Looking at Dorian Monsalve’s surrealist scratchboard art is like peering through an incredibly detailed kaleidoscope. Every glance reveals a new perspective. There are a multitude of vividly colored dimensions, each etched with unconventional shapes, textures, and ghoulish faces.
Scratchboard art- scratching away layers of ink on a clayboard to create images- captivated Monsalve since he first encountered the medium in high school.
Trained in Colombia and New Jersey, the now Raleigh-based Monsalve has exhibited in the Triangle since 2015. With solo and group exhibitions including CAMRaleigh, The ArtsCenter, Trophy Tap & Table, City Gallery, and merit awards from Litmus Gallery & Studios and the Maria V. Howard Arts Center, Monsalve’s work brings fantastical visions to the Triangle arts scene.
Monsalve walked me through his artistic process, the reception to his work in the Triangle, and how his art connects him with the universe.
When did you first encounter scratchboard art, and what were your initial impressions of the medium?
The first encounter with scratchboard was in high school in my senior year. I thought scratchboard was so fun to create images just by using a sharp tool and etching away the india ink through either lines or crosshatching. The best was the high contrast on the drawings and how detailed I could be with this medium.
Walk us through your artistic process. How do you go about selecting the colors you’ll use in a piece? Are the images you create planned in advance, or do they emerge organically as you create?
The white clayboard can be pre-inked with any colored ink you wish rather than the black india scratchboard that already comes pre-inked with black india. In order to apply the color you will have to etch the image, then paint, or just keep it black and white. Most of the time I’m using white clayboard. I select the ink colors, layer them and apply them randomly with different materials such as plastic, metal pieces, or any elements that create different textures.
Once the ink is dry, I start revealing the imagery and scape by rubbing a steel wool all around the piece. Then I visualize and explore, always finding faces or fantasy beings. To bring the image forward or faded away I use a fiberglass brush, then for a more intricate detail I use x-acto blades, speedball tips of different sizes and tools that I invent. All imagery that emerges is from deep inside my being and from what I call the source, always inspired by instrumental music, nature, and the micro/macro cosmos.
You’ve been exhibiting in the Triangle since 2015. How would you describe the reception to your work in North Carolina?
My artwork has been appreciated and admired among artists and all public in general. My scratchboard art has been described as mysterious, macabre, dark and transforming (enlightening). The public has interacted with my work by looking through magnifying glasses that I provide to explore all the small details. The closer you get the more images are revealed.
You’ve often described experimental scratchboard art as a way of connecting with your inner self and the infinite. Your work tends toward the surrealistic, even the psychedelic. Do you find that surrealism is the most honest expression of your subconscious world?
I believe abstract, surrealism, psychedelic or even visionary art are just a word to label certain type of artworks. The soul is our/my most honest expression of ones/my subconscious world. It all comes from the source, God or however you wish to call it. “We are the instruments receiving divine energy from the source to materialize all beauty”.
You’ve been experimenting with scratchboard art for twelve years. What are you most looking forward to seeing in your personal artistic explorations of the medium, and in the wider world of scratchboard art?
What I am looking forward in seeing in my personal artistic journey with this medium is to accept, learn and experience all my soul and being by expressing sacred images, and bringing awareness that we are all one with the universe. The same way all the parts, organs, cells, even the microscopic atoms in our bodies are part of one single being. I am a reflection of the universe, so is my artwork.
Grief to a mellow groove should be an oxymoron- but to synth-pop musician RJ Bergman, aka BREV., lush synths seemed like a natural palette with which to illustrate sorrow. On In My Own Dimension, the twenty-four-year-old’s contemplative first release, BREV. immerses himself in his grief over his grandmother’s death at an unhurried, melancholy pace.
“Are we all taken for granted?” BREV. asks over tinny beats and a mournful motif. Onhis first release, BREV. seeks answers to his biggest questions through musical resolutions in synth-pop instrumentals. If In My Own Dimension doesn’t offer remedies to a first experience with grief, it does offer a beat to dance to- a way to healing.
BREV. spoke to The Triangle Guide about his evolution as a musician and his writing process.
Why did you decide to become a musician?
“I became a musician not just out of desire, but out of necessity. Music has been a coping mechanism for me for as long as I’ve been writing – over a decade. Music has always been a part of my soul. The most comforting moments in my life have come when I have gone through something and needed to reflect. Music has always been the kind friend that reached out it’s hand and captivated me. I think I owe a lot of my sanity to the fact that I was able to express myself through music in my younger years. The themes I’ve written about over my life have a lot to do with self-awareness, soul searching, and growth. I think you can hear and read in a lot of my work that there is a need to understand oneself and others around us in this perplexing life.”
What is the significance of the name “BREV.”?
“For starters, the word “brev” has many meanings. In Latin and music, it is meant to signify something that is short or a note that lasts a short amount of time. BREV. is a concept dating back to 2015. The original intent was to abbreviate ‘rebel’ and ‘revolution’ in to a succinct word/ phrase. The initials of my given name spell out REB, which people have always codified as rebel, and I’ve often felt a need to revolt. My musical ideas have attempted to change myself and others through music. I found that music has the opportunity to open us up to each others struggles, to have mutual understanding. To change someone’s mind through ideas is difficult. I feel like the best way I know is to wear my emotions and insecurities on my sleeve. I think we too often try to hide these, because our societal culture has emblemized them as weak, but emotions are real, raw, and impure, and have lead me to some of the most interesting dialogues I’ve experienced.”
