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dialogue: metaphorest

dialogue with treehouse artists

sitting down to talk to metaphorest is a little nerve-wracking. a prolific songwriter and screenwriter, with work screened at cannes, sxsw, and sundance, and her music in levi's ads and countless projects produced through joseph gordon-levitt's online open collaborative production company hitRECord, she's abound with talent and i feel a bit overwhelmed with where to start.  

in her kindness, she tries to put me at ease. “all you have to do is think of questions,” she laughs.  

i tell her i know but that i don’t want to ask a dumb question or say something that makes me seem like i am questioning her life choices. she laughs at this.

“don't worry,” she assures me, still laughing, telling me that she questions her life choices on a minute-by-minute basis. it's nothing new.

i take it as a segue into my first question: 

what was it about music that drew her in, specifically as a singer/songwriter?  

i was not expecting her reply.

“i think it was something that's so far back that i couldn't tell you any rational reason.”  she laughs again, and goes on to tell me about her earliest songwriting memories were from when she was three or four years old.  “... waiting for t.v. to come on because, as a child in ireland, t.v. time didn't start until 2pm. so, i would literally sit in front of the telly for about an hour waiting for it to come on. the test screen had this kind of muzak, i guess, like instrumental music that would come on and play on a loop. i would make up melodies and words for this terrible muzak."  

she laughs again, telling me she didn't realize at the time that it was actually "greensleeves" and joni mitchell's "both sides now."  she felt those were her songs. throughout her childhood, on a small toy piano, she would come up with little songs and melodies and sort of poems that she would sing.   

i am intrigued by her story and joke that i thought we were about the same age and now i'm wondering, if she had a t.v. where the stations turned off at a certain time! she explains that it was just the irish t.v. stations that shut off. 

the fact that she had to entertain herself for a lot of her childhood is probably where a lot of her creativity comes from. 

i ask if that that sort of filling in the spaces of emptiness has been her inspiration, or if she has a different inspiration for it now?

she tells me that she has a very busy life now.

"i sort of have to force myself to be creative and get into that headspace now more. if i have some days off and there's not other things i'm supposed to be doing, creative ideas will just start to come to me naturally but that doesn't happen very often. most of the time i have to actually sit down and tell myself 'okay, you're going to write a song. you're going to write a story. you're going to write a script.’ and then try to pull the inspiration from somewhere. i think it was those days of my youth (when i had very little to entertain me) as the youngest child of three (the other two being boys who were 11 and 12 years older than i)- i really had to make my own. mostly with a paper and a pen or coloring pencils. i think those skills have stayed with me."

i think that is awesome and i tell her. I begin wondering if there is a certain time of day or a specific little nook that she has for writing or if it just happens as her free time allows? it is a little bit of both.

"if it's a work-related thing, like if I have to produce a script, say, then it's all based on a deadline. i'll work from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. in terms of my preferred time to be creative, and when it's just for me, definitely evenings. i'm much more of a night owl than i am a morning person. in the first three hours of the day, i'm pretty much useless on every front. so it's usually like 8, 9, 10pm before i really start feeling creative and alive. in terms of a space, when it's music it's pretty much always my bedroom because i feel i need privacy. i need to be hidden away. i hate for anyone to see me in the early stages of the creative process. it just feels very, i don't know, you feel so exposed and self-conscious. so, definitely privacy on that front. when it is writing, i can pretty much write everywhere. i'm not the kind of person who can go to a cafe and do it because i get too easily distracted and i can be quite self-conscious. but in general, as long as i've got a laptop i can sit pretty much anywhere and just go into my own little world with my headphones and bash it out."

i ask what type of music she listens to on her headphones?  it varies.

"for scripts for example, every time i write a new script i'll make a playlist specifically for it that really helps to guide the emotional flow of the story. for short stories, scripts, basically any kind of writing really. i find it really helps me to get a rhythm and flow to the words and also to really find the emotional core of a scene. it to different heights. i don't think there's anything really like music for generating and creating emotion, so that's really important. for example, i recently had to write a science fiction short story. so, i mostly listened to the 'interstellar' soundtrack, which is very emotional: inspiring, grand and awe-inspiring.  but then say for a dark comedy, it'll be music that's more quirky. for horror films, it tends to be a lot of horror soundtracks that i listen to to get into the creepy frame of mind."  

she laughs and i tell her i don't know if i could do that.

