1.- The interviewee
Erica Mulkey, aka Unwoman, is a Bay Area-based cellist/singer/composer/producer.
She began playing cello at nine years of age and piano at eleven, and also plays cello banjo and theremin. In addition to her solo act which is frequently featured at major steampunk and related conventions all over the US, she plays cello with Stripmall Architecture, Vernian Process, Abney Park, and other acts.
2.- The interview
As a kind of disclaimer I am going to begin this interview clarifying that we are fans of your creative activity. Erica, many thanks for accepting our invitation to be interviewed and share your insight about Steampunk, fine jewelry and music. It is a real pleasure for us!
Q.- Your most recent album, The Fires I Started, is the successful result of an outstanding Kickstarter funding campaign: you got more than three times the initial goal! I am one of the backers of the campaign and would like to congratulate you for this painfully beautiful bunch of songs, my favorite one is The Bridge. Are you satisfied with the feedback you are receiving?
A.- Yes, definitely! People seem to be loving it, and I myself am quite proud of the work. And the prouder I am of something, the more I can get behind it to promote it, and the more people will hear it!
Q.- May we expect some tour dates out of the USA?
A.- I would love to play overseas, but unless there are major events paying for my plane travel, it’s just not feasible at this time — I barely have enough fans to tour the US profitably.
Q.- Your works are very well accepted within the Steampunk scene. Why do you think this is happening? Would you describe your music as ‘Steampunk music’? Besides, what is Steampunk music?
A.- I talk about this a good deal in my tour documentary, Beautiful Fish. I make retrofuturistic music, which definitely has a place in steampunk worlds, in my opinion. I think the steampunk scene embraces me because I play so many steampunk conventions, and because I’ve played with a lot of explicitly steampunk bands, like Abney Park and Vernian Process.
Q.- You have collaborated and/or performed live with many artists I do admire: a pioneer in dark electronica as Martin Bowes (Attrition), the ‘cello rock’ group Rasputina, the tribute band Spellbound (long life Siouxsie!), Sam Rosenthal (alma mater of Projekt and Black tape for a blue girl), etc. This probably means that we have both some goth background… what brought you to Steampunk?
A.- Oh yes, I definitely have a goth background! I have been going goth clubbing since I was 16 and I still frequent San Francisco’s Death Guild almost every Monday, when I’m in town. My musical influences include the dark poetry of goth, the experimental side of industrial, and many different eras of art music I studied in college. Because of the anachronistic nature of classical music, especially playing cello, the music I wanted to make never fit in the goth/industrial labels, and steampunk seemed much better for it. I fell in love with other aspects of the steampunk culture as I got to know it more, the literature and fashion — though those weren’t a far leap from the science fiction novels and elegant gothic clothes I’d always loved.
Q.- I have been very close to the goth scene for many years. Irene and I attended Entre Muralhas Festival in August, that takes place every year in the awesome castle of Leiría (Portugal). We had the opportunity to enjoy there the concert of Jerome Reuter (Rome), one of your favourite musicians. History is one of the main inspiration sources of Jerome, that is something we all have in common. As in Rome’s lyrics, would you say that some historic accuracy is important in order to give sense to Steampunk?
A.- That festival sounds lovely! Yes, Rome is one of my top five most listened bands right now. I gave Jerome a copy of The Fires I Started and was utterly thrilled to hear from him that he liked it (and apparently he doesn’t like many things.) As for historical accuracy, the more people know about history, the better, but one of my favorite things about steampunk is that it’s liberated from mimicking the past precisely. We aren’t re-enacting the past; we are shaping the future without forgetting it. I myself aim to write lyrics that are timeless, that people can’t pinpoint exact events that inspired them, historically or personally.
Q.- And what about Steampunk jewelry? Does it need to drink from the same sources? Should historic accuracy be seriously considered?
A.- I don’t think so — I think historical inspiration is enough. Obviously, beautiful things from the past can be repurposed in terrific ways, and historical accuracy can be an interesting detail about a piece — but if it’s a perfect reproduction, it’s not steampunk in itself, though it can still work great in a steampunk outfit.
Q.- But, let’s not go too fast. What is Steampunk jewelry for you?
A.- Right now, as I ride a train from Boston to Portland, Maine, I am wearing earrings and a necklace I made — I make jewelry for myself, not for sale. The earrings are from antique carved ivory flowers and were originally screw earrings but I’ve turned them into dangle earrings with bronze chains. The necklace is a somewhat elaborate bronze chain piece with a rusty old key from my late grandfather’s collection as its centerpiece. Both of these are modern configurations of old-fashioned items. I also have a ring I wear frequently which features a watch movement, which is quintessential steampunk because it declares that gears are beautiful enough to be seen.
Q.- Would you dare to describe Steampunk jewelry with a single word?