You’ve transitioned from being an acoustic singer-songwriter to a synth-pop artist. What inspired that change?
“In 2014 I took a very enlightening trip to Australia and New Zealand as part of a study abroad program that introduced me to a plethora of new artists, new ideas, and creating lifelong connections with other musicians that impacted me enormously. I learnt of amazing artists like Kllo, Hiatus Kaiyote, Chet Faker (Nick Murphy), Jane Tyrrell, and Sticky Fingers. I even got to be one of the singers in an 8-piece band (called ‘John Wilton & The New Dream’ if you ever check it out) and they helped provoke this change. All of these led me towards a more heavily produced and chill sound which is evident on In My Own Dimension. The acoustic stuff has always been close to my chest, but I understood the niche audience that it reached. Not only was this new sound more satisfying to my musical self, it also felt more aligned with our current times.”
What skills have you brought from your acoustic background into synth-pop writing and performance?
“My foundation has always been in writing catchy melodies and deep lyrics. Those are two main characteristics I have enhanced and grown and pulled with me into this style. One thing that is strikingly different is how stage presence is handled in this setting. I feel like more people are watching the musician on stage with this style of music, wanting to see their facial expressions and movement, unlike what you might experience in an acoustic setting. I think I bring a different edge to electronic music since my lyrics tend to be heavier and poetic.”
You’ve just released your first EP, In My Own Dimension. What were your ambitions for your first EP? What skills did you want to demonstrate on your first long-form work?
“My ambitions for this work were introduce the sounds of BREV. to the world. I wanted to offer a variety of feelings and auras, allowing people to find a song that suits their mood. I’ve been dedicating myself to these songs for the past six months – and I definitely see this project as a jumping off point. This EP has sweeping stylistic changes throughout, and I think that was important for this work. I’ve had a hard time categorizing anything I’ve written these past six months, from synth-wave, electronic pop, ‘PBR&B’, and the like, so I certainly wanted this first EP to be an exploration of this sound, since I don’t think BREV. will ever be fastened to one genre or style.”
On In My Own Dimension, you explore heavy themes- generational divides, youth, death, and grief. Why did you choose to explore those themes through a mellow groove, rather than through a more turbulent sound?
“I think there is a sound and semblance of peace in the middle of chaos and turbulence. Zoning in and finding this sound was a journey for me that took me to places where I felt vulnerable, and this vulnerability turned into songs like “Fools” and “Granted.” In my head when I create songs, they tend to sound something like Brewed or Jam. Something downbeat and also energetic.”
What’s your favorite song on In My Own Dimension? Why?
“”Granted” is most certainly my favorite song on the EP. It’s an embodiment of myself, my ancestors, and how to deal through grief. My grandmother was fairly ordinary, but our connection ran deep. Of my twenty-four years on this planet I knew her for about ten, and I can almost recall all of the times we hung out on two hands. She was my last grandparent, and the first time I’ve had to deal with grief. It’s a memorable and emotional ode to her as well as a reckoning with age and a realization of how time flies, life flies, and how these things will inevitably end.”
If you could go back in time and see any artist perform live, who would you choose and why?
“This is a really tough question. One artist I would have loved to have seen in their heyday is The Academy Is…. I was a big Fueled by Ramen head growing up (Paramore, Fall Out Boy, Cute Is What We Aim For, Cobra Starship), and I always loved William Beckett’s amazing lyrics, emotional melodies, and stage presence. There was this Halloween concert they did with Cobra Starship that a few friends went to my freshman year of High School. I was bummed to have missed this, and never got to see them or Cobra Starship! Around this time was when I saw other artists that inspired my musicianship like No Doubt, Motion City Soundtrack, and The Cab.”
It’s a striking image: blue-tinted suburban houses lining a curved road, the tail lights of a car glowing under a technicolor sunset. The diversity of color and texture, a quiet moment captured in the composition- it’s a quintessential shot from photographer Alex Yllanes, who searches for unique beauty in the Triangle.
His approach to landscapes carries over into his event photography- performer’s bodies are rendered as topography saturated in stage light. Meanwhile, candid moments are emphasized in Yllanes’s portraits- natural slopes and lines that draw the eye to the bright smiles of his subjects.
Yllanes’s style and his unique position in the Triangle creative scene have put him on the ground for some of the local music scene’s most exciting moments. I caught up with Yllanes on candid portraiture, how he represents the Triangle in his photography, and the most memorable concert he’s shot.
What is your origin story? What inspired you to become a photographer?
“Photography was always something that piqued my interest, the idea of creating/capturing images that, if you do it right, can speak to people in a way that’s hard to express verbally. A couple years back I started to really try and integrate myself within the Triangle creative scene, at first as a fan of artists’ work. From there just continuing to go to events and shows I started making connections with people who were doing music, photography, videography, etc.
I met a guy from NC State, James Huang aka Sakyboi, I had recognized from a film club when I was there, and he was working on photos and videography and he really gave me the first big push to wanting to create to just doing it. Once I actually got started going to street meets here and there, and then shooting the concerts I would be going to. Anyway, I just got a lot of joy from capturing moments that I found to be evocative.
The creative release was a pretty important part in the beginning, having something to focus on and challenge myself with that came with the reward of images I hoped others would enjoy as well. It’s still what will drive my photography now; the idea that anyone other than me could feel the moment I had caught just by looking at it. Being able to share images like that is a challenge, but anytime I get a response to an image that it really connected with someone, it means so much to me, that’s what keeps me pushing my knowledge.”
