Full Wack and Tender, Too: Shelley Hirsch Interviewed by Peter Stampfel

The two musicians converse about their working-class upbringing, the elitism of the avant-garde, and the politics of goofiness.

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Shelley Hirsch. Photo by Barry Ratoff.

I had never heard of Shelley until I saw her performing improvised music with two Russian musicians I knew. The wild variety and constantly changing vocalizations blew me away. The only thing her voice reminded me of was the vocalizations I do when I try to be as nutty as possible. A light flashed on and off in my mind. Soulmate! Soulmate! After the show, I suggested that we try doing some stuff together and found we also shared a love for the mid-20th century Great American Songbook. We began to cover the waterfront. Next we’ll take on the ocean.

—Peter Stampfel

Peter StampfelLet’s talk about you … oh golly … when did you first become aware of your sonic brilliance? When did you realize you had an unusually powerful gift in that area?

Shelley HirschWell I don’t know if I would use the term “sonic brilliance,” but thank you! As a child I was experimenting with how sound mutated in the resonant hallways of the apartment building where I grew up. I was always interested in the transformation of music and the voice. My father would be singing along with Nat King Cole in the living room and I would keep some of the little parts in my ear and sing those little instrumental parts in the hallway. Then I’d try to inhabit the role of the singer. Wondering, “What does it feel like emotionally and physically to actually sing that song the way they do?” Almost like putting on a costume. I was always collecting things in my memory. I just kept experimenting and going further and taking that long walk and listening along the way … and Ooo, everything’s transforming, including my voice! It’s just about being totally open and listening—it’s been a very organic process for me. Not like a lot of people, who will spend their time trying to get some exact sound. I really would discover things along the way. You hear a sound, and Oh, listen to that sound! And if I move my jaw just a little it’s going to transform and Oh! What am I going to do with that new sound?!

You once asked me, “How did a girl from East New York come to be in the avant-garde?” And it’s really just about being very open and listening and … oh, I’m terrible at describing these things! I repeat myself way too often. (laughter) In any case, I’m amazed that we come from such very different places and yet we can get totally wild and wacky together … and very sweet, too.

PSWell we’re both basically working class kids. When I got to New York my impression of the folk musicians at the time … the bohemian scene … it was a bunch of rich kids. Upper middle class or more. I didn’t hang out with upper middle class kids in Milwaukee, you know! It’s more unusual for a working class kid to enter bohemia than an upper class person.

SHOh, definitely! I would go to High School Students for Democratic Society meetings held in big apartments uptown and I would think, “Wow, these people don’t know what it’s like to live in a …” I mean, I lived in a neighborhood three blocks from the low-income projects. My mother tried to elevate the status by calling us lower middle class. But we were on the edge there. We had our electricity turned off, more than once. We were definitely blue collar, working class. But I should add, we did have certain fine cultural things as well. But then going to SDS meetings, you know … those kids, their experience wasn’t like mine at all. They mostly had well-educated parents and often grew up in what I thought of as upper class neighborhoods and both my parents were high school dropouts—although they were very special and very smart in their own way. What is it now Peter?

PS[singing] “My father is a member of the bourgeoisie, and I support the party while he’s supporting me! Which side am I on? Which side am I on?” Have you heard that one? 

SHI must have.

PSOh, the folk music crowd in the late ‘50s wrote this parody labor songbook called The Boss’s Songbook: Songs to Stifle the Fans of Discontent … it was stuff like that … parodies of other things too, but I always liked that one a lot.

SHI wasn’t really on the folk music scene—except during protest marches … I was always scooting around between different scenes. I was riding the subway into Greenwich Village as a little teeny-bopper. I remember one time I was very much into the writing of J. Krishnamurti—I took a book of his with me to a friend’s house on Bank Street. It was this incredible brownstone with what seemed like a million books everywhere, very erudite people, and the younger brother said to me, “You’re reading Krishnamurti? You should be reading Kierkegaard!” … anyway, we’re jumping around now—

PSBunch of rich kids!

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Shelley Hirsch. Photo by Simon Ho.

SHYes, but not only. I did a big study on Facebook on that, on how many people felt they came out of a different world than many of their peers. There were very few of us. And it was a great study … I should publish that actually … but look at you! You’re living in the lap of luxury now Peter!

(laughter)

PSI’m lucky beyond belief. I was born in the Middle West in 1938—horses were delivering milk; we had an ice box until 1948; the license plate on the car read “44480,” they didn’t even need letters because there weren’t that many cars; and getting to see rock and roll born as a teenager; I was the first kid in my family to go to college … about four weeks in I discovered my first bohemians and bonded to them like a baby duck; they introduced me to folk music … and … and crap, what was my point here? I had a point here!

SHThe point was that you came from a different generation and a different class than your peers and now—

PSOh, right! And how lucky I am! … I also have a political theory. We both like goofiness. Goofiness is the only thing that can save us from our current situation. Nothing else is powerful enough to fight the machine, the menace. I believe … my basic idea is that people should get together on a monthly basis and just do goofy shit together. I think that would start to unlock the good and lock the bad. Sure, laughter is powerful, but goofiness is like laughing on steroids. 

SHI applaud that, absolutely.

PSWe’re both deeply invested in this. We’ve also discovered that our admiration for goofiness and wackiness is mutual and … and … shit, no, why don’t we try to get really goofy and really wack? We are only like in the third grade of our goofy wackiness. There’s a lot more to come.

The Atomic Meta Pagans with Peter Stampfel, Shelley Hirsch, Steve Espinola, and Eli Hetko. Filmed by Stig Wegge.

SHWell, I think those short improvisations we do—when we burst into singing in your kitchen and come up with an insane song about coffee—the few little duos that we recorded for the second CD, when we were sort of stoned at Dok Gregory’s place … they are full wack! You can still get full wackier Peter, I kind of go off with insane words and you and Steve Espinola always encourage me to tell my oddball stream of consciousness stories, even when I wonder if it’s too much. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time writing for my next piece. And I’ve been gathering material, writing while I am at concerts—the most surreal images come up and then I twist the words into little memory stories and then out again into some very odd confluence of words that might never have come out if I weren’t actually listening to that particular music. I love writing in different landscapes as well—what I write is tethered to the atmosphere of a place—what I am hearing, what I am seeing …

PSI wanted to ask, who was the first person you collaborated with artistically?

SHWell the theater group that I was in … I was in a physical theater company in 1970. I was 18 in San Francisco. San Francisco was still …

PSThings were still wacky and loose then.

SHYup … and I call my work with the group a collaboration because it was ensemble theater. I’m still in touch with the director. I was actually the one to lead other actors in using their voices, mostly without words, to create the sound environments when we performed. A couple of years later I was in Amsterdam singing with a swing band in the Literair Cafe every week. 

PSLike mid-century pop? 

SHYup [singing] “I ain’t much to look at!” You know that one … Billie Holiday’s version of “Funny that Way.” You know every song. Now I sing songs with beautiful melodies, and tell stories, and make non-verbal sounds with you, Peter. Sweet and kooky and wild.

I’m grateful that you invited me along on your wonderful musical road. So different from much of the work I do now, yet maybe it is the missing link. I can’t wait until I get to interview you—you’ve had an amazing life!

Peter Stampfel’s The Atomic Meta-Pagans and Shelley Hirsch will be performing on October 12 at The Owl Music Parlor in Brooklyn, New York.

The Atomic Meta-Pagans’ latest album, Peter Stampfel and the Atomic Meta-Pagans Featuring Shelley Hirsch, will be released in December on Don Giovanni Records.

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