Ben: So you’ve lived in a few different cities. How is DC different for you, and why are you still here?
Asha: Well, DC is definitely different for me because it’s my first time living in a city life, in the fast paced life. And this is my first time actually, really LIVING.
B: What does that mean?
A: Like, being myself. You know what I’m saying? I date women, and that was always something that… I just never opened up about, when I was in Texas.
Watch Asha in the lowercase letters video for “Open Blinds”:
A: So when I got to DC, I was just like “I’m going to be myself. That’s what it’s going to be.” So really this is the first place that I’ve actually been able to live and experience and be myself, which is why I’m still here—regardless of the struggle. There’s such a mix of people here. I’m still here because I see that there’s an initiative to rebuild the arts. I see places that are trying to resurrect arts districts, and grants are available, and new venues are opening up. I know people are fleeing to New York and LA. I’m still here because… just being a business person, I know about being at ground zero, and what happens when you start at the beginning stages of something, and you have no choice but to go up. I’d rather be a pioneer here than to flee somewhere else and be in line for gigs.
B: You know, I’ve been living near the city most of my life, I grew up about half an hour west, 45 minutes west of DC—just another boring suburban community. There was all this amazing music happening in DC, twenty miles away—go-go, the punk rock scene, the hardcore scene—I didn’t know about any of it. I’ve always thought it’s incredible, you can live ten, fifteen miles outside of the city and just have no idea. You can live in the middle of the city, and there’s so many disparate little pockets of—I don’t want to call them cliques, that’s not really a good word to use—but just so many pockets of wonderful humanity in the city that just don’t overlap at all.
A: There’s this thing I call “the DC audience” where they’re not really supportive or appreciative of what’s happening in their own scene, and—
B: —That’s why I’m doing this! That’s why I’m doing these interviews. I want people to understand what’s in their backyard.
A: You know what I’m saying? There’s this mask that the DC audience has. I’ve had to mentally note “What does that face mean? What does no clapping mean? What does clapping mean? Why are you talking? Why would you hire a band at a loud bar—“
B: —And then tell them to be quiet.
A: —You know? I’ve learned that if you’re in a good band—which, I’m very confident in saying I’m in good bands, some people are speechless. They forget to applaud.
A: You give them the benefit of the doubt—some people are rude. Some people are nervous and will only do what the rest of the crowd is doing. “Oh, everybody’s clapping, I want to clap now. I don’t want to be the first person to start the clap.”
A: You know what I’m saying? I can see that behind all these people’s faces. I’ve found that sometimes people won’t clap because they’re meditating. We as performers get confused by that because we’re looking for it.
B: It’s acceptance. It’s what we all want as human beings.
A: You know? But after the shows, we’ll get approached by everybody, and they’ll say “I’ve never felt this way before.”
B: And you say “Great. Tell the owners.”
A: [laughs] Exactly! But people come up to us and tell us “You know, I just went through a divorce, and this song ‘Closure’ really just gave me a lot of therapy right now, where can I get your album.” And so, after hearing those comments, it’s like, I have to put it together “Okay, that looks like that face, they have a lot of things on their mind, and it is okay. You don’t have to clap. But we will sell you a CD afterwards.”
B: [laughs] Sure! I guess what I see is there’s a richness here that doesn’t exist in a lot of other places, and we’re hiding it from each other.
B: And why? For example, one of the best things I think about lowercase letters is that you can’t just say “Oh, that’s soul.” or “That’s rock.”
B: Or “That’s R&B,” or “That’s post-whatever.” You can’t pigeonhole them. I think that’s why people respond.
A: Absolutely, it’s all over the place. That’s how I feel about THC, Joe Maye has the ability to be Prince-like, Lenny Kravitz-like, Seal-like. We have a bass player that loves jazz, a guitar player that loves heavy metal, and me who just loves everything, a keys player who does gospel and go-go, I agree, it’s definitely more of what we need, one thing we don’t realize is, all this music, all these different genres are inspired by other genres. That’s when people come together. That’s when you don’t see race, that’s when you don’t see sexuality. I’ve been behind the drums in front of an all Palestinian audience, where I don’t understand anything people are saying, but people are clapping—
B: You understand that! You understand a smile.
I also took the opportunity to delve into some deeper issues about the role of the artist when a country is in crisis. Her answers reveal a simple philosophy, balancing a need for compassion with enlightened entrepreneurship. Finally, she shares some advice for aspiring full-time artists, insight into what it takes to give yourself over completely to the craft.
B: So, I was in a songwriting session yesterday with a guy I’ve been playing with for a while, his stuff tends to sit very much in the pop rock vein. And in the back of my head I’m thinking—they’ve been burning down Ferguson, and rioting in New York City [interview was conducted in December of 2014]. What the fuck am I doing writing a happy song? You know? Like, how can I even do that?