On your website, you explain that you “always work to capture candid moments with my subjects,” and it shows in your body of work. Why do you prioritize candid photography? What do you do to facilitate the capture of candid moments?
“I’ve always been drawn to the idea of being able to capture moments in time, however incidental they are. Practically, it largely stems from the first few concerts I shot and having to find the moments throughout without any directional input on my part. To this point, it’s been an easier way for me to tap into a creative vision and find what I’m looking to get out of the shoot; and not being able to control the subject at a concert allowed me to think more about what I would ideally like in terms of my own direction on a shoot. That’s something that I’ve gotten a bit better at over time, too, is not just letting the moment happen, but directing a subject to perform actions and still work on getting those moments in between.
I think it really stems from a personal desire to try and find the best in everything, so finding these little moments is a bit of a therapeutic way to approach a shoot. That mentality carries over into every aspect of life for me now, and I’d have to say allowing myself to be drawn to these moments in photography has helped me grow mentally and overcome a lot of my own mental obstacles in life. Essentially what started as a practical necessity evolved into a much more important viewpoint on my photography and on life; as that evolution took place I think it drew me in to that style even more.”
You’ve worked in many locations in the Triangle as a street photographer- Carrboro, Raleigh, Durham, and Apex. How do you want to represent the Triangle in your photography?
“Ideally I can represent it as a place full of beauty and character. Living here you can really find a little bit of everything in the Triangle, from nature trails to high rises and I really enjoy seeing how varied a region we have. For me it’s showing that variety in landscape but as I’ve said before, just how easy it is to find something beautiful in each environment.
I think everyone experiences things differently based on what’s going on in your mind at that time, and I like to think that I can show images of a place and people that not everyone sees, either. Sometimes it’s just marveling at a sunset in the suburbs or craning your head back to see up to the top of a high rise under construction; but I really like the idea that I can capture something that will make someone look a little differently at their surroundings the next time they’re out about town.”
What’s the most memorable concert you’ve photographed? What made it special?
“This is a tough one, but I’d have to say that taking pictures at the Kooley High show at Kings last year in April was a highlight. It wasn’t the first Kooley show I’d shot, but I remember that night Rapsody was in town and came to the show. She was mostly hanging at the back of the stage with DJ Ill Digitz and Sinopsis, and it was already crazy just having her there. When she joined in with Charlie Smarts and Tab-One it took the show to a different level, having the OG Kooley group back together on stage was incredible. I was just super psyched I had my camera that night and was running from the stage to the crowd that whole set just getting shots in between, soaking in the moment for myself.
After the show was done I chatted with her and the Kooley crew for a minute and got a shot of them backstage together; that was a really awesome moment for me personally. Having been a fan of the group for going on 6 years at that point, 7 now, I’d always been inspired by their drive and through photography getting to know them better and being able to capture that moment with them is definitely a Top 5 moment so far.”
When you’re in the field, what inspires you to take a photograph of something in the moment? Are you first drawn to the potential aesthetic appeal of a shot, or do the aesthetics serve the story you’re trying to tell?
“I’m definitely drawn in by the aesthetic appeal of a shot, it’s always easier in my head to find a spot that “looks cool” and gravitate toward it. I think it’s just been a matter of evolving my definition of what looks cool to me. I think as I’ve progressed, I’ve done a better job of trying to tell some kind of story in an image, whether it comes across all the time is a different story. But I feel like now I do enjoy taking shots of things I think look good, while also keeping in mind that I want to try and convey something about the space, or my subject, or for a concert the moment in time that artist is sharing with the crowd. To that end I think overall it’s become even for me to aim for the aesthetics themselves, or how they fit in within a story I’m picturing in my head.”
If you could ask one question of any photographer, living or dead, who would you choose and what would you ask?
“I’d be lying if I said I had an encyclopedic knowledge of photographers and all their works; that said, there’s definitely a few I try to draw inspiration from. I think even before I really delved into the history of photography and different photographers and styles, I found myself somewhat in line with what some of the characteristics of Henri Cartier-Bresson. He pretty much shot exclusively black and white film with natural light only, the latter of which has pretty much been my M.O. as well.
When I shoot I feel like a lot of the time I end up being too precious with my shots and my thinking, even with a memory card that can hold ~1000 shots, I can find myself getting in my own way. I’d love to ask him how he allowed himself to be comfortable with his decisions in the moment, or how he was able to get out of his own head for those candid moments. I feel like it’s a pretty loaded question, but it’d be really interesting to hear his mental process and try and glean something from that.”
What do you know now about photography that you wish you knew when you first started out?
“Looking back, I wish I had known that social media, namely Instagram, is not the be-all end-all for engagement with my work, or the objective quality of my work. Starting out I think I did use it well as a way to showcase what I was doing and interact with other creatives around the Triangle and outside of it. But I also know that I put way too much stock in how many likes all my pictures got, or trying to emulate a common style that was perpetuating social media at a certain time.
Ultimately I ended up finding myself highly overcritical of “underperforming” shots and posting less because I wanted and more to maximize the validation and “coolness” of my shots. At this point social media has very much taken a back seat in my head, not having posted in a while, but it is something that as I get re-engaged with it for it’ll be a much healthier relationship. Out of everything that’s probably the only thing I’d have done a bit differently from the get-go.”
