Admiral Grey photos by Violet Shuraka
Admiral Grey is an artist, musician, playwright, and performer who creates music and extraordinary live spectacle. Heather Morgan, painter extraordinaire, interviewed her for issue #11 of Cheap & Plastique.
Heather: Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of your work. When I feel frail and overwhelmed by the grind of artmaking in the metropolis, going to see one of your boundless creations is as revitalizing as a trip to Xanadu. What are some of the sources of *your* inspiration, what goes into the stunning array of characters you create?
Admiral Grey: I have been stockpiling each and every experience or person or moment or artwork I’ve ever witnessed into an enormous Atlantis deep within my consciousness. I build the inner city with these materials. A beautiful castoff seen on the street, a stolen moment or expression on a stranger’s face, the fantasies inspired by pieces of music or an image or story can become another 5 square miles. When it’s time to create I just head there and go shopping. I can walk down one of my streets and enter a strange building and take a picture hanging off of the wall of a woman I met 7 years ago and run my fingers through the groove in the frame, or open up a drawer and pull out a tapestry from a scene I witnessed as a teenager and smell it. Like most artists, I am voracious. Not just for books or works of art but a walk to a bodega, being in transit with millions of other humans, or an extraordinary experience in a foreign place—these are all equal as far as the richness they have to offer to inquisitive brains. New York alone is such a diverse and smart place, my peers and neighbors offer no end of inspiration in the ways they express themselves.
Heather: I lose count of how many bands you are in, and your persona in each is as wildly different as the sound. Your plays also frequently have a musical element. When you come up with different themes and characters, which comes first, the sound or the story?
Admiral Grey: When writing music, I nearly always start rhythmically first. Although the instrumentations will certainly feel necessary when they arise out of the ether, at first my attitude is almost always nearly that the notes don’t matter; the rhythms of each line, how they work together percussively or how they are syncopated is really what makes each piece different. There aren’t that many notes, right? Music is really about how the notes are being made, what they sound like, and the layers of rhythm in which they are placed. If there are words, they nearly always come last, and often feel almost unnecessary. But as a writer, I care to make this part just as rich.
With theater there is often a germ of inspiration —for example, with Flowerama I was asked by Sparrowtree to write a short ‘fairy tale’—so then I researched and researched what exactly made a story a fairytale, what are the parameters…and what makes a great fairy tale? And then I sat down to writing, reaching into my archives of ideas. With plays I always write a very long backstory, a history, and outlines of the histories of characters and the whats and whys and wherefores. Then I set to writing a script. With Flowerama, and since you know that one I use it as an example—the backstory is much longer than the actual show, which, anyway, had no words! For theater I write the music last, or alongside. Put one down and pick up the other. That adds the fourth dimension.
Heather: Tell us about some of your different secret identities.
Well, then, they wouldn’t be secret anymore now, would they?
Admiral Grey: I have had a lot of names over the years. It’s something people bring up often but that I never had any forethought with, just something that I naturally desire to do and enjoy. I assume it comes from a need to compartmentalize, since I’ve used aliases and nicknames for different times in my life and different creative projects and jobs since a very young age. I’m pretty sure I operate under only two now publicly—Admiral Grey being my formal title, I suppose, as an artist, and Lillie Jayne for a long time now being my pen name and a name I tended to use when acting. Each has their place. I have made solo music under three different titles [Duck and Swallow, I Feel Awesome, Enjoyment] and could not count the amount of names I have used in my life. It makes me hard to track—people every so often realize, for example, that I was the bassist in Drayton Sawyer Gang who organized the Bushwick Blast music festival in the mid-2000’s, because at that time I was using the name Dr. Victoria Kominsky—things like that happen. I recently discovered a quote from one of my favorite writers, E.M. Cioran: “We should change our name after each important experience.”
Heather: Of all of the different roles you play in making a production come together—writing the play, composing a score, designing costumes, making props and animations, singing and acting—do you have a first love?