"yeah, i freak myself out, absolutely.  if i'm writing by myself, listening to scary music, writing something scary, i'll totally, like, crap myself."  she laughs.  then adds, "not literally. metaphorically."

i want to know what draws her into writing then, aside from originally it being out of necessity, but now especially if it is frightening. what about it makes her want to keep doing it- both as a professional writer and as a musician? 

"it's just something that comes to me. i have a desire - i don't know why exactly - to create new worlds and stories and imagine what might be possible. part of it is the fantasy element of it- that you can create a whole world just by dreaming one up. you can create characters and situations, events and i think that's why horror and fantasy appeal to me because there are no boundaries. whereas in drama, you're always going to be limited by what's possible. and that always feels like a bit of a waste of creativity for me when there's so many incredible stories in the world that can be told through documentary if you're looking at real life or what is possible. i think it's always going to be hard to beat that- to beat real-life stories. i think with horror and fantasy you can speak about things in a way that's more powerful because you're removed from reality.  it lets you be objective. it lets people be objective in looking at themselves through a mirror that isn't quite reality, if that makes sense? you can sometimes say things more powerfully through metaphor than you can by being literal."

i point out her moniker, metaphorest.

"oh yeah!" she laughs.

but is it the same for music- as far as songwriting and lyric writing? 

her songs do tell stories. 

"iterations" is probably one of my favorites.

so is "be prepared." 

i feel as if anyone who listens to those songs could say, "that is my life!”

she thinks that's cool.

"with the songs, they are often more personal and more cathartic.  i also always try to have some universal message in there because i think the most important thing that art of any kind can do is resonate with people and create a connection. anything that somebody can look at or listen to and say, 'i understand because i feel the same' or 'i'm not alone in this because someone else feels that way too'. i think that music does that especially well, but i do try to put that in everything i create. that sort of core of human connection and that everyone, fundamentally, is pretty similar and have the same experiences and goes through the same sort of pain and anxiety or loneliness, or joy. the whole range of emotions."

i ask if that is how she sees her role as a writer?  be it for music or movies in society - the part that she plays would be to create a bit of a catharsis for people who are listening?  or does she see herself playing another part when she's creating?

she reflects for a moment.  

"i think that with every piece there's gonna be a slightly different purpose but overall, i want to make art that people can relate to. also, i want to make art that challenges people and challenges what they believe. so, i think the best art is always a little bit subversive and doesn't just preach to people what they think they already know but forces them to question themselves or the society that they're in or some of the rules of the societies we live in- to sort of shine a light on some issues that i feel passionately about."

she says it isn't something she really thinks about often, until someone brings it up, and it sort of makes her think.  "well, why -am- i doing this?"

"but that's important! it's good to stop and think about the reasons you're doing something and what your goals are with it and why you love it; what makes you keep doing it.  where your passion really lies. every artist has different motivations, different inspirations, different goals, and there's no right or wrong way."

i agree wholeheartedly. now, i'm curious, does she see her art as having a specific role or kind of purpose out in the world or does she make it and hope people will get something out of it?

"i think once you've finished something and put it out there, then it's not yours anymore and it's really for the people who receive it to see whatever they see and get whatever they can out of it. it becomes transformed into something new when it's shared. and that's part of the fun - you never know how people are gonna react to the things that you make. you know what they mean to you, or what you think they mean. but everyone is gonna bring themselves to the art and find something different or new in it, and i love that. i love speaking to people who see [one of my films], for example, and say, 'i really liked the way you did that,' or, 'i really connected with this character or that character', you know, different subplots or whatever that they focused on that i wouldn't have particularly paid that much notice to.  so that's part of the fun, is that you do your part, but then once it's out in the world it becomes this whole new beast." she laughs.