“I’m feeling like I should live timeless,” Natalie Cruz sings, setting the tone for an EP guided by meditations on what it means to live without restraint in the time she’s been given. Throughout Feelings, Cruz alternates between crooning and spitting, her lyrics about the urgency of love and lust simmering over mellow beats.
Cruz’s career as an entertainer began at the tender age of ten, spanning performances at venues of every size, and sustaining an exploration of several genres. The transition between acoustic recording and R&B took place in North Carolina and New Jersey, as Cruz examined which genre would best suit her energy as a performer and a songwriter. Feelings is the result of that exploration.
Cruz spoke to The Triangle Guide about Feelings and how her career as an entertainer began.
What is your origin story? What inspired you to become a musician?
“I grew up in New Jersey playing music as a child, funny enough no one in my family has musical abilities. I had fallen in love with the way this guy at my church played guitar and I had to learn! Thankfully I was gifted a guitar around eight years old and began to teach myself and learn more. I enjoy knowledge, so entering high school I decided I couldn’t graduate until I learned every other instrument available to me in the band room. Now I can play guitar, trumpet (any horn), piano, bass, violin, and anything else put in my hands. I moved around a lot growing up so having one consistent friend was hard to keep, music was something I didn’t have to worry about leaving. My inspiration was the constant smiles I got to put on faces and knowing I was an enjoyable entertainer.”
You started performing at a very young age. What did you learn about performing early on?
“I started performing VERY young, I bounced around from covering songs around ten to thirteen, to joining a few rock bands and traveling a lot more. I was grateful to start so early because I got to learn how a lot of the industry works as far as booking and what the audience expects from the performer. It taught me how to network and market myself at such a young age for so long.”
Your first EP, Through the Night, was an acoustic venture, while your latest release, Feelings, pulls from R&B and hip-hop. What motivated that transition?
“Through the Night was written in North Carolina, as some things were not working out for me in New Jersey, I decided to move. This EP was written all on guitar about a rough breakup I had been going through. When I moved I could not bring all of my music belongings so I decided to bring the smallest guitar I had. I felt the acoustic guitar kept this EP in its rawest form, as the chords were just a part of the emotions I was soaking in as the lyrics.
After leaving North Carolina I found myself back in a rock band playing bass and singing backup vocals. As versatile my music style was getting, I figured it was time for me to stop hiding in the background and take my solo career more seriously. I found that I kept resorting back to these bands because the energy on stage couldn’t be matched with an acoustic guitar, Hip-Hop-R&B could change that.”
Did your writing process change as you switched genres? How?
“My writing process did not change too much, being that I write upon emotion for most of my songs. If the music can make me feel something writing is no problem! If the beat or groove of the song doesn’t catch my interest is when it gets a little trickier. I had gotten the beat for “December” off my album Feelings and I wrote to it in twenty minutes! Listening back and back to this single I was set on releasing it as just its own track. Throughout the process of it getting mixed and mastered I had kept writing and expanding my sound to be beyond just my guitar.
My writing process is my best in the car, I like to either record my instrumental or beat and play it on my drives and freestyle in a sense to the tracks, there is inspiration everywhere and in my car I feel most free. I can normally write a full song in the car this way, or the main hook and first verse, I like to consider that my map to my destination which would soon be the completed song!”
In “Timeless,” the first song on Feelings, you describe your desire to live in the moment. The rest of Feelings follows a similar narrative thread, with tracks about the immediacy of love and lust. Did you begin working on Feelings with the intention that all of the songs would be centered around those themes, or did that happen organically as the project developed?
“This is the first time I’ve been asked the story behind the album! Although “Timeless” is the first track on the album, “December” was the first track I had written off of guitar. I had gone to my nine-to-five job a few days later, and I had kept running into conversation about how we work work work and we lose time. I had evaluated that in myself and realized that all I do at work is look at the clock (waiting to leave) hints to the line “I’m feeling like I should live timeless, like I should look at the clock less.” I feel like time is on our side and it’s how we choose to use it. Being that music is my passion, jobs are not my favorite thing to embark in, although we have to do what we have to do to eventually do what we want to do. At the end of the day I had run home and found lyrics I had written working my previous job that had fit perfectly into my second verse after they were rewritten.
At that point in the album, I had two tracks that had gone way too smoothly, but I was still lacking energy in those songs which is where I dove into some fun hip-hop grooves. “Playin” was written next on the album, which is another song about me being such a lover and looking for someone to just let me love them and stop playin’. This album happened super organically being that I wanted to escape the hip-hop/r&b trend of drugs, sex, and money in every song and keep my purity. Everything I write is either real life-based, or watching someone go through a certain situation making every song relatable to someone in some shape or form.”
You’ve played a variety of venues, from Stone Pony to Boardwalk Hall. Do you prefer to play in large venues, or more intimate ones?
“This is a great question. Coming from a fan base of zero, I enjoy performing, being I touch one out of the five people in the crowd, or hundreds out of the largest venues I’ve played. My goal as an artist is to connect and teach others things that I’ve learned through my course of life. Although the energy of a large venue is incredible, I always love the one-on-one personal connections gained from smaller venues.”
What kind of vibe do you want your shows to have? What do you want the audience to take away from seeing you live?
“I want my shows to be a safe, saving place for people to go to and enjoy. I want people to feel at peace as I sing a slower track and embrace their emotions and turn up and enjoy life when we pick up the tempo. At each performance I like to share a different message and I hope if the stranger in the crowd doesn’t enjoy every song, they can at least take from my message I am trying to send them.
