I had the pleasure of sitting down for a Skype interview with Erica “Unwoman” Mulkey. We talked about her new album, the wildly successful (read: 300% funded) Kickstarter campaign, and more. Throughout the interview, Erica related anecdotes from her career and shared her thoughts on Steampunk and what it means to be an independent musician in today’s world of social media and microfunding platforms.
Doctor Fantastique’s: What can you tell us about the new album, The Fires I Started?
Unwoman: Sent to press this week! I started writing these songs pretty soon after Casualities and during work on Unremembered, which is a remix album, and Uncovered, the cover album I did. So these songs are from about a year-and-a-half ago to now. The main themes of the album are, and these weren’t planned, isolation, seduction, and revolution. Almost all of the songs are about one of those three things. Texturally, I went back to my first three albums with electronic experimental stuff. I actually used these as song components this time though. A couple of songs have no cello, but I used trumpet on them this time.
I’ve done some stuff in new directions, but stylistically I think people will find it not terribly different from Casualties. The first track on the album is “For the Killers.” I have a demo on my BandCamp right now. It’s pretty upbeat and a little bit feisty. That song is about the intersection of seduction and revolution. It’s about personal freedom. The song that I play live that is everybody’s favorite is called “The Heroine”. I’m going to do a music video for it using some footage from a Steampunk short film called The Wars of Other Men. I talked with the filmmakers and they’re all for it. I still have to film some things for my part, but it’ll come out this Fall. I’ll probably have it come alongside the album download, but it’ll also be on my Youtube channel.
DF’s: You’re opening for ROME at Club Bar Sinister in Los Angeles this Saturday. Have you performed there before? For our readers in the LA area, what might they expect at the show?
Unwoman: I’ve never been to Club Bar Sinister, but the last time I was in LA I went clubbing and had a great time. I love ROME; they’re my favorite band ever! I’m only doing an opening set, six songs, but they’ll be the best six songs I’ve ever played!
DF’s: Can we talk about your thoughts on the state of music and art in general today?
Unwoman: You have an acceleration because of social media. In the 80s you had zines and tape trading. You had traditional media appearances, TV, etc. Getting known back then was way harder though, even to get 100 people to know you. People were doing it back then with the technology they had. It’s the same now, but [artists’] communication is infinitely more successful in terms of reaching people now.
The things that are important with Kickstarter are doing something unique and following through. I’ve talked to people who never got the rewards they were promised by other campaigns. I was two months late on one of my earlier Kickstarter rewards, a documentary, and it killed me. You have to take those commitments seriously if you want to succeed.
DF’s: What can you tell us about being an independent and solo artist for the past ten years? With now six original albums and one album of covers, how or where have you gone for support and encouragement along the way?
Unwoman: I knew I really wanted to do it, but didn’t have a lot of faith about it as a full-time job. I majored in music, studied cello through high school, and I did a lot of jobs that weren’t being a performing artist. I kept up my solo music through everything else I did though. On Casualties, the track Loud and Clear is about that. I said screw it, I’m doing this now. Then things like Kickstarter and BandCamp happened and became a major funding and support force for me.
DF: Any advice for artists who’d like to make a living independently?
Unwoman: Not expecting everything at first. Having realistic expectations. I thought my first album would sell hundreds of copies right away. It sold tens of copies, and I’d pressed 2000 copies, which was ridiculous. As an independent solo artist, without a booking agent, it’s just not realistic. But as a solo artist, I don’t have to be on the road all the time [to earn enough] like bands with more people do.
DF’s: Your Kickstarter campaign for The Fires I Started hit over 300% funding recently. First, congratulations! That’s incredible and awesome! You’d already hit your funding goal well before last week, but the campaign got a boost when Amanda Palmer introduced you on Thursday and Friday, during her shows with the Grand Theft Orchestra in San Francisco. She mentioned your KS campaign and had asked you to play a solo number. When did you first connect with Amanda?
Unwoman: A couple years back, sometime in 2010, I’m playing on my Ustream and a comment was made about my cleavage, which got to me because it had nothing to do with the song. So I decided to play [AFP’s song] “Ampersand” because of the line about catcalls and whether or not they’re effective. My mom, who is super supportive, she’s watching my Ustream and she tweets about me playing that song and mentions Amanda, who retweets it. At the end of the song I’ve got around 1,000 people watching, and I said, “Okay, that was going to be my last song, but I guess I’ll keep playing for another hour or so.” This was just after I quit my day job.
DF’s: Would you like to recommend any artists for our readers?
Unwoman: Harlequin Jones, based in LA. The Peculiar Pretzelmen, also based in LA, and I’m seeing them tomorrow (Friday 7/20). Their live show is a cross between Tom Waites and Einstürzende Neubauten. I’m trying to get everybody listening to ROME. They’re big in Europe but I don’t know that they have a lot of listeners over here yet. ROME is a very dark and serious band. I admire musicians that are dark and serious and also funny.
Caustic and Everything Goes Cold, they’re on the Metropolis label. They’re Goth, not Steampunk. Jody Ellen, she sings backup with Abney Park, she’s got a solo project going now. Psyche Corporation are great too. They’re East Coast, so they don’t play out here that often. I’ve collaborated with Gen at Wicked Faire, and that was awesome.
DF’s: A heavy political question for you here. Steampunk and its close cousin, Dieselpunk, evoke fictionalized histories or retrofuturism with ties to eras in which women’s rights, racism, and tyranny were rather par for the course. You draw your performance name from Margaret Atwood’s story, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women who behaved outside of patriarchal norms were branded as unwomen. Today, in 2012, we continue to see women’s rights challenged and threatened in American society and around the world. In your music, do you address those stains, either historically or as they show up in the contemporary era?
Unwoman: There are musicians that do talk about those issues. I write songs that fall outside of any particular time period, but I write songs as an empowered woman because I couldn’t do it any other way. One of the strengths of Steampunk is that women often portray strong, empowered roles. You see strong female characters in Steampunk fiction.
DF’s: As follow up to that, there’s a bit of a divide in how Steampunk as a community addresses issues of social justice. Is social commentary and a push for social justice something you feel demands attention from the community? Is that part of what it means to be Steampunk?
Unwoman: I think social justice is very important to me, but if you use the ‘should’ word, you run into exclusion. As long as you’re not being racist or harping on political songs, please come to the party, drink the tea. You have to accept that some people may want to talk about politics or things you don’t want to discuss. But you don’t have to make that a part of your core persona.
I think the only uncool thing you can do with Steampunk is try to exclude people.
DF’s: It’s been delightful to talk with you, Erica. Thank you for making time for our interview. Have a splendid weekend and a great show with ROME tomorrow night. Thanks again!