Q.- Most of us have some jewelry pieces with a special meaning. Do you have any jewel that you would label as ‘Steampunk’ that you are specially fond of?
A.- I found a gold and facetted-stone chaos star pin in an antique store — it’s from 1885, decades before Michael Moorcock created the concept of the chaos star — and I put it together with black lace and thin bronze chains for a choker. The piece, and the way I found the pin, both have meaning for me.
Q.- What do you miss when you try to find Steampunk jewelry?
A.- Well, if there’s something I want that doesn’t already exist, I generally make it. But I’m interested to see how 3D printing can combine with old-fashioned jewelry to make very old and very modern styles fuse. I think we’ll be seeing more of that soon, and I am guessing it will probably be done both poorly and well.
Q.- Oh, I am so thrilled that you have talked about 3D printing… we do think that this going to become a new industrial revolution and we are willing to make some experiments pretty soon. Besides, we have been told very recently that our work ‘also strikes a sweet spot between modern minimalism that I could wear to the office and steampunk’. Is it easy to bring Steampunk to everyday fashion?
A.- I think steampunk styles fit with some, but not all, modern fashions. Elegant or bohemian-casual modern clothes work great with steampunk jewelry. Blue jeans and corporate t-shirts, probably not so much.
Q.- When Steampunk jewelry is brought up, do you think quality is receiving attention enough? Some months ago we published a blog post entitled ‘The 5 secrets of Steampunk fine jewelry’, is there a place for Steampunk fine jewelry?
A.- Sure. There’s a place for really affordable pieces as well as fine jewelry. I certainly own some very cheap pieces that I absolutely love, but I can imagine wanting a really amazing piece that would last forever.
Q.- Do you prefer big or small pieces? Do you want people to notice what you are wearing?
A.- I usually wear small pieces. I want people to notice many aspects of my outfit at once, not necessarily one more than the others.
Q.- As an artist, what challenges do you think Steampunk jewelry designers face? What would you tell them?
A.- Steampunk jewelry designers probably get a lot of feedback from people, just like I do. I’ve learned it’s best to take people’s requests with a grain of salt; to listen to criticism but stay true to your own vision. It can be a challenge figuring out what your style or your unique voice is, when your earlier work is necessarily inspired by others.
Q.- Correct me if I am wrong, but your artistic name, ‘Unwoman’, comes from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It makes reference to the label given to sterile, feminist, or politically deviant women. I have to admit that I have not read this novel, but it seems quite dystopian, with a strong political load. Would you describe yourself as a ‘political person’?
A.- Yes, The Handmaid’s Tale is extremely dystopian, and very politically provocative. I do consider myself political. In fact I love that every interview becomes political because of the name I chose! One of the statements the name makes is, I have no desire to live up to the patriarchy’s ideal of submissive womanhood. In this way, and in the sense that I keep aware of politics and participate in demonstrations a few times a year (not as often as I would like) I am political.
Q.- Talking about politics… what do you think about the political approaches to Steampunk? Do they make sense for you, or do you think more of Steampunk as an aesthetic trend?
A.- I absolutely love political steampunk. In fact one of my favorite people, Margaret Killjoy of Steampunk Magazine, is a big force in keeping radical politics and political discussions of all kinds in steampunk. I also believe steampunk should welcome those who view it merely as an aesthetic movement — because as they go deeper in they’ll realize that the literature, even the clothes, have cultural history beyond just beauty. And steampunk’s aesthetic is a political statement as well, against carbon-copy consumerism.
Q.- I am remembering one of your tweets, that goes: ‘A thing I like: not putting copyright notices on my CDs and, now, records. Just lyrics and credits and art’. We do believe that current copyright laws do not really protect the creator or encourage innovation, in fact our default choice is a Creative Commons license (BY-NC-SA). Would you share your thoughts about this subject with our readers?
A.- Absolutely! The tweet was actually more about the fact that as a self-published artist I can choose to put whatever copyright notice I want, or none at all, on my work — rather than an anti-copyright stance. I strongly believe in the consensual collaboration community of creative commons. Artists should, if they really want to, be able to clutch their creations tightly to their breasts and say, if you share this or remix it, it’s a crime. But they should also know that being open with them is infinitely more rewarding! And of course if you want to disseminate art or information, you must set it free.
Q.- Alright Erica, thank you again for your time and interest… is there anything else you would like to add?
A.- Thank you so much for the interview!
Disclaimer.- The opinions or statements expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Decimononic.
3.- Next interviewee!
On the 15th of November we are publishing the interview for PhD Mike Perschon. Located in Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) and best known as Steampunk Scholar, he has a doctorate in Steampunk literature, teaches English full-time at Grant MacEwan University, researchs steampunk and blogs about SFF books and films.
Remember that all the published interviews are available for your delight: ‘Steampunk jewelry tonight with…’ the brief interviews series by Decimononic.