As an artist I am also a person, being that I write mostly upon emotion I want to share with everyone that they are not alone on their journey. And although we may have bad days it is not a bad life. I struggle with anxiety and depression daily and I hope if anyone going through the same can take my words and relate and know they’re not alone, and all of our hurdles are bigger than ourselves. I hope I can teach my fans to not only love and receive but to find outlets to expressing their further emotion be it music, art, writing or speaking to someone. I hope to always keep the peace within my audience.”
Who’s another artist you would love to work with? Why?
“If you know me you know Post Malone is my man! Although I listen to so much music in the course of the day, I feel like Post Malone and I have a very similar background and style. I covered his song “Falling Apart” and got such great reactions on Instagram and Twitter. Being that we both grew up listening to so many styles, me and him could really produce a great product of music.
If not Post Malone, it would have to be Kehlani, being her aura and message she sends to the youth are so powerful to me, and is what I look to do throughout my growth as a musician.”
Sean Kyd hunches over a table in a dark room, clipping coupons over otherworldly whispers. Then, he flips the table. The coupons cascade to the floor. And the bass drops.
This all takes place in the music video for Kyd’s song, “Coupons,” an ode to “working too hard, too long,” and flinging the actualization of his dreams into the faces of his skeptics. Kyd raps about forging empires, setting up his descendants, reaping the fruits of his labor. Kyd and company dance in the pile of coupons on the floor, celebrating that “money ain’t a thing.”
Most of Kyd’s lyrics are about ambition- getting it, sustaining it, the toll it takes ultimately being worth it. The Raleigh native has big dreams, and he wants the world to know it. Kyd lets us in on his formative experiences, the source of his drive, and his future plans.
What is your origin story?
Well, I was born and raised in Raleigh, NC. Lived here for most of my life outside of me living in Atlanta for a year. I first got into music and wanting to make music by sneaking and listening to my brother’s rap albums before school. We shared a room so when his bus picked him up I’d run to the boombox, load up a CD and press play. My mom is a single parent of three so I refrained from asking her for a CD player for myself. Eventually I saved up and got my own CD player from a thrift shop (way before the iPods) and would listen to rap albums on the bus to school. When eighth grade rolled around my school decided to put on a talent show. My friends talked me into being in it with them and decided they wanted to rap, I was all for it. That night I went home and wrote a rap, came back the next day (the only one who wrote a rap), rapped it to my friends and they loved it. I kept writing and saved up some more to buy basic recording equipment, installed it onto the family computer, made a few songs to put on my Myspace page (way before Soundcloud) and the rest is history!
Which artists did you listen to the most growing up? How did they influence your style?
Most of the artists I listened to growing up were mostly because of my brother’s CDs until I was old enough to buy my own music. Even with that though he had pretty good taste. The artist I gravitated to the most in the beginning were Ludacris & Busta Rhymes. I loved how they mastered the art of rapping fast, breaking apart words by syllables to make a word longer than it is, and how they would tweak vowel sounds to make words rhyme that wouldn’t otherwise. When you listen to my early music you can hear their influence a lot. I also listened to A LOT of Lil Wayne (Hot Boyz Lil Wayne) and A LOT of Master P. When I was twelve I got introduced to Kanye West’s music by one of my cousins who was the same age as me. The College Dropout. That album taught me that even though I didn’t have a “street” background there were still ways I could flip everyday experiences so every listener could relate to the story I’m telling.
You open your Twitter bio with the words, “You deserve what you settle for,” and ambition is a theme you touch on quite a bit in your music- “Buckle Down” and “Coupons” especially. Where does your drive come from? How do you want to push yourself going forward in your artistic career?
Growing up I learned quickly that ambition is something NOBODY can take from you. My grandpa never finished school but was able to provide for the family off of a business he created from scratch. My mom was a single parent, worked two jobs and still found a way to provide for my sister, brother, and myself. “If you don’t work you don’t eat,” my grandma would always tell me. I’ve been able to accomplish a good amount solely off of my drive and ambition. It’s not easy, far from that, but in a moment of breakthrough or achieving a goal it feels good to take a moment and say, “I did this, I accomplished this.” There may be someone in the world more talented than me (I’m sure of it) but hard work takes you places talent can’t. I want my art or anything I create to be able to provide for my family forever. ANYBODY can work hard and I hope my music can help people realize the greatness they have within and motivate people to chase their dreams.
What’s your favorite verse you’ve written and why?
I have two favorite verses. One is from a song I made when I was sixteen called “I Got It.” This was one of my favorite songs of mine when I first started making music. It ended up being the standout song on my first mixtape “Just Kydding.” This is back when my artist name was Kyd Daze. Everybody from the local scene loved the song as well which had me pretty excited. When I would show up to local showcases at Pour House, The Brewery, or Shakedown Street (rest in peace Shakedown Street) they’d request me to come on stage and perform that song and it solidified the idea of “I can really do this.” My next favorite verse is from a newer unreleased song called “Hold Me Down.” I’m learning to become a lot more vulnerable with my music and the first verse does a good job of conveying the place I currently am mentally.
If you had to characterize your writing process in three words, what would they be?
