One cold fall evening, I left work to warm up my car, and while shivering in the driver’s seat, the following Instagram caption made me forget about the weather:
“My dad used to say his favorite singers in the world were the ones who let out the pain through their voice. That’s how I learned to sing – by trying to get it out.”
These two powerful sentences struck me just as hard when I turned on sound for the video they were sitting under. To this day, the song for said video remains my favorite, because of how fitting the caption was for its lyrical message. Namely, a song by one of Center Stage’s former students – “Heartbreak and Liquor” by Skela, now a LA-based singer-songwriter.
I was late to the kickoff of the current wave Skela was riding; that being her “Project 10” series. However, I had been so drawn into the work ethic that went over a twenty-week stretch, all of which she can explain way better than I can:
“Project 10 is ten songs, ten music videos . . . Basically, all of these songs were created and written in a timespan of my life when I was trying to figure out what to do next, who I was, like what kind of artist I wanted to be. And it definitely fulfilled that purpose . . . Another thing, it was a visual album. The music videos all took place where I wrote them basically. So in New York, Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island – all of the places where I lived my life. For me, it ended up being a very revealing project . . . And basically it all just led up to the first chapter of the book. The book and the actual soundtrack are coming out late 2019.”
At the end of Project 10 in December 2018, Skela released the first chapter of her novel entitled “Building You Up: The Novel and Soundtrack.” This was a fascinating campaign, given the fact that most music acts aren’t known to add supporting reading material to their new album, much less any form of literature to their discography.
How important is it for people listening to the book or reading the music to look at everything together?
“You don’t need to do everything together! If people want to know everything about the music, then they can. It’s helping being inclusive in that way. But, I think, and I hope that things stand independently as well. That someone can just like a song and be like “Oh, I really f*ck with this song, I’m just gonna play this” – that’s cool, too. And you can if you want to, like I’m not gonna force someone to. *laughs* I’m appreciative of anyone who listens or watches anything, so it’s the intention but it’s not a requirement.”
Definitely. I guess for someone like me who likes to dive into artists and get into everything, I know that it is important for someone like you who has taken the time to direct all these videos, and to write this music, and record it, and all of that. Especially considering how introspective and cathartic the energy that Skela put into “Project 10” is. (At the conclusion of the tenth video being released, Skela soon released “10” – an album of all the Project 10 singles.) I also consider the way that she ended her last interview with Center Stage Music Center, how she was poised to execute this project. It only makes sense to start from the top of the project to see how this well-executed demonstration in vulnerability truly is a work to consider.
A few months removed from that cold night in my car, it’s an even colder night as I’m now on a train to Brooklyn. The day after I read the caption on Skela’s post back in December, she announced a three-stop headlining tour that was starting in her New York home. So that’s where I’m headed now, playing “10” in my headphones. It’s 7:30 pm, and I have a ways to go.
The project opener “Sailboat” invokes nostalgia with the opening vocals having the ubiquitous mechanics of a record player. The music video that accompanies the kickoff to Project 10 nicely complements this sentiment. And now, the tone is set for waves of forgotten memories crashing onto the beach of the listener’s thinking pattern, to the revolving synths panning across from left ear to right. I’m paying attention very closely, as the buildup of the melody splashes into a fuller sound. At this point in the song, Skela’s melodies reflect on her muse, yet set the record straight:
Just know that I wanted you to stay.
Fittingly, track 2’s opening guitars are very reminiscent of a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. Skela recently moved to Los Angeles, California. As a New Yorker, describe any inspiration in your new LA home that does not exist here in your creative process.
“Pretty much everything, because I’ve lived in New York my entire life, so going to LA is like a fresh palette. So that’s what going to LA will have that NY for me will never have. A new beginning, a fresh start, you know?”
With Project 10 taking place during your transition from east to west, how has this time period strengthened you – not only as a musician, but as a person?
“It’s weird . . . there’s always a divide between who you actually are, and then who you are to your music, if that makes sense. I feel like I’ve grown a lot into the person that I actually am in the past couple of months by moving, and by also putting out this project at the same time . . . a tremendous amount of growth for me personally came from setting out to do a project that was a little bit more than I can handle, in terms of biting off what you can chew.
Actually doing it and putting it all out was a growth process for me as an artist. In addition to that, moving . . . all just felt like a new chapter and a new beginning. So I feel like the world asked me to step up in a way, you know what I mean? If you want to create the world around you, you have to do that. And I think when you have a fresh start, it’s very obvious and apparent that you have to. So that’s been a current theme in my life – renewal.”
Project 10 has so many components: the book, the song lyrics, the music, the visuals, and so on. There are way more creatives taking on non-traditional, indie-esque projects like this. How long did it all take? And with you the helm, how many people did you have to delegate in order to make this successful enough to begin a tour run?
“That was the hardest part, honestly. My manager has this joke that I am my own second manager because I know what I want in a certain way, and I’m very particular about things. I’ve always said, nobody is going to give you the kind of career that you want. And for me it’s always been very important to take leadership and to take ownership over my words, my actions and my art, and delegating is difficult. It’s very hard, so when I’m playing artist creative and manager, it’s a lot. It’s actually one of my biggest balances that I need to work on particularly, and I’m pretty good at it. It’s a huge theme in my life, “where is balance?” – you know?”
Following the Cali vibes in “10” is a somber moment of self-actualization. With the tongue-in-cheek title of “I’m Not Hungry,” this third track stops the momentum of the listener a little bit. We begin to hear a bit of Skela’s introspection that was found as the album opener started off. In this song, Skela is putting together why things have been going wrong, and by the hook, this is what she concludes:
Maybe the problem, the problem is me.
