Photo by Ariel Bridget
This interview was used as a basis for a write-up that you can read here.
In this interview format, the subject chooses from categories to determine which questions are asked. Each category has a varying degree of control, both on the part of the interviewer and the interviewee. This structure is designed to empower the subjects interviewed as well as broaden the topics discussed.
The Envelope of Introspection—an envelope of blindly-drawn paper slips with open-ended life questions printed on them, culled from thoughtquestions.com
What inspires you to create?
This is something I’ve been thinking about recently. I’m working on a new sun riah album. I haven’t announced it, so if you want, you could announce that.
I would say I’m clearly inspired by emotion, but I’m also inspired in this particular project by loss of control and looking at the relationships between humans and the environment—landscapes and cityscapes, loss and growth and change. I’ve been inspired recently by transitions, particularly in seeing places that I really love, realizing that they’re not gonna be there anymore.
What spurred you to share your music with the world?
That question plagued me for the first 20 years of my life. I’ve written music my whole life, but I didn’t think anyone would care. This idea that I would get up and perform felt like it was rooted in, I don’t know, some kind of delusion of grandeur. It was really hard for me to share my music with people, to think that it is something that could be meaningful to them.
What I realized is that it’s in those moments of live performance that I am able to fully realize a song. That’s when it becomes whole and living. At this point, sharing music for me is part of writing music. It’s a necessary part of the creative process of realizing this emotional outlet.
How do you feel about the role that ego plays in performance?
I was gonna use that word, and then I didn’t.
I think that there are ways in which performance can center a person’s ego. It can be a representation of wanting attention. Really good music may have some aspect of ego because it’s a personal creation, but it’s ultimately about sharing and connecting emotionally and being vulnerable. It’s almost, for me personally, become the opposite of ego. It becomes a space where I humble myself and try to let people see parts of myself that I don’t share normally.
Are you very aware of your audience when you perform, or do you kind of drown them out?
I grew up doing musical theater, and in theater, there’s the “fourth wall.” I don’t try to drown people out, but I enter a performance space where I forget. I don’t pay much attention to the audience, but I feel the energy of people. Does that make sense?
I personally tend to believe in the power of limitation, that when one is limited in resources or abilities, it forces one to think more creatively and to closer examine the fundamentals of art. Would you say this applies to sun riah?
Yeah, definitely, in different ways. Partially there are limits just because I’m one person, and I perform solo. I’ve had to think creatively about ways to create richness and textures, but I also think it applies to my creative process. I often set up boundaries in a weird way to guide my writing.
Probably the most obvious is that it’s a solo project. I’m doing a lot with effects pedals and looping, but I also keep it pretty minimal because I can create more emotionally compelling and interesting music within certain limitations.
What do we all have in common besides our genes that makes us human?
I can think of a million things, but I’ll just go with our ability to feel complex emotions. Maybe. I guess that’s probably true of non-human animals, too, but that’s what I’ll go with.
Is the Oklahoma music scene something that you feel has helped you? Do you think it holds you back in any way?
I definitely think it has helped me; it can be supportive. It’s tight-knit in terms of small venues and DIY stuff, but then if you move to some of the bigger venues and what the media actually covers, it can be really hard to make music in Oklahoma if it’s experimental. I say that, but I have been written about in Oklahoma, so I feel hesitant to complain about that too much.
I still think it is hard, especially in finding places to play and finding supportive communities who actually pay money so you’re not losing money playing music. That can be discouraging.
I would also say that the music scene in Oklahoma inspires me to push the envelope, to be here and create experimental music here. There are people doing really cool, interesting things here that inspire me.
Are you saying that since it’s so hard for music like yours to find its footing here, it inspires you to make it happen for others who may be in the same boat, to be an agent of change?
I also think it can be really hard for women and people of color making music in Oklahoma. It can be really alienating to play certain shows and be in certain spaces and feel unsupported. It goes both ways, but venues can be like, “Oh, there’s a woman on this lineup. We should ask sun riah to play.” Then, not listening to my music, not knowing that it doesn’t make sense with the lineup, I show up and play a free show, and they’re like, “Oh, we haven’t heard you before.”
Has your equipment ever malfunctioned during a performance? How did you handle it?
Yeah. My harp is acoustic. I installed a pickup in it, and it has malfunctioned so many times. The worst time was when the battery pack ripped out of the pickup. A person had a soldering iron and tried to solder it back together. I just played acoustically. That’s what ended up happening.
There are other times where I’ve been in spaces with a lot of feedback. I either try to change the music to try and play pitches that aren’t producing the feedback, or I try to make it a part of the music. That has been a challenge.
I’ve also had strings break, which sounds really cool, but I don’t like to change strings in the middle of a performance. I just have to navigate around the string.
If M. Bailey Stephenson and sun riah were two circles, would one be wholly inside the other, or would their relationship look more like a Venn diagram?
My initial feeling is that sun riah would be wholly inside M. Bailey Stephenson somewhere. I have to think about it more. I may change my mind.
What is your creative process?
It’s really different depending on what I’m attempting to convey. I always journal and write on a daily basis. There are times when I write music, and the two collide. A more intentional creative process for me is trying to capture a moment, an emotion, or a particular place. What I’m trying to convey impacts my process.
For instance, what I’m working on now is going to be an album about a place. I’m recording the sounds of that place and writing music to accompany those sounds and the emotions and histories and stories that took place in that space. That’s what my creative process is looking like right now, but that could change on a different project.
How do you go about making connections out of state?
Yeah, how do I do that? (laughs)
Part of it is that I lived in Chicago for a while, so I have two community bases. Chicago is a place where lots of people from other places collide. A lot of my friends from Chicago now live in Washington or New York or other places, so that’s part of it.
I also do a lot of work to book tours, and I spend time listening to music that is lesser known. I make connections with people whose music I appreciate and am excited to perform with. I also do a lot of playing with bands touring through Oklahoma. It’s fun to meet people, and even if I’m not playing with touring bands, I do try to support artists that are coming through because I know how hard it is.
What are some unique difficulties about playing the harp?
There’s a lot of upkeep. It’s an expensive instrument. Just getting the harp was a journey in itself, reaching the point where I wasn’t renting a harp, but had my own that I could install a pickup in. I drive an Astro van to move it around, and it ideally should be in a temperature-controlled setting. Strings are expensive.
It also just requires a lot of work. The harp is a difficult instrument to play, and if you don’t play it correctly, it can cause a lot of strain and tension on your body and on your hands. Harpists are constantly training their whole lives to maintain proper technique so that they don’t hurt themselves.
Other things…calluses. One time I was playing a show, and I had this huge callus. It actually ripped off on a bass wire. Continuing to play was some of the most pain I’ve ever felt. That’s a unique challenge of playing the harp—hand pain and ripping skin—which is something I don’t know that people think about, but I think it’s worth it.
Have you considered any projects outside of the sun riah persona?
I have. I miss playing with other people. I think collaboration can be one of the most beautiful and powerful things. I haven’t considered it that seriously, but I hope in the future for something that’s light, that expresses a part of myself that’s not so vulnerable.
[fortune cookie] You will gain more if you save now.
Hmm. I don’t really have a response, but that does seem relevant to my life right now…and my music. I’ll reflect on what that means for me and in what areas I need to save.
This article was originally written for Cellar Door Music Group (cellardoormusicgroup.com). It is archived here with the publisher’s permission.