My writing process in three words would have to be patient, relaxed, and focused. Sometimes it takes me minutes to write a song, sometimes a week or two. I’ve learned over the years that forcing anything won’t give the best results. I give myself some time to rest my mind if needed as well. I don’t put too much pressure on myself to make “the greatest song ever,” I just create. I know what sounds good to me and from there I make adjustments or experiment with sounds, my voice, or patterns. I mentally go to another place whenever I write music and I try to stay in that mindset until the song is finished or I can find a good stopping point. I hold things in- writing is my release so sometimes the tone is angry, sometimes it’s mellow, sometimes it’s somber, but they’re all different elements to me as a whole.
What would be your dream venue to perform in?
My dream venue would be a sold-out Madison Square Garden, hands down. I remember growing up, if a rapper sold out The Garden it was a HUGE deal. I know today more concerts are leaning towards the “festival” atmosphere and there are plenty of festivals I would love to perform at as well, but being able to say “I performed at Madison Square Garden” would be a dream come true. It would be my “I worked my ass off and now I’ve arrived” moment. Outside of that, being able to perform overseas would be cool too!
If you could collaborate with any living producer, who would you choose?
If I could collaborate with any living producer it would be Pharrell. His ear is crazy and he isn’t afraid to take risks and I like that. It doesn’t matter if it’s his beats or his singing/rapping, his sound is one hundred percent authentic.
You have an exciting project coming up that’s under wraps- what can you tell us about it?
Yes, there is a project I’ve been working on for about a year now. I’ve been taking my time with this one. My goal is to create a body of work to where my old fans can hear how much my sound has matured and also bring in new listeners. I’ve been compared to Big Sean a lot in the past (because our voices are similar) so I’ve been taking time to make my sound one hundred percent Sean Kyd, no room for comparisons. It’ll basically be an album to motivate listeners that anything is possible. When I say that I don’t mean the cliche “anything is possible” that you see at the end of a movie that makes you feel all good inside. I mean ANYTHING is possible: happiness, sadness, death, life, depression, anxiety, triumph, success. It’s a project that takes you from rock bottom to optimism, and I hope when it is complete it will change my life as well as the listener’s.
“The only voices that can stop me are the ones inside my head,” sings Sierra Shell in Case Sensitive’s simmering single “Count Your Blessings.” But it’s difficult to imagine anything stopping this Chapel Hill-based band. Since their nearly sold-out release show at The Station in February 2018, Sierra Shell (vocals, bass, and keys), Chesley Kalnen (guitar), and Mary Koenig (drums and supporting vocals) have been racking up fans of their otherworldly sound. And they show no signs of stopping, with upcoming appearances at Hopscotch day parties and an EP in the works.
They announced that first release show with a dancing Grim Reaper gif on Twitter- an entirely on-brand choice, given that their social media is full of black cats, haunted woods, and other witchy aesthetics. It’s an appropriate branding decision, given their sound. Their first release is singularly haunting and atmospheric- “Count Your Blessings/Six Feet”- is colored by sonic distortion, and guided by pensive lyrics. It’s a bewitching combination. Case Sensitive’s distinctive sound and charismatic live performances have cemented them as talents to watch in the Triangle music scene.
Koenig, Kalnen, and Shell spoke to The Triangle Guide about the songwriting process and their methods of collaboration.
What is Case Sensitive’s origin story?
SS: Back around 2014, several women were meeting together in a friend’s basement in the hopes of learning and playing together. Most of us were quite new to our instruments. We wanted a safe space to grow, and found that playing with other women was both fun and encouraging. At a certain point, Mary, Chesley, and I wanted to start writing our own songs and begin performing, so we broke away from the group in order to pursue music more intensely.
From your otherworldly sound down to the skeleton gifs on your social media, Case Sensitive very much aligns itself with a “spooky” aesthetic. Tell me about what inspired that aesthetic choice. Did you guys plan to align yourselves with an “ethereal/eerie” sound from the beginning of the project?
SS: We didn’t plan that initially, no. Originally, the music we were writing was much more poppy and upbeat.
CK: We started off very alt-pop and pop rock, heavily influenced by Marina & The Diamonds. We wrote two songs with that inspiration. One of those songs never felt right when performing it, and we ended up ditching it. The other song is Count Your Blessings, which was released February 2018 as a double-single. Often at practice, one of us will noodle on an idea, and the others jump in for an impromptu jam. There was one instance where I was playing a really simple line, and I kicked on a fuzz and octave pedal. The sound was heavy and gnarly, and our eyes lit up. That song became Six Feet, the other half of the double-single release. I think we all were really drawn to that sound (it was so intriguing and haunting) and interested in exploring beyond that. Tone is a really important element to me, and having the band be in to this new vibe was exciting. While we all like spooky things and our band has a quietly-heavy sound, we still hold tight to having a pop-informed ear to our songs, but now have these elements of floral, goth, and fuzzy indie mixed in.
Tell me about how you guys collaborate while songwriting. How do you allocate songwriting responsibilities? Does Mary [Koenig] have final say over drums, Sierra [Shell] have final say over keys, and Chesley [Kalnen] have sole control over guitar, for example, or do you each of you contribute to every aspect of the process?
SS: None of us really has the final say. We all contribute to the melody, the keys, guitar parts, and drums. In fact, Mary has written some of the key parts that I play and love. In reality, we play something over and over, and one of us will get inspired about a part, even if it isn’t our instrument. We’ve gotten good at communicating with one another in ways we can all understand, regardless of the instruments we play in the band.