Admiral Grey: As a child, all manner of creation/performance that I was involved in felt natural, as it does for a lot of kids. My first ‘claimed’ identity was as a writer, around the age of 8. I found a voice in a new town once I was in a well-funded public school where the support is greater for creative skills. As a female kid, people commonly support one in being a dancer, singer, actress—but to be recognized and encouraged as a skilled instrumentalist or writer, among many other things, is more rare, or was. At the time it seemed like so many kids were recognized in scholastics, in music and performance and sports, but to be singled out as a good writer felt very important and exciting to me, and I latched onto it. When I was acting I was embarrassed to be called an actor and told people I was ‘really’ a writer; later on I would be bashful to use the descriptor ‘artist’—but I don’t give a damn about that stuff anymore. ‘Writer’ felt like a good catchall for someone like me who works in a variety of mediums—alongside prose and poetry and plays, one writes songs and writes music…designing or expressing visual art, creating costumes, choreography—it’s all a form of ‘writing’, no? Dare I even say drawing or painting is writing on the canvas? Perhaps not in your company.
Heather: Your play, Flowerama, was painting on air.
How do you feel about having complete control over all elements of piece, as you do in some of your plays and solo musical endeavors, to collaborating with other artists on their work or playing in a band? Do you have a preference?
Admiral Grey: I love and loathe doing everything myself. It’s stressful and time consuming, I am so particular, so picky and obsessive when it comes to my own work, I can take forever (I’ve had a three act musical play and a solo album on the backburner for years). Oh, but the absolute control! On the other hand I have several collaborators that are very dear to my heart and mind, and all of them are brilliant and talented, and what we create together can only come from that specific relationship. It’s sort of like having several marriages, several intellectual lovers. So I love collaborating as well. I think if I had more time and more money, I might work alone a little more, and pay smart people with certain skills to enhance the work. But the balance between ones own mind/ego and the input or collaboration of others seems essential to good work with enough oxygen in it.
Heather: When some were talking about Gaga like she was some kind of gift to avant garde performance, all I could think was “what is new about a blonde popstar with her pants off?” Your inventions, whether pants on or off, do not seem to conform to specific rules about what is acceptably feminine or titillating, and so your choices are often surprising. If I may lift the veil, how does erotic expression fit into your presentation?
Admiral Grey: On the outside of it—performance is by nature a type of eroticism or sexuality, because of the gaze of the audience, the intensity of energy, the connection between the subject of pointed attention and their hyperbolic expression towards and with a group of people, whether it be five people or millions. That part can be so acutely erotic, even if it’s abstracted, that that side of energy is released whether or not it’s in the subject matter.
I feel like I have never really been terribly interested in expressing any overt sexuality or eroticism in my work. Perhaps it’s the Catholic girl in me, but I nearly always shied away from that concept in the top of my mind, though what actually comes out in performance sometimes is another thing entirely. I always avoided being gender-identified, and in a way felt a bit Victorian about artistic expression, so perhaps it felt like slumming to bring sex into art in any overt way because it runs the world anyway, mammals that we are. “SEX” is ever-present in art, entertainment, advertising, people’s every waking thought. If anything seems under-expressed sometimes, at least in popular works, it’s non-sexual ideas and thoughts—things outside of our base animal desires, ones that aren’t necessarily hard political ideals, either. Just humanist. In your [Heather Morgan] work, although the first visual it is erotic, there are many layers woven in, so the eroticism is more of an active and intellectual player in the universe of your paintings—but as we all know, for a lot of what’s out there, it’s pretty much just the same tedious unevolved expressions of lust portrayed through the age old agressions/submissions, war-like conquerings, manipulations, smoke and mirrors, sport, S&M…hot dogs & hamburgers. Not much interesting or actually stimulating in a larger sense mixed in. I prefer to let eroticism and sex exist in the universe of my work as much as anything else, which is how I see things, anyway. Of course sex is great, alongside all the great things in life—sex can also be horrible and a weapon, just like anything else. My sense of humour and my sense of myself is far from chaste or puritanical—but that’s also part of the private me. And then, I am not uptight about clothes or physical performance, so this has been eroticized or seen as me actively being erotic, though I’ve always been more of a kid about that—just not that uptight about what clothes I wear or whether I wear much of them at all, or sometimes wanting to just wear lots and lots and look like a clown.
