Interview with Musician Joanie Wolkoff

Joanie Wolkoff is a creator in many realms. Perhaps presently best known for her work with the musical project Her Habits, (which is how I first discovered Joanie - through a shining review Bust Magazine gave HH's latest EP Northener) she's also released music as Foxe Basin and Gemology. She writes regularly as a contributor to the Glasgow-based music blog GoldFlakePaint, and she's a visual artist who illustrated and designed a manual of "her habits" to accompany the Northener EP. She's a Toronto native who went to school in Paris, worked in Tokyo, farmed in the Chinese countryside, and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. I got to ask Joanie all about music, her past, her present, her future, and she graciously answered all of my questions with a frankness and authenticity that inspired me and kept me nodding in appreciation and admiration throughout our dialogue. 

Has music always been a part of your life? When and how did you first discover your passion for it?

Freaking out over the Dr. Who theme song as a toddler is my first memory of music. It terrified me, but I loved it. Until her death at the age of 36, my mom was a fine guitarist, and my dad still has this facility with singing and instrumentation that I really envy. Music has always been a permanent fixture in my life. I remember the physical intensity of hearing my folks' 70's folk, classic rock, reggae, and blues selections on vinyl when I was little. They explained to me that the turn table was not a toy, so I lumped it in with appliances like the iron or blender - dangerous! - but  I would lie at a safe distance from it on the carpet listening to those sounds and stare at the ceiling with this overwhelmingly pleasant sensation that felt like my brain was about to explode. To this day, I get that feeling when a track is really strong.

What is your motivation for creating?

A shorthand inventory of my feelings tells me that I create because it feels better than anything else. At base, however, it probably has something to do with outsmarting the reaper. 

Haha, yes! What does your creative process look like? How does your process change or stay the same when working collaboratively?

Sitting at my desk in a sweatsuit and earphones with a felt-tipped pen, notebook, little midi keyboard, audio interface, mic, and computer is typically what my songwriting process looks like. It's cozy and domestic, but I usually get worked up over production struggles at some point and curse a lot to no one in particular.

Collaborating with other people is a different kettle of fish - each collaboration is its own unique realm. Some of them are carried out entirely in the digital ether, like my creative partnership with The Ixra Divide, who lives in Virginia. We've never met in person, but there's a deep familiarity there. He's a great correspondent.

I've been working weekly with Icarus Moth, a Colorado native producer who recently moved to Brooklyn and seems to share a psychic understanding of how these songs need to sound. Watching him produce can be hypnotic; he's very nimble and focused. All the while, I comment and ask questions, and his girlfriend Maddie paints, and his roommate plays video games and vapes fruit-flavored nicotine derivative right in the same room, but the hullabaloo seems to feed the process. I look forward to those sessions; we all laugh a lot.

Before Natasha Chitayat (my accomplice on a project called GEMOLOGY) moved to LA, we'd write in her room on an unmade bed with a laptop, chocolate, tea, and her grouchy dogs. Now, we get on the phone when we need to talk shop. I also recently worked on a track with the guys at Color Study label for a couple of days in Vermont, and it was like being brought aboard a creative pirate ship - they had this whole brainstorming system worked out that was impressively comprehensive. I got really ensconced in their approach; it was so well-rounded. Sanford Livingston, who produced and co-wrote the Her Habits project, taught me a lot in the past few years, too. He consistently pushed me out of my comfort zone and even though we struggled at times, I'm grateful for every second of that tough love.

All that is to say: creative processes vary and no man is an island, because collaboration's where it's at.

You're originally from Toronto, you traveled to Tokyo when you were growing up and working in the fashion industry, you went to school in Paris, you spent time working on a farm in China, you currently live in New York, and I'm sure there are tons of other places you've traveled to with your has seeing all these places influenced you as a person and in turn your music?

Travel has afforded me plenty of scope, but there's no shortage of folks who've more or less stayed put and nevertheless have a global perspective and produce incredible art. Wherever you go, there you are, right? We need to launch an initiative to destroy FOMO once and for all! It simply can't be helped that we're all constantly missing out on an entire planet's worth of the unknown, untouched, unseen, unhad... Just don't forget: the rest of the world is missing out on you, too.

I love that you make this point. It's beautiful and so important to pay homage to the sanctity of experiences that take place no more than five feet from the same place we've been all our lives. Going back to working in the fashion industry and modeling in general...what was that experience like really?