"i think if you're too much of a control freak, it's just impossible.  you just have to be able to just let go, and be like, 'okay, you can leave the nest. live your own life! i don't want to see you until college holidays!'."  

we're both laughing and i'm so torn because i want to ask her a hundred more questions. i go with what seems to be the most obvious, and ask her if there has been a time where she created something, and put it out into the world and an erudite critic comes back with some deep meaningful meaning that she never intended.  

"yes, yes, yes!  yes, oh it's terrible, yes, this often happens. people will often ask you questions at q&as, they'll message me on facebook and say, 'oh, i really loved the way you did that scene where it was obviously a metaphor for this or a message for that!' and i'm thinking, 'it just worked out that way. there really wasn't that much thought behind it but you know, sure!' if it sounds intellectual, you just go along with it and pretend that you planned that right from the beginning."  

she clarifies that there is nothing wrong with being intellectual.  

"i think it's in everyone to try and search for meaning in what they're viewing and there's no such thing as right or wrong. i mean, the writer's intention is one thing but once it's out there, it's whatever you see in it.  so i don't see a problem with dissecting films or trying to understand them. i would say, and this is maybe a slightly specific advice, if you're going to make a film that is in someway ambiguous, that you as the writer know exactly what you are saying. because i think that those sorts of films can be so pretentious where it's open-ended. i want to feel at least someone, somewhere, knows what this film is trying to say and understands the story. i think as long as there's that level of narrative understanding, you can let them away with it. so often, you see films where the balance of ambiguity versus what you can cling onto are so off that it just feels pretentious." 

"i don't think anyone could really just tell you the mistakes to avoid or what to do. you have to learn it along the way. when i started out, i didn't know anything. if someone had just come along and told me all the things that i know now? there's no way i'd be able to take it in. i'd just be like, 'yeah, right, whatever,' and go on making mistakes anyway. 90 percent of learning is experience and there are certain things you can't learn until learning them the hard way, unfortunately. i think that as long as you're open-minded and aware of your own fallibility and open to change, then you just keep learning forever.  i mean, nobody stops."

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"i don't think anyone could really just tell you the mistakes to avoid or what to do. you have to learn it along the way. when i started out, i didn't know anything. if someone had just come along and told me all the things that i know now? there's no way i'd be able to take it in. i'd just be like, 'yeah, right, whatever,' and go on making mistakes anyway. 90 percent of learning is experience and there are certain things you can't learn until learning them the hard way, unfortunately. i think that as long as you're open-minded and aware of your own fallibility and open to change, then you just keep learning forever. i mean, nobody stops."

that's beautiful, and i tell her as much.

"what would be the point if you felt like you knew everything already? you'd just stop and take up something else. embroidery, or computer programming…to be honest, for me, the joy is all in the creation, and when it’s gone, that’s it.

“i’m really not a performer with music. i will write a song in an evening, i'll sing it once or twice, i’ll edit it and i’ll never sing it again."

"i don’t know how to play any of my songs. i just do it once, i’ll write down the chords, i’ll play it, and then that’s it, forever. i know, it’s really weird. nobody understands it. i don’t even understand it. but it’s because i’m a writer, i’m not a performer. i don’t enjoy performing at all.  even when i record songs, i get nervous. it’s really sad. even when i’m by myself.  so, it’s just a means to an end for me, to just get it out there, and once it’s done, it’s kind of done.

“with that said, obviously there’s stuff that i’m more proud of. like [the short film series] 'morgan m. morgansen'. i really loved writing those and i loved how they turned out, just the fact that they got such a beautiful, positive response from people. that’s always really satisfying."

i'm curious now about her creative process as a songwriter.  she'll just write it and sing it and record it and that’s it, forever?

"yep. yeah. so, in terms of songwriting, i can approach it in lots of different ways. sometimes it will start with playing around on guitar, just messing with chords until i find something i like and then i’ll start singing nonsense words with it to start.

“once i get a melody, then i might think about what i want to sing about.  sometimes just a phrase, a single phrase, or a rhyme will come to me, and that will form the core of the rest of the song.

“but then other times i’ve set myself a challenge of, 'okay, i’m going to write a song about something very specific.' like for example, once i was like, 'okay i’m going to write a song about the artist goya.' so, i went away and researched goya, wrote the lyrics first, and then came up with the melody.”

