Interview with Women Musicians Network Creator Lucy Holstedt

Lucy Holstedt, right, a creator and producer of the WMN. 

Lucy Holstedt, right, a creator and producer of the WMN. 

In 1998, Berklee professor Lucy Holstedt was part of a team that arranged the Women Musicians Network, an eclectic event featuring female-led musical acts in a wide range of styles. On November 9th, WMN will hold its 20th annual concert at the Berklee Performance Center. ProArts interviewed Holstedt in honor of the event. 

How does this year's program contrast with the original event?

The first year, there was an open night at the Berklee Performance Center; a friend of mine (now retired), who was head of Student Activities asked me to co-direct a concert made up of a group of women students. They had had put on a successful show at a much smaller venue. 

After a couple of years, we developed an "open submissions" process, so we could put together a very different, diverse concert every year. Every year, we work to get as many submissions as possible--in any and all styles. This year, the acts range from Solo Jazz and Contemporary Classical, to Poetry and what I'd call "Neo-Soul."

I understand that several Berklee students are on the acceptance committee every year. Are you ever surprised by the music they're drawn to for the program?

Very seldom, honestly. We sit down as a group, and listen to all the submissions over the course of a weekend. There can be spirited discussions about our final selections, but I almost always agree with students as to what's interesting and compelling--even when we decide that something will need a little more work to really "shine" onstage.

In the past 20 years of WMN, could you tell us about one performance that stands out in your memory?

Really, it's impossible for me to come up with only one standout performance in any ONE year! I've had the pleasure of seeing over 200 first-rate acts, including any number of astounding pianists, and many great songwriters. Plenty of people have become rather famous. 

But OK, here's one I'm recalling now: Zili Misik, an all-female roots/fusion band, focussing on music of the African Diaspora. Very exciting and powerful. They were actually in the concert three times. The first time was soon after I happened to hear them in a practice room at Berklee, and encouraged them to make a submission. They were unknown. It didn't take long before they won big awards and were playing around the country. I loved seeing that happen. A wonderful band. 

Has WMN accomplished its original mission? Has the mission changed over the years, and if so, do you think it will continue to evolve?

That's a great question, and it really goes back to your first question. The first year or so. we were working essentially with a "self-selected" group of female students. The "diversity" element--this was when women were a fairly small minority at Berklee--was that these were female students. That in itself was very significant. The styles of music they were playing didn't necessarily have a broad range.

Now, as my husband likes to say, "this is a women's concert that's so diverse, it includes men." And it's true: you'll always see some fine, woman-led bands that include guys.  Also, we make a major effort to reach out to the community, to bring in a really diverse audience--not just people from the college. For example, we give free tickets to the Cambridge Mayor's office, Fenway Health and others, and they distribute them to people who might not otherwise know about the show, but are very excited to go.

High quality, across-the-board diversity, and providing new opportunities for Berklee women as leaders; these elements have come to comprise our "DNA," you might say. I don't think that will change.

The Women Musicians Network 20th Annual Concert will be held on November 9 from 8-10pm at the Berklee Performance Center. Tickets may be purchased online here

Featured Music: The Walk Off, "She Talks in Technicolor"

The optimistic pop songs of this Berklee-based band are perfect for a bright summer day. Start with She Talks in Technicolor, a single from their upcoming LP.

The Walk Off is Eddy Allen, Jake Courlang, and Carr Bonner. Since 2014, they've released the six-song EP A Likely Story, the single That Way, and have toured through Boston, New York, and southern California. Hear more on their website, thewalkoffmusic.com

Get a Job: Student-Created "bistara" Helps College Students Become Freelancers

Maya Rafie, a photographer and Emerson College senior, and Zac DelVecchio, an instrument repair freelancer, consultant, and fifth-semester Berklee student. Rafie and DelVecchio co-founded the college freelance marketplace Bistara in 2014.

Maya Rafie, a photographer and Emerson College senior, and Zac DelVecchio, an instrument repair freelancer, consultant, and fifth-semester Berklee student. Rafie and DelVecchio co-founded the college freelance marketplace Bistara in 2014.