Heather: Is there a medium you have yet to try? Some discipline you wish to incorporate into your work in the future? I can easily picture you ice skating while playing a lyre.
Admiral Grey: Well, yes, of course, I want it all, and more! I want the money for a large studio and one of every instrument and time to play them, and an art studio and all manner of paints and pens, and a dance studio and time to dance and choreograph, I want to be an electrical engineer with a junkyard, a carpentry, a welding room, a good camera and editing equipment for films and a room full of fabrics and materials and all the tools to build with. Rehearsal spaces and recording studios…are you writing this down?
I guess I mean to say that if I had the time and money, I would probably try to express myself more fully in any medium I could get my hands on, and develop more definitively in the mediums I already work in. I work so bare-bones now out of necessity. As far as the mediums I haven’t truly tried—I’d be interested to learn real technical painting skills. I am intimidated by the minutae of the world of paints. I’d like to write in another language—as of now I have piddling skills in French and Spanish. This summer I’ve gotten my hands on a violin and every once in the while I try to get back in shape on the trumpet…we’ll see if that leads anywhere.
Heather: You are very active in recording music and producing albums with your myriad projects. As far as the visuals, do you place a singular stress on experiencing these performances live, or are you interested in documenting and being able to revisit these spectacles?
Admiral Grey: It would be great to have better documentation. But it is so rare—live performance really is just that and there is no way to replicate it. In the past, I was laid back about posterity—I did visual art, sculpture, land art, installations, etc, for a time that I didn’t really document and therefore, in this day and age, may as well not have existed, especially since I tended to create these things and not tell or show too many people, or they would be small exhibits, or not exhibited at all. So now I try to be more conscious of trying to document stuff. But here I am, I have footage from some of my theater pieces and I haven’t done much with them. I need an assistant one day—they can handle that. I hate having to futz around with something once it’s already been performed. In that way I have a hard time revisiting—it’s over, it’s the past. Live performance is ephemeral and I embrace that. But, of course, I get sad about all the people who haven’t seen them, and how the videos don’t do them justice.
Heather: Considering your involvement in so many projects, it seems you are constantly striving. Describe a moment in your recent work when you felt, “that was it, I did it, and it was perfect.”
Admiral Grey: Often. I accept and love the finished product when it has been deeply worked on and embraced and developed and released with skill and honesty. I feel blessed to be very good at working within extreme time and money constraints, working with the present and available environment, and working with the frightfully brilliant and talented people I get to work with. My auteur theatrical projects felt very, very good, and I am exceptionally proud of my last two music releases, Cellular Chaos’ and Ecstatics’ debut albums. Each live set is different, some of them do truly feel perfect or close to that. And this type of ‘perfect’ rarely, if ever, has to do with technical perfection, it is more about the overall performance and the energy, the hundreds of micro moments. I can look back to theatrical pieces and imagine how I would rework them, but that’s different. I’m always looking forward to what I can do next and better, and what work I have that I haven’t truly allowed to shine, and how I can do that.
Heather: Does satisfaction with the performances give you the energy to create so much output, or is it the work itself that fuels you?
