness my own energy. Now I make sure I have a moment where not just like, catch my breath, but to where it can really be this theatrical kind of thing that happens, you know.

Like dynamics throughout?

Yeah, yeah. And honestly props. I like performing with like fabric, flowers, plants, chains. I mean today, I need to go on a little prop haul for tomorrow and the rest of the weekend. For example, I was just in Sydney and before Mardi Gras really started, I performed at what was almost this David Lynch-esque lounge night. Because I knew it was a lounge, in my head I was like "Okay, I'll do like a more chill version of my show." But suddenly, something happens. So many performers know this feeling. Something happens when you get on stage. That moment you get on stage, all of these preconceived ideas that you had about how you're going to do this chiller version of your set completely fly out of your brain. You're just like, "Well, wait a minute, I'm in front of people and now I'm performing."

Yeah. [Laughs]

It becomes an out of body experience. I was ripping off tablecloths from tables, and playing with the cutlery, using the waiter tray to do like tambourine or almost Kabuki-like stuff with the tray as a gong. Afterwards other people were like "Did you plan to do all that stuff?" And I was like, "No, actually, I just planned to do my version of what a lounge singer is" but that's not the kind of performer that I am. All of a sudden, my brain kicks over into like, "Wait, you're in front of people — perform!"

We laugh because one of our band members, it will just happen that, people will just give him shit on stage. He got thrown a wig once and then, a huge sledge hammer one time. I don't know where it came from. This may be an oversimplification, and you correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like your music at least in the recorded side, and maybe it's a different live, but in the recorded side, sort of 10 years ago, was this quite gritty, often maybe, provocative kind of sound. Now on your last couple of albums, you've had this more like intimate kind of reflective tone. Do you think that's something that you're doing deliberately, or is it just kind of what's happening organically?

Well, 2022 marked 10 years of me doing music. Like I said, I wasn't someone that played an instrument as a kid. I wasn't someone that wrote songs as a kid. I wrote poems, but I didn't write songs. I didn't start writing music until 2012. I think my journey as a songwriter, especially coming from this like very punky noise music background, and then going into really having this very twisty-turny career where I was never a mainstream artist, but realising that people were digesting my music in a very pop-oriented way.

When it came to production, it's been such a learning curve. I never got into a room with a producer and it was like "Okay, give me this beat." ... Very early on, I was learning how to work with people and kind of form these relationships where it was a collaborative experience. But over the years, it was this learning curve of realising that if I work with session players, it creates this organic experience. Where I might have my own references, I might give them to the guitar player and the flute player, and the drummer, but then when we're jamming, something switches over where the jam no longer becomes referential. Becomes this really organic moment that was created from the inspirations, but now it's completely its own sound. Recording those moments and then going back and being like "Wait, that was really great, Let's use that. Let's use that moment. Let's let that be the nucleus of a song."

Working with the producer that I have for these last few records, Falty DL, having that be the case, has been really wonderful. Because for the first time I really felt like I was creating my own sound. That was really freeing. So since 2018 I've not sampled. I don't sample anymore. If we sample, it's a sample that we created ourselves.

I guess that kind of goes on to my next question. People have said "Mykki's in their Italian cowboy era" or whatever nonsense. But I do find it interesting. How do you parse how maybe other people would describe your music or practice, versus how you would describe it?

Honestly, I think that I'm just really happy that people consider me a good musician now. Because I'm not one of these people that was classically trained. I might say, some of my first releases are like pretty unlistenable. At least I think so. I think the fact that people considered me a good musician now, I'm just like "Woo!"

"You like me, you really like me!"[Both laugh]

I feel like when you hit the 10 year mark of doing, this you realise a lot of people just say stuff because they need to say stuff and it's just for literally the article. It's just for the headline, it's just like that. No one actually thinks those things, they're just talking.

I'm gonna let you finish your breakfast, but I've just got one more question. And that is - who is the very lovely looking lady in the album art for Postcards From Italia?

That is Nonna Angela. Basically, I came to Italy, to play a festival. I was playing a lot of festivals last summer. I was supposed to go to Switzerland but I missed my flight. I don't really want to spend more money to buy another one. [Laughs] So I wrote my friends in Rome and I was like, "Hey, can I come hang out?" And they were like, "Oh, my God, come hang out." So I'm in Rome. My friend had an extra bedroom and it looked like I might end up staying a bit longer. We got an email from the record label that was like, "Hey Mykki, if you're gonna do press photos and all this stuff this is the new deadline we need for you to get all this stuff done."

The project was originally called Postcards From Nevada. When I got this new deadline, it was like, wait a minute, I have to shoot my album art my single, all the content around this has to be done in this window of time. And my friend Margerita is artistic, she's creative. She's really good at organising things. I was like, "Would you like help me produce this?" And she was like, "yeah." So she hooked me up with this amazing photographer Cecilia Chiaramonte and Margie made it happen. She was like, "I used my grandmother's house before for a shoot. I just make it really casual, and ask my grandma if we can come over and she could pose. She'd probably say yes." So we literally came over, her grandma had cooked us lunch. We ate lunch and then literally everything was done in like 15 minutes. But we we didn't want to keep her grandma forever, just like 15 minutes. And that was it!

That’s awesome, I love it. Well thanks so much for your time and generosity.

Yeah, thanks so much.


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