My favorite part of modeling was watching passionate technicians at work. Even when a makeup artist is painstakingly gluing sequins all over your breasts for hours on end so that you can play a dead mermaid for the camera on a hardwood floor in the middle of a Canadian winter, the creative energy is undeniable. And what is creative energy if not love?

I felt guilty sometimes for taking part in an aspect of culture that feeds so many people's insecurities. Beauty gets binarized and used to manipulate us into buying more stuff, or buying into more ideas that aren't necessarily useful or healthy. I was definitely conscious of that when I used to model. Most women are made all too conscious that if they're the wrong shape, age, or pigmentation, they won't enjoy the 'privilege' of being a 'chosen child' everywhere they go... which does seem to be the allure of so many products and regimens being pushed out there. It becomes a hard sell, this business of being wanted. 

At least thanks to pop psychology, we've seen an increase in people's awareness of the fashion industry's ideological underpinnings, but I don't believe that it'll ever change entirely, because aesthetics are tied in so deeply with human hard-wiring. I love the fantasy of clothing and cosmetics, and the potential for self-expression there. So, the real hurdle of celebrating beauty seems to lie in striking a balance between self-acceptance and fantasy, and that's no small feat.

I read that you had an experience when you were in China where you were drugged by an acquaintance of yours...would you be willing to share what that experience was like? What advice or insight would you give to other women who may have had similar experiences?

It took ages to shed the psychic armor I built myself into following that experience. It can be hard not to feel like you're at the hands of some kind of cosmic demerit point system when shitty people exploit your trust. To other men or women who have experienced any form of assault, all I can say is that you're not a victim, you're a survivor. No matter how hateful an act that has been committed against you, no one can ever take your person-hood away.

Who are some of your musical influences?

I'm influenced by a vast assortment of pan-generational men and women in pop, folk, world beat, dance hall, British Invasion, 90's hip hop, classic rock, quarter century-old Slavic disco, British Invasion, old 4-track produced reggae, new wave, glam, soul, top 40 beach proletariat full blast in the car... a lot. In terms of present day artists, I'm excited about Hudson Mohawke, Missy Elliot, Dolly Parton, The Hood Internet, and Tinashe.

Who are some female role models that inspire you in general?

I'm inspired by the illustrative work of Lisa Hanawalt and Kate Beaton. I wish that Isabel Fonseca would write some more books, too. Film director Andrea Arnold, who made Fish Tank in 2009, is clearly a genius. My WWII surviving Polish Jewish grandmother was an awesome, neurotic little firecracker who punned in Latin, and my admiration for my best friend Jelena is boundless. 

What are some of your fears; big, small, silly, serious?

I've faced a lot of my deepest fears head on: the loss of my mom as a kid and then of a dear childhood friend when I was in my teens, an emotionally toxic long-term relationship that I waited til the eleventh hour to move on from, health scares, having to start over multiple times, hitting the existential impasse like whoah. That's just real life, though.

I'm starting to think that it's the small fears that do the most damage though - those nagging twinges of the ego that can take up prime mental real estate day to day. My ultimate fear is that I'll miss significant opportunities while I sit around being fearful.

The booklet of drawings and interpretations you created to go with your last EP with Her Habits is amazing. You really give image and meaning to "her habits" with this collection. Are these habits your own, or derived from others, or simply a few from the enormous range of possibilities of every and any "her"?

Thanks for the encouragement! Some of the habits in that illustrated series were my own, and some of them were sourced from conversations. I have a tendency to go mining for stories when I meet new people, which hopefully doesn't  comes across as objectifying, like some creepy insect collector hovering by a light bulb with a net, chloroform, and a glass jar. I just get swept up in people's unique experiences and perspectives. I've gotten back into music journalism recently, which gives me a chance to ask questions and gather information in a socially acceptable fashion.

What is one of the best shows/concerts you've ever been to?

Raffi was the hottest ticket in 1980's Toronto. That guy can really shred. My dad and I stood in line after we saw him perform and Raffi signed my plastic My Little Pony's butt.  In a fit of childish logic, I later used my toothbrush to 'polish' the autograph. Instead of becoming 'shinier,' it came off. Dad also took me to see Little Feat and The Rolling Stones in concert when I was a child, but My Little Pony stayed at home for those. Thanks, Dad. 

Do you consider yourself a feminist?