New Protest Music and Terra Naomi's "Machine Age"
Protest music has had a long and storied history. From the explosion of folk and rock based, politically-charged songs that spilled out from the Vietnam era, to 80's and 90's hip hop, 70's punk, Green Day's American Idiot (maybe the best example of 00's protest music), Anti Flag's entire career, and beyond, politically-charged music is often one of the few things that keeps people sane, inspired, and fighting during an era of political upheaval, or tuned-in during times of perceived placidity. The prospect of "really good art" was one of the few things people pointed to as a possible "positive" outcome of a Trump Presidency. Though there is no lack of inspiration and the cauldron is boiling with fresh, energized talent, we have yet to really see music directly responding to this new world order (barring A Tribe Called Quest's frighteningly prescient We Got it From Here..., of course) and "Machine Age," by singer-songwriter Terra Naomi may be the first truly great song to come at the expense of the world's collective sanity. Responding more to internal stimuli--that potent mixture of despair, confusion, fear, hope, resignedness, and stubborn refusal to go down without a fight that so many of us felt on November 9th, 2016--than addressing the actual machinations of our infant-in-chief, the song manages to create a powerful sonic anthem for those of us living in a darkly surreal dream state. She's stopping by the Hotel Cafe in LA tomorrow, 1/18 so be sure to catch her if you can.
1. You’re here supporting your new single, “Machine Age.” I thought it did a really great job of sonically encapsulating the confusion and despair so many of us felt waking up on the 9th. It’s clear that there’s a lot of processing still going on for all of us–how did you set about to capture those feelings of bitter anger and yet still a confused faith in “America?”
I’m glad the song communicates those emotions. Honestly, I didn’t really think about the song production, it flowed really naturally, much like the way the song came to me in the first place: I was in the shower, getting ready to go out, and the title line of the song came into my head. I canceled my plans and the song was finished in under an hour. The production was similar — it wasn’t really planned or discussed, it was always there, when I heard the song in my head. It was the musical accompaniment to the surreal layer of sadness, fear, and emotional exhaustion I’d lived with since the night of November 8.
As soon as I wrote it, I knew I wanted to record and produce “Machine Age” with my friend Joe Adamik. So I immediately called Joe and sent him an iPhone voice memo recording, and we were in the studio two weeks later. The words needed to be the focal point of the song, so we started with guitar and vocal, and built the track around that. For me, it was as simple as taking my emotional landscape and making a bunch of sounds until we found the right ones to match it, and I knew Joe was dealing with the same emotions, so I believe it was just as natural for him. I knew the song needed to feel haunting, sparse, emotionally raw and emotionally detached at the same time. I think it was easy to capture those feelings when we’d been living in them for a year already. You stated it really well — bitter anger mixed with confused faith, and faith, to me, feels very close to hope. There’s a lot of hope in this song, and in many of my others, as well. Hope is so interesting to me because it’s not really a positive state of mind, in that it implies wanting to leave what we have for something we imagine to be better. I think I’ve always felt aligned with the feeling of hope. It’s easy to capture something when it’s your reality.
2. Even though you do mention “damn those hippies,” “Machine Age” I see as a really clever updating of the protest songs we all grew up listening to on classic rock radio. There’s a real tradition of protest music, but in this “new america” do you feel music is a means of winning hearts and minds?
Yes! I totally agree. Like I said, I didn’t set out to write a protest song. My album was already being mastered, in fact. This song just came out of me — it was all there, the way you hear it now — and I only realized what I’d written after it was finished. Protest songs were a big part of my childhood — my parents were hippies — and I grew up listening to that Country Joe and the Fish song, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-To-Die Rag” and songs like “Ohio,” artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. My mom was a big fan of “Free to be you and me” so I grew up in this sort of liberal love everybody bubble, which is where that line about the hippies comes from…it’s the disillusionment of learning that the world — and America, especially — is not the loving, accepting, all-are-welcome-here place I was raised to believe it was. And yes, I feel music is ALWAYS a means of winning hearts and minds. Maybe not convincing everyone, but certainly helping people connect with what is already there, and I believe the majority of us, whatever side we’re on, want to feel love, even if we’ve been living with a lot of hate. One of the hallmarks of a great protest song is how “sing-a-long-able” it is. That’s what helps people mobilize around whatever issue the song brings to light. The ending of “Machine Age” feels like a mantra to me. When I played it at my European shows in October and November, audiences sang that last line with me, over and over, “I believe in love more than I want to hate” — and I believe that the power of mantra is repetition, saying it over and over again until we become aligned with the thing we are repeating.
3. Does art carry the same importance in this “Machine Age” as it did in the past?
There’s a reason the Vietnam War era produced some of the most powerful and iconic songs ever written. The harder things get, the uglier, the more we are exposed to the base realities of human nature, the more artists are inspired to create the kind of art we need, and the more we need it. Music is vibration, energy, it has the power to instantly cut deep to the core of who we are and connect us with ourselves. We need that connection now more than ever, because we’ve become so detached and isolated, as a culture. We interact more with machines than with people. The lack of support for the arts in our country is not an accident. Art is powerful. Art is resistance. I’ve always said, a song might not have the power to change the world, but it can inspire the people who will.
4. Do you have more music waiting in the wings? When you are writing do you favor responding to internal processes (emotions etc) vs. external (politics)–or are they intrinsically linked, as they are in this song?
I have a whole album ready to come out! I recorded it with producer Tom Schick, at Wilco’s studio in Chicago. It was an incredible experience, and it’s also where I met my friend/collaborator, Joe Adamik! Re. writing, most of my music is based on my own life experience. It’s interesting, because the times I’ve written something political, it’s been more of a “download” experience. The song comes to me fully intact, from beginning to end, lyrics and melody, and I feel almost like I’m in a trance state. I don’t realize what I’ve written until I go back and read the words I’ve scribbled down or listen to the recording on my phone. Politics are too huge for me to wrap my head around — those songs need to come from something bigger than my own brain, from the collective consciousness. I usually need to experience something personally in order to write about it — even story songs — like I have a song on the new album called “For My Last Number,” about a magician in a traveling circus. Obviously that is not part of my experience, but the feeling behind it most certainly is….I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating what can happen to the person who spends their life entertaining others…putting on a big show, making people smile and laugh, inspiring them, and then the curtain lowers and the tent comes down, and the people go home, and the circus moves on, and what’s left is a bunch of garbage and streamers in a deserted lot somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.