It’s no secret that America's freelance workforce is growing. In 2014, a landmark survey by independent research firm Edelman Berland found that 53 million workers in the U.S. - or 34% of the workforce - are employed doing freelance work. According to Forbes, the percentage is predicted to be 50% by 2020.

Maya Rafie, a senior at Emerson College, and Zac DelVecchio, a fifth-semester Berklee student, have smartly tapped into the pulse of this economic trend with their start-up, Bistara. Launched on October 14th, Bistara is the world’s first marketplace to connect college students with freelance work.

Bistara aims to help college students prepare for a future of freelance labor by gaining work experience before the oft-dreaded graduation day. By creating an account, users enter into a pool of freelance workers who can be hired through the site by third parties. It’s free to sign up for both job seekers and employers.

“How many artists graduate and are like, ‘Well, cool. I graduated. What do I do now?’” says DelVecchio. “People do jobs they don’t want to do because they just need a paycheck.” According to DelVecchio, simply having a college diploma is not enough to stand out in today’s job market. By developing a freelance portfolio before graduation, Rafie and DelVecchio claim Bistara users will have a leg up on the competition. “You can make money on your own terms doing something that you want to do,” says DelVecchio, “and [after graduation] you can go to a firm and say ‘Here’s everything I’ve been doing.’ Now you stand out.”

“When you’re a freelancer, there are as many opportunities as there are risks,” says Rafie. To prepare students for this reality, users of the Bistara platform learn everything from pricing services to developing a freelancer’s work ethic. Unlike typical job boards like Craigslist, which can attract predatory types, Bistara’s policy of holding money up front means freelancers can focus on building a portfolio without the risk of being ripped off.

According to Rafie, there’s also a community benefit to the service. She recently initiated a music video project featuring student artists and technicians, a collaborative opportunity enabling students to hone their skills while expanding their portfolios. She hopes the effort will attract clients to Bistara’s talent pool. “The filmmaker’s a college student, the person doing the audio is a college student . . . It’s an example of what can happen for a client.”

In addition to their undergraduate course loads and work co-founding Bistara, both Rafie and DelVecchio have freelance careers in photography and guitar repair, respectively. With an around-the-clock work ethic, perhaps it’s no surprise they parlayed a chance 3AM encounter at a pizza shop into an LLC. When Rafie arrived at the restaurant with a mutual client, their adjacent social circles finally overlapped. “We started talking and hanging out, getting to know each other because we kept running into each other,” says DelVecchio.

Uncovering their mutual interests eventually sparked the idea of connecting freelance filmmakers to musicians. In partnership with two other colleagues, they began their first start-up. “It was basically music marketing consulting,” says Rafie. When their partners backed out, they took it as an opportunity to rethink the business model. “We realized it wasn’t just between Emerson and Berklee. Somebody might need a coder at MIT, somebody might need a designer at MassArt. So we just kind of made a bigger [model] with a lot of categories, and that’s when it became a college freelance marketplace.”

With the platform up and running for several weeks now, Rafie and Delvecchio are working hard to ensure that Bistara meets its growth goals for the next five years. Their success is tied to the success of their clients, who currently come from 26 colleges around the country. In an effort to continue the platform’s expansion, the year ahead will bring a lot of travel, many events . . .  and did I mention they’re both still students? I asked when they find time to sleep. “He doesn’t sleep,” says Rafie. “It’s actually terrifying.”

“I gave that up a long time ago,” DelVecchio admits, laughing.

Breaking the Fourth Wall with SkyBridge

Skybridge is a multi-cultural music group that originated at the Berklee College of Music in 2013. Their motto, “We look so different, we all smile the same,” is backed by a diverse membership, which includes over 50 individuals from countries spanning the globe. While their origins vary widely, the musicians of SkyBridge are connected by a love of music and the desire to build a more peaceful, equal, and friendly planet.

SkyBridge’s sound is, simply put, worldly. Because of their inclusive mission, SkyBridge attracts members with unique and diverse musical backgrounds. The result of this collaboration is a well-traveled mix of Pop, R&B, Reggae, Jazz, Soul, and Funk.

