by Melissa D. Johnston
I remember the first time I saw Atlanta-based Monica Arrington, who performs under the name nerdkween, play. Two of the friends accompanying me, both musicians who had seen her before, were already giddy and starstruck. They had good right to be. Monica is a rarity. She is a classically-trained singer/songwriter/composer who freely experiments in both songwriting and performance, blending multiple styles effortlessly and elegantly into a spare and stunning lo-fi sound. Nerdkween released her debut full-length recording, Synergy, in 2008 with Stickfigure Records, which puts out recordings of acts such as Snowden, Deerhunter and Xiu Xiu. She released a second CD called Profitandloss in November 2010 with Fieldhouse Recordings , a branch of Stickfigure. I got an opportunity recently to ask her a few questions about music and life as an artist.
Even before I heard your music, I was already in love with the name nerdkween. Is there a story behind the name?
It goes back to high school for me. In school I associated with the smart kids and I guess secretly to myself, I imagined myself the “queen”. As I started in college, I wanted to start my own label and I was going to call it Nerd Queen Records. The lettering has evolved over the years into the official (nerdkween)* .
Your music pulls from multiple influences and musical styles. Among your influences you’ve mentioned P.J. Harvey, Sonic Youth, Lisa Germano, The Sundays, Mazzy Star, Low, Cranes, and the early Liz Phair among others. Which were your earliest influences? In general, which do you think have proven or will be proven to be the most enduring in their effect on your writing and performing?
I love noise. I think I will always find inspiration in it. I love vibrations and it recharges me. I feel as though the music is born out of that haziness as in from chaos comes order and understanding. I also find the light airy and smothering voices of Hope Sandoval and Lisa Germano to be feminine yet strong all at once. My voice is similar and I also find the lyrics from them resonate with me. They celebrate their pensive and uncertain natures which I can also relate to. It inspires me to dig deeper and not to be so afraid to express myself.
You’ve called your music postmodern pop. One of the interesting characteristics of postmodern music to me is that it can challenge barriers between “low” and “high” styles of music as well as “elitist” and “populist” values. You are a classically trained vocalist with a degree in musical composition. Do you see yourself as purposely playing with the cultural boundaries of pop and classical training either in attitude and/or in the actual creation of music?
Oh yes, my interests in music crosses over to many genres and it continues to grow. I think any creator or performer does themselves a disservice by not exploring all there is in the world. And with technology our world is becoming smaller and we can reach out to anyone anywhere. The cultural exchange is amazing for personal growth for anyone. Yet, people would be surprised how much and often pop music “borrows” from classical music.
What musical project or projects are you working on now? What most excites you about it? How does it relate to the work you’ve done in the past, particularly that in your last album Profitandloss?
Right now I’m in writing mode, I want to see what I can create just for the sake of writing. I would like to release another recording but I want to make certain I have good material and the best resources to release under. I am listening to more world music and roots music and I want to find ways to incorporate it into my sound. Simply songwriting can be very exciting if you are struck with inspiration. So I’m kind of just enjoying the process without a clear agenda or goal. The last album I recorded and released something within the year and it was a great growth lesson for me. At the time I needed to do it. Now, I want to take a bit more time and better myself.
You’ve been very candid about your struggle to live the dream of being an artist. Recently you’ve been putting your gifts and training to “practical” use by teaching music and voice lessons. About that you’ve said, “I have been fearful that finding a practical outlet for my craft equals failure of childhood fantasies” but also “Now, as an adult, I am working on helping my dream to also grow up.” Could you say a bit more about this journey?
I think I actually surprised myself once I started teaching and coaching. I am reminded that we as artist ARE teachers even if we don’t have students. I love being involved with music so that is what I have come to understand , not just the pursue of being a so called recognized artist.
The craft of singing is something very dear to me so I don’t mind sharing what I know and experienced over the years. In fact, I’m very excited when a have a student who displays a yearning to learn as much as possible about music and singing.
Recently you wrote, “I think it’s the ultimate role of an artist: to guide oneself and others through the process of living, to make connections with our ideals and the real world, and to find beauty and peace in conflict.” Do you have some hard-won advice to give to other artists aspiring (but also struggling) to live this role?
It’s important to listen to your heart., and realize there are many avenues to take your dreams. Life can get into the way but you can use it to challenge yourself and learn more about who you really are. Just know that there are other people going through similar struggles in life, your art can help them cope. Don’t stop creating, you never know who is paying attention. You never know you will need your art.
Thank you, Monica!