“so there’s really no set process of how i do it. it’s just whatever sparks inspiration at that time, or sometimes it’ll just be trying to just shake things up a little bit, to try to stir an idea.”

that makes her music even more amazing to me, and i tell her that.  she says thanks, but has to clarify.

"approximately 40% of the time, i'll be in the shower and i’ll think of a rhyme and i’ll sing it. i’ll run out of the shower and come up with the rest of the song in like half an hour."

so she is brilliant! i knew that already, just having been familiar with both her music and writing for almost a full decade. but this cements it for me. 

"there’s nothing particularly mystical or genius about it!” she laughs, "it’s just that fragments will come to me, and i will build on them, most of the time."

that's awesome, and now i'm curious about how this translates to working with deadlines.

the most recent short film she wrote, automata, directed by lawrie brewster, is currently in post-production and they are up against the clock to complete it. she says they have their premiere lined up already. 

"that’s going to be at fright fest at the glasgow film festival." she says, ”and we’ve had some interest from distributors. so we’re gonna get distribution for that. we also like to reserve some of the distribution rights for ourselves because we do self-distribute physical copies.

“it’s been getting really positive response so far for the trailer and everything. it’s looking really good for that one. it’s a very different, very strange film but i think people are gonna really enjoy it. it’s something totally wild.  but it is ultimately a very entertaining film that has something to say."

those are the best kind.

"that’s the hope anyway!"

that's fantastic.  and i wonder what could be next? 

"there’s not another feature film lined up for this year. so, i’m hoping to get to do more writing and more music this year. i’ve got a story that’s coming out in a science fantasy anthology this month. that’s kind of my first time having a short story really published outside of hitRECord. so yeah, i’d like to do more writing, more short stories, more scriptwriting as well. i hope to write another feature or two this year. i’ll be doing a couple of songs for the automata soundtrack. so, that’ll be me getting back into music again. hopefully i have some more time for that this year. eventually do another album but probably next year- being realistic."

i'm excited for her, and i feel like i could keep asking her questions for the rest of the day, but i know we're going to have to wrap it up soon.  so i go back to the standard. is there one question that she would have hoped i asked, or wanted me to ask, and if so, what is the answer?

she says she's not very good at talking about herself.

"whenever anybody asks me any question, no matter how obvious,to me it’s always a revelation. like, 'wow! i never thought of that!' so, honestly getting to talk about the creative process and what means to me is interesting and refreshing and nice."

she says there’s nothing she feels like she's just dying to get out that hasn't already been covered. while this is my 3rd interview, i think it’s interesting how, like marissa lamar of highland kites, she’s most creative in the morning. spaceship is creative whenever the fancy strikes him.  she's a night person. it’s really cool to see that there isn’t like, “you have to have a bullet journal, and between 1:30 and 2:45pm…”

she agrees wholeheartedly. 

"i hate people who are so prescriptive about things. you can’t be that way. you just have to be constantly open to it. you just have to tune into the creative zone. art is the one field where there are no rules. there’s no need to be educated in it. in some ways, being educated in something can kill some of the creativity. i’ve always been afraid to learn more about music in terms of the actual mechanics of it because i feel then i’d maybe know that some of the choices i’m making are not technically right. but technically right isn’t what you’re always striving for.  you want to make something that strikes an emotional chord. it doesn’t have to be correct. some of the most beautiful things don’t follow the rules."

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"it doesn’t matter. as long as you have a team around that can fill in the gaps in your knowledge or in your skill set, then who cares? it’s about what you can all create together, and it’s about what each person brings to the table that’s new and different."

i completely agree, and i tell her, reflecting on something i heard once, "if you’re not surrounding yourself with people who know more than you, you’ll never grow."

she agrees.  

"there's a myth that you have to be great at everything and do everything by yourself. it’s absolutely not true. pretty much any artistic medium, you always need to rely on other people and there’s no shame in that. that’s just part of it. any good artist will admit that they can’t do it all and will look for other people to help them make their art even better by taking off some of the slack."