The band was built as a mechanism for founder Utako Toyama to bring fellow musicians on a tour of her homeland, Japan. As she explained to me over coffee, the band never made it to Japan - but has instead developed into something much more meaningful. At their first show, SkyBridge performed a song whose melody is a simple, wordless hum. They were surprised when the audience joined in, creating a united atmosphere that made a powerful impression on everyone. Ever since then, audience participation has been a key element of SkyBridge's music. To achieve this, SkyBridge has bravely experimented with different forms of performance, including a flash mob-inspired version of Eric Clapton's Tears in Heaven in Faneuil Hall, Boston. 

This summer, SkyBridge is embarking on an ambitious and fun project bringing musical flash mobs to the Boston area. Each performance will be grounded in a different theme: LGBTQ rights, religious freedom, and race equality. The project will culminate in the fourth, largest performance, Flash Mob for Peace, on September 21st, the International Day of Peace. The group is currently seeking volunteers to collaborate with: skilled singers, organizers, and advertisers who are passionate about equal rights and ready to have a good time. 

To get involved in SkyBridge's Flash Mob project, visit their website

Unmanicured Edges: Talking with Riley With Fire's Marcus Brown

Twenty years old and finishing his second year at Berklee, Marcus Brown vividly recalls when he first got into rock 'n' roll. Michael Jackson had just died. "They played Black or White, and Slash is playing in the video. I was like, 'Who's that guy, he looks really cool.' So I started listening to Guns 'N' Roses and Hendrix, and realized that black people could [play guitar]. If Hendrix could do it, I could do it. What I had been taught about rock 'n' roll was a lie. My dad had a guitar in the basement, so I started playing that." Seeing black representation in a predominately white genre was a revelation. He started digging into distortion-heavy bands like Nirvana. But when Brown got into Sly and the Family Stone's sixth album, Fresh, he got the inspiration to try his hand at songwriting. 

Though he's been at it only four years, Brown's ability to selectively draw on different musical styles is one reason his band, Riley With Fire, boasts such a distinct sound. Among the influences he cited during our conversation were Carly Rae Jepsen, Jim Morrison, Frank Ocean, David Bowie, and Carl Lagerfeld. That he's new to writing music works to his advantage; in finding his own voice, Brown embraces seemingly disparate genres, distilling select elements before seamlessly blending them into a new sound. The resulting songs are friendly to rock, punk, pop, and R&B listeners alike.  

“I really like melodic music, the catchier the better," says Brown. "I love when music is colorful and free and catchy.”  Even so, Brown's instinct to get weird is apparent. Rather than suppress his eccentric impulses, Brown pushes against their boundaries, infusing his music with a dark, almost ominous undercurrent. In Got Hit By Furniture, a measured vocal introduction about violence and love dips into a dreamy sequence whose stylish bass and synth lines bring to mind artists like Ariel Pink and Joy Division. He sparsely employs elements like auto-tune and dueling vocals, creating a painterly, almost schizophrenic atmosphere.  

"Sometimes I like visual art more than music," Brown admits. "So I started researching a bunch of painters and trying do what they do with music." This interest in visuals has led Brown to explore video making. “The first video I thought was amazing was Yonkers by Tyler, The Creator,” Brown tells me. “He does a bunch of stuff that makes you kind of cringe.” In his first-ever piece, a two-minute music video for Riley With Fire's TV, the influence of Yonkers is present, though not overtly appropriated. Brown is depicted in profiled silhouette, the elegant image occasionally disrupted with violent and grotesque acts. 

Brown's commitment to developing his artistry is readily apparent. While his Riley With Fire bandmates head back to their hometowns for the summer, Brown will be sticking around Boston and maybe even developing a solo set in order to get some live shows under his belt. As he continues to develop his unique style, I hope Brown will continue to sink into the raw, moody elements of his music, rather than opt for something more polished. As evidenced by Riley With Fire's abstract approach to song crafting, there's plenty to explore in the unmanicured edges where pop meets other genres. 