MK: We have gotten good at communicating parts, but even better at listening and translating, I think! For example, I’m not very familiar with guitar, so sometimes my ideas for Chesley end up sounding like, “what about if you did dun-dun-dun-dun instead?” By some miracle, she takes it and makes it sound good. We’ve all written parts on each other’s instruments this way, and it often results in our best moments.
What’s something unique that each of you brings to the songwriting table?
CK: Sierra can come up with lyrics on the spot. Like, she will be playing bass or keys, and just start spitballing lyrics while coming up with a stellar melody. It’s bananas to watch her do, and we have to record it to catch what she’s doing, so we can remember/transcribe lyrics later. A lot of them stick for our songs, as well as the melody lines. It’s really organic and kinda magical. Mary, in addition to grounding us with percussion and being her own creative force, is a really grounding member of the band. She’s an amazing facilitator, and absolutely amazing when it comes to working through tough things (both with songwriting, as well as processing personal things as well as the current political/social climate).
MK: I echo Chesley. Sierra can write a catchy melody effortlessly. It just comes out of her mouth, lyrics and all, completely naturally. Part of the beauty of what she does is that she does it with no ego: she’s not held back by having to make it perfect on the first try. We then take the best bits and add just a little something (or sometimes, nothing at all!) and it’s a complete vocal part. I see Chesley as the one who encourages us to be “extra”, but she’s also the one to gently push back when we say we’re doing “too much.” She contributes a lot to our crunchier, heavier vibe and brings out the angsty kid in all of us, plus writes those dark, moody lyrics that are so fun to yell along to.
SS: I think Mary brings a certain gentleness and sweetness, a high-femme feel, to the project. She’s great at coming up with catchy pop lyrics and supportive synth parts. Chesley brings the fire, and probably represents our wild side. Chesley has driven a lot of the genre that we play, and pushed us toward our heavy, fuzzy, grungy sound.
Do you ever have disagreements about the direction a song should go in? If so, how have you settled them?
MK: We have disagreed about the direction a song should go in, and we always address it in the moment. We talk through our reasoning for wanting the direction we want and then come up with a solution together. The best part of how we settle disagreements, I think, is that we don’t ever let someone be “out-voted” into doing or playing something they’re not comfortable or happy with. We keep putting in the work until we come up with something that feels right to all of us.
Your first release, “Count Your Blessings/Six Feet,” shows two very different sides of what Case Sensitive is capable of. Lyrically and sonically, “Count Your Blessings” comes from a place of melancholy, and “Six Feet” rages. How important was it to the three of you to demonstrate a range of emotion and technical prowess in your first release? As it’s a double-single, do the two songs connect, or are they separate beasts?
SS: “Count Your Blessings” was one of our earliest tracks. When we wrote that song, we hadn’t quite figured out our direction or sound. I improvised many of the lyrics to that tune off the cuff, so it probably came from a more personal place for me than some of our others. Chesley brought in the lyrics for “Six Feet,” and the themes were pretty different from CYB. But once we wrote the beginning of the song, with the searing synth coming in and the drums banging, I think we realized we loved the high intensity and energy and, really, anger the song drew from us. I think we wanted to keep walking down a similar path, and that feeling led us to write the songs “Dirty Habit” and “Can You Stand It.”
MK: Honestly, I think initially we selected “Six Feet” and “Count Your Blessings” because they were our favorites and the ones that a lot of folks coming to our shows responded particularly well to. But as we started thinking about how they fit together more and more leading up to the release, we started seeing them as “sisters, not twins.” They both bring out different manifestations of feeling listless, stagnant, or anxious to change. While “Count Your Blessings” explores the more melancholy side of that, “Six Feet” is like an outlet for the frustration that feeling can produce.
Drum roll…you have plans to release an EP! What themes will you be exploring in the EP? What are you most excited to show the world about Case Sensitive?
MK: We do! Our EP explores a lot of themes that are more interrelated than they sound: from the anxiety of change to frustration with current politics to strange intense friendships to toxic exes to how Marilyn Monroe was maybe killed by the U.S. government (that last one isn’t a joke). They are all rooted in our feelings and emotions. A lot of those feelings are universal, but a lot of them are rooted in our experiences with gender and the stage of life we’re in: figuring out relationships, identity, and self-expression. I hope that people find something that they identify with in the EP and feel a little less alone in their anxiety, anger, wistfulness, or late-night conspiracy theory binging.
What’s your favorite gig you’ve ever played? What do the three of you find makes for a great show?
SS: My favorite gig was our single release show at the Station. We had such a huge crowd, but more importantly, so many of our close friends came out to see us play. There was a lot of excitement in that room. My favorite thing about a show is the audience, mostly because I’m trying to speak directly to them when I sing. I prefer a crowd of friendly and supportive faces, but also enjoy a crowd of absolute strangers. I’m confident in our ability to connect with the audience, so I enjoy playing for strangers and watching them react, even having no idea who we are or what our music is like initially.
CK: Playing The Cave in Chapel Hill for Manifest 2017 has been one of my favorite shows to date. The crowd packed it in, there was a lot of interaction and smiles, the energy around the fest (featuring artists of marginalized identities) was buzzing, and we just really felt embraced in that moment.
Visual artist Britt Flood is all about making the private public- that is to say, she depicts our most secret moments in her public art.
The Pittsboro-based artist has exhibited work and contributed to public art installations all over the Triangle, including DPAC, the North Carolina Museum of Art, VAE, and many more. Working in a wide range of media, Flood most often explores themes of intimacy in her work.