B: I’ve talked with a bunch of my friends recently about how helpless I feel— I’m not a politician, and I’m not a first responder—I’m not somebody who can make an immediate difference. What is the role of the artist when the country is in crisis?
A: Ben, I’ve been thinking about this the past few days, because Boomscat is about to release an album on the 16th, and we just got our pre-order link a couple days ago, when all the protests that are going on in DC and New York, and Ferguson. I’m pretty sad to say, I couldn’t even be excited about my own music.
A: I didn’t even want to post the link.
B: Yeah, how can we celebrate when there’s so much going wrong?
A: Right, it’s a conflict for me because I’ve been a full time musician for going on five years now, and it’s hard to build a name, it’s even harder to build up the word of mouth. And now that all has to come to a halt, because we do have to be sensitive to these things, we don’t want to be ignorant. It’s just not a move, social media is popping with the issues, somebody’s gonna thumb straight through my pre-order release. All I can do is show my love to one person at a time. That’s the role that I play: staying kind to people, sharing my art with people, sharing the story behind the art—just loving one person at a time.
B: My opinion is that music serves a lot of different purposes. I don’t believe that it’s healthy for us to try to escape from what’s happening in our country, but—for a few minutes maybe we can be reminded that humans are also capable of love.
A: Right. It’s something that’s definitely on my mind right now, it’s a part of my weekly activity—finding a way to remind people of how powerful music is. Even though I’m smiling, it doesn’t mean that I’m ignorant to what’s happening in the world right now. One of these songs is probably gonna touch you in a good way.
B: Yeah! I find myself thinking that no significant change in the law ever gets made without a groundswell of emotion behind it, without compassion, acceptance—but the laws in place aren’t even working right now, so people need art more than ever. We like to simplify the issues, but—you know how you described all your influences as “tangled up?” I mean, you could look at the issues surrounding Michael Brown’s murder as very simple, or you could acknowledge that every detail of those two mens’ lives made them the men they were up until that point, when he was shot and killed. It’s all tangled up. Moving forward, we have a choice of how to respond, to either shutter the windows and lock our doors, or stay vulnerable, stay open to each other. Art is one of the only things that can help us remember how connected we all are. Nobody in Darren Wilson’s position would do what he did if they were thinking “This person in front of me is me, too. His face is my face, too.”
A: Yeah, definitely.
B: We fear what we don’t understand. So I don’t mean to lecture, I’ve just been telling all my artist friends “This is when we need you the most.” Is there any other question that you wanted to be asked, that I didn’t ask?
A: I think we touched on a lot of different things. Probably the most in-depth interview I’ve ever been a part of, so…
B: Good! My whole thing with this column is, I think the public needs to be let behind the curtain—not because I want to demystify anybody—
A: People won’t really know what it’s like to even attempt at being a full time artist, unless they listen to an interview. Like, I didn’t announce that I was homeless last year—having three different house keys to friends, and having my artwork at one place, and having my instruments and clothes at another place—
B: —And it’s not because you’re—this is the problem with the stereotypical impressions people have of musicians—it’s not because you’re a junkie.
B: It’s not because you had difficulty managing money, it’s a fucking struggle.
A: It’s a risk you have to take. For me, it all adds to the experience and definitely the value of my music, because I’m dedicated to it. No matter what happens, I’m still gonna pack my drums up, and I’m still gonna make something happen. The greatest momentum that I’ve experienced thus far happened when I was homeless.
B: Because you’re moving in the opposite direction from an experience that you don’t want.
B: It pushes you.
A: Yeah, you can either cry, or get your ass up and go to rehearsal. People aren’t gonna see that unless they hear an interview. I mean, I’ll talk about it, but my goal is to make good timeless music and not make any excuses. I think that’s really the most important thing that an artist has to have is endurance. You have to have endurance.
B: You gotta be stubborn.
A: You gotta be stubborn, and have some serious faith and tenacity, because you’re gonna be tried to see if you’re really about living your passion. For me it just goes into constantly building relationships with people, building my network, being genuine as a person—people can decipher that, if you’re genuine or not. And everybody’s not gonna like your music. I’ve accepted that fact.
B: If they do, then there’s something wrong with it.
A: You know, I don’t say who it’s for. You have to build that trust with somebody—
B: With the listener.
A: You have to let them know what you’re about. I would rather meet somebody at McDonald’s and start a conversation about art, get their number, continue that conversation, rather than meet somebody at McDonald’s and badger them, push my CD down their throats. There’s value in having patience with getting your music out there. Anybody who’s committed to a passion and does it wholeheartedly, it’s going to work.
B: It’s just a matter of time.
A: It’s just a matter of time.
Thanks so much for spending your time reading my interview with Asha Santee. You can look forward to my next one, with Patrick “The Hammer” Thornton, very soon!
– Ben Tufts