Admiral Grey: Post-performance is always a come-down. There is always post-partum depression. It must be true that a lot of my creation comes out of frustration and despair; but I would never actually be able to create without my feelings of absolute joy. I don’t think that the work I make is terribly dark, and quite often it is full of ecstasy and wonder. But it is certainly a way to take all of the injustices and sadnesses of human existence and reprocess them into new forms that now create a real and interesting, possibly enlightening, pleasurable or cathartic experience for the people engaged with it. All of us, in our attempts to stay sane—we all have cleansing processes where we take the junk inside of ourselves that is weighing us down and recycle it into different expressions of creative energy, whether we get it through our jobs or sport or relationships or building or handiwork or art. By transforming the despair or frustration into something else, a shared experience that is outside of of ourselves, it loses its power. But, of course, within the work itself, it is the underlying frustration and despair that enables people to connect with it, and to also feel that cleansing or catharsis, whether through laughter or crying or screaming or dancing or whatever the hell they choose to do while engaging with the work. I hope to never be performing or creating ‘at’ anyone, but sharing it as something we are experiencing and even creating together, because everyone is a part of art, that is the nature of it. It is a reflection of the world back upon itself through a funhouse mirror.
I believe all art, even, say, black metal, actually comes from a place of love.
Heather: What are you involved with presently, and what can we look for in the near future?
Admiral Grey: Well… I’ll blast you with a rundown. I’m excited about a lot. This spring I debuted a new theater project with The Nerve Tank (Chance Muehleck and Melanie Armer) at LaMaMa—I was flattered to be the first outside artist that they collaborated with on a production. They are unabashedly hyper-modern. Our show The Maiden was inspired by the myth of Persephone. I composed the music and performed in the show, and I also was enabled to make bold experimental sound design and musical direction choices—I wired up Melanie’s set so that the performers could participate in the playing of music and sound samples in the scenes by touching certain parts of the set, dialogue was turned into songs or raps or rhythmic tonal and gestural chants, like children’s hand-claps almost…working with them was really wonderful because they say ‘yes’ to anything untried and they really push the envelope. We developed the show as an intimate trio (and of course once in rehearsal, through much work on the part of the actors and the other designers) as they are a writer/director team, so these moments where we each inform each other’s choices and are directing each other and finding inspiration in each other was very big and exciting and resulted in something marvelous.
Shortly after that I was gifted another great gig which was acting and singing in Feather Gatherers, a re-interpretation of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat by The Drunkard’s Wife (Craig Flanigan and Normandy Sherwood) which was reimagined through many filters, one of them being Yugoslavian Black Wave film. This was part of the Ice Factory festival at the New Ohio Theater. We had this divine orchestra playing Stravinsky and Balkan music and an exceptional cast performing just the most clever and poetic script in a luxe lo-fi set. Like The Nerve Tank, but through the looking-glass, The Drunkard’s Wife is essentially a power couple duo just really pushing the envelope verbally, musically, visually, performatively in exceptional ways, and I feel very honored to have worked with them.
Presently I am puppeteering on the show The Pigeoning, which is a tragicomic Bunraku-style puppet show that I have been on the team of for a year and a half now. Robin Frohardt is a brilliant puppet and set designer who has assembled a crack team of artist/puppeteers, and the show is set to a fantastic score written and played by Freddi Price. After several runs in New York and elsewhere we are back at HERE in SoHo for a six-week run. We are so happy to have gotten a great review in the New York Times last week—we’ve been honing the show for a while and are very proud of it. With puppetry it’s all in the littlest details—we are constantly working and reworking little moments, because the tiny nuance is really what makes a good puppet show. I’ve learned so much about this medium working in this group, and now it feels so wide open to me as an option for expression. So five days a week that’s what I’m up to!
As far as music—I played a couple of rare shows this summer with my band Ecstatics when my partner Matthew Dunehoo was in town, which was wonderful; I’ve been collaborating with Chad Raines (The Simple Pleasure) on a new hybrid project called B Roll, playing shows and working on videos for that; and writing a new album and playing some shows with my band Cellular Chaos, which will be going on tour again for a couple of weeks in September. On my own…I’m really focused on getting a few very fun music videos finished this summer, I must! Because at least two of them are summer jams. And I just started writing a piece for four horns that will each play a different paragraph of text that I will have translated into a unified score using a secret code. That’s going to be a beautiful disaster. I can’t wait.