Flowers bloom from the faces of lovers, vines twining to show two lives growing together. A kiss is rendered in neon pinks and blues. Our most private expressions of emotion become communal experiences- a point of bonding between strangers as the beauty of the intensely personal becomes accessible in the public sphere.
I caught up with Flood on her inspirations, the Triangle arts scene, and her upcoming projects.
You often depict lovers in your work, though you explore the themes of romance and intimacy in a variety of textures, color palettes, and media- for instance, Before the Kiss versus Former Lover versus Reading Together. How have your life experiences influenced your aesthetic choices in these pieces?
I have been lucky enough to experience great love and greater heartbreak. These moments have resulted in profound personal growth over the past year and have led to a curiosity in attempting to visualize intimacy. Can I exude love with one mark that connects two figures? Can I convey doubt or distrust by using line and shadow in one figure and not the other? Can I imitate intimacy with a brush? I will certainly try.
My experience has made me softer and has influenced the specific choices of the muted palette in Before the Kiss, the out of body perspective of the two figures in Former Lover, and the quiet closeness I attempted to capture through hazy shading in Reading Together. These works aim to instill a sense of lovesickness in the viewer.
Which figures in art history most inspire you? Who among your contemporaries most inspires you?
Andrew Wyeth, Paul Wonner, and Odilon Redon are my paint gods at the moment. I greatly admire film directors Agnès Varda and Ingmar Bergman, and gain much romantic inspiration from poets William Blake and Walt Whitman.
Contemporary artists on my radar are painters Doron Langberg, Cinga Samson, Manon Wertenbroek, Ridley Howard, and Robin F. Williams, photographers Ren Hang and Harley Weir, fashion designer Iris Van Herpen, and sculptor Christian Maychack.
What would your dream studio look like?
I am currently living in my dream “home” studio – a quaint A-frame cabin in Pittsboro, NC, though I am finding my ideas and marks that I need to make are much bigger than my home studio allows.
My dream studio has tall ceilings, large white walls, and one wall of floor to ceiling windows with a view of the forest. Outside would be a garden patio that faces the ocean with a walking path leading to the water (for quick swim breaks while the paint dries of course!)
Why do you think we’ve experienced such a blossoming of the Triangle arts scene in the last few years?
I believe the recent trends and push for public art and art/design festivals have led to a blooming art scene here. We are lucky to have amazing local arts councils providing regional artists with the opportunity for stipends, grants, and workspace to produce new work right here in NC.
With the support of the following local businesses, galleries, and festivals over the past year, I feel fortunate to have experienced part of our blossoming art scene and am grateful to have exhibited work or contributed to creative projects with these folks: NCMA, Office of Raleigh Arts, VAE, Artspace, Morning Times, Foundation Bar, Trophy Tap & Table, Hopscotch Design Festival, DPAC, The Carrack, Arcana, American Tobacco Campus, Filament, and Shakori Hills Music & Arts Festival.
In your view, what does the future of the Triangle arts scene look like? How do you see it evolving?
I envision large scale mural, public art, and interactive art festivals coming our way. I see our arts scene evolving further beyond traditional disciplines. I have my fingers crossed for more affordable artist housing and studios, in addition to more collaborative, open studios and artist residency opportunities.
You’ll be a participating artist in the Hillsborough Street Temporary Art Pedestal Project in August 2018. What is it like working on pieces that are temporary by design versus working on something intended to last forever? How does the knowledge that a piece is temporary influence your practical and aesthetic choices?
It was a pleasure working with Raleigh Arts on this public art project. Works that are intended to be temporary by nature are enchanting to me because there is a limited time and place to experience the piece. The moment a work of art is placed into the public realm, the possibility of interaction becomes instant, and that is one of the reasons I am so excited to have contributed to this project. My practice and choices are immediately affected once the decision is made for the piece to be temporary – context, colors, composition; all decisions become more bold, it’s a time to ‘go for it!’. Though it is my intention to create a lasting, meaningful impact whether a work of mine is temporary or permanent. All pedestals are now installed on Hillsborough Street, happy hunting!
Not only will you be participating in the 2018 Monster Drawing Rally, you were also commissioned by the NCMA to create three hand-drawn gifs to promote the event. This event is designed to encourage interaction between artists and the public- how did you pull from the ideas of accessibility and interaction while creating the gifs?
I’m beyond excited to share my stream of consciousness approach to drawing and painting with the public for the second year in a row at this event. With interaction and transparency in mind, while creating the hand-drawn gifs I completed each in a public setting and allowed for the environment or experience at that moment to influence the next mark of each drawing. A greenway trail, a coffee shop, and a flight out of RDU made for great sketching spots.
Finally, you have an exciting art installation coming up in October that will be on display at Shakori Hills Music & Arts Festival. Tell me about what the public can expect from this piece.
This installation will be explorative in the sense that it will be my first work of temporary public art that incorporates both my poetry and love of painting. Without revealing too much, this work will use light and shadow as a medium. I will be hand cutting all poems out of reflective material, adhering them to transparent surfaces, and painting gestural elements on top. When viewers pass by and under the installation, the reflective elements of the poems and brush marks will create colorful shadows on the viewers’ bodies. This will be my second year providing visual art at Shakori, in 2017 I live painted an 8ft x 8ft x 8ft mural cube by day and created light up murals by night.