Riley With Fire has released the single Got Hit By Furniture and several EPs, including This Is A Movie and President Andy Warhol. Their Facebook page is here

Interview with Kelsey Trottier, MassArt '15

When I first heard about SIM, I was a freshman at MassArt. I’d been dabbling in roughly one zillion different mediums and was struggling to narrow my interests into a single field of study. SIM stood out to me on a list of fine art majors for its student-driven approach to education and its insistence of art through concept, rather than medium, first. It took some effort to memorize what SIM stands for, but eventually I got it: the Studio for Interrelated Media. Knowing what SIM stands for is one thing, but grasping what SIM students do is another. To gain an understanding, I suggest taking a look at the work of MassArt senior Kelsey Trottier.  

Trottier is an interdisciplinary artist working in event planning and production, stagecraft, performance art, and social practice. A lifelong dancer, she “fuels her creative energies through dance and movement, often exploring concepts of expression, relations and connections, and the sensations of living.”

Throughout her final year as an undergraduate, Trottier has headed a multi-media, collaborative project between MassArt students and members of Cambridge’s Dance Complex. The result is a growing body of work under the title Intersections. While the mission of this project – to place a conduit between two artistic communities and see what happens - is simple, the intricate results weave mediums such as dance, writing, music, and video into seamless productions with nuanced implications.

In facilitating work between these two institutions, Trottier employs a medium increasingly referred to as social practice. Social practice has gained recognition over the past decade as an art medium which leverages social engagement into the creation of participatory art. Its application is a catalyst for collaboration between individuals, communities, and institutions. Social practice is also referred to as socially engaged art, community art, new-genre public art, participatory art, interventionist art, collaborative art, relational art and dialogical aesthetics. 

Below, Trottier discusses how she came to understand her work as social practice and the inspiration for Intersections.  

How did you get involved in this type of work?

Growing up my mom emphasized the importance of volunteering and contributing to the needs of others in ways you are able. As an art form, I kind of stumbled upon this work. I’ve always loved to collaborate artistically, but it wasn't until recently that I realized I was beginning to develop a social art practice. SIM is where I found a desire and drive for building community and creating shared experiences. In addition to what might be considered more traditional artistic collaborations, I began to work on teams where we conceptualized, planned, and produced events for MassArt and surrounding communities to come together. I focused so much on the logistical and technical aspects of making events happen that I wasn't thinking of all of this work as an art practice. I was aware of social practice - many of my peers were developing a social practice, and I was learning about social practice artists - but I wasn’t associating the concept with my work. It wasn’t until Intersections that I realized the work was considered by others to be in this category.

Intersections: Inspiring Influences is described as a collaboration involving individuals from various creative communities. What sparked this idea?

This idea began back in the fall when I was trying to conceptualize a new project to work on. I was interning at the Dance Complex in Cambridge when my supervisor Kara Fili asked me to develop a project in addition to my administrative tasks. I was grateful for this opportunity and excited to build a platform that would bring people together who normally wouldn’t cross paths.

I began through a call for artists, inviting individuals and groups who were interested in working on a common concept and sharing their work with the communities that brought them together in months to follow. I reached out mainly to the Dance Complex and Mass Art because I was interested in building a connection between two communities that I’m involved in. I hoped to highlight how the individuals who came together may have had some connection to Mass Art or to the Dance Complex, but everyone was also involved in additional creative communities. In coming together and discussing these ideas, the words intersection and intersecting kept arising. All of these meta-communities crossed over in a similar fashion to how all of the artists’ mediums and practices crossed over, inspiring and influencing each other.

What are some of the main concepts the group works with? 

The main concept of the whole collaboration came from the inquisition of how we inspire and influence each other as artists of different mediums coming from different communities.  From there the collaboration divided into three working groups where three different concepts were being explored. 

Where there any challenges associated with getting this off the ground?

The main challenge was finding a way to make this work for everyone who was interested in participating. Since there were so many people involved with busy schedules, I suggested smaller working groups based of off conversations we had as a larger group. In the end this worked out really well, but initially this served itself as a challenge since we were working towards two final exhibitions.

Moving forward with Intersections, I would like to work with different formats and possibly hold workshops where the connections that are being made can stem off in their own direction and not feel pressured by an end goal. I think the first rendition of this project went well. I’m thinking of ways for this project to evolve and take on new forms and goals that embrace and adapt to the challenges we originally faced.

Learn more about Kelsey Trottier and her work at kelseytrottier.com