The pensive nature of these lyrics doesn’t stop with the two energetic follow-ups. The synth-driven “Linda” is less about someone with this name and more so implying a theme of comparison. The hyper nature of “What’s Wrong With Me” places the blame on the muse. It only makes sense to swing your head back and forth to these rhythms.
It’s 10:45 pm in Brooklyn now. Skela’s hometown tour opener is in full effect, and both of these bops brought the same energy in Rough Trade, complete with her frenetic head-swinging. No matter famous or up-and-coming, seeing a personality perform live as a transition from watching their social media videos is still an interesting thing to experience.
. . . Is there anything you want to share as far as what we can expect for the show? What do you have planned?
“I’m excited for New York. It’s the kickoff, it’s the hometown. It’s a small tour, but I’m excited because I’ve had all these ideas about what kind of artist I want to be, what I would want to do on tour. We have a couple of fun things happening, like we’re asking everybody to wear red to the shows.
When you walk in, the first 30 people are gonna get a gift that basically turns the room red, such as a camera filter. We’re doing a cover of this band that I really love, and the fans voted on it. Stuff like that which makes it a lot more inclusive. Our friend just made these GIFs so when you’re on Instagram you can add a GIF to your post – so little things like that to try to be creative and inventive, and do cool sh*t basically. I’m pretty excited about it – it’s a first try at headlining . . .”
Red filled the room, and so did the support from the crowd. Backed by a guitarist and drummer, Skela covered the stage end to end, all across two outfit changes, the first of which was a tribute to Lydia Deetz of the 1988 film “Beetlejuice.”
(Photo by: @sah.key)
By her third outfit, she performs “Heartbreak & Liquor” like a rockstar, body sprawled on stage and all. At this point in the song, you can hear the tinges of pain in Skela’s voice as she glides across some short vocal runs. It brought me back to the sentiment of that quote I first read on her Instagram. The best singers got their pain out through their voices. Powerful.
Matching Skela’s runs in the improv section of the song was her guitarist, who wailed his melodies almost effortlessly. As she wraps up the show, Skela takes a moment to speak on inclusivity by way of the limited collection of merch she customized for the fans. This topic on inclusion was likely my favorite part about the quick interview we had ahead of this show. Knowing how important this subject matter is for Skela, I wanted to “do my part” in giving this writing piece’s victory lap to the following discussion:
“I feel like I do my best to do my part in terms of employing other females to create art. That is in a literal standpoint, like I will always try to work with female creatives, and to the best of my ability. I‘m not going to count out male creatives ever, or anyone creatively, but I also recognize that there’s an issue that there aren’t enough female creatives that are being employed. Surely for the fact that it’s hard to break patterns, and it’s hard to unlearn ways of thinking.
I do my best to work with creative teams, like my photographer I work with. Usually I’ll work with female photographers, I think I’ve only ever worked with one male photographer, and that might have to do with the comfort of being shot by a woman – a totally different feel. The directors and editors I work with are usually female as well. My other creative partner, her name is Zoe Kraft, she’s my go-to person for everything. You know how everybody talks about having a go-to? All my go-to’s are females.
I think I do that because, again, you have to be proactive about employing other people to pursue their art and creativity, and I mean I just see it as me doing my part at this level as an artist. Right now I just do what I can, you know? I definitely hope that the industry becomes more inclusive, because it’s definitely hard being a female in the industry . . . [It’s also] frustrating . . . to have your male counterparts in the industry just get ahead so much further and so much faster than you, just because people are used to putting on boys. And they don’t really put on girls in the way they put on boys. They know what to do with the boys basically, they know where to place them, what tours to put them on. It’s very rare that a rock artist will put on females for this tour, or even people of color, or any minority, really.
It’s interesting because I feel like people just don’t do their part when they’re doing that stuff. You know, it’s so easy to be like “oh yeah we already have an all male white band / artist on this tour, maybe we should hire a girl” or “maybe we should hire someone that’s a little bit different.” You know what I mean? It’s so easy to be open minded in that way, and I feel that everyone could do their part.
Even for me, like, I love Panic! At the Disco, but it was really frustrating to see him put on two all-white male artists as well. Like, you love the band, you love the artists they put on, and there’s nothing wrong with them personally, but I have a problem with not doing your part, you know? If I ever reach a level like that one day, I will remember to do my part. It’s important to, and I think people talk a big game, but at the end of the day, they don’t show it. So I want to do my best to show it.”
Right, and as a minority I definitely resonate with that as well, because there aren’t enough individuals who are representing the minority as much as they like to say that they will. So for you, do you feel that especially with Project 10, with the work you put into making your voice be heard . . . do you see progression? Are you encouraged by the effort you are doing?
“I don’t know. I think I’ve always been aware of certain gaps that need to be filled by other people in the music industry, and other workforces because I’m one of the gaps that I hope to fill in life. You know what I mean? I see a gap, and I fill it. It’s interesting because you have to constantly adjust yourself to fit this very specific gap. You have to mold yourself into the kind of person and artist that can one day hope to fill this gap in the world. I feel like if you don’t continue to push and grow, and be expansive, then you’ll never fill it. I try to progress, but I also try to stick to what I know to be true and correct.
. . . Something that I say to myself very often is “just do your part.” I think that people try to, and they’re getting better with it . . . Dua Lipa famously had a music video with girls from every culture and ethnicity, and that’s amazing. That’s so cool, and that’s doing her part – giving representation.
At the end of the day, musicians are not politicians. We are just people that are trying to represent the world we want to live in. That’s what you do – you make art that you hope to see in the world, you become the artist that you hope to see in the world. And I hope I’m growing into that person . . . Like I’m trying, doing my best.”
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(Photo by: @earthlycruelphotos)
Article & Video By: AJ Valcin